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Grace under pressure: how coronavirus is testing the world's self-image

Stoicism is a part of many nations’ identity, not just Britain’s: can the pandemic be met with dispassionate resilience? 

If there is one poem that sums up the British cult of stoicism, the stiff-upper-lip, it is “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Its politically dubious roots –  inspired by an excitable Scottish colonial administrator’s failed coup d’état in the Transvaal in 1895 – take away little from its enduring influence on how Britons see themselves. Voted the nation’s favourite poem in a BBC poll in 1995, its lines come to mind when we witness our compatriots responding stolidly and dispassionately after some large or small trauma: “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs…/If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same…”

Yet the poem is also much more than British. Ahead of the Munich Agreement in 1938, the Czech political magazine Prítomnost published it as a call for national resilience. In the 1961 Kenyan election Tom Mboya, one of the founding fathers of the country’s independent republic, recited it to a huge crowd at an end-of-campaign election rally in Nairobi. What other poem could, as “If” does, at once adorn a tennis club that hosted the US Open, feature in the film Apocalypse Now and, according to the Indian writer Khushwant Singh, represent the prayer-like “essence of the message of the Gita [a Hindu text] in English”. The poem is universal.

We Brits might like to think that stoicism, our stiff upper lip, sets us apart from what we imagine to be more flappable peoples. We might see our cities getting on with their business after a terror attack or a natural disaster, for example, and approvingly deem that behaviour “typically British”. We are, however, indulging in a self-flattering fantasy. Most cultures have some notion that certain or most things are out of our control. And most cultures consider it in some form virtuous to accept this reality by treating Kipling’s “two imposters”, triumph and disaster, with equanimity. (It might horrify some British exceptionalists to learn that the very term “stiff upper lip” was originally an Americanism.)

If we needed proof of that, coronavirus is it. At the time of writing there were 116,358 confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world. China, along with South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, seemed to have contained the virus through draconian restrictions on everyday life – measures that others would soon have to impose to slow the spread and keep their health systems from becoming overwhelmed. Italy’s government had just extended the lockdown affecting northern regions to the whole country, with alarming reports of hospitals unable to cope with the numbers of ill. The figures in Iran, too, were shooting upwards, with several political leaders infected and the true numbers thought by many to be much higher than reported. Early-stage countries such as the US were only starting to brace for the scale of the disruption and grief ahead. And that was without getting into the looming human costs of  the financial turmoil rippling around the planet in the virus’s wake.

We are probably much closer to the start of this saga than to the end. But one pattern is becoming clear. Around the world as in Britain, political and moral leaders, commentators and ordinary citizens are urging their fellow citizens to respond with dispassionate resilience, often by invoking it as a supposedly distinctive national trait. Sometimes populations are living up to their stoical self-images; sometimes they are conspicuously not. And it is the very centrality of stoical behaviour in so many value systems that makes the coronavirus a test of the things societies tell themselves about how they behave in adversity and thus about who they really are. It is a mirror, revealing whether those things are really true. The question is: will people like what they see in it?

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Stoicism, of course, is a classical Western tradition that corresponds to comparable, but philosophically distinct, notions of dispassionate resilience in other cultures. But it is as good a place as any to start. Zeno of Citium, the philosopher who founded the school around a “stoa” (colonnade) in the Athens Agora in the 3rd century BC, and his Greek and Roman followers, argued that the world is governed by a divine “logos”, or law, which orders everything. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and notable Stoic, wrote: “Look at the plants, sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy with their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world order.” The upshot, the Stoics claimed, was that we should accept what happens to us, good or bad, as part of this providential order and instead seek virtue by elevating reason and modesty above the passions. “If it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be,” wrote the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in his Enchiridion, or Handbook.

