Congealing Ancient Stoicism

There is much wisdom to be found in ancient literature, including, for example, the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the snippets of Confucius that survive in The Analects of Confucius, the vast body of texts that comprise the Hindu’s Veda, the works of the Greek philosophers and much more.  During Christ’s lifetime, there was another, very wise and loving teacher, Epictetus (55BC-135AD), a slave in the Roman Empire, who became among history’s most heralded philosophers and the best known of all the Roman-Zeno’s School of Stoics (a much misunderstood term).  Zeno and Epictetus offer us some inspirational guidance, in our endless pursuit of an enlightened life.  Dictionaries tend to dismissively and sadly summarize “stoic” as simply one who is indifferent to pain or pleasure or emotion, thus missing the beauty that lies within a very loving, Christ-like philosophy, from which we can glean great solace for our everyday living.

Epictetus’ teachings are best presented in his Discourses (a philosophy revived in Tom Wolfe’s bestselling 1988 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 as the author Discourses, (as Moses, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Christ, et al are credited with words and/or books they did not write).  Discourses was prepared by his students, especially by his protégé, Amian.  Epictetus’ philosophy shaped the minds of the much-loved Augustus Caesar (44BC-14AD, who presided over Pax Romana, or Roman peace, the most cultured years of the Roman Empire) and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), who quoted Epictetus extensively in Aurelius’ renowned and often quoted Mediations, another masterpiece to comfort hungry hearts.

The current definition of “stoic” as “one who is indifferent to pain or pleasure” captures some of it, but stoicism embraces much more.  “Stoic” from the Greek, meant “portico”, where Zeno (the father of Stoicism) taught (c. 300BC).  In Epictetus’ Discourses. we learn that a stoic is one who lives his life by reason and is devoted to kindness.  While Stoics did not focus on gods, they were not necessarily atheists or agnostics.  While Epictetus’s Discourses codify his sagacity, droplets of his logic were memorialized brilliantly by the perspicacious Sharon Lebell, in her Art of Living.  Consider these lines:

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 and your relationship to your loved ones, friends, community and the planet…”

You’ve surely heard the often quoted Serenity Prayer, which is attributed to the Stoics, extols this peaceful wisdom:

“Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change,

The courage to change the things that I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

Reminiscent of the Buddhists, the Stoics taught us that wealth, power and fame are irrelevant to true happiness (and may sometimes prevent it).  To live a life at peace, the Stoics’ suggestions, to ruminate on a few, included these:

Mental peace demands acceptance of what we cannot change.

Our reaction to events governs us more than the events themselves.

It is, therefore, our view of events that controls our feelings.

Nothing is gained by blaming others or even ourselves.

Things are what they are; change what we can and move on.

Cease dependence upon the admiration of others.

Do not allow others to ignite your anger.

It is your own opinion of yourself that governs your mindset.

Facing reality enables you to free yourself of your illusions.

Worry and fear are a waste of time.

Occupy your mind and time with productive and kind thoughts.

Police your mind; dictate what you think.

All actions have a price or reward.

Be moderate in all things.

Live your life by reason.

The life of wisdom is the life of logic and kindness.

When you die, die smiling, contented and unafraid.

What better roadmap could we have than that of Zeno or of this humble, Roman slave, Epictetus, who trod the globe (and likely some of the same streets) as did The Loving Carpenter.  Perhaps they were friends.  Fittingly, the early Christian Church adopted Epictetus’ Discourses as a manual and code of general conduct, and so it still lives to sustain us.