Alternate Lessons from the Corona Moment of Humanity

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Covid-19 seems to be nailing Fredrick Nietzsche’s Last men to death. Humanity is trapped in a hysteria of fear. Death seems to have become the new normal. The lethal virus appears to be laughing at all our science, technology, and medical strides as it has also begun to spread asymptomatically. The virus has become a terrorist and fear of collective annihilation is griping the global community. While a lot of ink is spilled in passing the blame about its origin between China and the USA, we seem to have reached a point where we have no time to waste on conspiracy theories but have to fight the deadly flames that are threatening to engulf us all. We are fast losing our sense of security and assured confidence as each of us has become a potential victim and a vector. But we cannot allow ourselves to drown ourselves into an overdose of pessimism. It can prove fatal to us. We still need to put on a confident stance to fight this war to the finish.

The virus has found us out. We have exhibited our vulnerability. But the end is not yet come. We still have time to fight it. The final victory will still be ours. But this seems to be not before the blow of a catastrophic loss of precious human lives. We have already lost much. We cannot catastrophize the virus. It is lethal and deadly but it has no power over the entire humanity. Those among us who have come out safely from their death beds after suffering its deadly attack will not suffer it again. They have become immune and the virus has no power over them. They are the remnant of this war. But we cannot rest. We have to save ourselves. The war has to go on. While we battle for our lives, we have to learn our lessons from this tremendous disaster. It is indeed an unprecedented time. We have to create a future that is secure from these lessons.

We have many lessons that we can take from this corona moment of humanity. Maybe there is an important lesson about how we view and deal with our death in this disaster. We have fear of death which translates into intense forgetting by repression as we indulge in the mindless accumulation of wealth and purse boundless pleasures. In the context of this drunken desire to evade and escape death, the global attack of Covid-19 that we are courageously facing today has become an unwanted reminder of our death and finitude. All our transitory consolations, momentary oblivions, as well as hopes for some miraculous afterlifes do not nurture our hope with the same force as it did earlier. Death seems to be looking at us in our eyes and challenging us to face it fair and square. Death being an event on this side of our lives, we cannot escape it. We have to face it one day or the other. We cannot take refuge into what Albert Camus called philosophical suicide in the face of death.

Simon Critchley in his philosophical work, the Book of Dead Philosophers, echoes this sobering axiomatic statement that taught us that ‘to philosophize is to learn to die.’ We cannot afford philosophical death today. Several great luminaries died for their ideas. Critchley names Socrates as the first in this grand list of dead visionaries. Our philosophy of death controls our life. Let us take the case of those who think that there is no life after death. If death is our final destruction, then we conclude that all that we have is only this life. This is why their reigning philosophy becomes ‘let us enjoy and make merry today for tomorrow we die.’ We can trace this thought in the Epicurean and Carvakean hedonists of yesteryears. This does not mean believers in an afterlife have learnt to live. Karl Marx as succinctly revealed this to us when he declared that religion is the opium of the masses. This is why it is important to learn to die to learn to live. The corona moment of humanity can teach us to die and thus, learn to live.

Strange as it might sound, it is true that we live our life with a vision of death. Montaigne taught us that the Egyptian lived their lives with joy as they said, ‘Drink and be merry for when you are dead you will be like this.’ Maybe it is also true that the mass consumerist society that we have built has a similar ideal. This is why we might say that we are roaming with death in our mouth. Paradoxically the coronavirus has also brought death through our mouth. Maybe it is teaching us to learn to have death in our mouth. This means that the words we speak, the food that we eat and drink that we imbibe can lead to our death and that of others. Maybe this is why Montaigne said that learning to die is unlearning how to be a slave. Learning to die also involves unlearning those thoughts and being habits that enslave us. Hence, we may say that premeditation of death is a fore-thinking of freedom. Hence, denial of death is a kind of self-hatred.

The unpleasant death and the innocent dying that we can see as a consequence of coronavirus can provide us the necessary wisdom to confront our life. We need to learn these lessons otherwise we stand in danger to reproduce what Seneca beautifully articulated when he said , ‘ he will leave badly who does not know how to die well’. There are many hard and difficult lessons in the calamity that we are all facing together. The dying people under the attack of coronavirus are interrogating the philosophies of death that provide direction and vision to our life. Humanity has several philosophies of death that rule us. Maybe it is time to think how we live our lives with hindsight of death. Often it may be far removed from our religious faith vision. One thing appears to be certain for now. The consumerist vision of death is given a death sentence by coronavirus. We have a profound lesson that teaches us that we do not just roam with death in our mouth. It is in our minds and in every cell of bodies. Let us learn to live by learning how to die.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao