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Epictetus on Love and Loss: The Stoic Strategy for Surviving Heartbreak

“Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?”

Epictetus on Love and Loss: The Stoic Strategy for Surviving Heartbreak

“Future love does not exist,” Tolstoy wrote in contemplating the paradoxical demands of love. “Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in the present has not love.” It is a difficult concept to accept — we have been socialized to believe in and grasp after the happily-ever-after future of every meaningful relationship. But what happens when love, whatever its category and classification, dissolves under the interminable forces of time and change, be it by death or by some other, more deliberate demise? In the midst of what feels like an unsurvivable loss, how do we moor ourselves to the fact that even the most beautiful, most singularly gratifying things in life are merely on loan from the universe, granted us for the time being?

Two millennia ago, the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) argued that the antidote to this gutting grief is found not in hedging ourselves against prospective loss through artificial self-protections but, when loss does come, in orienting ourselves to it and to what preceded it differently — in training ourselves not only to accept but to embrace the temporality of all things, even those we most cherish and most wish would stretch into eternity, so that when love does vanish, we are left with the irrevocable gladness that it had entered our lives at all and animated them for the time that it did.

Epictetus

In The Discourses of Epictetus (public library), under the heading That we ought not to be moved by a desire of those things which are not in our power, the Stoic sage writes:

Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?

Epictetus — a proponent of the wonderful practice of self-scrutiny applied with kindness — proceeds to offer a meditation on loosening the grip of grief in parting permanently from someone we have loved:

When you are delighted with anything, be delighted as with a thing which is not one of those which cannot be taken away, but as something of such a kind, as an earthen pot is, or a glass cup, that, when it has been broken, you may remember what it was and may not be troubled… What you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.

“How Long Is Now” (Photograph by Maria Popova)

In a sentiment addressing the corporeal mortality of our loved ones, but equally applicable to the loss of love in a non-physical sense, Epictetus adds:

At the times when you are delighted with a thing, place before yourself the contrary appearances. What harm is it while you are kissing your child to say with a lisping voice, “To-morrow you will die”; and to a friend also, “To-morrow you will go away or I shall, and never shall we see one another again”?

When we are able to regard what we love in such a way, Epictetus argues, its inevitable loss would leave in us not paralyzing devastation but what Abraham Lincoln would later term “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” To retain the memory of love’s sweetness without letting the pain of parting and loss embitter it is perhaps the greatest challenge for the bereaved heart, and its greatest achievement.

Complement this particular fragment of Epictetus’s abidingly insightful Discourses with computing pioneer Alan Turing on love and loss and other great artists, scientists, and writers on how to live with loss, then revisit more of the Stoics’ timeless succor for the traumas of living: Seneca on resilience in the face of loss, the antidote to anxiety, and what it means to be a generous human being, Marcus Aurelius on living through difficult times and how to motivate yourself to rise each morning and do your work.

HT Aeon

BP

The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”

The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

Few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Today, stoic is a word rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy, instead warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation. But two millennia ago, Stoicism emerged as a life-affirming platform for being — a kind of supervitamin for the soul, fortifying the human spirit against the trials of daily life, against the onslaught of the world, and, above all, against its own foibles. At its heart was the idea that the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control are the seedbed of human flourishing, and that all of our suffering arises from our perception and interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves — an idea that has as much in common with Buddhism as it does with Bertrand Russell.

Stoicism’s wide appeal and application is reflected in the diversity of its originators and early proponents — a Roman emperor and military leader, a celebrated playwright, a former slave who freed and sculpted himself into a prominent lecturer, a successful merchant, and a former boxer who put himself through school by working as a water carrier. Over the millennia, Stoicism has continued to influence minds as varied as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martha Nussbaum, and Tim Ferriss. Today, the Stoics’ wisdom is as valid and empowering as ever — Marcus Aurelius’s advice on how to begin each day is a potent recipe for sanity in the modern world; Seneca’s meditation on how to stretch life’s shortness by living wide rather than long remains the greatest consolation for the fact of our finitude, and his advice on the mightiest antidote to fear continues to fortify the spirit; Epictetus’s notion of self-scrutiny applied with kindness is perhaps the best attitude we can cultivate toward ourselves and the surest strategy for true growth.

