Pandemics, Plagues, and Philosophy: Moral Lessons from Antiquity for the Modern World

Martin Ferguson Smith

At this time when the Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions around the world, disrupted the economies of prosperous nations and the lives of billions, and generated much fear, it may be of interest to look back to antiquity and see what moral guidance is offered by Epicureanism and Stoicism, the two most influential systems of moral philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Plagues and pestilences were not uncommon in the ancient world. The best known one afflicted Athens in 430 BC, the second year of the Peloponnesian War (431–404), fought by the city and its allies against Sparta and its allies. It is graphically documented by the historian Thucydides,[1] who not only witnessed it, but caught it and recovered. Although he describes it in detail in the hope that his description will be useful in the event of the same disease ever recurring in the future, modern authorities have been unable to agree in identifying it.

In its behaviour, symptoms, and effects, it had some similarities to Covid-19. It was said to have originated in a distant country, somewhere south of Egypt, and to have affected other areas before reaching Athens, wreaking most havoc where people were crowded together. Athens was particularly vulnerable because the war had compelled many country people to seek shelter in the city. The disease was highly contagious. Doctors, not having encountered it before, did not know how to treat it, and their exposure to it meant that they suffered the highest rate of mortality. Other high-risk members of the population were those with pre-existing health problems. Symptoms of the disease included fever, coughing, vomiting, and diarrhoea. If the sick were not visited because others feared being infected, they died of neglect; and those whose altruism prompted them to visit were all too likely to pay with their lives. Those who caught the disease but recovered were immune to a further attack, at least to one that was fatal.

Plague in an ancient city, Michiel Sweerts, 1652–4 (Ahmanson Building, Los Angeles, CA, USA).

The plague of Athens occurred nearly a century before Epicurus (341–270 BC) was born. Most of his extensive writings have perished, and we do not know whether he himself wrote about it. But his most famous follower did. That is the Roman poet Lucretius, who, writing in the middle of the first century BC, concludes the sixth and last book of his brilliant epic of the universe, On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), with an account that for the most part closely follows that of Thucydides, but represents the Athenians, living at a time when Epicurus’ teachings were not yet available, as being morally as well as medically ill-equipped to deal with the calamity.[2] Although Lucretius does not say so explicitly, there are persuasive indications that he saw the physical condition of the plague’s victims as symbolic of the moral condition of unenlightened humanity.[3]

The idea that the unenlightened are “diseased” and require the “medicine” of Epicureanism is found both elsewhere in Lucretius[4] and in other Epicurean sources. Epicurus himself declares:

Vain is the word of a philosopher by whom no human suffering is cured; for just as medicine is of no use if it fails to banish the diseases of the body, so philosophy is of no use if it fails to banish the diseases of the mind (fr. 221 Usener).

Four maxims in which he summarises the basic principles of his moral system were known to his followers as the tetrapharmakos (fourfold drug therapy).[5]

Bust of Epicurus (341–270 BC), founder of the philosophical school that bears his name – Epicureanism; Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original (British Museum, London).

According to the Epicurean spokesman in Cicero’s treatise De finibus bonorum et malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils, written in 45 BC), diseases of the mind are more disruptive of happiness than diseases of the body.[6] Such diseases include unlimited and empty desires for wealth, fame, power, and sensual pleasures. In the 2nd century AD, the Epicurean philosopher Diogenes of Oinoanda, a small city in the mountains of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), explaining his missionary purpose to the place’s citizens and visitors in the largest Greek inscription known from the ancient world, asserts:

The majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing, for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep (fr. 3 IV 3–13).[7]

He calls the Epicurean doctrines he is propounding “the drugs (pharmaka) that bring salvation” (fr. 3 V 14–VI 2).

A block of the philosophical inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda, recorded in 2012. The text (New Fragment 207) is part of the preface to his Ethics.

Epicurus, who founded his school in Athens in 307/306 BC, was seen and revered by his followers, both in his own time and centuries after his death, as the discoverer of the way to achieve moral health and true happiness. Teaching that pleasure is the highest good, he identified pleasure in its purest form as aponia (freedom from pain) in the body and, most importantly, ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) in the mind. Ataraxia is a metaphor from calm water and weather, the idea and ideal being to make your mind as tranquil as the water of a harbour undisturbed by currents, tides, and winds. Physical illnesses and pains cannot always be avoided. If they are mild, they are tolerable and can still permit a preponderance of physical pleasure over pain. The same is often true of chronic complaints. Severe pain naturally prevents physical pleasure, but is often of short duration, being relieved by recovery or death. A very important doctrine is that mental pleasure is more desirable than physical pleasure. When the body is in pain, the mind can still experience pleasure and mitigate present pain by the recollection of past pleasures and the anticipation of pleasures to come.

