Stockdale, Stoicism and The Art of Living

By Rob Shaul

Over the years have devoured about every piece of “wisdom” literature I could get my hands on.

The one I return to, at least weekly is “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness,” by the Greek Stoic Philosopher Epictetus, and translated by Sharon Lebell.

My path to The Art of Living began my senior year in college when I attended a military academy leadership conference at the Naval Academy, and heard Admiral James Stockdale speak. Adm. Stockdale won the Medal of Honor for his leadership and conduct as the senior Naval officer at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.

In 1995, Adm. Stockdale published “Confessions of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot” and there I learned about Epictetus, stoicism, and how this philosophy helped Adm. Stockdale survive and endure with honor in Vietnam.

I’ve read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – he was Epictetus’ most famous student, and many other stoic texts. As well, perhaps my second favorite piece of wisdom literature, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl parallels many of the Stoic teachings.

But it’s Sharon Lebell’s translation of Epicetus’ Enchiridion (Handbook) which I’ve found to be the most approachable and reachable. My current copy is beat up, with dog-eared pages, and bunches of pencil and pen underlines, notes and stars. I say my “current copy,” because I’ve given several away – and like to start fresh.

You can’t be a sissy and be a Stoic. As well, Epicetus won’t let you off the hook by blaming others, events or circumstances, nor can you rely on possessions, accomplishments, or people for your happiness.

It’s all on you and the only thing you truly have freedom over – how you react to events, your desires, and avoidances. Only your inner life, thoughts and desires can you control.

But it’s a beast.

“Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you. They are dazzled and deluded by appearances. Stick with your purpose. This alone with strengthen your will and give your life coherence.”

I’ve found Stoicism can have a cold side, also. It’s certainly not the perfect approach, but it’s the closest I’ve found for me.

“The surest sign of the higher life is serenity,” Epictetus writes. “Moral progress results in freedom from inner turmoil. You can stop fretting about this and that.”

I only wish it was that easy.

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