I Ask Epictetus How We Can Best Cope with a Pandemic

As I’ve mentioned before once or twice, I have an imaginary friend named Ishmael Gradsdovic who has a symbiotic relationship of sorts with a telepathic tapeworm who can communicate with the dead.

This is peculiar, of course, but it also represents an opportunity, and I have been able to use this strange chain of communication to get some remarkable celebrity interviews in the past, for example with Mahatma Gandhi and Aristotle.

I’ve lately been using some of my sequestered pandemic time to help out the Standard Ebooks project. They take public domain texts and create exacting-quality ebooks out of them, then release them for free (libre y gratis). Last month I finished editing Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations for the project, and soon I hope to also be able to announce the release of The Discourses of Epictetus.

While I was editing that book, it occurred to me to ask Mr. Gradsdovic if he could arrange an interview with Epictetus himself. It doesn’t have any tax resistance content, but it’s timely enough that I thought I’d share it here. And he’s delightfully just as cantankerous in person today as he comes across in Arrian’s lecture notes from nineteen centuries ago:

Thank you for taking time to speak with us, Epictetus. I think your Stoic wisdom has the potential to be very helpful to us as we face these anxious times.
Your times are anxious? Tell me more about these anxious times. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Do these times tremble? Do they wring their hands and cringe? Do their knees knock?
I forgot I was speaking with a philosopher. I should be more precise: the occurrences that are taking place in the times we are living through are making us anxious.
Ah, I see. That is much more in my bailiwick. You are not suffering from hallucinations; you are merely foolish and ignorant.
Well, hear me out. In the last few months a new disease has been spreading rapidly throughout the world. It’s particularly dangerous: it’s killed thousands of people already and is currently the most deadly infectious disease on Earth.
And before this disease arrived nobody got sick and died and everyone was secure in their lives forever.
No, of course not. But this is a new threat we haven’t faced before, and there’s no reason to belittle it: it really is endangering people. It’s also disrupting lives: people are losing their jobs, becoming socially isolated for fear of contributing to the spread of the disease, and suffering also from fear of the unknown: it’s hard to know whom to trust or where to find good sources of information or what the best course of action is — we feel in the dark about what the future holds.
Your crystal balls have malfunctioned too, then? That’s rough.
And at a time when we could really use some wise leadership, the head of our national government is an insane narcissist with tyrannical impulses such as we’ve never seen before.
That sounds awful. I might know a thing or two about that. I grew up a slave during the reign of Nero, who had a thing for executing Stoics and their families, and later I had to flee Rome for Greece when one of Nero’s successors banned philosophers from Italy entirely so we wouldn’t compete with the state religion in which the emperor was officially a god. Please tell me more about your unprecedentedly insane and narcissistic tyrant. I’d love to compare notes.
Never mind. Could you just give us some advice on how we might cope with things better without getting so stressed out?

I could, but I don’t know if it would do much good. You have to want to get better, and most people don’t. You know the old joke?

Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor: “Well, stop doing that.”

That’s pretty much the advice I’m going to give you, and you’re probably going to just ignore it and go on hurting yourself.

Try me.

Okay; here goes: You say you’re anxious because of this new pandemic, or because you might get sick and die, or because people you care about might, or because you don’t know the future, or because don’t know who you can trust, or because the tyrant is mad and erratic. But none of those things is making you anxious. You’re the only one who can make yourself anxious. It was your own foolish decision to condition your anxiety on all of those various things that are totally outside of your control. You could, and should, decide to take that power back and no longer have any anxiety for things that aren’t in your control.

Do not will things that are not in the power of your will. Can you will the virus away? No, you can’t. Can you will a sick person healthy or a dead person back to life? No, you can’t. So don’t strain your will with anguish about these things. They are merely facts, neither good nor bad, just parts of the plot line of the story you’re in. What is in the power of your will? Discover that, and will only those things that are in your power to will, and you’re golden.

So if someone I love catches a deadly disease, you think I should just be like “whatever”?
I don’t think you should just-be-like anything other than you decide to just-be-like. What do I care if you’re giving yourself conniptions or not? That’s your own business. All I’m saying is that being distressed is unpleasant, unhelpful, unwise, and totally optional. Behaving Stoically, on the other hand, means living in a universe that is always going your way, being impeded by nothing, and putting all of your efforts toward attainable goals, as you proceed with honor and dignity through life. Make your own bed. If you decide to be all bent out of shape because a pandemic happens, you be you. I’ll be over here being tranquil, balanced, serene, and content with every new thing fate casts down.
How am I supposed to say “oh well, that’s just the universe going my way” when someone I love dies, or when I’m personally threatened by pain and death? Can you really expect me not to get upset in a situation like that?

