We might all be quarantined for a while. There are worse uses of your time than reading the Stoics
People around the world are feeling rudderless and adrift. There’s conflicting information about the pandemic – but it’s not just about health. People losing work, feeling frightened, being isolated at home, worried about their loved ones and wondering about getting basic supplies.
We all must make ethical decisions in this pandemic. Should I take that second pack of toilet paper for my family, or leave it for the next? Should essential workers stay home to protect themselves?
Responses are varied. Some people are showing grace under pressure. Some are responding with shock or panic, others seem to be wilfully ignoring the situation. Many have never experienced this type of crisis before, others are finding their traditional roadmaps breaking down: churches empty, political leaders losing trust, supermarkets ransacked, neighbours “sheltering in place” behind closed doors.
The more we read, the more anxious we become.
Stoicism is an ancient tool for remaining calm in adversity. Often dumbed down to refer to having a stiff upper lip, or emotional reserve, Stoicism is actually a deep philosophical framework, useful in providing an ethical scaffold for both everyday life and in times of difficulty.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded by Zeno of Citium, in Athens, in the early 3rd century BC.
Stoics welcomed hard times – they saw their life as training for moments such as the one we are in now, where character, resilience and courage are tested. Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”
He saw crisis as a way of unmasking who you really are: “Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”
In times like this it’s easy to spiral into anxiety. The Stoics strived for tranquility and believed that our minds are powerful and create their own heaven or hell. Stoics such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius lived through the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD, an ancient pandemic that wiped out a third of the population. Philosopher and playwright Seneca had to deal at close range with despots such as Caligula and Nero (who eventually ordered his death), and both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca had to carry on after the death of their children.
They were calm, focused and courageous in the face of carnage. Seneca said: “We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in the imagination than reality.”
Stoics prized rational thinking, acting on good information and contemplating the situation fully rather than acting rashly or from a place of panic and anxiety. Marcus Aurelius coped by not allowing his thoughts to be overrun by negativity. “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make of it,” he wrote in his nightly diary. Those in quarantine in Wuhan also kept a diary as a way of coping.
A Stoic would recommend you to be careful of what media and opinions you consume during the virus. Counselled Epictetus: “Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.”
The Stoics believed that humans as social animals were created to support each other. Marcus Aurelius devoted himself to “do good to my fellow creatures and bear with them.”
No plague or injury can do more damage than you do to yourself through acts of bad character. Character is key for the Stoics. They believed that your health and your money can be taken away from you at any time – but no one can take your character from you. So you need to nurture it. It’s particularly important at times of global emergency where we need to pull together.
Demonstrating good character might involve not hoarding scarce goods such as toilet paper. It might mean not taking all the pasta and rice for yourself and leaving none for others. It might mean self-isolating not just for your own protection but to protect others.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness,” said Seneca.
We are all connected
When people in northern Italy escaped quarantine despite being ordered to do so, they spread the virus across the country, imperilling other communities. They acted out of fear and didn’t consider the wider good when taking action.
Ancient Stoics recognised humans are highly social animals, and we exist and find meaning within our communities. Their philosophy reflected our deep and profound interconnectedness. According to Seneca, “we are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”
It was no coincidence that when the Chinese sent boxes of medical supplies and face masks to Italy last week, the crates were all stamped with this quote.
Quarantine and home isolation
As many of us lock down and go into social isolation to try to contain the spread of the virus, we are fearful about how we might cope for an indefinite period of time away from our friend, pleasures, routines and social life.
The Stoics have a lot to teach us about surviving quarantine – after all, a lot of them were exiled by angry rulers, and faced years trapped in a place and situation not of their choosing.
One of the most important Stoic teachers from ancient Rome, Gaius Musonius Rufus, was exiled to the small and desert-like island of Gyaros (in 65, the same year Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide). Seneca previously was exiled by Claudius to Corsica for eight years, just when his star was on the rise in ancient Rome.
Rather than being bitter at his fall from grace, Seneca used his time in exile to enjoy the natural world and think about the nature of life.
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company,” he said.
It also taught him that a bit of deprivation can be an excellent corrective – as you realise in good times you often become habituated to living a soft, decadent life.
In letters to his friend Lucilius, he wrote: “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
When Boris Johnson said last week, “I must level with you, many families, many more families are going to lose loved ones” due to Covid-19, he was (maybe unwittingly) employing the Stoic technique of negative visualisation.
This technique involves thinking about what you value most in life, then imagine losing that thing. It might range from losing a precious piece of jewellery right through to imagining someone you love dying – in this case, dying from the virus.
Negative visualisation was practised by Stoics for a couple of reasons. This includes not only inoculating us to inevitable loss in life, but also enabling us to appreciate the people and things we love. Stoics believed that we are less likely to take someone for granted if we are aware that they may not be in our life forever. We might all be quarantined for quite a while. There are worse uses of your time than reading the Stoics. They have a lot to teach us.