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2020: A Stoic Approach to Pandemic and Crisis

  • Publish Date: Posted almost 2 years ago

​​With violence and disease rampant, it may seem like the four horsemen have in fact arrived.  Ironically, according to the Book of Revelations there are, in fact, some seemingly similar parallels: infectious disease, empire division, imperial oppression, and destroying an empire.

Definitely ominous…But this is not the first time in history such a calamity was called the apocalypse.  This has been applied over and over again since the Roman Republic, yet here we are once again.  Rather than finding dread in this situation, with a stoic approach there is room to grow and opportunity to be had even during such times of apparent crisis.  Even the during the height of the Empire, crises were dealt with such as the Antonine Plague; thus, we can refer to ancient historical approaches to surviving populations post-plague- namely stoicism. 

Regarded as the Last Good Emperor, Marcus Aurelius is famous for controlling Rome during the height of its glory, as well as being a profound philosopher writing works such as The Meditations.  Out of the plethora of knowledge and pithy Latin lines, one sticks out, especially today, “the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Finding a way to turn every negative into a positive – no matter how bad or undesirable a situation becomes – we always have the opportunity to practice virtue. We don’t control when things get hard, but we can always control how we respond. We can show patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity – the things that test us make us who we are.  The definition of virtue remains a philosophical one depending on your school of thought, yet for the stoics as Marcus Aurelius stated, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.”  (Meditations).  This can be especially powerful as our neighbors become engulfed by politics not allowing the voice of reason or ear of understanding.  Practice what you preach.  We are one America.  This rational, philosophic approach can be applied to even the most difficult situations as these classical, humanist ideals have been carried through ages – taught to some of the most enlightened rulers and prolific thinkers of all time from Plato to President Lincoln.  While there are different schools of ancient philosophy - Academic, Stoic, and Epicurean – they all touch upon virtue and governance perhaps the most famous being Plato’s Analogy to the City and the Soul (The Republic) opining the natural connection between humanity and politics.  The correlation between classical philosophy and our own foundations is bountiful.  Although, we will be looking at Stoic philosophy, in specific, to attempt to overcome a grim outlook today.  It is possible to apply these ancient maxims about virtue or politics to govern one’s own life and nurture happiness through any storm.

Stoic philosophers were all well-regarded Roman statesmen (one being an emperor) who found solace and muse in the art of philosophy.  According to stoic philosophy, an extirpation of emotion – especially when concerning a critical decision or facing hardship-- is necessary to use all faculties of thought to produce the best outcome for one’s self.  This is not to downplay the horrors of recent months rather it attempts to find reason, take lessons from the past, and move forward appropriately and positively.  The parallels between Roman and American civilization create a condition in which we can study past societal evolutions brought upon by crisis – especially contrasting the effects of COVID-19 with the Antonine Plague of the second century.  Using a stoic framework, one can acknowledge and overcome current hardships by heeding ancient advice.

Despite the tragedies that have befallen this year, these are problems humanity has overcome before and can again.  This is not the first plague, nor is this the first time that society has upheaved to call upon injustice.  While we speak about the future, it is important to remember the pain of the present.  To quote Seneca, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune.  You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, even you.” (On Providence 4.3). Or in other words, as the playwright Aeschylus put it “wisdom comes through suffering.”  One of the greatest economies crashed to a screeching halt.  The bull was slain by the matador, and now it was time for a formerly dormant bear to display its dominance.  Like our ancestry, we endured an unprecedented depression, but have we not always recovered, if not surpassed the previous shortfall?  One that has bounced back time and time again like a Roman levy.  We know our meddle.  The global society was alarmingly underprepared for a pandemic.  No matter good the EAP was, nobody could expect what happened, but we are adapting in a form of punctuated equilibrium, if you will.  Within these dark times, we now have the opportunity to make the general population aware of what health and safety professionals truly do.  The people have endured and strengthened and to quote the late, great President Lincoln, “this too shall pass”.  The amplitude of recent events shall not-pass and the cause shall not be forgotten, but as difficult as it has been – leaving or losing work, isolated in our homes, social distancing– it is now time to rise to the challenge.  Most people are unaware that Lincoln battled with crippling depression his entire life. His life was one of enduring and transcending great difficulty. It would be his own experience with suffering which drove his compassion to allay it in others. Above all, he found purpose and relief in a cause bigger than himself and his struggles, as the nation called for a leader of magnanimity during the Civil War. As crafty as he was, Lincoln’s strength was his will: the way he was able to resign himself to an onerous task without giving in to hopelessness, the way he was able to rise above the din and see politics philosophically.  Lincoln was strong and decisive as a leader, but he also embodied the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task.  

