Congealing Ancient Stoicism


The word “stoic” is misunderstood and erroneously defined; currently, it is defined as “one who is indifferent to pain or pleasure”, and, while that captures some of it, stoicism embraces much more.  “Stoic” from the Greek, meant “portico”, where Zeno (the father of stoicism) taught.  History’s most renowned stoic is Epictetus, whose loving philosophy was capsulated in his Discourses, where we learn that a stoic is one who lives his life by reason and devoted to logic and kindness.  While Epictetus’s Discourses codify his sagacity, snippets of his logic are memorialized by perspicacious Sharon Lebell in her Art of Living, including 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…


The often quoted Serenity Prayer extols this peaceful wisdom:


‘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’…


The philosophy of stoicism is best presented in Discourses, which offers the wisdom of Epictetus [Eh-pick-tee-tis] (55 BC -135AD), a slave in the Roman Empire, who, interestingly, lived during Christ’s time, and who is among the most heralded Roman philosophers and possibly the best known stoic.  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, (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 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 Mediations, another masterpiece to comfort hungry hearts.


Wealth, power and fame are irrelevant to true happiness (and may sometimes prevent it)…Accept what life gives you…We can’t change many of our external circumstances, but we can control how we respond 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 and kindness…When I die, must I die lamenting — or can’t I die smiling and contented?”


What better roadmap could we have then 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 Discourses as a manual and code of general conduct, and so it lives to sustain us.