By Bob Acebedo | Published: November 25, 2020
There’s no denying that the lingering pandemic scourge has inevitably pushed us acclimatizing into various coping mechanisms – psychological, health-wise, or otherwise.
But, amid our wrenching and uncertain times, can we perchance find refuge in philosophy?
The domain of philosophy comprises the realm of reason, not faith. For the scholastics, it is “scientia rerum per ultimas causas” (science of things through their ultimate causes). For the pragmatists and praxis thinkers, philosophy is a way of life.
Be it theorizing or abstract scrutinizing, mere thinking, doing, or living up, can our present scheme of things impel us to seek answers to such queries as: How do we find certainty in an uncertain world? Is there meaning out of this meaningless situation? Can we endure the unendurable? Just as in good times, philosophy can thrive as well in bad times. Let me offer three philosophical thoughts that can resonate with our pandemic times.
Nietzsche: Suffering Is Meaningful
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German existentialist philosopher, whose life has been largely plagued with health problems, posited that humans suffer for a reason. If life has to be meaningful, this meaning can only be derived from suffering: “Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.”
What is the ultimate value or meaning of suffering? For Nietzsche, it (suffering) can propel man to achieve “greatness”, to become a “higher man” or “superman” (Ubermensch) – an ideal and powerful being, one who has overcome all his inner fears, weaknesses, and deficiencies, and thus who soars above all others.
Thus, from the Nietzschean perspective, our current pandemic suffering can be an opportunity for us to deduce its meaning or value and attain our “greatness”, albeit warts and all.
Epictetus: From Futility To Interconnectedness
The Stoic philosophy can be summed up by the former slave turned teacher Epictetus: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about things.”
Epictetus, who emphasized understanding the difference between what we can and can’t control, is the progenitor of the Stoic’s golden rule of “accepting the things that we cannot change” or “accepting the uncontrollable”.
But Epictetus’s philosophy is not all passive acceptance or devoid of active positivity. From his adversity fate of being a slave, he became a master of Stoic thought and used it to help (teach) others. He thus wrote: “If wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”
Taking this cue, Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor from 161-180 A.D., an avowed Stoic), developed the Stoic concept of “sympatheia” (or interconnectedness), the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.”
Now, how can this backdrop of Stoic philosophy alleviate our current pandemic suffering? In such pandemic crisis as ours, we tend to think only of ourselves – how we’re affected and what we will do to survive.
But it’s important to remember that we and the whole world are all in this together, and therefore we can also get through this together. In a sense, our current global predicament is but an opportunity for us to rise above our parochial selves and recognize our common or shared humanity, and hence find ways to thrive (not just survive) through solidarity and cooperation.
Frankl: Little Things Are Meaningful
Viktor Frankl (proceeding not from mainstream philosophy), who spent three years witnessing the horrible atrocities at the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote: “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see meaning in his life.”
In his all-time bestseller “Man’s Search For Meaning”, there’s an iconic scene where Frankl is engaged in hard labor by a railroad. Thick snow is pounding the prisoners who are already under-clothed, malnourished and utterly exhausted. Hours and hours go by, as Nazi officers beat several prisoners for working too slowly, including Frankl.
In this moment of extreme suffering, Frankl begins to daydream about his wife. It wasn’t the major moments in their relationship he thought of. It was the little things: her smile, the way her hair fell to her shoulders, her laugh. All of those traits, while they were appreciated and admired in those moments, provided Frankl with the will to continue living despite his desolation. (paraphrased from dailystoic.com).
Fast forward to our present pandemic times. In such time of crisis, of lack or economic fallout, of uncertainty, we are sometimes engrossed on stressing what we don’t have or what we have lost, rather than what we still have.
Like Frankl who found positive meaning from “little things” in his incarceration, we can draw out snippets of inspiration or meaning from our pandemic scourge – being grateful for our enduring health, for spending time with our family, for embracing each day as a gift, and by counting more of our big “little things” or blessings.
But, aside from the realm of reason or more than these three philosophical thoughts, how does faith, or the Christian perspective in particular, tackle the present pandemic crisis? That would be the subject of this column later.