Philosophy for the Pandemic: Stoicism

“Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”

(Epictetus, the Handbook [1])

by Dr. Norris Frederick

Fear.  One of the worst things about the pandemic is the fear.  Fear of an invisible attacker, of isolation, illness and death of loved ones and of ourselves.  The second-century C.E. Stoic philosopher Epictetus has much to offer as a philosophy for living today, useful for not only the novel coronavirus epidemic, but for all sorts of life situations.

The opening sentence of his Handbook is a simple and powerful idea, when understood fully:   “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”  Such a simple idea, and yet mastery of living it can take a lifetime.   A slave during his early years, Epictetus found awareness of what’s up to him invaluable in his life.  Slaves are under constant threat of the anger and whims of the master, but Epictetus realized that no matter what happened he had a realm of control that was entirely his – his thoughts, what he valued, what he wanted to approach or to avoid, even his impulses.  His situation as a slave gave ample opportunity to practice knowing what’s up to him and what’s not.

What’s Up to Us

Epictetus elaborates that opening sentence with, “Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”

Our judgment and our will and our effort are up to us.  “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.”[2]  It’s understandable when a child can’t stop screaming because his balloon has popped, but not when adults react that way.  Adults understand the nature of balloons:  that balloons may pop is just reality.

Notice how we became mature about balloons:  we first had some training, and then lots of practice and fieldwork about how to think about balloons.  We had temper tantrums about what we wanted and couldn’t have when things were out of our control.  Then we realize that the balloon, our possession, wasn’t up to us.  But our judgment about that balloon popping is up to us.

If we break a favorite coffee cup, there well may be a moment of “dammit!,”  but if we remain angry about the broken cup, then it’s our judgment that makes us angry, not the fact that the coffee cup has broken,  It’s simply reality that coffee cups can break.  Thinking that we must have what’s not in our control is a recipe for unhappiness, a life out of sync with the nature of things. It’s fine to prefer that our cup not break, and even to take care that it not break, but ultimately that’s not in our control.

If we understand Epicurus’s division of what’s up to us and what’s not, that will help us to realize it is up to us to let go of our particular irrational beliefs, like,  “You must be the way I want you to be,” or  I must please everyone,” life goes much better for you and those around you.  Stoicism is the philosophical basis for today’s cognitive-behavioral therapy.

What’s Not Up to Us

 If we practice and learn from popped balloons and broken cups, we may be able to move on to more serious matters. As we generalize our thinking about what’s in our control and what’s not, we can apply it to the novel coronavirus pandemic.  Let’s look at what Epictetus says is not up to us.

  • Our body. Surely that is up to us, in our control?  The pandemic alone is enough to show us that it’s not up to us.  Countless stories in the news and perhaps ones we know personally, show that our bodies are not up to us.  Our genetics – not up to us, for sure – have a great influence on our overall health, for good or for ill.  And certainly, our age is not up to us, as well as several underlying health conditions, all of which could contribute to our contracting COVID-19.
  • Our possessions. Also not up to us.  The reality is that many people may lose their house or business as the pandemic forces the stop of their jobs and income.
  • Our reputations. While what we do may influence how we are regarded by others, that’s not up to us, either.  Someone who is sufficiently motivated and skillful or powerful may be able to convince others that we are hoarders, the ones who take all the toilet paper.  And get ready for the attack ads in the November elections.

Thinking perhaps of his master and life events we all may face, Epictetus wrote, “Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose.”[3]  It’s in the mind’s ability to make rational choices that we have power:  “Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens [that no event hinders your ability to choose your reaction to it], then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”  Ultimately, for the Stoic, I am my rational mind, my soul, not my body.

I should “say to myself” that I can prefer good health, and take actions to promote it, but I can’t ultimately control my good health, due to any number of things.  So what I CAN do is to take precautions, do my best to care about and protect our fellow humans, and realize that even so I may become ill and even die, given factors that are out of my control.  What remains in my control, if I have practiced sufficiently all the possible previous situations, is my mind/soul, my will, my effort.

