Covid-19 : the virus does not prevent us to think righteously
“As doctors have their instruments and scalpels always at hand to meet sudden demands for treatment, so do you have your doctrines ready in order to recognize the divine and human, and so to do everything, even the very smallest, as mindful of the bond which unites the divine and human” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III, 13)
The whole of humanity now seems to be concerned by the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, a new species of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, which appeared in December 2019 in the Wuhan Province ofChina. At the time of writing, 14 March 2020, 129 countries are officially affected, more than 142,000 people have been infected and approximately 5,400 people have died. The figures are probably far below the reality.
The spread of the virus is accompanied by a sense of powerlessness: powerlessness to predict the precise course of the pandemic; powerlessness of states to stop the spread process immediately and treat everyone; powerlessness of our bodies to resist the biological threat.
However, from a stoic point of view, the virus does not attack our most precious quality: our ability to think righteously. And this is perhaps the most important thing, because it is this that should enable us to take advantage of the pandemic, in a very concrete way, beyond any purely theoretical dissertation.
Behave according to the facts, follow the science
First of all, let us clarify what the Stoics and, in particular, Epictetus (Discourses, III, XX) understood by “taking advantage of”. There is absolutely no question of smuggling and black-marketing like Cottard’s character in Albert Camus’ The Plague, but rather of facing the reality of the event, no more, no less, and acting accordingly to develop and protect our state of inner serenity (thinking righteously).
What is the reality of the event? It is all the reliable data available on the coronavirus: the rate of contagion, the number of people infected, the populations at risk, the evolution of the virus, etc. It is on the basis of this knowledge that Stoic ethics, which is always based on facts and science (at least in its modern version), can be applied.
It goes without saying, therefore, that Stoic ethics leads one to scrupulously follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the competent authorities: wash hands several times a day, keep one’s distance from people who cough or sneeze, avoid touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth, remain vigilant with regard to one’s own state of health, and so on. This is just common sense.
In order to face the facts, we must also put things into perspective:
- The Black Death in the Middle Ages had a mortality rate of 60–100% of the infected population. In other words, stoicism was their real last resort.
- The coronavirus would, for the moment, have a mortality rate of 2% of the infected population, with variations according to age groups, people at risk and countries.
- 80% of people recover without needing any particular treatment.
- The human being remains a mortal being, with or without virus (!)
We must therefore put the threat into perspective, but keep our judgment in proportion to the evolution of the data. It is thus irresponsible not to follow the official recommendations for any reason; it is equally irresponsible to feed an unjustified panic that has no effect on the very evolution of the pandemic. Things are what they are, Good is found in moderation.
Develop your psychological immune system
But Stoic ethics does not stop there and is above all interested in preserving psychological health. It is relevant in several ways.
1. Defusing the surprise effect through negative visualization and memento mori
First of all, the Stoa doctrine helps to defuse the surprise effect of the pandemic, which otherwise may feed anxiety, fear and even panic. Human beings are mortal beings. This pandemic brings us back to a common denominator: death. The virus knows no borders, no social classes, no skin colour, no feelings. In spreading it, nature follows its own laws, its own logic, and not the affects of human beings. It is therefore up to us to follow nature when it follows its own laws.
It is with this order of things in mind that we should approach our education, and not so as to change the existing order of things (for that has not been permitted to us, nor would it be better that it should be), but rather, things around us being as they are and as their nature dictates, so that we for our part may keep our will in harmony with whatever comes to pass” (Epictetus, Discourses, I. 12, 17)
The Stoics thus recommend meditating on death every day. This allows one to savour the value of life more intensely but also to get used to the sword of Damocles that otherwise threatens inner tranquillity. If we have to wait for illness to contemplate death, we will not be ready and we risk adding an inner turmoil to the turmoil of the body. Fortunately, it is never too late to get used to our mortality and the virus can be a meditation exercise, that of negative visualization.
This exercise consists in imagining ourselves as carriers of the virus, to see what we would do in this situation, and to de-dramatize the scenario in front of us, even if it leads to death, by being aware of our inner resources, our courage, the power of our will. This exercise is inextricably linked to the idea that death means nothing to us. Seneca can testify to this, as he came very close to death by suffocation during what appears to be an asthma attack, but was able to maintain his serenity. In the Letter of this account (54), sent to Lucilius, he says: “Death is non-existence[…] What was before me will happen again after me. If there is any suffering in this state, there must have been such suffering also in the past, before we entered the light of day”. There is no experience of death just as there is no experience of pre-existence. Therefore there is no reason to be afraid of it. It is neither suffering, nor misfortune, nor evil.
