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Philosophy in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus – A “Black Swan Event”?

It is redundant to state that in the year 2020, the novel coronavirus completely upended the world. While many of us view this as a ‘black swan’ event, experts have been predicting this very event for many, many years. In fact, in the course of history pestilence and pandemics were quite routine. It was only in the past century, with the advent of antibiotics and the decrease in war (at least in most places globally) that we have been fortunate enough not to have seen a pandemic on the scale we are witnessing right now.

With the virus amongst us and its effects felt among every single community throughout the world, it begs the question what do we do about it? How do we approach life now that our world is upside down and what seemed completely unimaginable a few weeks ago is now routine? Even worse, whereas tragedy usually draws us together, this particular “evil” has forced us into solitude, to become more acquainted only with our own thoughts and emotions.

Philosophy as a Means of Coping

Perhaps it can help to begin by revisiting history. Whether we choose to accept it or not, Western society since the last world war, in particular, has led a relatively charmed existence, at least when compared with the societies of antiquity and the pre-modern era of medicine. Everyone is familiar with the plague of the Middle Ages that wiped out a quarter of all of Europe. Diseases brought by settlers to the Americas literally wiped out entire indigenous peoples. While novel to us, the problems we face today were actually quite common throughout the history of mankind. 

Stoicism is oftentimes considered a systematic means of steeling oneself against the difficulties of life and its tribulations. And there is something to be said about the teaching of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca (along with Epictetus, Zeno and others). Stoicism has also entered the cultural mainstream, with many celebrities, entrepreneurs, and athletes praising its teachings and making it fashionable to sound like Marcus Aurelius himself (“What we do now echoes in eternity” Wow, talk about melodramatic…) Perhaps what will resonate with most readers however, is the Stoic practice of perspectivism.  If we consider things on a different scale (i.e. imagine your life on the scale of universe) then professional or financial uncertainty that we all are confronting may not seem that bill that is due, or that plan that failed is typically not as ominous and overwhelming as it may originally seem.

When we think of our lives as little blips on the screen of eternity we can take a breath and remind ourselves that “this too shall pass.”

Something else to consider, and an exercise practiced by the Stoics themselves, is to follow your train of thought to its logical conclusion. Instead of living in constant fear of something (say coronavirus), ask yourself “what would happen if I did contract it?” (or, what would happen if I lost my job, or I had to relocate or …) When we confront our fears head on, oftentimes, they begin to shrink rather than grow, and the sunlight that we bestow on them really is the best disinfectant. In addition, this type of thinking allows for the development of creative solutions rather than simply wallowing in fear or misery.

Another philosophical concept that has been popularized in mainstream culture is the “overman,” a Nietzschean term for the type of person who is constantly striving to overcome him or herself, by adapting to both internal and external adversity. Taken to its logical extreme, the concept devolves into caricature (think Superman on steroids) and has even been espoused by unsavory individuals and movements. But there is something to be said about the type of person who understands that struggle is necessary for growth and who willingly accepts adversity and uses it to become better, more mentally and physically fit, more helpful and beneficial to others. Even from a scientific perspective, it seems there can be no growth without struggle. The universe tends towards entropy or disorder – it is only when energy is consumed against resistance that order can be obtained.

Critical Thinking and “Fake News”

Finally, one last thing to help with the anxiety of our modern age and the era of Fake News. Philosophy is sometimes derided as meaningless, useless, and frivolous. IThe author of this piece disagrees, in general, with that statement in general., but in In particular, because the ability to think critically has never been more important at any point in history. When you expose yourself to different ideas you cannot help but become skeptical and a more critical thinker. The ancient Greeks are credited with developing the School of Skeptical philosophy, and that was in part because the Greeks were a seafaring people exposed to different ways of thinking and living as they traveled across the Mediterranean. At least some at the time they must have thought that the success of societies as disparate as Egypt, Phoenicia, Rome, and Carthage must indicate that an unwavering belief that one person, or one community is the holder of absolute truth and that everyone else is wrong cannot be truemust itself be wrong. Developing the ability to think critically is not just an academic exercise, it is vital for success professionally and personally (not to mention physically – see stories of individuals consuming tainted chloroquine or disinfectants.) 

5 Takeaways

1.     Pandemics have been the norm in history, not the exception. We will get through this.

2.     A variety of philosophical schools can help with thinking about pain, struggle and adversity – probably the most famous being Stoicism.

3.     Addressing fears head on is an important way of diminishing their strength

4.     Instead of viewing adversity as something to avoid, take on challenges head on and seek to overcome them.

5.     Develop the ability to question things and develop a skeptical mindset. Being skeptical is not the same as being cynical – a true skeptic reveals that they simply do not know for sure and ask many questions to get to the truth.

6. Think Critically!

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