Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Manual For Living, by some old Stoic Greek dude whose name is Epic

As a teen all I wanted, all many of us wanted, was a book that would just explain once and for all how the world worked and what we were supposed to do about it.  It's said there are answers everywhere, in religion, in nature, in ancient Eastern and Western philosophy, but that all seemed like a lot of work.  All that reading and interpreting. Even the "simple" texts like the Tao te Ching required a certain mental dexterity not unlike being forced to parse the meaning of an old poem. Why couldn't there be just a simple little book that explained it all?

Wait, there actually is a simple little book called A Manual for Living? By some old Greek dude whose name begins with the word Epic?  Sounds perfect.

In truth, there really is no one-size-fits-all book full of easy answers, no short-cut toward how to go about living in the world, but for a short introduction to Stoic philosophy and the teachings of Epictetus this book is the ticket.  Less than 90 pages and full of ethical approaches to life, A Manual for Living enlightens and provokes in simple and direct language.
The book isn't so much a checklist of what to do but a collection of insights boiled down to their core ideas with a brief note of explanation. The invite the reader to consider the advice and then determine for themselves whether or not they agree without direct provocation. Even rereading this book for review I found myself thinking Yeah, that makes sense and then realizing what makes sense sometimes is very difficult to achieve.  Early on we come across this little gem:
Focus on Your Main Duty
There is a time and place for diversion and amusements, but you should never allow them to override your true purpose.  If you were on a voyage and the ship anchored in a harbor, you might go ashore for water and happen to pick up a shellfish or a plant.  But be careful; listen for the call of the captain.  Keep your attention directed at the ship.  Getting distracted by trifles is the easiest thing in the world. Should the captain call, you must be ready to leave those distractions and come running, without even looking back.
For me, "going ashore" could be replaced with "doing research on the Internet."  Epictetus acknowledges that life isn't all nose to the grindstone but simply cautions against getting sucked into the diversions.  Okay, that's good.  I can get to that. But then later he comes back to take a swipe a specific diversions:
Stay Away from Most Popular Entertainment
Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people's weaknesses.  Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes.
Man, what a buzzkill.

The problem is, he's right. There's a great deal of entertainment out there, and it is inferior and foolish, and as an occasional diversion it is hard to resist. This becomes the point where the reader must look inward and decide for themselves how much is too much, what defines inferior, and whether or not one is simply being part of the mob. By making these observational statements Epictetus shines a light on the world around us and asks that we make the decision for ourselves. 

Of course, he has some suggestions about how we should make these decisions.  Sections like Recognize Mere Appearances for What They Are, Events Don't Hurt Us But Our Views of Them Can, Pay No Attention to Things That Don't Concern You, and Seeking to Please Others Is a Perilous Trap clearly lay out his position on how best to approach life, but there are a few sections that might not sit well among some, like Take Care of Your Body But Don't Show It Off and Avoid Casual Sex. Again, his concerns are ethical and by addressing them directly he asks the reader to seriously consider their reasons for their actions.  He also cautions that Those Who Seek a Life of Wisdom Will Be Ridiculed.    Clearly Epictetus understood that nothing will separate a teen from his free-wheeling, hedonistic friends than the thoughtful examination on how to comport oneself in the modern world through the advice of a guy who's been dead nearly 2000 years.

So who was this Epictetus dude anyway?

Little is known, really, and what is attributed to him was not written by him. Epictetus was a Greek slave who was raised by a secretary to the Emperor Nero. His name isn't even much of a name, being the Greek word for "acquired," and it isn't known how he gained his freedom. But at some point he began teaching in Rome with the idea being that philosophy was a way to live and not merely an intellectual pursuit.

His lectures (or Diatribes) were recorded into several volumes, only half of which survive today. These in turn were boiled down into a more concise form that became the Manual (or the Enchiridion) from which they were culled for this collection.  It might seem that this copy-of-a-copy would produce a degenerative facsimile of his teachings but instead the reinterpretations have a more condensed impact, a just-add-water concentrate if you will. 

If there is an unfortunate element to this distillation its that this particular volume is sometimes located in the "spirituality" section of bookstores among New Age books, or occasionally in the "gift" section where it is treated like a point-of-purchase afterthought for the harried shopper.  It's almost understandable, as the look of the book and the language of Sharon Lebell's interpretation does, at times, seem a little touchy-feely and gifty. But it's small enough to actually fit in a back pocket for casual reading on the bus and isn't a bad way to go when considering an alternative to Oh, The Places You'll Go! as a graduation gift – with a little diversion and amusement money tucked inside.

A Manual for Living
by Epictetus
A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell
HarperCollins 1994

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