Think of covid-19 as if you were in exile with Seneca

[Rugged Corsica]

Here in New York City, my wife and I have been "on pause," as Governor Cuomo likes to put, for almost 40 days (the original meaning of the word "quarantine"). And today's news is that the pause will keep going at least until May 15th, very likely well beyond that. The thought struck me that we are in a situation not dissimilar from exile, one of the most feared types of punishment, second only to the death penalty, that were handed out in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Of course, the lockdown we are all experiencing isn't a punishment, it's for everyone's health. Nevertheless, our lives are now severely limited in comparison with what used to be, which is the very reason the ancients dreaded exile.

Seneca the Younger, one of our chief sources concerning ancient Stoicism, was sent in exile in the year 41 CE, because he was (likely, unjustly) accused by the empress Messalina -- the wife of the new emperor, Claudius -- of adultery with Julia Livilla, the sister of the recently "deceased" (actually, assassinated by his own Praetorian guard) emperor Caligula. The truth probably is that Messalina had political reasons to get rid of Livilla as well as of her supporters, which Seneca happened to be one. Be that as it may, Seneca was originally condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to exile to the (then rough) island of Corsica, between Italy and France. He remained there eight years, until Agrippina the Younger, Claudius' last wife (she probably poisoned him), managed to recall Seneca back to Rome, in order to be the tutor of her son, the future emperor Nero (who, eventually, had her killed when he discovered that she was plotting against him -- it's complicated).

During his period of exile Seneca wrote two letters of consolation (a popular philosophical genre at the time), one to the freedman Polybius, who had lost his brother, and one to Seneca's own mother, Helvia, to reassure her that he was doing fine and using the time to study and write philosophy.

(Incidentally, another thing that makes Seneca's life relevant to covid-19 is that he suffered from respiratory ailments -- probably asthma -- his entire life; when he was young he was struck by tuberculosis and almost died, recovering only after ten years spent in the better climate of Egypt.)

There is much we can learn, during our self- and government-imposed "exile" from how Seneca reacted to his predicament. Early on in the letter, he reminds his mother that she had suffered much in her life, and such suffering had actually prepared her to withstand this new blow that Fortune brought to her:

"Let those whose feeble minds have been enervated by a long period of happiness, weep and lament for many days, and faint away on receiving the slightest blow: but those whose years have all been passed amid catastrophes should bear the severest losses with brave and unyielding patience." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, II)

I feel a bit like one of those feeble minds Seneca is talking about. My life has had its ups and downs, of course, some the result of Fortune, some entirely self-inflicted. But I have not suffered major setbacks or tragedies, so far. That's one reason why the current situation may be a bit tough to endure, despite the fact that (again, so far) my family, friends, and I have kept our health. I do, however, credit my constant and mindful Stoic training over the last five and a half years for softening the blow, and for helping me focus not on what I have lost or can no longer do, but on what I still can do (lots of reading, writing, and "virtual aperitivo" with friends and family). 

Seneca tells her mother that what she has suffered in the past has prepared her because she has learned from life's experiences, if she has learned from her experience:

"You have gained nothing by so many misfortunes, if you have not learned how to suffer." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, III)

This is a recurring Stoic theme: wisdom is not just the automatic result of aging, or even experience. It does require both, but those are just the raw materials. They produce the refined product only if one mindfully learns from experience over time. Elsewhere in the letter, Seneca reminds his mother that she is well positioned for such learning, because she is smart and has an aptitude for philosophy. He even regrets that his father, Helvia's husband, did not encourage her to study philosophy outright.

He then generalizes his take on adversity, launching into a mini-lesson in Stoic philosophy, which was the point of this type of letter, addressed to a real person, but also to a broader audience:

"External circumstances have very little importance either for good or for evil: the wise person is neither elated by prosperity nor depressed by adversity; for they have always endeavored to depend chiefly upon themselves and to derive all their joys from themselves." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, V)

This may sound insufferably narcissistic, but it's actually a straightforward implication of the basic Stoic notion that the only true good in life is a virtuous character, and the only true evil is a vicious character. Everything else may be "selected," or "preferred," but is of secondary importance. Lucky for us, working on our own character is one of the few things that is completely up to us, while external events are always affected by the vagaries of Fortune. That's why Seneca says that the wise person not only does not get depressed by adversity, but doesn't get too elated by prosperity. Wisdom lies in knowing that Fortune is fickle, and that it needs to be treated accordingly. Which is why he goes on to say:

"Always stand as it were on guard, and mark the attacks and charges of Fortune long before she delivers them; she is only terrible to those whom she catches unawares; he who is always looking out for her assault, easily sustains it." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, V)

This notion of not being caught unprepared is crucial to Seneca's brand of Stoicism, as it recurs many times in his letters to his friend Lucilius. The imagery is also reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius' contention (in Meditations VII.61) that the art of living is more akin to wrestling than to dancing: because we never know when a new opponent will come up to challenge us.

