The Consolations of Philosophy in the time of Covid – 19. Part II – Agency

If Stoic philosophy offered only the consolation of acceptance, it would be fairly dismal. To me, acceptance alone is justifiably interpreted as fatalism. All is lost, we accept the capricious fate delivered by Fortune and await some turn of events when Fortune touches us again, this time favourably. It’s pretty bleak.

Stoicism offers more than that. Acceptance matters in powers over those things outside my control but Viktor Frankl offers more.

Frankl was an Austrian Jew who was captured by the Nazis and managed to survive three brutal years in concentration camps until he was liberated at the end of the war. 

He emerged, convinced that his strong sense of purpose had given him the strength to endure. He quoted Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’

Frankl wrote a book about his experience and his theory; Man’s Search for Meaning. I discovered it many years ago and have used it as an emotional and spiritual north star for decades.

Frankl saw power in his predicament: …everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

So, here it is; I can face the corona virus by shaking my fist at the gods, feeling sorry for myself or poisoning my mind with worry. Or I can decide that there is a way to turn this into an opportunity by deciding it is an opportunity. I have that choice.

That power to choose my response to those things over which I have no control and my sense of purpose give me the power to choose my future.  

This is a another central tenet of Stoic philosophy since Zeno started developing Stoicism in Ancient Athens.

Epictetus was a Roman Stoic philosopher whose teachings were preserved in two tracts called the Discourses and the Enchridion. It’s hard to miss the point:“…the gods have given us the most efficacious gift: the ability to make good use of our impressions.” …The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do. I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled, but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?” Discourses I.1

We have that final freedom – the freedom to choose how we deal with Fortune’s whims.

The Stoics recognized that we were not just corks bobbing on the ocean of life – pushed this way and that by the whims of tides, wind and currents. There was much of our life that we controlled – we did control our lives.

Throughout his teachings, Epictetus emphasized this; it is another defining principle of Stoicism: Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” 

I have now moved two steps forward. Yes, I do have to accept those things over which I have no power but now I now have power, the power to control my attitude and response to Fortune’s actions – capricious, favourable or benign and I have the power to control a large portion of my life. Much of my life is completely within my control.

Things are now not so bleak. I have agency, the capacity to make wise or unwise choices.

Yet…

…to the Stoics, the freedom to choose came with the attendant responsibility to choose wisely. Epictetus has a two part story to drive home his point:

“I keep an iron lamp besides my household shrine. Hearing a noise from my window, I ran down and found the lamp had been lifted. I reasoned that the thief who took it must have felt an impulse he couldn’t resist. So, I said to myself, ‘tomorrow you’ll get a cheaper, less attractive one made of clay. A man only loses what he has.” 

“…. the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price; he became a thief for its sake, for its sake he lost the ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead.” 

Epictetus could replace his lamp but the thief paid a greater cost – he lost his integrity, his reputation.

We too have some choices and we take responsibility for those choices.

How do we want to respond to the Covid – 19 outbreak? 

Anger, fear, defiance, isolation, science, belief that a diety will protect us, hope – we have a whole range of options and an infinite combination of choices.

Are we going to choose wisely?

Right now, I’m choosing to listen to the experts. I have not survived a pandemic. I’m not an expert on viruses. I can’t see the little buggers but I can read the statistics; they’re dangerous.

I am staying away from crowds, it’s called social distancing. No one enters my bubble. I’m washing my hands a lot. I wipe down most everything that comes into my apartment, it’s my sanctuary.

We’ve all got the information needed to minimize our risks. We need to choose wisely.

These may not seem like life or death choices until they are. I believe they are and I am treating them that way.

Again to end on a lighter note, I found a greeting card, obviously designed by a Stoic with a sense of humour, to show me what’s at stake.

I like bacon…

…but I don’t want to be bacon.

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2 Responses to The Consolations of Philosophy in the time of Covid – 19. Part II – Agency

  1. Graeme says:

    Hey Bob: Thanks for putting into words the benefit of your studies and expressing what we each know so well in our respective histories. I’ve enjoyed and learned again. I’ll be processing this column in the days ahead as I work over an outline for a new novel. Stay strong.

  2. Maurice Wong says:

    Many Thanks Bob Hope you are well! Your synopsis is very helpful !

    Best Maurice & Jane

    >

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