A Stoic Manual for Pandemic Survival

For several years, I’ve been researching and writing about the life of Marcus Aurelius. In addition to being one of the more likeable…

How The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Teaches us to Cope

What if there was a manual that told you how to cope with the stress of living during a pandemic?

For several years, I’ve been researching and writing about the life of Marcus Aurelius. In addition to being one of the more likeable Roman emperors, Marcus happens to be the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. However, he spent the last fourteen years of his life dealing with one of the worst plagues in European history, which eventually killed him.

The Antonine Plague, as it’s known today, is given the cognomen or dynastic name that follows his family name, i.e., Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Most scholars believe that it was probably caused by a strain of the smallpox virus. It’s estimated to have killed up to five million people.

From 166 AD to around 180 AD, and perhaps beyond, cities and military camps across the empire suffered one outbreak of the virus after another. We know about it mainly from the writings of Galen, Marcus’ famous court physician, many of whose writings survive today. The Romans figured out that the disease was carried in the air they breathed because one of the main symptoms, an ulcerating rash, typically appeared at the back of the throat before breaking out on the face and body. However, they had no idea how to prevent the spread of infection. Apart from making sacrifices to Apollo, the god of plague, their answer was to burn incense everywhere in an effort to purify the contaminated air. That didn’t help. Their historians describe entire towns and villages being depopulated and turning to ruins. Rome itself was particularly badly affected, and carts left the city piled high with bodies being removed for burial every day.

In the middle of this plague, Marcus wrote a book which today we call The Meditations. The earliest surviving manuscript was actually titled To Himself, because it records the moral and psychological advice he gave himself at this time. Although he only mentions the plague explicitly once in these writings, he frequently applies Stoic philosophy to the challenges of coping with pain, illness, anxiety, and loss. Marcus didn’t survive the plague named after him. He was (probably) one of its victims. However, we can certainly learn from the way he coped, for over a decade, with daily life under these pressures.

It’s no stretch of the imagination to view The Meditations as an ancient training manual for developing precisely those mental resilience skills required to get through a pandemic.

The Stoic Guidance

There’s a lot of advice in The Meditations. It’s based upon the central ethical doctrine of Stoicism: virtue is the only true good. In plain English, the Stoics believed that the most important thing in life is a kind of moral wisdom. This forms the basis of “virtues” or character traits such as justice, kindness, fairness, courage, and self-discipline — the sort of qualities we often admire in other people.

Authentic happiness (eudaimonia) consists in the sort of genuine fulfilment that comes from making an effort to live in accord with core values such as these. That has to be distinguished from the superficial sense of happiness we get from sensory pleasures or from being praised by other people. The majority of us spend our lives pursuing “external” goods, as the Stoics call them — things like health, wealth, and reputation. Socrates, the godfather of ancient Stoicism, had long ago argued that these things can’t be good in themselves, though. For example, wealth might appear to be good when it’s used wisely. However, in the hands of a tyrant, someone vicious and foolish, wealth becomes more of a bad thing because it enables them to do more harm to themselves and others.

The foundation stone of Stoic ethics is therefore the idea that wealth, and other such things, are at best external advantages or opportunities. They don’t constitute the real goal of life, though, as they can be used either wisely or foolishly. Wealth is the most obvious example, perhaps. Misers love money and view it as an end in itself. The wise view money as merely a means to an end, worthless in its own right. It’s easy to lose sight of that, though.

The Stoics recognized that health is a more challenging example. However, the health and fitness of a serial killer or a genocidal dictator isn’t really a good thing. It just allows them to live longer, and do more evil things with their lives. Health and long life give us more opportunity to act according to our own moral character, whether good or bad. The Stoics thought it was rational to “prefer” health over sickness but the wise can potentially benefit from either. You’d be surprised how many people say that, paradoxically, a brush with death, either through illness or some dangerous situation, transformed them for the better and made them more grateful and appreciative of life.

The Dichotomy of Control

The practice of Stoicism entails many psychological techniques to help its followers remind themselves of this basic moral truth and apply it to specific situations. First of all, because our true good resides in our own character and actions, Stoics frequently remind themselves to distinguish between what’s “up to us” and what isn’t in any given situation. Modern Stoics tend to call this “The Dichotomy of Control” and many people find this distinction alone helpful in alleviating stress. What happens to me is never directly under my control, never completely up to me, but my own thoughts and actions are — at least the voluntary ones. The pandemic isn’t really under my control but the way I behave in response to it is. Keeping this distinction clear helps Stoics to let go of worry about things they can’t control. It also encourages them to focus upon, and take more responsibility for, their own actions.

