For almost two years now, Americans have been confronted daily by ominous tidings. We are living through stressful times. Reading the news feels awful; ignoring it doesn’t feel right either.
Christmas (we have it on the best authorities) is a time to be jolly.
Sure, like being told by your parents that “you shall not only go to your cousins, but enjoy it”, the whole thing can become paradoxically onerous, as Slavoj Žižek used to say. (Why are you telling us we should be happy when we really should, by ourselves, actually be happy …)
Legend tells that when the Romans defeated the slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus in 71 BCE, they searched in vain for the real Spartacus. Every captive proclaimed “I am Spartacus”, in a sublime gesture of solidarity.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, obviously the roads – the roads go without saying. How about guidance for how to live in the 21st century? That seems less likely, but in fact the last few years have seen a flurry of interest in the work of three Roman Stoic philosophers who offered just that. They were Seneca, tutor to the Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a former slave; and Marcus Aurelius, himself emperor.
I must die, must I? If at once, then I am dying:
if soon, I dine now, as it is time for dinner, and afterwards when the time comes I will die.
—Epictetus, Discourses, I.i
Good health is the great goal in life, according to a delightfully glum children’s game made for The Infant’s Hospital.