Understanding And Responding To Natural Catastrophe: An Interview With Anthony Long

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. 

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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 survival depends on living within natural limits.

You talk about how, paradoxically, ancient people were better prepared for catastrophe. Why is that? What can we learn from the ancients about facing nature’s wrath?

The paradox has to do with the imbalance between material and emotional preparedness.  Ancient people were ill prepared for catastrophe in terms of technology and health care. We have a huge advantage in these respects, but our expectations are correspondingly higher, too high often for facing natural disasters with resilience and good sense.   Rather than “nature’s wrath” the Greek philosophers would have us acknowledge nature’s causality, as I said before, and the likelihood of harmful consequences from actions that flout natural boundaries. Seneca (Letter 107) says it much better than I can: “We shall suffer damage from water and from fire. We cannot change this state of affairs. What we can do is adopt a resolute character, as befits a good person, in order to endure the changes of life with bravery and be in agreement with nature.”

If you had the opportunity to speak with senators and other political leaders today, what would your advice be? What would you warn them about?

The first thing I would emphasize is our local, national, and international connectedness.  Current materialist ideology requires political leaders to focus on telling people – what’s in it for me in terms of governmental policy and action?  We cannot sustain this rampant individualism. “The common good” (think climate change) needs to be moved to the center of future politics, with corresponding shifts in our current toleration of the system of few winners and many losers.   “We were born for cooperation”, as Marcus Aurelius constantly reminded himself. The second thing, which is a corollary of the first, is the necessity of making education the prime requirement of government, as Plato had so clearly recognized in his Republic, because it so strongly impacts the happiness of all.  Teachers’ salaries need to be doubled or trebled, in order to attract appropriate educators, and the high-school curriculum should focus strongly on sustainability, ecology, and social wellbeing in addition to training in professional skills.  My warning is that, absent such radical steps, we will face greater catastrophe than can come even from pandemics and natural disasters.

We know Seneca lived during two catastrophic events: the burning of the city of Lyons and the Pompeii earthquake. Can you give readers a few of Seneca’s tactics that they can apply amid the events we’re facing today?

In describing these catastrophes Seneca, like other ancient Stoic philosophers, totally belied the modern image of the unconcerned stoic. Ancient Stoicism was actually a philosophy of action.  It did not teach resignation, much less apathy, but realistic acceptance of human vulnerability and making the best of oneself and one’s situation in all circumstances, good and bad alike. Writing about the devastating fire of Lyons, Seneca fully acknowledges the horror of the event.  His advice for the future is to cultivate readiness for anything: letting nothing catch you completely unprepared, acknowledging the suddenness and unpredictability of change (think of how the US stock market went from  boom to bust in a few days), taking a comprehensive view of human history (think of the rise and fall of empires), recognizing that the rumor mill always exaggerates, and that fortune is no respecter of status or success or wealth.  As he says sharply but accurately: “born unequal, we die equal”.  Another helpful tactic is to concentrate on the present, neither pinning hopes on the future nor regretting the past, but recognizing that we are fully alive and effective only in the present fleeting moments.

There is a remarkable calm and stillness that comes across when reading your piece. Is there anything you do to practice stillness in your life? Anything you can recommend to someone struggling during these uncertain times?

I am liable to be troubled like everyone by disturbing news and situations. But it helps me greatly to distinguish, as Epictetus teaches, between externals (things outside my direct control) and things I can do something about because they are up to me and my exclusive responsibility (how I react, how I think, what I value).  Everyone, Epictetus said, will experience shocks and gut reactions, but many of our fears and anxieties are not that; they are misjudgments and foolishly hasty responses, like panic buying and crowding the internet with silly messages and questions. Because we are social animals, we are naturally influenced by the media and by how others behave.  In these uncertain times, I think it is especially important to step back and think things through for oneself even though it may seem more comforting to go with the crowd.

One thing all the ancient philosophers in your piece seem to agree on: civilization is endlessly cyclical. And the error you point out is most people don’t recognize the value of studying history. Can you recommend some books or resources for people who want to gain some perspective?

I appreciate the request.  My response is an entirely personal selection of three books that I have found enlightening about how we got to where we are now: David Fromkin, A Peace to end All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire; Charles Emmerson, 1913: The World before the Great War, and Philip Roth’s novel about USA before and after WWII, American Pastoral.

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one final message or piece of advice?

Gee – that’s a tough one!   Let me turn to Epictetus who says in his Discourses (1. 14):

“So when you close your doors and make it dark inside, remember never to say you are alone,  because you are not: God is inside and your own divine spirit too.”

What Epictetus means  by God is the life-force embodied in nature and present to our consciousness and conscience in the voice of reason.