Cognitive Therapy

“It’s not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them”, more specifically our judgement that something is really bad, awful, or even catastrophic. This is one of the basic psychological principles of Stoicism. It’s also the basic premise of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of psychotherapy. Indeed, the pioneers of CBT, Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, both describe Stoicism as the original philosophical inspiration for their approach. Our actions are up to us but so is much, if not all, of our thinking. Stoics take responsibility for their value judgements and avoid fusing them with external events, remaining mindful of the way our thinking shapes our emotions. It’s not the virus that makes us afraid, for instance, but rather our opinions about it. Neither is it the inconsiderate actions of others, such as partygoers ignoring social distancing recommendations, that makes us angry but rather our opinions about them.

Modelling Coping

Many people are struck, on reading The Meditations, by the fact that it opens with a chapter in which Marcus lists in considerable detail the qualities he most admires in other individuals, about seventeen friends, members of his family, and teachers. This is an extended example, though, of one of the central practices of Stoicism. Marcus likes to ask himself “What virtue has nature given me to deal with this situation?” In modern psychotherapy we might ask “What resources do you have that might help you to cope with the pandemic?” That naturally leads to the question “How do other people cope with similar challenges?” Stoics reflect on strengths (“virtues”) such as patience, self-discipline, planning, which potentially make them more resilient in the face of adversity. They try to exemplify these character traits and bring them to bear on the challenges they face in daily life, during a crisis like the pandemic. They learn from how other people cope — whether they’re friends, family members, colleagues, or strangers. Even historical figures or fictional characters can potentially serve as role models.

Marcus’ Teachers

Marcus specifically mentions how two of his role models coped with illness, possibly the plague. He meditates on the way his foremost Stoic teacher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, remained exactly the same man, unfazed and unshaken, during severe pain and long illness. Apollonius showed Marcus how to act decisively, guided by reason, while nevertheless remaining relaxed about external events beyond his direct control. Another of Marcus’ personal tutors, a highly-accomplished Roman statesman called Claudius Maximus, taught him how to be self-reliant and remain cheerful during a terminal illness. Marcus was clearly affected by the “invincible character” exhibited by this tough Stoic and veteran military commander as he lay dying. Elsewhere Marcus thanks the gods that he was fortunate enough to have known Apollonius and Maximus personally. They provided him with real flesh-and-blood examples of virtue and a template for applying Stoicism as a way of life.

Contrasting Consequences

With all of this in mind, it’s easier to understand another common slogan of Stoicism: fear does us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid. This applies to unhealthy emotions in general, which the Stoics term “passions” — from pathos, the source of our word “pathological”. It’s true, first of all, in a superficial sense. Even if you have a 99% chance, or more, of surviving the pandemic, worry and anxiety may be ruining your life and driving you crazy. In extreme cases some people may even take their own lives because of the distress. In that respect, it’s easy to see how fear can do us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid because it can impinge on our physical health and quality of life.

However, this saying also has a deeper meaning for Stoics. The virus can only harm your body — the worst it can do is kill you. However, fear penetrates into the very core of our being. It can destroy your humanity if you let it. For the Stoics that’s a fate worse than death. To live in bondage to fear is no life at all. Accepting the fact of our own mortality and overcoming our fear of death is, according to the philosopher Seneca, the secret not only of mental resilience but also personal freedom. As he put it, to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave.

Memento Mori

During a pandemic, in other words, you may have to confront the risk, the possibility, of your own death. Since the day you were born, that’s always been on the cards, though. Most of us find it easier to bury our heads in the sand. Avoidance is the #1 most popular coping strategy in the world. We live in denial of the most obvious fact about human nature: we all die eventually. The Stoics believed that when we’re really confronted with our own mortality, and grasp its implications, that can change our perspective on life quite dramatically. Any one of us could die at any moment and even if we make it through another day, life doesn’t go on forever. The emperor liked to muse that even celebrated physicians, such as Galen, who have saved the lives of many others, all die eventually themselves.

We’re told this was what Marcus was thinking about on his deathbed. As he lay dying, according to one historian, his circle of friends were distraught. Marcus, though, calmly asked why they were weeping for him when, in fact, they should accept both sickness and death as inevitable, part of nature and the 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.”

The Meaning of Death

Even Alexander the Great, says Marcus, and his mule-driver, were both brought to the same level by death. That painful realization could lead to moral nihilism. However, for the Stoics, coming to terms with our own mortality is the existential challenge we must face in order to achieve moral wisdom. The meaning of life doesn’t reside in external events but rather in the use we make of them.

The pandemic could strip everything we possess from us, even our own lives. Nevertheless, it’s up to us to decide how we respond to the crisis. Will we behave like the sort of people we criticize or those we admire?

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