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by William O. Stephens

(originally published in Creighton Magazine (Winter 2000): 3439; updated May 18, 2001)

More than 2,200 years have passed since a group of sober people gathered in a covered colonnade, or stoa, in the marketplace of Athens to discuss the good life a life of virtue and honor.  They became known as Stoics, and their ancient creed is enjoying a renaissance today in, of all things, popular culture.  Why?  Because the Stoic way of thinking is as relevant, indeed, as urgently practical, today in 21st century America as it was 1,900 years ago in the Roman empire when a great teacher named Epictetus (pronounced eh-pick-TEE-tuss) set up a school to teach Stoicism to teen-agers.

Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy, which influenced the likes of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, is basically that the goal of life is to live in harmony with nature.  That means to live the good life, we must both live in accord with our human nature as essentially rational, reflective and thoughtful beings and conform our actions to the actual conditions of the natural world.  This theme, in the contemporary rebirth of Stoicism, is prominently reflected in Tom Wolfe’s latest best-seller, A Man in Full, and the summer of 2000 Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator.

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Epictetus and the Stoic philosophy play a major role in Wolfe’s 1998 novel.   Epictetus’ name graces the title of two of the book’s chapters.  The book’s popularity has led to an increased interest in both the ancient philosopher and his philosophy.  Within two months of A Man in Full’s release, the Harvard Press had sold 600 copies of Epictetus’ Discourses, an expensive two-volume set.  Sales of both popularized and scholarly books on Epictetus have thrived, and articles on Stoicism and Epictetus have appeared in many major newspapers.

So who was Epictetus and what exactly is this Stoic philosophy to which he subscribed?

Epictetus was born a slave in Hierapolis in Phrygia (now Turkey), a Greek-speaking province of the Roman empire, around A.D. 55.  He came to Rome and was the slave of Epaphroditus, an immensely powerful freedman (ex-slave) of the notorious Roman emperor Nero.  Epaphroditus let Epictetus study with the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, before eventually freeing him.  Like Socrates, Epictetus then began wandering the streets, buttonholing Romans with philosophical inquiries.  That earned him a rap on the head from a wealthy ex-consul more accustomed to asking than answering questions.   Undeterred, Epictetus taught Stoicism in Rome until the emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome in A.D. 89.

Epictetus traveled to the city of Nicopolis on the Adriatic coast in northwest Greece where he set up his own philosophical school.  (Nicopolis was on the main route between Rome and Athens.)  Many distinguished Greeks and Romans visited Epictetus’ school, including Hadrian, the Roman emperor from A.D. 117138.  One such visitor was Lucius Flavianus Arrianus Xenophon, Arrian for short, a Roman citizen from the province of Bithynia, who studied with Epictetus from about A.D. 107 to 109 before becoming a leading Roman politician and historian.  Epictetus, like his hero Socrates, evidently wrote nothing down.  His teachings survive through Arrian’s written version of Epictetus’ school lectures and conversations, entitled the Discourses.

Epictetus’ school became famous.  His Discourses influenced Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher-king who was emperor of Rome from A.D. 161 to 180.   Aurelius’ own written work, the Meditations, is largely a collection of Stoic reflections echoing ideas learned from Epictetus.  Aurelius was only 14 years old when Epictetus died in A.D. 135.

Apart from his teachings, little is known of Epictetus’ life.  Epictetus became lame, either from rheumatism or because of the cruelty of his master Epaphroditus.   He lived a life of great austerity and simplicity, and he chose to marry at a late age and adopt an orphan child who would otherwise have been left to die.

It is easy to imagine how Epictetus’ experiences as a slave, his lameness and the religious fervor common in his homeland combined to produce his passion for freedom a kind of psychological freedom from physical circumstances that only disciplined adherence to Stoicism makes possible.

Stoicism is a pre-Christian philosophy.  The ancient Stoics had no concept of grace or redemption.  The Stoics believed that rational choices should always lead us to behave virtuously, and thus wisely, courageously, justly and temperately.  These choices along with our attitudes, emotional responses and mental outlook are up to us to control.  We cannot be forced to have beliefs, form judgments or attempt actions without consciously, voluntarily choosing to do so.  In short, these mental activities are up to us.

Events in the world, on the other hand, including all the beliefs and actions of other people, are essentially not in our control.  Such things as the weather, the stock market or the behavior of dogs, drivers or dot-com companies are ultimately not up to us.

Since we all naturally want to be happy, the rational (Stoic) way to live is to train ourselves to limit our desires and concerns to what is up to us, and not to worry about, fear or get upset by things that are not up to us.  In this respect, Stoicism is a kind of coping strategy.  The central idea is to try to do the right thing, in every situation, without losing one’s calm, becoming frustrated or getting angry.   ‘Doing the right thing’ includes fulfilling our responsibilities to family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, fellow travelers, fellow citizens and, in general, fellow human beings.

The Stoics believed that if we strive every day to do our best, then we can accept the rest.  That is, we can rightly take satisfaction in the lifelong enterprise of maintaining rational judgments and attempting virtuous actions.  Moreover, we can respect ourselves for the moral progress we achieve, and thus enjoy peace of mind and happiness regardless of how events in the world unfold.  After all, we are responsible for what we try to achieve, but not for the outcomes of our attempts since those outcomes are subject to chance factors.

The familiar Serenity Prayer is thoroughly Stoic: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Of course, we are free to do the opposite, too.  We are free to compete against others for wealth, power and status.  We are free to vie against others and try to coerce, manipulate and exploit them in a desire to win material possessions and enhance our reputations.  But such material ‘success’ that is, fame, money and power can never be secure the way that a true belief, an honorable intention and a rational judgment can.

So wanton money-grubbing, power-mongering and other morally offensive endeavors must inevitably depend on luck to a great degree.  Such dicey pursuits pit us against others, and so invite vices and lead to misery.

But instead of sacrificing one’s moral character and peace of mind, one is free to work for virtue and social harmony by adopting Stoicism as a way of life.  Stoic happiness, unlike the life of conspicuous consumption and consumerism, does not depend on luck.

One can see how such an optimistic and demanding philosophy might inspire a small group of intellectuals in the ancient world, but how is Stoicism relevant today?   Let’s examine a few situations from Wolfe’s novel.

wolfe3.jpg (44265 bytes)The central protagonist, Charlie Croker, is a former Georgia Tech football star turned wealthy real estate developer in Atlanta.  His physical prowess, athletic fame, business success, war heroism, material wealth, social prominence and sexual prowess make him a fairly conventional model of manliness.  Another of the book’s major characters, Conrad Hensley, in contrast, is a humble but honorable working-class man.

Croker’s great wealth is in grave jeopardy as the plot unfolds.  Croker fears that the loss of his wealth will bring him social humiliation and unbearable personal shame.  He has yet to learn the Stoic lesson that events beyond our control have no power to disgrace us.  Only our own decisions and the actions we freely choose to perform can bring us disgrace or honor.  Hensley, who works at one of Croker’s food-distribution warehouses, saves a co-worker from a fatal accident only to receive a pink slip at the end of his shift a layoff resulting from corporate downsizing.   Hensley learns his first lesson in Stoicism: Courageous acts are within one’s power, and they are their own reward because they are a true good that cannot be taken from us.  In contrast, one’s job is a precarious external that is ultimately not within one’s power to retain indefinitely.  Since losing the job was not Hensley’s fault, he has thereby suffered no moral loss and no disgrace.  For the Stoic, to lose one’s wealth is not to lose any part of his or her true self.   Rather, it is simply a test of fortitude.  Moral fortitude is the only real good, since it alone cannot be lost through bad luck.

As the novel continues to unfold, Hensley is struck by more bad luck.  Through no fault of his own, he loses his car to an impound lot.  When he tries to retrieve it from the lot’s larcenous bullies, a scuffle ensues and Hensley is arrested for assault.  He is convicted and sent to a California penitentiary because he refuses to plea bargain, judging that it would be unjust and demeaning for him to do so.   Awakening to the brutality of his prison environment, Hensley finds himself in dire need of emotional and psychological security.  By accident, he receives a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses, reads it, and becomes a Stoic convert.  Hensley dedicates himself to the Stoic life of total moral integrity, self-sufficiency and sturdy acceptance of those things in life he cannot change.  In prison, Hensley refuses to fake insanity to avoid a confrontation with a jailhouse bully because doing so would compromise his character.  The Stoic lesson: Always conduct yourself respectably regardless of your circumstances.  Your moral integrity never eludes scrutiny.

Hensley survives his ordeal in prison, escapes after an earthquake and makes his way to Atlanta.  There, he works as a practical nurse sent to aid of all people Charlie Croker.  Croker explains his financial dilemma to Hensley and confesses that he’d rather die than become a beggar.  Hensley responds by telling Croker about the great Stoic philosopher Cleanthes.  Cleanthes hauled water to make a living, but nobody thought of him as someone who didn’t have a respectable job, because he was a respectable and admirable human being.  The Stoic lesson: You don’t have to have some high position before you can be a great person.  Consequently, Wolfe’s man in full turns out to be the man of virtue.

