Thursday, November 10, 2005

Origins of the Serenity Prayer

One of several precepts championed by the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, the Serenity Prayer is a widely honored piece of wisdom. Let me recall the basic text: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The New York Chapter of AA adopted the prayer in 1942, and it spread quickly to other chapters and to the society in general. The proximate source was a conclusion of several sermons delivered in New York City by protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the first occasion being apparently in 1932. Niebuhr did not claim to have originated the formula, but thought that it might come from the German pietist theologian Friedrich Oetinger (1702-82). Evidently, Oetinger did not originate it either. It has been traced back to Boethius or "some early Greek philosopher."

The basic idea of the Serenity Prayer does derive from a Greek philosopher, but not an early one. The originator of the idea is Epictetus, a Stoic thinker under the Roman Empire who died about 125 CE.

Born a slave in Asia Minor, Epictetus was freed by his master. He established a school, first in Rome and then in Greece. Like Socrates and Jesus, Epictetus did not write anything down. We know his ideas from his disciple Flavius Arrian, who composed a book-length version, The Discourses, and a pithy summary, The Manual (or Enchiridion).

The opening words of the Manual are as follows: "Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammeled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others. Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is you own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you." (P. E. Matheson translation).

In short, beware of the category-mistake of treating things that are not within your power as if they were. Adhering to this essential separation, you can safely retire to your inner fortress, that happiest of redoubts where no one can touch you, unless you allow it.

Pierre Hadot, the leading modern Epictetus scholar, summarizes the consequences as follows. "Behind this seemingly banal distinction, between what depends on us and what does not, lies both a complete ontology and a complete ethics. A complete ontology which contrasts the sphere of the World, which is also that of Destiny ruled by universal reason ...with the sphere of our liberty and our free choice, that of our judgments, our penchants, and our desires. …. There is a complete ethics also, an existential movement whereby the moral person imposes his own limits by bracketing out the things that are not within one's power." Or in the words of Epictetus himself: "What troubles men is not things themselves, but the judgments we apply to them." (Apprendre à philosopher dans l’Antiquité, Paris, 2004, p. 101-—my translation).

Personally, I find the writings of Epictetus a trifle dry. Much more lively is a text that is greatly indebted to them, the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In this engrossing work, the contrast between things under our control and things that are not is presupposed by the whole system, but not stated directly (see, however, VI, 41).

The fascination of this perennial classic derives in part for what it reveals of a prominent figure, for the Meditations present the intimate side of a man otherwise best known from his public life (as depicted, for example, in the biographical Column in Rome). To exemplify his devotion to philosophy, the emperor wrote his book in Greek, as distinct from the Latin appropriate for public proclamations and rescripts. The Meditations does not proceed in the methodical sequence of a treatise, but rather adopts an interlacing form. In the manner of a musical composition, themes emerge, disappear, and return. The effect is surprising and altogether delightful. Since Marcus has carefully worked out his principles in advance, the ordering of topics doesn’t matter. Even if you hate philosophy, you will make an exception for this extraordinary gem.

The AA precept promises serenity. In reality, of course, that state is easier to aspire to than to attain. Yet the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius clearly show the possibility of achieving such bliss.


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