The Slave, the Emperor and the Shrink

If classics, as I argued last time, are the original how-to books that never grow old, they are also works that can change your life by teaching you to think anew. In my case, the service was provided by The Enchiridion of Epictetus. How’s that for a mouthful?

It’s not as bad as it sounds. Enchiridion just means Handbook. So this was the short, pocket book version of the philosophy of Epictetus (55-135A.D.). He was a Greek , born lame, and sold into bondage to a wealthy Roman who gave him permission to study philosophy. Eventually he won his freedom, taught Stoicism in Rome and founded a school in Greece. It says something for the appeal of stoic philosophy that its two most famous advocates are a former slave and an Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius.

I first encountered the doctrine they taught without even knowing it, toward the end of high school when I had a sort of slow motion panic attack. For me high school was a miserable experience characterized by small town Babbittry, class warfare, cliques, and institutional rigidity with drill instructors posing as educators. My choices were to get a blue collar job or go to college. It was thought obvious that college should be my destination. But if it was four more years like high school, it filled me with almost as much dread as 30 years on the Chevy line.

My parents, concerned that I seemed to have sunk into a slough of despond, packed me off to a psychologist who came highly recommended. This only increased my panic. Not only was I stuck in an undemocratic, anti-intellectual institution facing a choice between more of the same or the assembly line, I was now apparently deemed crazy for liking neither Door A nor Door B.

But the shrink was a revelation. Instead of having me talk about mother issues or dreams or diagnosing me as manic-depressive or phobic or neurotic, he concluded I was guilty of slovenly, disorganized, irrational thinking. And every time he caught me in the act of telling myself stupid things, he forced me to examine my premises closely and admit they were dopey.

To no one’s surprise but mine, college was pretty much the opposite of high school. Actually caring about your classes was acceptable. Nobody cared if you were cool or normal, odd or
eccentric. And in an Into to Ethics class we read The Enchiridion. I immediately bought an extra copy and forwarded it to the psychologist who I regarded more as my Sensei than my doctor.

I told him I thought I deserved a refund since he’d stolen everything he was selling from Epictetus. To which he said, “Who’s Epictetus?” Long story short, he read the text, called up his mentor Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Therapy, and said, what gives, Al?. Ellis told him if he’d ever bothered to check out the footnotes he would have seen Epictetus was all over his work.

So what did the slave and the emperor teach that ended up influencing an American school of psychology?

“There are things that are within our power and things that are not within our power.” If that is so, wisdom is telling the difference between the two and learning to control those within your power and stop worrying about those that aren’t. We have little control of the view others take of us, for example. But we can control whether or not we care what they think. Thus, “we are disturbed not by things, but by the views we take of things.”

A few other characteristic thoughts. “Remember that you are an actor in a play the character of which is determined by the author.” The play may be long or short, you may be cast as a rich man or a cripple, but either way your business is “to act well the given part.” And it is important to recall that “you can be unconquerable if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your power to conquer.”

At first this counsel sounds ridiculously simple even simple-minded, but it is actually surprisingly difficult to live a plain, modest, sensible, considered life free from fear, envy, malice, or overweening ambition.

Yet how often moral philosophers from Buddha and Lao Tzu to Jesus and Epictetus end up giving similar advice: Do the right thing. Do your duty. Don’t worry about what others think. Beware of always desiring more and better and newer and shinier and besting others. Desire is fire that can burn you up. They recommend the cool water of moderation.

The full prescription is pretty austere and almost inmpossible to practice, but a good model to emulate. A lot better than most that our age offers up, homespun Ben Franklin vs. gold-plated windbag Donald Trump.

I am a pretty bad stoic, prone to huffing and puffing and catastrophizing. But I do think the disciples of Epictetus that I was lucky enough to encounter gave my noggin enough of a tune-up that most times I can hear myself when I make no sense, stop and think better of it.

And I do know what a stoic looks like. My Dad never read a syllable of stoic philosophy, but he did his duty, had little attachment to stuff, desired little that he didn’t have, felt no need to beat anybody at anything except perhaps bridge, and was a happy man with a serene heart as far as I could tell. We should all be so at ease in our skin. And maybe read a classic once in awhile.

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