Marcus Aurelius wrote in his diary at some point during the Antonine plague—which spanned fifteen years of his reign—that history has a way of repeating itself. “To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before,” he said in Meditations. “And will happen again.”
We had the opportunity to talk to Anthony Long—University of California, Berkeley Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Classics and prolific Stoic scholar—about his forthcoming work on “Natural Catastrophe in Greek and Roman Philosophy,” which releases later this year. In it, Long looks at the history and cyclical nature of catastrophe and the works of ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristrole, the Epicurean Lucretius, and Seneca to distill ways of understanding and responding to natural catastrophe. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe, Long agreed to an interview to discuss his forthcoming work and share with readers what Stoicism can teach us about natural disasters, how leaders should and shouldn’t respond, what we can do individually to face and get through catastrophe, and much more. Please enjoy this interview with Professor Anthony Long, and please share his invaluable wisdom to someone who could use it during these uncertain times.
The Ancients varied in their thoughts on catastrophe, is there one stance you bend towards? And could you elaborate on it for our readers?
As I point out in my paper, thoughts about catastrophe in antiquity included religious superstition (“we must have offended some deity”), fatalism (“these things are just bound to happen from time to time”), rationalism (“study the circumstances, and you will see why this happened”), and sympathetic realism (“build experience of nature’s causality into your expectations and plans”). The last of these was the approach adopted by Stoic and Epicurean philosophers living in ancient Rome. The high standard of living then was the closest to ours of any previous era. These philosophers taught that happiness depends on restricting desires for affluence, and on understanding how we are situated within the way nature works: we are puny beings in relation to the geological and atmospheric conditions vital to our continuing existence. I completely endorse that stance. While it cannot make us immune to all catastrophe and anxiety, it can help us mitigate ecological disaster and show why our su