On the eve of my birthday I ran through the stoic wisdom of Epictetus, the freed slave who, we’re told, had a limp. Marcus Aurelius’s teacher, Herodes Atticus, considered him the best of best of all Stoic philosophers.

Some thoughts: if I wanted to make a dead white man syllabus on The Good Life, this would definitely be on it. Right there next to Marcus Aurelius, Aphorism of Schopenhauer, The Hagakure, and ………..

Enchiridion is the fanciest word there is for “manual.”

Much of Epictetus’s philosophy can be summed up in the Serenity Prayer.

Stoics (including Marcus Aurelius) have a dark perspective on family, which I think reflects just how contingent life and death was in their time. For example: III. “When kissing you child or wife, say that it is a human being whom you are kissing, for when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed.” See also XIV: “If you would have your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, you are silly; for you would have the things which are not in your power to be in your power.” See also XI “Never say about anything, I have lost it, but say I have restored it. Is your child dead? It has been restored. Is your wife dead? She has been restored.” I wonder what John Wick would say in response to that comment: “Is your dog dead? It is restored.” The logic of: attach-yourself-to-nothing-because-you-will-eventually-lose-it is a teleological one that means one never gets to enjoy anything in the first place, which seems to me to be a greater sacrafice than what Elizabeth Bishop calls the art of losing. Stoics absolutely do not believe it is better “to have loved and lost, etc.” One begins to think that this philosophy is how Epictetus managed to handle an unimaginable amount of trauma in his own life.

The Stoic’s greatest goal is not to experience strong emotion. It is a philosophy of do-not, rather than do. To live an “undisturbed,” unperturbed life. The sacrifice much in this pursuit. The essential goal of the Stoic is radically embracing not giving a fuck. I suspect much of this philosophy undergirds other more recent self-help books, such as Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (2016). I can’t be sure because I haven’t read it.

Epictetus’s central belief: “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” In short: nothing that happens is good or bad, it only is so depending on how you personally decide to interpret whatever has happened.

Stoics are terrible guests at funerals.

Stoics abide no superstitions. Poe’s “The Raven” would have had no effect on Epictetus. XVIII “When raven has croaked inauspiciously, let not the appearance hurry you away with it; but straight away make a distinction in your mind and say, None of these things is signified to me, but either to my poor body, or to my small property, or to my reputation, or to my children or to my wife: but to me all significations are auspicious if I choose. For whatever of these things results, it is in my power to derive benefit form it.” They aren’t also into divination (XXXII).

XIX: “You can be invincible, if you enter into no contest in which it is not in your power to conquer.”
A wild mentality: if I never compete, I never lose!
Never strive, and therefore, never fail!

Stoics would like the Hagakura. XXI: “Let death and exile and every other thing which appears dreadful be daily before your eyes; but most of all death: and you will never think of anything mean nor will you desire anything extravagantly.” For those of us studying the apocalypse (me), this one hits home. XCIII “Pyrrho used to say that there is no difference between dying and living: and a man said to him, Why then do you not die? Pyrrho replied, Because there is no difference.”

XXII is written to college students: “If you desire philosophy, prepare yourself from the beginning to be ridiculed, to expect that many will sneer at you, and say, He has all at once returned to us as a philosopher; and whence does he get this supercilious look for us? Do not show a supercilious look; but hold on to the things which seem to you best as one appointed by God to this station.

XXVII – a vexing one to understand, but I like it: “As a mark is not set up for the purpose of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.”

Stoics are great at taking insults. XXXIII: “If a man has reported to you, that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make a defense to what has been told you: but reply, The man did not know the rest of my faults, for he would not have mentioned only these.”

Stoics look to Socrates and Zeno: WWJD? WWSD? WWZD?

Stoics invented the Nike motto “Just Do It” – XXXV “When you have decided that a thing out to be done and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavorable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?”

Stoics are terrible at dinner parties. Epictetus after all is the silent type. In most all situations he recommends not speaking, or speaking as little as possible. LXXVI: “Solon having been asked by Periander over their cups, since he happened to say nothing, Whether he was silent for want of words or because he was a fool, replied: No fool is able to be silent over his cups.”

Epictetus is not interested in his body. He favors the mind entirely. He sees the two dualistically. This is understandable given he reportedly suffered from a number of physical ailments.

Epictetus is ridiculously deferential to the State. XXV “It is not poverty which produces sorrow, but desire.” LXXXVII “What is due to the state pay as quickly as you can, and you will never be asked for that which is not due.”

Two good ones for Global Warming: C – “What we ought not to do, we should not even think of doing.” CI “Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what has been said or done.”

Epictetus on the Future, CLVIII: “If you wish to live a life free from sorrow, think of what is going to happen as if it had already happened.

Probably not Epicetetus:

“You are a little soul carrying a dead body.”

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  1. One suspects that many people in the past had PTSD. That was particularly true in agricultural societies. After the agricultural revolution, there was an increase in infectious diseases, malnutrition, and starvation. Average height and lifespan of humans dropped dramatically, along with an increase of cavities and maldevelopment. Then near the end of the Bronze Age, war chariots and standing armies appeared for the first time. Suddenly, large-scale, long-distance war became common. At the same time, there were the earlest written records of a new form of large, centralized, and brutal governments; including the first known examples of mass torture and killings of prisoners of war.

    Then, over the following millennia in the new vast empires, there was the emergence of philosophies teaching consolatiion for suffering and relgions preaching freedom from suffering. Yet, even today, some isolated hunter-gatherers like the Piraha seem entirely lacking in any concern about death and symptoms of trauma, according to Daniel Everett. Interestingly, Everett initially came to live among the Piraha as a missionary, but in centuries of contact no one has converted the Piraha. He mentioned a teacher of his that told him that people can only be saved after they’ve been lost. That is the thing the Piraha don’t feel lost. They’d find no more appeal in Stoicism than they would in monotheism.

    That said, it’s easy to see why Stoicism is appealing to the traumatized. Even those who have never read Stoic literature can come to a Stoic attitude as a natural response. In early America, the average lifespan was so short that it was the standard expectation that people would constantly be dying. People remarried so often not because of divorce but because of death. Also, children were rarely named in the first few years because most never lived beyond that. There was no point in getting attached. Even after naming a child, if it still died, the name often would just be given to the next born. That is might partly explain why such powerful religiosity took hold in early American society. People aren’t born knowing how to deal with continuous trauma.


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