Stoicism was revived from the 16th century and became a crucial influence on the modern Western mind. Seneca’s play Phaedra was the first classical theatre-piece to be performed in the Renaissance. Stoic notions of tranquillity informed Reformation and Counter-Reformation thought. Prussia’s Frederick the Great is said to have carried the works of the Stoics with him in his saddlebags because they could “sustain you in misfortune”, and Thomas Jefferson to have kept the works of Seneca by his bedside. George Washington staged a play about Cato, another Stoic, at Valley Forge to steel his soldiers for battle. Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” of the market, and thus much of modern economics, was inspired by the Stoic notion of an invisible, natural order to things, imagining Aurelius’s busy ants, sparrows and bees to be proxies for humans acting on price signals.

Britain is most indebted to the Victorians for its love affair with the Stoic ideal. They found in Stoic philosophy a code of valour and decency for an empire that spanned the Earth – and did plenty of not very valiant or decent things. Kipling is one notable example of this infatuation; another is Matthew Arnold, with poems such as “Dover Beach” of 1851: “We are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash  by night.”


Voice of stoicism: Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” has come to embody the stiff upper lip. Credit:: Getty

Stoicism has received its share of criticism and been called both imperialistic and individualistic; the poet John Milton, for example, scoffed that there is no such thing as self-sufficiency. None of the accusations is entirely without justice. The whiff of unfeeling Victorian brutality – putting down colonial revolts and sending children to sadistic boarding schools – lingers around works like those of Arnold and Kipling (in 2018 anti-colonialist students defaced a  mural bearing “If” at Manchester University and replaced it with a poem by Maya Angelou). Meanwhile Epictetus’s recommendation that one should not mourn one’s family (“Has your child died? It is restored”) is not unreasonably pressed into the service of the claim that stoicism is clinical or nihilistic.

Yet nor are the critics entirely fair. Epictetus also wrote that one should not be “unfeeling like a statue” and that one should nurture one’s friendships, relationships and other links to fellow citizens. Stoicism, in fact, is a fundamentally universalist philosophy: “Don’t say you’re an ‘Athenian’ or a ‘Corinthian’ but a ‘citizen of the world’,” wrote Epictetus. When we can all be struck down by misfortune, when we are all subject to the same logos, when we share a common capacity for suffering, the case for solidarity is plain.

It is this that Albert Camus’ Stoicism- influenced novel The Plague – widely quoted in the age of coronavirus, and not always to make the right points – so deftly expresses. Bernard Rieux and Jean Tarrou, the protagonists in this tale of a devastating outbreak in the French Algerian city of Oran, are Stoic heroes because they witness the seeming cruelty of fate but labour on in solidarity with their fellow humans. Such wisdom has found another rebirth in recent years as part of the Western trend towards simplicity, slowness and mindfulness: the 2016 book How to be a Stoic by the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci was a bestseller, reinventing the classical idea of a divine logos for a sceptical age as “Einstein’s God”, or the system of causes and effects in the rational, scientifically charted universe.

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Other, similar ideals prevail across human civilisation. Taoism and Confucianism have wu wei or “effortless action”, characterised as existing like water flowing along a channel, in harmony with the natural order of things. Catalans have seny, the notion of calm reason, and the opposite of rauxa (passionate, unmeditated action); Finns have sisu, a sort of stoical determination and grit born of life in the snowy forests; classical Spanish literature and theatre venerates desengaño, or a realisation of the drab or harsh truth of the world. Some Jews describe things they cannot control as beshert, and Japanese people sometimes mark things down as shikata ga nai (it cannot be helped).

Very different nations place what we might consider Stoic or Stoic-adjacent virtues at the heart of their self-image: Italian leftists chant “L’Italia che resiste” – “the Italy that resists” – from “Viva L’Italia”, a 1979 protest song by the singer Francesco De Gregori, while Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance” of 1841 melds stoical stolidness with a frontier mentality in a way that still helps to explain the US. And France – the country we Brits probably most have in mind when we revel in our own supposedly unique equanimity? Little, in truth, could be more viscerally stoical than the Gallic shrug. Sorry, fellow Brits, c’est la vie.