I make it a policy not to have expectations of that sort. But you would be wise to behave in just that way. Let me try to spell this out for you: If you were a god, perhaps you would be responsible for deciding who is mortal and who is immortal, for how mortals die and when and how, and so forth. But you aren’t. None of that is your responsibility. You will die before some people, and other people will die before you do. Don’t like that deal? You can always check out early. Meanwhile, you have the responsibility to live honorably, to do whatever duties lie before you, to reason correctly, and things of that sort. All those things are in your power; but life and death and other accidents of fate are not.

If you take the things that are in your control, like your own attitudes, and give them away to tyrants and viruses and obituaries to do with as they will, you’re selling yourself into slavery, and not getting much of anything in return so far as I can see. A virus can make you sick, fill your lungs with snot, kill you. Why also give it the power to make you miserable?

But isn’t misery just a natural response to miserable circumstances? Of course I’m going to feel awful if I’m feverish and drowning in mucus. There’s no look-on-the-bright-side way out of that.

What possible good can misery do you? If you’re sick maybe you should get a doctor, or take your medicine, or something of that sort. But no doctor ever said: get more miserable and if that doesn’t work, call me in the morning. If there’s something that can be done, do it. If not, go ahead and die. You knew it would happen eventually.

You’ve known you were going to die since you were a child. When you found out, did you throw a tantrum and say you didn’t want to be born if you knew that was part of the deal? No: you just took that as part of the bargain and forged ahead. Do that with everything else, too, and you’re doing fine: I was born into slavery? Okay; I can work with that. My owner broke my leg and it didn’t set properly? I guess I’ll find myself a cane. I got exiled to Greece? Let’s see what there is to do in Greece. But no whining!

But Epictetus…!

Unless you like whining; ain’t nothing to me. If you come to me for instruction, though, I’ll put my best effort into curing you of your ignorance. That’s my station in life as a philosopher and a teacher. But if you’re just curious about my perspective or some bullshit like that… take a hike. There are millions of other people with opinions you can peruse in your spare time. Go watch a TED Talk. I don’t have time for that. If you want to stop suffering, have all of your desires fulfilled, and live your life almost as one of the gods, do as I tell you. If you’d rather keep suffering, you can instead keep hoping that nobody you know suffers or dies, you’ll never go bankrupt or get sick or get on the wrong side of the government, people will always adore you and find you witty and fashionable, and so forth. See how well that works out for you.

Most people have it backwards: The sensible, reasonable thing to do is to accept the facts of the matter as being nothing other than exactly what they are, and then to strive to make your reactions and intentions what they ought to be. Instead, people are careless and frivolous about their reactions and intentions and spend all their time wishing reality would bend itself to their whims because they think that this would somehow benefit them.

I just can’t imagine looking at some tragic event or someone in pain or some great injustice and thinking “ah, fine. Best of all possible worlds and all that. Right ho.”

Look: I know this isn’t as crazy-sounding to you as you’re making it out to be. You have your mythological heroes just like we had our Hercules. Imagine your James Bond, for instance. He’s trying to save the world from Professor Terrible or something but instead he gets caught and is being slowly lowered into the piranha tank. Does he say to himself, “aha! Now is the perfect time to get miserable! Woe is me, what a terrible thing! I had such better plans than this!” No: he just gets down to the business of being James Bond — doing whatever can be done in the circumstances he finds himself in. And if the time comes when he runs out of ideas and the villains finally do him in, do I expect him to wail and moan? No; Mr. Bond, I expect you to die. That is all.

When you see a tragic event, this is your opportunity to be the best person-seeing-a-tragedy you know how to be. When you see someone in pain, you can spring into action and be the best-you-responding-to-pain you are capable of. When you see a great injustice, put on a red cape if you have to. But whatever you do, don’t suffer about it.

Or go ahead and suffer. What do I care? It’s not my business. You asked about your anxiety; I told you how to fix it. Whether you do or not is entirely up to you.

Well, thank you. I’ll try to take what you’ve said to heart. It won’t be easy, but I see how it might be the sort of harsh medicine we need right now.

The free ebook version of the Discourses of Epictetus was released by the Standard Ebooks project on 7 April 2020. Download a copy here.