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GUEST COLUMN: Need guidance in this stressful time? Turn to ancient Greek philosophy

Michael Buzzy

In an email sent to the campus on Feb. 5 President Davies addressed the stress and weariness that many students, staff, and faculty are feeling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A key theme in President Davies’ email was the resiliency of the human spirit. To highlight this, he used the heroic story of Admiral James Stockdale, who survived imprisonment in the North Vietnamese POW camp known as "The Hanoi Hilton." While the quick reference kindles a sense of resiliency on its own, it fails to capture the reason for Admiral James Stockdale’s resilience. 

His primary weapon in the battle for survival? Ancient Greek philosophy. 

“In stress situations, the fundamentals, the hard-core classical subjects, are what serve best" Stockdale said in his book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. "The Stoic philosopher Epictetus was foremost among my consolations in the pressure cooker of Hanoi.” 

If you are in need of tools for resiliency for our present hardship, Stoicism is worth looking into.

Stockdale was introduced to Stoic philosophy when he was given Epictetus' handbook, “The Enchiridion.” Stoicism teaches that individuals have no direct control over the circumstances around them nor the actions of others. The only things one can control are one's own thoughts and actions. 

Stoicism teaches that one should not bemoan things that they cannot control. The hardships of life are to be seen as instructions. Through stress, pressure and pain- which Stoic philosophy recognizes as inevitable in life - one learns and improves. 

In the age of COVID-19 it is not easy to make peace with hardships and turn inwards as a source of resilience, but Stoicism teaches just this concept. The world is fraught with hardship and turbulence and one cannot wrongly worry about the uncontrollable.

In the horrors of Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale used Stoicism to ground his goal of moral survival, and then reached his goals by refusing to allow his imprisonment to deter him from his moral mission. Many of us will hopefully never live through an experience as brutal as Stockdale’s, but Stoicism carries relevancy in our own time of immense hardship. 

While COVID-19 may cause one to focus on the external, it is important to look inward and come to understand your own personal strength and resilience. This pandemic can be a meaningfully formative experience if one can develop the strategies to overcome. 

Even though Stoic philosophy is over 2,400 years old, its relevancy in moments of hardship has never faded. If you are looking for strategies to frame this pandemic into something from which you can grow, consider philosophy, and specifically the school of Stoicism and realize that the greatest tools and strategies for resiliency in the face of hardship reside in yourself. 

Epictetus' "Enchiridion" was formative for Stockdale, and can be accessed for free on the internet.

If you haven’t the time nor the inclination to further investigate, consider what really gave Stockdale his resiliency - his duty to himself. As he put it: “To the Stoic, the greatest injury that can be inflicted on a person is administered by himself when he destroys the good man within him.” By staying true to your duty to yourself, you too will prevail.

Michael Buzzy is a Trenton Sophomore double majoring in political science and philosophy. Buzzy works on international peace endeavors as an Ambassador of Persons, Places, and Ideas for the Center for International Ethics with Philosophy and Religion faculty member Hope May. He now works on the Revolution of Thought poster exhibit currently on display in Powers Hall.