The COVID-19 pandemic: It's time to get acquainted with Taoism and stoicism?

The Hanging Monastery, the combination of three religions: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (Zhangzhugang)

There have been many efforts made by people to maintain mental health in the middle of a pandemic. Some choose to limit information. Others choose steps like meditation. In addition, ancient texts that talk about wisdom and the nature of human life also become a reference to calm down amid the uncertainty that must be passed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2017, the Asian Philosophy journal carried the work of Aleksandar Stamatov, a Macedonian philosophy academic who studied at Ming Chuan University, Taiwan. In the article entitled The Laozi's Criticism of Government and Society and a Daoist Criticism of the Modern State, Stamatov explained why Chinese philosophers Laozi was a tyrannical government critic.

One of Laozi's statements notched was as follows:

"They are difficult to rule because their ruler does too many things. Therefore they are difficult to rule."

In this statement, Laozi, who is thought to have lived in the 6th-4th century BC or during the Tang Empire, recounted the reality of a time when the people had difficulty obeying governmental rules. According to him, this happened because the government set many rules just for the benefit of their class without maintaining public interests.


The low level of public trust in the government had also been Laozi's focus. Meanwhile, officials also did not believe that people could live in harmony without the need to be controlled by rules the government made.

This situation, according to Laozi, was a chaotic cross: So many rules and restrictions from the government had the potential to restrain people. And when space was increasingly limited, then acts of violence as a form of defiance had the opportunity to emerge.

Get to know Tao Te Ching

For Laozi, it was better for the government to realize and apply the thoughts of Tao Te Ching, which, in essence, focused on the harmony of the universe. In this teaching, Laozi did not ask people to surrender to the situation and remain silent in accepting everything but (again) invited them to understand the motives of every thought and action.

"He who is brave in being daring acts recklessly and shall be killed. He who is brave but acts cautiously and kindly shall live. Of these two, one is beneficial while the other is harmful.

A stone sculpture of Laozi at the foot of Mount Qingyuan, north of Quanzhou (Thanato)

"The Tao of nature does not contend, yet easily wins, does not speak, yet always responds, does not summon, yet all things gather, does not contemplate as if at ease, yet all plans were devised perfectly."

The writings on Laozi's thoughts are contained in the Tao Te Ching literature which is thought to have been written in the 6th-4th century BC. The collection of writings looks like a collection of poetry or wise words divided into 81 parts. Everything summarizes the basic values of life, ranging from the importance of giving and helping to deal with interactions with fellow humans.

Tao Te Ching itself was made after Laozi accepted the request of the emperor of the Zhou dynasty, who was having a difficult time. Until now, there are no factual records regarding the process of creating Tao Te Ching or about the birth of Laozi.

The Encyclopædia Britannica notes, there is only one ancient Chinese historian who has tried to trace the background of Laozi. He is Sima Qian. Qian acknowledged that his search for Laozi's origins was very limited. He could only say that Laozi came from a village in Quren, Henan, China, and was an astrologer and prophet, and was in charge of writing books that were considered sacred.

Laozi and his believe in Tao or Dao is also considered to be the basis of Confucius's teachings. Over time, experts continued to search the origins of the emergence of Tao Te Ching. During that time, the existing texts continued to be translated into various languages, existed with the times, and served as a guide in facing life's challenges like today.

Partial texts of Tao Te Ching engraved in Tai Qing Dian, Changchun Temple, Wuhan (Vmenkov)

On March 28, Quartz said that reading the text of Tao Te Ching could help someone face a period of stress due to a pandemic. This phenomenon of mass stress is not fictitious. Various studies have mentioned that one of the brain waves, the amygdala, can be active and trigger a psychosomatic reaction when someone receives information that is less pleasing. And individuals who are close to a source of stress are potentially hit by greater anxiety and psychosomatic disorders.

Praise and criticism related to stoicism

The return of these ancient teachings on wisdom has taken place over the past two years and does not only apply to times of crisis such as a pandemic. The phenomenon of burnout, the rhythm of fast-paced life with high demands is another cause of the search for ancient teachings.

The New York Times
 in its March 26, 2019 report once explained that this phenomenon had occurred to a number of officials in Silicon Valley who practiced the values of the teachings of stoicism. Likewise, a The New Yorker correspondent told how the stoic mindset managed to help her face the days full of challenges.

Then there was an analysis in The Conversation written by John Stellars, a lecturer in philosophy from Royal Holloway, which said that if you wanted to live happily, you could try to live your life by applying stoic values for one week.

A happy butcher (Lfpelser)

In essence, the idea of stoic teaching is to realize that humans are not able to control all things. The most controllable things are thoughts and responses to events that occur in life.

In Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, Anthony Birley mentioned that Aurelius received teachings on stoicism from several close friends who were also officials of the Roman Empire. Aurelius then tried to implement a constitution based on freedom of opinion and equality.

Birley wrote that Aurelius learned to do good to others, to trust the love of friends, to be brave and honest, and to be open to those who disagree with him. He also learned about goodness and how to live in harmony with the universe, to tolerate those who had different opinions, to be ready to adapt to others, to respect each other, to try not to show anger and various other emotions and go through everything without them, to adore silence, and to keep learning.

Aurelius believed, the most important thing was to reach wisdom, and all forms of emotions were things that must be avoided. For that, he also tried to hone these abilities by meditating.

However, various positive teachings are certainly not free from criticism.

In the Quartz report that aired December 17, 2016, Skye Cleary, a lecturer in philosophy at Columbia University, said there were many imperfections in stoicism, especially today when the context of what could and could not be controlled had changed considerably.

A sign warning of prohibited activities (Svenska84)

According to Cleary, when someone wants to act collectively, then he/she is able to do many things in combating inequality and discrimination. This can later have a large impact. While in Cleary's eyes, the teachings of stoicism are vulnerable to make people become resigned and silent.

A philosopher from the University of Cambridge, Sandy Grant, said that the teachings of stoicism were no longer relevant. The thing to focus on was not what could be controlled, but what we could do in a world that made relations with each other so interdependent.

Another criticism came from writer Ryan Holiday. He considered the teachings of the stoic philosophers were ideas to end suffering and anxiety at the level of individuals rather than groups. In addition, Holiday also considered stoicism as a "life hack" rather than philosophical teaching.

You may be free to follow any opinion that you think is correct. To be sure, WHO also appealed to you to continue to take steps to ward off anxiety during a pandemic.


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