Art from Philographis, a visual dictionary of major schools of thought in minimalist geometric graphics

In The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (public library), Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman reclaim this ancient school of thought from the sapping grip of academia and mend its misuses in the hands of popular culture to reveal its timeless wisdom in navigating the modern expressions of perennial human problems: how to love and how to work, how to tame and transcend anger, greed, jealousy, and the rest of our wildest flaws, how not to let success and power enslave us, how to find warmth and aliveness in the chilling awareness that we are mortal.

Holiday and Hanselman write in the introduction:

One of the analogies favored by the Stoics to describe their philosophy was that of a fertile field. Logic was the protective fence, physics was the field, and the crop that all this produced was ethics — or how to live.

Holiday and Hanselman reap the fruits of that field in original translations of the late Stoic triumvirate — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — and some of the philosophy’s earlier proponents. Their selections are temporally and thematically organized across the twelve months: from clarity in January and the passions in February to acceptance in November and mortality in December. For each day of the year, Holiday and Hanselman highlight a passage from one of the great Stoics and discuss its meaning in relation to daily life. Partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, what emerges is a generous gift of guidance on modern living culled from a canon of wisdom hatched long ago and incubated in the nest of civilizational time.

Epictetus

The year begins with Epictetus’s insight into control and choice, which opens the month of clarity under the entry for January 1:

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…

Seneca
Seneca

In another January entry, Seneca echoes the sentiment in a passage from his treatise on the shortness of life:

How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius offers the three ingredients of the sane and satisfying life:

All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.

In a sentiment that calls to mind pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff’s case for the poetics of curiosity, Epictetus cautions against fetishizing knowledge, suggesting that the moment the mind is made static in knowing, knowledge becomes an end point of curiosity and thus a stunting of growth:

If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.

Seneca admonishes against the destructiveness of anger:

There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane — since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.

Epictetus points to the self-defeating impulse to want too much:

When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar they can’t get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.

In a passage reminiscent of Dr. King’s famous dictum that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Marcus Aurelius reminds us that our own experience is inseparable from the experience of everyone and everything else:

Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.

The remainder of The Daily Stoic mines the ancient canon for practical wisdom on such facets of character as transcending fear, mastering the art of leadership, and using self-control as a tool of freedom rather than restraint. Complement it with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic treatise on the art of being, Oliver Sacks on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

BP

Self-Scrutiny Applied with Kindness: Epictetus’s Enduring Wisdom on Happiness and How Philosophy Helps Us Answer the Soul’s Cry

“Spirited curiosity is an emblem of the flourishing life.”

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations remains one of humanity’s most significant and influential packets of thought on what it means to live a meaningful life. And yet Aurelius’s ideas were profoundly shaped, if not heavily borrowed, from those of his most formative mentor, the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus — an ordinary man of extraordinary intellect and self-discipline, who was born in the outskirts of the Roman Empire in 55 AD, grew up as a slave, and went on to lay the foundations of Western thought. The centerpiece of his teachings is at least as urgently valuable today as it was in Ancient Rome — an insistence on gradual self-refinement and the disciplined, systematic cultivation of good character and virtuous behavior.

In her slim but infinitely enriching 1995 book The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness (public library), philosophical writer and performing musician Sharon Lebell distills Epictetus’s enduring ideas on how to be a good person and live a happy, fulfilling life.

What made Epictetus so popular and influential in his day, Lebell asserts, is also the reason he matters enormously today:

Part of Epictetus’s enduring appeal and widespread influence is that he wasn’t fussy about distinguishing between professional philosophers and ordinary people. He expressed his message clearly and zealously to all people interested in living a morally awake life.

[…]

Inner confusion and evil itself spring from ambiguity. Epictetus coaches us to call forth the best we have by making our personal moral code explicit to ourselves. Freedom, ease, and confidence are won as our outward actions gradually conform to this code. He asks us to minimize the importance we would place on “external” choices, what we might today call “lifestyle choices,” and to concentrate on the small but significant inner moral choices we make in the course of any day.

[…]

Epictetus’s philosophy speaks to anyone who has hassles, longings, problems, soul-withering sorrows, vanities, outsized ambition, and one hopes, visitations of ineffable joy, moments of sweet triumph, and marvelous wind-at-your-back sorts of days. Epictetus is for all of us.

Epictetus

Epictetus, Lebell argues, lives up to the greatest purpose of philosophy itself:

Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears.

Philosophy calls us when we’ve reached the end of our rope. The insistent feeling that something is not right with our lives and the longing to be restored to our better selves will not go away. Our fears of death and being alone, our confusion about love and sex, and our sense of impotence in the face of our anger and outsized ambitions bring us to ask our first sincere philosophical questions.

