01 Sep
“Stoa” is the Greek word for porch, and the Stoic movement in philosophy stems from the alleged fact that its founder, one Zeno, taught outside in the shade of a porch of a public building in Athens. Zeno is reckoned to have been a pupil of a pupil of Socrates, leading the Stoics to claim Socrates as the originator of their school – they were not alone, as my previous post on Plato says.Legend has Zeno living till the age of 99, when he hung himself after a hangnail got infected; Diogenes Laertius* says he actually held his breath till he died when he stubbed his toe. Neither of these seems a very compelling advertisement for the virtues of a philosophy, though the infected hangnail story only suggests that he knew he was going to die so made quicker work of it.Whether any of this is true is probably irrelevant. Stoicism gained in popularity till it was practised widely during the Roman era, and one of the emperors, Marcus Aurelius, was a follower. HisMeditations are still worth reading. Seneca, a playwright, statesman and philosopher, was also a Stoic.

But for me the greatest of them all was Epictetus, and not just because of his philosophy. His teachings were recorded in shorthand** by one of his pupils, Arrian***, and later published, and it is that, the immediacy of his teaching rendered as he more or less spoke, that is so attractive. What Plato pretended to do in his dialogues Arrian really did do – wrote down what Epictetus said, and later published it.

Of course what Epictetus had to say matters. He was a dab hand at exploding his pupils’ arrogance and putting the case for a virtuous life, and how to live it. As we now understand the word Stoicism isn’t an easy option in life, and Epictetus is an exemplar. He was a slave who was freed because he didn’t turn on his master when he was tortured about the master’s possible treason; it must have hurt at least a little bit…

That really grabbed me when I first encountered Epictetus about fifteen years ago in an 18th century translation by Elizabeth Carter. He was so passionate about life, about thinking, about goodness…self-denial was in his bones. It wasn’t because the worldly was bad, at all, but because goodness was elsewhere…it was actually preferable to be good, not some kind of penance.

And Epictetus admitted frankly that he failed on a regular basis to live up to his teaching, and I liked that. It gave me hope for my own sometimes dissolute life.

For a while I thought to write a book incorporating this great man, till I discovered that Tom Wolfe had already done it. But he’s been a guide to me in a way other classical philosophers have not been: an existential example of how to live. He helps me to focus, to concentrate, when I am writing, to keep at it when I have lots of reasons to wander off and sink myself in the pleasures of life (and yes, the flesh).

* Diogenes Laertius wrote a history of philosophy to his own time – ca the third century AD – that is worth reading. Its most interesting bit is the long excerpt from the writing of Epicurus, as we know of this philosopher’s writing effectively only through it.

** Arrian apparently devised his own shorthand to take down what Epictetus said. He published the notes when someone else put some of them out, having originally intended only to publish a digest of his teacher’s thought.

*** Arrian also apparently wrote a history of a military campaign.

Five stars and a smile. Put the stars on the back of your monitor…it is ok to do this.

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Published on August 04, 2012 01:20 • 21 views • Tags

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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in random chatter


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