‘The present moment is all anyone possesses but no-one can lose either their past or their future, for how can someone be deprived of what is not theirs?’

— Marcus Aurelius

Ancient wisdom for modern times

I feel the word ‘unprecedented’ has become somewhat overused these days. It’s difficult not to rely on it to describe a time that feels so radically different to anything in our recent history. But the fact that we’re living through strange times shouldn’t mean that we can’t look back at history and ancient wisdom and apply it to our own lives.

How could the greatest philosophers, thinkers, and religions of the world have anything worth saying about government gone tyrannical over a pandemic, the challenges of evolving technolgy, the misuses of social media, the onset of surveillance capitalism, or cancel culture and climate change? And yet, somehow, the lessons of our ancestors seem more important than ever before.

When the first lockdown began, I came across The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber. For a while, I’ve been trying to push myself to read some of the classic philosophers. Coincidentally, a friend posted a short clip from the book, so I figured that it might be useful to explore the words of advice given on how to live a happier and more meaningful life (sounds pretty good, right?).

I began the lockdown having been forced home from my winter job in Australia due to the pandemic. I’ve had to leave the country in less than 24-hours. I arrived home with a dreadful mix of anger, fear, confusion, resentment and exhaustion. The sheer unknown of every waking moment that has drenched most of 2020 and 2021, only to be described as pure chaos by the likes of Jordan Peterson, did not improve my mindset. But one philosophical discipline that has proved incredibly useful in this time of chaos has been Stoicism.

The basics of Stoicism

One of the basic tenets of Stoicism is that you are the one who is in control of your emotions. You must start by concerning yourself only with the things that you can affect, everything else is beyond your control and should be accepted as such. Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest Roman Emperors and perhaps one of history’s more famous stoics wrote:

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength’.

The traffic? Nothing you can do. Raining all week? Try changing that! Forced by law to stay inside? There might have been something I could have done, such as protest, but early on I had no idea what this virus was or just how serious it will become. Lockdown seemed like a sensible option. Thus, stuck in the house, I had to accept my fate.

These ancient practices resonate so well now for a simple reason. The ancient world was beset by far more tragedy than we can imagine in our mollycoddled 21st century. Arguably, the greatest stoic philosopher was Seneca the Younger. Seneca was banished from Rome at the behest of the wife of Emperor Claudius on charges of adultery and sent to live on the island of Corsica.

He spent eight years in exile before being recalled by Claudius’ second wife to tutor her son Nero (who would later become emperor himself). Eight years away from civilisation may feel like torture to a learned man in ancient times, but Seneca remained happy and positive. He used his time in exile to write positively and explore the potential of a change in circumstances.

In De Consolatione ad Helviam, dated to roughly a year after his exile, Seneca tells his mother that she should not mourn his absence as he does not feel grief from having been disgraced. He talks of his exile as merely being a ‘change of place’.

He writes:

‘I am joyous and cheerful, as if under the best of circumstances. And indeed, now they are the best, since my spirit, devoid of all other preoccupations, has room for its own activities, and either delights in easier studies or rises up eager for the truth, to the consideration of its own nature as well as that of the universe’.

What is possible

I often wonder if Julian Assange maintains such positivity in his imprisonment or Edward Snowden in his exile. In The Little Book Of Stoicism, Salzgeber encourages us not to fall prey to lamentations of the difficulties of life. He writes, ‘Don’t wish for life to be hard, but neither wish for it to be easier when it gets tough. Rather wish for the strength to deal with it’. It’s a lesson we can all learn from given the last thirteen months of yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns. We cannot wish the pandemic away, we must make the most of what is possible.

Our civil freedoms have never been more restricted in modern times. It’s no wonder we have all felt resentful of our situation over the past year. But perhaps this is why some of the lessons of Stoicism and other ancient philosophies ring truer in 2021. We have never been closer to experiencing the kind of uncertainty and chaos that beset the pre-modern world.

The anger we have all felt this past year is a familiar sentiment. Frodo expresses something of a similar nature to Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings when he decries the perilous situation and the times he has been subjected to as an accident of birth. I often find myself wondering how much better my life might have been in the ’60s or the ’70s.

Tolkien’s writing was honed in a time of seemingly endless war and what may have felt, at times, as a futile fight against the Nazis. He was far more familiar with the unstable nature of existence than we will likely ever be, Covid or not.

So the next time you find yourself feeling resentful of the times we are living through, remember Gandalf’s words:

So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time we have left’.

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