Happy birthday to Marcus Aurelius! Let him be your guide for the pandemic.

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I had a long rendezvous with the Stoics – or at least two of them – many years ago. Emperor Marcus Aurelius was one; Greek slave Epictetus was the other. But only the Roman ruler has a birthday today.

To celebrate, I blew the dust off my 1877 volume of his Meditations, which I read over and over years ago. (Translated Jeremy Collier, published by Walter Scott on Paternoster Row.)

The emperor still informs my thinking and behavior, though my success at his maxims is uneven and I better understand the limits of his philosophy than I once did. In any case, I appreciate the book’s extolling the virtue of stoical temperance, which did not come easily to a quick and impulsive nature. Nor his, apparently.

“The example of my grandfather Verus gave me a good disposition, not prone to anger. By the recollection of my father’s character, I learned to be both modest and manly.

“As for my mother, she taught me to have regard for religion, to be generous and open-handed, and not only to forbear from doing anybody an ill turn, but not so much as to endure the thought of it. By her likewise I was bred to a plain, inexpensive way of living, very different from the common luxury of the rich.” (Book I, i, from the rather Victorian translation of Jeremy Collier)

An introduction to him by Donald Robertson in The Guardian this week:

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. During the last 14 years of his life he faced one of the worst plagues in European history. The Antonine Plague, named after him, was probably caused by a strain of the smallpox virus. It’s estimated to have killed up to 5 million people, possibly including Marcus himself.

From AD 166 to around AD 180, repeated outbreaks occurred throughout the known world. Roman historians describe the legions being devastated, and entire towns and villages being depopulated and going to ruin. Rome itself was particularly badly affected, carts leaving the city each day piled high with dead bodies.

In the middle of this plague, Marcus wrote a book, known as The Meditations, which records the moral and psychological advice he gave himself at this time. He frequently applies Stoic philosophy to the challenges of coping with pain, illness, anxiety and loss. It’s no stretch of the imagination to view The Meditations as a manual for developing precisely the mental resilience skills required to cope with a pandemic.

First of all, because Stoics believe that our true good resides in our own character and actions, they would frequently remind themselves to distinguish between what’s “up to us” and what isn’t. 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.

Much, if not all, of our thinking is also up to us. Hence, “It’s not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” More specifically, our judgment that something is really bad, awful or even catastrophic, causes our distress.

“Remember to put yourself in mind every morning, that before night it will be your luck to meet with some busy-body, with some ungrateful, abusive fellow, with some knavish, envious, or unsociable churl or other. Now all this perverseness in them proceeds from their ignorance of good and evil; and since it has fallen to my share to understand the natural beauty of a good action, and the deformity of an ill one – since I am satisfied the person disobliging is of kin to me, and though we are not just of the same flesh and blood, yet our minds are nearly related, being both extracted from the Deity – I am likewise convinced that no man can force me to misbehave myself, nor can I find it in my heart to hate or to be angry with one of my own nature and family.” Book II, i.

Robertson concludes:

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.

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 moral core of our being. It can destroy your humanity if you let it. For the Stoics that’s a fate worse than death.

Postscript 4/27: Leave it to a modern to put it all in a chart. We received this from Kenton Self – on his birthday no less! Here you have it: Marcus Aurelius in a Venn diagram.


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One Response to “Happy birthday to Marcus Aurelius! Let him be your guide for the pandemic.”

  1. Marcelo larrosa Says:

    I have two different versions of meditations,and some Seneca books all the information from stoics are valious for me thank you