[…]

When the soul cries out, it is a sign that we have arrived at a necessary, mature stage of self-reflection. The secret is not to get stuck there dithering or wringing your hands, but to move forward by resolving to heal yourself. Philosophy asks us to move into courage. Its remedy is the unblinking excavation of the faulty and specious premises on which we base our lives and our personal identity.

As such, she argues, philosophy isn’t reserved for academics or spiritual gurus or “professional philosophers” — rather, it is a tool for all of us, a way to ennoble our lives, a notion Epictetus himself championed tirelessly. Emanating from is particular teachings is a broader belief in the power of philosophy itself, which Lebell captures beautifully:

Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scrutiny applied with kindness is the main antidote.

Philosophy in general, as Epictetus in particular, directs this self-scrutiny at one supreme goal — that of true happiness. Lebell writes:

Skilled use of logic, disputation, and the developed ability to name things correctly are some of the instruments philosophy gives us to achieve abiding clear-sightedness and inner tranquility, which is true happiness. This happiness, which is our aim, must be correctly understood. Happiness is commonly mistaken for passively experienced pleasure or leisure. That conception of happiness is good only as far as it goes. The only worthy object of all our efforts is a flourishing life.

True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.

The disciplined introspection that philosophy affords us, Lebell suggests, also helps us cultivate the uncomfortable luxury of not-knowing and discern wisdom from here information — something even more important in our data-driven age than it was in Epictetus’s time:

The wisest among us appreciate the natural limits of our knowledge and have the mettle to preserve their naiveté. They understand how little all of us really know about anything. There is no such thing as conclusive, once-and-for-all knowledge. The wise do not confuse information or data, however prodigious or cleverly deployed, with comprehensive knowledge or transcendent wisdom. They say things like “Hmmm” or “Is that so!” a lot. Once you realize how little we do know, you are not so easily duped by fast-talkers, splashy gladhanders, and demagogues. Spirited curiosity is an emblem of the flourishing life.

In a remark that calls to mind philosopher Daniel Dennett’s spectacular meditation on the art of making good mistakes, Lebell adds:

Arrogance is the banal mask for cowardice; but far more important, it is the most potent impediment to the flourishing life. Clear thinking and self-importance cannot logically coexist.

And yet:

The legitimate glow of satisfaction at accomplishing a hard-won worthy goal should not be confused with arrogance, which is characterized by self-preoccupation and lack of interest in the feelings or affairs of others.

The acquisition of wisdom, Lebell argues, is like the acquisition of any skill — we must overcome our instinctive resistance to the unfamiliar and fear of our own incompetence before it begins to get easier, then fluid, then automatic. Eventually, we stop keeping ourselves small by people-pleasing become attuned to that increasingly clear inner voice:

The first steps toward wisdom are the most strenuous, because our weak and stubborn souls dread exertion (without absolute guarantee of reward) and the unfamiliar. As you progress in your efforts, your resolve is fortified and self-improvement progressively comes easier. By and by it actually becomes difficult to work counter to your own best interest.

By the steady but patient commitment to removing unsound beliefs from our souls, we become increasingly adept at seeing through our flimsy fears, our bewilderment in love, and our lack of self control. We stop trying to look good to others. One day, we contentedly realize we’ve stopped playing to the crowd.

In one of her most potent asides, Lebell adds to this notion of playing to the crowd and comments on the trap of popular opinion:

We are only enraged at the foolish because we make idols of those things which such people take from us.

‘Stoicism’ from Philographics by Genis Carreras, a visual dictionary of major schools of thought. Click image for more.

Lebell goes on to synthesize Epictetus’s philosophy into several enduring pieces of advice, beginning with one that Bertrand Russell echoed in his ten timeless commandments for learning and life.

BE SUSPICIOUS OF CONVENTION

Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Conventional thinking — its means and ends — is essentially uncreative and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions.

On the other hand, there is no inherent virtue in new ideas. Judge ideas and opportunities on the basis of whether they are life-giving. Give your assent to that which promotes humaneness, justice, beneficial growth, kindness, possibility, and benefit to the human community.

[…]

Just as we must clean, order, and maintain our homes to move forward with anything; we need to do the same with our minds. For not only do we risk inefficiency by failing to do so, we invite our soul’s very corruption. A disorganized, foggy soul is dangerous, for it is vulnerable to the influence of better organized but unsavory influences.

BE A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.

