Go to main content

University of Silesia in Katowice

  • Polski
  • English
Logo European City of Science 2024

Pandemic advice from ancient philosophers. An interview with Prof. Bogdan Dembiński

18.05.2020 - 15:09 update 20.05.2020 - 15:35
Editors: MK
Tags: filozofia, pandemia

Has the world become an amusement park full of attractions which we don’t want to give up even in the case of a global threat, such as the coronavirus pandemic? Someone has cut off our electricity for a while. We have no idea how long it’s going to take. We are now experiencing a lot of situations that leave us helpless. How can we deal with what we have no influence upon? What should we focus our attention on? Let’s listen to the voice of ancient Greeks. Prof. Bohdan Dembiński from the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Silesia in Katowice, ancient philosophy historian and enthusiast of high mountain climbing, speaks on their behalf.

|Małgorzata Kłoskowicz|

Professor, you’ve been studying the concepts of ancient philosophers for many years. Is their way of understanding the world close to you?

Ancient philosophers, and particularly Greek, are important for me not only due to my scientific interests. Looking from the perspective of my own life experience, I can admit that their attitude to life is close to mine. I’m stranger to the verbal aerobatics which is characteristic for many later philosophical beliefs. I’m much closer to thinking about what concerns the nature of the world and is important for our way of being or quality of our existence.

I’d like to particularly emphasize, not only in the period of pandemic, a specific kind of attitude towards the world. A majority of ancient philosophers thought that the world which surrounds us cannot be changed. It has its own order, and it is a process in which something goes on all the time, whether we want it or not. From our perspective it is sometimes idyllic, but more often dramatic. I think that ancient Greek philosophers mainly searched for a response to the question how to behave in circumstances which are beyond our control.

I suspect that they analysed a majority of possible attitudes towards the world, in order to choose and promote the most optimal ones in the end…

Moreover, I think that they also practised at least some of them. After all, life in itself is inexhaustible. What ancient Greeks offer is based on the conviction that we cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves, change to feel mentally happy.

However, this is not about withdrawing from any attempts to ‘improve’ the world, but about something much more important – accepting the world as it is, and accepting our own nature, with all its limitations. We want the world to be different and consistent with us and with our will, and what is more – we would usually like to be someone else. This is when problems arise, because the reality is and will be different. If we don’t come to terms with it, we will always be unhappy, on war with ourselves and the world, fighting a lost battle all the time. This will not make us happy.

How can we be happy? It seems that this question, even though it remains up-to-date, tends to be infantilised in the modern world…

It may sound a bit pompous, perhaps funny… So let’s change it and ask what ancient Greek philosophers offer us in terms of our relationship with the world. In other words, what attitude we should take towards the world to reach the mental condition referred to as eudaimonia (happiness). Apparently, our human task is to deal with this world somehow. It is a problem, because the world is changing dynamically. Suddenly comes the pandemic, together with all the surprise and terror. We are feeling helpless, because we’re not ready for such a change. Before it happened, everything had seemed to be in its right place. Some of us are now experiencing fear, fright, and others are panicking. I’m passionate about mountain climbing, so I can compare this situation to a human being who goes on an extreme trip without mental or physical preparation. It is no wonder, then, that when such difficulties appear, they cause fear and panic.

It is essential to make certain preparations: the awareness of risks and years of experience are also important. However, it was hard to prepare for the pandemic.

Let us consider two clues from ancient Greek philosophers. When we begin to analyse their thoughts, we will find out that, first of all, we must accept that the world is not as we want it to be, that it has place for both negative and positive situations.

Secondly, following the Stoics, we should build an internal fortress to survive: otherwise, the external world, which always changes, will sweep us away. If something collapses, we will collapse along with it. If, however, you have this internal fortress, then even if the world changes, you will have the chance to preserve yourself and not fall apart together with it.

I’m under the impression that while we managed to build the external world quite well, we stopped paying attention to the significance of working on ourselves. We had no time to answer the question how to take care of ourselves among it all. And I don’t mean here broadly understood self-development, learning, improving the range of our skills, but the above-mentioned attitude towards the world. Each of us has their own free will and may adopt any attitude they choose. It turns out that this is the crucial thing.

Which attitude is closer to you, Professor?

