From Vol. 1, Issue 6, June 2019
WHAT WOULD A STOIC DO?
We tend to be self-centred. We constantly wonder what I should do if I fall ill, if I get angry, if someone is angry at me, if I don’t have enough money, if my coworkers are jerks, if my boss embarrasses me in front of others, if I fail to get the job I want … But while we are busy thinking about ourselves, life presents us with situations that we are not prepared for. Now what? Modern Stoics respond to our last month’s picture, the burning image of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Lecturer, Royal Holloway, U of London
The fire at Notre Dame really was a terrible thing to see. How best to think about it?
The first thing is to put it into wider context: the cathedral has had a long and tumultuous history with many ups and downs, of which this is merely one.
The second is to accept that all historical buildings, no matter how old or important, are bound to decay and suffer damage - nothing can last for ever in its original form.
The third is to learn more about the building, such as the fact that much of what was damaged - notably the spire - was nineteenth century reconstruction, rather than part of the original medieval fabric.
Armed with knowledge and taking a wider perspective, we can see that such an event is but one more moment in Notre Dame's long and complex history. If there is a will for it to survive, then it will be fine, and the will certainly seems to be there.
Author, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
“It makes no difference,” said Marcus Aurelius, “to a stone whether it's thrown up or falls down.” I feel for the people who are affected by this, though, because it's a symbol of their faith. Nothing lasts forever, though. We should take the long-term view and our main priority should be to address the harm being done to minds in the world today rather than to buildings.
Senior Lecturer, Royal Holloway, U of London
What comes to mind for me is the advice Seneca gives on the loss of loved ones, namely do not try to artificially suppress the immediate grief you experience, but then dwell instead on the pleasures and the joys gained from this temporary gift of Fortune. The deep personal and emotional significance of Notre Dame for so many is surely best approached through the lens of how to respond to the loss of beloved members of our family.
Ronald W. Pies, MD
Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, SUNY
I have two replies. There is, on the one hand, the example of Stilpo of Megara which captures the Stoic ideal of "self-sufficiency." Stilpo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy. Demetrius, called the Sacker of Cities, because of the destruction he brought upon them, asked whether Stilpo had lost anything: Stilpo replied, “I have all my goods with me!” (Seneca, Epistles 9.18)
But then there is the example of the outgoing French Ambassador to the U.S, Gérard Araud who shed tears at the sight of Notre Dame burning. “Frankly, if you had asked me before the [fire], what was Notre Dame for me, I wouldn’t have had a particular answer,” he said. “It’s a nice cathedral but not the most beautiful cathedral in France. But after five minutes of seeing the flames, I was crying, suddenly realising that it could vanish.” (nytimes.com, 2019/04/27)
I think there is wisdom in both men's responses, and perhaps there is a middle ground that can accommo-
Below, Flora Bernard gives her answer to “What a Stoic Would do?” This one is particularly interesting because it is not a hypothetical response. Flora is a modern Stoic, a Parisian, and an eye witness to the Notre-Dame fire. So we are reproducing her somewhat lengthy response in full. Chuck Chakrapani, Editor
Flora Bernard—She was there when it happened!
President & Cofounder, Thae
Action depends on whether I am a simple (but Stoic!) citizen of Paris, the Stoic Mayor of Paris or a Stoic fireman!
As a simple Parisian dweller, at 11 pm that day, when firemen were still trying to stop the fire, I stood there watching, like many others, on the other side of the bridge. I felt impressed and sad - people weren’t sure at that point if the structure of the cathedral would hold. But immediately these thoughts came to my mind: no one has died; this is only stone; we’ve got great firemen working on this; there have always been fires in the history of cities and if there is space for new monuments, it is because old ones have been destroyed, by human action or unfortunate events such as fires. What is happening here is outside of my control. What is under my control, on the other hand, is to participate in the fundraising that started the next day, if I found that this was a cause I wanted to support.
If I were a fireman, I would have thought about my role. It is my job to go into fires and do all that is in my power to stop them - I know that I am risking my life doing that, so I shouldn’t fear being hurt or burnt, should that happen. If I had chosen this job, I would surely feel proud to prevent Notre Dame from burning altogether.
If I were the Mayor of Paris, I have a number of practical decisions to make very quickly: how many firemen are we sending? Should we send water from helicopters or from the ground? What depends on me here is surely not to get overwhelmed by the emotion which it is likely I am feeling at that moment, or by the projection of what people will think of me depending on how things go. What are the right decisions to be made? Do I make them alone and if not, who do I involve? Making sure I see clearly what the stakes are is my first and foremost responsibility at this stage.
Meredith Alexander Kunz
If I were standing nearby when this happened, I would do my best to act with courage to find out if any person was in danger, first, and to help ensure that all were safely evacuated. Then, I'd recall the wisdom of the Stoic thinkers who told us that nothing is permanent, and that all things must someday return to nature (where they come from). That means we ought not get too attached to any one building or place, to any external, but instead see it in the bigger picture as a very small piece of the ever-changing universe. As an individual, no matter what happens, I'll still cherish my memories of visiting this spot of great architectural beauty many times; I'll continue to carry that inside. One last thought: there is a justice issue here, too, with very wealthy donors now agreeing to pay large amounts to restore the cathedral, while neglecting to support programs to help the human beings in their communities. I've heard that there is legitimate outcry over this in France right now.