Such armchair anthropology may seem trivial, but it matters that so many cultures make steeling oneself for hardship, and defining one’s tribe by the ability to do so, integral to their self-image. And it matters especially in times like these, when these virtues are being tested with a simultaneity, visibility and a rigour rarely seen in history. Around the world people are being told, in essence: this is the moment to prove your stoicism. Though Britain remains, by European comparison, at a relatively early stage of the virus’s spread, the Telegraph on 8 March published a column claiming: “Coronavirus could be the start of a historic comeback for British stoicism.” The writer of the piece, Madeline Grant, quotes the historian Thomas Dixon’s book Weeping Britannia – on stiff-upper-lip Britain’s shift to lachrymose self-pity in moments such as the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death – and characterises the current moment as a chance for the country to revive its  inner composure.

Not all such entreaties are so thudding, but they are out there. On 9 March Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s former prime minister, proposed a revival of “L’Italia che resiste”. In China the state media has celebrated the sight of quarantined residents shouting “Wuhan jiayóu”, an expression of encouragement, from the windows of blocks of flats. In an act of defiance perhaps inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the US Republican Matt Gaetz wore a gas mask in Congress, seemingly mocking measures to slow the virus’s spread: “You don’t wanna know what underground lair I pulled this from,” he told US tabloid news website TMZ. “It’s not made in China though.” Expect much more of this sort of thing – both performative displays of resilience and sincere invocations of national stoicism. (Gaetz is now in quarantine under fear of infection.)

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The thing is coronavirus is scary. It can arouse passions such as fear and anger. It is a test. When the lockdowns arrive in relatively blithe countries such as Britain, Germany, the US or Brazil that, at the time of writing, are probably only a couple of weeks away from the situation in Italy, they will mean shortages in shops, social unrest and intensive care units having to decide what to do when they have more patients with pneumonia than ventilators with which to treat them. In the worst-case scenarios hospitals may disregard systematically the eldest or most infirm, looting or rioting may take place, and militaries may have to be deployed to keep order and ensure basic food and medical supplies. It could get, to use a stoical sort of phrase, rather hairy.

So the fights over toilet roll in supermarkets in Britain and Australia are probably a sign of things to come. But they also show how fundamentally such moments can undermine a country’s self-image.  Reacting to television footage, Chris Kenny, a veteran Australian news anchor, despaired that his country had lost its sense of “stoicism and our famed ‘she’ll be right’ attitude”. Similar comments greeted footage of Brits panic buying last weekend.

Underlying it all was something existential: the country is about to be tested, is about to sally out on Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain”, and might not live up to its ideals. In Britain, at its worst when those born after the Second World War imagine they know and shared the sacrifices of the generation that fought and suffered it, this angst might be particularly pronounced. But not uniquely so. As the virus spreads and restrictions bite, and as societies are tested, around the world people will on the one hand be celebrating “Wuhan jiayóu”-type moments of defiance, and on the other struggling to reconcile the moments of panic with their stoic self-image. It is not inconceivable that this balancing act could trigger national identity crises.

The answer is to be stoical, of course, but to be stoical in the right way. Stoicism – or whatever you or your culture call an attitude of deference to the wider order of things and avoidance of domination by one’s passions – should not be a performance or a litmus test. For millennia it has been the case that those who most venerate stoicism are often those who least naturally exhibit its traits; Seneca, for example, was not an exemplary ascetic but a neurotic adviser who lived amid the lavish appetites and passions of Emperor Nero’s court.

Stoicism is not an ideal that can be  easily, if at all, “achieved”. It is a virtue to respect and to strive towards, however hopeless the goal – rather as Rieux and  Tarrou strived to save Oran from the plague in Camus’ novel. Done right, stoicism tolerates human error and weakness, but applauds every choice to tolerate the imminence of misfortune with good humour, calm decency and solidarity.

It is that which should guide societies as they face the coronavirus. Yes, we should meet Kipling’s imposters as if they are just the same. But sometimes we will fall short. As it happens, it is the poem that the students pasted over “If” in Manchester in 2018 (“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou) that sums up this flawed but quietly resolute “true Stoicism” as well as anything:

Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries? […]

You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. 

Read the rest of “postcards from an infected world” series here

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down