BY ALISON ASSITER
In the unprecedented circumstances of the present pandemic, many groups of people have been hailed as heroes. Those who work in hospitals and care homes, the transport workers, those delivering the post, and shop workers are amongst those whose work has rightly been celebrated. On our university campus, that of UWE Bristol, one of the Nightingale Hospitals has been set up with unprecedented speed.
Many of us who normally work elsewhere, who may be furloughed or made redundant, have been looking for opportunities to ‘help’, by delivering food to those who may not have enough to eat, by phoning someone who is completely isolated, or even by applying to pick fruit and vegetables. All of these activities are vitally important. Others of us, though, may be paralysed by anxiety or fear. Some resort to washing their hands constantly, maybe others slump in front of the TV or carry a large bottle of bleach around with them everywhere in their own small flat. Some simply feel a constant sense of unease.
You may not see how philosophy could be of any relevance or use at the present time. I would like, in this blog, to explain one way in which philosophy can be helpful.
Albert Camus wrote his famous book The Plague, in 1947. The plague he referred to, it is commonly believed, was not the medieval plague but the metaphorical one of the Nazi occupation of France. But Camus was also well aware of literal plagues in the 19th century that had affected his native Algeria. The book recognises despair but works out the complex hope offered by resistance and the need to understand the deep effect of the corruption of war. Camus was influenced by the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote the famous book Fear and Trembling, whose subject matter is the command, featured in all the major religions, of God to Abraham, to kill his son Isaac.
A few weeks ago (in March, 2020) the Guardian published an article about Camus’ book. One paragraph reads as follows: "The British publisher of The Plague, Penguin Classics, says it is struggling to keep up with orders. 'We’ve gone from shipping quantities in the low hundreds every month to the mid-thousands', said Isabel Blake, the senior publicity manager. In February last year (2019), 226 copies of The Plague were sold in the UK. Last month (February, 2020) the figure was 371. By last week, three weeks into the month (of March, 2020), 2,156 copies had been sold, including 1,504 in one week alone."
Camus’ daughter who is now 74, recently said, acknowledging the relevance of her father’s book to the present period: “We are not responsible for coronavirus but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.” (Guardian, same source).
Camus was influenced, as noted, by Kierkegaard. There is one well-known commentator on Kierkegaard, Gordon Morino, who runs the Kierkegaard library in St. Olaf in the USA. Recently Morino wrote: "I was drifting through a period of a couple of years when I was really on the edge of the abyss—I went through a bloody divorce, developed some serious substance abuse problems, got in some trouble, and was hospitalized. One day, I was in a bookstore browsing. I was early for an appointment with a psychiatrist. I saw this book of Kierkegaard’s and started reading. It was pure light. Kierkegaard helped me make sense of suffering. We are often told that we need to get rid of feelings of anxiety and depression. You say, however, that, when they are “prevented from ransacking our existence” (and you acknowledge that they certainly can and will do that), anxiety and depression can actually provide a form of wisdom…..we have to reach through the pain and get outside ourselves even when we feel lost in a funk." (full interview available here).
It is through anxiety that we learn how to be free. I can’t control what happens but I can control how I react to it. We have a relationship to our emotions. We cannot control what we feel but we can choose how to react to our emotions. Kierkegaard himself despaired – of finding love, of finding acceptance, but his way of dealing with these feelings was to write deeply about freedom, about love and about responsibility.
Allowing oneself to be taken over by despair, for Kierkegaard, is giving up what it means to be a self. One type of despair fails to take seriously the constraints of the situation in which one finds oneself. This self is projected as existing separately from others, as an isolated individual, cut off from others. This self takes no notice of its surroundings, for example, imagining it can exist outside the present pandemic. The other type of despair is believing that we have no control at all over our circumstances – letting ourselves be taken over by the anxiety about becoming ill ourselves. Such a self might develop feelings of hopelessness. What Kierkegaard calls a ‘spiritual self’ allows that one is shaped by circumstances outside one’s control. But this self can also choose how it reacts to those circumstances.
Kierkegaard is talking partly about an existential state that we are all in. But his work has also been deployed in an approach to therapy, labelled the ‘existential-phenomenological approach’. This approach is ‘first and foremost philosophical’.
Some may want to explore Kierkegaard’s work more deeply. How does this relate to the Abraham story? Abraham believed ‘by virtue of the absurd’. The present situation can sometimes seem absurd but by thinking deeply about Abraham and about the present situation we can learn to live with the absurdity. We can learn that, although the situation we are in is outside our control, we have the freedom to choose how we react to it.
UK Philosophy and COvid-19
Do you want to know how philosophy is relevant to COVID-19? The British Philosophical Association is collecting resources on this topic. For further information, have a look at their website.
Philosophy and the pandemic: reading suggestions!