Words of Wisdom for Troubled Times: Epictetus or Taylor Swift?

by Tim Sommers

Here’s a story that is almost certainly not true, even though I have heard it many times. A philosopher, or anyway a philosophy professor, is on an airplane listening to a businessperson explain what they do. There’s a lull in which the businessperson asks, “By the way, what do you do?”

“I’m a philosopher,” the philosopher answers.

The businessperson responds, “Oh, really? What are some of your sayings?”

One person who told me this story said that the philosophy professor responded, “To be is to be the value of a bound variable.” Which is a Quine joke, if you really want to get into it.

Here’s why I feel pretty confident this story is not true. I have heard it several times, from several different people, none of whom claim it happened to them, rather it always happened to an unspecified friend of theirs. A philosopher’s urban legend, I think.

But the fact that it gets repeated means something. What’s the lesson supposed to be? Probably, a little, we are smarter than people in business, which I am not endorsing, but mostly, we don’t really do sayings, which I would endorse in a qualified way. But do people think that we do that?

Here’s the question I get asked most often when I tell a nonacademic person that I teach philosophy, if I get a question at all. People ask me what the meaning of life is.

They are usually not serious. But sometimes they are. I used to say, “I don’t do that kind of philosophy.” Which is true, mostly. Occasionally, when really, sincerely pressed, I have said, “I don’t know, but I think it would be a really great if we could all try to be a little nicer to each other.” When they are not serious, like other nerds my age, I go with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. The answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” is, in case you didn’t already know, “42.” The issue is, “What’s the question exactly?”

But, anyway, like I said, I mostly just used to say that I don’t do that kind of philosophy. Then I came to the University of Iowa and the first class I was assigned to help teach was “The Meaning of Life”. So. I guess I do do that kind of philosophy.

Anyway, somebody said that I should not waste this precious forum in these troubled times and that I should offer some philosophical words of wisdom. At first, I thought they had confused me with someone else. But, upon reflection, I said:

“May I have the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs they add God and call that the serenity prayer. It’s pretty useful, I think. As chance would have it, those words were inspired by one of the philosophers we teach in “The Meaning of Life”: Epictetus. He was one of the early Stoics and wrote what may be the world’s first self-help book. It’s called, the “Handbook” or the “Manual” (you could tell he didn’t have to compete with “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” or “He’s Just Not that Into You”). It’s an abridgment, more or less, of his more challenging “Discourses”.

Whenever I teach Epictetus, I play a game with my students that usually gets good reviews. It’s called “Epictetus or Taylor Swift?” Here it is.

See if you can match these words of wisdom with their author. The answer is always either, Taylor Swift or Epictetus – if that’s not clear enough already. It’s no fun if you cheat. The answer key is at the end.

(1.) “If I were a nightingale, I would act the part of a nightingale; if I were a swam, the part of a swan.”

(2.) “We should love not fall in love, because everything that falls, gets broken.”

(3.) “I’ve been trying to classify my thoughts into two categories: ‘Things I can change’ and ‘Things I can’t”.

(4.) “Don’t demand that events happen as you wish; but wish that they happen as they do.”

(5.) “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

(6.) “Only one who’s got enough of me [can] break my heart.”

(7.) “There are two ways you can go with pain: You can let it destroy you or you can use it…”

(8.) “It’s better to do wrong seldom and to own it, and to act right for the most part, than seldom to admit you’ve been wrong and do wrong often.”

(9.) “Keeping your emotions all locked up is something that is unfair to you.”

(10.) “Here’s some bad reasoning.  I am richer than you, therefore I am better than you; I sing better than you, therefore I am better than you.  On the contrary, I am richer than you, therefore I have more stuff than you, I sing better, therefore my singing is better…”

(11.) “How should we hurt our enemies? By living the best life, we can.”

(12.) “At some point forget about grudges because they only hurt you.”

(13.) “You may think you’ll never get over it. But you also thought it would last forever.”

(14.) “If you want to be good, first believe you are bad.”

(15.) “I’ve apparently been the victim of growing up.”

(16.) “Remember how you must behave at a party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take a moderate share. Does it pass you? Do not stop it. Is it not come yet? Don’t yearn for it. Wait until it reaches you. So, to with children and riches…”

(17.) “I’d rather be at home and eat ice cream than go out and get wasted.”

(18.) “Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will.”

(19.) “If you’re lucky enough to be different. Never change.”

(20.) “Never believe anyone who tells you that you don’t deserve what you want.”

(21.) “If you have an earnest desire towards wisdom, prepare to be laughed at.”

(22.) “Beauty is sincerity.”

(23.) “If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, for the pleasure of anyone, be assured that you have ruined your life.”

(24.) “When you do anything from clear judgement…never shun being seen doing it.”

(25.) “If anyone says that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make any defense of what has been told to you; but reply, they don’t know the rest of my faults or they would not have mentioned only these.”

(26.) “You don’t find happiness from living your life looking ahead or back…that you find when you look around.”

(27.) “Life is a ruthless game unless you play it good and play it right.”

(28.) “Praise no one, blame no one, accuse no one.”

(29.) “Life is like walking. You take one step at a time.”

(30.) “If you don’t know perfectly the motives of others, how do you know if they acted wrongly?”

(31.) “If you are yelling, you’re the one who’s lost.”

(32.) “If we are not stupid or insincere when we that the good will of ill of a person lies within his owned will and everything else is not to use, what are we still troubled?”

(33.) “If you want a habit, do it; if you don’t want a habit, don’t do it.”

(34.) “Saying the right thing at the right moment is crucial.”

(35.) “Don’t ever regret being honest.”

(36.) “The tiniest little thing can change the course of your day, which can change the course of your year, which can change who you are.”

(37.) “Nothing is great suddenly.”

(38.) “I love sparkles and grocery shopping and really old cats that are only nice to you half the time.  I still love writing in my journal and wearing dress all the time and staring at chandeliers.”

(39.) “Why do you walk as if you swallowed a ramrod?”


One more thing. Remember, it’s not that happy people are grateful, it’s that grateful people are happy. Stay safe.