Finding Purpose Through Meliorism in the Face of Coronavirus
How to get beyond unhelpful optimism and pessimism
Posted April 2, 2020
In hindsight, it is surprising how quickly life as we know it can stop. In a few weeks, things have escalated from something we read in the news to a full-blown crisis that touches us all—more than one-third of humanity is currently in lockdown. Given the situation, I have been asking myself the questions that people have been asking from me, as a public philosopher, in the last few days:
How can philosophy help in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
What philosophy can’t help with is choosing the right precautionary methods on an individual or national level. In an era of internet-educated instant epidemiologists, I leave that discussion to experts. Aristotle’s nuanced system of bodily fluids, where warmness and coldness along with dryness and moistness played a key role, is no help in fighting the coronavirus.
However, besides the medical and economic dimensions, this epidemic also has a mental and spiritual dimension. It overwhelms people. People are afraid, frustrated, and devastated in the face of this unprecedented wave of events. And here philosophy, with few millennia of R&D into the art of living and how to approach life, can offer some guidance.
Meliora. That’s my answer in one word. The Latin word can be translated as "better" and is, according to the classic definition, the "doctrine that the world is neither the worst nor the best possible, but that it is capable of improvement.”
I tend to see meliorism as an upgraded version of stoicism, the standard philosophical reaction to various setbacks in life. Stoicism, which flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome, saw apatheia, literally translated as without passion, as a key life ideal. It’s a state of mind where a person may observe whatever happens in life without judgment—to let it happen, to contemplate it, even to react to it in an appropriate way, but to not be overwhelmed by it. Apatheia is about being able to retain a certain distance between whatever happens in the world and how one reacts to it, to not allow it to get under the skin. When we’re able to attain such peace of mind, no external happenstance can disturb our inner calmness.
Apatheia, in modern parlance, is the subtle art of not giving a f**k, as Mark Manson, the most recent torchbearer of stoic wisdom, has put it. At the heart of such stoicism is acceptance. Accepting the world as it is. Abandoning all wishful thinking, abandoning the attempt to force the world into something it isn’t.
But mere acceptance is not enough. It helps us to cope with the past—with what has already taken place. But as active beings who care about our future, we humans need something to do: some positive goals to strive towards and a better future we can help in realizing.
After acceptance, we need purposeful action—something meaningful to channel our energies into.
And here meliorism kicks in, with its focus on what can be improved. Philosopher John Dewey reminds us that for a meliorist, "the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event, may be bettered."
In a global pandemic, there is little an individual can do. You can’t stop the pandemic from spreading; you can’t change how the leaders of your country react to it and whether they are doing enough. You can’t ensure that there is medical care for everyone who needs it. People are going to get hospitalized, both in your own home town and across the world. People are going to die. This will happen, so better just accept that.
But instead of suffocating under the pressure of all those things you can’t influence, aim to identify what things you still can influence. And then focus on making the best out of that. In these times, it might be as simple as washing your hands regularly and engaging in social distancing to help slow down the spread of the virus. Furthermore, whatever your occupation, think about how you can through your work help those in need in these trying times.
Pessimism is a paralyzing doctrine. Unfounded optimism in a global crisis is naïve and dangerous. The healthy option is found in meliorism: Accept what has happened, improve what is still to happen. Learn not to worry about what you can’t influence while focusing your energy on the smaller or bigger things you can still influence.
Through concentrating on purposeful action, on doing what you can, you are better able to remain calm and sane while still capable of doing whatever is in your own hands to help yourself and those around yourself. That is all you need to do right now.
Dewey, J. (1920 ). Reconstruction in philosophy. Dover Publications.
Peirce, C. S. (1992). The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume I, 1867-1893 (N. Houser & C. Kloesel (eds.)). Indiana University Press.