I write this blog on roughly the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 global pandemic. While there is hope that an end is in sight, the pandemic continues and a third wave threatens Europe and other places, including the state of Michigan where I live. And so the question naturally arises: what is the role of the philosopher during a global pandemic? There are many issues a philosopher might address: What is the scope and limit of government authority during a health crisis (lockdowns)? How do we balance our individual rights to autonomy with our obligations to our society and fellow citizens (mask-wearing)? What is a just distribution of limited resources (vaccines)? I am sure there are others.
I was thinking about this as my wife and I were watching our favorite TV channel, MHZ, which features international shows, largely Scandinavian detective mysteries. Having seen pretty much all of the Swedish, Danish and Norwegian fare, we started watching an Austrian show, Anatomy of Evil. The hero, Richard Brock, is actually a psychiatrist who does forensic work and likes to solve crimes. He’s a cynical, no-nonsense, tell-it-straight, world-weary type who’s seen it all and has suffered personal loss. He carries his suffering throughout each episode but this personal pain allows him to be sympathetic and it motivates him to work selflessly to serve others. He can’t bring himself to believe in God, though he envies the waiter at his favorite cafe who does. In one scene where he is walking alone in a misty evening with his grey overcoat collar turned up, Brock reminded me of a photo of the French existentialist philosopher, Albert Camus. It occurred to me that Brock is Camus. Indeed, the post-Christian European is Camus and has been for years. During a global pandemic, perhaps we are all Camus. Je suis Albert Camus. And it is as Camus, author of The Plague, that we might learn the role of the philosopher during this time in our lives.
So, in what ways are we Albert Camus? Camus was born in Algeria, at the time a colony of France. Although he was a French citizen, he was staunchly anti-colonial. Today we are all anti-colonial, post-colonialists, are at least we should be. We all are aware of the injustices of political oppression in all its forms, whether grounded in nationalism, racism, sexism, etc. We take for granted the way Camus and the French existentialists — Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone DeBeauvoir, particularly — saw the need for philosophers to weigh in on the lived experience of human beings and how they paved the way for the philosophical and subsequent social movements of the 1960s, movements that continue to reverberate today. As an anti-colonialist, and a leader of the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France, Camus was “woke” before the rest of us, and the more woke we become, the more we resist the threats to human freedom and dignity, the more we are Camus.
In The Plague, Camus speaks especially to this period of global pandemic. Faced with a plague that threatens the fictional town of Oran, the heroes of this novel seek not a political solution but more direct personal action: they must resist the spread of the plague while also doing all they can to alleviate immediately the suffering of the townspeople. Obviously, those infected need humane care but there is also the fear, anxiety, despair, isolation and longing for normality that everyone experiences. Camus shows us that plagues, that viruses occur; this is out of our control. For those who believe, it must be said that God has allowed this to happen, for what reason we do not know. For those such as Camus and the primary hero of the story, Dr. Rieux, who cannot believe in a God that allows the innocent to suffer, there is no reason forthcoming, nor is there waiting for divine assistance. We may pray to God for help, but we must try to save ourselves. “Trust in Allah,” the Muslim saying goes, “but tie your camel to the post.”
And so, in a time of plague, in a global pandemic, Camus seems to suggest, much like a Stoic, that we learn to do what we can and to accept what we cannot control. What is it that we can do? In addition to the obvious ways we might contribute our talents to the alleviation of physical suffering, we can also work on the alleviation of our internal suffering. We can do this by caring for our inner lives and caring for others. We can work on ourselves, and we can help others to work on themselves. In a period of lockdown and social isolation, as another French philosopher, Voltaire, advised in Candide, we can “cultivate our own gardens.” We can also help others cultivate theirs. And we can leave some of our tomatoes on their doorsteps. This can take the form of tai chi classes online, for example, as the Tai Chi Foundation (https://www.taichifoundation.org/) now offers. Or mindfulness sessions. Or therapy sessions. And when it is impossible to find a therapist, philosophical counseling sessions.
Perhaps the practice of philosophical counseling would be too bourgeois for Camus. But his writing does offer some philosophical counsel to his readers. Despite terrible outside forces, despite great odds, despite much that is out of our control, he counsels that we are free to resist, to fight back. We can’t know if we will be successful. But it is the effort that elevates us. We need not succumb to despair and resignation. Showing others that we have that freedom –over both outer and inner troubles — can be the role of the philosopher during times of distress. Even when the effort seems impossible, even pointless or absurd, as in the case of Sisyphus, who repeatedly rolls the stone up the hill only for it roll back towards him, it is in the effort that our dignity lies.
So, at least one role of the philosopher during a global pandemic is to help us to maintain our dignity. We do this by resisting fear and despair, by confronting them head-on, by asserting our freedom and independence from them even when they persist. For, like plagues and viruses, like all threats to our being, political and existential, they will persist. But the philosopher reminds us that we have it in us to be resilient, to find meaning and hope in what seems meaningless and, for a time, hopeless. As Camus says of his absurd hero, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” And so let us, too, imagine ourselves happy. Je suis Albert Camus.