Stoicism in Action After Lockdown by Christopher Gill

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Christopher Gill, one of the founders of Modern Stoicism, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

I want to talk about how Stoicism can help us deal with the pandemic, both under lockdown with the current restrictions in our various countries and afterwards, when, as we hope, we go back to normal – or what people are calling ‘the new normal’. The ideas in this post are similar to themes in this year’s Stoic Week handbook which focused on the theme of “Stoicism during a pandemic”.

Although the pandemic has been very difficult for many people, there have been some positives. Some of us at least have been forced by the situation to behave in more Stoic way. We have shown more resilience in the face of problems. We have acted in a more neighbourly and public-spirited way, helping others around us who are more badly affected than us. And we have also behaved, especially early in lockdown, in a more environmentally responsible way, with less car-driving and big reductions in flying, with its big carbon footprint, and significant improvements in air quality.

But what happens next, as we go on dealing with the pandemic or as things are eased? Does all this Stoic behaviour go by the board as we get back to normal or get used to the situation? I hope not. The current crisis gives all of us a chance to re-assess the way we behave and bring our actions closer to our ideals and aspirations. Stoicism provides a framework that can enable us to act in this way deliberately and consistently and not just as a response to the pressure of the pandemic and lockdown.

How can Stoicism help us take forward some of the best features of lockdown? First, by practising some of the Stoic ‘exercises’ on a regular basis. And, second, by reflecting on Stoic ethical ideas underlying those exercises. I’ll focus on three themes: promoting resilience, neighbourliness and a sense of community, and environmental responsibility.

In this way, as we put it in the current ‘Stoic Week Handbook’, Stoicism can help us to take care of ourselves, other people, and our world.

First Topic and First Exercise: Resilience and The Dichotomy of Control

What can promote resilience? Exercising “the dichotomy of control” – distinguishing between what is and is not within our control and focusing on doing properly what we can actually determine and accepting that a great deal does not fall within our power.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and in a word whatever is of our own doing; not in our power are our body, our property, reputation, status, and in a word whatever is not of our own doing

Epictetus, Handbook 1

Distinguishing the two types of things is crucial for making proper choices, managing emotions, and responding to difficult and troubling situations with resilience. Marcus Aurelius gives a beautiful illustration of this point, as he urges himself to respond to the kind of setbacks we call ‘bad luck’:

Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest about it. “It is my bad luck that this has happened to me”. On the contrary,  say, “It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future … Surely what has happened cannot prevent you from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, thoughtful, self-respecting, free, and the other qualities whose presence enables human nature to maintain its character.

Meditations 4.49

In other words, what is within our power is to try to practise the virtues; what is not in our power is to avoid all the problems and difficulties we call ‘bad luck’.

So how does this help us in the pandemic and afterwards? One of the disturbing things about the pandemic is that there is so much in the situation that none of us can control that it is easy to fall into panic or despair. This makes it even more pressing to try to distinguish between what we can and cannot control. In fact, even in this situation there are some things that we can all do and that fall within our power: following government rules or medical advice about social distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks, avoiding social gatherings and so on. This may seem little enough; but if this advice is consistently followed, as it has been in some countries with far fewer fatalities than the UK or USA, for instance, it can help to keep the virus at bay, and thus extend the scope of what falls within our collective power.

Also, if we accept the situation in realistic but rational way, we can work out strategies for carrying on doing things that we think are important, for our work, our well-being, and that of our families and friends, even though what we can do is different from what we did before. If we can do this consistently, then, like Marcus Aurelius, we can turn bad luck into good luck; we can turn a difficult situation into one in which we can work towards expressing the virtues, especially the four classic virtues recognized by Stoicism: wisdom, courage, justice and self-control. In fact, there have been some outstanding examples of courageous and other-benefiting action during the pandemic, especially by health-workers risking or losing their lives; but although we may not all be moral heroes, we can try to exercise virtue in our own sphere of life. Recognizing the distinction between what is and is not within our power is the first move in this process and the key to finding resilience in the pandemic and after it.

