"The question at stake is no common one; it is this: Are we in our senses, or are we not?" — Epictetus
In 1965, James B. Stockdale served as an integral part of world’s most powerful military machine.
As a wing commander in the U.S. navy, the 42-year-old directed 100 planes that had begun a campaign to bomb North Vietnam back into the Middle Ages. In September of that year, Stockdale flew his A-4 over a jungle forest and straight into a flak trap. The shrapnel obliterated the plane’s control system, and Stockdale ejected.
But before he tumbled into the hazard of an altered life, he had one immediate thought:
“I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
Thirty seconds later, Stockdale parachuted into the street of a small village. A crowd of angry peasants tackled him. They broke his leg. He understood their rage.
Over the next 7.5 years, Stockdale’s captors tortured him 15 times. He served in solitary confinement for more than four years. Heavy leg irons confined his movement for two of those seven years.
But Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher, remained his steadfast companion, and Stockdale never saw himself as a victim. He even perceived the good in his torturer.
Despite every trial and tribulation, Stockdale kept control of his will or inner moral purpose and remained master of his fate.
“Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I'll show you a Stoic,” said Epictetus.
We are now in the middle of a pandemic that is a symptom of greater global sickness, including an energy crisis, failing democracies, ecological ruin and grotesque economic inequalities.
And so we, both young and old, male and female have all been shot down from the comfort of our so-called normal lives and found ourselves, like Stockdale, in the land of Epictetus.
But Epictetus would ask us if this is really so bad a place to be. He would ask whether the busy lives we were living were for the good. Certainly they weren’t “normal” in any sense that our ancestors would have recognized.
Epictetus, a gregarious and open fellow who lived from the year AD 55 to 135, was a different kind of Greek philosopher.
He wasn’t stuffy or pedantic. Nor did he come from a rich family. He described life as a “Great Festival” and believed that we should all dive in.
One of his friends was Heraclitus, the philosopher who famously said you can never step into the same river twice.
To Epictetus (Epic-tee-tus), the whole point of living was not to exist or survive, perhaps the worst possible standards, but to be noble, tranquil, good, fearless and modest by living in harmony with nature.
Born a slave in Asian Minor, Epictetus experienced the full horrors of his low station in life.
One of his masters badly crippled his left leg. At the age of 15, the lame lad found himself in a Roman slave market where the secretary to the megalomaniac Emperor Nero, no less, purchased him.
After that man helped Nero cut his throat while soldiers banged on the emperor’s door, Epictetus walked away from the madness. He wandered the streets.
Opportunity, which dances with danger during every calamity, opened a window. A leading Stoic philosopher adopted him and set him on a path to freedom.
After Emperor Domitian exiled all philosophers from Rome (and what failing society needs a radical philosopher?), Epictetus started his own school in the hinterland of Nicopolis, Greece.
There Epictetus lived modestly. He didn’t care a fig about wealth, power or fame.
The old man would never have told a rich man to fuck off, but he would have asked the rich man why he had fucked his soul so badly. “Is it not enough to learn the true nature of the good and the evil?”
What truly mattered to the former slave was being free, paying attention and leading a good life. That’s it. Such an adventure demanded generosity, service, courage and the capacity to express joy: like Italians singing from their balconies each night during the COVID-19 lockdown.
But Epictetus also knew that life, too, was a game. It mattered how well you played with the ball. One needed “skill, form, speed and grace.”
Although we tend to think of Stoics as a bunch of deadly serious people with dark clouds over their heads, they didn’t really live that way. Nor did they behave like a gang of merry pranksters either.
They just thought you should prepare for the worst, and live fully by being profoundly human no matter how grim the circumstance.
As a practical school of living, the Stoa really began in direct response to the rapid collapse of Macedonia, the death of Alexander the Great and the failure of Plato’s teachings to create a good society.
When a city goes to hell, how must one behave? Stoicism has always provided some painful and honest answers.
Epictetus represented the later stage of Stoic thinking. In some respects he took 400 years of Stoic musings and crystallized them in a body of wisdom as rich as Buddhism or the works of Confucius. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, an admirer of Epictetus, did much same in different ways.
Whether we know it or not, the wisdom of Epictetus has always been present in our cultural furniture.