As you read and think, you may be forming reasonable objections to the Stoic view.  But for the time being, keep in mind that every theory that endures, whether in philosophy or epidemiology, has its strength and its limitations.  We don’t give up on epidemiology just because different models of the virus’s spread predict different peaks of infection, different number of deaths. To look for the perfect theory is to engage in magical thinking.  Epidemiology is useful, within limits.  The same can be said for Stoicism.

The Power of Living Out What’s Up to Us

Nelson Mandela, The Economist, December 14, 2013. 

The Stoic ideal is a person who lives calmly, in accord with nature, and does his or her best to be a good citizen.  The person who does so has constructed a safe “inner citadel,”[4] invulnerable to the many forces he could not control.  In the midst of the illness and deaths of COVID-19, we admire the nurses, doctors and cleaners who do their work in the midst of great danger, we admire citizens in cities of the world singing from balconies of their homes, we admire those who realize that ultimately their minds and spirit and reactions are up to them.

No one illustrates that inner citadel better than Nelson Mandela during the twenty-seven years he was a political prisoner in South Africa.  As in the poem “Invictus,” he was not conquered, he was unbowed.  During all those years of physical and mental abuse, hunger, and the isolation (for many years his contact allowed with family was only one letter every six months), he realized what was up to him.

He had memorized “Invictus,” a poem with a Stoic outlook, and said it to himself, and quoted “Invictus” to his fellow prisoners to encourage them.  President Barack Obama quoted the last stanza at the end of his eulogy at Mandela’s funeral service in 2013.[5]

“He speaks to what is best inside us.  After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Madiba [Mandela][6], and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

We will never hear about the vast majority of people who display courage during this pandemic.  Like Mandela, we can all focus on what’s up to us.  The outcome – for ourselves and for our friends, family, and neighbors — is never guaranteed. Epidemiologists say it’s extremely likely we’ll have another round of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 this coming fall, and perhaps increased infections and hospitalizations even this month as stay-at-home restrictions are relaxed.  Already the talk of loosened restrictions has led to scenes in our city of people ignoring social distancing.

Ultimately, the result is not up to us.  What is up to us is our reaction and our will.  Living with calmness, determination, patience and concern for others is a powerful example for others and intrinsically good, regardless of our preference that the pandemic and suffering end soon.

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[1] Epictetus, The Handbook, section 1, translated Nicholas P White, Handbook of Epictetus. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1983.

[2] Handbook, 4.

[3] Handbook, 9, trans. Elizabeth Carter, http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

[4] Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Harvard University Press; Revised edition, 2001.

[5] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-prepared-delivery

[6] “Mariba” is Mandela’s traditional clan name.

27 Replies to “Philosophy for the Pandemic: Stoicism”

  1. Thank you! And thus the prayer/poem. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. “

  2. Well said Norris! I especially appreciated the summary of ultimately what is up to us. I found this to be a very calming article – in these weird days that all seem to run together.
    Really enjoyed this post. Thank you!

  3. I never thought I would want to be a Stoic. That seems to have a negative connotation – like someone who is aloof. But you don’t think negatively of someone who is calm, determined and patient – so where did I get off track?

    Like great art, this post is in the eyes of the beholder. For me, I am motivated to look at my reactions in a Stoic manner. Now I understand what that means.

  4. Ike, you raise a good question, about whether Stoics are necessarily aloof. I may address that in a future post. Thanks for your good comment.

  5. The mention of the broken cup brings up a fond memory of the broken teacup with a small flower in it brought to us in hospital with our newborn first child by our minister and his wife. We still have it.
    Choices of how we react to the imperfections of life are still in our control, as noted. Love your writing.

    1. Cynthia, I love your story of and connection to the broken teacup. What a good connection to draw to my blog post. Best to you.

  6. Dr. Frederick,
    Thank you again for this wonderful post. This is a perfectly timed response that speaks directly to how so man of us are feeling/thinking. In the midst of our disorientation, your writing grounds us. Instead of (or maybe in addition to) watching the morning and nightly news, I will re-read your word of wisdom. In particular, I will re-read your translated insights from Epictetus about “what’s not up to us.” Your words also remind me that the means to more authentic openness to others is through this realization of all that is not up to us.

