The Art of Living (Epictetus)

Sharon Lebell

The Art of Living, a 130-page paperback, offers a highly condensed version of the wisdom of Epictetus [Eh-pick-tee-tis] (55 BC -135AD), a slave in the Roman Empire, who is among the most heralded Roman philosophers and possibly the best known stoic, along with Zeno. His philosophy was revived in Tom Wolfe’s bestselling novel, A Man in Full. Epictetus was a lighthearted, humble but brilliant master of logic and the art of disputation, who wrote nothing, but is credited with Discourses, which was prepared by his students, especially by Amian. Epictetus’ philosophy shaped the mind of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), who quoted Epictetus extensively in Aurelius’ renowned Mediations, and The Art of Living affords a fine synopsis of this admirable philosophy.

The word “stoic” is currently defined as “one who is indifferent to pain or pleasure”, and, while that captures one essence of it, stoicism embraces much more. More accurately, a stoic is one who lives his life by reason, one devoted to logic. (See my Observation on Serenity.)  Snippets of his logic, as “interpreted by Sharon Lebell”, include: “A happy life and a virtuous life are synonymous…The good life centers on three main themes:

* mastering your desires, * performing your duties and * learning to think clearly about yourself, your loved ones, community, and the planet…

The Serenity Prayer grasps the Stoic’s karma:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”

Consider these compelling admonitions, many of which have been paraphrased by others for over 2000 years:

Accept what life gives you…

Wealth, power and fame are irrelevant to [and may even prevent] true happiness…

We can’t change our external circumstances, but we can control our response to them…

It is our view of events, more than the events, that control us most…

There is nothing to be gained by blaming others or oneself for mistakes or difficulties; things are what they are; accept things and move on…

Never depend on the admiration of others; grow up and stop caring what others think about you; create your own merit…

Don’t let others ignite your anger; your response to what others do determines how you feel…

By facing reality, you free yourself of illusions…

Worry and fear are a waste of time…

All rewards have a price…

Test prospective actions before proceeding, lest you act imprudently on raw impulses; think things through thoroughly before committing fully…

Don’t eat or drink to excess…

Don’t succumb to anger…

Strive to achieve things that you have a reasonable chance of accomplishing…

Doing nothing often heightens risk…

Your main attention should be focused on the development of your reason…

The life of wisdom is the life of reason...

When I die, must I die lamenting or can’t I die smiling and contented?”

So, what can we say about The Art of Living and its author, Sharon Lebell. The book is short and simple to a fault, aimed at laymen and young children. The author, Sharon Lebell, although not a student of the English language, has authored several self-help manuals. Harper Publishers asked her to do this “interpretation” of Epictetus. Serious students of Epictetus must look to the above-mentioned Discourses and to Aurelius’ Meditations, and similar philosophical works of that era, but Label’s book is fine starting point.