When Frodo tells Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings that he wished he did not live is such fraught times, the wizard replies, just as Epictetus would, that all people would feel the same. “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
You can hear Epictetus in the voice of Sydney Carton in The Tale of Two Cities. He is fully present in Serenity Prayer.
He travelled with Primo Levi to Auschwitz. He sat beside Louis Pasteur when the scientist wrote “Chance favours the prepared mind.”
The Ernst Henley poem Invictus honoured the old man’s teachings. When the poet Mary Oliver tells us to pay attention to Nature, she is echoing Epictetus. Almost every traditional and Aboriginal culture contains some element of stoicism.
Now Epictetus didn’t write any self-help books. But one of his students, Arrian, wrote down some of his talks, and they survive as two books, Discourses and Enchiridion, which means “ready at hand.” Stockdale, like many a warrior since Roman times, kept a copy of Enchiridion by his bedside.
So what does Epictetus have to teach us in the middle of pandemic as economies flounder; the climate unravels; tyrants gamble with people’s lives; fascist technologies spy on our every communication and mafia states such as China and Russia seek to take advantage of the chaos?
And yes, in the midst of this shit show, you have lost your job. Or your business has disappeared and the damn state has ordered you to shelter in place for God knows how long. No one, and I mean no one, knows what is going to happen next, except that pandemics, like civilizations, have beginnings and endings.
After listening to this dirge, Epictetus might smile, and say why are you bothering me with such a short list.
And then the old man would offer a simple admonition: “Some things are within our control; and some things are not.”
You cannot control the contagiousness of a novel virus or the tweeting of tyrants, so don’t let those externals bother you.
What you control is this: your will, your opinions, your grief and joy, your attitude to what has befallen all of us. Your desires, and your aversions. Most of all, you can find the good in yourself and exercise your moral purpose.
Faced with a pandemic, one group will always say, as the rich man Donald Trump proclaimed, “There’s no problem,” and another group will say “There’s nothing we can do.”
A stoic always says, let’s face things as they are, and get to work.
Epictetus put it this way: “What then is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens."
The second thing the former slave might say is don’t despair. “Difficulties are what show man’s character. Therefore when a difficult crisis meets you, remember that you are as the raw youth, with whom God-the-trainer is wrestling.”
We should welcome difficulties in our lives, not avoid them.
Nurses, truck drivers, lab testing technicians and shop clerks have demonstrated for weeks now, as Epictetus observed, that ordinary people have the means and the powers given to them by God (and to Epictetus God was the Good) to acquit themselves with honour “through whatever comes to pass.”
Next Epictetus would probably add something about Death, because this virus is a random killer.
Do not fear its presence. It gives meaning to life and reminds us to live well. We should live each day as though it is our last anyway.
There is only one thing to fear, said Epictetus, and that is “the fear of death or pain.”
The old man spoke a lot about fear. He did not think that it drifted like a cloud or a ghost into the minds of people.
He believed that people consciously invited fear into their own minds. And if they could cultivate fear, they could also stop and banish it. Such was the duty of every individual who sought to be free.
Said Epictetus: “For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.”
The logical Greek didn’t have much patience for displays of helplessness. Epictetus didn’t beat around the bush: “Have you not hands, fool? Has not God made them for you? Sit down now and pray your nose may not run! Wipe it, rather, and do not blame God.”
He would have admired the film costume designers and home sewers now calmly making protective medical clothing in the quiet of their living rooms.
Life, Epictetus often said, is like going to sea. You can choose the pilot, the crew, the day and the opportunity. But you cannot choose what kind of storm you might encounter.
Yet you can say to yourself as the winds rip your sails and roil the boat, “I have means and powers given me by God to acquit myself with honour through whatever comes to pass!"
In the years ahead, we will have our roles to play in the revolutions and upheavals that will follow this pandemic. We have entered a long emergency, and there is no known exit.
But we will all have important roles to play.
“Remember you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses — if short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple or a ruler, see that you act it well.”
Lastly, Epictetus might say something about being human. We are part of a greater whole just as an hour is part of the day, and it has taken a pandemic to remind of this elemental truth. We share a kinship with other men and women and through them with God.
And so when anyone asked Epictetus what country he came from, he simply answered, “I am a citizen of the world.”
That is where we have landed, and it is a far better place than our delusions about normalcy.
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