Amidst grief and uncertainty: Perspectives on Stoicism and values
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The year 2020 began with celebrations for the dawn of a new decade replete with our individual and collective aspirations. Right from new year resolutions, travel plans, and a rejuvenated self we were ready and excited to see what this new decade had in store for us. Little did we know, there would be very little to celebrate, few get-togethers and a laughable amount of travelling, if at all possible.
For quite a while now, we are slowly bearing witness to realities such as global warming and climate change. The year 2020 had something very drastic and different in-store to shake us. What a span of 100 years had in common, between the budding Industrial era of the 20th century and the ultra-modern 21st century was a Global Pandemic. The horrors and chaos inflicted by the Spanish Flu returned to haunt the global consciousness at large in the form of novel CoronaVirus. Rapid industrialization and its impact on the Global Climate have always been a matter of public discourse, but we couldn’t envisage a mini-apocalypse hitting us this soon. We were not at all ready for this.
Suddenly, the whole world was united in grief, loss, uncertainty and suffering. The lack of physical touch and space, bore heavily on our minds and actions as we faced never-ending lockdowns and the concept of containment zones. In the face of a global pandemic, one could not escape grief and news of someone close being affected or succumbing to the virus. The rising covid cases and a crumbling healthcare system affected the morale of the common public. Anxiety and mental health issues grew significantly, stemming from the fear of death, uncertainty, and the situation itself being out of our immediate control. Our faith, perspective towards life, and belief systems have been duly tested in these turbulent times. It is in this light that I believe Stoicism as a philosophy and school of thought is absolutely relevant to the global pandemic situation.
In the last 18 months, we have looked at the scientific community with a sense of optimism and hope. Digital mediums kept us glued to their content, providing information and insight into this lethal virus. In the present circumstance, when we are actively looking at solutions (that are mostly, large-scale and global in nature), one can bring up the question of “ How does Philosophy help us in navigating through such a catastrophic present and uncertain future? ”
The origin of such a question/thought has more to do with how people understand and look at philosophy ( rather than the application and its uses ). Over time, Philosophy has become so academic in nature that the subject is approached and relegated to only college and university libraries, with very little presence and application in our day to day actions. However, in the present context where our actions and behaviour is of paramount importance, philosophical thought can help us gain perspective in our lives and reclaim the very purpose of philosophy and in particular the Stoic thought.
For a long time, Stoicism has been confused with the internet friendly term stoicism. Although it may seem like a difference of mere letter case, both the terms convey two absolutely different meanings. For example, Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
Stoicism on the other hand is the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint. This term has taken the internet by storm, stereotyping Stoics as relentlessly rational and showing no traces of emotion. A sort of a stiff lip person. When one engages with Stoic thought we come to realise that Stoicism is not merely an academic exercise rather a way of life, a constant education of character.
Although we do not have any form of single compiled or completed works of the founders such as Zeno of Citium in Cyprus (344–262 BCE) the works of the later thinkers have been gaining popularity in recent times such as Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s ( Letters from a Stoic ), Epictetus’s ( Discourses and Selected Writings, Enchiridion) and the Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius’s ( Meditations ).
Navigating Control during Covid 19
Stoicism at an in-depth level engages with human actions and ideas surrounding the fundamental question of what constitutes a good life. Stoic thinkers, especially Epictetus, have expounded on the tenet of control.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. — Epictetus. Discourses. II.5 ”
This Stoic concept is known as the Dichotomy of Control ( DOC ) understanding what is within our control and what is beyond our control. The pandemic situation has taken a toll on us emotionally, mentally and physically. We are constantly glued to the developments and the changes happening around the world. This constant influx of information has brought about phases of existential anxiety and feeling emotionally overwhelmed.
In this regard understanding the Stoic principle of control can help us gain clarity and insight, as individuals we cannot prevent a natural disaster or a global pandemic from occurring. What we have in our control is how we can devote our attention and energies to becoming better individuals. In order to strive on this path of betterment and a good life, one must work in accordance with the four virtues: wisdom, justice, courage and self-control.
