Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

PEOPLE cannot get enough of the ancient philosophers. After the best-selling Sophie's World, Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full picks up on the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 5s135). Born a slave in Phrygia (central Turkey), Epictetus came to Rome, was freed by Nero and set up a 'university' in Greece.

Ancient philosophy was not pie-inthe-sky theory; like medicine, it was a practical exercise, aiming to remove unhealthy beliefs and set the disciple on the road to happiness. Stoicism, invented by the Cypriot Zeno (335-263 BC), taught that 'God' was the power that guided all things by reason and was everywhere in the universe, like honey permeating a honeycomb. The 'divine' element in man was his rational mind. So we had a choice: to go with the flow (an image that Epictetus uses), act rationally and be happy and good, or fight against the flow, act irrationally, and be miserable and bad. It was up to us.

This phrase `up to us' was the hallmark of Epictetus' particular contribution. The way to happiness was to decide what was `up to us' and ensure that that part of our lives was rationally conducted. Everything that was not `up to us', being out of our control, could be forgotten.

What, then, was `up to us' for Epictetus? …

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