The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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Stoic ‘21

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 21 January 2021, 07:04 Last update: about 4 years ago

We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?”
Epictetus (50-135 CE)


If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)


These two quotes, one from a former slave and one from a Roman emperor, sum up a basic tenet of Stoic philosophy, an action-based philosophy which was born in the 3rd century BC and which has experienced a revival in recent years.

Societies were very different back then, but contemporary authors like Ryan Holiday convincingly show how the teachings of stoics like Epictetus, Seneca, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius and others can help us live a virtuous life today.

Marcus Aurelius, known as the last of ‘Five Good Emperors’ in Rome, notably lived and reigned through a plague much like our very own Covid-19: The Antonine Plague was a global 15-year pandemic with a mortality rate of between 2-3%, killing between 10 and 18 million people and bringing about misery to many. Like Churchill during the Blitz, Marcus Aurelius rose to the occasion through his leadership skills, philosophical wisdom, kindness, devotion to service, and humility. He himself eventually succumbed to the plague, but not before acting in a virtuous way to navigate through the pestilence in question. He led by example.

The four core principles of stoicism are wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Wisdom refers to the knowledge to choose well, what to reject, and what is indifferent. Temperance is moderation, lying between excess and deficiency. Courage refers to speaking your mind, insisting on truth. Justice combines the other virtues together, beyond narrow self-interest.

Fast forward to Malta in 2021, and we can apply such principles both to our personal lives, to the sphere of policy making and to other areas of everyday life.

Compared to various other societies, Malta has so far navigated relatively well in the Covid-19 crisis, despite certain policy and behavioural shortcomings and inconsistencies. In fact, I see a parallel between this and the way Malta navigated through the financial crisis over a decade ago. At the same time, however, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that we cannot expect herd immunity at a global level in 2021, meaning that uncertainty lies ahead in various aspects of our lives. From a stoic perspective, there are things which we can control and others which we cannot. In the case of the latter, we have a choice of how to interpret and react to them.

Should one try to apply the four basic stoic principles to the current policy and political context in Malta, one could come up with reflections such as the following.

Wisdom: Let us rely on evidence-based knowledge, on rational and scientific thought which undergoes rigorous processes to obtain results. Hence let us trust policy proposals such as approved vaccines and WHO recommendations and be doubtful of self-proclaimed prophets who base their slogans on sensation rather than fact.

Temperance: Let us avoid excesses in our social communication. Whether we are referring to personal posts on the social media, on quick-fix news reporting, or on tribal politics or activism, let us try to be constructive and moderate rather than being one-sided and absolutist.

Courage: Let us have the courage to debate and to reflect. We should do the right thing and seek truth, and this also involves deliberation with the ‘other’ and being humble enough to learn when needs be.

Justice: Let us do our utmost to ensure that Malta in 2021 is fair to all social groups, not least those with less powerful voices such as children, the elderly, the poor, the socially excluded, and those suffering in silence. Let us accept the fact that we are experiencing a pandemic but let us also do our best to navigate well through our own decisions and behaviour.

In the Covid-context, it is difficult to make long-term plans, but at the same time it makes sense to equip ourselves - sometimes with the help of others - on a day-to-day basis, to adapt, be innovative, and equally resilient and receptive to the respective risks and opportunities ahead.

We can therefore devise Stoic tools amid adversity. For as Ryan Holiday demonstrates in his book by the same title, the obstacle is indeed the way. Step by step, yet gritty in resolve.


Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta




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