Second Topic: Promoting Neighbourliness and a Sense of the Human Community

Another positive feature of people’s behaviour under lockdown has been a revived sense of neighbourliness: shut up in their houses and apartments, some people have been more aware of the people around them and more ready to be friendly and helpful to them. Also, we have been forcibly reminded how interdependent we are, in our communities, our countries and indeed globally. Our state of health, whether or not we get infected, has depended on the behaviour of others, just as their chance of being infected has depended on how we act. This sense of community is something that has been forced on us by the situation. But, again, Stoicism can provide a framework for building on this positive feature and doing so in a considered and rational way.

People interested in applying Stoicism to their lives sometimes stress only the fact that it enables you to be resilient as an individual, to work for your own peace of mind, and to create what Marcus Aurelius calls ‘the inner citadel’ (Meditations 8.48). And that is one side of Stoicism, as I have just illustrated: it provides the basis for taking care of yourself. But the ancient Stoics also stressed the social, other-related side of human life. They regarded human beings as the kind of animals who are, fundamentally, both rational and sociable. They saw care for others as an in-built human motive, as natural to us as the instinct to care for ourselves. The best way to care for oneself, in the Stoic view, is to develop the virtues and work towards a happiness based on that; and that is also, as they see it, the best way to express your instinct to care for others. Here is an exercise often used in the Stoic Week handbook to promote a sense of community, based on advice offered by the Stoic Hierocles (A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge 1987 = LS 57 G).

Second Exercise: Contracting the Circles of Relationship.

Think of yourself as being at the centre of a series of circles of relationship: your immediate family; then your extended family; then friends, neighbours and work-colleagues; members of the same neighbourhood or organisation; those living in the same city or region; members of the same nation; foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers. Work on trying to reduce the circles, giving to the outer circle the same importance and emotional weight you would give to the one inside it. For instance, treat neighbours like friends or family members; foreigners like fellow-citizens, work-colleagues like members of your family; try giving the outer circle the same names that you would give the one inside (so foreigners become ‘fellow-Brits’ or fellow-Australians or fellow-Americans).

How can this exercise help us during the pandemic or as things ease, and we work out what should count as ‘the new normal’? In thinking about this topic, we need to take it alongside the first topic, on what is and is not in our power. Many of our normal patterns of relationship with family, friends, and work-colleagues have become difficult or impossible, and we are all having to work out what is and is not in our power, and how to maintain our relationships under difficult circumstances.

What Hierocles’ circles offer is, first of all, a kind of mental map of our patterns of relationship, even if we are not in close physical contact even with those in the inner circles. This mental map may be helpful in counteracting a sense of isolation in the present situation: these circles exist even if we are not in direct contact with people we care about. Also, Hierocles’ advice about contracting the circles can help us to think more creatively about the relationships that we can do something about.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help in putting this exercise into practice. Are there specific, achievable ways in which we can make more of our relationships at present than we normally do? Can we give more practical or emotional help to our neighbours than we usually do? Can we cooperate more closely than usual with our work-colleagues, for instance, in working out with them and our employers, if we are able to do so, the best work-patterns now and after the pandemic? Can we contribute to trying to create a framework for work and home life that is better suited to living a well-balanced and humane way of life? As we think about these questions, it is worth trying to keep hold of the awareness we have now that we are very much part of a larger human community in our country and world-wide. Let us use that awareness to counteract narrowness of outlook and concern and to remember that, as the Stoics believed, we are all part of the same human family and co-citizens of the world that we share. (See LS 57 F, Cicero, On Ends 3.62-8.)

Third Topic: Promoting Environmental Responsibility

During the early stages of the pandemic, especially, many of us found we were forced to behave in a more sustainable way. There was less car-use, less commuting and less leisure travel, and much less flying. As a result, there was a significant reduction in CO2 emissions, which are a major factor in global warming and climate breakdown, and a big improvement in air pollution in and around cities. It wasn’t by itself enough to keep emissions down to a sustainable level. As environmentalists keep telling us, we need to do all we can to keep global warming down to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels (that is, to go further than the 2 degrees target of the 2015 Paris accords) and we need to introduce measures to bring this about as soon as possible.

