Level Up: The Art Of Living

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. 

16 Comments on "Level Up: The Art Of Living"

  1. Caustic Man | October 29, 2018 at 3:06 pm |

    Stoicism, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Zen Buddhism; if a person understood just those three philosophies then he could be a might bit healthier in this life.

  2. Mitchell S. | October 29, 2018 at 3:29 pm |

    Many years before Epictetus, Jesus preached the notion of radical pacifism: ultimately we have no control over tyrants and injustice but we can change our own thoughts and behavior.

    Christianity started out as the religion of the opressed but after Constantine it became the religion of the oppressors.

  3. Evan Everhart | October 30, 2018 at 9:55 am |

    Constantine co-opted and then paganized Christianity as it was politically expedient for him to do so, on all accounts. Ironically because he, like the rest of the pagan world failes to realize that Christians simply wanted to follow God and pay their taxes to Caesar as Jesus commanded them. I suppose he was concerned for the fiscal viability of the state owned and integrated pagan temple infrastructure throughout the empire. Once again….

  4. Evan Everhart | October 30, 2018 at 9:56 am |

    The he who was concerned being Constantine.

  5. Remember though, high ranking Christian leaders encouraged Constantine to convert. The community of Christians certainly wasn’t an agent-less mass of would-be devotees who simply wanted to worship alone. Evangelism was, and is, a core of the faith.

  6. MacMcConnell | October 30, 2018 at 12:24 pm |

    Isn’t evangelism a core to most faiths?

  7. Not necessarily. Evangelism is an Abrahamic concept. Certainly other religions emphasize conversion but this is not exactly the same thing. But even then, a great many of the worlds religions do not even emphasize conversion or spreading their beliefs.

  8. Terry O’Reilly | October 30, 2018 at 1:00 pm |

    Nice article, Christian.

    The book being referenced, Sharon Lebell’s version anyways, is a great introduction to Stoic thought, and such a good self-help book. I bought ten copies and gave them to family and friends as gifts one year for Christmas.
    Also of note are the two famous Stoics Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius.

  9. Evan: I detest internet debate about religion more than clothing, but such nonsense can’t be allowed to rest unchallenged. A cursory reading of the Didache, Polycarp, and Ignatius of Antioch compared with post-Constantinian Christianity reveals zero “paganization”. Do you consider St. Paul’s Mars HIll discourse in Acts 17:24 to be paganization, or rather a Christianizing of Greek philosophy?

  10. I’ve thought of the same thing! Having a stack on hand to give out.

    Discovered Aurelius and Seneca in college; no idea why not Epictetus. Sometimes it depends on what you happen to find at the used bookstore….

    There’s a new book called “The Praciticing Stoic” that I consider the ultimate desert-island life manual. I did another essay that just came out referencing this, which I’ll share in a few weeks.

  11. @Mitchell I won’t defend the actions of most Christians throughout history, but that statement just isn’t accurate.

  12. Mitchell S. | October 30, 2018 at 4:36 pm |

    @DCG: your comment is ridiculous! It only makes sense if you turn a blind eye to centuries of unprovoked violence: the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, support for slavery, and the extirpation of Native Americans.

  13. Mitchell. Again: I won’t defend the actions of most Christians throughout history. Above my pay grade.

    At the same time, the 20th century claimed more lives than all of your examples combined in the name of non-theistic/atheistic ideologies.

    Wipe the spittle from your lips before your next round of polemics.

  14. I’m not a doctoral level expert on the subject, but I think the lasting wisdom at the heart of the Classics (including but not limited to the Greek Philosophy family tree, of which Stoicism is one-but-only-one branch) takes the form of a warning: Beware of Hubris.

    Hubris is tricky, though, because it penetrates and infiltrates slowly. Once it perforates the human soul, a sense of (arrogant) invincibility takes up residence. Once it has infected a nation (“Of course we can become an empire!”, “Of course we can get away with ignoring the poor!”, “Of course we can spread democracy to other nations!”), there’s no going back. Toothpaste back in the tube and all that. America’s wholesale rejection of aristocracy is lauded and praised, but Plato would remind us of what follows: the downward slope (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy) to tyranny.

    Plenty of students of Classical history, literature, and philosophy have joined Cullen Murphy in wondering, “Are we Rome?”

    Pagans and Christians: Didn’t members of the early Church, increasingly Gentile/Greco-Roman, induct pagan ideas, practices, and customs into their worship and communal life? Another way of putting it: did the multitudes of converts (from forms of paganism) to Christianity renounce everything about their former life? The two lived (mostly) peacefully alongside one another after the Edict of Milan. By the 5th century, any remaining pagans were being forced/threatened into (Christian) conversion, yes?

    I take it for granted that the Manichaean influence on Augustine was profound and lasting. The debate continues.

    Christianity’s survival can be attributed in no small part to the absorption of all kinds of heresies and “pagan” (here meaning not originally Christian) habits, customs, and ideas. Christianity, like everything that lasts, has evolved.

  15. All is opinion……Marcus Aureluis

  16. Henry Contestwinner | November 1, 2018 at 6:04 pm |

    The notion that Jesus is some sort of kum-bah-yah chanting pacifist, repeated here by Mitchell, is belied by Jesus’ words and actions. Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove them and the livestock sellers out of the Temple; He humbled the Pharisees and Sadducees who sought to discredit Him; He banished demons and sent them to their deaths. During His earthly ministry, He was constantly on the move, preaching and healing and comforting others.

    Yes, He is the Prince of Peace, but that is not because He is a pacifist.

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