    1. Zachary, thanks so much for your comment. You continue to teach me about how we relate to others, as with your insight that “the means to more authentic openness to others is through this realization of all that is not up to us.”

  7. Thoughts on Stoicism as a ‘Devil’s Advocate’

    Let’s examine this a bit more, specifically the statement “…it’s our judgement that makes us angry.” First of all, what does that mean in essence to say our judgement about the broken coffee cup is what makes us angry? I would prefer ‘our reaction’ to the breaking of the coffee cup. Let’s say, you grabbed favorite cup from the cabinet in too much of a hurry, lost control of the handle and watched as it hit the kitchen floor and shattered into too many pieces to count. In a hair-splitting account, your actions broke the cup and your reaction to that breaking are technically separate. Yet how separate? Let’s face it, not very far—in fact the two are indeed very close together. Yes, linked. Your reaction to be upset about your mistake is natural. Your judgement about how long to dwell upon your mistake is indeed in your control. But the immediate reaction to your clumsily breaking your favorite cup is not necessarily separate from the act and your reaction to it. Later, it well could be. We will likely, even in being upset about it for whatever time, will get over it and move on.

    What if driving one afternoon, you turn left into a major thorough fare and an oncoming car hits the rear passenger side of your vehicle, killing your three-year-old daughter. The idea that your mistake in turning when you did and your reaction, or judgement, to what you did is separate and, in your control, appears almost ludicrous. In the future you will gain control over your feelings, your grief, but clearly it will take time for that to occur.

    These examples—the broken coffee cup, the auto wreck—are connected to actions that are caused by the actor. The pandemic is a bit different—a silent killer, if you will. Still, learning you have contracted the illness and the idea you are in control of how you react to it is still strained in terms of being in control. What if you are over 70, as I, and have a slight case of asthma, as I. One’s reaction to contracting the virus with those conditions would be immediate and not separate from one’s judgement. There would be immediate fear and naturally so.

    In short, we are most likely to react immediately, viscerally, to actions we have caused and the separation between our mistake and our reaction or judgement about it suggests one is not in any sense ‘in control.’

    In many cases, the thrust of Norris’ points about stoicism are useful. In certain situations, they are not quite on point. The poem Invictus, and as applied to Mandela’s life, is for me as much about the philosophy of Existentialism as it is about Stoicism. Both can be useful in enhancing our daily lives.

    Thanks again, Norris, for making us think!

    1. Dear John,

      Thanks for writing. Your objections to Stoicism and our reactions to events were addressed by the Stoics 2,000 years ago. They write of “proto-passions,” those brief reactions to even, such as “immediate” fear and anger. Their point is that with practice and education we learn to make those negative reactions briefer and less harmful. I make that point informally with this example: “If we break a favorite coffee cup, there well may be a moment of “dammit!,” but if we remain angry about the broken cup, then it’s our judgment that makes us angry, not the fact that the coffee cup has broken.”

      So in short, while as I say in my post that there are weaknesses in any theory, your objections don’t hold, my friend.

      1. I see I need to clarify my original response. Technically, the Stoic’s point that the breaking of the coffee cup and one’s reaction to it or judgement about it are separate. What I should have made clearer is that in some situations in our life, that distinction may not be all that useful at least in the short run. Thus, my example of the driver of the car who failed to make a safe turn that resulted in the death of her daughter.

        The mother’s reaction is with her, not the accident itself, is technically true, but hardly helpful in the understanding of what she is experiencing. Attempting to reassure her with the Stoic’s point would hardly be an empathic and caring way to ease her grief. In short, if the main point is the obvious fact that the breaking of the cup and the feelings or judgement about it are separate, then in some situations, causing the death of a loved one versus a broken coffee cup, that distinction is not very useful or caring.

        In short, the context of the examples, including Mandela’s adjusting to his long-term prison stay or how holocaust survivors dealt with their time in the camps are relevant. At the beginning, Mandela was likely distressed about being in prison and removed from his effort to fight apartheid. The likely feelings of the eventual holocaust survivor were those of fear and dread at the beginning of the experience. Later, they were able to find the saving truth they were the captains of their fate.