“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
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The great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius reigned over his empire during one of the deadliest plagues in European History. His widely-read journal Meditations contains the moral and psychological advice he gave to himself, in face of a deadly pandemic. His applications of Stoic principles and holistic approach towards life helped him gain perspective towards pain, illness, anxiety and loss and build emotional resilience. Even on his deathbed during the plague, Marcus’s years of training in Stoicism helped him face death calmly and gracefully.
“We’re told this was what Marcus was thinking about on his deathbed. According to one historian, his circle of friends were distraught. Marcus calmly asked why they were weeping for him when, in fact, they should accept both sickness and death as inevitable, part of nature and a common lot of mankind. He returns to this theme many times throughout ``The Meditations.”
“All that comes to pass”, he tells himself, even illness and death, should be as “familiar as the rose in spring and the fruit in autumn”.
Interestingly, the lives of the Stoic philosophers and their inspiring works are closely intertwined with the tumultuous times they lived in. Ranging from exiles, epidemics, loss of a loved one, suicides and slavery, the experiences of these Stoic thinkers are very similar to what we are witnessing now. Today, a world ravaged by a global pandemic can look for solace and hope in the letter Seneca sent to his friend Lucilius after the death of his friend Flaccus.
“ For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. Therefore, Lucilius, act as befits your own serenity of mind, and cease to put a wrong interpretation on the gifts of Fortune. Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.”
In this letter, Seneca offers his condolences and advises Lucilius to not grieve more than what is fitting. (“Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep, but we must not wail ”). This may come across as a piece of hash advice to many, but Seneca acknowledges the privilege of having and enjoying the company of friends in the first place. Stoicism has a deep reverence for the Latin phrase Amor Fati: translated as "love of fate" or "love of one's fate. It is through this Seneca advises his friend to see the sudden passing of a dear friend as what fortune had in store for us.
Seneca considers himself as someone who was once overcome by grief in the past,( “I understand that the reason why I lamented so greatly was chiefly that I had never imagined it possible for his death to precede mine.”) It is in this regard he urges Lucilius to appreciate and adore the living around us, with a conscious acknowledgement of their humanness and mortality.
“Therefore let us continually think as much about our own mortality as about that of all those we love... Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law.”
Death has been a recurring theme in classic Stoic texts ( Memento Mori: Latin translation for 'remember that you [have to] die' ). Philosophers have time and again have called on people to remember and embrace human mortality. Embracing death or pondering over such reality can be a depressing thought in our modern society especially during a global pandemic when we are unable to say Goodbye to our loved ones!
But what this mini apocalypse has made us realise is how short or fleeting human life is. It is in this light we should value and understand the Stoic perspective on grief, life and death. Meditating on the idea of death can bring more purpose, perspective and energy to our lives. For we shall try to live a life of virtue and purpose NOW and not wait for sometime later. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Stoicism as the Way Forward
Renowned Psychotherapist and Philosopher, Prof. Donald Robertson makes a case for Stoicism as one of the most impactful ways of living a good life. He points out that even though there has been very little quantifiable research on Stoic exercises, therapeutic measures and practices of the ancient Philosophers. His implementation and guide to certain Stoic mental exercises have been helpful with his clients. Robertson argues that classical philosophy can be assimilated within modern psychotherapeutic practices and discourse.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
On a personal note, Stoicism has been a glimmer of hope and optimism for me in these dark times, not only was I able to gather courage from the teachings of these philosophers but also made me realise the sacred nature of time and how much of it goes by unnoticed. It pushed me towards working on my present self and not giving in to worries about the future. In the end, I would like to conclude that Philosophical thought can be really pivotal and integral to human change and growth, what matters is how much importance and deliberation we give to the task itself. Stoicism can be a major tool that can help us handle ourselves both now and on the road ahead.
By Abdullah Kazmi
Abdullah Kazmi is a postgraduate student of Media Studies at Hyderabad University, India. You can follow his work at (@thedailycongruence) on Instagram