Tom Wolfe, Epictetus, and Me
Imagine a dirt poor country boy from Georgia becoming Georgia Tech's most famous running back, marrying into the highest southern social circles, building up a real estate empire in Atlanta and a global corporation spanning diverse industries, growing a monumental ego and living as large as a man possibly can, leaving his first wife for a woman 32 years his junior, and eventually getting his personal and professional affairs in such a mess that he ends up walking away from it all in his early 60s to become like me. He becomes a traveling evangelist for philosophy, preaching the virtues of ancient wisdom for modern life.
A traveling evangelist for philosophy. Only as the Baby Boomers all hit mid-life crisis and began to hanker for something more, could Tom Wolfe make that a believable culmination for the life trajectory of the main character in his celebrated novel of a few years ago, A Man in Full.
By all external measures, Charlie Croker was enjoying The American Dream. He was the rags-to-riches, self-made "I Did It My Way" tycoon, living Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous fantasies that have dominated our mass media for decades. Sports, business, money, power, status, sex, and luxury were all rolled into this man's life in overly generous doses. Yet, as the story progresses, you begin to see Charlie not as the emperor of his domain, but as a man who is subtly and thus insidiously enslaved to external forces and material values.
In an act of classic Greek hubris or overweening pride, he builds a towering monument to himself, a vast skyscraper outside the city of Atlanta which he names Croker Concourse. It is this building which begins to bleed his whole enterprise dry, to the point that when we meet him, he is five hundred million dollars in debt to one bank, a debt whose interest he can't even begin to handle. A conquering hero in the public eye, he suddenly finds himself, to his own shock and dismay, standing at the brink of bankruptcy.
To avoid losing his prized possessions, his Gulfstream Five, his 29,000 acre plantation, his 59 horses, and cars, and all the rest, Charlie tells his CFO to order massive layoffs of people in the corporation. He puts up a brave front, and tries to pretend that he can just make this trouble go away by force of the old Croker charisma. But as the story unfolds, you see Charlie increasingly alienated from everyone around him, keeping up appearances at the expense of realities, and yet, inwardly, increasingly humbled by things outside his control. Not just business matters, but the even more frieghtening, unexpected consequences of aging for this former athlete - a painfully bad knee, shocking stiffness, and, most horrifying of all for someone who has thought of his sexual energy as the main ingredient of his success, a feared impotence brought on by the stress he is enduring in all facets of his life. With this, there slowly begins to dawn a new overall sense of both his personal limits and his ultimate mortality.
Wolfe's novel touches on most aspects of life in America here at the end of the nineties. It's full of insight and thought provoking reflections on sex, race, ambition, marriage, friendship, and of course business. It's 742 pages are a surprisingly quick read, and are well worth the investment of time for all the modern life perspectives they provide.
At the culmination of the story, which brings together a variety of narrative lines involving different characters with their own struggles, hopes, and desperation, Charlie is presented with an offer seemingly too good to be true. By appearing at a major press conference and publicly saying a few things he does not believe, he can make his financial plight vanish. The bank will back off and restructure his loans for long term repayment. He will not lose his houses and plantation and planes and cars and prestige in the community. But Charlie knows in his heart that by taking this simple way out, he would be violating what he most deeply feels and, in the circumstances, betraying trust of an old and valued friend.
He is faced with a classic personal dilemma. A young man hired to attend to him during recovery from knee surgery introduces Charlie to the insights of ancient stoic philosophy through the writings of Epictetus. Epictetus had been a slave. He had been imprisoned. And he had come to believe that all that really matters in this world is the inner character we cultivate, the attitude we bring to any external situation, and the virtue of the soul that can withstand any difficulty or suffering with true nobility, knowing what really matters in the end.
At that press conference, Charlie speaks volumes, but not what he was supposed to say. It becomes his first philosophical sermon. After laying out for all the media of Atlanta what he was supposed to do on that public occasion, what the deal was - to the stunned consternation of those who offered the deal - Charlie says:
One of the few freedoms that we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false. Nothing you can give me is worth surrendering that freedom for. At this moment I'm a man with complete tranquillity... I've been a real estate developer for most of my life, and I can tell you that a developer lives with the opposite of tranquillity, which is perturbation. You're perturbed about something all the time. You build your first development, and right away you want to build a bigger one, and you want a bigger house to live in, and if it ain't in Buckhead, you might as well cut your wrists. Soon's you got that, you want a plantation, tens of thousands of acres devoted solely to shooting quail, because you know of four or five developers whočve already got that. And soon's you get that, you want a place on Sea Island and a Hatteras cruiser and a spread northwest of Buckhead, near the Chattahoochee, where you can ride a horse during the week, when youčre not down at the plantation, plus a ranch in Wyoming, Colorado, or Montana, because truly successful men in Atlanta and New York all got their ranches, and of course now you need a private plane, a big one, too, a jet, a Gulfstream Five, because who's got the patience and the time and the humility to fly commercially, even to the plantation, much less out to a ranch? What is it youčre looking for in this endless quest? Tranquillity. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough emminence, you will be free, there'll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you thing others are judging you.
Charlie continued on:
The hero of Tom Wolfe's novel becomes a man smitten with the insights of the ancient thinkers. It's the soul that's more important than the body, the inner that's more important than the outer, character that's the ultimate source of happiness and true success. We need to learn what we do have control over and recognize what too often has control over us. We need to concentrate on what really matters, free ourselves from philosophical slavery to false schemes of life, and focus on doing good in this world for others as well as ourselves.
Like Charlie Croker after he walked away from it all, I'm an evangelist for the philosophy, that "love of wisdom", that liberates. It doesn't mean giving up all the attractive and comfortable material things in our lives. Not at all. It just means escaping an attitude that enslaves. As the stoic philosopher Seneca once put it in a letter:
Would you rather have much, or enough?
If you'd like to read more of the philosophy that inspired Charlie Croker, see the Discourses of Epictetus or the collected letters and essays of Seneca, available at most large bookstores in various editions.
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