News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: How to Learn Your True Worth During the Plague

Monday, January 16, 2006

How to Learn Your True Worth During the Plague

For centuries, humans have faced the terror and desolation of plagues. While humans seem well-equipped to muster social, economic, and political resources to combat invasion and war, plagues present a uniquely devastating social and personal event.

In history, who can forget the depiction of plague in Thucidydes' Peloponnesian Wars? Equally discomfiting and terrible is the description of chaos and moral and physical disintegration described by Lucretius at the end of his great poem, On the Nature of Things. ...

Recent artistic renditions of the Black Plague include Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal? The film plays on the late 50s and early 60s philosophy of Existentialism, and its focus the facing one's own death. This philosophy said that if there is anything that brings home the depth and solitary anxiety of human life it is death.

But humans know death in many forms. There's death by accident and chance, murders, and of course warfare. Then there are the less tragic, more peaceful forms of death, those deaths the ancients called blessed. Each form of death, no doubt, carries its own meaning for each human who dies under its form.

Yet the more peaceful a death and the longer one has lived, the more it seems to make death's appearance less intimidating, less terrible. Then we say, "Well, they lived a long life." The length of one's life seems to ameliorate the anxiety associated with death. Yet, even here, I wonder how much people who have lived long do not in some way fear the final flickering of the flame.

As Plato noted in the Republic, when facing death people begin to wonder about what's after death. They go over what they have done in life and begin to assess their lives in terms of what moral harm they did to themselves and to others. It is then, Plato writes, that some begin to take stories of eternal reward and punishment more weightily.

Yet, some forms of death strike terror into people's spirits more than any other form of death. Natural catastrophes sweep away hundreds, thousands at a blow. One minute people are there, the next they are gone. Yet, it is this suddenness and purely arbitrary aspect that makes death by natural catastrophe different from, let's say, terrorist bombing or war. You wonder how much time people who die this way have to think about their fates. Perhaps they are the blessed, since they don't have to think and ponder the meaning of death any more.

Some people are not willing to grant that there are different types of death, no doubt. After all, seen from a purely objective, third person view, death is death. If you're dead, you're dead. What's different, this way of thinking goes, is a mere fantasy of the mind, the spirit with too much time on its hands--a sickly soul--a cowardly soul fearing phantoms and illusions of other worlds.

Perhaps these realists are right; but I do not think that many will accept the basic assumption that their own death is not somehow important at least to the one who dies, whether or not they were something in the grander scheme of socio-cultural life.

A prominent item in the news is the threat of a new plague, commonly called the avian flu. One way to look at the threat of mass death brought on by this plague is to see its purely social and economic impacts. The Washington Post reports:

"Prevention is better than a cure. The disease is not only a threat to health, but where it strikes, it jeopardizes economic growth and poverty alleviation," the E.U.'s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said at a news conference in Brussels.
No doubt, this is the right way to look at it. Yet, I wonder how much of this is not a way to counter the very real terrors raised at a purely human level that the plague poses.

If there are such things as different kinds of death, then that qualitative difference must be subjective; it cannot be captured in quantitative terms. With the concerns over the bird flu, this anxiety is waiting to burst forth from the reports that describe its presence.

Words such as panic are hidden in out of-the-way paragraphs, for it as if were one to make the events that the words describe prominent, then the very thing itself would manifest itself, bringing social dissolution and untold moral horrors in its wake. Every precaution is taken in these articles to assure us that everything is under control, the authorities have the situation in command, the doctors and disease experts are on-site.

And they probably do. No doubt this form of influenza and its minor tremblings will disappear under the attack of modern medicine and organizational and political acumen.

Yet, there is something unique about the threat posed by plague. This form of death carries its own subjective terrors and threats. Unlike wars, where humans band together and support each other in a showing of solidarity--where people die for the homeland, sing patriotic tunes, kill for comrades and die in their arms--the plague has none of this.

The plague is a uniquely individuating event. As Soren Kierkegaard noted over 150 years ago in talking about cholera:
The Significance of Cholera is in its tendency to train men to be single individuals [Enkelte], something neither war nor any other calamity does--they herd men together instead. But the plague disperses into single individuals and teaches them, physically, that they are single individuals. (Journals and Papers, Trns. By Howard and Edna Hong)
For Kierkegaard, at least, the plague turns humans into individuals. Whereas before they stick together, band together, to face a common threat, the plague separates out and leaves you alone with yourself. There's nothing anyone can do for you.

And your death means nothing to anyone. It is both chance and not chance. Some are taken and others not; death seems as whimsical in who dies as in who does not. There's no human agency involved and the time it takes to die is often extended. In its most terrible form, people who otherwise called themselves neighbors suddenly turn against each other and will do anything to survive.

But even more noteworthy for Kierkegaard is the notion that each individual must fight the disease on their own. No one can fight it for you. Through your fight with death you are singled out as the one who will die and no one else. In many cases, there's nothing anyone can do except to provide the medicine and then you are on your own.

War trains you to believe that to survive you must rely on others—plague teaches you that you and you alone must learn to survive; how you do so and what or who you rely is another matter. There is no one you can rely on, it leaves you alone—spiritually and physically.

Why does Kierkegaard emphasize the “physical” aspect of this training? No doubt, it has to do with the fact that we are educated bodily into being members of a group. We spend years trying to beat our bodies into a shape and form that others will find attractive, appealing, easy to endure. There is much of this training that predisposes us to act and react at a non-individual level but instead on a purely cliquish one.

Why this is important for Kierkegaard is that the modern age is filled with mechanisms, structures, and life-forms whose main goal is to train and indoctrinate us into a purely hive-like experience. Instead of living and thinking about what life means in any but purely materialistic terms, the plague will train humans to break down that unconsciously formed psychological armor that leads outward instead of inward to the path of self-knowledge.

Some historians suggest that the Black Plague laid the basis for the Renaissance. Writers like Boccaccio and his fellow countrymen suffered horribly during this plague and came to see something about themselves that they had not seen beforehand.

Of course, such events do not need to cause change in institutions, society, or political systems. If they do occur, however, perhaps the future plague will change the present advance of nihilism around the world. If it does so, it will be because the plague will teach each of us once again what it means to be an individual.

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