The great American poet Walt Whitman would write a letter to a friend describing Epictetus as one of his “old cronies.” It was Epictetus, he would say, who set Whitman free, who flooded his life with light. Indeed, Walt Whitman was not just a great writer and reader, but a man who unlike many artists also did great deeds. In the US Civil War he toiled endlessly in field hospitals, comforting and aiding wounded soldiers. It was estimated that he made nearly 600 trips during the war to such hospitals and spent time with as many as 100,000 soldiers. This visits might have been crushing and disappointing—to see so much death and pain and so many severed limbs—but Whitman seems to have met the task with energy and love.
Today, we ought to consider Whitman’s wonderful poem “A Song of Joys” which is a beautiful exercise in finding joys in life’s many perspectives and professions. This passage, however, almost seems like it could come from his old friend Epictetus and that it could be describing Stoicism himself.
O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted!
To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand!
To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face!
To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with
To be indeed a God!
O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady unendurable land,
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,
To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
To sail and sail and sail!
O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!
To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.
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