The Philosophical View
An enthusiastic and diligent student who has been studying Plato with me for several months — we were in the middle of a close analysis of Book III of the Republic several weeks ago, when coronavirus “social distancing” interrupted our conversation — sent me an e-mail yesterday to share his distress over the current situation.
You know, students like me don’t know how to enjoy our current lives. So, I have dreamed a great future, like I will make a happy family, I will study hard and I want to get a Ph.D., I will read a lot of classic books, I will meet good people.
I used to think about my future which might be great and happy.
But, in front of coronavirus, if I die tomorrow, I must feel really frustrated. I mean, is philosophy — what I want to study — useful in front of coronavirus? I think only science, medical study can handle this problem. Maybe I am not a good student, and I should read the Apology again. Coronavirus has bothered me a lot.
I asked this earnest young man for permission to reproduce his concerns for my readers here, because I know his emotional state of the moment is shared by many, many other intelligent young people — and not only young ones — as we are all bombarded, day after day, with the monolith of mass hysteria over this pandemic. The unending public assault by our media and our governments cannot help but take a toll, even on the souls of the most thoughtful and probing among us. That, after all, is its purpose: to take a toll, to wear us down, to make us afraid and despondent, and thus to beat us into submitting our fate and our faith to the ruling elite, i.e., to “the authorities” who have “the experts” on their side and therefore know what is best for all of us.
Contrary to my interlocutor’s sense of helplessness in the face of this moral and intellectual challenge, however, it is my contention that it is precisely in such situations, above all others, that philosophy proves its worth, and indeed its superiority, to all other ways of life.
Here, then, is how I answered my student’s concerns:
You asked whether philosophy is any use for dealing with coronavirus. Yes, of course it is, in several ways.
1. Philosophy teaches us how to look at life in a wider view, not limited to material existence. Therefore, if we are truly and consistently philosophical, little crisis situations like a virus outbreak, which make most people so frightened and disturbed, should look insignificant to us. Socrates would not be scared and panicking about a flu virus. He would be thinking about the meaning of illness, the meaning of death, the meaning of courage, and especially in this case, he would be thinking about the weakness and irrationality of the crowd.
2. Philosophy gives us the perspective to look at social issues from a historical and rational point of view. This allows us to stand outside of the mass media’s hysteria and the official government statements, and form our own judgments about the situation. For example, if we are philosophical, we can see that even though the global media and the governments of the world are telling us this is the worst crisis on Earth, and we need to give up our daily lives, destroy our economies, and sacrifice our freedoms to save ourselves from this horrible disease, in fact, if you compare this disease to many past situations, and also compare it to other causes of death that we live with in the modern world every day, you will see that this coronavirus is not as serious as the news media is telling us. The number of (known) cases and deaths is actually quite small compared to the common flu, car accidents, cancer, and dozens of other causes of death.
It’s a bad flu virus, but it is not killing millions of people. In 1917, there was a flu virus outbreak that killed about 50 million people around the world. 50 million. This virus has only killed about 100,000 so far. And remember, the world population was much smaller in 1917, so 50 million then would be more like 200 million today! This new coronavirus is much less serious than the 1917 virus. And yet the world is here, more than a hundred years after that pandemic, life has continued to flourish, and humanity has carried on so well that we almost never think about that 1917 flu anymore.
3. Philosophy is important because this virus outbreak is only partly a medical problem. It is also, much more importantly, a political problem. (What should governments do about it? What should they have the power to do?) It is also a moral problem. (How should a good man face this kind of danger or social fear? How should we think about death and the meaning of life?)
4. Most of all, philosophy is important in this kind of situation because it reminds us that living for future goals (which mostly depend on people and circumstances beyond our control) is not the best or wisest way to live. Having plans and goals is good. But working on the things that matter to you now, and trying to improve yourself every day, is much more important than any practical goal or achievement. Your goals will change many times, you will have to adjust to changing conditions many times, and you will have to overcome failure many times. Part of the way to do that is to stay focused on what you are doing now, and what kind of person you want to be today. If you are not living the life you want to live right now — I mean in your behavior and choices — then you should change your behavior, because nobody ever knows if he will live until he achieves his “dreams.” You only know that you are alive today. So be the best person you can be today.
Socrates says that if Athens told him he could leave prison and live free if he promised to give up philosophy, he would reject that offer, because “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What does that mean? It means he wants to live the right kind of life, the best life, and he would not want to live any other way.
A little flu virus that kills only a very small percentage of its victims — most people who get it will never even have any symptoms — is a small problem compared to Socrates’ situation in the Apology, talking to a jury that directly controls his life or death. But he faced those men who had the power to decide if he would live or die — they could have voted to kill him right then and there, and in fact they did so — and he told them, “I will live the best kind of life until I die, and if you want to kill me for that, then fine, I will die today while living the best life.” That’s how a true philosopher looks at death.
So you see? Philosophy is very useful in this situation, because the situation is not only about medical health. It is about the meaning and value of life, and how to face death with courage and rationality. Those are the most important questions in this situation, in the soul of each individual human being. And they are philosophical questions. Only philosophy can answer them.