The parallels between the Roman and American constitution are undeniable.  From the Senate to the fasces on the dollar bill to the Apotheosis of Washington, this constitutional republic took a page out of the Roman Republic’s Twelve Tables: first written constitution of Rome in 451 BC to be displayed in the forum.  Like the United States, Rome, too, rejected a corrupt monarchy, Tarqunius Superbus, for a republic and voted to write the laws, so that all citizens could be aware and treated equally. These are millennial old Maxims that can be found in our Federalist Papers and Constitution; it is clear the founders drew from the balance of power of a republic.  Polybius, a Greek historian, exalted the dynamic nature of the Roman Republic.  It regarded the three components of a proper government - executive, legislative, judicial -- to maintain balance and justice for all.  Division of powers essentially sprouted from this idea and developed through history as we see thinkers such as Montesquieu hone in on it in his The Spirit of the Laws; thus, proving the eternal relevance of Classical work upon the foundations of Western society and our own democracy, which has undergone Civil War, allowing us to view contemporary events through an ancient, stoic lens.   

Of course, many of those who wrote legislature were lawyers who practiced philosophy.  Philosophy was not a religion rather a logical practice that can be applied in daily life; there was no aspect of eschatology.  Philosophy was a great tool of rhetoric and oratory used for debate compared to drawing literary examples from myth like Homer.  Therefore, many senators were practicing stoics such as Cicero, who wrote The Republic, and argued at a junction point in the Late Republic when it faced demise at the hand of Cataline’s conspiracy.  Rome began in a phase referred to as the Patrician Period (heavily favoring the elite classes), but as the population demanded more rights during the Struggle of the Orders, it went through multiple metamorphoses – most notably the creation of tribune of the plebs, a position that maintained the voice of the common person to the Senate.  The peaceful transition of power via election of two consuls was what truly caused this republic to prosper for five hundred years until the famous March on the Rubicon.  Some say he saved Rome, some say he destroyed it, yet regardless, one fact remains: that the corruption and the assassination of emperors was a leading cause in the downfall of a nearly thousand-year-old civilization (not the Antonine Plague).  Like Rome, this is something that separates America from many countries in the world as our political system allows for a successful, democratic transition; thus the parallels between the two civilizations (beyond football and the gladiator) are clearly demonstrated and lessons can be derived from the faults and feats of the past.   

Not only was Rome accustomed to civil strife (as it had four civil wars), it was often stricken by plague being a city of over a million people two thousand years ago (you can imagine what the EPA would think of their stormwater run-off).  In 165 A.D., the Roman Empire was crippled by the Antonine Plague.  With Galen’s description, this pestilence is now likely to be thought as smallpox or measles, but like the native population in the New World, the Roman population was virgin to such a disease (Sabbatani, Fiorano).  Before the disease, this period was widely considered the height of the Roman Empire and even projected as the greatest time period in history by historians such as Edward Gibbon, “ If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus" (DF I.3.II).  This was due to its stability, prosperity, and dedicated legal process.  After Marcus Aurelius’ largely successful Parthian War in Mesopotamia, Roman soldiers contracted this new disease and brought it home to the capital when they had to confront a civil uprising.  At this point Rome had sacked the capital of its eternal foe, Parthia’s Cteisiphon, and extended from the UK to Syria dominating the Mediterranean (a size similar to the United States).  (Sheldon).   Also like the States, Rome was a melting pot- especially as it continued to grow its borders to manifest its destiny.  New frontier borders were drawn, and immigrant populations were naturalized creating a fusion of Greco-Roman and Near Eastern, as well as Celtic/Germanic culture; thus, the Romans faced complex cultural and societal movements as cultures merged and intertwined.  As I digress, there are a multitude of similarities between these two great civilizations – one being the economic response to plague.  

