POCATELLO, ID – It was the coffee cup ring on the cover and the crumbling yellow bits of newspaper used as book marks that caught my attention. I didn’t expect Volume 2 of my 110 year old Harvard Classics to have been perused so well.
I obtained the set when an Idaho high school library threw them out due to lack of use, and they’ve become a cherished and useful addition to my personal library. Volume 2 contains works by Plato, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus is the only one of the three with whom I was unfamiliar, but lo and behold, one of the yellowed bookmarks led me to his Golden Sayings, mini treatises on morality and virtue.
Epictetus, a main authority on Stoic morals, was a Greek born in the first century A.D., an emancipated slave of a Roman freedman who suffered from torture during his slave years and was lame as a result.
Stoics in the Greco-Roman world stood aside from mainstream civilization in their time much as a contemporary Luddite, or “hippie,” who forages for food and refuses to purchase a cell phone or communicate by email does today.
In its usual blunt fashion, the contemporary online Urban Dictionary addresses this lifestyle. It defines Stoic:
“Someone who does not give a sh-t about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.”
Like the writer of the Urban Dictionary passage, Epictetus wrestles with other thinkers of his age on issues of morality: LXII “No, labour, according to Diogenes, is good but that which aims at producing courage and strength of soul rather than of body.”
If an activity couldn’t make them better, more compassionate people, Stoics chose not to pursue it. We know what they would think of the popular excuse for myriad harms done to fellow humans in the pursuit of wealth, “It’s just good business.”
I wonder what Epictetus and other ancients would think about today’s extreme culture of beauty, plastic surgery, cosmetology, dangerous dieting [bulimia and anorexia], the high fashion industry and all of the misery and anxiety these glittering industries create.
It doesn’t take a professed Stoic to see that the world has gone mad.
When the Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Italy about 90 A.D., Epictetus went to Nicipolis in Epirus, a region in Greece, where he continued to teach.
Seems that in the ancient world rulers banished its forward thinking trouble-makers, intellectuals, and poets, while in today’s America, society erases their power by belittling and disparaging them as “old hippies,” “traitors,” and/or unrealistic dreamers. America, the land that professes to prize education, instead, marginalizes the thinker in favor of redneck, tea party politics, or “being like folks” (as C. S. Lewis called the phenomenon).
Heaven forbid our young people develop a desire for world peace, for fine arts and language, or attend university with a love of learning in mind rather than professing a goal of “making a lot of money.” American business colleges have done more damage to the American psyche than can be measured; and the cry continues to limit or eliminate studies in the humanities altogether lest citizens become wise.
In America people are admired for their wealth, and how fast they make it, rather than for character, as a self-important Donald Trump illustrates. Among the uneducated masses, Trump appears a hero getting away with saying any racist, misogynistic, stupid remark maintaining his following simply because people envy his inherited wealth and love how his ignorance mirrors theirs.
“If you have assumed a character beyond your strength, you have both played a poor figure in that, and neglected one that is within your powers,” –Epictetus LXXIX.
In other words, the braggart and bully misses being what he is capable of being in favor of a false persona. Poor pathetic Trump.
Epictetus wrote nothing himself, but his disciple and Greek philosopher and historian Arrian compiled his lectures and conversations, a popular method of remembrance (or is it modesty) because this is how we’ve come to know other thinkers such as Plato’s Socrates, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John’s Jesus, and to some extent, Boswell’s Dr. Johnson, and others.
“If a man would pursue Philosophy, his first task is to throw away conceit,” Epictetus says. In my childhood, I recall fellows accusing others of being “conceited” meaning excessively proud of their good looks/attractiveness. I can’t recall the remark referring to pride of mind or accomplishment, but the colloquial form of the term today may have evolved to include much more.
New York Times columnist, David Brooks, postulates that Americans have become less empathetic and more inclined to regard relationships in terms of how useful they are to us, a form of conceit that places one’s personal welfare above others. It seems Brooks has been teaching a class at Yale on “humility” (is there a note of irony here?). In his recent book “The Road to Character,” he’s constructed a verbose 15-part humility code that when put concisely translates to one small piece of one of these 15 parts:
“The most important thing is our willingness to engage in the struggle for virtue.”
But as Euthypro discovers in a challenging conversation with Socrates, he can’t really zero in on what virtue actually is and stomps off in a huff. In reading Epictetus’s “Golden Sayings,” it seems evident that he’s picked up Plato’s baton on the subject.
Hmm. Is constructing a humility code a humble or virtuous occupation? Is discussing humility the same as being humble?
Maybe the point is that virtue, a vital human cultural invention subject to change as civilization evolves, and by design is always just out of reach, always beyond our grasp, is important enough that philosophers must wrestle with it for eternity as past wrestling matches would prove, even on a cool autumn morning in my private Pocatello as I add another coffee cup ring to Volume 2.