Annotation: The Art of Living

Shortly after finishing Bayles and Orland’s Art & Fear, I was discussing some some points from the book with a friend of mine, who suggested that I read The Art of Living, as there were a lot of parallel thoughts between the two. He lent me his copy, and I sat down and read through it relatively quickly. It was interesting to read, but to be honest, it fits more into a spiritual component than it does art.

The Art of Living was written by Epictetus, one of the early Stoic philosophers living between 55 AD and 135 AD. He was one of the philosophers exiled by Emperor Domitian in 94 AD, after which he founded a school in Nicopolis, on the northwestern coast of Greece. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he was a bit more pragmatic in his writings, preferring to keep the language accessible to more than just the academics of the era. His thoughts on philosophy and man’s potential were well grounded and thought out, and have influenced some of the greatest leaders in history. Currently, two of his works are known to have survived the ravages of time: the Enchiridion and the Discourses. The Art of Living is a collection of thoughts from both works, gathered and translated by Sharon Lebell.

A recurring topic in this book is the concept of being true to yourself, and it’s this topic that caused my friend to recommend it to me in the first place. On several occasions throughout the book, Epictetus talks about the need to remain true to yourself, and not get bogged down in the desires of those around you. He almost begrudgingly acknowledges that those around us influence our acts, whether we like it or not, and uses that as an argument about being selective in who you choose to spend your time with. It may sound like an elitist statement, but after some thought, it’s true. People can be nice, but not necessarily productive, and regardless of your best intentions, that will slow or even stop your own productivity. To some small extent, it is why I was willing to move somewhere completely new, where I didn’t know any body: an opportunity to make a clean break and start rebuilding my creativity and productive capacity.

Another interesting recurring theme in The Art of Living is his emphasis on keeping things personal, but objectively so. Don’t worry about what your neighbors are doing unless it will impact your own wellbeing (at which point, why are you living next to such people), and don’t view what they are doing as negative simply because it isn’t something you agree with. Boiled down to its essentials, he’s saying that good and bad are largely subjective, and that it’s best to avoid the distinction if possible, as it just causes unnecessary stress. He’s very zenlike about it all, and goes so far as to say that if you are robbed, simply view it as those items returning to the world that gave them to you. It’s not a negative, it simply IS. The world is not conspiring against you: you are a part of the world, and it would serve no purpose to conspire against oneself.

There are some aspects of his work that seem somewhat hypocritical (which is not entirely unexpected: the basis of philosophy is ideas, and one idea may or may not contradict another. It doesn’t invalidate the other, since the two do not necessarily have to build off each other). The most hypocritical point I could see was that he reinforced several times the need to not fall into the trap of acting like other people, but then turns around and says quite explicitly to find a worthwhile individual to emulate, to help provide focus to your self-improvement. I can see the reasoning behind both statements, but the statements themselves are bit contradictory to me.

Overall, I found The Art of Living an interesting book and worth the time to read. It was interesting to read a philosopher who came to many traditionally eastern conclusions through western philosophy, and I generally found myself agreeing with his ideas. The next step, of course, is putting those ideas into action, but I think it is a good step in the right direction. I would definitely suggest reading Epictetus (perhaps not this translation, however, instead going to the original bodies of work) to someone interested in spirituality and philosophy, but I would be hard pressed to genuinely recommend it to someone with a focus on art.