Forum is a privately circulated men’s lifestyle title produced by the company that puts out the menswear trade pub MR. I’ve been writing essays for it for over a dozen years, many of which I’ve shared here.
What follows is my second piece from the current fall/winter issue. It’s based on a wonderful recent interpretation of the wisdom of Epictetus, of which I was tipped off by Robert W. of J. Press, the fellow wearing the three-piece in our coverage of the Squeeze party last week.
Below is the text, followed by the mag’s layout for anyone inclined to printing. — CC
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The Art Of Living:
Self-help from 2,000 years ago
By Christian Chensvold
Forum, fall/winter 2018
When we complain how our education system doesn’t prepare young people with the skills they need for real life, we usual mean pragmatic things. You know, stuff that reflects the ever-fluctuating needs of the job marketplace and innovations in technology. And since there’s only so much time in the school day, it usually means cutting back on the arts and humanities, because, as many argue, what good does that stuff do in the real world anyway?
It turns out quite a bit. You can have the most marketable skills in the world, your pick of where to work, and climb the ladder of success, but none of that will matter very much if you can’t manage life itself. It’s the game we all have to play — a kind of decathlon of work, love, friends, family, meaning, purpose, etc. — and being great at one and terrible at all the others isn’t going to bring you peace and happiness.
Fortunately there’s a life manual written nearly two thousand years ago with some of the most timeless wisdom ever committed to parchment. It’s the one self-help book everyone should own, and a powerful argument for the value of what was once known as a liberal education. The wise sage is named Epictetus (pronounced epic-TEET-us), and he lived in the Roman Empire during the second century AD. He is associated with the school of thought known as Stoicism, which encouraged one to take a detached attitude towards life, withstand adversity, and pursue the highest virtues. Its chief shortcoming is an emotionless means of coping with worldly attachments. Lost your wife in a tragic accident? Well she had to go sometime, and you can always find another. You get the idea.
But at its best Stoicism provides the kind of practical everyday advice that will keep your temper intact, blood pressure low, and digestion running smoothly. And nowhere is it better expressed than in the precious thought of Epictetus, which was taken down by one of his pupils. A few years ago the work was given a freeform interpretation by Sharon Lebell under the title “The Art Of Living: The Classical Manual On Virtue, Happiness And Effectiveness.” Consisting of pithy tidbits of wisdom, it’s the perfect book to keep ever-handy and take a minute to read each morning before venturing out into the world. Here are some samples:
Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.
As you think, so you become.
Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do.
Regardless of what is going on around you, make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.
As you see, the crux of Epictetus’ thought centers around one very simple premise: taking responsibility for that which you can control, and letting go of that which you can’t. Epictetus’ belief that while you can’t control external events, you can control your internal reaction to them, would resurface in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the line, “Nothing’s good or bad but thinking makes it so,” and in the middle of the 20th century would become the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the field of psychology.
So take charge of your life and give Epictetus a try. It should quickly become clear where you should be spending your time and energy.