A Man in Full (continued)
- Dear Stoics,
Charlie Croker has a talk with Conrad about his background, and then
brings up the subject of Epictetus.
"Oh yeah. Well...okay...what does Epictetus have to say about
bankruptcy? - or is that something too mundane for a philosopher to
"Not too mundane for Epictetus, Mr. Croker. One place he says, "You
are all nervous and can't sleep at night for fear you're going to run
out of money. You say, "How will I even get enough to eat?" But what
you are really afraid of is not starvation but the prospect of not
having a cook or somebody to wait on you at the dinner table or
somebody to take care of your clothes and your shoes and the laundry
and make up the beds and clean up the house. In other words, you're
afraid you may no longer be able to lead the life of an invalid."
"He really said that?" asked Charlie. "About insomnia and leading the
life of an invalid and all that?"
"Okay...What else does he say?"
"He says, "Where does your fear of losing your worldly possessions
lead you? To death. When Ulysses was shipwrecked and washed up on
shore with nothing left, it never broke his spirit. He approached the
fix he was in like a hill-bred lion, trusting in his might. He wasn't
depending on his reputation, his money, his official position, but on
his own might. What makes you free is what's inside you." That's what
he says, Mr. Croker."...
"What's he really getting at? This Epictetus?"
"Well - I'm not the final word on this Mr. Croker, but what he's
saying it seems to me, he's saying that the only real possession
you'll ever have is your character and your "scheme of life", he calls
it. Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no
one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark
comes your character. Everything else is temporary and worthless in
the long run, your body included. You know what he calls your
possessions? "Trifles." You know what he calls the human body? "A
vessel of clay containing a quart of blood." If you understand that,
you won't moan and groan, and won't complain, you won't blame other
people for your troubles, and you won't go around flattering people. I
think that's what he's saying, Mr. Croker."
Charlie said, "He talked about flattering people?"
That caught his attention. The lies he had agreed to recite about
Fareek Fanon were flattery elevated to some sort of ultimate.
"Yes, sir," said the boy, "That's what he said. "The flatterer debases
himself and deceives the object of his fawning." "Dogs fawn over one
another," he says, "but throw a piece of meat between them, and see
how much friendship remains."
For a moment Charlie tried to fit the piece of meat into his own
relationship with Fareek Fanon, but couldn't come up with any real
analogy. Then he said to the boy:
"Let me ask you this. What would Epictetus say if a man made a speech
praising a prominent public figure - okay? - and he did admire the
man's, uh...power and skill in his line of work - but he didn't think
much of him as a person? Would it be okay to make the speech as long
as you stuck pretty much to the man's professional life when you gave
"Is this someone the person giving the talk truly does not like?"
Charlie paused, sighed, let out his breath, and said dejectedly,
"Yeah. He can't stand the sonofabitch."
"Is the person giving the speech praising the public figure with the
idea of gaining something for himself?"
The old man hesitated for a moment, then said, "Yeah. You got it."
"Not much, then," said the boy. "Epictetus says that selling out
lowers you to the level of a beast, like the wolf or a fox. For some
reason he thought that foxes were the lowest of all."
"He actually says "selling out"?"
"Practically," says the boy. "Lemme see..." He thumbed through the
book. Here it is, Book I, Chapter 2. He says, "Of one thing beware, O
man. See what is the price at which you sell your will. If you do
nothing else, do not sell your will cheap."
The old man said, "How do you know whether you're selling out too
cheap or not?"
"If you're selling out at all, it's too cheap," said Conrad, "or at
least that's the way I interpret what he's saying, Mr. Croker, since
the true Stoic makes no compromises. Selling out and compromises are
not part of his character."
"That's fine," said Charlie, "but how do you know what your character
is? Let's say there's a crisis you've got to deal with. How do you
know what you're really made of?"
"Epictetus talks about that," said Conrad. "He says, how does a bull,
when a lion's coming after him, and he has to protect the whole herd -
how does he know the powers he's got? He knows because it has taken
him a long time to become powerful. Like the bull, a man doesn't
become heroic all of a sudden, either. Epictetus says, "He must train
through the winter and make ready."
Like a bull!
Jesus Christ, thought Charlie, of all the animals he could've chosen,
he has to pick out the bull! The old folk song started ricocheting
around his skull so fast, he couldn't get rid of it:
Charlie Croker was a man in full.
He had a back like a Jersey bull.
Didn't like okra, didn't like pears.
He liked a gal that had no hairs.
Charlie Croker! Charlie Croker! Charlie Croker!
Like a Jersey bull! It was as if this boy, this Connie, could read his
mind and knew exactly how to prod him, Charlie Croker - he who would
compare himself to a Jersey bull!
"This is all very noble," said Charlie, "in the abstract, all this
your man is saying, but what does it have to do with real life? Let's
think about real life for a second. Let's think about a situation in
which you lose everything...you lose everything! You see what I'm
saying? You lose everything, the house where you live, your income,
your cars - everything. You're out on the street. You don't know where
your next meal's coming from. What good do a lot of high-sounding
ideals mean then?"
