A quarterback can spend thousands of hours in the gym, watching footage, and working on their throwing accuracy. But ultimately, what matters is what they do on Sunday. What matters is what they do in the 4th quarter. Surgeons can study pre-med, go to med school, spend years in residency, and read every scientific journal ever published. But ultimately, what matters is whether they can perform in the operating room. A musician can practice chords, study the greats, work with the best instructor, master every scale. But ultimately, what matters is how they move the audience.
Epictetus’ teacher Musonius Rufus talked about how philosophy was like any profession. You can pour hours into mastering the precepts and acquiring the theoretical knowledge. But the mark of a great philosopher is how they perform “when hardship comes.” Are they courageous in facing the things that seem dreadful to the average person? Are they temperate amid circumstances that trigger most? Are they just even when others are selfish and greedy? Are they wise in their actions or just in their speech?
You’ve been reading this email for years, you’ve memorized most of Meditations, you’ve journaled every morning, you’ve learned the stories of Zeno’s shipwreck and Cato’s suicide. You’ve mastered the precepts. You have the theoretical knowledge. You’ve studied the greats. And now it’s game time. This is not a drill. You’re in the operating room. You’re on the stage. Hardship is here. Will you be up to it?
A pandemic is a moment, like all moments, where each and every one of the four Stoic virtues is called for. You can’t panic, you can’t be afraid. You can’t hoard supplies or binge-watch TV. You must care for others, you must support the frontline responders. You must learn from what’s happening, apply what you have already learned.
“Virtue is not simply theoretical knowledge,” Musonius said. “A man who wishes to become good… must also be earnest and zealous in applying these principles.” You’ve put the hours in.
Now is your chance to make your mark. Show us virtue. Show us a great philosopher.
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