The mind’s ability to look back and forward is exploited by the wise to their advantage, but ruins the lives of those whose attitude to past events is bitter, and whose attitude to the future is dominated by unnecessary fears, especially of the gods and death, and unnecessary desires, especially those for wealth and power.

The key to the removal of these disturbances and the attainment of tranquillity of mind is a scientific study of the universe. Adopting and adapting the atomic theory of Democritus, Epicurus showed that in an uncreated and indestructible universe composed of an infinite number of atoms and an infinite extent of void (and containing an infinite number of worlds) there is no place for gods in the creation or governance of our world. There is no possibility of there being a place where souls survive and can be punished after death. The human soul and mind, like the body, are material, and when the body, of which indeed they are parts, dies, they perish too. Death is nothing to fear: so long as we exist, it is not with us; and when it comes, we do not exist. Hell exists only in the sense that fools make a living hell of their lives on earth.[8] At the same time those who live wisely can enjoy a godlike happiness. “You will live as a god among human beings,” writes Epicurus to a disciple (Letter to Menoeceus 135), and Lucretius states that “there is nothing to prevent us living a life worthy of the gods” (3.322).

Such happiness is experienced by those who live a simple life, satisfying those desires that are natural and necessary, such as those for essential food, drink, clothing, and shelter, and eliminating those, like the desires for wealth, status, and sensual pleasures, that are unnecessary and, because they are impossible to satisfy, certain to involve pain.

Frontispiece of Epicurus from John Digby’s translation of Epicurus’s Morals (S. Briscoe, London, 1712), readable here.

Epicurus would have hoped that, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, his teachings would help the sick to bear their illness with equanimity and the rest of us to keep our worries, fears, frustrations, and disappointments in perspective, to be as calm and positive as possible, rejoicing in our good health if we are lucky enough to retain it, and in general to count our blessings, including those of love and friendship, possession of which was very important to him and his school. Probably he would have hoped also that his teachings would help us to review the way many of us have been living our lives and to reassess our priorities and values.

That the pandemic has done, is doing, and will continue to do a huge amount of economic damage is certain, but for Epicurus material prosperity and wealth are far less important than moral well-being. Indeed the pursuit of wealth, status, and power is incompatible with the peace of mind in which true pleasure and happiness consist. As he wrote to a friend concerning a youthful disciple: “If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not increase his means, but diminish his desire” (fr. 135 Usener).

Bust of Zeno, 3rd century BC (Farnese Collection, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

The Stoic school, like the Epicurean, began life in Athens in the late 4th century BC. Its founder, Zeno of Citium, established the main principles, but his system, unlike that of Epicurus, was significantly elaborated and modified by its later followers, especially by Chrysippus in the 3rd century BC, Panaetius in the 2nd, Posidonius in the 1st, and Epictetus in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. It was Panaetius who did most to introduce the Romans to Stoicism and adapt Stoic ethics in such a way as to make it attractive to the Roman ruling class.

Like the Epicureans, the Stoics were empiricists and materialists, but their physics had more in common with religion than with science. The whole world is a rational and intellectual being. Everything is animated by a divine mind or world-soul – a fiery breath, the active element in matter, identified with Zeus or Jupiter, God, Nature, Providence, Destiny, and Reason. The human soul, like the world-soul of which it is part, is material. Different Stoics had different ideas about what happens to it after death, but most of the later Stoics tended to the belief that it perishes with the body.

Whereas the Epicureans strongly believed that living creatures, including humans, possess free will, the Stoics were determinists: one thing follows another inevitably. To explain the apparent paradox that a philosophy that recommended the quest for moral goodness denied free will, they pointed to their identification of destiny with reason and the divine. The aim is to live in accordance with nature, and since human beings are part of the rational world order, that means to live in accordance with reason. Whether they do this, or do not do it, makes no difference in the sense that things will happen just the same, but there is an important moral difference affecting the individual – the difference between accepting destiny gladly and being dragged along kicking and screaming.[9]

Double herm of Seneca and Socrates, early 3rd century AD (Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany).

Those who live in accordance with reason achieve virtue or wisdom, which is the only good. What are conventionally considered to be good and bad things, such as wealth and poverty, pleasure and pain, good health and illness, life and death, are indifferent – neither good nor bad, although most Stoics divided the category of “things indifferent” into “things preferred” and “things not preferred,” and recommended that the former are to be chosen and the latter rejected, provided that the choice and rejection are compatible with virtuous living.

