Mar 21st 2020

Philosopher in Italian coronavirus lockdown on how to think positively about isolation

by Silvia Panizza

 

Silvia Panizza is Teaching Fellow at the University College Dublin

 

“I am facing 14 days of self isolation and I find the prospect terrifying. Chances are it will continue much longer too, as we may soon face lockdown. But I also wonder whether it may be good for us to slow down and reflect on the human condition. Could this pandemic help us change how we think and act for the better?” Dan, 44, Southampton

“They say when trouble comes, close ranks.” So begins Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. When the novel coronavirus started spreading in Europe, my first impulse was to travel home, to Italy, to be with my family. Lesson number one learned from the virus: you remember what matters to you.

Rhys was, of course, talking about racial tensions in colonial times, not families vs other commitments, or humans vs viruses. But she knew that there are good ways and bad ways of closing ranks. It seems to me we are now experiencing both. As a philosopher in lockdown in Piedmont, I am trying to take the opportunity to think about what the outbreak can tell us about ourselves – and our planet.

One way to think about the pandemic is in terms of humanity coming together to fight a natural threat in the form of a virus. I find this thought both inspiring and absurd. The reminder that we are all similarly vulnerable, similarly worried, and that we need concerted action across the globe to address this disease, brings some hope. On the other hand, while this threat is impersonal, we know that whenever a “we” is formed, there is a “they”.


 

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For Rhys, it was Jamaican natives and African slaves. Today, there are many different forms of “they”, starting broadly with the obscure “other” that is nature – humans versus everything that is neither human nor human-made. This may bring a sense of unity for us, but the same worldview may have enabled the virus in the first place. That’s because one of its manifestations is thinking of non-human animals as objects of consumption – and we know a seafood market is one of the possible sources of the disease.

More broadly, our view of “nature” as radically separate from humanity is arguably to blame for climate change, which scientists have suggested makes it easier for viruses to spread. So perhaps it isn’t enough to broaden our perspectives from the individual to all of humanity to achieve positive change.

Me and Gaia

If there is one thing philosophy can do quite effectively it is to unearth our implicit, habitual vision of the world and show us what follows. Mary Midgley was a philosopher strikingly capable of imaginative transformation and forward vision. She supported the idea of “Gaia” – the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities – and its implications for how we live.

We are all part of nature. CreativeAngela

Thinking of life on Earth as a unified, non hierarchical and self-sustaining system, Midgley argued, is not only more realistic, but helps us think of ourselves beyond unapologetic individualism. “Gaia is angry”, I have heard someone say in the context of this pandemic. Some people will laugh at this sentence. Others will be moved to picture the Earth aiming for internal balance.

Back in the “red zones” of Italy, most of us don’t see nor imagine much of this living organism around us. Our immediate problem, in lockdown, is avoiding contagion from another human. We are back in the narrowest of circles: me vs you. In rare outings, each person on your way becomes a threat. If they are careless and walk too close to you, you feel anger. Others are not friends when you fear for your health. Yet, thinking about how we used to ignore each other in the streets, this is at least a new form of awareness. We are forced to pay attention to each other.

And sometimes, this attention can take altruistic forms. My aunt, in her 70s, volunteering for the Red Cross to check temperatures in the local hospital, is an example of this. China sending supplies and medical experts to help Italy is another. These cases are received with as much surprise as praise. Generosity seems extraordinary. This is something else I think we should reflect on.

Rethinking freedom

In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did.

We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free.

But there is another route to freedom, which goes back to some of Midgley’s notions about oneself as part of something larger. If we thought we were part of Gaia, wouldn’t inflicting potential damage to our community feel like self-harm rather than freedom? Here we could think of freedom in the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s way – as choosing what you understand to be right. Or, with Plato, as answering to the pull of what is good. That could mean accepting some discomfort and boredom to protect someone else.

There are worries with taking a broader perspective though. One is that it may ignore individuals. Some environmentalists claim to dislike humans from the perspective of the whole planet and the damage we have done to Earth. Perhaps some people welcome or at least accept pandemics for that reason. Yet if we place ourselves closer to individual suffering, we may struggle to keep that view: the director of a hospital ward in Lombardy nearly broke down when interviewed on TV, talking about the deaths he witnesses, relentlessly, every day.

Can the two perspectives, being part of the whole and caring for individuals, be reconciled? Sometimes this possibility runs up against conflicting interests and resistance. Sometimes it does not: we have, with a smile, seen pictures of dolphins reclaiming the waters near the port of Cagliari, Sardinia, and shoals of tiny of fish glittering under the sun in Venice’s canals. We don’t have to die for such things to happen. But we do have to significantly rethink our lifestyle and our role within the planet.

For someone like me, quarantine may not be a huge sacrifice. Not facing the pressure to be sociable, productive and successful actually brings some relief. But as I was writing this, a loud clapping started in the street. I opened the window and remembered that there was a general ovation planned for 12 o’clock to show appreciation for each other’s sacrifice for not going out. On the balcony opposite mine, a small elderly lady was enthusiastically clapping, leaning forward, smiling and waving at us. Staying in can truly be a sacrifice if you live alone.

I hope isolation and lockdown can also be an opportunity for reflection and change. These thoughts about who we are as individuals and as parts of a large, wonderful web of life are my two cents.

On the packages from China containing protective masks, they wrote: “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.” These words were written by the Roman philosopher Seneca, but they could be from Midgley. In another context, it would sound sentimental. Now we can take it at face value. If that is what we are - if we can think of ourselves that way — what follows from it? If the lockdown helps us to think about the answer, we may have gained something from it.


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Silvia Panizza, Teaching Fellow, University College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."