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Opinion The lessons two ancient philosophers have for us during the pandemic

People sit at tables at San Diego State University on Sept. 2.
People sit at tables at San Diego State University on Sept. 2. (Gregory Bull/AP)
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The two-hour car ride to a certain large Midwestern university was just getting started when my daughter, heading back to campus after a Labor Day weekend at home, opened her philosophy textbook. She asked if I would mind if she read her assignment aloud.

Mind? To an old philosophy major, this was an unexpected invitation to time travel. As she launched in, I quickly discovered that we were off to meet with two kindly but demanding old teachers from ancient days, a couple of Stoics. A reunion for me; for her, a first acquaintance.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, she read, was a Roman polymath from the time of Nero, some 2,000 years ago. Philosopher, poet, playwright and politician, he prospered greatly before ending up (as so many did) on the emperor’s bad side. Before he was forced, like Socrates before him, to commit suicide for his thought crimes, Seneca composed an essay on the topic of true happiness.

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The happy life is not to be found in pleasures or possessions, wrote Seneca, who was soon to be stripped of both. It is a life spent in pursuit of virtue, of learning what is the right thing to do and then doing it — no matter how many people do otherwise. We may live to old age or die young; we may be healthy or sick, rich or poor: These are matters of fortune beyond our control. We control only our own thoughts and actions, how we conduct ourselves and how we treat others.

From Seneca’s fluid, quotable prose, my daughter turned to the next required reading: passages from that tough old Greek, Epictetus. He has always reminded me of the gruff coach in a Hollywood sports movie, the one who pushes the team so hard because, deep down, he loves them so much. The personality comes through in an apocryphal story from his early life in slavery, before he won his freedom and went into teaching. A cruel master (a buddy of Nero — him again!) was torturing young Epictetus by twisting his leg. Keep going and you’ll break it, Epictetus reasoned calmly. The sadist kept going; the leg broke, and rather than scream in pain, the philosopher said: I told you so.

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God, he once said, is like a wrestling trainer who puts us through pain to make us champions of virtue.

In written versions of his plain-spoken lessons, Epictetus stressed the difference between the few things we control — our own thoughts and actions — and the many things beyond our control. Like the slightly older Seneca, he observed how much unhappiness is caused by confusing these matters. When my daughter read the philosopher’s admonition to greet even the death of one’s child with equanimity, we cringed together. But then I ventured that maybe Epictetus was trying to shock us into seeing that his philosophy of taking nothing for granted, of making the best of each moment, applies even in the worst of circumstances.

The car chewed up highway as we mused. Ahead lay circumstances less severe than a child’s death but far more challenging than mine at her age. Youth in the time of covid-19 is a moral obstacle course, a severe test of character in conditions beyond one’s control. The pleasures of crowded parties and shared intimacies call seductively over the virtues of masking and social distance. You want government to be competent, leaders to be accountable, peers to behave responsibly. Yet your lack of power over these outside forces is as immediate and inescapable as the laptop screen on which you Zoom your classes and stream your Netflix.

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Stoicism is too often misunderstood to mean surrendering to helplessness. As I heard it in my daughter’s reading, the philosophy taught almost the polar opposite: a radical embrace of individual responsibility. Stoicism puts its students into a given circumstance and issues a challenge: Do the best you can. Here’s a billion dollars: What good can you do with it? Here’s cancer: What dignity can you mine from it? Here’s fame: What humility can you foster through it? Here’s grief: What compassion can you learn from it?

One consolation of philosophy, my daughter observed, is that even venerated thinkers get important stuff wrong. Aristotle, for example, had many theories — some plain bonkers. The bracing lessons of Seneca and Epictetus are something different. Whether you’re an old dad hearing them for the umpteenth time or a young person meeting them for the first, they are keys to living with integrity and character in an unpredictable, often unjust world.

A familiar prayer seeks serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to do that which lies in our power and wisdom to know the difference. I murmured that as I left her back at school. Here’s a pandemic: What strength can you draw from it?

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

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