[Mel Brooks says we should use humor as a defense against the universe. Wikipedia.]
S. writes: I began attempting to live like a Stoic around 6 months ago. I have found Stoicism in general, and your work in particular, to be a great help in coping with the coronavirus crisis and lockdown. (I'm writing from Spain where I've lived for the past six years). So, a question relating to your occasional "Stoic advice" advice series. Like many others I have been laughing at and sharing the many memes circulating on social media that deal humorously with various aspects of the situation. At a time when we are living through a serious life and death crisis, is it ethical to be laughing at and sharing such corona-memes?
I don't know whether comedian, director and actor Mel Brooks is a practicing Stoic, but he allegedly said:
"Humor is just another defense against the universe."
(I dislike unsourced quotes, but this truly seems to be his. The most reputable source I could find is this.)
I think Brooks got it exactly right. And the Stoics -- especially Epictetus -- were famous for not just humor, but downright sarcasm, on occasion. Consider these examples, the first one in the humor category, the second one in the sarcasm category:
"I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later." (Epictetus, Discourses I, 1.32)
"'But my nose is running!' What do you have hands for, fool, if not to wipe it? 'But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place?' Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn't it be easier just to wipe your nose?" (Discourses I, 6.30)
Consider the first quote in the above pair. Dying is the most terrifying prospect every human being faces. So much so that Seneca calls it the ultimate test of our character, describing the objective of philosophy as ultimately to get us ready for that final moment. But Epictetus is taking it in a lighthearted fashion, and it was this quote by him, which was one of the very first I read when I approached Stoicism, that definitely turned me on to his philosophy. It's no-nonsense: sure, we have to die, all of us. But why worry about it now, if this isn't the time? In fact, it just happens to be lunchtime, and I'm hungry, so I'll attend to that first, and I'll consider the problem of death at a later time. It makes you smile, it helps you defend yourself against the vagaries of Fortuna, as Mel Brooks remarked.
Now for the second quote: it sounds harsh, of course, but Epictetus was known for talking straight to his students, who after all had come to his school voluntarily, paying good sesterces in order to receive an education in moral philosophy by him. So he is providing two-fold practical advice to the student with the running nose. First, wipe it. It's a simple and effective action, within your power. Second, stop complaining that the world contains such annoying things as running noses. It does, and it isn't in your power to change the world. But if you keep thinking that way, you'll just make yourself doubly miserable: because your nose is running, and because you can't wrap your mind around the notion of running noses.
Of course, as always in virtue ethics, much depends on the intention of the moral agent. The very same action may be virtuous or unvirtuous, as a function of the motivations behind that action. Say, for instance, that you volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Is that virtuous? Yes, if you are doing it because you wish to help others in need. No, if you are doing it because you need an extra line in your resume for the next time you look for a job.
So the question is: why are you spreading corona-memes? If you are making fun, say, of people who are actually risking their lives to help us (health providers, but also, let us not forget it, grocery stores employees), then you are not helping. But if you are sharing because you'd like to trigger a smile in others, instead of further contributing to their worry and anxiety, then that seems to be a good thing to do.