Stoicism in the Time of a Pandemic
How would a Stoic react to Covid 19?
Since the time of Hierocles, the Stoics suggested that we are a part of our family, our city, our country, and we are indeed a part of humanity. Steeped in our self-centered everyday pursuits, we ignore this and confine ourselves to a narrow circle. When something like the coronavirus strikes, we suddenly realize that we are not alone. What happens in China today could potentially affect our future even if we are in a different country, thousands of miles away. It causes people who work in the travel industry to lose their jobs, investors to lose their money, and some to lose even their lives. Now there is this pandemic COVID 19 upon us. What would a Stoic do?
What would a Stoic do?
The first question the Stoic would ask is
Is what is happening around me under my control?
Clearly, the existence or non-existence of the disease is not under our control. Whether we or our loved ones will contract it or not is not under our control. If we contract it, how severely we will be affected by it is not under our control. Whether we will live or die if we contract it is not under our control. What we don’t control is nothing to us. A Stoic would stop worrying in anticipation of the worst possible outcome.
I should be indifferent to things beyond my control. They are nothing to me. — Epictetus, Discourses 1.29.24 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Foundations, Ch. 29)
Would a Stoic care?
Most Stoics would consider being alive and healthy as preferred indifferents to not being sick.
“Is death to be preferred or life?” I answer life. — Epictetus (attributing to Agrippinus), Discourses, 1.2.15
Therefore, even though no one can guarantee that the pandemic will not touch us, a Stoic will take all precautions necessary — such as washing one’s hands, or not touching one’s face. We will not panic but will take measures suggested by health professionals. We will do all that is within our control and not worry about the rest, because it is not up to us.
For most of us, the fear of contracting coronavirus is more real than the disease itself. We panic. We emulate others and empty the toilet paper shelves of Costco and other stores, without asking ourselves the significance of toilet paper hoarding. It is rational to protect ourselves and prudent to have enough supplies, but overly panicking and emptying the shelves simply spreads the panic and makes things unavailable to others.
But, in any case, we should continue to move and not become frozen by fear. No, the best person is one who, though danger threatens on every side and weapons and chains rattle the path, will not damage or conceal their virtue. To keep oneself safe does not mean to bury oneself. — Seneca, On the Tranquility of Mind, 5 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Tranquility, Ch. 5)
A Stoic looks at fear and knows that there are only three possibilities: 1. Never contracting the disease; 2. Contracting the disease but recovering; and 3. Contracting the disease and perhaps dying. The Stoic hopes for the first possibility and takes the necessary precautions. If that doesn’t work there is the second possibility — getting the disease and recovering. We have done this many times in our lives. But there is also an outside chance that the outcome is the third possibility. Stoic courage prepares us even for this possibility.
Remind yourself what is in your power and what is not. I should die; should I die groaning too? … what keeps me from going with a smile on my face? — Epictetus, Discourses 1.1.22 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Foundations, Ch. 1)
What if someone we know is affected or even dies? While the Stoic may grieve like everyone else, she knows that everything — including our own life — is on loan to us. Everything we think we have is on loan to us and can be called back at any time. There is no point in complaining about it.
It is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor. — Seneca, Consolation to Marcia
Caring for others
But what we do or don’t do has consequences for others too. Sometimes what we do may not affect us but others around us. For example, washing your hands frequently may help you as well as others. Suppose you don’t care that much about the disease, should you still wash your hands? A Stoic would think so. Similarly, if you even suspect that you might have been infected, you’d take measures to minimize the chances of transmitting the disease to anyone. Our good comes from not just what is personally good for us but also what is good for society as a whole as well.
What is not good for the beehive is not good for the bee. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.54.(Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Ch. 6.54)
Finding something positive
Stoicism as a philosophy arose out of a sequence of events following a shipwreck 2,300 years ago. A Stoic might ponder about the good they might create as a result of this pandemic.
Our imperfections don’t have to stop us
We may find all this idealistic. Maybe so. But remember that no one is perfect except a sage. However, that doesn’t have to stop us from practicing the principles even though our practice may not be perfect. We can treat Stoicism as a journey rather than a destination.
I am not speaking about an ideal wise man to whom every duty is a pleasure, and who rules over his own spirit … I am talking about anyone who, with all their imperfections, desires to follow the perfect path and yet has passions that often are reluctant to obey. — Seneca, Moral Letters III.87
It doesn’t matter if we can’t follow all the principles that will lead us to peace and tranquility. We can try. Traveling half-way is better than never starting.
Coronavirus: The Stoic response
1. The Stoic appreciates that being healthy is a preferred indifferent and therefore will take precautions against contracting it and will not expose himself to unnecessary risks.
2. The Stoic is aware that her natural fear and panic response can be as destructive as the disease itself and calls upon the virtue of courage. She knows that, once she has taken all precautions, being fearful serves no purpose.
3. The Stoic considers the community as a whole and acts in such a way as to minimize the effects of the disease on himself and on others. He may buy enough supplies in case he needs it, but would not panic and hoard things.
4. Once the Stoic has done everything under her control, she is clear that contracting or not contracting the virus is not under her control and, therefore stops worrying about what might happen in the future. She knows that she will have sufficient resources to cope with whatever might happen.