Aristotle wrote that virtue resides in a mean, a balance between two extremes, finding that sweet spot in the middle whereby one does the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. This is all guided by prudence – for Aristotle, the greatest of the moral virtues – wherein one sees the true good in each particular situation, and discerns the best way of achieving that good.
What good – and whose good, cui bono – are we seeking in this current corona crisis, is a question we’ve all been pondering. Well, more than pondering, struggling with in an existential way, one that is only going to increase as time and isolation go on – perhaps well past the standard ‘forty days’ of quarantine. It is not a coincidence that this is the same length as Lent, and that this whole thing hit us at the beginning of the penitential season.
The ‘true good’ that we discern in any situation – in this critical one, and in others more mundane – will depend on the end or purpose that we have in mind, the bigger picture, as I wrote in the last post: Our own good, those of our families, our friends, our villages and cities, our country and the whole world. It is not a surprise that our focus on the ‘good’ is more local than national or global. We worry about ourselves and loved ones first and foremost, then, in a more vague and diffuse way, for others as the scope increases.
Part of the problem in our cultura moderna is that we are obsessed with the temporal and bodily, with our earthly lives, and eking out whatever years, days and months, we might, by hook or by crook. We have all witnessed this in a latent way – witness the spiralling costs of our health care system – but now it is coming out into the open in this apocalyptic – that is, revelatory – age. Stock up! Toilet paper! Booze! Cupboards full of potato chips and granola bars! Close, lock and bolt the door, answer it not, shelter in place, and venture not forth! Everyone now reduced to a potential bag of viruses, even if they appear perfectly healthy, each of us the very type of Typhoid Mary, infecting others without even knowing it. Already a lady gave me an obvious and wide berth on the sidewalk this morning.
Beyond the attenuation of these personal interactions – social distancing the mot du jour – we have more or less ground the economy to a standstill, the energy, dynamism and wealth of the nation dried or quickly drying up, the government printing cash out of thin air to shower upon us like golden lotuses, but it’s all a mirage, for such money has – or soon will have – little value, as there is not much standing behind, or underneath, it, built on a house of cards.
Rex Murphy, Conrad Black, R.R. Reno and others seem right at least in this aspect of their estimation: That the untold consequences of the extreme measures we are imposing are incalculable, far more so than even the mysterious nature of this virus, from the ruin of businesses, marriages, families, the poverty and despair in so many, the fear of ‘the other’, stalking fear of death, carried in the very air we breathe.
Yet, are we overreacting? I have already linked to this piece by a medical specialist, but ‘tis worth reading over and pondering.
For one thing, are all these deaths we hear of, in Europe especially, really caused by Covid? One wonders, for the flu, as you have likely already read, kills tens of thousands of people every year. In almost all people – so far unknown – Covid produces mild to moderate symptoms, but in some, it seems, catastrophic effects
How many die, not of Covid, but with Covid, sort of a co-Covid death? This virus is being ‘tracked’ like no other disease in history, and, as the author implies, anyone who dies with Covid is listed as death by Covid. But one wonders how many of the thousands in Italy and elsewhere – where more than a thousand die per diem, sans Covid – would have died regardless?
And, in the prudential balancing of goods, we should at least ask the question of what we are willing to pay – what goods sacrificed – to defeat this virus, which may itself be a quixotic quest? One physician on the CBC stated that we need ‘three full weeks with no new transmissions’ to lift the increasingly draconian sanctions – witness two young brothers fined in Spain for playing their backyard, and a roving Brit caught on a drone camera for taking a stroll by the sea, miles from anyone.
I wonder, are three full weeks of no new infections even possible with any flu or virus? What does that even mean? Are not such infections asymptotic, so that we might reduce them to manageable level, as we do with any illness, but not to some idealistic zero? How long will that take?
And are we willing what I call the two TSC’s: ‘Total societal collapse’, as the businesses and industries that run our economy and provide all our goods close up shop. We should recall that most of our wealth is in small business, founded, built up and run by industrious, hard-working people, who will be difficult to replace, and likely not by the coddled members of those employed by the state, in all its manifestations, used to getting paid – and quite generously – regardless of what happens.
As Leo XIII taught, quite rightly, it is ‘by the labour of working men that states grow rich’, and without their labour, we won’t be able to fund health care at all. If you think this is a crisis, wait ‘till what may yet be down the road, when we can no longer pay the generous salaries of our health-care personnel.
Or, we may well have some sort of ‘total societal control’, with the state monitoring our every move – or in this case, our non-moving – every social interaction, every move we make and breath we take?
The two ‘TSC’s’ are not incompatible, and one wonders if there is not a more sinister element behind the scenes, taking full advantage of our fear, fanned into flamed the focus of the media on so-called ‘hot spots’. But theatre, even live theatre, along with local crises whose etiology is from clear (almost all the fatalities in Italy are in late septuagenarians or older), is not science, and should not prompt us to panic. We must control and balance our fear, with the good that is sought.
Death is not the ultimate evil, nor is our life her our ultimate good, and I will more to say in light of the drastic, and I think somewhat lamentable, response of the Church in a later post.
For now, reflect upon the timely words of C.S. Lewis, and how we should live with fear, for that emotion is part of life in this vale of tears, a veritable way-station on the way to heaven, and we should always keep that perspective most firmly in mind.