Stoicism also plays a central theme in the 2001 Academy Award Winner for Best Film, Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott.

Set in A.D. 180, the film features Russell Crowe (image at left) playing a Roman army general named Maximus Decimus Meridius whose career began as a humble farmer in Spain.  But thanks to his ‘strength and honor,’ that is, his martial valor and dutiful soldiering, Maximus rises to become the favorite general of the reigning emperor, the great Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Richard Harris; below right). Aurelius’ only son, the despicable, decadent and dangerous Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), lacks prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice all the virtues Maximus possesses.

Richard_Harris_Marcus_Aurelius.jpg (19557 bytes)So the aging emperor asks Maximus to accept the responsibility of becoming the imperial protector of Rome and help the Senate restore the glory of Rome after Aurelius dies.  The cruel Commodus, heartbroken by the decision, kills his father.  Commodus seizes the throne, immediately strips Maximus of his rank, and orders his death and the deaths of his wife and young son.  Maximus escapes, but not in time to stop the brutal murder of his family. Devastated, he is captured by slavers and reluctantly trained by his master Proximo (Oliver Reed) to fight in the bloody gladiatorial arenas.  Maximus’ determination to survive with courage, honor and dignity the general who became a slave, a gladiator and finally the hero who defeats the evil tyrant makes him the movie’s inheritor of Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic philosophy.

Does this renewed interest represent a rebirth of Stoicism?  Is 21st century America, with its glorification of power, possessions, fame and money, ready to embrace a philosophy that places greater emphasis on virtue and justice?  Perhaps in this time of presidential indiscretions, easy access to pornography on the Internet and confusion over social values, Stoicism’s time has come again.

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STOCKDALE AND EPICTETUS

Epictetus had the right stuff for James Bond Stockdale, who was caught like a deer in the media headlights eight years ago when Ross Perot plucked him from relative obscurity and made him his vice-presidential running mate.

Largely overshadowed at the time were Stockdale’s keen and inquisitive mind and his exemplary war record.  He not only survived seven and a half years of captivity in Vietnam, but rallied his fellow prisoners, among whom he was the senior naval officer.

Stockdale had graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1946 and was earning a master’s degree at Stanford University when a professor introduced him to Epictetus’ thought.  The teacher noted that the great Prussian military leader, Frederick the Great, never went into battle without his copy of Epictetus’ Discourses.

Stockdale said that when he was shot down and parachuted into the arms of his Vietnamese captors in 1965, he whispered to himself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’

Stockdale spent much of the next seven years in solitary confinement, frequently tortured by his captors.  He believed it was vital to his own survival both mental and physical and to the survival of his men, that they maintain a certain integrity and dignity.  So despite the torture, isolation and deprivation inflicted upon them by their captors, the prisoners refused to bow in public, to admit to crimes or to negotiate only for their own personal well-being.

Stockdale showed his men that commitment to the Stoic principles of self-respect and moral fortitude could enable them to successfully resist their captors’ attempts to coerce, abuse and degrade them.  Stockdale, like Wolfe’s Conrad Hensley, survived his ordeal thanks, in part, to the psychological strength gleaned from Epictetus’ Stoicism.

STUDYING THE STOICS:
STEPHENS CONTINUES HIS QUEST

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I discovered Epictetus in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988.   Soon after my doctoral research on Stoicism began, I found that the most meticulous and comprehensive study of Epictetus’ ethics ever written was published in 1894 by an obscure German scholar named Adolf Friedrich Bonhöffer.  That was when I embarked on the daunting project of translating Bonhöffer’s dusty tome from century-old German into contemporary English.

The classic book, which includes a foreword, three main parts, five appendices, and two lengthy indices, took me seven years, working on and off, to revise, edit and complete.

My translation, The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus, was published by Peter Lang in its Revisioning Philosophy series in December 1996.  When the hardback copies of the first edition sold out, my publisher issued a second edition, in paperback, in June 2000.

In 1999 I was on sabbatical at the University of California at Berkeley researching my own book on Epictetus’ ethics.  Spring semester I enjoyed the good fortune of participating in a seminar on Epictetus conducted by probably the world’s foremost living scholar of ancient Stoicism, Anthony A. Long.

Fall semester 2000 I taught a course on Stoicism.  My students and I read Wolfe’s A Man in Full, Epictetus’ Discourses, and a challenging book on contemporary Stoic theory.  We also saw Gladiator and discussed its Stoic themes.

 


Copyright © 2001, William O. Stephens
Copyright © 2000, Creighton Magazine