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Life in the eye of the storm
on March 2, 1997
Many of us are prone to think of ourselves as somewhat "pitiful" in comparison to others: we drive a Chevrolet; they drive a BMW: we have 1900 sq. ft. in our home; they have 3200: we make $35,000 a year; they have a yacht on the Caribbean. Suppose you were lame; a freed slave; and subject to arrest by "the leader of the free world" if he didn't like your teaching. Such was Epictetus who, along with other philosophers, was expelled from Rome by the emperor some 19 centuries ago. Epictetus was not the founder of Stoicism, but he was--apparently--its greater teacher because it is his discussions which have survived in the most nearly complete form for us. This volume contains not only the four "books" of discourses, but also the distillation called the "handbook" or "enchiridion", and various fragments preserved in other writings. These teachings were written down by Arrian, a student of Epictetus and author of a biography of Alexander the Great. Here we hear, as it were, the voice of Epictetus teaching: often within the text we have the questions of a student to whom Epictetus is replying; we are able to catch the teacher's irony and wit. It is as if we are sitting in his presence, just a little farther away than we might wish. Epictetus's "program" is simple: to teach us how to live without fear or grief or unsatisfied desire; to teach how to "worry" ourselves only over those things which we can control, which--to put it simply, as Epictetus always does--are our own reactions and responses. I cannot control my wife; I can control how I respond to her. I cannot control the Senators; I can control how I respond to them. I cannot control whether I have cancer or not; I can control how I react to that situation. Much like the Buddha's insistence that we can attain nirvana by controlling our desires, Epictetus's teaching leads, if applied, to a calmer, more "centered" and peaceful life. And who doesn't need that? [If you want Epictetus's work in a more permanent form than this paperback, buy the Loeb Classical Library hardcovers, listed as Discourses Books 1 and 2, and Discourses Books 3 and 4. The second volume also contains the Enchiridion and the Fragments.