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.”
By Maria Popova
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, 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.
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.
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.