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Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Ayn Rand and Epictetus 

I had a nice lunch-time meet-up last week. Topic for consideration: what story or tale affected your life... and how?

At first I thought: ooo, I don't have any idea on this one. I've read quite a few stories, mostly junk science-fiction and fantasy when I lived in Maryland, I can't think of any -

Oh. Two popped into mind.

  1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
  2. A Man in Full by Tom Wolf.

Like many teenagers, Atlas Shrugged really screwed me up.

Before my senior year in high school, I was fortunate to go on a three-week Europe trip... high-school students from three different locations in the US (Texas, California, and North Carolina) with teacher and community escorts (what where they thinking? "Oh, this will be fun!" Sheesh.).

Anyway, one of the darkly sad poetic girls on the trip talked with me in a shaded patio in Lucerne one day, and at the end wrote something on a piece of paper. Amidst the shade and sunlight, she gave me the paper, and said, "You need to read this book."

"Atlas Shrugged."

So I did.

That led to a self-centered ego-trip and me-centric philosophy that spanned well into my college years. Ayn Rand led to more Ayn Rand and then later to Nietzsche.

What's interesting in retrospect is that recently I took a course where we were introduced to Robert Kegan's levels of self. A teenager is pretty much focused on getting what they want, and any means to do that are acceptable. It's an amoral view of the world based on desire. That jives pretty well with Ayn Rand's point of view. The next level of self is achieved as some level of empathy develops in a person.

Many years, and many philosophical crises later, I picked up the book-on-tape set of Tom Wolf's "A Man in Full" at Half-Price Books, read by David Ogden Stiers. I had read reasonable reviews of the story and my drive from Graham to Redmond was long. I had time to listen to a good book.

A turning point for two of the characters in the book is their discovery of the stoic philosopher Epictetus. The story has the two men deal with the crisis in their lives by integrating the stoic philosophy into their world view and use it to survive the crushing blows fate deals them.

The teachings of Epictetus resonated strongly with me.

I had been reading Zen teachings for quite some time (it was my next level as I grew out of my dark Ayn Rand / Nietzsche years). I wasn't so much into the spiritual aspects of Zen / Buddhism as I was in the point of view and the awareness of the now. It was also a pretty inclusive point of view, respecting all enlightened souls.

Epictetus? Some say that the Serenity Prayer, while not by Epictetus, summarizes his core stoic point of view:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

The most important point being realizing what you have an effect over and then realizing what you do not. Do not let those events or those people who you cannot and do not control bother you. Furthermore, it's developing an awareness of how you react to the events and situations and people around you and being aware that you control your own reactions.

Which brings us back to Kegan. As part of elevating yourself through the levels of "self," you become aware of an aspect you hadn't noticed before and turn this from the subjective to the objective. The subject to the scrutinized object. In class, they said this is like realizing you've been looking through a lens and being unaware that there was a lens. Now you're aware that there is a lens and how it has been distorting your view.

Once you're aware of it, you become aware of how you have allowed this subjective thing to influence you. By becoming aware of the influence, you can change and grow.

A lot of philosophies come back to awareness of self and the unseen influences of who you are that are guiding you. Perhaps in an unhappy direction.

I picked up Sharon Lebell's book "The Art of Living" which is her version of Epictetus' teachings, modernized and made shiny. It's very nice for a quick read. Highly recommended for anyone to have to flip through on occasion and reflect upon. As I hit my personal hardships, I meditated on the teachings quite often and found it very comforting. It helped me a great deal, and I've valued the teachings.

Anyway. Two stories that affected my life. It will be interesting to see what the third might end up being.

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