Even as various states reopen, the panic and concern over COVID-19 remain high. People worry about new outbreaks occurring, as some experts predict, while others stay home afraid despite loosening restrictions.
Others worry about harm done already by the shutdowns. Many businesses have closed permanently, and a record number of people are unemployed. Additionally, many hospitals have halted nonemergency procedures, and untold numbers of people with non-COVID ailments must forego treatment.
In such a time, it is ideal to adopt the Stoic philosophy to successfully cope with the tribulations and keep one’s sanity. As Michael Warren Davis argues in a recent essay, “More than Christian virologists or economists or social workers, we need Christian Stoics.” Instead of giving way to despair, Christians should master themselves, strive for virtue, and suffer with dignity. The virus and shutdowns, grave as they are, will pass, but everyone can learn from them and be more than members of the passive herd beholden to external forces.
By contrast, very few Christians or conservatives would recommend Epicureanism, the rivaling philosophy to Stoicism. With its supposed emphasis on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, Epicureanism seems poorly suited to meet the challenges of the Wuhan virus. In most people’s minds, today’s Epicureans are the careless young people flocking to the beach to enjoy a prolonged spring break, or else they are the lazy couch potatoes, relishing their unemployment checks and happily taking in the popular idea that their binge-watching is saving lives.
In truth, these examples are caricatures of Epicureanism. Epicureanism is not hedonism; rather, it abhors lack of restraint and shameless debauchery. After all, these things bring more pain than pleasure.
What is True Epicureanism?
The true Epicurean leads an ascetic life, one of material detachment and personal self-sufficiency. He resembles more the Buddhist monk who saw life as suffering than the heedless Romantic chasing moments of sensual ecstasy. Even as he criticizes Epicureanism on the whole, Roger Kimball concedes, “Epicureanism is a deeply ascetic philosophy. It preaches the gospel of pleasure. But it defines pleasure in such a way that no hedonist worth his salt would embrace it.”
Where Kimball and many others find fault is in the shallow materialist mindset of Epicureanism. The Epicurean had to convince himself that death was a return to nothingness. His soul and body would eventually dissolve, and no god would take much notice of it.
To be fair, the Epicurean account of death matches the Stoic’s account. While the Stoic may not have gone so far as to conclude that all life is mere matter, he did think of death as a kind of nothingness. Pondering death, the Roman Stoic Seneca blithely remarked in a letter, “Death is just not being. … It will be the same after me as before me.” To correct this mistake in both philosophies requires the light of Christian revelation, which promises a heavenly reward that awaits those who follow God’s commands, not a return to nonexistence.
People Need Friendship
All this said, what does Epicureanism, or Christian Epicureanism, afford the modern Christian living through a pandemic? It offers the very things necessary to recover: friendship and peace.
Dr. John Rist writes in the journal “Classical Philology” that all men “desire the peace and blessedness of the gods; and, for Epicurus, the most efficacious means of attaining that goal is available through friendship.” While Epicureans handled the pains of life, particularly the natural fears of death, through “right doctrine,” they also sought out companions with whom to share their pleasures and alleviate hardship.
At a time when organizations and governments call on their people to socially distance and wear masks, the willingness to trust others and cultivate friendship is lower than usual. Even some Christians have come to regard their fellow believers more as potential carriers of the virus than companions seeking common goodness and truth. Once churches reopen, it will be difficult to abandon this view.
To make matters worse, even before the pandemic, many Christian communities suffered from the lack of association between members. In the last few decades, many people have come to see church as a distributor of the sacraments and a source of wholesome uncontroversial teachings, neglecting to see it as a space to form strong friendships within the context of spiritual life. As such, many churches are not really bodies of believers anymore, but charitable organizations with generic norms and practices. While Christ told his disciples, “I call you friends,” too many Christians today do not call each other anything.
Christian Epicureanism Joins the Physical and Spiritual
An Epicurean mindset could address this problem by restoring an appreciation of the physical world. The encroachments of virtual reality along with COVID-19 countermeasures have caused most Christians to retreat ever further into their own minds and screens. Spiritual and material health, however, depend on life lived in the world outside. The Christian should interact with others, form personal bonds, and experience true pleasure from worshiping with friends.
Coupled with the Epicurean injunction to seek the pleasurable and enjoy what Epicurus himself called the “immortal good” of friendship, Christians should practice the theological virtue of hope. Kimball is right to criticize the inadequacy of Epicurean materialism to account for suffering and death: “[W]hat one resents about death is not the simple absence of sense experience but the loss of the world: one’s friends, engagements, duties, involvements, as well as the panoply of sense experience that attends living.”
If the physical world is all that exists, ignoring the absolute pain and loss that inevitably occur is impossible. A Stoic might at least see this as occasion for virtue and character-building; an Epicurean has to pretend it doesn’t affect him.
The Christian Epicurean, however, can hope in God’s mercy, which makes the crosses of life bearable. Furthermore, hope in a loving God can strengthen friendships between those who share that hope. Not only do Christians look to one another for comfort and support, they can also look to God together. Friendship and faith reinforce one another to make a believer more alive.
As this interaction of faith and friendship enlivens individuals, it also invigorates the Christian community. People certainly need the sacraments, but they also need one another. The time apart has made this more evident.
By all means, let Christian Stoics show virtue in the face of adversity, but let them do this as moderately, outwardly, and joyfully as Christian Epicureans.