The Art of Living:Imitation, Principle, and Epictetus



Act Well the Part That Is Given to You


We are like actors in a play.The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us.Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one.We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary private citizen.

Although we canít control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best we can and to refrain from complaining about it.Where ever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance.

If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.

-- Epictetus, circa 100 A.D.

from The Art of Living, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell (© 1995 HarperSanFrancisco), p. 24.


I teach a Sunday-School class of little 5th graders, almost entirely boys for some reason, at First Unitarian in Portland.Last Sunday I told them a shorter version of what Iím about to tell you.They wouldnít sit still even for the short version, so it may be a mistake to expand on it here.Iíll know there is something seriously wrong with the message if you folks start bouncing up and down in your chairs or kicking each other after a few minutes.


Iíve been trying to talk to them about the importance of learning where to look as they make decisions about the kinds of people they are going to be, because I have a feeling that this is about the age when kids begin to make those decisions in a more conscious way.I told them last Sunday that when I was just about their age the most popular television program in the country was a brand new series named M.A.S.H., and the first person I ever remember trying to imitate on a day-in-day-out basis was the character of Hawkeye in that series.He wasnít the greatest role model for a ten- or eleven-year-old boy, and fortunately I outgrew it, but mostly just by choosing new people to imitate.Once every few years through most of my youth and young adulthood I noticed that my personality had taken on a new layer, sort of as a tree grows bark, but the layers seemed always to be those artificial imitated collections of mannerisms Ė verbal tics, particular gestures, strange inflections Ė that I had somehow absorbed from people I admired for one senseless reason or another.


I donít know how universal that kind of developmental experience is, but I have a feeling that it is part of what makes a lot of young people so uncomfortable.Living through imitation is not a great strategy for feeling good about your self.Of course it may be unavoidable.When I was younger, people who were older and wiser would say ďRelax.Be yourself.ĒBut I never fully grasped what it means to ďbe yourself,Ē and still donít completely understand it.If we could somehow peel away all these layers of imitation that form our personalities, what would be left?


I donít know the answer to that, but Iím convinced that part of what we need to learn in life is how to live less by imitation and more by principle.I donít claim to actually do it.But I have a powerful sense that if there is any hope of achieving a state of lasting tranquility in this life, it is somewhere in that direction.


Now, I maintain a typically Unitarian state of indecision as to what those principles ought to be, exactly.Iím here to talk about a few of the principles espoused by a very great and very ancient Stoic teacher, but Iím not a Stoic, not in any sense of the word.My inability to bear up under lifeís hardships with a Stoic indifference or resignation is one of the main reasons I could never be a minister.I can never get through a wedding or a funeral without crying.If I were officiating, the family would have to take me aside and comfort me.


These teachings do mean a lot to me, however.A couple of years ago I was going through a period where I felt very much at sea with respect to fundamental questions of how to live.There was nothing too unusual about the circumstances.Life had just been difficult for one reason or another, as it sometimes is for all of us.But I was pretty sad, and couldnít find any comfort or guidance in thinking about the few and very weak role models I still have.


So I plowed into Powellís bookstore one afternoon looking for anything improving, anything that would lift my spirits and help restore my sense of purpose.What I found there among all those millions of books was a thin little volume, no more than a hundred pages long, containing a translation of Epictetusís Enchiridion (Greek for Manual) by an American philosopher named Sharon Lebell.Since then Iíve read it through many times, and a day never passes when I donít think about something that it said.


Iíve also learned a bit more about its history.This is not a book that has been collecting dust for two thousand years.It has been passed down to us hand-to-hand, generation-to-generation, and culture-to-culture.It has had a profound influence.Hundreds of years ago soldiers used to carry the Enchiridion with them into battle.Huston Smith describes it as the Western counterpart to Buddhismís Dhammapada, Western civilizationís first and best source of practical wisdom.


