Unbelievable what a virus can do to people! We have, of course, responded totally inadequately from a practical perspective. It is safe to say for the vast majority of governments across the globe, if not all of them, that we were by no means prepared for a pandemic of such (for lack of a better word) unprecedented proportions. But I venture to say we were just as inadequately prepared psychologically and philosophically, and this has to do with the overall conception that life tends to go well and run smoothly. That “go” is the default setting. The reason we feel our lives have been rocked so dramatically off balance is because we are so rooted in stability, regularity and routine.
It is also characteristic of our modern society that we expect things not only to go well, but also to go our way. Many of those who currently do not find themselves in the worst positions, or positions significantly altered by the pandemic, are complaining about this situation in the context of their personal losses; holidays we so looked forward to now gone, scheduled parties cancelled, plans of aimless leisure ruined.
Of course, it’s natural such annoyances cause frustration, but publicly and aggressively expressing irritation when these are problems literally everyone on the planet is currently facing, and when an unknown illness and catastrophic amounts of unnecessary death lie just outside of the houses in which many of us comfortably hide, is at best quite useless. Not to mention, somewhat insensitive and narrow-minded.
Though I do not seek to diminish anyone’s struggle and recognise the severity of this crisis is not felt the same way by everyone, I also recognise the audience I am likely reaching. Those unlucky enough to be suffering with coronavirus have been taken to Guy’s Hospital but I, having expertly diagnosed us all with “woe-is-me” disorder, am going to take you to the soul hospital, better known as Philosophy. With a great many of us talking about gratitude in a very important way, I’d like to bring into this discussion of gratitude a modernised perspective of an ancient school of thought: The Stoic school.
Stoicism was kick-started by Zeno of Citium, c. 332-265 BC, and consequently grew in popularity in the Roman Empire, infamously run by a slew of pragmatic authoritarians, until it was broadly supplanted by 6th century Christianity. Zeno studied with a disciple of Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of the Cynics, and thus inherited a very no-nonsense approach to ethics. Without getting too technical, here are some of the key premises that lay at the heart of his theories:
no one is forced to pursue a “good” life, but the majority of us are quite interested in pursuing a happy one,
a Supreme Lawgiver (comparable to the classical Christian God) has predetermined our fate, but the capacity to reason with which we have been blessed (presumably by the aforementioned Lawgiver) exists for us to be able to exercise our free will on a micro-level and allow this predetermined fate to work through us,
and, crucially: external events and commodities are not inherently good or bad - we subconsciously attribute badness and goodness to such things, using our internal judgements and subsequently reacting.
Image: Issabella Orlando (2020)
Happiness is presumably the opposite of unhappiness. Our unhappiness, and all deeply rooted emotions that we associate with badness, are self-provoked; we semi-consciously choose to attribute badness to an event over which we had no control, and allow our emotions to dwell within us, to chip away at our happiness.
“Human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when in fact we don’t.”
Zeno and his fellow Stoics encourage us to put aside the things which we have little to no control over and avoid dwelling on negative feelings that have come about as a result of external happenings that are innately value-neutral. They encourage us to trust that the Lawgiver has chosen us to deal with such negative feelings and face such adversity with the aim of training us; to alleviate some frustration, we must believe any so-deemed negative events make their way into our lives because we are especially strong and thus very capable of dealing with them. Doing so leads to a life that is in harmony with nature in all its aspects, ‘bad or good’, and in accordance with the rulings of the Lawgiver.
So, first of all, we must release all the frustrations we hold towards coronavirus and its consequences on our individual lives. Think about how small you are, how small all of us are.
“What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allocated to each of us - and this is soon vanished in eternity; what a tiny part of the universal substance and the universal soul; how tiny in the whole earth the mere clod on which you creep.”
- Marcus Aurelius
What could you have possibly done to change the course of history up to this point and avoid coronavirus ruining your summer plans? Nothing, you could not have done a singular thing. Take solace in the fact, revel in your powerlessness. Do your doodles, paint your pots, read your books, creep around your clod.
“Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man.” - Seneca
Our buddy Seneca here brings me to my second point; yes, there is the future to think about. But we MUST stop worrying about it and we must stop obsessively looking forward to it.
“Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present...neither long for nor fear the next day”
To live, we must un-preoccupy (sic) ourselves. Specifically, the preambular phrases “When all of this blows over…” and “When things go back to normal…” should disappear from our regular speech. The reality of it is, this is not simply going to ‘blow’ over and things are not going to go ‘back’ to something we recognise. Whenever we happen to resolve the health-threat component of this crisis, we will have to face the immense amounts of suffering and destruction it leaves in its wake. It will take some time for us to return to any semblance of normality. This, I find, is the most difficult thing to face - the unknown future, our inability to plan, predict and prepare. For this, Marcus Aurelius advises we take part in a process of laying out “the premeditations of future evils” - he used to wake up each morning and think not of all the things he had to look forward to in his day, but rather all the ways in which things could go wrong, so as to make anything that went well a happy coincidence.
I made the mistake of buying a 2020/21 academic diary, but I do not recommend doing the same. Expect nothing of the future. Expect this to last quite a while longer, doubt that King’s will open its doors in September or that they will open in the same way at all, at least during our time here. This way, if by some stroke of luck or miracle of Gaia, we can be released back into the wild of the Borough pub scene in the more imminent future, it will be a pleasant surprise.
I will add one last bit to the Stoics’ thought, and suggest we also stop doting on the past. The only moment we have real control over is the present one and wishing it were something it is not, won't make it so. Choose to react in a way that makes you happiest and stop bloody whining on twitter!!
For more help from the Soul Doctors:
Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor