Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Art Of Living



The Art of Living
By Epictetus, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell
Harper San Francisco, $11.95 paper
ISBN 0-06-251346-X


“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.”Epictetus

Epictetus is the Stoic for the common man. He expresses his ideas in clear, focused language without artifice or rhetorical trickery. Sharon Lebell, writing a “new interpretation” of his work, focuses on the message and renders Epictetus’ meaning in similarly clear and present English. The result is an excellent book of short passages on how to live a good and moral life.

There are many books to explain philosophical schools of thought like Stoicism. Epictetus had little use for such theoretical discussions. His teaching is down to earth, directly accessible to the man on the street, and easily applicable to everyday living. This holds true with his ancient words even today.

According to Sharon Lebell, Epictetus concerned himself with two questions: “How do I live a happy, fulfilling life? How can I be a good person?” This is the “single-minded passion of Epictetus,” one of the three greatest Stoic philosophers. (The other two are Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.)

Epictetus did not start out his life with the respect afforded a popular philosopher. His beginnings were as a slave in A.D. 55 at the eastern end of the Roman Empire. In her introduction, Lebell says that he demonstrated a superior intellect from an early age, impressing his master, Epaphroditus. He became a student of Musonius Rufus, a famous Stoic teacher who favored equal education for women, something unheard of in the society of that time. Epictetus went on to teach in Rome until the emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city. He moved to Nicopolis on the coast of Greece and lived out his life in exile. “There he established a philosophical school,” Lebell writes, “and spent his days delivering lectures on how to live with greater dignity and tranquility.” Flavius Arrian, an historian and one of his students, copied down his lectures for the ages.

Marcus Aurelius was also one of his students. He wrote of his first teacher in his book, Meditations. What did Epictetus teach him? “To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.”

Lebell casts his character as a “humble teacher.” He was not interested in fame or power. “Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life, and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs.”

As the title of this work states, Epictetus focuses on living a good life. For him, “a happy life and a virtuous life are synonymous. Happiness and personal fulfillment are the natural consequences of doing the right thing.” His teachings and this book, focus on three main themes: “mastering your desires, performing your duties, and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relations within the larger community of humanity.”

The book is set up as a manual, with short passages that merit some deep thinking. The book shares elements of Buddhist and Zen writing—thin books that cause expansive thought and consideration.

He begins by clarifying how we come to freedom and happiness. We must recognize that some things are within our control, and some things are not. “Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us…Outside our control…are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society.”

Lebell adds a summary aphorism at the top of each passage, such things as “Stick with your own business,” and “Recognize appearances for what they really are.” The reading is easy and very accessible. Lebell writes in plain, everyday language. The concentration comes with application to life; that is what Epictetus wants us to focus on, and Lebell’s interpretation does just that.

The wisdom of Stoicism drips from every page. “Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations,” Epictetus tells us through Lebell. “Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.” Stoicism takes as a major tenet the acceptance of life as it is. The idea is to accept what is thrust upon you, and therefore out of your control. It is a waste of spirit to bemoan what is fated. Accept fate and move on. This idea recurs throughout this manual.

This advice also extends to people. “Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor what they seem to be. They are what they are.” People—friends, relatives, our children—often fail us, or fail to do what we think they should. We must let go and not try to live their lives for them. They must make their own decisions on their own journey. It is a recipe for a non-judgmental way of being, and the truth is, we can really only control our own actions. We cannot control others, events that happen, or the universe spinning through space. We can only control ourselves. Therefore there is a certain amount of freedom and peace that can come from simply letting go of all that we cannot control.

Of course, the most powerful part of the book is where Epictetus seems to be speaking directly to us through the telephone line of history. “If you wish to become proficient in the art of living with wisdom, do you think that you can eat and drink to excess? Do you think that you can continue to succumb to anger and your usual habits of frustration and unhappiness? No. If true wisdom is your object and you are sincere, you will have work to do on yourself. You will have to overcome many unhealthy cravings and knee-jerk reactions.” I doubt there is an ancient Greek or Latin word for “knee-jerk,” but Lebell does a good job of using modern words where needed to convey Epictetus’ ideas.

Where I think my students might benefit from this book is in his words about wisdom and individuality. “The life of wisdom, like anything else, demands its price,” he says. “You may, in following it, be ridiculed and even end up with the worst of everything in all parts of your public life, including your career, your social standing, and your legal position in the courts.” The price of not doing what is right is also made clear. “If you try to be something you’re not or strive for something completely beyond your present capacities, you end up as a pathetic dabbler, trying first to be a wise person, then a bureaucrat, then a politician, then a civic leader. Those roles are not consistent.”

The hallmark of Stoic philosophy is a calm consistency, a person who can be counted on to be cool under pressure and put the needs of others ahead of her own needs. These are the lessons embodied in this book and rendered so truthfully by Sharon Lebell.

The Art of Living is chock full of wisdom and good advice for everyday life, even life in the twenty-first century. The truth in history, philosophy, even literature, is the time test. Does the work stand the test of time and still remain relevant? For Epictetus, teaching so long ago, on the steps of a city far from his home, living in exile, the answer is a resounding yes. He speaks so clearly through the years that we should feel compelled to listen.

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