It is hard to see anything positive in the midst of this pandemic. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; the only likely short-term solution is more social distancing; that means no dinners with friends, no live sports, arts or theatre entertainment, no nights out and no relief from the nagging worry of infection from this silent unseen threat. The real lasting solution, a vaccine, seems a long way off.
The Stoics offer some hope through this dark time. Marcus Aurelius is my guide.
Marcus Aurelius is the third and perhaps the most famous Roman Stoic. He was groomed for leadership and greatness, in his early 40’s he became Emperor. History judges him as an outstanding leader, a stark contrast to Caligula or Nero.
His most famous work, Meditations, was a journal, a cross between personal improvement notes and a reminder of his goals in his lifetime pursuit for betterment.
Epictetus was a slave, Seneca was plagued with bad health from an early age, Marcus was confronted with daunting leadership challenges and personal loss – only 5 of his 13 children survived.
Fortune showed them all her power – they were not in control of their lives. Stoicism offered them consolation for these limitations, these burdens, these challenges.
Marcus had perspective. He was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire yet he was humble:
Matter. How tiny your share of it
Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it
Fate. How small a role you play.”
He also accepted with unreserved magnanimity the power of Fortune:
“But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful – and hence neither good nor bad.”
Throughout the Meditations, Marcus refers to his relations with others, recognizing that man is above all a social animal. I find his approach most surprising. People can and do harm us; in fact they surpass fires, floods and plagues for doing harm to us. People also bring forth the best in us, love, compassion, fidelity, community. Here is but one description of what he sought to be:
“Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you.”
Surprising humane language from a Roman Emperor and seasoned warrior!
Socrates’s famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ is further underlined by all three Roman Stoics. Marcus believed that the study of philosophy was the key to the good life:
“Then what can guide us?
Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from.”
Marcus was a responsible citizen, a decent man. He honoured those in his life who taught him the virtues of compassion, decency, loyalty and compassion. His book is filled with constant admonitions to treat his fellow human beings with dignity and grace. He cautioned calming his passions and responding to others with understanding. For a leader with something approaching absolute power, for a warrior who bore the burdens of power, he was remarkably modest.
What is the over-arching lesson from all this Stoic philosophy?
It is, for me, that there is hope. The Stoics faced challenges greater that I face today, yet they were able to meet those challenges with dignity and grace and humanity.
There is also accountability; we are responsible for our actions to our family, to our friends, to our loved ones, to our community.
I see examples hope rising like spring shoots out of the soil. Here’s one small one. I got my monthly bill from Koodo yesterday, it was five times as much as usual. I was working myself into a lather when I decided to check what brought on these charges before finding some poor customer service rep to yell at.
The charges were all related to overages on my phone calls. I had a maximum in my plan of 500 minutes a month; I seldom use a tenth of that. This month I blew through 1300 minutes – all spent talking on the phone to friends.
Covid – 19 has turned me into Chatty Cathy!
I reflected back over the month and realized that it was about the best money I have spent in a long time. People are reaching out, the chats are longer, warmer and more meaningful. I am reaching out, people are home when I call and they’re happy to chat.
There is hope, we are connecting. We are capable of meeting this challenge and growing as human beings as a result of this.
I’ll leave the last word to Marcus; he was a man who found beauty and spoke of it as a poet who is filled with hope;
“The Pythagoreans tell us to look at the stars at daybreak. To remind ourselves how they complete the tasks assigned them – always the same tasks, the same way. and their order, purity, nakedness. Stars wear no concealment.”
A man who sees beauty in the stars and draws life-affirming lessons from them is worthy of consideration in these difficult times.