Philosophy in the time of COVID-19
I always laugh when colleagues who are not philosophers ask me to come to give a philosophical touch to a conversation as this one.
I bet they didn’t know that I am only fascinated by philosophical reflections and that I do not have sufficient philosophical training to be in a position to aspire to be a professional in that indescribably obscure but extremely fascinating discipline.
In giving this piece a title, Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera came to mind. The title of this piece might therefore not make it's intent immediately obvious. And this will derive first from the thousands of misgivings that people have about the enterprise of philosophy. To sum this, philosophy is one of the most exotic and obscure disciplines ever invented, especially with its inquiry into what even the most reflective of humans find most obtuse to follow.
And what better time to set aside obscure reasoning and argumentation than in a pandemic, and one that is occasioned by a novel virus that challenges all of our finest reflections. In many reports, I have read about the heroic efforts of the scientists, medical practitioners and health workers. Indeed, these are the very essence of human reaction against the coronavirus. All across the globe, the COVID-19 has ravaged human lives and human institutions, from the economy to the most mundane of human existence. Just five months ago, no one would have ever thought that humanity would find itself at this critical juncture of endangerment. And yet, here we are. The entire world is in lockdown! And the globe is reeling from the tragic consequences of just a tiny inorganic vector of nature that has terribly undermined the resilience of humanity’s political power.
The present pandemic is, in essence, a consequence of the human desire for progress. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been in a race to overreach our own capacity for scientific and technological development. We are paradoxically inexorably bent on self-extinction through our civilizing and technologizing mission. And when we wittingly or unwittingly let loose the new virus, we were ironically not ready for its terrible imprint upon our lives, the very lives we wanted to better by culturing the virus in the laboratories in the first place. Thus, we were engaged in progress but we were not ready for its consequences. With the virus and the pandemic, we are forced to learn the hard lesson that the desire for unbridled progress comes with a steep price.
We are forced to retreat into ourselves and reflect. And the whole essence of a philosophic life is deep reflective awareness of those ideas and concepts by which our lives and existence hang in the balance. It was Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, who once insisted that “history is philosophy teaching example.” And yet, humans have failed consistently to learn by the many tragic examples which history and philosophy have taught.
There have been several calamities that have befallen us since we commenced our civilizational march to where we are today in the clutch of a global pandemic. Several wars, especially the first and the second world wars, decimated millions of people. So much dictatorial and autocratic madness also led to severe genocidal bloodshed. Adolf Hitler singlehandedly created the Holocaust that wasted the lives of six million Jews. Joseph Stalin brutalized and killed over twenty million Russians. Before these brutal dictators, Genghis Khan, the Mongol emperor, and Tamerlane the Uzbekistan “Scourge of God,” made sport by killing and making pyramids out of the skulls of the dead. And several terrible pandemics have ravaged the world and killed millions. In 165 AD, the Antonine plague took five million lives. The plague of Justinian (541-542) killed twenty-five million. The Black Death caused by the bubonic plague that occurred between 1346 and 1353 decimated between 75 and 200 million people. The Spanish Flu of 1918 took between 20 to 50 million people. And finally, the AIDS/HIV pandemic, at its peak between 2005 and 2012, killed 36 million people across the world. The coronavirus has so far infected over three million globally, with the death toll at 246,979.
Philosophy is the love and the pursuit of wisdom in human affairs. And wisdom in this sense derives from the human capacity to learn from past mistakes, the example by which philosophy itself teaches us historically, and benefit from them. Philosophy teaches us to reflect not only on the internal trajectory of our lives, but also on its external social and planetary trajectories. Three of the most significant philosophical questions we encounter are: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? These fundamental questions provide the dynamics by which we can fulfil our innate yearning for understanding about our being and our being-in-the-world. There is no way humans can make sense of their world and their place in it if our existence lacks the solid self-reflexivity required to constantly monitor how our affairs impact on ourselves and on our world.