The virtue most prominent in Stoicism was self-control, the aim being to make individuals independent of external circumstances, indifferent to bodily pleasures and comforts and worldly ambitions, and free from the disturbing influences of fears and emotions. Epictetus’ Handbook, a summary of his main teachings made by his pupil Arrian, begins:

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our doing. (Handbook 1)

Central to Epictetus’ teaching is the concept of prohairesis, “moral choice” or “moral purpose” – the knowledge of what is good and right, or the decision on what is right. Cultivating your moral purpose, concentrating on what is under your control, is the all-important thing, the decisive factor in life. The moral purpose is the true self. You will not mind losing money or property, because these things are not really yours. For the same reason you will not mind losing a relative or friend or even life.

Epictetus and his crutch: the frontispiece (engraved by Michael Burghers) to the Christ Church edition of his Enchiridion, or “Essential handbook” (Oxford, 1715).

Epictetus (c. 55–135) came to Rome as a slave from western Asia Minor, studied philosophy, was set free, and became a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then at Nicopolis in northwest Greece. Like Epicurus, he saw himself as a healer of sickness of the mind and soul. People, including several prominent public figures, visited him and sought his psychiatric advice. He was frank with his “patients”, and complained that, whereas people do not react with annoyance when told what is physically wrong with them, they often dislike hearing what is wrong with their character or behaviour. Another Stoic, Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65), with disarming modesty says that he gives therapeutic moral advice to others not as one who is free from disease, but as one who is far from cured, like someone sharing remedies with a fellow patient in a hospital.[10]

The morality taught by the Stoics is essentially personal rather than social. Theirs was a philosophy of resignation. Since all external things are outside your control, you do not seek to change them. You should accept your position in life. Stoics were not notable as social reformers, but were concerned primarily with self-discipline and the cultivation of the individual soul. With submission to the governor of the universe comes tranquillity of mind and freedom from disturbance. Those who have achieved this state can face everything, death included. The door to death is always open: you can put an end to life at any time. Death is nothing to fear: it is one of the things that are indifferent and simply involves returning to the elements of which you are made. It does not matter if your life is long or short: just as an actor does not need to be on stage throughout a play in order to win applause, so what counts in life is the quality of the performance rather than its duration.[11]

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, c. AD 175 (Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy).

The Stoic was a member of two states. Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor AD 161–80, whose brand of Stoicism is not much different from that of former slave Epictetus, explains: “My nature is rational and social: my city and country, as Antoninus [Marcus Aurelius], is Rome; as a human being, the world.”[12] In his Meditations his primary concern is not with the state which he ruled, but with the city of God – the community of all humanity ruled by reason.

Linked to the idea of the cosmopolis is the concept of philanthropy. Since the whole world is bound together in sympathy, all human members of it should be dear to one another.[13] In a world in which there are so many people who behave badly, the advice to love everyone may seem difficult to follow, and most of us are likely to be moved to anger and hatred when we are on the receiving end of injustice or violence, but true Stoics do not experience these emotions. They are invulnerable to wrongdoing, insult, and ill fortune.[14]

Their belief that the world is a divine creation and governed by providence was strongly criticised by the Epicureans, who pointed to its imperfections: much of the earth’s surface is occupied by sea, mountains, and other inhospitable features; some parts are uninhabitable because they are too hot or too cold; where there is suitable ground for growing crops, cultivation of them is a constant battle, and they are often ruined by bad weather – drought, storms of rain or hail, and violent winds; some wild animals pose dangers to human beings, as do diseases, and premature death is rife; the birth of a baby is painful for the mother, the baby’s first act is to cry, and human beings are unique among living creatures in requiring toys, clothes, and weapons.[15] 

The ruins of the theatre at Oinoanda, constructed in the 2nd century BC.

Despite the many disagreements between the Epicureans and Stoics, they had more in common than they might have been willing to admit. The Epicurean Diogenes of Oinoanda frequently takes aim at the school which he clearly regarded as the chief rival of his own. And yet he too is motivated by philanthropy and has a cosmopolitan outlook. He has set up his inscription not only to benefit his fellow citizens, both his contemporaries and future generations (“for they too are our concern, although they are still unborn”), but also because “love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here”.[16] He elaborates this point in another passage:

And not least we did this for those who are called foreigners, though they are not really so. For, while the various segments of the earth give different people a different country, the whole compass of this world gives all people a single country, the entire earth, and a single home, the world (fr. 30 I 12-II 11).

