The Consolations of Philosophy in the Era of COVID-19
My generation, the youth of the 21st century, did not grow up in an age of optimism. I, for one, cannot remember a time in which my country was not at war abroad, but I can remember coming of age amidst a seemingly endless litany of institutional failures. I remember march after march, speech after speech, year after year, passing, with no change made and little legislation passed. I came of political consciousness in the “post-truth” age, in an era where corruption and hypocrisy at the highest levels was not the exception, but the expectation. As I have grown up, I’ve seen private failures that match and mirror the failure of institutions. I suspect that people my age have always felt a degree of disillusionment, but I don’t doubt that our generation has come of age in times that are at once terrifying and absurd. The current crisis, then, is perhaps the Platonic form of the era it emerged from.
If I have taken anything from my study of the philosophical classics as part of the “Living a Good Life” course at Wesleyan, in the midst of many overlapping and intersecting crises, it has been perspective. Horror and absurdity in life did not emerge recently. All of the philosophical schools we studied emerged within contexts that mirror our own, and that may, in fact, have been more perilous even than the worst episodes of contemporary life. Confucianism and Daoism emerged during some of the most chaotic and violent decades of China’s history, the Warring States Period. Platonism and Aristotelianism emerged during the twilight of the Athenian empire, and the collapse and perversion of Athen’s institutions. The Stoics had to contend with social horrors which are difficult for us moderns to contemplate, from widespread slavery to socially sanctioned, and widely popular, blood sports.
Some comfort may be gained, then, from the knowledge that in the midst of terrible times, there have always and often been those who strived to live better lives and to carefully construct a brighter, better future. The history of philosophy consoles, as it is a record of those who dared to understand, to fully grasp the truth of what is true and good, even amidst censorship, political corruption and repression, and the ascent of the right sounding at the expense of the actually decent.
Beyond simply studying the classic philosophies of the East and West, our class also had the opportunity to put the philosophical ideas we studied into practice in our daily lives. For much of the course, we took on specific principles, be they Confucian, Stoic, or Aristotelian, and spent defined weeks living according to those principles.
Having the opportunity to practice philosophy did much to dispel the popular sentiment that “truth” is an old fashioned concept. While no one philosophical school offered the method for understanding how one ought to conduct oneself in the world, all, in themselves and in conjunction, affirmed the very possibility of doing so. However imperfect the philosophies we studied were – and they had their definite imperfections – all, by the very act of trying to understand and define what is right and wrong, gave me hope that the world, which in these present times may seem cold and absurd, may be made gradually more understandable.
In a lonely and uncertain time, the study and practice of classical philosophy have given me comfort in knowing that my generation was not condemned alone to loneliness and uncertainty. We, isolated in our dorms, not knowing what the weeks and months to come may bring, may have company in the many who have struggled with these very same issues in centuries past.
In a time of strife, where the very idea of truth is under constant and daily assault, the practice of philosophy has armed me and my peers with the tools we will need to construct a better future for ourselves and those to come, than the times we are to inherit. More than this, the experience of living as philosophers have given us some of the discernment and reasoning we will need if we are to use the tools we have been given correctly.
More than anything else, then, studying and practicing philosophy in these times of crisis has been a comfort and consolation.