I have never thought much about philosophy, much less about how the study of philosophy could give me valuable insights into the meaning of life and how to make the best of my short time here on planet earth.
In the course of my study at the Graduate Liberal Studies program http://www.sfu.ca/gls.html at Simon Fraser University, one of the books on my assigned reading list was The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. He is a well-respected philosopher whose goal is to link philosophy with our daily lives.
One of his chapters links the Stoics, a branch of philosophy that dates back to Athens in 300 BC, to the issues we face as we deal with the Corona virus pandemic.
We are all inundated with talk of the virus. I have to self-isolate not only from the virus but from the constant negative chatter on the news. It can lead to irrational fears and errant behaviour, I’m at risk of losing my emotional equilibrium and my sense of perspective. It’s depressing.
People are dying; within days people go from vibrant human beings with loves, jobs, family and friends to become another victim, one of a growing deluge of victims to an unseen predator. People are losing their jobs, their small businesses, their careers; their dreams; their plans and hopes for the future are dashed. Life as we know it has been cancelled, we stare into the void of tomorrow with no idea what comes next.
Covid – 19 is indiscriminate; rich or poor, famous or faceless, pious or dissolute, we all face the same risk.
The world has turned upside down; none of us feels safe. And this is unlikely to end soon. It is hard to imagine a return to the good old days of last month.
How do we cope?
I never expected to say this but there is comfort in philosophy, I am finding comfort and practical advice from the Stoics – three in particular – all Romans – Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
It comes down to this, Botton says that Stoicism offers the consolation for frustration. Why am I frustrated? Because the corona virus has shown me yet again, how puny, how powerless and how insignificant I am. There’s an old Jewish proverb: man plans and God laughs.
The first stage in sorting this new world out in a common sense practical way is to be realistic about exactly what my situation is. What’s going on, where do I fit in, what can I do about it?
The Stoics were clear about one thing, it separated them from all the others. They asserted in stark terms that much of life was outside our control. Stuff happens. Yesterday it was the black plague, today it’s corona virus.
Seneca is one of the three most famous Roman Stoics. His book, Letters from a Stoic, is required reading for anyone interested in this philosophic tradition. Seneca emphasized the capricious nature of Fortune; all that Fortune provides can be snatched away in an instant;
“Nothing is durable whether for an individual or a society:..
…Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter…
…all the works of mortal man lie under the sentence of mortality; we live among things that are destined to perish” Letter XCI
How do we handle the indiscriminate nature of Fortune? Seneca, the Stoic, offers acceptance:
…So the spirit must be trained to a realization and an acceptance of its lot. It must come to see that there is nothing that Fortune will shrink from, that she wields the same authority over Emperor and empire alike and the same power over cities as of men. There’s no grounds for resentment in all this. We’ve entered into a world in which these are the terms life is lived on – if you’re satisfied with that, submit to them, if you’re not get out, whatever way you please.” letter XCI
This seems a harsh and bitter pill. Is that it?
Yup. That’s it. Because until we accept the awesome power of those things that are outside our control we will waste a lot of time and energy, uselessly fooling ourselves about the nature of the problem.
The folks walking on the seawall in my neighbourhood here in Vancouver have not understood this simple fact. Lady Fortune doesn’t care if they are young and full of life and optimism that makes them think they are invulnerable and invincible.
Nor does she care if I am pious and upstanding and worship every Sunday in close proximity with my fellow believers.
Complaining won’t help. Acceptance, realistic acceptance, will at least give us a chance of figuring out what to do to survive this pandemic intact. That’s the focus of Part 2.
To end on a lighter note, this even works when it rains. In Vancouver, for four months it rains a lot. it’s lining-up-two-by-two-to-get-on-the-Ark rain. Here’s the first step in how we survive what we call winter.