No one has ever claimed anything supernatural about its origins.They are well documented.Epictetus was born a slave in the year 55 A.D., on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.His master recognized something extraordinary in him, and did something that must surely have been unusual for slave owners.He sent the boy away to study with a famous teacher, a philosopher whose writings we still have, and which include arguments for equal education of women and against rules that promote unequal conditions in society.Epictetus was eventually freed from slavery and became a great teacher in his own right.One of his students was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who eventually became ruler of the Roman Empire.Epictetus lived a long, productive life; he was eighty years old when he died.He spent it largely in delivering lectures on how to live with greater dignity and tranquility, and he walked his talk, living always in a small hut, and showing no interest in fame, fortune, or power.He was not a writer, but one of his pupils was a famous historian who transcribed eight volumes of Epictetusís lectures, word for word, and as a result we have a much better record of exactly what he said than we have for most ancient teachers.


So what we have here is one of Western civilizationís most important pieces of wisdom literature, sadly neglected because it was never incorporated into the traditions or canon of any surviving religion.In our culture it has generally been the business of religion to transmit wisdom literature from generation to generation, and to keep it out of the ivory towers and alive in hearts of ordinary people.I say that if there is any religion in the world today that is capable of keeping books like this truly alive, it is ours.And so we have a special responsibility not to forget teachings like this, and to sometimes stop and take a little time to make sure that teachers like Epictetus are not forgotten.Every role in life comes with its responsibilities, and this is one of ours.


I want to start by reading you a passage that just illustrates the kind of teacher that Epictetus was.As Iím reading, I hope you will reflect in particular on the era in which these words were spoken:almost two thousand years before the advent of the modern media on which we sometimes blame our superficiality.



Inner Excellence Matters More Than Outer Appearance


Females are especially burdened by the attention they receive for their pleasing appearance.From the time they are young, they are flattered by males or evaluated only in terms of their outward appearance.

Unfortunately, this can make a woman feel suited only to give men pleasure, and her true inner gifts sadly atrophy.She may feel compelled to put great effort and time into enhancing her outer beauty and distorting her natural self to please others.Sadly, many people Ė both men and women Ė place all their emphasis on managing their physical appearance and the impression they make on others.

Those who seek wisdom come to understand that even though the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons, such as our physical appearance, the family we come from, and so on, what really matters is who we are inside and who we are becoming.

-- Epictetus: The Art of Living, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell (© 1995 HarperSanFrancisco), p. 68.


Isnít it refreshing to hear something like that from a dead white guy?What Epictetus is saying here is no different from what you might hear on Oprah any day of the week, but it differs substantially from our conceptions of the role to which women were generally relegated in ancient literature.It worries me when I see people rejecting ancient wisdom because they think it carries the baggage of oppressive cultures.I know that is sometimes true, and I know that we shouldnít ignore this explosion of knowledge thatís happening all around us, or revere antiquity for its own sake.But I wanted to read you this passage to reinforce one point:with respect to the fundamental business of living a good life, things havenít changed so much.People in general have not gotten noticeably more intelligent or mindful of the excluded or even hip in the last two thousand years.There is reason to pay attention to teachings that have stood the test of time.


Iím confident that anyone who got past that would find value in these teachings, and not just because of their antiquity.They stand up under any standard.Here is the passage that seems to haunt me the most:


Never Suppress a Generous Impulse


Follow through on all your generous impulses. Do not question them, especially if a friend needs you; act on his or her behalf.Do not hesitate!

Donít sit around speculating about the possible inconvenience, problems, or dangers.As long as you let your reason lead the way, you will be safe.

It is our duty to stand by our friends in their hour of need.

-- Epictetus: The Art of Living, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell (© 1995 HarperSanFrancisco), p. 49.


ďNever suppress a generous impulse.ĒI hear that like a little voice in the back of my head these days.Of course I still suppress them, but something about this passage has caused me at least to begin noticing when I have generous impulses. Someday it may actually cause me to be a better person.


Listen to what he has to say about simple living:



Live Simply for Your Own Sake


Donít be puffed up with pride if you are able to provide for your needs with very little cost.The first task of the person who wishes to live wisely is to free himself or herself from the confines of self-absorption.

Consider how much more frugal the poor are than we, how much better they forebear hardship.If you want to develop your ability to live simply, do it for yourself, do it quietly, and donít do it to impress others.

-- Epictetus: The Art of Living, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell (© 1995 HarperSanFrancisco), p. 75.


