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From Kyiv my grandfather and his penniless family travelled in steerage to North America in 1903. Many other of my ancestors hailed from villages that lay within today’s Russian Federation territory. To those once fearful and hopeful ancestors who lived on both sides of the arbitrary political lines dividing brothers and sisters from each other, I owe my very life, as do my children and grandchildren who today enjoy the largesse of liberal democracy, however evidently fragile.
Putin’s war on Ukraine feels intensely personal. However, it doesn’t take atavistic anxiety to rivet our collective horrified attention on this unspeakably savage war. We are witnessing real, not abstract evil. Our faith in humanity is being tried — not again!, it’s time to reread Hannah Arendt — as we continually see and hear the particulars of this war’s depredations: casually cruel executions, the elderly dying of starvation, children succumbing to frostbite, bloody streets and gardens, makeshift graves, dispossession, rape, wanton torture, children made instantly into orphans.
War, in all of its destructive expressions, is never good, but it is an excellent revealer. The Stoics remind us that virtue doesn’t mean a thing until it is tested in real life. This is especially true when adverse circumstances present the option of giving into unchecked impulses that yield to xenophobia, lawlessness, and aggression. A well-lived flourishing life according to the Stoics, is one that meets adversity with the will to hew to the good and the choiceworthy whatever the cost. The Ukrainian people and their president Volodymyr Zelenskyy are giving us a crash course in Stoic virtue, whether or not they would call it such.
History abruptly assigned an outsized role to the people of Ukraine and to Zelenskyy. Because he has, in Stoic fashion, chosen to fully inhabit his leadership role in this decisive moment, Zelenskyy has been elevated to a global symbol of the four Stoic cardinal virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. As Epictetus counseled:
Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. (From The Art of Living, by Sharon Lebell)
Along with his countrymen, President Zelenskyy is delivering an impeccable performance. While it might almost sound like a joke, the man who once fully gave himself to the roles of comedian, the voice of Paddington bear, dancer, and television star, has risen to the exemplary role of inspirational and strategic leader of 41 million people as well as being an authoritatively humanistic voice for decency and democracy while fighting for the preservation of his country’s sovereignty. Zelenskyy could have left his country to preserve his own skin and to protect his family. His courageous choice to proudly stay put and do what needs doing set a morale-building example to his own people and to the world which is watching.
The Stoic ideal of virtue is not god-like or saintly. It is much more expressed as an ordinary person, one like the unpretentious Ukrainian president who embraces the benefits and responsibilities given to him, infusing them with, against formidable odds, a noble purpose.
So far the trauma inflicted on Ukraine has not made its people’s collective narrative devolve into one of savage revenge. Instead of responding to mass violence by framing their stance as grievance caused by an enemy whom they are against, they instead publicly represent themselves in far more powerful terms: they know what they are for, and this they cherish. This moral maturity comes from the kind of reason and ethical clarity advocated by the Stoics. When confronting an implacable dictator, the easy undisciplined choice is to become passive and even willing to believe in or adapt to propaganda and lies.
Many of us quite rightly feel a sense of dislocation now. Our foundational faith in moral progress and in technology that was supposed to foster beneficent connection among the people of this world has been upended. I know I had expected better from the 21st century. Still, Zelenskyy and his people, along with countless unsung but wise souls the world over, are teaching all of us how to live. Their demonstrated courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice are readily available as a prescriptive ideal. My prayer is that we will remember how lucky we are and heed their moral example.
Epictetus was born into slavery about 55 ce in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. Once freed, he established an influential school of Stoic philosophy, stressing that human beings cannot control life, only their responses to it. By putting into practice the ninety-three witty, wise, and razor-sharp instructions that make up The Art of Living, readers learn to meet the challenges of everyday life successfully and to face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments with grace.
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