Bestselling Translator Sharon Lebell on Stoicism, the Art of Living and Finding Happiness

Two decades before the current resurgence of Stoicism, philosophical writer and performing musician Sharon Lebell translated Epictetus and put together The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, which contains 93 instructions to face each day and the challenges that it presents in a virtuous way. It’s a beautiful book that has become one of the bestselling translations of any of the Stoics—and for good reason. We are grateful to Sharon for kicking off the Stoic resurgence and for agreeing to answer questions—from how she first discovered Stoicism and Epictetus, how to find true happiness and meaning in life, her favorite Stoic quote, and much more!

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What was your introduction to Stoicism? What initially sparked your interest in Epictetus?

When I was little my family lived across the street from a philosophy professor from India. He had more books in his house than anyone I had ever met and he seemed exotic. I asked Professor Champawat what philosophy was. He told me it was the love of wisdom and it starts with wonder. Wonder? This was a kismet moment, a pivot point presenting a guidepost that directed “go this way; you will find out what this all means someday.”

The professor loaned me a textbook introduction to philosophy whose contents I scarcely understood. But after reading that overview, philosophy’s themes and recurrent questions dogged me ever since. I became a voracious autodidact, reading the Epicureans, the Existentialists, and eventually the Stoics. The Stoics bugged me because so much of their message seemed overly severe, yet I couldn’t resist them because of their unswerving emphasis on ethics, values, and character. I was raised as a secular Jew and these were the lenses through which I most comfortably viewed the world.

Epictetus drew me in particular because in the mid-1990s he was the unsung Stoic. People had heard of Marcus, of Seneca. No one, except the cognoscenti, had heard of Epictetus or could pronounce his name. I liked his humble background: he wasn’t an emperor or a big cheese. As a former slave with a limp, he was someone who wasn’t expected to have a voice, but he used his voice anyway. He was a relatable everyman trying to figure out best practices for getting through the day.  Since I am female, this mattered a lot. Many philosophers invoke male experience as a stand-in for the universal human experience. Epictetus did not, of course, address females when he taught, but his teachings have an inclusive, of-the-people feel.

 

How do you find the teachings of Epictetus differ from the teachings of other popular Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius or Seneca?

A key difference among the Stoics is the form in which their teachings are written and the contrasting personal life circumstances each of these philosophers bring to their world view. The teachings of Epictetus that survive are presented in the form of a manual, a kind of Life 101.  His teachings aren’t all that discursive and he addresses his teachings to us.  Marcus’ Meditations are personal notes to himself, a diary. His perspective is that of a military leader, politician, and Emperor. Seneca was a dedicated writer and much of his teachings are delivered in eloquent letters.

 

What prompted you to write The Art of Living? Was there a book that inspired you to try a modern translation of an ancient text? (it seems like many people have followed your inspiration in the last few years).

When I studied philosophy in college I remember sitting in seminars that were exercises in obfuscation. I resented this. Good ideas should be accessible to regular people as an invitation to go deeper into a subject. I’m a populizer, the person a lot of scholars love to hate. I’m not against rigor or unsympathetic to those who champion reading primary sources, but there are many people who will never have the patience to dig for the gold nuggets in abstruse books. When I read Epictetus I was struck by how applicable his ideas were to modern life and how much his ideas dovetailed with the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism. I thought “people want to hear this,” and they need to hear it in the vernacular.

I’ve been touched to hear from my readers over the years, many writing from far flung places and life circumstances beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. One man claimed The Art of Living saved him from suicide, another tattooed a verse from TAOL on his arm, because it sustained him while he was deployed in Iraq. Epictetus’ teachings would not have reached these people who needed to hear them and use them in key clutch moments of their lives had these ideas not been rendered in simple, direct language.

 

In The Art of Living you write about true happiness. What does true happiness mean to you? What do you think is the most common obstacle between a person and true happiness?

A very common obstacle to true happiness is having a fixed notion of what true happiness is and then aggressively organizing your life to attain this state with all the strategizing, self-management, and personal report cards that go with this happiness-as-target point of view. I don’t think happiness can be sought. The seeking, the exertions, the calculating, the trial-and-error, perversely shuts off the happiness spigot.

True happiness, I think, is the meaningfulness that gratuitously happens, shows up, is revealed, or by grace discovered when we fully enter the project of directing our thoughts, words, and deeds toward the good and the worthy. It is in doing this, clumsily, fallibly, and without a compass, but just doing the damn best we can that, in certain moments when are minds and hearts are not defended, we experience love, order, sense, beauty, justice, and all the other ineffable good stuff.

 

One main teaching from Epictetus is that we often lose sight of what is important and what isn’t, what we control and what we don’t? Do you have any strategies that you personally use in how to know which things are worth valuing and which things are not? Is there a test you like to use about determining what is under your control and what isn’t?

I get out of my head and into my body. I love Stoicism because it values logos, reason, the discerning mind.  But I think our minds are often the wisest when we can settle them down to allow new unsought answers in. I trust the answers that surface during or as a result of my daily yoga practice. Yoga helps me drop all the things I think I know already and be accessible to effortless imagination and intuition. It helps me to listen, to receive, to allow higher order insights in. I’m not trumpeting yoga per se. I think any daily practice that helps a person withdraw from the noise of everyday life so that wisdom’s voice can be heard is valuable. It’s different for different people.

 

As we mentioned earlier, Stoicism is having a bit of a moment and you were the person that helped kick that off to a degree. What are you thoughts on a resurgence of Stoic thinking in 2017?

I’m delighted that Stoicism is getting attention and has proven valuable to many people. But I do not cast my lot with -isms. What I celebrate is that people are attracted to living elevated decent lives. And I love that people are asking and caring about an old-fashioned but perennial idea:  what is virtue and how can I get some of that?

 

Finally, do you have a favorite Stoic quote?  

Many come to mind. Here is one, a first among equals, from Gregory Hays’ translation of Marcus’ Meditations.

“Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it. Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.”