The Wisdom of a Greek Slave and a Roman Emperor: Borrowing from Stoic Philosophy to Make it Through a Pandemic.

Living through a pandemic has forced me to take a new look at coping, particularly since my life has been spared many of the things fate can throw at you: wars, loss of a career, severe illness. I was not really prepared mentally for living through a pandemic, but I have always looked at philosophy to help me live better – by reading and extracting interesting ideas that I can try out. Let me introduce you to a few practical points that I gleaned from Stoicism as a way of coping with our current pandemic. 

The most well-known Stoic philosophers were a motley crew – ranging from a former slave (Epictetus) to a counselor of the infamous ruler Nero (Seneca the Younger) and finally a Roman Emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius). While the world has changed since they lived 2000 years ago, their insights feel surprisingly modern – perhaps because they focus on how to actively and practically cope with emotions that adversity and suffering engender in all of us. Not surprisingly, Stoic philosophy has had somewhat of a renaissance during the pandemic. 

You may already have heard about some Stoic ideas without knowing it. Do you know Alcoholic Anonymous’ serenity prayer?*

* God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference. 

It could have been written by one of the Stoics (1). Modern psychotherapies owe a great debt to Stoicism as well. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for example teaches people to think and challenge deeply-held assumptions in order to manage emotions as opposed to being ruled by them.

One critical idea from Stoicism is the following: Suffering results when wishes come into conflict with reality, particularly if your reality is idealistically construed with rose-colored glasses, as if there were no losses, no illnesses, no injustices, and no discontinuities in life. The mismatch between unrealistic expectations and reality creates frustration and emotions of shock, anxiety, sadness, or bitterness. I suspect that the many of the emotions that people experience during the pandemic stems from this clash between the reality as we would like it (i.e., the world is fair, predictable, controllable, and our lives are plannable) and the world as it presents itself to us (i.e., unfair, unpredictable, uncontrollable, with the best-laid out plans falling apart in the blink of an eye).

This is a second key idea from Stoicism: How you view external events (reality) matters more than the events themselves. It is not the events themselves that cause you to suffer but your ideas about the events. Humans are very good at imaging what may happen for example – and worry as a result about things that may never actually come to pass. Put differently, we suffer more in imagination than in reality. In CBT, those ideas that structure our reality are called core beliefs – deeply held believes about the world. Mindfulness-based approaches similarly recognize the power of our thoughts about not only events, but also the relationship we have to our thoughts.

If you put those two ideas together, you have the Stoic blueprint how to manage unpleasant emotions – by avoiding them in the first place. You achieve this feat by accepting the reality of adversity as a part of life–this may be the unique and most practical contribution from Stoicism. If you do not expect to be treated fairly by everybody, you are going to be prepared for the many injustices and avoid becoming bitter. If you know that fate may turn on you, you will at least not be shocked and caught off-guard. To me, Stoic philosophy gets the balance right, between a realistic (blunt) assessment of what can go wrong and how to manage this reality without becoming disillusioned.

“To me, Stoic philosophy gets the balance right, between a realistic (blunt) assessment of what can go wrong and how to manage this reality without becoming disillusioned.”

The Stoics deliberate approach uses reason in order to cope with adversity (also known as attitudinal coping as opposed to problem-based or emotional coping (2))—fortunately, this is a skill that can be learned. Pace yourself: the benefits, such as peace of mind, will materialize slowly and may only become apparent during the next crisis in the form of better mental preparedness. See it as an investment into better future mental health.

According to Stoic philosophy, there are a few big picture attitudes about the human condition, which are helpful to the individual to adopt (see Table 1):

Here comes the hard part, picking one or more of these beliefs and applying them to your pandemic life. Reading alone will not do, although you may investigate Stoicism a bit more if you are intrigued (see Additional Materials below). 

Stoicism is one approach, but not meant to be used in isolation. For example, if you lose your job, you will also need to seek out concrete help in the form of financial assistance and finding a new job. Stoicism is also not a substitute for other forms of coping, like exercising regularly or seeking social support. Importantly, it is no substitute for political action when society needs to step up collectively to relieve hardship and correct injustices. Being passive in the face of injustice is not Stoicism! What Stoic resilience can do is this: give you the wisdom to make life a bit more tolerable and enjoyable – despite everything that goes wrong and is wrong in the world.

Oliver Freudenreich, MD, FACLP 
Co-Director, MGH Schizophrenia Program

References

  1. Gill, N.S. (2019, October 25). Stoics and Moral Philosophy – The 8 Principles of Stoicism. Thought Co. https://www.thoughtco.com/stoics-and-moral-philosophy-4068536
  2. Freudenreich, O., Kontos, N., & Querques, J. (2008). Support patients coping with medical illness. Current Psychiatry, 7(12), 76-77
Additional Materials 
Books 
  1. Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a stoic: Using ancient philosophy to live a modern life. Basic Books.
  2. Robertson, D. (2019). How to think like a Roman emperor: The Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. St. Martin’s Press.
Website
  1. https://dailystoic.com/new-start-here/
The Wisdom of a Greek Slave and a Roman Emperor: Borrowing from Stoic Philosophy to Make it Through a Pandemic.
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