What philosophical lessons to draw from the health crisis?


When the world faces a reality that transcends it, when the life of human beings is at stake, philosophical questions resurface. It is ”  the astonishment which drove as today, the first thinkers to philosophical speculations”, said Aristotle .

The period of fear, panic and anxiety that we are going through forces us to put thought back at the center of our daily lives. And the resulting questioning is the essence of the philosophy which, for at least 2,500 years, has questioned the world.

We are confronted with the unprecedented experience of having to completely overturn, for an indefinite time, daily practices hitherto guided by the perspective of productivism and efficiency. Overnight, we are forced to reinvent a daily newspaper where there is no longer a way to produce, to participate in the active process of society.

Rules of life

In confinement, we could read thinkers like Thoreau , party XIX th  century to be isolated in the woods, with no connection to the world of “active”; or Petrarch who joined the XIV th  century hermitage of Vaucluse and described in the solitary life , his experience of isolation from the world to meditate, philosophize, write poetry. Petrarch thus opposes a productive and contemplative life to productivist society.

The difference with the present situation is that our confinement, we did not choose it, and that therefore that frightens us. This fear resonates all the more strongly because it poses existential questions. We do hear that some things are said to be essential and others not essential.

A majority of people are told that what feeds their daily life, why they get up in the morning, the place they frequent a large part of their life is ultimately not essential . What becomes important is to ask yourself if you are going to have enough to eat and stay healthy.

Realizing the futility of our existence is not without bitterness and this is why we were able to observe the resistance fighters in the first hours of confinement, resistance that gave way to panic, to the man for himself: store food, household products, take refuge away from cities …

It is true that the autonomy of our behaviors, in the sense of responsibility towards others is not easy to find because again, it is not in our habits. In our daily life, we follow the reflexes of acquired behavior. We must therefore change the rules of our everyday life, restore a rhythm of life. We must accept that in confinement, our life cannot be as pleasant as in ordinary times, that we cannot do what we want but what we can.

There is a form of obligation to live independently. For Kant, autonomy means defining alone one’s own rules of life and morals. This calls for distancing your passions, fears, feelings, making a rational calculation of collective interests by disciplining yourself. A work on oneself which is new and rather scary, since the individual and his interests often take precedence over the rest.

Think collective, act individually

It should be noted that this situation is established both on the individual and collective level and we note in what there is a strong social sharing of emotions in the communities. Social networks thus become the outlet for our fears as well as our amusements. In the current panic, we share and re-broadcast constantly, a continuous flow of information, which crushes us and prevents us from thinking, from taking a step back. There is no longer any distance between what is happening and the self as an individual.

For philosophers it is not a question of panicking, it is a question of understanding and succeeding in behaving as an individual in society. And in the current case, there is this paradox between withdrawal and solidarity. From a daily and conceptual point of view it is very interesting.

We are told to show solidarity but it only works if we have individual behaviors, for example washing our hands, protecting ourselves, being confined. We must work together as the governments repeat, but this can only happen through individual behavior. Kant’s philosophy can once again give us clues to this paradoxical work, which this crisis forces us to carry out on ourselves: we must isolate ourselves, fold in on ourselves in order to protect the other.

In a few days, we learn that each of us may be a time bomb, since we can carry the disease and transmit it. There is a sacrificial aspect, an unconditional and free gift of oneself, to the fact of staying at home without any contact, if not virtual, with others.

An ancient “how to live”

The goal of philosophy in antiquity is to respond to how to live. We are tortured by passions such as the quest for power, the search for money, fear, anxiety, old age, illness, betrayal, death. How to live despite all this?

Three philosophical schools answer them: the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Cynics. These schools develop “spiritual exercises” to combat these evils, a practice intended to transform, in oneself or in others, the way of living, of seeing things.

If the Stoics are most relevant to the current crisis, it is because they have developed a philosophy of acceptance. The greatest sentence of Epictetus: “there are things that depend on us and there are things that do not depend on them” is very enlightening. What does not depend on me is the context, this virus that has become pandemic. What depends on me is social distancing, hygiene rules, self-respect (taking care of yourself) if you want to take care of others.

The Stoics have four cardinal virtues that can be put into perspective with the context.

  • The first is wisdom, it is knowing how to welcome what is happening with calm and serenity. Do not look for a culprit and do not panic.
  • The second dimension is justice, it means knowing how to interact with others, educating, setting an example, respecting instructions.
  • The third axis is moderation. It is a question of not giving in to the panic of the purchase, controlling your impulses, moderating your pleasures, not trying to leave, to buy what is not necessary.
  • The fourth dimension is the courage to make decisions that are not pleasant, to decide what is good for the common good.

Work on oneself

We have not really learned from the last epidemics (SARS, H1N1…) or even adapted our lifestyles in terms of hygiene, equipment in masks , etc. This time may be we will have destruction in order to create a more responsible and united world.

From the first stages of confinement, there were spontaneous reflexes of solidarity, people shopping for their elderly neighbors, weakened or in a precarious situation. What will be left of all this after leaving containment? Will we learn from this somewhat forced lifestyle, but which pushes us to take responsibility for others?

Undeniably, what we need to remember beyond the crisis is work on oneself. This is another learning that comes to us from Pascal who said that “the unhappiness of men is not knowing how to stay or remain alone in rest in their room”. Why ? Because we want to be traveling, on business trips, hanging out with friends, getting together for dinner, going on vacation right to left.

Isn’t all this ultimately superficiality? Isn’t it an opportunity to learn to work on oneself and to be able to live in company of oneself? Isn’t this an opportunity to reinstate an individual and collective space of thought that seems to have been missing for a few weeks?

Author Bio: Xavier Pavie is Philosopher, Professor at ESSEC, Academic Director of the Grande Ecole program in Singapore and Director of the iMagination center at ESSEC