Modern Stoicism

On March 4, 2021 the Dr. James Dale Ethics Center presented a talk (via Zoom) by Dr. William Irvine on 21st century applications of ancient Stoicism:

In this talk, I explain what Stoicism is—and what it isn’t. I describe its birth in ancient Greece and Rome, its fall into obscurity during the 20th century, and its remarkable renaissance in the last two decades. Along the way, I describe the psychological insights of the ancient Stoics, explain how modern philosophy has confirmed those insights, and show how they can form the basis for development of strategies that we can put to work in daily life.

Practicing Stoicism in the 21st Century

Dr. Irine’s Bio:

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of eight books that have been translated into twenty languages. Among them are A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford University Press, 2008) and most recently, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient (W.W. Norton, 2018). He is currently at work on a book about thinking critically, but with an open mind, in the age of the internet.

Akron COVID-19 limit on private gatherings allowed to expire by mayor

Of course Mayor Horrigan (or anyone else) won’t push to renew these types of restrictions. We have essentially given up on any coordinated effort to stop the spread of the virus. We have conspiracy theory nuts, plain-old deniers, and people who are tired of not being able to do whatever the hell they want (regardless of the consequences to others). It seems we are—for the moment—all on our own.

Akron COVID-19 limit on private gatherings allowed to expire by mayor:

2020 12 10 at 1 31 PM

Nothing has changed—let’s stop pretending it has.

On March 13 my family and I began physical distancing and sheltering at home. At that time there were 2,224 reported cases of COVID–19 and 50 deaths in the U.S. Nearly two months later the infection number has grown to 1.5 million cases and the death rate has soared to 90,000 , and both these numbers continue to increase in the majority of places across the country1.

In March when the Governor DeWine closed the schools and issued a shelter in place order we knew the following about the virus that was disrupting our lives:

  1. COVID–19 is highly contagious and spreads quickly.
  2. It takes between 5–14 days for symptoms to present themselves.
  3. People infected can transmit the disease to others even when they don’t present symptoms.
  4. COVID–19 tends to attack older people (60 ) and tends to be more fatal for that group.
  5. COVID–19 attacks the respiratory system, and can (and often does) cause permanent damage to lung function.
  6. COVID–19 has been linked to blood clots and strokes in patients 40–50
  7. There is currently no effective treatment for, or vaccine to prevent, infection.
  8. There is no widespread testing for either the virus itself, or to determine whether one has already contracted and recovered from COVID–19.

So without widespread testing (and tracing), treatment, or a vaccine, on what basis is the State of Ohio making a decision to start reopening? How do you make an informed decision that it is safe to start inviting diners back into restaurants? How many offices are going to be safe enough for workers to spend eight hours a day working in close proximity to others? As was pointed out in the excellent article by Erin Bromage the “biggest super-spreading events” are meat packing facilities, weddings and funerals (i.e., church services), birthday parties, and businesses with face-to-face networking (restaurants, call centers etc.).2

But all of that being said, the more fundamental point is this: nothing, absolutely nothing changed between April 30th and May 1st. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed between May 1st and May 15th,3 and we need to stop pretending it has. My parents who are in their early 70s are just as susceptible to the virus, and to dying from the the virus now as they were when Ohio began sheltering at home. There is no way of knowing whether my kids may pick up and then transmit the virus to one of them at a family function. And if one of them were to get sick, there is still no effective treatment.

Ideally, the sheltering at home we have been doing in Ohio for two months would have resulted in the virus running its course. It would have stopped the spread, and those that had it would either recover or tragically succumb to the virus without spreading to others. Sheltering in place did not make it safer to interact with others. It didn’t make stores, restaurants, churches, barber shops, or gyms safer for employees or customers. All it did was clear space in hospitals for those that are inevitably going to suffer and possibly die in the upcoming weeks and months.

During this isolation the federal government could have deployed widespread testing and contact tracing. They could have required masks to be worn when out in public (something that could have had a major impact of the spread of the disease4). They didn’t do this and now we are back to square one. Even now, in our haste to reopen, there is still no plan for testing all those workers that will be returning to jobs that require interactions with others. At the end of the day, we aren’t really trying to combat COVID–19, rather, we are doing what Leanna S. Wen has stated in The Washington Post:

And this seems to me where we are with covid–19: We’re no longer trying to eliminate the virus. Instead, we are accepting that Americans will have to live with it.

I would only add that we are not just accepting that people will have to live with it; but die from it as well.

Trump and the Rule of Law

In the late 1990s, when I was in graduate school in Canada, there was an ongoing debate about what it meant to be a Canadian. Some of this soul-searching can be attributed to the fallout of the failed 1995 Quebec referendum. It was also a product of Canadian’s reflecting on how it should deal with a diverse population that included multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, minority groups, along with both liberal and illiberal minorities. For many in Canada, the mosaic metaphor that animated many discussions also present a challenge for how the unify the country, while still respecting diversity.

As an American in Canada, the idea of a mosaic was a stark contrast to the “melting pot” American metaphor. America was a place that adopted what was best from other cultures and made it our own. Whether it was art, music, clothing, or food, if was seen as valuable it was embraced. But if America was a melting pot, what did it mean to be an American?

I remember a professor of mine asking just this question. He claimed that just as it was difficult to determine what it meant to be a Canadian, it was also difficult to identify what it meant to be an American. In reality it isn’t a difficult question—or at least it shouldn’t be a difficult one. My answer is simple: to be an American, one need only swear to uphold certain principles and ideals. The Constitution, interpreted by the courts and supplemented by documents such at the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence, are the embodiment of these principles and ideals. If you buy into those, then you are an American.

Here is the oath that those becoming citizens take:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.

In case you are wondering, the “so help me God” clause is optional. Just as there is no religious test in the Constitution to hold office, there is no religious test to become a citizen:

If you are unable or unwilling to take the oath with the words “on oath” and “so help me God” included, you must notify USCIS that you wish to take a modified Oath of Allegiance. Applicants are not required to provide any evidence or testimony to support a request for this type of modification. See 8 CFR 337.1(b).

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that the President’s recent statement is about doing away with due process is extremely disturbing:

This is one of the most un-American things a president could say. We are a nation of laws, and even though these individuals are not citizens, they are potentially acting within the laws that cover asylum.

On this 4th of July, it is time for the President to remember that being an American isn’t about singing an anthem or standing for flag: its about respecting our Constitution and the rule of law.