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”.


 

This article is part of Life’s Big Questions
The Conversation’s new series, co-published with BBC Future, seeks to answer our readers’ nagging questions about life, love, death and the universe. We work with professional researchers who have dedicated their lives to uncovering new perspectives on the questions that shape our lives.


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.


To get all of life’s big answers, join the hundreds of thousands of people who value evidence-based news by subscribing to our newsletter. You can send us your big questions by email at bigquestions@theconversation.com and we’ll try to get a researcher or expert on the case.

More Life’s Big Questions:

Silvia Panizza, Teaching Fellow, University College Dublin

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

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
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."