        Let me know what I missed, Norris, and thanks.

        1. Ah, your new claim, that “the Stoic’s point would hardly be an empathic and caring way to ease her grief,” is indeed one of the serious objections the Stoic defender has to face. I am planning to do at least a couple more posts on Stoicism, and I plan to address that issue.

          And I agree that there is definitely a strong similarity between the Stoics and the existentialists in maintaining that one is always free to choose. Though of course some significant differences too.

          Thanks for writing.

  8. Norris,
    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree that many things are not up to us, or I might say are out of our control. As a health professional, I hope the American people will learn that health promotion is important and although genetics may be stacked negatively in our favor in certain areas, these genetics may be positive in other areas. Also, it is so important to eat right, exercise, sleep, and practice good spiritual and mental health habits. As we look at this pandemic and the death toll, it continues to reveal that those with co-morbidities have the highest risks of dying.
    However, I agree with you that we cannot control viruses and bacteria and other infectious diseases. As we make peace with our lack of control in many parts of our lives, it can give us a sense to focus on our control of our inner self.
    Thank you for your wise words during this time of uncertainty and fear.

    1. Vicki, thank you for commenting and for sharing your helpful insights as a health care professional.

  9. I’m excited to see this post. I’m looking forward to the follow up discussion. One thing I hope you will address is the reaction of calmness. Of course the reaction is up to us but why choose calmness? It seems that more distinctions need to be made to justify a life of calmness. I myself prefer it but it seems that others choose violence, vengeance, joy, weeping etc. Who am I to say that any response is more or less stoic or preferable?

    1. Thanks for writing, Jack. “Why choose calmness?” is an excellent question. I will plan to address that in a subsequent post.

  10. My Dear Cousin, thank you for sharing this expression of who Norris Frederick is, and in reading some of this, I realize more and more that you and I are very similar in our ‘viewpoints’ (philosophy?), and how we go about managing those ‘viewpoints’, though we go about expressing those ‘viewpoint’ differently. I am very fond of saying, in my own ‘teaching’ aspects of explaining the ‘mysteries’ cloaked within the ancient scriptures, “May I say that another way”? As you know, the Spiritual emphasis gleaned from Bible study has been the ‘foundation’ for my own home base confidence in who I am, and why I think/believe the way that I do. I realize, and acknowledge, that religion has been a ‘black eye’ to the serious Spiritual Life revealed in the original scriptures that give us the foundational documentaries that form the individual ‘books’ compiled as a ‘Bible’. I am a word etymologist. I didn’t set out to be that, its just the way I have been put together, and where I find stability and balance in a world that has very many competing energies/desires/agendas that tend to battle each other for supremacy in this dimension of thoughts resulting in actions. For instance, the very word ‘religion’ is a compilation of the ideas of ‘re’, to do or assemble again, and ‘legion’, a group or mass of people that are assembled into a common ideal or agenda. A ‘legion’ was originally, according to the Latin basis of the word, referring to a military (militant?) assembly that was rigidly structured to act as a single unit, all following the same drumbeat and cadence of thought followed by the designated actions those thoughts illustrated. ‘Religion’ is the complete opposite of what the ultimate ‘philosopher’, Jesus of Nazareth, illustrated for us to observe, and learn from his examples. Jesus ( I prefer his Hebrew name of Yashua because of what that word communicates versus what ‘jesus’ has been perverted to mean) told us ‘God’ is Spirit, and yet religion determined to make God, which Yashua revealed to us is a Spirit quality of Life to be lived out for our benevolence and gain of all, into a man-like entity or understanding. In so doing, religion perverted the most Wholly Spirit of Unconditional Love in Truth by ascribing ‘man’ qualities to the benevolent and providential Wholly Spirit of Love in Truth by inserting or ascribing man’s perverted negative thoughts and desires and goals as if they were also facets of Wholly Spirit facets of expression. Oh au contraire, nothing can be further from the ultimate Truth of the Wholly Spirit that Yashua came to reveal to Judaism, and ultimately all of mankind, 2 thousand years ago. And Judaism still despises and disdains Yashua to this day. Which is living proof to me that he was completely correct in his portrayal of God as Spirit, and Judaism is still the vulgar and despicable ‘religion’ today that it was 2,000, and 4 thousand, years ago. Talk about being stuck in your ‘cycle of negative thoughts’.
    While reading your thoughts, I was taken back in my memories to a Sunday afternoon, probably 60 years ago, when you and I and several other of the kids were piled into your Mama’s big black Buick for a trip to Troutman, which was my first introduction to the Barium Springs facility there. That was a great experience for me, because we were all singing the latest hit songs from the Coasters, “Charley Brown”, and “Yackety Yack, Don’t Talk Back”. I hope you have some memories of that, although I’m sure your Mother exposed you and Charlie and Frances and Virginia to that aspect of life often. For me, it was a brief glimpse into a ‘world’ I had no concept of, and still lack much understanding of that dimension of life. I always had a lot of respect and admiration for Caldwell, and as the elder sister, I know that the other three girls looked up to their ‘Big Sis’ for stability in an unstable world when their own chaos events began to crash in on them. I remember Norris reading a letter home to Bright Ogburn Hoyle when Caldwell was a baby, and in the note it read “The baby is doing just fine”, or something to that aspect. And you reiterated at the graveside memorial event for you Mother, “The baby is doing just fine”. Brother, I just wanted you to know how much I respect and appreciate who Norris Frederick is, and just how much I think this world is a better place because Norris Frederick brought his Light to shine for those that needed some guiding Light in dark or confusing time in their own chaos. Enjoy your retirement, because it looks like you are going to be doing a lot of writing, and maybe just at the ‘write’ time.
    ps: I am faring as well after brain surgery as I believe it is possible to ‘fare’ in view of what we have experienced. I have experienced more benevolent providence than seems appropriate to acknowledge. Sounds almost like I’m bragging, which I most certainly am not. As Dizzy Dean would say, “H’it ain’t braggin’ if’n you’ns can do it”.
    Shalom, Wholly One. alan

