by george sargent-childs
"Constantly reflect on all the things which happen now have happened before: reflect too that they will happen again in the future. Have in your mind’s eye whole dramas with similar settings, all that you know of from your own experience or earlier history."
I don’t know about you, but everywhere I go I keep on hearing the phrase, “these are unprecedented times we’re living in” in regards to the current Covid-19 crisis affecting the world. For most people, with most of our planet in lockdown, yes, these are uncertain times of which a majority of us would never have previously imagined and therefore the effects have taken us by surprise. However, I don’t believe the Ancient Greek and Roman Stoics would’ve been so surprised. In fact, my favourite Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius faced a 15-year-long pandemic during his reign as Emperor of Rome, alongside wars, political disputes and the day-to-day happenings of being a ruler of the largest empire on earth at the time. Marcus, according to many sources, remained calm and collective throughout. He didn’t let fear consume him, he carried on. The instincts of the stoics may feel hard for us to understand in this current climate, but luckily we have a copy of his private diary – the “Meditations” – to give us insight into his Stoic mindset. Previous to the Coronavirus outbreak, I had been following the Stoic routine of Marcus Aurelius, and I feel these spiritual excursuses could serve useful to a fearful society in times such as this.
One thought that this pandemic has brought to my mind is the feeling of fear of possible death, be it yourself, or a loved one. Although keeping death in the forefront of our minds can be beneficial, insofar as it allows us to witness parts of our life from a different perspective, I have realised that it is actually so much more difficult to do so when we are faced with the ‘threat’ of death being a very real possibility. The fact that it is a very real possibility right now, however, can be used to our advantage. More than ever before, this quote from Marcus Aurelius rings true:
“The time you have left is short. Live it as if you were on a mountain. Here or there makes no difference, if wherever you live you take the world as your city.”
Live your life, remembering loudly that it will end. Live today as your last day. During the start of lockdown I began to feel very sad. I was unmotivated, constantly looking ahead and dreaming of a free future where I could go back to the life I had being previously ’living’. The stoic practice of journalling and meditation that I’d taken up a year prior had slowly faded back into a routine of late wake ups and unstructured days. I had lost the path of Marcus Aurelius that I had perviously enjoyed so much before. I had descended into a more chaotic mindset; all measurements of self-improvement had diminished into cutting my Netflix down from 10 episodes a day to 8 (harder said than done). Waking up in my tracksuit bottoms after wearing them all day previously, I wore my 5-day dirty clothes to Tesco alongside mask and gloves, expecting to see everyone buying fruit and veg after finishing their 5k run and posting it on Instagram. Instead I saw my current state reflected back at me, and felt a mixed feeling of relief and horror. I realised that with no end in sight of the lockdown, I wasn’t living my life the way I wanted to. I had lost my way, but if this is ‘the new normal’, am I to be drifting along slave to my passions and desires for popcorn and Netflix forever?
Then, one day, my online university obligations resulted in me picking back up my copy of Marcus Aurelius’ "Meditations". Reading the quote stated above, I was reminded gratefully once again that ‘life is short’. More than ever we are all facing the fear of death, threatened by a virus that we don’t know how to control. If I was to die tomorrow, have I spent my time in isolation in a way thats in keeping to my values? How then do I want to spend this time alone, locked away from society?
Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics were day-to-day believe is in the ‘cultivation of the self’ - and so, I thought, why don’t I use this time for that too. I was inspired again not by Marcus Aurelius, but by another Stoic, called Seneca, who said that “Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Well then, I thought… there’s no time like the present!
I could have written this post about how important it is to run your 5k and eat your veggies during lockdown, which I’m not denying is great. However, I think what this lockdown has presented me with most of all is a chance for reflection. To slow down the speed of my highly active life yet still living each day as if it were my last. I’m going to continue to watch Netflix and go to Tescos in my tracksuits, but when I do so I aim to be present in the moment and learn to become comfortable with my own company. I’ve already begun to realise that when I do this, my motivation to do things with my day that cultivate myself as a human being increases, and I spent more time reading books, meditating and enjoying each moment, rather than switching off and letting each day fly by without engaging in anything but my phone.
Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics knew that we have no control over our external situations, and that all we have any control over is our own internal experience… and what a perfect opportunity we have during lockdown to calm our minds and create a safe space within.
I finish with my favourite quote from Aurelius, written on the front lines of a war campaign, in the midst of a pandemic…
“Men seek retreats for themselves - in the country, by the sea, in the hills- and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers more quiet and relaxation that that into his own mind”
UK Philosophy and COvid-19
Do you want to know how philosophy is relevant to COVID-19? The British Philosophical Association is collecting resources on this topic. For further information, have a look at their website.
Philosophy and the pandemic: reading suggestions!