Seneca tells his mother that no matter where we are and what our situation, we will always have two faithful companions:

"Whithersoever we betake ourselves two most excellent things will accompany us, namely, a common Nature and our own special virtue." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, VIII)

Our common nature is the nature of social beings capable of reason, and our special virtue lies in our own character. No circumstance can deprive us of those, and indeed those are the very things that will help us through any circumstance. At the moment we are all being challenged by living in isolation from most others, and yet -- in many cases -- also at very close quarters with a few loved ones. That combination can be difficult to handle: not enough of your friends or even acquaintances and colleagues, and perhaps too much all at once of your children (or parents) and partner. But that's precisely the time to exercise your character, to remind yourself that you need to act reasonably and pro-socially. We are all in this together, and our best bet is to act appropriately.

"No place of banishment can be found in the whole world in which we cannot find a home." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, VIII)

The human spirit is extremely resilient. I'm sure many readers have had similar experiences to my own. Until a bit more than a month ago my life was very different. Going out with friends, attending a play or a concert, traveling across the Atlantic to give talks in Europe, planning a vacation to Greece. None of that is in the cards now. But new possibilities have presented themselves. Is my online teaching at City College the same as in-person? No, but I'm grateful for a technology that did not exist only a few years ago, and that allows my students to still get an education, even in the midst of a pandemic. The same technology makes it possible for me to see my daughter, "share" a glass of wine with her, and chat about this or that. Oh, and my new e-book reader should arrive later today, making the suddenly increased time I spend reading books even more pleasant and efficient. 

However, Seneca says that we are often the cause of our own downfall, through our greed, extravagance, and constant quest for pleasure:

"How unhappy are they whose appetite can only be aroused by costly food! And the costliness of food depends not upon its delightful flavor and sweetness of taste, but upon its rarity and the difficulty of procuring it." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, X)

This article in the New Yorker is highly recommended for anyone attempting to make sense of why this, why now? It elucidates the obvious, in some respects: the corona virus pandemic is not a natural disaster, it is man-made. Here is a juicy bit:

"Hubei Province, north of Guangdong, where the city of Wuhan is situated, has become a major manufacturing center in the past decades. As Wuhan grew, it sprawled into the surrounding countryside and forests; people were pushed off their small farms and moved into the city’s vast slums. The slums served as a bridge between wild and urban spaces. To get by, residents ventured into the neighboring forests; they hunted and raised wild game, trapping, caging, and breeding pangolins, alligators, bats, civets, and other roaming animals on a scale that blurred the line between domestic and industrial animal husbandry. By harvesting animals from the forests, they flushed out pathogens, drawing them into a thriving city that was just a flight away from Singapore or Sydney."

That's the answer to why this, why now. And the ultimate culprit is precisely the hedonistic attitude Seneca criticizes. From there, he launches into something that, had it be written two millennia later, may sound like an indictment of modern capitalism:

"Why do you amass fortune after fortune? Are you unwilling to remember how small our bodies are? Is it not frenzy and the wildest insanity to wish for so much when you can contain so little?" (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, X)

Why indeed. More and more we are told, by advertisers, large corporations, and multinational banks, that in order to be happy we have to own large houses, multiple cars, televisions, and other electronics; that we simply must to eat exotic foods the transportation of which contributes to global climate change. And yet, the data is clear: we are not getting any happier, despite our gross domestic product and the stock market going up and up and up. One would hope that the fact that the world of oh-so-mighty and self-important human beings has been brought to a halt by a small packet of proteins and RNA will lead to some serious rethinking, after the crisis is over, about how we do things. But I won't hold my breadth. It is by now a securely established inductive inference that human beings keep accumulating more knowledge and more technology, while our average degree of wisdom remains abysmally low.

"The harder these things are to bear, the more virtue you must summon to your aid, and the more bravely you must struggle as it were with an enemy whom you know well, and whom you have already often conquered." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, XV)

One of the crucial mental tricks of Stoicism, expounded at length in the latest book by William Irvine, is what modern psychologists call the framing effect. Basically, it is a well known fact that we react very differently to the same exact factual situation, depending on how said situation is presented to us. If you go to your doctor and he tells you that you have a 90% chances of surviving your current ordeal, you will take the news very differently compared to the doctor talking about a 10% chances of dying. Yet, 90% survival rate is exactly the same thing as 10% mortality rate.

Stoics turn this quirk of human psychology to our advantage: instead of thinking of your corona-induced exile as a catastrophe that has severely restricted your agency, think of it as a challenge, sent to you directly by Fortune, to test and improve your virtue. Keep track of how you are managing the challenge, for instance by keeping a philosophical diary. Score your performance, reflect every night on what you did well, what you didn't do so well, and what you can do to improve tomorrow. You will regain a sense of agency, turning a setback into a learning opportunity.

We could all find some inspiration in Seneca, who concludes his letter of consolation to his mother in this uplifting fashion:

"I am as joyous and cheerful as in my best days: indeed these days are my best, because my mind is relieved from all pressure of business and is at leisure to attend to its own affairs, and at one time amuses itself with lighter studies, at another eagerly presses its inquiries into its own nature and that of the universe." (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, XX)

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 8 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 8 exclusive posts