The boy said, "Many of Epictetus' disciples asked him that exact same
thing, and you know what he told them?"
"Have you ever seen an old beggar?" The kid's eyes were boring right
"You're asking me?"
"Sure I have," said Charlie, "plenty of them."
"See? They've gotten by," said the boy. "They've managed to get food
to eat, 365 days a year, probably. They're not starving. What makes
you think they can all find food, and you wouldn't be able to?"
"What kinda consolation is that supposed to be? I'd rather die than go
around with a cup in my hand."
"The boy smiled, and his eyes brightened. "Epictetus talks about
exactly that, Mr. Croker. He says, "You're not afraid of starving,
you're afraid of losing face. He says, "You don't have to have some
high position before you can be a great man. One of the great Stoic
philosophers, Cleanthes, hauled water to make a living. He was a day
laborer, Mr. Croker. but nobody thought of him as someone who did't
have a respectable job. Why? Because he radiated the power of the
spark of Zeus."
Charlie closed his eyes and tried to imagine it. He's out on the
street...Charlie looked at the boy Connie, and shook his head and
said, "I've tried, but I just can't see it."
Charlie's "trophy wife" Serena appears, and tells him that the lawyer
Roger White has called asking him to "reconfirm his decision" ( to
make a statement praising Fareek Fanon ). She asks "What do we do
"You're right," Charlie said to Serena. "So far I've been a fox, but
it's against my nature. I feel lousy, and my knee hurts like hell, but
I'm gonna be a ...a...bull. I'll deal with it."
Withering scorn: "What on earth are you talking about, Charlie? - a
fox and a bull..."
He looked at Serena, looked right into those eyes of hers, and said,
"I've descended" - he decided not to mention the foxes or the wolves -
"I've descended to a certain level, but I'm gonna get back up. I'll
deal with it all."
Serena, with her hands on her hips, looked at him as if he were senile
and shook her head and spun about and marched out of the room.
No, Charlie was no bull who had grown up with a consciousness of his
own powers. he didn't have a back like a Jersey bull any longer, and
his only hope of getting one was in that book in the hands of a boy
who stood besides the chair in his nurse's-aide outfit, that slim boy
who, unaccountably, had the forearms and hands of a man twice his
size. The boy was like the man he told him about, Cleanthes, who had a
job as a day laborer but impressed all who came in contact with him
like "a hill-bred lion, trusting in his might," like Ulysses washed
ashore, wherever the hell it was Ulysses was washed ashore, and
whoever the hell he was. The name summoned up a flicker of memory, but
that was all.
It was humiliating, the way she had talked to him right in front of
Connie...He had never let a woman talk to him that way. So why now?
Because the source of his strength had always been his money, his
reputation, his success in worldly affairs. But the one true source of
strength was his own might, his own will, to get or to avoid, his own
divine spark of reason, which enabled him to judge which things were
in his power and which were beyond it....
"Connie, I want you to do me a favor."
"If I can, Mr. Croker."
"I want you to leave the book with me after you finish work today, and
I'll do some reading on my own and give it back to you tomorrow
The boy's eyes grew frightened, wary, and startled. He stood there
with his mouth open.
He didn't know what to say. there was no way he could explain to the
old man that the book was...alive with the spark of Zeus. Therein were
the essential truths that had enabled him to withstand the worst the
beasts could throw at him in jail, withstand exile from his own
family, alienation from the law, confrontation with a thug...And in
that moment it all came together. He could see it as a foreordained
pattern. The Book had arrived, seemingly by accident, at Santa Rita -
and introduced him to Zeus, to Epictetus and the truth and the way,
and given him the courage to fight and overcome the worst predators in
the jail. Then Zeus uprooted the entire jail and cracked it open like
a walnut shell so that he could escape. Then he made the Army
Reservists' Jeep available and somehow led him to Kenny and Mai and
the "underground airline" and sent him to Atlanta. And why Atlanta?
Because in a hopelessly cluttered attic room in a little town he had
never heard of in his life, Chamblee, there was a copy of the Book.
And why should he have a copy of the Book? To continue the work and
testify to the glory of Zeus. And now he had a chance - the very scalp
of his head grew hot from the thought - now he had a chance to convert
a man of money and power and renown. From the moment he was laid off
by Croker Global Foods to this moment, standing beside a crippled
Charlie Croker, this - but of course! - this had been the pattern his
life had been woven into: not to punish Croker for throwing hundreds
of people out of work with a snap of his fingers, but to recruit him
and all his resources into the service of Zeus.
To Charlie it seemed as if the boy stood there beside him for five
minutes without saying word. He looked as if he were off on a cloud
somewhere. What the hell was the big deal about the book?
"All right, Mr. Croker," the boy said finally, I'll leave it with you
when I go. But please look after it. Remember, it's alive."
Alive. Charlie didn't know what the hell that was supposed to mean,
but there was no mistaking the drift of what the boy had said.
(To be concluded)