The Antonine Plague was severe, affecting the economy, agriculture, military, and even politics. While some argue this was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, I attribute that much more closely with the cannibalistic rise of Commodus and his successive, corrupt leaders until Constantine.  In fact, according to George Edmund the evidence does not demonstrate an utter collapse due to the plague but rather a stable market recovery afterwards; a good omen for our own future recovery.  Undoubtedly, a new social era was ushered as art and literature propagated throughout the empire.  Another interesting note was with this rise in death, came an introspection and rise in monotheistic religions such Mithraism and Christianity demonstrating a demographic change in the largely pagan population.  This goes to show that during crises, which shake people to their core or moral fiber, there is an opportunity to change perspectives entirely as major social movements can be incubated and dispersed in such an environment.  In a way, the plague ushered a new age of Roman Renaissance giving good omens to our own situation. As we have seen, movements can take hold faster than even the most rapidly spreading virus.  Following stoic thought, we can remove ourselves from the immediate reactions and contemplate a proper action plan.  Rather than viewing this as a demise, it is a chance for true change and justice.  Civil strife and uncomfortable conversations with those of opposing views force our society to grow and develop.  Interestingly enough, another effect of the plague was that it created a period of social reform and demographic change as more neighboring tribes earned citizenship and rights to assist the struggling population, filling many former positions lost due to the disease.

Currently, with 40,000,000 unemployed, we see a similar need for labor and resurgence in the force – last month 2,500,000 people returned to work.  Therefore, there are job opportunities in even the most impacted industries.  For Rome, one major industry impacted was mining.  Mining, especially in silver rich Spain, was a major source of income considering that ancient civilizations traded bullion and raw material.  Comparatively, our oil and gas market has been hit especially hard.  Tax records from the second century A.D. also show a drop in payments similar to the anomaly that occurred this year as tax season was extended to July 15th.  Furthermore, annual rent prices dropped immensely as demonstrated from papyrological evidence from Egypt; conversely, our housing market is facing peril as people struggle to make rent without their typical source of income.   The similarities in economic impact are apparent.  As we see the food price fixing scandal in the poultry industry, we noticed similar findings during the Roman period:   

“On the other hand, Egypt demonstrated that the pestilence could also have ravaged local populations. Yet, it is noteworthy that this was not consistently represented in other regions, or even in other towns in the same province. Nevertheless, the scant financial data does reveal that markets fluctuated in response to a population decline. For example, the price of fruit and wine fell in the aftermath of the outbreak as a subsistence farmer could afford to grow and purchase more non-essential products.” (Edmund, 9).

Essentially, like Coronavirus, different regions were impacted differently as some provinces were ravaged while other industries carried on. This correlates with the geographic disbursement of Coronavirus, as well, in its bipolar coastal pockets affecting densely populated areas like New York and California quite heavily. Comparatively, Egypt and Spain were economic hubs of the empire and definitely essential to its success. Essential industries: another word that has become imprinted in our vernacular. Luckily, for EHS professionals so has PPE; EHS is on the forefront of a changing world as we now are overtly aware of hygiene and safety protocol coming from shouts from prolific businessmen such as Mark Cuban.

Even throughout all this economic and demographic change in Rome, the currency did not collapse. Despite Niebuhr’s opinion, Edmund argues that there was a constant economic recovery from the plague. In fact, data based upon wheat prices, a staple of Roman survival, displays fairly stable prices implying a steady return in the Roman economy. Thus, unlike many projected and speculated, the plague was not the end of Rome rather a period of change just as today. This is something we can and will replicate. Juxtaposing the Coronavirus, the Antonine Plague killed a projected five million people according to realistic models decimating a third of the Roman population and drastically changing the composition of the Roman army and general population (Gilliam). Social movements such as monotheism that were originally harbored in darkness came to light and were distributed across the sovereignty – especially by these marching soldiers. At this point, we are over 150,000 unfortunate losses and we mourn every one. But we are far off from the bleak fate that Rome endured. This is not the end of our civilization rather an inflection point where true change can occur socially and economically. With a stoic approach, the opportunities are evident. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have been given more relaxed reign on R&D producing American made therapies. PPE is a household phrase which benefits manufacturers of such products throughout the country. While aerospace has been hit especially hard at the moment due to lack of travel, a private company has just partnered with NASA for space travel paving the way for future partnerships, government funding, and interest in the new frontier. Thus, perhaps “returning” to what felt “normal” to us then should not be the goal at all. This pestilence could have offered the necessary catalyst to take our conversation one step further.

With all this elevated chaos and anxiety, it may feel like the Joker’s world right now, but just remember as Alfred so sagely put it, “the night is darkest before the dawn”. So what would the great philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius do? “Think of this life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature.

Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting.” (Meditations). If you can remove yourself from the negativity of the 24/7 news cycle, one can inwardly realign with what is important and appreciate the miracle that life is. Crisis is a time of change and an opportunity to evolve and improve as a society just as the Romans did iteration after iteration. We can take examples from Classical Civilizations of the past to understand our present and influence our future. Even during crisis, we can all take a lesson from the Stoics and a page from our British sister company to “Keep Calm and Carry On”.