Philosophy for A Time of Crisis

by Eric Weiner,
From Socrates to Camus, thinkers have asked how we should respond when adversity turns our lives upside down.

The Wall Street Journal, August 29-30, 2020, C5

διὰ πίστεως γὰρ περιπατοῦμεν, οὐ διὰ εἴδους.
per fidem enim ambulamus et non per speciem.
For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

Eric Weiner is not an academic philosopher but more a corresondent and journalist who seems to have an interest in philosophy and religion. His article in The Wall Street Journal is to promote his new book The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers [Avid Reader Press, 2020]. The bottom line for his treatment seems to be the promotion of some principles of Stoicism and Existentialism.

Thanks to the pandemic and its economic fallout, we are all philosophers now. The "slow cure," as philosophy has been called, is exactly what we need. This is philosophy not as metaphysical musing but as originally conceived by the ancient Greeks: practical, therapeutic medicine for the soul.

Philosophy helps us to untangle the knotty ethical questions raised by the pandemic, but it can also help us to answer far more personal but equally urgent quandaries. How to endure the unendurable? How to find certainty in an uncertain universe? Philosophy provides no easy answers, but it reframes our questions and alters our perspectives -- a skill that is helpful during good times and invaluable during bad ones.

Weiner's solutions are not good, and he begins with a misdirection about Socrates.

Covid-19 has humbled us, unmoored us. Nothing seems certain anymore. Good, Socrates would say. Western philosophy's patron saint and first martyr would surely recognize our plight. He lived during Athens' decline as a great power, a fall accelerated by military adventurism and the bubonic plague.

Yet Socrates saw opportunity in his troubled times. He buttonholed revered Athenians, from poets to generals, and soon discovered that they weren't as wise as they thought they were. The general couldn't tell him what courage is; the poet couldn't define poetry. Everywhere he turned, he encountered people who "do not know the things that they do not know."

Likewise, today's lockdowns (partial or full) force us to pause and question assumptions so deeply ingrained that we didn't know we had them. This, said Socrates, is how wisdom takes root. We crave a return to "normal," but have we stopped to define normal? We know these times demand courage, but what does courage look like? Already, we've expanded our notion of "hero" to include not only doctors and nurses but grocery clerks and Grubhub couriers. Good, Socrates would say: Now interrogate other "givens."

Weiner isn't too far off on the practice of Socrates, although Socrates went no further than to regard "human wisdom" as the recognition of our own ignorance. That is significant in that Socrates thought that true and proper wisdom belonged only to the gods. That is what Weiner rather significantly leaves out. Weiner implies that "how wisdom takes root" leads to substantive results. Plato hoped so, but that is not what we see in Socrates. Instead, he relies on the gods.

In enduring the perils of life, which is Weiner's theme, Socrates makes some rather astounding claims. In the Apology we find him talking about his accusers:

Neither Meletus nor Anytus can harm me in any way; he could not harm me, for I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse. [30d, G.M.A. Grube translation]

It is the gods, of course, who do not "permit" this. After Socrates is actually condemned to death, he says:

You too must be of good hope as regards death, gentlement of the jury, and keep this one truth in mind, that a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods. [41d]

That's Socrates. But what does Eric Weiner say?

Stoicism was born of disaster -- its founder Zeno established the school of thought in 301 B.C. after he was shipwrecked near Athens -- and it has been dispensing advice on coping with adversity ever since. No wonder it's enjoying a resurgence, one that began before the pandemic.

Stoic philosophy is neatly summed up by the former slave turned teacher Epictetus: "What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about things." Change what you can, accept what you cannot, a formula later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and crafty T-shirt hawkers.

Unfortunately, changing one's judgments does not change the things. True judgments about things may "upset" people, but it also enables them to see things are they are. If you don't do that, you can get hurt.

A good Stoic would have prepared for the pandemic by practicing premeditatio malorum, or "premeditation of adversity." Imagine the worst scenarios, advised the Roman senator and Stoic philosopher Seneca, and "rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." A modern Stoic's list looks a bit different -- a screaming child, unpaid bills, a worrisome fever -- but the idea is the same. By contemplating calamity, we rob future hardships of their bite and appreciate what we have now. Adversity anticipated is adversity diminished.

This sounds like a lot of grim wasted time on things that will not happen. Even imagining calamities probably will not "rob future hardships of their bite," since, as John Locke says, dreaming of being in the fire and being in it are two rather different things. If bad things happen, what is needed for our judgments about them is that they be accurate. As it happens, accurate information and judgment has been the problem in the Corona Virus pandemic, since it has been in the political interest of many to conceal information and downplay or exaggerate dangers.

But Stoicism is harmless enough compared to what Weiner comes to next.

Albert Camus experienced more than his share of adversity: growing up poor in Algeria, enduring a world war and, later, intellectual fisticuffs with his fellow philosophers, before dying in a car accident in 1960 at the age of 46. Camus is the ideal pandemic philosopher, although not for the reasons you might think. It isn't his oft-cited novel "The Plague" that most fully explains our predicament but his lesser-known essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," about the sad figure from Greek mythology, condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again and again.

The pandemic has made a mockery of our grand plans. Graduations, weddings, job prospects -- poof, gone, rolling back down the hill like Sisyphus's boulder. Yet we must persevere, said Camus. Our task, he said, isn't to understand the meaning of catastrophes like Covid-19 (there is none) but to "imagine Sisyphus happy." How? By owning the boulder. By throwing ourselves into the task, despite its futility, because of its futility. "Sisyphus's fate belongs to him," said Camus. "His rock is his thing."

Are you working on a seemingly fruitless project, a dissertation or a marketing strategy, forever delayed, buffeted by the gales of circumstance? Good, Camus says, you've begun to grasp the absurdity of life. Invest in the effort, not the result, and you will sleep better. His prescription is our challenge in the age of Covid-19: staring down the absurdity of our predicament but stubbornly persisting rather than yielding to despair. Just like a good philosopher.

The "absurdity of life" here ends Eric Weiner's article. This is a long, long way from Socrates, who doesn't admit any absurdity in his life. Instead, "his affairs are not neglected by the gods." Just as with 2 Corinthians 5:7, we find that Socrates walks by faith, not by sight. Existentialists like Albert Camus are, of course, atheists. Sisyphus is engaged in a meaningless task, and Camus wants us to imagine that it can, nevertheless, have some kind of meaning. The bite of the example is that to Existentialism, there is no difference between the actual tasks and occupations of life and the punishment inflicted on Sisyphus. But Socrates would not agree with this "absurdity of life" business. It is fine to say "invest in the effort, not the result," but, while many things we do may not achieve the result that we want, the effort is truly meaningful only if the project is meaningful. If Socrates were to ask Camus the kind of thing he did ask people, "Is it good?" Camus could not give an honest positive answer. There is no real good in Existentialism.

This may be why Stoicism appeals to Weiner. If the issue is not the things but our judgments about them, then perhaps we can ignore the things and judge however we like. That is essentially what Camus says. But if the task of Sisyphus is futile, then it actually is futile, whatever Camus recommends that Sisyphus think about it. Confucius was also faced with a task that promised no satisfactory result. It was said to the student of Confucius, Tzu-lu, that "He's the one who knows it's no use, but keeps on doing it; is that not so?" But Confucius and his students knew that their teaching not only was intrinsically good, but that they were following the , Mandate of Heaven. Neither Camus nor Sisyphus, Eric Weiner nor the Stoics, could say quite the same thing. But Socrates could have.


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