Epictetus for Lent

Reading the pagan Stoics during this traditional Christian penitential season might seem unusual except that Stoic writings, especially those of the Greek Epictetus, have long been admired by even the most austere orders of monks. Later Christian philosophers, like Justus Lipsius and Guillame de Vair, even formulated a modified brand of neo-Stoicism. There are many parallels between the ancient moralists and the great works of Christian spirituality and it would be interesting if someday a scholar were to compile a concordance comparing the two. Take for example this passage from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis:

…take great care to ensure that in every place, action, and outward occupation you remain inwardly free and your own master. Control  circumstances, and do not allow them to control you (III.38).

This attitude is at the very heart of Epictetus’ philosophy:

If you keep yourself free from emotion, and remain imperturbable and composed, if you make yourself a spectator of events rather than offering yourself as a spectacle… what is there that you lack? (Discourses, IV.4).

There are countless variations on the same theme.

He who is discontented with what he has, and with what has been granted to him by fortune, is one who is ignorant of the art of living, but he who bears that in a noble spirit, and makes reasonable use of all that comes from it, deserves to be regarded as a good man (Fragments, 2).

It is true that not long ago I discussed the shortcomings of Stoicism, in light of some of Samuel Johnson’s perceptive criticisms. That said, I would also agree with Johnson that we should not too readily carp at the imperfections of the better moral systems since that is frequently a disingenuous way of avoiding any effort at self-discipline. It’s like the excuses we make for giving up a diet or exercise plan, jumping from one fad to the next, as if the key was in the novelty of a system, rather than in mere persistence and hard work. So for the remainder of Lent it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to take at least some of Epictetus’ advice more seriously to heart.

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