September 2021

In uncertain times, we can draw on wisdom of Stoics

Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations are frequent bedside companions of mine. Almost 2000 years after the Meditations were written, Aurelius’s reflections and wisdom on the vagaries and vicissitudes of life still have a contemporary bite.

Aurelius was a Stoic, a practitioner of a somewhat austere moral philosophy that stresses the degree to which much in our lives is beyond our control. Rather than railing against this, Stoicism counsels resignation to the twists and turns of fate. It urges instead that we embrace what we can control – our internal reaction to such events – and adopt a casual indifference to that which we cannot.

In modern parlance, Stoicism preaches a combination of resilience and mindfulness.

Uncertainty was a given in the ancient world. People’s lives were often cut short by famine, war and disease. Average life expectancy was somewhere between 30 and 40 years. Much was beyond their control. Even more was beyond their comprehension, given the limitations of science at the time. The standard explanation for most catastrophes involved the supernatural.

Aurelius was on my mind a few weeks back when I was doing an interview on the ABC, hosted by Patricia Karvelas, with my usual partner in that slot, Labor MP Peter Khalil.

In a slip that was more Freudian than factual, Peter levelled the accusation that the federal government should have done modelling to map out the exit from the pandemic a full 18 months ago.

For those who can cast their minds back to February last year, this was when the Covid-19 pandemic was just beginning. The virus only just had been genomically sequenced. We knew scarcely anything about transmission or disease mechanisms, or what public health measures were effective or necessary. No one knew whether an effective vaccine could be developed or how long this might take.

I am certain Peter just misspoke, but the exchange revealed a broader dynamic that has been at work throughout this pandemic – and that is the irresponsible fiction, constantly promoted in Australia, that there is some sort of perfect way to manage this crisis. Citizens today, especially in a secure and advanced nation such as Australia, have come to expect a high degree of predictability and control over their lives.

Famine no longer exists. Natural disasters can be predicted and mitigated. Disease is understood and can be treated. The risk of arbitrary violence or war cutting one’s life short is exceedingly slim. Life expectancy has doubled in the past century and continues to grow.

The great achievement of modernity has been to de-risk our daily lives. We have grown accustomed to being masters of our own fate and destiny. As a result, there is little need for Stoicism as a philosophy or the virtues of humility and submission that established religions preach. The pandemic has up-ended all that. The security and certainty of daily life have been threatened. We have experienced a historical throwback to the plague, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that we thought banished forever.

Our personal freedoms and sense of agency have been constrained by the exigencies of public health controls. We have been forced to grapple with and accommodate uncertainties that are entirely unfamiliar. Will I contract Covid-19 and, if so, how badly? When will schools reopen? When will state border closures and lockdowns end? Will my business be viable after the pandemic? Will international travel ever be the same again? Uncertainty about the future, and a feeling that it is out of your hands, is a recipe for public anxiety. It is also fertile ground for simplistic solutions and populism masquerading as policy. With the public plagued by uncertainty, populists peddling absolutist answers have found a ready audience in Australia. We have had the Covid-zero zealots, promising we can exterminate a virus and eliminate risk. We have had premiers fetishise the closing of internal borders as the ready-made solution to every problem. We have had politicians claiming the wisdom of hindsight and demanding a road map out of this crisis before it even started. And we have had media and commentators prone to catastrophisation rather than interrogation.

At its worst, this has preyed on and exacerbated the vulnerabilities of an uncertain public, offering sloganeering and simple answers to what are highly complex public policy problems. Australia has not managed this crisis perfectly. No country has. Doubtless there will be lessons learnt in the wash-up and an honest appraisal of how we could have performed better.

But on any fair assessment, Australia has fared remarkably well. We have not had the tens of thousands of deaths seen in comparable countries. Though businesses have suffered, our economy remains intact and healthy. Social cohesion has remained strong. We have had our lockdowns and restrictions but only a fraction of those experienced overseas. Our vaccine uptake is high and growing.

Australia’s public policy response to this challenge should be scrutinised and questioned. But in doing so, it would be wise to keep in mind the wisdom of the Stoics.

Humanity’s mastery and knowledge of our environment is incomplete. People are fallible. And despite our best efforts, uncertainty and risk will remain intrinsic features of the human condition.

Published in The Australian, 31 August 2021.