As Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus found during World War II, times of social stress can be a productive crucible in which to observe human ethics. This piece from The Washington Post goes back to a different turbulent period in world history -- the reign of the Roman emperor Nero -- to consider how the observations of Seneca and Epictetus, both Stoics, are useful food for thought during this time of pandemic:
"The happy life is not to be found in pleasures or possessions, wrote Seneca, who was soon to be stripped of both. It is a life spent in pursuit of virtue, of learning what is the right thing to do and then doing it — no matter how many people do otherwise. We may live to old age or die young; we may be healthy or sick, rich or poor: These are matters of fortune beyond our control. We control only our own thoughts and actions, how we conduct ourselves and how we treat others. ... In written versions of his plain-spoken lessons, Epictetus stressed the difference between the few things we control — our own thoughts and actions — and the many things beyond our control. Like the slightly older Seneca, he observed how much unhappiness is caused by confusing these matters. When my daughter read the philosopher’s admonition to greet even the death of one’s child with equanimity, we cringed together. But then I ventured that maybe Epictetus was trying to shock us into seeing that his philosophy of taking nothing for granted, of making the best of each moment, applies even in the worst of circumstances."
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