Moreover, although Diogenes rejected, indeed ridiculed, the Stoic view of the world being divinely created and providentially governed, he gives us his optimistic vision of how human beings will inhabit a heaven on earth when Epicurus’ teachings are followed:

Then truly the life of the gods will pass to human beings. For everything will be full of righteousness and mutual love, and there will come to be no need for fortifications or laws and all the things we devise on account of one another (fr. 56 I 4–12).

He goes on to say that people will divide their time between co-operative farming, without using slave labour, and studying philosophy together.

Like Epicurus,[17] Diogenes intends his message to benefit people of all ages, young, middle-aged, and old. It is never too early or late to study philosophy.[18] Aged himself, he devotes one of his three main writings to old age, defending it against charges that it is beset by physical and mental weaknesses, that it brings diminution of sensual pleasures, and that it is near to death. He is very clear that old age is not a disease: conditions often associated with it, such as dementia, myopia, and deafness are not peculiar to it, and diminution of sensual desires is actually an advantage. It is true that the elderly move about more slowly than the young, but so what? It is not as if they are intending to compete as runners in the Olympic Games![19]

The smiling Epicurus, as depicted in Raphael’s School of Athens (detail), c. 1510 (fresco, Apostolic Palace, The Vatican).

Diogenes and Epictetus were contemporaries, and both are good advertisements for their rival systems of philosophy. Each system was also a way of life for its proponents and adherents in the ancient world. During the past two millennia humanity has made huge advances in science, technology, and medicine, but these have not been accompanied by commensurate advances in mental and moral health and well-being. Indeed, some scientific advances have brought new problems and pressures – for example, weapons of mass destruction, pollution of the planet, instant news, social media, addiction to television, smartphones, and video games, and a big increase in the proportion of the population that requires social care. Nevertheless many of the moral problems we face today are the same as those faced by people in antiquity. 

For the control and, one hopes, the defeat of the Covid-19 pandemic, we depend on the skill and dedication of medical scientists and practitioners and carers, but to rid ourselves of the plague of false opinions about how to live our lives wisely and well, we need to turn to philosophy, and there is no reason to doubt that the moral remedies that were devised, tested, and found to be successful two thousand years ago can be equally efficacious today and tomorrow.

How would Epicureans and Stoics respond to Covid-19?

Martin Ferguson Smith is Emeritus Professor of Classics, Durham University. Since 1995 he has lived and worked on the remote island of Foula in Shetland. He has an international reputation for his translation and edition of Lucretius, and for the discovery, decipherment, and publication of substantial sections of the gigantic Greek inscription set up by the Epicurean philosopher Diogenes of Oinoanda – work that has occupied him for 54 years. He has also written books and articles on modern cultural figures and social reformers. His latest book is In and out of Bloomsbury: Biographical Essays on Twentieth-century Writers and Artists (Manchester UP, 2021).

Further Reading

M.F. Smith, Diogenes of Oinoanda: The Epicurean inscription (Bibliopolis, Naples, 1993).

J. Hammerstaedt & M.F. Smith, The Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda: Ten Years of New Discoveries and Research (Habelt-Verlag, Bonn, 2014). 

More information about Diogenes of Oinoanda, photographs, and the link to a documentary film can be found at


1 History of the Peloponnesian War 2.47–52. The text can be read in English and Greek here.
2 De rerum natura 6.1138–1286. The text of this episode can be read in English and Latin here.
3 See especially H.S. Commager Jr, “Lucretius’ Interpretation of the Plague,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 62 (1957) 105–18, and M.F. Smith, “Some Lucretian Thought Processes,” Hermathena 102 (1966) 73–83, at 81–3.
4 1.935–50 (=4.10–25), 3.1070.
5 See Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines (Kyriai Doxai) 1–4.
6 Fin. 1.18.59.
7 For Diogenes of Oinoanda, fragment (fr.) numbers are those of Smith (1993), New Fragment (NF) numbers are those of Hammerstaedt and Smith (2014).
8 See Lucretius 3.978–1023.
9 Seneca, Moral Epistles 107.11, translating Cleanthes.
10 Moral Epistles 27.1.
11 Cicero, De Senectute (On Old Age) 70; Seneca, Moral Epistles 77.20; M. Aurelius, Meditations 12.36.
12 Meditations 6.44.
13 Meditations 6.39, 7.31.
14 Seneca, De constantia sapientis (On the Firmness of the Wise Man).
15 See especially Lucretius 5.156–234, Diogenes of Oinoanda frr. 20–1, NF (New Fragments) 126–7, 167, 182.
16 Fr. 3 IV 4–8.
17 Letter to Menoeceus 122.
18 NF 207 II 4–III 14.
19 NF 177 II.