The world has asked a lot of us over the last few months. We had to stop traveling. We had to shut down our businesses. We had to take our kids out of school.
It asked even more of some of us. The doctors who had to work round-the-clock shifts. The nurses who did the same. There are those among us whose businesses will never reopen or whose jobs will never come back. There are some of us who didn’t get to say goodbye to people we loved, who had to watch funerals over the internet.
In a beautiful article a few weeks ago, Steven Pressfield (who we interviewed here) spoke about how the Spartans—the ancient Greeks who the Stoics admired so much—would have responded to this kind of collective sacrifice. He quotes Plutarch, who explained why the Spartans punished with death the soldier who dropped his shield but not his other protective gear, “Because helmet and breastplate are worn to protect the individual alone but the shield is borne to protect the whole line.”
“Why are we asked to wear surgical or face masks in public, to practice social distancing, and to observe self-quarantining?” Steven asked. “Answer: Because these practices are not for the individual alone but for the protection of the whole line.”
This moment we are in is a test. It’s a test of your character. It’s a test of your Stoicism. It’s asking whether you just pay lip service to sympatheia, or whether you actually believe it—whether you can embody your philosophy as Epictetus said. We talked about this with John Brownstein: The mask is not for you. Social distancing is not for you. It’s for the grandmother of the person you never met. It’s for the chemo patient. It’s because you might be a carrier and not know it, and so in wearing a mask, you protect the strangers you see and the strangers they see too. In deciding to eat the deposit on your family vacation, to pay for extra sick leave for your workers, to donate to a food bank, you are not helping yourself—you are doing something far more important and more noble.
You are protecting the whole line. And as a Stoic, as a Spartan, as a Citizen of the world, that is your job.