FORGIVE OVER AND OVER AND OVER

Generally, we’re all doing the best we can.

[…]

We are not privy to the stories behind people’s actions, so we should be patient with others and suspend our judgment of them, recognizing the limits of our understanding. This does not mean we condone evil deeds or endorse the idea that different actions carry the same moral weight.

[…]

Human betterment is a gradual, two-steps-forward, one-step-back effort.

Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease.

Forgive yourself over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.

Ledell considers the central paradox of living a virtuous life:

This is our predicament: Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn’t.

We crave things over which we have no control, and are not satisfied by the things within our control.

We need to regularly stop and take stock; to sit down and determine within ourselves which things are worth valuing and which things are not; which risks are worth the cost and which are not. Even the most confusing or hurtful aspects of life can be made more tolerable by clear seeing and by choice.

She returns to the essential object of philosophy and of Epictetus’s teachings — a pursuit of virtue and happiness that isn’t about compulsive self-actualization to about learning to live with presence and dignity:

Virtue is our aim and purpose. The virtue that leads to enduring happiness is not a quid pro quo goodness. (I’ll be good “in order to” get something.) Goodness in and of itself is the practice and the reward.

Goodness isn’t ostentatious piety or showy good manners. It’s a lifelong series of subtle readjustments of our character. We fine-tune our thoughts, words, and deeds in a progressively wholesome direction. The virtue inheres in our intentions and our deeds, not in the results.

Why should we bother being good? To be good is to be happy; to be tranquil and worry-free. When you actively engage in gradually refining yourself, you retreat from your lazy ways of covering yourself or making excuses. Instead of feeling a persistent current of low-level shame, you move forward by using the creative possibilities of this moment, your current situation. You begin to fully inhabit this moment, instead of seeking escape or wishing that what is going on were otherwise. You move through your life by being thoroughly in it.

The Art of Living is a wonderful read in its entirety, at once grounding and elevating. Complement it with Montaigne’s lessons on how to live and Marcus Aurelius on what his father taught him about humility, honor, kindness, and integrity.

BP

Marcus Aurelius on Embracing Mortality and the Key to Living with Presence

“The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the great Lebanese poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her beautiful meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence. It is a sentiment of tremendous truth and simplicity, yet tremendously difficult for the mind to metabolize — we remain material creatures, spiritually sundered by the fact of our borrowed atoms, which we will each return to the universe, to the stardust that made us, despite our best earthly efforts. Physicist Alan Lightman contemplated this paradox in his lyrical essay on our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change: “It is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.”

Two millennia earlier, before the very notion of a universe even existed, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) provided uncommonly lucid consolation for this most disquieting paradox of existence in his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the timeless trove of ancient wisdom that gave us his advice on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, the mental trick for maintaining sanity, and the key to living fully.

Eons before the modern invention of self-help, the Stoics equipped the human animal with a foundational toolkit for self-refinement, articulating their recipes for mental discipline with uncottoned candor that often borders on brutality — an instructional style they share with the Zen masters, whose teachings are often given in a stern tone that seems berating and downright angry but is animated by absolute well-wishing for the spiritual growth of the pupil.

It is with this mindset that Marcus Aurelius takes up the question of how to embrace our mortality and live with life-expanding presence in Book II of his Meditations, translated here by Gregory Hays:

The speed with which all of them vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real nature of the things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — and that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary one.)

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death.

In a sentiment Montaigne would echo sixteen centuries later in his assertion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Marcus Aurelius rebukes our pathological dread of death by demonstrating how it ejects us from the only arena on which life plays out — the present. Long before Rilke made the countercultural, almost counterbiological observation that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” he adds:

Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

Remember two things:

1) that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period;

2) that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.

Art by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson — a lyrical illustrated invitation to living with presence.

He concludes by summarizing the basic facts of human life — a catalogue of uncertainties, crowned by the sole certainty of death — and points to philosophy, or the love of wisdom and mindful living, as the only real anchor for our existential precariousness:

Human life.

Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.

Then what can guide us?

Only philosophy.

Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.

Complement this portion of the altogether indispensable Meditations with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what Freud and Darwin taught us about how to live with death, neurologist Oliver Sacks on gratitude, the measure of living, and the dignity of dying, and philosopher, comedian, and my beloved friend Emily Levine on how to live with exultant presence while dying, then revisit two other great Stoics philosophers’ strategies for peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and Epictetus on love, loss, and surviving heartbreak.

BP

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