How can the thoughts of Roman politician and general help us today?
Welcome to the Marcus Antonius school of resilience. OK, you might be asking, who was Marcus Antonius, and what’s he got to do with the pandemic we’re facing today? Well, the short answer is – a great deal! More commonly known in English as Mark Antony (or Anthony), he was a Roman politician and general who played a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic from an oligarchy into the autocratic Roman Empire. But wait, there’s more! Not only is he generally recognized as the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity, he also gave his name to a serious virus that’s estimated to have killed some 5 million people – the Antonine Plague.
Wrote and died in a plague
While this mysterious plague was striking down hundreds of thousands and devastating towns, Marcus chronicled his Stoic philosophy in a book called “The Meditations,” which dealt with how he coped with the fear, anxiety, pain and loss he experienced during this challenging period. As it turns out, his writings are exactly what we need today to help develop the resilience we need to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the basic psychological principles of Stoicism is that “good” is found in ourselves – in our actions and our character. So, what do they mean by that? Stoics believe that things that happen to us our never totally up to us, but – and this is a big “but” – our own thoughts and actions are! In other words, even though this pandemic is not under my control, my opinion and response to it are. Consequently, it’s our opinions about Covid-19 make us afraid, not the virus itself.
By reflecting on patience, wisdom, self-discipline and other character strengths, Stoics like Marcus believe they can become more resilient in the face of fear and adversity. Marcus also observed how others coped with challenges and learned from them. “With all of this in mind, it’s easier to understand another common slogan of Stoicism: ‘fear does us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid.’ This applies to unhealthy emotions in general, which the Stoics term ‘passions’ – from pathos, the source of our word ‘pathological.’ It’s true, first of all, in a superficial sense. Even if you have a 99% chance, or more, of surviving the pandemic, worry and anxiety may be ruining your life and driving you crazy. In extreme cases, some people may even take their own lives,” according to Donald Robertson, a cognitive behavioral therapist and author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.”
Confronting your own mortality
I’ve written about confronting your own mortality in “Forty Tools for Life” and in previous posts. Most people don’t want to do this, preferring to ignore it or stick their heads in the sand. But let’s face it, the worst Covid-19 can do is kill us. But when we allow fear and anxiety to take control, it can ruin the “now,” which is all we really have. When fear knocks at your door, don’t allow it in to harm your health and quality of life. We are all aware that life doesn’t continue forever and that we all die – eventually. Marcus confronted his own mortality both before and on his deathbed, according one historian. As the story goes, Marcus asked why his friends were crying at his deathbed. He was puzzled because he believed that we should all accept illness and death as part of life’s cycle. Marcus wrote on this theme many times in “The Meditations,” telling himself, “All that comes to pass – even illness and death – should be as familiar as the rose in spring and the fruit in autumn. I believe we can all find strength in the words of Marcus Antonius.