The Irish Times view on Stoicism in a pandemic: lessons on living

Stoicism could be summed up as “Take care of yourself and be kind to others”, which is exactly the sort of philosophy the era of Covid-19 demands

The Antonine Plague, as it became known, was named after Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who reigned as emperor until his death in 180 AD, the very year the outbreak of what is believed to have been either smallpox or measles finally subsided. Photograph: PaoloGaetano/ Getty Images

The Antonine Plague, as it became known, was named after Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who reigned as emperor until his death in 180 AD, the very year the outbreak of what is believed to have been either smallpox or measles finally subsided. Photograph: PaoloGaetano/ Getty Images

 

The pandemic was suspected to have broken out in China and for 15 years it wreaked havoc across Europe, wiping out a third of the population of Rome – then the centre of world power. The Antonine Plague, as it became known, was named after Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who reigned as emperor until his death in 180 AD, the very year the outbreak of what is believed to have been either smallpox or measles finally subsided.

As well as being a military leader, Marcus was a philosopher whose private reflections, or Meditations, became a textbook of Stoicism. This ancient school of thought was displaced somewhat by Christianity. However, bits have been borrowed by it and other religions as well as modern psychotherapies. Despite its dour image, Stoicism seems ripe for a comeback in the midst of another pandemic. A central tenet is incorporated in the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” One of the canny ideas the Stoics hit upon was to imagine that misfortune was a type of divine flattery. By robbing you of health or prosperity the gods were sending you a test to allow you show your good character.

Of course, Ireland has its own rich tradition of Stoicism to draw upon – how many parents have told their children over a grazed knee or dropped ice cream to “offer it up”? – but there is wisdom to be mined from the Greeks and Romans. Epictetus, Seneca and the other Stoics developed an entire framework under which success or happiness depended upon becoming more virtuous. Therefore, they said, the only thing which could harm you was to damage your own character.

Understood in that way, Stoicism could be summed up as “Take care of yourself and be kind to others”, which is exactly the sort of philosophy the era of Covid-19 demands. Being Stoic in this positive, active fashion has the potential to lift our spirits in unexpected ways. As Seneca says, “Wherever there is a human being, there is the opportunity for an act of kindness.”

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