For those in my position, being in lockdown could be called a “First World Problem”, which is to say a problem that those in “developed” nations have the luxury to worry about, but those who live in poverty do not. That is to say, it is a problem of the soul, rather than a problem of the body. My employment is not (yet) at risk. I am comfortable at home. My material concerns are cared for. Arguably, I have nothing to complain about and should just get over the frustration and sadness caused by not being able to go out, see my loved ones and go to the pub.
There is a danger in this way of thinking. It implies that those like my friends who are key workers, facing the danger of infection and the reality of exhaustion, and other friends who have lost their jobs and are worried about their future, do not also have problems of the soul, or, to use a more modern idiom, mental health. Spiritual problems, for want of a better term, are something that can happen to all of us, regardless of the material situation we are in. Anxiety, depression, stress and even boredom do not require free-time to affect us, and no one is immune from the need to seriously consider the path to happiness.
The path to happiness was the prime concern of the schools of philosophy of the Hellenistic period, which spanned from Alexander’s conquest of the world to the beginning of the Roman Imperial era. Athens of this time saw six different schools of thought, each claiming to show the true path to happiness and contentment, advocating for a way of life: the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Platonists, the Aristotleans, the Stoics and the Epicureans. While the Cynics and the Sceptics were only schools in the sense of “a school of thought”, the others were so in a literal sense. They were institutions where people could go to study philosophy with the hope of attaining happiness. Each school defended a way of life, a path to happiness and contentment, challenging the citizens of Athens to direct their lives away from the business of society and grow in their understanding of themselves.
The core of Ancient Greek philosophy from Socrates onward was that happiness and virtue could only be gained through wisdom. For the Stoics and the Epicureans, this became very literal. Both offered competing doctrines of nature that were intended to support and justify a certain way of living. From the outside, both the Stoics and Epicureans were very similar. They taught that we should not get too attached to the material goods of society. Both spent a lot of time reading and writing. They had modest appetites and few possessions. However, they differed in terms of their basic doctrines. The Stoics were, to put it very simply, interested in how we can try to do good things in an imperfect world where not everything goes to plan. Epicurus and his followers, by contrast, were interested in how we could find contentment in the simplest life possible, finding happiness by simply feeling comfortable in our own skin. I think both schools have something to teach us as we find our own ways through this pandemic.
For the Stoics, who are fairly popular today, happiness was found in moral virtue. They argued that we should strive to do the right thing even if it doesn’t work out. Their doctrine, their fundamental account of reality, was fatalism. They argued that everything in the natural world is entirely out of our control: natural disasters, illnesses and our own mortality were things we just had to accept because there is nothing we can do about them. However, they argued that we have freedom within our souls. We have control over what we think and what we try to do, even if we can’t control what happens when we do it. This means that we can still try to bring about good for each other, we could still intervene in the world to right moral issues.
Today, this distinction has broken down through technology. The pandemic we are living through is a clear example. Right now, both state and private organisations are working to reduce the spread of the disease and provide care for those who have contracted it. In short, we are trying to steer the course of nature. As a society, we no longer believe that nature is uncontrollable, as did the Stoics. Yet, as individuals, there is much that is out of our control. The Stoics have good advice for those of us working today under difficult conditions. I am thinking in particular of those who are working in care and in health services, but also those who are working in teams with reduced staffing and higher workloads. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what happens at work is fated to be, but it is quite often out of our control, at least without industrial action. If we could all learn to accept that, no matter how hard we try, some things just aren’t going to happen under these conditions, we may be able to be kinder to ourselves. We should not punish ourselves for failing where it was impossible to succeed.
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Epicurus, often overlooked, has a different lesson to teach. Epicurus taught a doctrine known as hedonism, which means that he thought that happiness is pleasure. Yet, he did not mean this in the modern sense of the term. He did not advise us to lose ourselves in debauchery. For Epicurus, the greatest pleasure was actually the simple absence of pain. And pain itself came primarily from desiring the wrong things. He argued that we need to take pleasure in what is easy to get, which is to say what is most permanent and abundant in our lives. Fine wines are pleasurable but they are expensive and hard to source. By contrast, the simple pleasure of sitting and feeling the state of equilibrium in a comfortable body is easier to find, as long as we are healthy and able. He also argued that pain can come from fear. And so, he provided philosophical arguments designed to dispel our fears. Most famously, he argued that we should not fear death, because once it happens to us, we will no longer be around to suffer from it.
Happiness, according to Epicurus was found in physical health, an absence of fear and seeking only those pleasures that are easy to find. This thought has certainly helped me in these last few weeks of lockdown. I thought I lead a relatively simple life. I found pleasure mainly in seeing friends and loved ones, going for drinks with them and reading and writing in coffee shops a few times a week. I thought these pleasures were simple and easy to gain. I was clearly wrong since they have been taken from me. However, I do still have everything that Epicurus prized: I am (mostly) healthy, I am not in fear and I can repose in the simple joy of existing.
For others, these may be harder to find. Not everyone has as secure access to food and shelter as I. Both the mainstream and social media are contributing to a rise in fear. Daily dispatches of the death toll and infection rate in the former and conspiracy theories on the latter trigger dread rather than to inform and educate. I would say the truly Epicurean response to this lockdown, then, is for governments to continue to bring in measures to protect peoples’ homes and livelihoods, so that we can have health. Then, as individuals, we can ration our consumption of news and be sure to investigate the truth behind the claims of Facebook videos. If we all have food and shelter, then we can create the space to know ourselves better, finding happiness in our own skin. Personally, I have taken up yoga.
Matthew Barnard is a lecturer in philosophy for Manchester Metropolitan University. He specialises in post-Kantian philosophy and has taught in various fields for eight years.