Stoicism and literature: A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe

[image: Tom Wolfe, Wikipedia; this is essay #284 in the Figs in Winter series]

I discovered Stoicism as recently as 2014. On September 5th, to be precise, because of this tweet. Of course, I had read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations back in college, and had translated some Seneca from Latin in high school. But somehow I never actually associated either one of them with a sophisticated, coherent philosophy, or even realized that they were talking about the very same approach to living a good life.

What brought me to Stoicism was a midlife crisis. Nothing terrible. The usual things: a (unexpected) divorce, the death of my father, a new job, and moving to a different city. Any psychologist worth her salt would tell you that one of these events in isolation is going to be pretty stressful. When all of them take place in the span of a few months, it really makes you think.

At the time, my philosophy of life was secular humanism, which I had adopted ever since leaving the Catholic Church as a teenager. But when I turned to secular humanism for guidance, I found none. To this day I still agree with the philosophy’s major tenets, its call for human rights and its endorsement of a reason and evidence based approach to solving life’s problems. But there wasn’t much actionable there that could get me through the shock of a divorce or the grief I felt for my father’s death.

When I discovered Stoicism and especially Epictetus, the philosophy instantly clicked. Here was a practical, no-nonsense approach to life, the universe, and everything. And Epictetus was a straight talking teacher characterized by a delightful sense of humor bordering on sarcasm. Here is one of the first lines I read by him that made an immediate impression:

What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason. (Discourses I, 1.5)

Not everyone, however, discovers Stoicism by way of Twitter. As I learned later on, a number of people — including modern Stoic author Bill Irvine — were introduced to the notion of Stoicism as a life philosophy by way of a novel by Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full, originally published in 1998. Wolfe, who died in 2018, is perhaps best known for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was adapted as a motion picture directed by Brian De Palma. In what follows I’m going to provide a brief analysis of the Stoic framework that functions as the organizing principle of Wolfe’s novel, an analysis based on a talk that I gave recently at the Northeast Modern Language Association. More on Stoicism and A Man in Full can be found in a paper by William Stephens, originally published in The Stoic Voice Journal in 2000.

[Warning! Several spoilers ahead!]

The setting of the novel is Atlanta, Georgia, in the mid-‘90s, though one of the subplots takes place in San Francisco. The story is well worth the read because it is both entertaining and enlightening, particularly about the nature of racial relations in the American South near the end of the 20th century. Stoicism comes into it primarily where three major characters are concerned:

Charles (Charlie) Croker is a former college football legend and very wealthy and successful real estate developer in Atlanta. He has, naturally, a huge house, owns an entire plantation outside of town, and his second wife is very young and very gorgeous. But there is a problem: Charlie has overextended himself and he is now in serious debt with Plannersbanc. His debt is about to be called and he faces bankruptcy, complete ruin, and the consequent inevitable ostracism from Atlanta’s club of rich and famous.

Conrad Hensley is a young man who does his utmost to live an ethical life. For him, character integrity is all important, and he faces his responsibilities squarely. When he got his girlfriend pregnant at age 18 he accepts the new situation, gives up hopes to attend Berkeley and settles instead for a two-year community college and an awful and very dangerous job as a ‘picker’ in the Suicidal Freezer Unit of the Croker Global Foods warehouse — owned by the very same Charles Croker, of course.

Ray Peepgass is a banker at Plannersbanc, and a fairly despicable character. He also gets a woman pregnant during a business trip, but does his best to avoid his responsibilities, both moral and financial. Reduced close to bankruptcy himself, he devises a borderline illegal and certainly unethical scheme to take advantage of Charlie’s situation in order to make some quick money. Oh, and he courts Charlie’s ex-wife, Martha, not because he is attracted to her, but so that he can live in her sumptuous house and gain access to her hefty bank account.

These three relate to Stoicism in very different ways, artfully constructed by Wolfe in the novel. Let’s begin with Conrad. He tries to do the right thing, and early on in the story he bravely risks his life to save that of a co-worker. But Fate rewards him with a pink slip issued to several workers at the Freezer Unit because Croker Global Foods has to cut costs in a vain attempt to save its owner from bankruptcy. Conrad, at this point, has not yet understood the dichotomy of control, which means he gets frustrated at the injustices of the world, and cannot make sense of his life.

