Stoicism and the Coronavirus Pandemic by Kit Hildyard

‘To be, or not to be, that,’ states the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘is the question.’ By the end of Shakespeare’s celebrated tale of vengeance and insanity, it had become, for many of the play’s characters – including Hamlet himself – a case of ‘not to be.’ Hamlet’s slide into depression and paranoia is prefaced by the loss of his father, King Hamlet, and ends with his own death at the hands of the courtier Laertes.

Roman Emperor (and Stoic philosopher) Marcus Aurelius preferred a more detached and merciful approach to rulership than the fictional Prince Hamlet, vowing never to execute a senator, and ruling alongside his adoptive brother Lucius Verus – this marked the first point in Roman history during which the Empire had been ruled by multiple emperors, a trend that subsequently became increasingly common.

Marcus died of plague in AD 180 while on a campaign in what is now Austria. He died, according to psychotherapist and writer Donald Robertson in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (St Martin’s Press, 2019), ‘wheezing … just a feeble old man.’ Robertson adds that as Marcus slipped into death, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection on the polished surface of a statuette of the goddess Fortuna, focusing on the reflected image of himself as a means to contemplate and come to terms with his own mortality; after all, as Robertson puts it, ‘King and pauper alike, the same fate ultimately awaits everyone…’

The coronavirus pandemic – like other outbreaks of disease throughout history – emerged unexpectedly, and its socio-political and economic consequences are uncertain. In such times, faced with an invisible but sometimes fatal enemy (Covid-19), maintaining a stiff upper lip might seem – alongside adhering to measures such as government-mandated lockdowns – the most sensible path to take. Stoicism, however, denotes an entire school of philosophy, a system of values going beyond mere passivity in the face of external hardships.

It is true that Stoic literature such as Marcus’ Meditations offers advice such as ‘Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.’ However, Stoicism is about more than staying calm during a crisis. Stoicism as practiced by adherents such as Marcus encompasses a love of truth, respect for values such as justice, fairness, and reason, and living life in accordance with Nature.

We often seek to order and control our surroundings, including the natural world; perhaps, instead, we should heed Marcus’ advice: ‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.’ The survival instinct is hardwired into humans, and it would seem both perplexing – and morally objectionable – to take no action in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Armed with a modern understanding of science and the ability to create – albeit not for some time yet – a vaccine, governments do need to implement temporary measures to reduce the death toll from coronavirus; the action that most governments worldwide have taken has been to tell most of their citizens to do as little as possible – to stay at home and venture out only for essential reasons such as to buy food or to take limited amounts of exercise.

One can only assume that Marcus, were he in the shoes of Boris Johnson, would implement measures similar to those put in place by the Prime Minister – such as social distancing and a nationwide lockdown. Just as Marcus demonstrated clemency towards Roman senators – a reflection of his desire to be viewed as a merciful and just emperor (a ‘philosopher-king’) – it seems likely that he would take steps to preserve the health of his citizens in the face of a public health crisis if governing modern-day Britain.

At the same time, Marcus recognised that, as he put it in Meditations, ‘All is ephemeral’ – we cannot raise ourselves above Nature or aspire towards immortality. If the author Yuval Noah Harari was right in his Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harvill Secker, 2016) to claim that, in the twentieth century, humanity essentially overcame war, plague and famine, and that, in the twenty-first century, we will probably attain bliss, immortality, and divinity, the coronavirus pandemic has successfully demonstrated that we are not quite there yet.

Covid-19 has far greater mortality rates than seasonal flu. Faced not only with the reality of the closure of pubs, restaurants, and cafes, but also with the prospect of death, Marcus’ calm, detached grace in the face of death itself (as I mentioned above, Marcus died due to a plague outbreak) offers much solace in extremely testing times. In Meditations, Marcus wrote of going ‘to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in its season, with a blessing for the earth.’

While this might seem like a demanding prescription, Stoicism, it seems to me, could offer succour to families who are anxious or suffering during the current pandemic – Marcus’ writings put our passing woes into an almost cosmic perspective, reminding us that our presence on earth is fleeting. He achieves this using straightforward, soft, and beautiful prose, replete with metaphors – this is practical philosophy at its best, and its ability to offer reassurance in the face of great obstacles (which, invariably, will pass) and great suffering (which shall also pass) is timeless.

