I wrote The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. It is a modern interpretation of the great Stoic Epictetus’ teachings and an international classic.
When we embrace any framework for living our best life, be it spiritual, religious, practical, or philosophical, we notice it is human nature to drift and then to return to it. Drift and return. Drift and return. Inhale——Exhale. So it goes with living Stoic teachings.
Popularizers of Stoic wisdom, of which I am one, have been accused of oversimplifying otherwise more nuanced and sophisticated teachings. Fair enough. However, when we are in the thick of our daily lives, pulled in countless directions by the myriad claims on our attention, some beneficent, some neutral, and some pernicious, the easiest thing in the world is to drift from our ideals, to opt for expediency over nobility, efficiency over caring, processing or merely managing over deep engagement for example. Drift, plain and simple. This is our lives on the ground. This is real. Our proximate need is simplicity, not erudition. We save deep textual analysis for another time. Right now we are dog paddling.
So what can pull us back from drift? What can give our souls anchorage amidst the chaos of our workaday lives? How do we recover that sought-after Stoic serenity we hear so much about? Do we wait until the time is “right,” when we are at our leisure to practice philosophical contemplation? I don’t think so. Life is too busy life-ing away. And besides, now is the time to embody virtue, not ten minutes from now; not next week.
When we are navigating life’s vicissitudes most of us don’t have the time to carefully deliberate all the decisions big and small we need to make in any given day. Virtue is exercised in the interstices, in the in-betweens of moments. We need to respond quickly and wisely to whatever life throws at us.
I believe our minds and hearts are most easily tugged back to home base: to clarity and our philosophical principles by the mnemonics of simple, wise maxims mined from the Stoic tradition.
So, I will share a few of my favorites from The Art of Living as examples.
1) “Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter”. This is self-explanatory. If we remember just this notion and adopt it as our m.o., we move away from the drama of petty resentments toward ease and tranquility, and this can happen in an instant. Every moment can be a pivot point, after all.
2) “Wisdom is revealed through action not talk.” Again, pure simple truth. Enough with declaiming and explaining. Every moment is an opportunity for demonstrating virtue whether others are looking or not.
3) “Give your best and always be Kind.”
Enough said. These phrases work for me. I invite you to find your own personal maxims for maximal living.
Epictetus was born into slavery about 55 ce in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. Once freed, he established an influential school of Stoic philosophy, stressing that human beings cannot control life, only their responses to it. By putting into practice the ninety-three witty, wise, and razor-sharp instructions that make up The Art of Living, readers learn to meet the challenges of everyday life successfully and to face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments with grace.
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