Books

Go to the archives

Epictetus

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 06, 2012
Category: Non Fiction

I took a nap after lunch. My sleep was deep, my awakening sudden — I looked around as if I were seeing the bedroom for the first time on a fresh day, as if it were morning. The bed was made. Where was my wife? I ran to our daughter’s room. Another bed made, another loved one missing. I looked at the clock. 7:15. First thing in the morning. I raced around the house, grabbed a cell phone and dialed my wife. And only then realized it was two in the afternoon. Wife at work, kid at school, me home. The world as it should be.

Only it wasn’t. I had seen over the edge, into unspeakable loss. I shook. And spent the rest of the day, in essence, recovering.

So why have I now come to praise Epictetus, who said:

Remember, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility.

Right. Epictetus was a Stoic. The famous one is Marcus Aurelius. Having read his Meditations, or selections from it, you know the drill: Life is short, death obliterates us, it is folly to get caught in the snare of desire.

What they forget to teach you in school is that Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) was a student of the teachings of Epictetus (55-135 AD). One man was an emperor, the other a former slave who lived simply and wrote not a word. But of the Stoics, Epictetus seems to me to be the one to read.

The value of Epictetus is that he is, literally, a practical philosopher — if you’re looking for deep thoughts, big ideas or anything that leads to the linguistic and mathematical analysis we now call philosophy, he’s everything you don’t want. His concerns are the here and now: reality, life, death. And he’s not about to quibble over their ambiguities.

As Epictetus has it, your first task is to look hard at reality and see it for what it is. Then your decisions start: What can you control? What’s out of your control? And if you care about the stuff that’s out of your control, can you really complain when life deals you dirt? And why oh why are you even bothering to look at your neighbor to see how he/she is doing?

Readers of Buddhism will find this point-of-view very familiar.

The difference: In an interesting translation — the original lectures were written in Koine, Greek, the language of the New Testament —  Epictetus is so blunt that you can’t dance around his meaning. Like this:

– Grow up! Who cares what others think about you?

– You have been given your own work to do. Get to it right now, do your best at it, and don’t be concerned with who is watching you.

– Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned from where it came from.”

– Except for extreme physical abuse, other people cannot hurt you unless you allow them to.

– The universe we inhabit is the best possible universe. Fix your resolve on expecting justice and order, and they will increasingly reveal themselves in a divine intelligence whose intentions direct the universe.

In summary: Drink the wine, but not too much. Enjoy the world, only in perspective. And, above all, guard your mind and use it well.

Is this a useful way to think? I urge you to spend $9.95 on A Manual for Living, a version of Epictetus that’s just 88 pages. About 4.5 inches square. Two ounces. Smaller than an iPod. But, in my view, more packed with protein than a Power Bar. [To buy the paperback of “A Manual for Living” from Amazon, click here.]

Or, in the spirit of the cost-conscious Epictetus, spend just $5 to read Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, a 21-page pamphlet by Admiral James Stockdale. Trivial Pursuit players will recall that he was Ross Perot’s choice for Vice President. But long before, he was an Air Group Commander who, on September 9, 1965, was shot down over North Vietnam. [To buy  the paperback of “Courage Under Fire” from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle Edition of "Courage Under Fire," click here.]

Stockdale’s parachute saved his life, but it also led him to the center of a small town, where a “thundering herd” of young men waited. They beat him and broke his leg, and then he was taken away to be tortured — and as the senior naval prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, torture was his frequent companion for eight years. Eight years.

His first thought as he bailed out of his jet: “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” His book — his eye-bopping, mindblowing book — is proof how well Epictetus served him.

If you’re like me, you have been obsessing of late about how little of your life you actually control. Confucius said, “The way out is through the door.” Epictetus might just be the doorman.

To buy the "Enchiridion" (the collected lectures) from Amazon, click here.

To buy the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius from Amazon, click here.