Born into slavery, then paralyzed by his master and exiled by Emperor Domitian, Epictetus (c. 60-135 CE) has undoubtedly become the central figure in the current global revival of Stoicism.
An outspoken supporter of the philosophy of the idea should help people thrive even in difficult times, Epictetus has a lot to offer as we battle pandemic lockdowns and uncertainty. Here are four tips from the most stoic of the Stoics:
1. Don’t worry about the things we can’t control
The beginning of Epictetus’ Enchiridion textbook exposes his famous “dichotomy of control”:
Some things are up to us and some are not. In our power are opinion, impulse, desire, aversion. Are not in our power the body, the property, the reputation, the offices, and in a word, all that does not come under our own acts.
This is an idea echoed today in the Serenity Prayer of 12 Step Recovery Programs.
If we worry about things that we cannot change, continues Epictetus, we are wasting our energies. If we imagine that we can control the past or the future – or even pandemics – we prepare for disappointment.
But we can think and act, and do our best to respond to situations with courage, justice, and moderation.
Today’s locked-out citizens cannot control if (or when) the restrictions are lifted. However, we can all wear masks, social distancing, get vaccinated as soon as possible, and continue to work, exercise and educate our children the best we can.
2. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
Like other Stoics, Epictetus observes that people are more inclined to be disturbed by events that take them by surprise. By premeditating the worst-case scenario and working imaginatively on how we might react in advance, we can reduce our vulnerability.
If this “premeditation of evils” seems too frightening to you, “start with small things”, advises Epictetus:
Is the oil spilled? Is some wine stolen? Let us say that on occasion, at such a price, the freedom to be offended is sold; at this price, peace is sold, but nothing is obtained for nothing.
While the preparation can be taxing, Epictetus suggests that being grieved or irritated by things we have no say in, like a sudden extension of the lockdown, is far worse. “The premeditated is prepared,” he tells us. If things are going better than what we are preparing for, so much the better.
3. Contextualize and “alter”
When we are under duress, observes Epictetus, we often have the impression that what we are experiencing is unprecedented. No one else can understand. But it’s useful to remember that few experiences, even during a pandemic, are unprecedented.
We are in the second year of COVID. But the world wars lasted four and six years. It is a pandemic, but other generations have experienced epidemics (or the Spanish flu) in which severe losses were also suffered. Those who survived were able to rebuild themselves. U.S. too.
It can also help, Epictetus suggests, to “take a step back” and assess our experience as if it were happening to someone else:
For example, when a friend’s child breaks a cup, it is easy for us to say, “It is in the nature of cups and children. [But] when you realize that this situation is true for you, it is easy for you to tell yourself the same thing when a child breaks your cup …
So when we are inclined to despair in difficulties “we must remember how we feel when we hear of the same misfortune that befalls others.” By looking at each other as if we are another, we can give each other the same support and encouragement.
Read more: Why Philosophers Say Loneliness Can Be Helpful (Even If You Didn’t Choose It)
4. Slow down, make sure
Epictetus, echoing Socrates, says that any unexamined idea is not worth having. In life, we can easily jump between ideas in ways that lead us to false beliefs. Epictetus writes:
These reasons are not consistent: I am richer than you, therefore I am better than you; I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better than you. On the contrary, these reasons are coherent: I am richer than you, therefore my goods are greater than yours: I am more eloquent than you, therefore my speech is superior to yours.
Read more: Guide to the classics: how Marcus Aurelius’ meditations can help us in times of pandemic
It’s easy to add a lot of avoidable, habitual, and evaluative judgments to what we know and experience. Often, these add-ons introduce assumptions that are not based on adequate information. These cause us to overreact or overreact.
Epictetus recommends that we slow down our body and our “judgment”, especially when it comes to condemning others:
Someone hastens to bathe; do not say that he bathes badly, but that he hastens to bathe. […] Because until you decide what judgment he is making, how do you know what he is doing is wrong?
In the age of Internet conspiracies sprawling on social media, that fourth old epictetal advice is new again.
When faced with allegations of nefarious or appalling conduct on the part of fellow citizens, Epictetus recommends that we ask: do I know this is true? Do I have enough information to be sure?
Such self-examination keeps us from getting angry on the basis of fictions – let alone spreading misinformation that provokes or enrages others. If enough people do this, we could collectively avoid many future difficulties.