Revival of an ancient philosophy

SUN JOURNAL

Stoicism: Tom Wolfe's best-selling "A Man in Full" has introduced the values of Epictetus to a modern audience.

May 03, 1999|By James Rainey | James Rainey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It has been nearly 2,000 years since sober men in togas gathered at Rome's central market, coaching each other to put aside worldly wants and walk a straight and moral path. Now -- in a time of presidential hanky-panky, 24-hour entertainment and murky social values -- their ancient creed is being resurrected.

Stoicism is back for a small but growing group of adherents, thanks to the unlikely convergence of America's most biting chronicler of pop culture and one of its most celebrated Vietnam War prisoners.

Boost from book

The renaissance of the classical philosophy got a boost last year when novelist Tom Wolfe made the ancient philosopher Epictetus and his teachings a leitmotif in his best-selling novel "A Man in Full." From the discourses of the former slave, at least two of Wolfe's characters learned to value personal integrity over material gain.

That philosophy has blossomed in scores of small ways -- from the bookstores that now sell Stoic philosophy to businessmen, to the increasing correspondence on the World Wide Web.

"It has been astonishing," says Sharon Lebell, a Marin County, Calif., writer whose book on the Stoics has been revived of late. "Suddenly, interest in Stoicism has been galvanized."

Stoicism was born three centuries before the birth of Jesus, when Zeno of Citium started a school around a covered colonnade, or stoa, at the central market in Athens.

What began as a radical counterpoint to the loose moral temper of the times evolved into a complex doctrine that thrived for at least five centuries and influenced the early Christian patriarchs.

Despite apparent chaos, the Stoics believed that the universe is rational, its events predetermined. They did not believe in an afterlife, but thought men could exercise their internal divinity by behaving rationally and controlling their passions. Men could free themselves from preoccupations such as wealth and status, the Stoics said, by following an inner creed.

Epictetus personified the Stoic ideal. Born about A.D. 55 as a slave in the eastern reaches of the Roman empire, he flourished as one of the philosophy's greatest teachers.

"Things themselves don't hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people," Epictetus said. "It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them."

While "stoic" has come to connote personal calm in the face of adversity, the Stoics' theories about human relationships and emotion were complex.

They encouraged each other to play their social roles -- as parents, teachers, military officers -- to the hilt. But they expected emotions to remain level, even under extreme circumstances. The good Stoic should focus on events within his control and separate his emotions from things he cannot change.

"If your child were to die and you were crying and pulling your hair out, the Stoics would say your reaction was based on a mistake," says Tad Brennan, an assistant professor of philosophy at Yale University, "and once you saw clearly and rationally, the emotion would evaporate."

Brennan and others suggest that such an austere stance is likely to keep the Stoics from becoming anything close to a true pop phenomenon. Indeed, reissues of books on the Stoics have sold in the low thousands, nowhere near the 1.2 million copies of "A Man in Full" that are in print.

Lesson in decency

But modern audiences are warming to the Stoics, says Lebell, who sees the message of Epictetus as one of fundamental decency.

"You don't necessarily have to sell your Lexus and live in a hut," she says. "But your life should be led, first and foremost, by the development of your character, and by being faithful to promises to yourself and to people close to you."

After the release of Wolfe's novel, publisher HarperSanFrancisco printed 6,000 more copies of Lebell's 113-page digest of Epictetus' teachings, "The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness." Sales in three months topped those for the previous two years.

Likewise, San Diego County probation investigator Erik Wiegardt, who founded a Stoic Web site three years ago, says that interest has doubled in recent months, with about 50 registered participants in the "international forum" -- plus an unknown number of unregistered participants.

Chance encounter

Author Tom Wolfe says Stoicism came into his book by a quirk of the creative process. After nearly a decade of work on his 742-page "A Man in Full," he realized that one of his central characters -- a young man who lands in jail after many unfair setbacks -- lacked a certain gravity.

Like "a bolt out of the blue" came the idea of Stoicism.

The young inmate, Conrad Hensley, inadvertently discovers the philosophy when he requests a spy novel called "The Stoics' Game" in jail and is delivered, instead, a collection of teachings by Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus. The book helps Hensley survive the tribal brutality of jail life.

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