In a pandemic, one who has digested the idea that death, illness and lack of health are not evils is therefore immune to any form of suffering that would add to the degradation of the body.
It is therefore possible to take advantage of the pandemic to work on our own relationship to death. This memento mori is not intended to make individuals sad, depressed or tragic, but to enable them to savour life as it should be, to act with lucidity and to maximise their capacity for resilience in front of adversity. In this way, the anxiety and fear associated with the pandemic can be uprooted.
2. Develop strenght of character
The situation also encourages us to exercise our character. The four cardinal virtues, which are the building blocks of a healthy, resilient and happy mind, come into play:
- Practical wisdom: adapting to the situation, to the given context. For example, if it is not advisable to shake hands or kiss each other to say hello (like in France), I must be able to overcome the social unease of declining such a gesture in the name of my own interest, that of the one who greets me and the general interest; if I run a business, I must find solutions to switch to teleworking or limit contacts, etc.
- Justice: acting in the interest of others, excelling in one’s relationships. For example, by following the recommendations, I maximise the chances of not becoming the carrier of a potentially deadly virus myself; or taking in the confined children of carers who have to go to work; or checking up on vulnerable relatives and passing on instructions; etc.
- Moderation: the ability to control one’s impulses. For example, not following certain pleasures — such as the pleasure of being together — if they go against the recommendations; or not rushing for toilet paper or food so as not to participate in the shortage
- Courage: to act in spite of fears, fatigue. For example, all the nursing staff who work their heart and soul out to take care of the sick.
In this crisis, whatever our situation is, our character is called upon to show the best of itself. It is also in this way that we can take advantage of the pandemic: to become better ourselves, which benefits ourselves as well as others.
The political significance of the event
Beyond the individual scale, the collective or political scale is equally important. Here, the virtues of practical wisdom, justice, moderation and courage are at yet another level for policy-makers. The latter must, of course, rely on epidemiologists, virologists and other experts in the field concerned, but also on those who have the political knowledge of epidemic management, i.e. those countries that have been able to limit the spread of the disease as best they can. Taiwan, for example, managed to contain the epidemic rapidly by taking drastic measures: border screening, identification of patients, their contacts and isolation, support in terms of equipment for medical personnel to protect themselves, etc. This article on Medium sets out the measures to be followed, following the example of countries that have provided an effective political response.
“Suppose a man can convince me of error and bring home to me that I am mistaken in thought or act; I shall be glad to alter” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 21).
These decisions are taken, more than ever, in a cosmopolitan framework: to protect the national citizens is also to protect the rest of humanity. The responsibility of each government is in a kind of universal sympathy (interdependence), to use a Stoic concept. Unfortunately, Western countries have been slow to follow the example of the countries that have reacted the most radically.
“This is the obstacle that allows the value to manifest itself”. (Epictetus, Discourses, I, 30)
Difficulties reveal our character and the value of our systems. In this case, the pandemic reveals the heroism of health care workers but also the failings of our current system. The latter was unable to prevent the arrival of the pandemic in France, did not take adequate measures immediately and is not able to absorb too many suddenly ill people. Governments will have to examine their conscience after the crisis and take the necessary measures to prevent similar scenarios in the future.
In summary, from a strict stoic perspective, this pandemic is not an evil because it does not affect what determines our inner strength/quietness: our ability to think righteously. This pandemic is precisely a struggle that fate offers us to evolve both individually and politically; it reveals the value of our character and that of our system. Of course, this does not mean that the situation is indifferent: every death is to be deplored and everything possible must be done to limit the growth of the virus. Likewise, every pain and suffering is understandable and needs to be considered with the utmost humanity. The Stoics just consider that we must turn our attention better to what depends on ourselves, our inner citadel, and confront the laws of nature with what nature itself has placed within us: the ability to adjust our thinking to the situation in order to accept it, the strength of character, the logical and prudent reasoning that leads to the right action.
This article was first published in French on www.unregardstoicien.com