Opinion: 'If there is one lesson I hope we will learn about ourselves during this pandemic, it is what it means to be human again'

None of us is old enough to remember the Spanish Flu. Partly for this reason, we are still struggling to fully comprehend the impact of Covid-19 some 18 months after the first patients were diagnosed with a curious and highly infectious form of pneumonia in Wuhan, China. But make sense of it we must. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said, "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it". The American tycoon and philanthropist Warren Buffett is probably closer to the mark when he says that "what we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history".

There are obvious political lessons everyone has had to learn throughout this pandemic: never trust populist politicians championing post-truth; a properly funded public health service is a life-saver, and worth every cent of the taxes we pay; inequality kills more than viruses; experts are to be trusted; education should be widely accessible, so that we have more experts.

But there is also a fundamental lesson that anyone inclined to philosophical self-reflection ought to learn about themselves from this pandemic: it concerns the art of living.This is a phrase we owe to the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who was also the mayor of Bordeaux. In 1585, the bubonic plague killed 14,000 people in Bordeaux, or approximately one-third of the population. Imagine if Covid-19 had killed 70,000 people in the city of Cork.

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Montaigne survived the bubonic plague by fleeing the city. He subsequently wrote about this experience in an essay entitled 'To study philosophy is to learn to die'. Reflecting on his mortality, he makes the following famous statement: "comprehending death is the key to the very art of living". He goes on to say: "he who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave".

Here, Montaigne is referring to the need to overcome our fear of death. In the most abrupt and unexpected way, Covid-19 has forced us to reflect on this most basic aspect of the human condition: our mortality. For Montaigne, facing our mortality is the only way to properly learn the art of living. We become alive only when we stare death in its face. This is something we can take from the present crisis. We have forgotten the art of living, trapped as we are in the relentless hectic rhythm of modern life, always multi-tasking, forever chasing the evanescent gold standard of productivity.

A word of caution: the art of living is not to be confused with infantile motivations of self-seeking, hedonistic impulses, justified in terms of the limp excuse that we are all going to die anyway. That’s not deep philosophy, that's just silly. The more serious lesson we can learn about ourselves from this pandemic is about the true value of friendship, and human contact. This also extends to the importance of making new experiences because we want to share the moment with someone significant and not for the sake of showing off on some social platform.

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Writing in 44BC, the Roman philosopher Cicero was right when he said "in isolation, who wouldn’t lose enjoyment of all delights?". We know all about isolation. During lockdown, living away from friends and family, we learned that the art of living cannot be found on Zoom or Netflix. In the last analysis, the art of living is the art of living together.

One reason we have lost touch with the art of living is that we value our autonomy too much. This is not to deny the appeal of autonomy, which allows us to express our own unique sense of identity. Autonomy stands for self-determination, or self-rule, and we value it because it defines who we are: this is me, this is my life, and I’m in control of it.

However, there is an ugly side to autonomy, something that our hyper-individualistic, consumer-driven, productivity-obsessed modern society tries to conceal from us. According to binary logic, if autonomy is good, the opposite of autonomy must be bad. And what is the opposite of autonomy? Most textbooks of philosophy will tell you that the opposite of autonomy (to rule oneself) is heteronomy (to be ruled by others). Heteronomy is obviously bad, since no one wants to be deprived of one’s freedom.

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But it’s not as simple as that. There is a different concept that captures the opposite of autonomy: it is not heteronomy, but ‘dependency’, and dependency is not only not bad, but it is also an inescapable feature of the human condition. Dependency is merely a reminder of our intrinsic vulnerability, and it is this vulnerability that makes human interconnectedness intelligible. As the philosopher Judith Butler points out, we cannot understand bodily vulnerability outside of a specific conception of relations. We can only be human inasmuch as we are vulnerable to each other. Inter-dependency speaks to a sense of solidarity that is too-often obscured by modern society’s obsession with autonomy.

Philosophers tell us that there are different degrees of autonomy. In fact, there are only different degrees of inter-dependency. While autonomy is a very alluring ideal, it also risks eclipsing other noble moral considerations: interdependency; interconnectedness; an ethics of care; solidarity; community; hospitality; perhaps even love. If there is one lesson I hope we will learn about ourselves during this pandemic, it is what it means to be human again.

Vittorio Bufacchi's Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons From Lockdown is published by Manchester University Press on June 10th


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