One of the more unexpected literary expressions of Stoicism was in Tom Wolfe’s novel of a few years ago, A Man in Full.
To me, novels are a trip of discovery, and you discover things that you don’t know and you assume that many of your readers don’t know, and you try to bring them to life on the page. But when I introduced the subject of stoicism in this book, suddenly, it became a tale of morality. I had this young man, Conrad Hensley, who was out of work and through mishaps was in Oakland. His car is towed, and he eventually gets into a fight with somebody at the pound, the private car pound where these cars are taken, and he ends up in jail. He really has no one to turn to. His wife has given up on him; his parents are worthless, ex-hippies. He has nothing; he has nobody. And, by mistake, he’s sent this book about the stoics, and he reads these lines from Epictetus and learns that Epictetus, himself, had been sold as a slave when he was 10 years old to a Roman – he was Greek, himself – he was sold to a Roman military officer…
Wolfe went on to explain that Epictetus was evidently more fond of his beard than of life itself. Not exactly the best recommendation for a philosophy I’ve ever come across. But still, Epictetus in Atlanta was a surprise.
Some Epictetus quotes:
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
But after all that, I still say: Hail Cicero! And I still agree with William James that freedom to think what you want to think, when you want to think it – an inner life, in other words – is one of our very most precious possessions.