Relief in Philosophy

We are living in a period of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There is tremendous suffering in the world as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. People are ill, some terminally. Many of us have been working from home for over two weeks now, with all the stress that implies. Some haven’t been working at all, which is even more stressful. Nobody knows when the situation will change for the better.

I’m fortunate to be healthy and busy at the moment, but that doesn’t relieve my anxiety about the future. Spurred by my conversation with Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, I decided to revisit Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. As I’ve noted before, I give priority to sources that have stood the test of time. Few are as timely in our current crisis as Meditations, which was written almost two thousand years ago. Towards the end of the second book, Marcus Aurelius makes the following observation:

In human life, the time of our existence is a point, our substance a flux, our senses dull, the fabric of our entire body subject to corruption, our soul ever restless, our destiny beyond divining, and our fame precarious. In a word, all that belongs to the body is in a stream in flow, all that belongs to the soul, mere dream and delusion, and our life is a war, a brief stay in a foreign land, and our fame thereafter, oblivion.

This passage leapt at me during this re-reading. Marcus Aurelius seems to be writing about our present experience. (Perhaps because the present moment is a reflection of the human experience.) The key question, of course, is how to act when faced with ongoing, unpredictable change. How do we conduct ourselves in times of VUCA? Or as Marcus Aurelius puts it, “what can serve as our escort and guide?” He provides an answer:

One thing and one thing alone, philosophy; and that consists in keeping the guardian-spirit within us inviolate and free from harm, and ever superior to pleasure and pain, and ensuring that it does nothing at random and nothing with false intent or presence, and that it is not dependent on another’s doing or not doing some particular thing, and furthermore that it welcomes whatever happens to it and is allotted to it, as issuing from the source from which it too took its origin, and above all, that it awaits death with a cheerful mind as being nothing other than the releasing of the elements from which every living creature is compounded.

This passage reflects the Buddhist concept of equanimity, at least as I interpret both. It’s a consoling stance, but not one that comes naturally. As Marcus Aurelius suggests, this approach requires vigilance and practice. The payoff is peace of mind, even under distressing conditions. The current situation offers a good motive and context for such practice.