Sunday, August 9, 2009

Philosophical fortune cookies

I've been reading some of the ancient Stoic philosophers (Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), and it's rather a maddening experience. These books are basically collections of short sayings, most of which are similar in depth to what you get in a fortune cookie. For example:
How easy it is to repel and to wipe away every impression which is troublesome or unsuitable, and immediately to be in all tranquility. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book V)
Or how about this:
Even as bad actors cannot sing alone, but only in chorus: so some cannot walk alone. (Golden Sayings of Epictetus, CIII)
It makes it fast to read, since there's a "fortune cookie" switch that trips a few words into each saying, and tells me to jump ahead to the next. But interspersed with these are some that suggest why the Stoic's reputations carried them for 700 years:
Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life. (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.15.2)
It's a fortune cookie, too, but it's tasty.

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