There are layers of meaning here, and Iíll only mention the topmost.Notice how he refers to the poor in the third person.In absolute terms, I doubt that there is a single poor person anywhere in our country today who has less in the way of material possessions than Epictetus had.He lived in a hut, and he taught philosophy in exile from the Roman Empire.That just canít have been a high paying job.And still he did not group himself with the poor.


Why exactly that is comforting, I donít know, but to me at least, it is.I know it doesnít mean that poverty is entirely a state of mind, or that we can comfortably neglect the poor who are with us today.I know that Epictetus wouldnít say that.But there are days when I worry that Iím not doing what I should to support my family.Maybe some of you have felt the same way in the last year or so.I doubt that Epictetus would be too critical of us on that score, and maybe thatís where my sense of comfort comes from.


In his day there were no corner offices, literally speaking.There were no private jets, no expensive cars, or stock option plans, or golden parachutes.And yet he clearly knew people who struggled with the same feelings that we experience when we think about all those people of limited competence who make the big bucks.Listen to what he says about advantages:



All Advantages Have Their Price


Is someone enjoying the privileges, opportunities, or honor you desire?...

Remember:You will never earn the same rewards as others without employing the same methods and investment of time as they do.It is unreasonable to think we can earn rewards without being willing to pay their true price.Those who ďwinĒ at something have no real advantage over you, because they had to pay the price for the reward.

It is always our choice whether or not we wish to pay the price for lifeís rewards.And often it is best for us not to pay the price, for the price might be our integrity.

-- Epictetus: The Art of Living, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell (© 1995 HarperSanFrancisco), p. 34.


The first time I read that, I thought it sounded naive.What about the advantages of birth, or sheer luck, I wondered?It took a while to realize that Epictetus didnít look at the playing field in the same way I do.I donít think he means here that everyone who works the same will be receive the same material rewards.I think what he means is that all advantages have their spiritual price, and that spiritually speaking the playing field is level.I donít think that is naÔve at all.


Here is what he says we should do instead of coveting our neighborís stock options:


Approach Life As a Banquet


Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously.When dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help yourself to a moderate portion.If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on your plate.Or if the dish hasnít been passed to you yet, patiently wait your turn.

Carry over this same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse, career, and finances.There is no need to yearn, envy, and grab. You will get your rightful portion when it is your time.

-- Epictetus: The Art of Living, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell (© 1995 HarperSanFrancisco), p. 22.


Whether that is true or not Ė whether those who wait really do get their rightful portion in time Ė I canít say.But I am certain that he is right about one thing:an attitude of grateful and polite restraint makes all the difference if your aim is to get through this life with a degree of dignity.


Should that be our aim?Is there a higher purpose to life than simply giving a good performance? As far as I know, Epictetus doesnít say.My guess is that, like the Buddha, he would draw a certain line with respect to talking about metaphysical things.He would probably tell you to go read Plato if you want to know about ultimate truths.Teachers like Epictetus and the Buddha donít tend to discount the value of pursuing ultimate truths, and nor should we.Itís just that, after your freshman year of college, it becomes hard to maintain the intellectual agility required to think about things like that.You would think it would be just the opposite:that we would find metaphysical questions more interesting as we approach the end of our existence.But for some reason weíre built to leave those questions to younger people, and to approach the end of life with more concern for the beauty of it all Ė the welfare of our families and communities and the continuation of this sweet world weíve been so fortunate to inhabit -- than for what it all means in the abstract.Iím glad it works that way.Iím glad that we get tired and yearn for sleep at the end of a long day, and Iím glad that we grow weary and lose interest in difficult questions at the end of a long life.


You could take the low energy route the whole way.You could get through your whole life just doing what others do: imitating, not thinking, forever uncomfortable.At the other extreme you probably could live utterly without reference to what other people think and do and expect:be only yourself, pursue ultimate truths and live by reasoning from them, be forever tired.There is a middle way, however, and there are trustworthy guides, teachers who have proven through the ages that they know where the sharp rocks and the steady hand-holds are, and who can help us when we stumble.Letís not let them be forgotten.


So be it.Amen.











Cole Brecheen

October 21, 2001