The threat of imminent death leaves no room for political-correctness. In critical times we must put aside the deceitful euphemisms which seek to disinfect the truth.
So, for once, I will speak plain…
Our present predicament owing to what we have come to refer to by the “C-word” is certainly a medical crisis: not enough respirators, testing-kits, doctors, nurses, beds or even loo rolls. It is also a political crisis because any actions taken about how to deal with it necessarily involve political decisions. It is a historical crisis, because its causes lie in the past and particularly with the historical fact that in totalitarian China the markets are filthy. Let not Lord Acton’s prophecy come true: “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”
The three aspects I have mentioned are undeniably important, but there are other aspects which are equally important and perhaps even more so.
First, this is a spiritual crisis because it is sub specie aeternitatis: that is part of our essential nature and condition as creatures of God. In the history of the theory and practice of religion, some have announced plagues, pestilences and famines to be acts of God. Others, repelled by that notion, have said that God is necessarily involved because he cares for his creatures. You will seek in vain to find many – or indeed any – among our modern enlightened types, especially the bishops, who would consider either of those two suggestions. That perfectly mechanised ape Justin Welby merely commanded us wash our hands. Pontius Pilate was rather good at that.
For these enlightened types, truth is something which belongs exclusively to modernity and all earlier ideas about what constitutes truth must be dismissed as primitive. The modern world view is that the pandemic is about a virus, an almost impossibly small chemical organism; and anything else worth saying about it can be described in terms of its transferability, measured by what are sometimes called the laws of physics. That chemistry and physics are involved in all this is beyond doubt. But there is much more to human life than particles and motions, chemistry and physics. And the people modern types dismiss as primitive knew more about these things than we do. Nowadays there is a pervasive and quite ignorant dogma which declares that the people who lived before the scientific enlightenment were stupid.
They were not stupid and this might best be proved by an analogy. In the Middle Ages people knew nothing of wavelengths and frequencies but they knew how to compose music, to play music and to listen to music. Therefore, we can conclude that there is more to music than can be discussed in terms of wavelengths and frequencies. If the language of wavelengths and frequencies says all there is to say about what music is, then we might as well not bother listening to it and simply read a treatise on acoustics instead. The same is true of the current plague; there is more to it than microbes. Specifically, we – believer and atheist alike – must examine the inmost nature, meaning and significance of the crisis. This is what is meant by its spiritual aspect.
Secondly, there is a moral aspect and this is very practical. For example, how do we decide what is prudence and far-sightedness and what is hoarding? This is not merely about quantities: how much to pick up and carry home when there are so many others who need to pick stuff up and carry it home. This is a moral question. Or again, what is my duty of care – if any – to my neighbour who may be vulnerable? How odd to use such a word – as if there were men and women who are invulnerable! Or, in a world of limited resources in which there is a shortage of respirators should I, aged seventy-eight and find myself in extremis, bag this mechanical windpipe for myself or offer it to the twenty-eight-year-old in the next bed with a wife and two children? No amount of physics and chemistry or even scientific medicine can answer that question for me.
Secular morality is a contradiction in terms.
Thirdly, there is an aesthetic aspect. Social isolation means we have to discover activities with which to occupy our time. In search of these we should consider which things are worthwhile: that is, which things are truly beneficial. This is not to lapse into a fit of what our modern egalitarians excoriate as elitism: it is to consider which activities increase and develop our character, what Aristotle called our arete, our virtue which alone can produce our happiness, our eudaimonia. That is our fulfilment. This is not to suggest that those isolated should spend all their time listening to Bach and reading Kant. Even Mozart enjoyed his billiards.
But there is a difference – which for centuries was understood in our civilization – between art and entertainment art. That this distinction has been lost is evidenced by the fact that questions are asked about rock music on University Challenge. Whereas a university should be the antidote to rock music. The rock band’s latest release or album is not at all the same sort of thing as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in G-major. And to insist that these things are comparable is just to admit that you don’t know the difference between chalk and cheese. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that new album or release: only that for centuries it was not regarded as the real thing.
Show me what you value, and I’ll tell you what you’re worth.
Doing something life-enhancing doesn’t refer only to so-called highbrow stuff. Poieo is Greek for both poetry and any sort of making. So you might write an ode or make a basket, a string quartet or just mend your bike. It is the life-enhancing worthwhileness that counts. Only don’t think of being creative in the way that’s talked about in the creative writing class or according to the superstition that anyone can write a poem. They can: but only when a poem is defined as a piece of writing in which the words don’t quite reach the right-hand margin
A good companion for someone confined to barracks is sex. But sex too has turned into entertainment art. Eros has lost its amatory, companionable sense: what was known as sexual love. Sex in our so-called culture is regarded only as a pleasurable pastime. Who can enumerate the porn channels? Or what sort of view of sexual relations makes millions sit on their sofas and watch Love Island in which glamorous young people indulge in casual sex? It is a view according to which Aphrodite is no longer a god but a toy. As Eliot put it:
“The instinctive desire to propagate has been weakened by a sense that life, as we have made it, is not worth living.” Well, 205.000 abortions in 2019 – most of them of perfectly healthy unborn – speaks for itself.
No doubt what I have written will be derided as so much reactionary, chauvinistic and snobbish tripe. But, if you are looking for something to do for half an hour in your self-isolation, you might at least think on these things
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus…