Stoics would approve: Following a decree issued by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on March 9, all commercial activities have been required to close after 6 pm with the exception of food shops. The squares of Italian cities have emptied; bars, restaurants, cafes and covered markets are now deserted. Movement is allowed only for business purposes and home deliveries and for close personal reasons. The streets are patrolled by police forces. This photo was taken at Piazza Capitaniato, Padua, on Monday. Photo: AFP / Roberto Silvino / NurPhoto

Earlier this week a delegation of Chinese medics arrived at Malpensa airport near Milan from Shanghai on a special China Eastern flight carrying 400,000 masks and 17 tons of equipment. The salutation banner the visitors rolled out on the tarmac, in red and white, read, “We’re waves from the same sea, leaves from the same tree, flowers from the same garden.”

In a stance of supreme cross-cultural elegance, this was inspired by the poetics of Seneca, a Stoic. The impact, all over Italy, where people still study the classics, was immense.

The Chinese were consulted in advance and they preferred Seneca to a Chinese saying. After all, for China, a 5,000-year-old civilization-state that has confronted perhaps more than its share of instances of luan (“chaos”), there’s nothing more rejuvenating than post-chaos. 

China is donating coronavirus test kits to Cambodia. China sent planeloads of masks, ventilators – and medics – to Italy and France. China sent medics to Iran, which is under unilateral, illegal US sanctions – and to Iraq, which the Pentagon is bombing again. China is helping across the (Eurasian) board, from the Philippines to Spain. 

President Xi Jinping, in a phone call with Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, pledged in the wake of Covid-19 to establish a Health Silk Road, a companion to the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative.

Thus, finally, there’s the Philosophical Silk Road celebrated at an Italian airport, a meeting of Greek/Latin stoicism with Chinese stoicism.

Slave, orator, emperor

Stoicism, in Ancient Greece, was pop culture – reaching out in a way that the sophisticated Platonic and Aristotelian schools could only dream of. Like the Epicureans and the Skeptics, the Stoics owed a lot to Socrates who always stressed that philosophy had to be practical, capable of changing our priorities in life.

The Stoics were very big on ataraxia – freedom from disturbance – as the ideal state of our mind. The wise man cannot possibly be troubled because the key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about.

So the Stoics were Socratic in the sense that they were striving to offer peace of mind to Everyman. Like a Hellenistic version of the Tao.    

The great ascetic Antisthenes was a companion of Socrates and a precursor of the Stoics. The first Stoics took their name from the porch – stoa – in the Athenian market where official founder Zeno of Citium (333-262 BC) used to hang out. But the real deal was in fact Chrisippus, a philosopher specialized in logic and physics, who may have written as many as 705 books, none of which survived.

The West came to know the top Stoics as a Roman trio – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. They are the role models of stoicism as we know it today.

Epictetus (50-120 AD) was born as a slave in Rome, then moved to Greece and spent his life examining the nature of freedom.

Seneca (5 BC-65 AD), a fabulous orator and decent dramatist, was exiled to Corsica when he was falsely accused of committing adultery with the sister of emperor Claudius. But afterward he was brought back to Rome to educate the young Nero, and ended up sort of forced by Nero to commit suicide.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (The Younger) c5 BC-65 AD. Roman Stoic philosopher, committing suicide in his bath, having antagonised Nero. Photo AFP / rom Hartmann Schedel ‘Liber chronicarum mundi’ (Nuremberg Chronicle), 1493 woodcut, Nuremberg

Marcus Aurelius, a humanist, was the prototypical reluctant emperor, living in the turbulent second century AD and configuring himself as a precursor of Schopenhauer: Marcus saw life as really a drag.  

Zeno’s teachers were in fact Cynics (the nickname affixed to them came from a Greek word meaning “dog-like, currish, churlish”) whose core intuition was that nothing mattered more than virtue. So the trappings of conventional society would have to be downgraded to the status of irrelevant distractions at best. Few of today’s (lowercase) cynics would qualify.

It’s enlightening to know that the upper classes of the Roman empire, the 1%, regarded Zeno’s insights as quite solid, while predictably deriding the first punk in history, Diogenes the Cynic, who masturbated in the public square and carried a lantern trying to find a real man.

As much as for Heraclitus, for the Stoics a key element in the quest for peace of mind was learning how to live with the inevitable. This desire for serenity is one of their linkages with the Epicureans.

Stoics were adamant that most people have no clue about the universe they live in. (Imagine their reaction to social networks.) Thus they end up confused in their attitudes towards life. In contrast to Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics were hardcore materialists. They would have none of that talk of “Forms” in an ideal Platonic world. For the Stoics, these were nothing but concepts in Plato’s mind.

For the Epicureans, the world is the unplanned product of chaotic forces.

The Stoics, in contrast, thought the world was a matter of organization down to the last detail. 

For the Epicureans, the course of nature is not pre-determined: Fate intervenes in the form of random swerves of atoms. Fate, in ancient Greece, actually meant Zeus.

For the Stoics, everything happens according to fate: an inexorable chain of cause and effect, developing in exactly the same way again and again in a cycle of cosmic creation and destruction – a sort of precursor of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.

Resigned acceptance

The Stoics were heavily influenced by Heraclitus. Stoic physics dealt with the notion of interpenetration: the physical world as a stirred concoction of intermingled substances, quite an extraordinary precursor of the equivalence of energy and matter in Einstein.

What the post-modern world retains from the Stoics is the notion of resigned acceptance – which makes total sense if the world really works according to their insights. If fate rules the world, and practically everything that happens is out of our hands, then realpolitik means to accept “everything to happen as it actually does happen,” in the immortal words of Epictetus.

Thus it’s pointless to get excited about stuff we cannot change. And it’s pointless to be attached to things that we will eventually lose. (But try selling this notion to the Masters of the Universe of financial capitalism.)  

So the Way, according to the Stoics, is to own only the essentials, and to travel light. Lao Tzu would approve. After all, anything we may lose is more or less gone already – thus we are already protected from the worst blows in life.

Lao-Tzu (c.604-531 BC) on his Buffalo, Qing dynasty (ceramic) by Chinese School, (18th century); Musee Guimet, Paris. Photo: AFP

Perhaps the ultimate Stoic secret is the distinction by Epictetus between things that are under our control – our thoughts and desires – and those that are not: our bodies, our families, our property, our lot in life, all elements that the expansion of Covid-19 has now put in check.   

What Epictetus tells you is that if you redirect your emotions to focus on what is in your power and ignore everything else, then “no one will ever be able to exert compulsion upon you, no one will hinder you – neither there’s any harm that can touch you.”

Epictetus the Greek Stoic philosopher. Photo: AFP / ©Costa/leemage

Power ultimately irrelevant

Seneca offered a definitive guide that we may apply to multiple strands of the 1%: “I deny that riches are a good, for if they were, they would make men good. As it is, since that which is found in the hands of the wicked cannot be called a good, I refuse to apply the term to riches.”

The Stoics taught that to enter public life means to spread virtue and fight vice. It’s a very serious business involving duty, discipline and self-control. This goes a long way to explain why over 70% of Italians now applaud the conduct of the prime minister in the fight against Covid-19. Conte did rise to the occasion, unexpectedly, as a neo-Stoic. 

The Stoics regarded death as a useful reminder of one’s fate and of the ultimate insignificance of the things of the world. Marcus Aurelius found enormous consolation in the shortness of life: “In a little while you will be no one and nowhere, even as Hadrian and Augustus are no more.” When circumstances made it impossible to live up to the ideals of Stoic virtue, death was always a viable Plan B.

Epictetus also tells us we should not really be concerned about what happens to our body. Sometimes he seemed to regard death as the acceptable way out of any misfortune.

At the top of their game the Stoics made it clear that the difference between life and death was insignificant, compared with the difference between virtue and vice.

Thus the notion of a noble suicide. Stoic heroism is plain to see in the life and death of Cato The Younger as described by Plutarch. Cato was a fierce opponent of Caesar, and his integrity ruled that the only possible way out was suicide.

According to Plutarch’s legendary account, Cato, on his last night, defended a number of Stoic theses during dinner, retreated to his room to read Plato’s Phaedo – in which Socrates argues that a true philosopher sees all of life as a preparation for death – and killed himself. Of course he became a Stoic superstar for eternity.

The Stoics taught that wealth, status and power are ultimately irrelevant. Once again, Lao Tzu would approve. The only thing that can raise one man above others is superior virtue – of which everyone is capable, at least in principle. So, yes, the Stoics believed we are all brothers and sisters. Seneca: “Nature made us relatives by creating us from the same materials and for the same destiny.”

Imagine a system built on a selfless devotion to the welfare of others, and against all vanity. It’s certainly not what inequality-provoking, financial turbo-capitalism is all about.

Epictetus: “What ought one to say then as each hardship comes? ‘I was practicing for this, I was training for this.’” Will Covid-19 show to a global wave of practicing neo-Stoics that there is another way?           

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