Covid-19 life lessons from some of history’s greatest thinkers – TheArticle

Posted: April 3, 2020 at 2:50 am


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Pandemics reveal the true colours of human nature. Albert Camus argued as much in his novel The Plague the book which everyone is talking about (and which is now a bestseller for the first time since its publication in 1947).

Sure enough, with Covid-19 weve seen it all, from heroism, self-sacrifice and scientific endeavour to racism, ageism and mercenary self-preservation. Humans are both the salt of the earth and red in tooth and claw.

With that in mind and as a bit of light reading to keep you occupied in quarantine heres a brief look at what some of historys greatest thinkers might have to say about human behaviour (and the behaviour of governments) in the Age of Coronavirus.

Long before Jesus Christ, it was the Chinese philosopher Confucius who first espoused the Golden Rule: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. Or, as the government would put it: Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.

Its fair to say that Aristotle would be struggling with social distancing and self-isolation. Man is, Aristotle wrote, by nature a social animal. Yet he would also be encouraged by the spirit of togetherness that Covid-19 has engendered in countries like the UK, for, according to Aristotle, the public is more important than the private.

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, allisvanity and vexation of spirit. So says the Preacher, or Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament. The author remains unknown, but some say it is the son of David, King Solomon.In any case, considering the bookshelf boasting and video call vanity that has become par for the course in lockdown, its hard to disagree.

Thanks to Covid-19, an adjective which derives from a school of Ancient philosophy is making a comeback: stoic. One of Stoicisms most famous proponents was the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations provides many useful aphorisms for these uncertain times. Take this one: death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.

You might feel like youre going through the Nine Circles of Hell, or Dantes Inferno,right now. But Dantewasnt just a religious poet. He also wrote about politics and government, arguing inDe Monarchiathat war and its causes would be eliminated if the whole earth and all that humans can possess can be a monarchy, that is, one government under one ruler. Last week, Gordon Brown made a similarargument about Covid-19.

Thomas Cromwell is all the rage right now thanks to Hilary Mantels Wolf Hall trilogy, but it is his rival, Thomas More, who we should be focusing on. After all, it was More who, in his seminal work, Utopia, popularised the idea of a universal basic income. Due to Covid-19, both the UK and US governments are now reconsidering their long-held hostility to the idea.

Writing at a time ravaged by both the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes compared his contemporaries lawlessness to what he called the state of nature a primordial mode of existence before laws and governments. In the state of nature, Hobbes argued that life is a war of all against all. If youve been in a supermarket recently, you wouldnt disagree.

As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost. So wrote Jean-Jacques Rosseau in The Social Contract. John F Kennedy recorded these words in one of his notebooks and, in his first inaugural address, asked Americans not to ask what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. David Cameron invoked Kennedy withhis Big Society agenda, but it is under Boris Johnson that nearly a million British people have volunteered to help the NHS.

Thomas Malthus, of Malthusian fame, would see a sinister silver lining in the Age of Coronavirus: rising mortality rates. Malthus argued that, if left unchecked, a population would outgrow its resources, leading to greater inequality and famine. Some of his ideas for keeping this in check included chastity, war and, you guessed it, plague.

Charles Darwin didnt coin the term survival of the fittest (that was Herbert Spencer), but it aptly sums up his theory of natural selection, the process by which a speciesadaptsin order tosurvive. Of course, with Covid-19, it is the least fit among us (the elderly and those with underlying health conditions) who are at most risk. And only time will tell how well the human race adapts to lockdown.

The man who provided the greatest intellectual challenge to the capitalist system would surely welcome the disruption that Covid-19 has brought upon the global economy. A universal income is on the cards, key workers are being applauded like never before and the rest of us, freed from the office, have escaped what Marx called the despotic bell. Working from home, we can now hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon (or just watch TV all day) the communist life.

God is dead, proclaimed Friedrich Nietzsche, we have killed him. Indeed, whereas past pandemics like the Black Death and Spanish Flu were widely seen as works of divine punishment, the global reaction to Covid-19, with the exception of religious fanatics and Kourtney Kardashian, has been markedly nihilistic.

Unlike John Maynard Keynes, who would welcome both the lowering of interest rates and billion-pound stimulus packages, Friedrich Hayek will be turning in his grave. In The Road to Serfdom he argued that central planning and nationalisation lead to totalitarianism and warned against the pursuit of wartime measures in peacetime exactly the measures being introduced right now.

The pin-up of the Right, Ayn Rand wouldnt have a problem with stockpiling or wealthy Londoners fleeing to their second homes. Echoing Enlightenment figures such as Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith, Rand believed in the the virtue of selfishness and questioned both the ethic of altruism and whether humans need a moral code at all. The individual, Rand believed, should exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.

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April 3rd, 2020 at 2:50 am

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