After he is laid off, things go down the drain quickly, and he finally gets arrested after a confrontation with a policeman as Conrad attempted to retrieve his unjustly towed away car. He ends up in prison and discovers Stoicism by accident, having been delivered the wrong book from the prison’s library. When he reads Epictetus something clicks in his brain. The slave-turned-teacher understands him! He knew what it’s like to have a tough life where you control little. But the sage from Hierapolis has found a way to endure and to thrive, and it is Conrad’s reading of Epictetus that provides him with a new framework for thinking and acting. He grasps exactly what Epictetus says here:

‘I will throw you into prison.’
‘Correction — it is my body you will throw there.’
(Discourses I, 1.24)

But before I get back to Charlie, let us analyze Ray in a bit more detail. He is the anti-Stoic character of the novel, in many ways the exact opposite of Conrad. He is interested in precisely the sort of things the Stoics call, at best, “preferred indifferents,” like money, property, and fame. He repeatedly compromises his character — the very thing the Stoics tell us absolutely not to do — by scheming at the borderline of illegality, refusing to take responsibility for his son (the result of a misguided affair), and courting Charlie’s ex-wife, Martha, only for material reasons. He doesn’t act properly in life because his moral compass is irreparably damaged, his faculty of judgment inept. He would simply not comprehend Epictetus:

If I can make money while remaining honest, trustworthy and dignified, show me how and I will do it. But if you expect me to sacrifice my own values, just so you can get your hands on things that aren’t even good — well, you can see yourself how thoughtless and unfair you’re being. (Enchiridion 24.3)

It is about that time that Charlie has his chance encounter with Conrad, an encounter that triggers his conversion to Stoicism, his renunciation of externals, and his embracing of virtue. As a result, he uses the press conference at which he was supposed to defend the football player as a platform to talk to the astounded journalists about Stoic philosophy and Epictetus.

The novel ends in an interesting fashion. Ray’s scheme of taking advantage of Charlie’s misfortune fails, but he actually succeeds in attaching himself to Martha, living the life of a parasite, untroubled by thoughts of virtue and character. Conrad once again does the right thing and turns himself in back in California, serene in the knowledge that his character is good and that he can endure whatever Zeus has in store for him. As it happens, the judge in charge of the case is impressed by the young man and waves the charges, giving him a second chance at life. As for Charlie, he ends up as an inspirational speaker devoted to spreading the gospel of Epictetus in the American south, even landing a show on the Fox network, entitled “The Stoic Hour.”

Where did Wolfe get the unusual idea of making Stoicism one of the major underlying themes of A Man in Full? According to an interview in the Baltimore Sun Wolfe had been working on the story for a decade, but was dissatisfied with the lack of gravity of the central character of Conrad. He then remembered researching Stoicism for a book on US pilots and astronauts and running into the remarkable story of Vice Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale’s plane was shot down in Vietnam, and he spent seven years in prison, where he was tortured and subjected to periods of isolation. He credits his surviving the ordeal to studying Epictetus when he was in graduate school. When Stockdale parachuted out of his plane he whispered to himself: “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” Internalizing the dichotomy of control saved Stockdale’s life and helped him to maintain sanity and a sense of purpose under very harsh conditions. Though the specific circumstances are different, that’s exactly what happens to Conrad in A Man in Full.

The overarching theme of Wolfe’s novel — one that has inspired many to look into Stoicism as a philosophy of life — is the transformative power of the Stoic insight. Both Conrad and Charlie (but definitely not Ray) experience Stoicism as having a dramatic and unforeseen impact on how they see things, and therefore on how they act in the world, similarly to what has happened in real life to Stockdale.

The difference between the two is that in the case of Conrad Stoicism helps him make coherent sense of what he already intuited and of how he was already inclined to act. He is a natural Stoic who suddenly sees how everything fits together coherently. In Charlie’s case, Stoicism provides him with a completely different way of prioritizing what is important in life compared to what he had assumed all along. However, his “conversion” is made possible by two factors: on the one hand, Charlie was experiencing a major crisis and was looking for answers. He might have been less receptive to Stoicism in a different phase of his life. On the other hand, Charlies’s character, his sense of duty and integrity, predisposes him to the acceptance of the Stoic framework. Ray, by contrast, is neither exposed to Stoicism nor, we assume, would be able to grasp its value if he had been, because his character is fundamentally flawed.

Published now more than twenty years ago, the novel doesn’t just still entertain and invite us to reflect, it literally contributes to changing lives for the better, as it keeps exposing people to the ideas of Epictetus. As scholar Anthony Long put it in the same Baltimore Sun interview mentioned above:

I found [A Man in Full] very authentic in showing Epictetus’ idea of this absolute freedom we have; of how we can organize our mind-set and choose what to do or what not to do. In theory, at least, nothing can stop us from our purpose in life.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

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