There is a saying among mountain climbers that we should be prepared for the worst while expecting the best. Nowadays, I’m referring to the modern world, we have a very strongly developed field of desires. My impression is that it has completely taken over our functioning in the world. We build everything that surrounds us from external components. A failure to control these desires causes fear – the fear of inability to realize these desires on the one hand, and the fear of losing what we have already managed to achieve on the other hand. The lack of internal control and understanding of the state of affairs becomes a source of a disastrous response to the world. Let us go back to the situation of a wanderer who found themselves in high mountain conditions. The effects are easy to predict. There are two conditions for surviving: understanding the world where we live and understanding ourselves and our own capacities. Does it make sense to complain that mountains are mountains? We can’t change the world, but only our attitude towards it, which must be consistent with the world rather than with our idea of the world. It must also be consistent with our own nature, with the awareness of one’s abilities, and not with an idea of ourselves.

I’m under the impression that nowadays a majority of us treat the world as an amusement park. Our electricity has been cut off and we are shocked. How could the world do it to us?!

Fortunately, there’s the Internet.

You are right. The world has escaped us for a while, but there’s no harm, because we can replace it with the ‘online eye’. The carousel keeps turning. This is another illusion. We won’t escape. It’s impossible to charm the world and say: I’ve closed my eyes, the evil has gone! What would the ancient Greeks say? The real rescue is only in ourselves, in what we build in ourselves.

So let’s assume that the experience of pandemic effects, whatever they are, becomes a source of reflection about our place in the world and its fragile, apparent stability. Perhaps the internal fortress would now be something tempting, an antidote for the period of suspension. However, building our attitude towards the world is a process, practising like in the gym – we have to start somewhere to see our desires and fears.

The ‘internal fortress’ means understanding that we cannot impose our will on the world. If we try to do it, madness (hybris) will be born. Gods will send a tragedy upon us, they will not let the man take their place, to become one of them. Perhaps this is exactly the ‘something’ that verifies us these days, like Olga Tokarczuk said. We can’t live or think like gods. They’ve just let us know that we are mortal! You can feel it strongly in the mountains or at sea.

How to handle our fear in this situation?

Mountains are a valuable lesson. I experience fear while climbing. I know what risks there are, so I am careful and focus on what I do. When I’m at a certain height, there’s a space with a diameter of a few metres within my reach, and this is all that interests me – what is actually within the reach of my body, my capacities, my actions. I stop thinking about what I notice below and what I see somewhere far ahead of me. A few metres and concentration are enough to move forward and finally reach the destination.

There’s a certain deep wisdom in Greek thought – do and focus only on what you have influence upon. Stop being afraid of what you cannot influence. Do the best you can. We must practise the reasonable way of accepting the situations that we cannot handle so that we are able to fully concentrate on searching for an effective vaccine, reaching the end of a wall in the mountains or sailing to the harbour. Then we can feel peace, a kind of relief and reasonability of action.

I’m thinking about another interesting lesson that we receive as a result of contact with difficult reality. In such situations, it is easier to notice the real hierarchy of values and recall what is really important for us. Many of us are probably already convinced that a lot of things that we had found to be fundamental for our lives are of little or no significance at the moment. This is what I look for in the mountains. Just like other climbers, I want to experience the world more deeply. I think that we have all found ourselves in such situation right now. The world will still go round, maybe a little different, but should we lose our optimism because of it?

What else, apart from mountain climbing, is a source of optimism for you nowadays?

I’m active – I read books, watch nature, have interesting conversations, drink wonderful coffee and have good people around me! Is this not enough? I try not to miss what is most important, the pleasure of life – experiencing the world in all of its aspects. And you feel life in a special way when it is threatened in a way, in line with the rule: no risk, no fun.

Life itself is the greatest gift that gods gave us. Like Epicurus said, if we are fine, we have everything – the whole world at our disposal. We don’t have to strive for it, but only learn to use it wisely. This is the real optimism!

Thank you very much for the interview.

Zdjęcie portretowe prof. Bogdana Dembińskiego
Prof. Bogdan Dembiński, ancient philosophy historian, enthusiast of high mountain climbing | Faculty of Humanities at the University of SIlesia in Katowice | photo by Julia Agnieszka Szymala


return to top