These same ideas relating to the ephemerality of all things and the constant state of flux in which we find ourselves can offer reassurance not only in the face of the universally shared certainty of eventually dying but also in light of the widespread boredom, anxiety, and isolation that have taken root during the pandemic. ‘When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love,’ Marcus implores us – irrespective of curfews and stay-at-home orders, we can continue to revel in such simple pleasures.  

In times when pasta and loo roll are in short supply (a symptom of anxiety-induced ‘panic buying’), and public figures condemn stockpiling as being ‘shameful,’ we might also be cognisant of the classical exhortation ‘Everything in moderation.’ As Robertson notes, referring to the thought of Socrates in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, ‘Hunger is the best relish … whereas if we overeat we spoil our appetites.’ It has perhaps never been easier – and more useful – to adopt a Stoic outlook than in these times of state-enforced moderation.

Combatting isolation has been of concern to various UK administrations, now more than ever. In my part of Waltham Forest in East London, community groups have sprung up to combat this problem, delivering food packages to the neediest and most vulnerable, those too frail or too at-risk of complications should they contract the virus for it to remain prudent for them to undertake their shopping themselves. For those truly alone during this time, the adoption of an outlook informed by Stoicism could be a panacea to the most uncomfortable feelings of boredom and extreme solitude brought about by state-imposed self-isolation, even if it might not – realistically – cause those quite understandable feelings to vanish entirely.

As the pandemic grinds on, countries across the world will gradually reach, and later move past, the peak periods of infection and mortality (this process itself amply captures the transience inherent in all things that Stoics such as Marcus stress in their writings). The lockdowns, curfews, and even social distancing measures will gradually be lifted. But what will the world look like, from a Stoic perspective, once the crisis has receded? Will the crisis lead to an efflorescence or a contraction of Stoic values? Will the world grow in reason and wisdom, or become a more unreasoned and divided place?

Following the First World War (incidentally, the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 – 20 caused many more fatalities than the War itself), the League of Nations was established, part of an unsuccessful effort to prevent another global conflict. The League stressed self-determination for sovereign states in addition to internationalist cooperation. Similarly, the current pandemic requires a blend of solutions implemented at both national and international levels.

Guided by scientific evidence, it is down to sovereign states to decide upon whether it is necessary to implement lockdowns, and for how long. However, the pandemic is truly global in nature; as such, worldwide cooperation is needed in order to ensure that new cycles of infection do not take place, to roll out (eventually) a vaccine and, until such time as a vaccine is developed, to share medical expertise and, where possible, equipment, and the results of scientific research internationally. The United Nations (the League’s successor) has had considerably greater success in achieving its objectives than its predecessor.

In the case of the current pandemic, we simply must prevent further global conflagrations. The costs of a breakdown in communication between the national and the international, the local and the global would be too great – indeed, such failure would lead to further cycles of infection, and excessive, preventable economic damage. History teaches us that our global clout to combat the virus must be greater than the clout that the League was able to apply to avert the Second World War.

Stoicism, as I mentioned earlier, is about more than maintaining a stiff upper lip; rather, it encapsulates a wide set of values. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Robertson distinguishes between ‘stoicism’ (a vernacular term essentially referring to developing toughness in response to adversity) and the rich tradition of Stoicism itself. The universality of Stoicism offers us abiding wisdom, and implores us to live virtuously in accordance with reason and Nature. It seems reasonable to suggest that Stoicism offers humanity solutions for combatting the virus collectively, on the level of public policy.

The Stoic exhortation to deploy reason offers, if followed, hope that we might reach a wise and sensible solution to handling Covid-19, one which draws upon scientific evidence, and which balances national initiatives with internationalist, universalist cooperation. This approach would not utilise geopolitical one-upmanship reminiscence of the Cold War era but a combination of national and international approaches. It would recognise that, while death is inevitable, it should not be embraced; Stoicism teaches us to live in accordance with Nature, but this does not diminish its emphasis upon justice, fairness, and compassion. Delivering such abstract virtues presumably involves (from a public policy perspective) catalysing robust public health campaigns in the short-term and working to build more virtuous societies in the post-pandemic era.

It seems too soon to discern whether, once the pandemic has subsided, the world will have become a fairer, more compassionate, and more just place. References by some politicians to the ‘Wuhan virus’ have not been conducive towards fostering worldwide cooperation. Jingoism has also been apparent in some quarters, an unhelpful antidote to a global public health crisis.

