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COVID-19: What Life Lessons Can We Learn from Stoicism?

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As I mentioned in a previous article, there may be a great benefit in following ancient philosophies on how to live your best life. While some people may prefer the simple life, choosing minimalism and focusing on quality over quantity, this kind of life requires a stronger mindset than merely moving into a “tiny house” or converted school bus.

Personally, while I admire the minimalist mindset, I prefer a bit more comfort. But for those people who can live by this philosophy, it appears rewarding. Also, it is not a terrible thing to ponder the difference between needing and wanting when it comes to our possessions.

So for those seeking a way to improve their lives, what is better than embracing Stoicism? It was a philosophy promoted by a former slave (Epictetus) and embraced by Marcus Aurelius, considered the last of the Five Good Emperors.

In fact, Stoicism and epicureanism were two major philosophies in Roman times. The more wealthy and politically connected adopted Stoicism, and the members of the military embraced epicureanism. Considering their respective stations in life, this seems natural.

There are many videos touting the merits of adopting a Stoic philosophy, including a TED Talk by American philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci, who described how Stoicism works well for “an ordinary life.” However, it is important to note that Stoicism evolved over millennia and outside philosophy departments in various universities, little attention is paid to Stoic metaphysics and logic, the other two of three main “Topoi” or Topics of Stoicism.

The primary focus today is on the topic of ethics. Since the revival of virtue ethics in the mid-20th century, it is more acceptable to talk about a person’s character when making ethical decisions.

Stoic philosophy has also been incorporated into cognitive behavioral therapy. Stoicism has proven useful in therapy because of its primary focus on the use of logic and reason in analyzing one’s emotions and emotional responses to various stimuli. Considering that Stoicism was developed as a way to live the best kind of life and that it has persisted for so long, it is worthwhile to explore some of the factors that help people build resiliency and maintain composure in the face of trouble.

The Two Primary Pillars of Stoicism

Pigliucci’s TED talk video proffered two primary pillars of Stoicism. The first pillar involves the cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. These qualities are not original with Stoicism and can be seen in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. If you think about contemplates these four qualities, it is easy to see that a person who possesses these would be admirable, to say the least.

The other pillar is “the dichotomy of control.” This philosophy is best be summarized in the first few words of Epictetus in his Enchiridion: “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

In other words, we should only worry about what we can control. We should not obsess about how much time we waste, how much mental stress we experience by worrying about what never happens or worry about is something over which we just do not have control. In a similar vein, Epictetus also opined, “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

Inclinations, Normal Impulses and Unhealthy Passions

Early Stoics embraced the notion of God being a corporeal substance, pervading all things and maintaining the laws of causation. But we all have inclinations that are aligned with our natures.

For instance, if you were shaped like a tube and placed on an incline, you would be likely to roll downhill. However, we need to use practical wisdom to ensure we are not carried away by our inclinations. In a detailed article on Stoicism for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Dirk Baltzly, citing Galen, the third-century physician and philosopher whose theories influenced medicine until the 17th century,  gives the example of being inclined to run down a hill, but picking up so much speed that we cannot stop when we should.

I am sure that you can recall having issues because you got a bit too carried away with something you felt inclined to do. But it is important to differentiate between normal impulses and unhealthy passions. What happens to you is not in your control (for the most part), but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you. For instance, no amount of wishing can make the rain stop, but the right attitude can make being wet more bearable.

Stoicism Doesn’t Mean Becoming Emotionless

It is true that a primary goal of Stoics is to develop “apatheia,” but Stoics never meant to become completely emotionless. Pigliucci explains the goal of Stoics was to be “free from passions” but that “passions” did not mean the same thing to these early followers of Stoicism. Passions are more than emotions and can be divided into healthy and unhealthy types.

For instance, healthy and acceptable passions are caution, wishing and joy. Unhealthy passions are pain, fear, craving and irrational elation over something that is not worth choosing.

The key is that no matter what the world sends our way, we will use cardinal virtues to evaluate our reactions and then strive to respond in the best conceivable way. Stoics accept involuntary emotional responses, but they also promote courage and practical wisdom to analyze a situation and the proper response. Blurting out a few choice words for the person who cut you off is natural, but the virtues can stop it there and eliminate the possibility of road rage.

There is much more to Stoicism and much wisdom in it that can guide you to a life of more serenity and help you build more resilience. Stoicism can guide us to better thinking and decision making; it can also protect us from being slaves to irrational passions and getting carried away by fretting over things that truly do not matter. I encourage you to read the Enchiridion slowly and thoughtfully, and I believe most rational people will find it full of useful nuggets of wisdom.

Also, consider the Stoic promotion of philanthropy. It is important to know that you are not just here for yourself. As a member of a human community, you are here for all of the members of that community.

There may be no better advice than that offered by Pigliucci, who said that before taking any action, pause and ask yourself if what you want to do will be a benefit to humanity. If not, perhaps it is better to refrain from that action.

Stoicism is just one philosophy covered in a course on Ancient Philosophy (PHIL 302) offered by American Public University and is part of the requirements for completing a B.A. in philosophy. Personally, if you want to understand philosophy, it is necessary to explore the roots of Western philosophy, and that means studying Plato and Aristotle as well as Epictetus. But hopefully, as you can see here, these ancients were onto something as they laid out their philosophies for living the best life, then and now.

Dr. Steve Wyre received his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma and his Ed.D. from the University of Phoenix. He has been teaching various ground-based philosophy courses since 2000 and online since 2003. Steve has also served as a subject matter expert (SME) for courses in ancient philosophy, ethics, logic and several other areas.

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