The history of philosophy itself sends sufficient messages to enable us to take cognizance of our reflective capacities and how fundamental they could be to our flourishing. Take the Oracle at Delphi as a first example. In 1400 BC, the shrine was considered to be the most important in Greece. And this is even more so because Delphi itself was considered to be the omphalos (navel) of the world. Carved to the front of the temple of the Oracle is the world-famous maxim, supposedly given by Apollo: Know Thyself. There is no greater challenge to humans to learn from their own artistic creations. Apollo and whatever he might have said are the creation of the minds of humans. Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers to have lived, iterated the Delphic maxim to mean “an unexamined life is not worth living.” At the personal and individual level, a life is given to debauchery and the whims and caprices that are borne aloft on the vicissitudes of human existence is a life that is not greater than that of an animal. Animals live but do not exist. Only humans exist and even possess the capacity, according to Martin Heidegger, to ask questions about their being in the world.
At the public level, an unexamined life is one lived with the unbridled deployment of political power and scientific knowledge that is not moderated by a fundamental awareness of how the fate of the world is intertwined with the fate of all of us. The earth is our home, and it makes no reflective sense to destroy your home while it yet determines your own survival. It makes even less sense to keep up a trajectory of development that takes humans to the brink of self-destruction, all in the name of scientific and technological civilization.
All this flies in the face of our collective self-preservation. And yet we have consistently ignored not only the dangerous groanings of the earth under the burden of industrialized development. We have also failed to heed the warnings of several centuries of mistakes and mishaps that our collective hubris—as the Lords and Masters of the Universe—has inflicted on us. Nuclear proliferation has become the new global sport. And the destruction of the world as we know it—a collective achievement of many centuries—lies in the hands of a few superpowers, from the United States to China, and from Russia to North Korea, all ruled by megalomaniacs who see the world only in terms of a minuscule portion of it.
It is therefore only a reflection of our unreflective awareness that has made racism a powerful global governance framework that constantly threatens the survival of the universe in terms of our egoistic posturing on behalf of one race being greater than the other. And we have become so inexorably caught in the grip of progress that we have failed to reflect on how we have continuously kept destroying our common home in the name of progress.
Inexorable “progressive” development has underdeveloped our globe to the point of almost no-return. The scourge of climate change has brought us to the brink of global destruction. Global warning has been taken to be the greatest threat that faces humans in the 21st century. The earth is warming up at an alarming steady pace as a result of the incessant human-generated greenhouse gases. This has brought untold hardship to the human and natural ecological balance, and the crises these have caused have been incalculable. Add this pandemic to the terrible clear and present danger that the COVID-19 has brought upon human, and we have a sense of what we are facing.
Fortunately, the human spirit has always remained the resilient savior of the human race. We have survived every epidemic, wars, calamities and disasters that we have managed to inflict on ourselves or those that nature itself has angrily inflicted on us. The question is: how long will that resilience last? Would it be able to withstand a global nuclear catastrophe? The resilient human will requires the philosophic spirit to bring it back into a fundamental realization of our finitude as humans. Philosophy pushes us forward in quick steps, but also compels us to always reflect on those steps that push us forward. It is the most self-reflexive of all disciplines that not only interrogates itself and its disciplinary progress, but also calls for the examination of humans whose ultimate intellectual achievement is philosophical reflection.
As we approach this year’s World Philosophy Day—Thursday, November 19, 2020—it will be a good time to reflect on philosophy in the time of the pandemic. It will be most appropriate for UNESCO, for instance, to hold a world summit that brings philosophers, politicians, intellectuals, religious, civil and opinion leaders together to deeply reflect not only on the fate of philosophy as a global discipline but also on its fundamental neglect in the reflection on a world that has substituted raw political power balanced on the hubristic ego for a deep fundamental reflection on the fate of the world and our ultimate finitude as humans. Let me end with C. S. Lewis: Philosophy, like art and friendship, might not have survival value; “rather, it is one of those things that give value to survival.”
Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is a Professor of Public Administration.
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