Although the worst effects of climate breakdown will come later in the century, the window of opportunity for effective reduction in global warming is very short, if we are to have any realistic chance of preventing those consequences. We need to do this in a more systematic, world-wide way than we have done under the pandemic; and it will involve large-scale changes in how we all act as well as technological advances. However, the pandemic has shown that, if people really see the need for action, they can change their behaviour on a world-wide basis and do so very quickly.

What does all this have to do with Stoicism, you might say? Isn’t global warming, like the pandemic, one of the things that lies outside our power to control and that we can just have to accept? I don’t think this is right, although it is true that the time-scale for effective environmental action is very tight. I think we have good Stoic reasons for wanting to live more sustainable lives and to encourage our communities and governments to act constructively and quickly. Stoicism tells us that our happiness in life depends on living in accordance with the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and self-control. For a modern Stoic, I don’t think we can say that we are trying to act virtuously if we don’t do everything in our power to respond to the most important shared problem facing us today, with potential effects much more wide-ranging and severe than the current pandemic.

Also, Stoicism stresses the idea that human beings are, fundamentally, part of the natural world, and that we should try and live our lives in accordance with the order which is in-built in the natural world as it is in us. Marcus conveys this idea powerfully:

One should always keep in mind these things: what the nature of the whole is, and what my nature is, and how my nature is related to that of the whole, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole, and that no one can prevent me from always doing and saying what is in accordance with nature, of which I am a part

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.9

Acting in an environmentally sustainable way helps us to do what Marcus is urging himself to do, that is, ‘acting in accordance with nature, of which I am a part’. Stoics believe that the world and universe have an in-built order and structure. Even though as moderns, we may not share the Stoic worldview in other respects, we too can see global warming as a breakdown of the natural order, with terrible implications for human beings as well as other animals and plants. So a Stoic response is to use the rationality that forms a crucial part of our shared human capacities, in doing what we can to contribute to preserving the natural environment of which we form an integral part.

What, in practical terms, does this involve? Let’s take a simple example, booking a mini-break holiday flight for our family to an attractive but distant overseas destination, involving unnecessary CO2 emissions and contributing to global warming. Of course, at the moment this might not actually be possible; but it can be one of the things we are looking forward to after the pandemic. However, in Stoic terms, this is not a good idea, for several reasons.

If we did this, we would be failing to exercise the four cardinal virtues. We would not be acting wisely or with good judgement, in the light of the environmental damage. We would also not be acting justly, in that our actions would have a harmful effect on the environment for other people as well as ourselves, people whom we should be seeing as fellow-members of the family of humankind. Instead, we could act in a way that falls within our power, and plan a holiday that does not involve flying or much travel at all, and which also enables us to explore our own area and find out what it has to offer. Doing so might take courage, having the courage of our convictions, even if disappoints family or friends looking forward to the trip. It would also involve exercising self-control or moderation, as we give up something pleasurable we are looking forward to.

(On Stoicism and the environment, see the Stoicism Today blog archive, specifically Kai Whiting’s piece on “Stoicism and Sustainability” and my posts on “Stoicism and the Environment” and (with Gabriele Galluzzo) “Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility”.)

So overall here are three things we can do as modern Stoics during and after the pandemic:  

  • Work on building up resilience by distinguishing what is and is not in our power and by trying to develop the virtues, something that falls within the power of all of us.
  • Aim to keep up your neighbourliness and sense of community by trying to contract the circles of your relationships and seeing all human beings as brothers and sisters and fellow-citizens in the universe
  • Aim to lead a more environmentally responsible life by thinking of yourself as an integral part of nature as a whole and by working to maintain and preserve the order of nature.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

2 thoughts on Stoicism in Action After Lockdown by Christopher Gill

  1. Nora Sullivan says:

    Agreed. Stoicism was made for times like these.

  2. Terrance Black says:

    Yes, stoicism (and science), is perfect for times like these. I believe protecting the environment is very much in line with the stated principles.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.