As a psychiatrist, I have seen dozens of patients who suffer from Panic Disorder — a biologically-based condition that can cause immense distress and incapacity for the affected person. But the kind of panic that is spreading in reaction to the Coronavirus outbreak has the potential to cause distress and incapacity on a world-wide scale — unless we all “get a grip.” It turns out that the ancient philosophy of Stoicism may be just what the world needs to calm down.
When we hear the term “stoic” many of us think of the phrase “keeping a stiff upper lip” or picture that famously stoical character from Star Trek, Mr. Spock. In modern times, the word “stoic” has often taken on a negative connotation, suggesting a person who suppresses emotion of any kind, even positive ones like joy. For some, the term connotes a kind of resigned fatalism that encourages putting up with the status quo, no matter how bad things may be.
All of these characterizations are wrong, or, at best, gross oversimplifications of a deep and complex spiritual tradition. When we read the ancient Stoics — philosophers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca — we discover a philosophy of hard-nosed realism, but not of passive complacency. The Stoics believed that we need to accept those things that we can’t change and work to change things that are within our power to change. They believed that we should live in harmony with Nature, which they viewed as a kind of rational, governing power called the Logos. The chief aim of Stoicism is to teach us to find true joy through benevolent action, in accordance with our natural reason.
The Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, famously stated, “Things do not touch the soul.” This deceptively simple statement is the keystone in the arch of Stoic philosophy. Marcus meant by this that we are not disturbed by events, people, or things, but by the opinions we form of them. As he put it, “Our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.”
Shakespeare put it this way: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).
So, when that knucklehead driver cuts in front of you on the freeway, it’s not the act itself that leaves you fuming, but the opinion you form of it (“How dare he do that to me? What a jerk! What an outrage!”– in saltier language, of course). So, too, with the Coronavirus. While it is normal to feel anxiety over this event, the Stoics would say that we can avoid panic by gaining perspective and thinking clearly about the outbreak. The Stoic perspective has been a strong influence on our modern-day Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.
One of the central teachings of Stoicism is to focus on things that are in our power, and to avoid worrying about things over which we have little or no control. And what is in our power? Our ability to think clearly and rationally (assuming normal brain function); to act ethically; and to fulfill our obligations as citizens. What is not in our power to control? To begin with, the opinions others have of us, including their praise, insults, and gossip. Then there is the long list of catastrophes and disasters that lie beyond our control: tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, lightning strikes, and, yes — viral outbreaks and pandemics.
So how would a Stoic deal with the current outbreak of Coronavirus? First, he or she would do everything possible to learn the “reality” of the situation. For example, understanding that while the Coronavirus is highly contagious, 75%-80% of patients will have mild illness and recover. (About 15%-20% will require advanced medical care).1 And, yes — the (roughly) 2-3% mortality rate is very sobering and unsettling. But based on what we know now, the Coronavirus death rate is much lower than that seen, for example, with the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus, which had a case mortality rate of nearly 10%.2
Second, the Stoic would focus on practical, common-sense protective steps, rather than obsessing about worst-case, gloom-and-doom scenarios. The best advice from the experts is frequent, thorough hand-washing. Face masks may help reduce spreading the virus to others, but will probably not protect the wearer from contracting Coronavirus. And — as a good and responsible citizen — the Stoic will protect others by staying home when sick. More sound advice may be found on the website for the Centers for Disease Control 3 and in the article by Dr. John Grohol.
Those not familiar with Stoicism might be puzzled by one point noted earlier. If the Stoics believe in “living in harmony with Nature,” why wouldn’t they simply accept a virus outbreak as part of Nature? And wouldn’t that mean they would do nothing in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak? Well, no, that’s not really how Stoics think. They may indeed see a viral outbreak as a perfectly “natural” event, but human nature dictates that we take care of ourselves and our fellow human beings. Indeed, as part of a rational human community, it is our duty to do so.
- Schneider, M.E. (2020 Feb 29). US Reports First Death From COVID-19, in Washington State. MD Edge. https://www.mdedge.com/internalmedicine/article/218139/coronavirus-updates/us-reports-first-death-covid-19-possible
- Soucheray, S. (2020 Feb 24). Study of 72,000 COVID-19 patients finds 2.3% death rate. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/02/study-72000-covid-19-patients-finds-23-death-rate
- Share Facts About COVID-19: Know the facts about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and help stop the spread of rumors. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/share-facts.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fabout%2Fshare-facts-stop-fear.html
For further reading:
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine. Oxford University Press, 2008
Everything Has Two Handles, by Ronald W. Pies. Hamilton Books, 2008.
A Guide to Rational Living. Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper. Wilshire BookCompany, 1975.
Many articles on Stoicism may be found at this website: https://modernstoicism.com/