.Art of Living from the Romans

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When we complain how our education system doesn’t prepare young people with the skills they need for real life, we usually mean pragmatic things reflecting the fluctuating needs of the marketplace and innovations in technology.

But the most useful skills in the world are useless if you can’t manage life itself.

Two thousand years ago, a manual was written containing some of the most timeless wisdom ever committed to parchment. Penned by a disciple of Epictetus (pronounced epic-TEET-us), a second-century Roman philosopher, the book encourages one to cultivate a detached attitude towards life, withstand adversity and pursue the highest virtues. 

It was lately given a freeform interpretation by Sharon Lebell under the title The Art Of Living: The Classical Manual On Virtue, Happiness And Effectiveness, and it is the one self-help book everyone should own, consisting of pithy tidbits to read each morning before venturing forth into the world. Here are a few examples: 

  • As you think, so you become.
  • First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have 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.
  • Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations, no matter what is going on around you.
  • 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.
  • There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.

As you can see, the crux of Epictetus’ thought centers around the simple premise of taking responsibility for that which you can control and letting go of all that which you can’t. In the middle of the 20th century, this notion would become the foundation of the branch of psychology known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

But perhaps most interesting is the context in which this wisdom was expounded. While Epictetus was writing his practical maxims, Rome was in steep decline with a thousand-year dark age on the horizon. And yet here we are two millennia later, still reading Epictetus’ wisdom, thereby proving the truth of his words, that the timeless realm of the soul really does transcend the rise and fall of empires.


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