    1. Cousin Alan,

      Thanks so much for this message and your warm words. I know how much you work on your own website, and I appreciate your taking the time to write this.

      And thanks so much for sharing those fine memories. I don’t know that I remember that particular trip to Troutman (it may come back to me), but I do remember so many good times with you and your family. Especially when we were visiting at your house, I felt such a sense of connection, of kinship, of family and “kindred spirits.” I remain so grateful for that.

      I am pleased and amazed that you remember those words I spoke and read at my mother’s funeral. “The baby is just fine….” As I’m just now organizing a study at home after moving boxes and files from my Queens office, I just in the last couple of days came across a draft where I’d recounted finding that postcard sent when my mother was just a few months old…. I’m quite struck by your writing about this just after I’d come across those words.

      I’m so, so glad to hear that you’re doing as well as possible after your brain surgery. I think about you and your healing very often.

      I hope both of us will be writing and find the “write” time for many years to come.
      Cousin Norris

  11. As a pastor with some seasoning (translate: near retirement), I have the privilege of mentoring young pastors. It is rewarding work and among the things I tell each one is that when he or she messes up, own it, apologize if necessary, and then make needed changes. Or, as I put it often, “Own what you need to own, learn what you need to learn, and fix what you need to fix.” It is in that first part (owning what you need to own) that I find a connection with your fascinating reflection on Stoicism. Just as “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us,” some of the situations we face in life are ours to own (of our making) and some are not. Some of the messes we encounter are our doing, and some are not.
    The challenge is to discern which is which, but when we can figure that out there is tremendous freedom. And peace. I am more free to own and effectively deal with those things that are of my own making when I understand that I need not own EVERYTHING. Some things are rightly owned by others. Sometimes the problem is their fault, not mine. Understanding that does not let me off the hook. However, it does release me to more effectively address those problems that are my fault (and there are plenty, to be sure.)
    Understanding what is and isn’t mine to own is helpful in many circumstances. Even a pandemic.

  12. Scott,
    Thanks for your insightful, as always, comments. Those young pastors have been fortunate to have you as a mentor.

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