The stakes of our current drama are high. They require our full attention and clear-sightedness. They call for heroic actions. And in short, they demand greatness of soul. Will the real human nature please stand up? We need it now more than ever.
“Is man no more than this,” King Lear famously asks as he stands exposed in the tempest, watching the wretched figure of “Poor Tom” writhing in the mud at his feet. Lear’s question is ironic because he asks it in ignorance of the fact that “Poor Tom” only appears as a beggar but is actually the noble Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester. Extreme circumstances have forced Edgar to put on the disguise of a madman struggling to survive in nature. Extreme circumstances, and especially life and death ones, have a way of uncovering who a person really is.
Today we see this on a world-wide stage. Facing an unknown and deadly enemy, the human race confronts the “big questions” which are most often postponed in life or relegated to philosophy classes. It is a rare historical moment when the whole of humanity suddenly finds itself unable to escape these questions. And it is a revealing one too.
So what is the picture of human nature we find emerging in this revealing moment of history? What does philosophy have to teach us here? For starters, we must own up to certain unflattering images. There are the hoarders: those who have greedily amassed basements full of toilet paper and antibacterial soap which leave the rest of us scrambling. Or worse, there are those who had the foresight to buy gallons of hand sanitizer and now profiteer on Amazon by selling it for $50 a bottle. There are the groups of people playing basketball or picnicking on a beautiful spring afternoon when the rest of us are at home trying to ignore spring fever in order to fend off the more dreaded one. Then there are stories of people stockpiling guns and ammunition, preparing for an even uglier side of self-centeredness. As resources grow scarcer and the economy declines, patience and the semblance of civic manners might give way to chaos.
These selfish, fearful, and aggressive impulses sketch a picture of human nature Thomas Hobbes would recognize and affirm. The fear of the war of all against all—every man for himself—is precisely the reason, Hobbes thought, one would sacrifice freedom for personal security. The prospect of a Leviathan-like state may seem monstrous at first, but at least life and limb are intact.
Of course, John Locke came along and tempered that view a bit, arguing that one ought to see human selfishness in a more optimistic light. Enlightened self-interest seeks to use one’s own efforts for the sake of a better life, but it also yields an improvement which benefits everyone. So the person who managed to corner the market on hand sanitizer might have more takers if he offered it at a fair price. Self-interest might also induce one to stay home away from the threat of the virus, while at the same time protecting others.
Alternatively, there is another more easy-going side of human nature to consider. Truth be told, plenty of Americans happen to like sitting around doing very little (even if they don’t like being told to). And let’s be honest, just how hard is it to spend time in affluent suburban homes these days with private theaters, gourmet kitchens, extra freezers, and large backyards? The Enlightenment achievement of modern science which sought “the relief of man’s estate” was enormously effective and translates into many good things for us today beyond creature comforts such as longer lives and medical remedies which alleviate physical suffering.
But one could argue that an inordinate focus on satisfying the needs and desires of the body paired with first-world affluence has made for a softer, slothful kind of human being who is interminably bored, generally disaffected, and unaware of what that means. This, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed, is one of the unfortunate eventualities of human existence. Unmoored by the apparent dissolution of metaphysics and the death of God, post-modern humankind must invent its own meaning and create its own possibilities. The stage is set for the overman. Or, if he’s not up to it, something far less.
Plenty of us are content to sit home watching the current drama unfold on television or the internet. Sure, it gets old after a while listening to politicians and doctors presenting the latest phase of the crisis, but various amusements are available like binge watching shows or shopping for the online deals that flood our inboxes. Some of us are unmistakably “yuppified” poster children for Nietzsche’s “last men,” letting history wash over us and “blinking” as we reach for another handful of organic, non-GMO sweet potato chips.
These are undeniably impoverished images of the human response to the coronavirus crisis. But just as Shakespeare makes clear in the case of Lear, human brutishness may loom but it is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
Consider the reflections of the governor of the hardest-hit state in America. At a recent press conference, Gov. Cuomo responded to a reporter who wondered about the cost-benefit analysis of his aggressive lockdown approach to the outbreak in New York. “What is this,” he retorted, “some kind of modern Darwinian theory of natural selection?” He went on to reflect, and has done so repeatedly, about how human life is not expendable. The insidiousness of this particular virus, he noted, is that it attacks those who are weakest and most vulnerable. Those are the members of society, he added, whom our instincts ought to want to protect. But it will take real greatness, both in thought and action, to do it. In light of that, let’s consider a final vision of what it means to be human: Aristotle’s.
Aristotle argued that all human action is done for the sake of happiness. But Aristotle’s view of happiness is a far cry from being free from the fear of privation and violent death. And it is even farther from a sense of an unreflective contentment derived from wanting little more than the satisfaction of our lower appetites. Aristotle’s understanding of human happiness is a state of excellence which results from the cultivation of virtues both moral and intellectual. His most famous observations about human nature are perennially instructive: man is a political animal, and man is a rational animal. When we look to the most inspiring stories of our day, these observations come to life.
First, let’s take the political character of human nature; by this, Aristotle means the social context of human flourishing. Even the most introverted of us are social in a fundamental sense. We need each other to be good. We need each other to be happy. No one can really practice virtue in solitude. Not only is our society interdependent, but in large measure, we find our personal fulfillment in the serving of others. Why else would those in health care and food distribution (and countless others) get up and go to work right now? By any measure of a cost-benefit analysis, they lose. But by the measure of human excellence, they win. They are the heroes of the day, and we all recognize and revere it.
Second, let us consider our rational nature. Without a doubt, any crisis requires practical intelligence: clear thinking which can be placed at the service of good action. Having a general understanding of what is true and good is necessary in order that one make wise decisions and implement good policy in concrete circumstances. At the moment, some politicians are actually trading the usual Machiavellian politics for seldom seen Aristotelean prudence. Perhaps there is hope for American statesmanship.
What is more, the “big questions” of life now present themselves in a non-deferrable way: Who are we as human beings? What is our purpose? What do we want and why? With almost everything else shut down, the universities remain in operation, albeit in an online mode. And tired of playing second-fiddle to the sciences, Lady Philosophy now finds herself back in the saddle. Stuck at home, faced with questions about mortality, ethics, and a faltering job market, students are eager to talk through these issues. Intellectual virtue is in high demand at the moment and must rise to the occasion.
Returning to King Lear, Shakespeare’s audience watches the transformation of the once timorous Edgar into someone who defines who he is by the cultivation of virtue and the realization of purpose. He throws off the misery of self-preservation in “Poor Tom” and summons the courage to stand and defeat the enemy at the end of the play. The Kingdom of Britain hangs on his heroism. The stakes of our current drama are equally high. They require our full attention and clear-sightedness. They call for heroic actions. And in short, they demand greatness of soul. Will the real human nature please stand up? We need it now more than ever.
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The featured image is “King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.