A friend of a friend recently went to the bookstore at Harvard. She asked the person at the cash what book had the highest sales in the store. The employee said, “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness by Epictetus – A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell.”
So I had to pick it up of course.
Epictetus is a Stoic philosopher who died in 135 AD and didn’t leave any writings. But thankfully his student Flavius Arrian published Epictetus’ lectures, in a work known as Discourses. Epictetus was a big influence for Markus Aurelius who was Roman Emperor and wrote Meditations.
In the Art of Living it says, “Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives. Outside our control, however, are such things as which kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.”
Only by focusing on what we can control can we be at peace and find serenity.
In Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, he writes, “The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao. In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you. Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about other people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”
It seems so simple, but it is the challenge of a lifetime. Can we start small today and be present for a minute at a time?