The world is constantly grappling with vexing problems. This was true in the times of Zeno and Marcus Aurelius, just as it’s true today. Big and small, immediate and just over the horizon, we have always either been in crisis or on the verge of it—from wars to plagues to civil unrest to natural disasters.
It is the story of human life on this planet. It is history, as we’ve said. Things keep happening. Things keep going wrong. They always have, they always will.
Today, we find ourselves in the teeth of a global pandemic, one with a mortality rate close to the Antonine Plague that killed millions of people during Marcus Aurelius’ reign. Our medical efforts are running behind. Our supply chains are overtaxed. The cowardice and incompetence of many governments (or rather the heads of many governments, since responsibility falls on the leader, whether they accept it or not) has been laid bare.
So what do we do? We must pull together, as humans have for centuries. As Cincinnatus was called from his fields to save Rome, as citizens were called to plant victory gardens in WWII, as activists and ordinary people rose up to give women the right to vote and civil rights to all people, as the free world rose up to collectively roll back the tide of Soviet aggression, so too are we being called again.
Whether you’re a senator or stocking shelves in a warehouse, each of us has an important job to do, especially at a moment like this. The Stoics believed that each of us was important, that each person, focusing on what we can control, would be able to turn the tide of history when those individual efforts were combined in common cause. Marcus Aurelius wrote that even people asleep, even the shameless and the terrible, were part of the equation (even those incompetent leaders are helping to wake us up and remind people that we have to save ourselves). That’s what sympatheia is really about—that we are this large whole, one that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Each of us, rich or poor, educated or not, is important. Each of us can make a difference: By keeping our families safe. By making smart decisions. By helping our neighbors. By voting. By keeping calm. By bringing our network to bear on problems. By sacrificing. By taking care of our health and listening to instructions. By delivering the mail, or treating patients, or investing in the market—whatever our job happens to be.
Do your job. Do it with courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Come together like a team, and we can get through this.
For a tangible reminder of the Four Stoic Virtues to keep by your side, check out our Four Virtues medallion—it features a beautiful design embodying the virtues on the front, and an admonition to “try not to exchange them for others” on the back.