More mundanely, around twenty people (ranging from the young to the elderly) gathered in Coventry for a barbecue party, in contravention of regulations prohibiting more than two people from different households from assembling together – undoubtedly a less extravagant affair than the hedonistic bashes thrown by Lucius Verus, the barbecue party nevertheless attracted the attention of the police, who decided to tip over the barbecue. Subsequently sharing an image of the tipped-over barbecue on social media, the police seemed to be implicitly criticising the less-than-Stoical attitude of the event-goers – while others were duly observing the new restrictions, and enduring their more straitened circumstances with composure, the barbecue-goers preferred immoderation and the satisfaction of their short-term desires to either maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity or pursuing virtue.

However, virtuous acts and policies have been observable throughout the pandemic, ranging from the zeal with which hundreds of thousands of people signed up to volunteer to help the overburdened NHS to new measures brought in to house homeless people. The pandemic has evidently unleashed both virtuous and unvirtuous responses – Stoicism would not advocate the irrational overreaction of ‘panic buying’ but, in its emphasis on compassion and fairness, it would applaud initiatives such as extending government support to those worst hit by the virus.

The world was changing rapidly prior to the advent of Covid-19. Some trends, such as the growth of ‘Big Tech,’ and the continuing development of artificial intelligence (AI), are likely to continue apace. One area in which China has taken the lead has been in implementing biometric surveillance measures to combat the virus – this, in tandem with the application of lockdowns, enables governments and public health authorities to track new infections more effectively. If a Stoic leader would wish to improve public health during a pandemic, what might be problematic with so-called ‘under the skin’ surveillance measures such as these, and how ought those forced to comply with them respond? Stoicism promotes the pursuit of virtue, whereas, troublingly, biometric surveillance could grow into authoritarianism.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019), Shoshana Zuboff laments the growth of so-called ‘surveillance capitalism,’ under which a seductive mixture of advertising, ‘behavioural futures markets,’ and facial recognition cameras insidiously predict, and later control our every move. Extending such ideas to the medical sphere, what starts as monitoring body temperatures, blood pressure, and heart rates could lead – if deployed nefariously – to mass data harvesting by both corporations and governments, allowing them to know more about the everyday person than at any previous point in history. As Shylock asks in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you tickle us do we not laugh?’ Biometrical surveillance could provide individually tailored answers to this supposedly rhetorical question. This would seem to constitute a distinctly unvirtuous scenario, an unreasonable incursion into the realm of human freedoms.

Biometrical surveillance might improve health outcomes to some extent, but at a cost to human liberty beyond that necessary effectively to take on and overcome the pandemic. Influenced by the collectivist traditions of Confucianism, and the statism of Communism, China’s citizens appear to have accepted biometrical surveillance without much complaint. If biometrical surveillance is deployed more widely – as part of a coordinated global response to tackling Covid-19 – perhaps it should be meekly accepted? Even if Stoicism might permit us to accept such measures, self-sacrifice should not come at the expense of eschewing the pursuit of virtue. In this instance, it seems that the potential for biometrical surveillance to develop into a ‘slippery slope’ towards excessive surveillance by both governments and corporations could outweigh the health benefits that it might confer.

In his Meditations, Marcus writes that ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’ As state-imposed lockdowns resulting from the fear of Covid-19 affect billions of people worldwide, many of us are freshly considering how best to live. Most of those infected by the virus suffer only mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. While the virus has already caused a tragically large number of deaths worldwide, it is not, strictly speaking, rational for most people to fear (at least on a personal level) its potential deadliness. Although the coronavirus pandemic has led some to feel more bored, anxious, and inert, it also heralds a chance for humanity to rediscover the value of Stoicism.

As a practical school of philosophy, Stoicism offers individuals valuable insights into how to approach with forbearance crises such as our current public health emergency. It can aid both individuals and governments wishing to pursue a more virtuous path. Ultimately, whatever the longer-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Stoicism and vice versa, we can rest assured that Marcus’ Meditations has insight into how best we might deal with the new world that emerges: ‘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.’ Stoicism, then, offers wisdom and advice that seem particularly useful in the current climate. We would do well to make use of it.

Kit Hildyard has degrees in history and Modern South Asian Studies from Trinity College, Cambridge, and a Graduate Diploma in Law from City Law School. He has worked in both South Asian art and law, and is co-founder and Partner of legal services business Hildyard & Clifford LLP. In addition to Stoicism, he enjoys travel, spending time in the countryside, and music. He lives in East London.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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