The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been a struggle for everyone, and some more than others. It has been a heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones, a terror for those who have lost jobs, and a great struggle for those who must suddenly take care of their children full-time while simultaneously trying to do their full-time jobs as well.
I am lucky not to have fallen into any of these three troubled categories – yet, at least. But I have noticed how difficult these times have been even for others who share my relatively lucky position – simply because everything is cancelled. We may not have parties. We may not go out to eat. We may not go to the movies. We may not travel, not without severe quarantine restrictions. We may not play sports; we may not even watch sports. We may not watch, or play, live music. Most of our social interactions must be through a medium where we cannot tell whether others are looking at us or at something else on their screen. Even as we recognize others’ difficulties are considerably greater, this is all still a major loss of the things we love.
Overall, though, I would say these times have not hit me as hard as they have many other friends in a similar position. And one of the biggest reasons for that is – philosophy itself. There is something quite valuable about the activity of philosophy in these difficult times, and this in at least two ways.
First, philosophy often reminds us to take losses of external goods, of the sort we face in these times, in stride. 20th-century academic philosophy (both analytic and “continental”) has tended to neglect this side of philosophy, but as Pierre Hadot notes, it still survives in everyday English or French in expressions like “being philosophical about it”. It is for this reason that Boethius, the last great philosopher of the Western classical age, entitled his major work The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius needed consoling if anyone did: once one of the most senior officials in the remnants of the now-conquered Roman Empire, he fell out of favour, was accused of treason, and spent the last year of his life in prison before being executed. And it was during that year that he wrote The Consolation.
While Boethius was a converted Christian, Christianity makes little appearance in this book; it is monotheistic, but with no reference to Jesus. Rather, Boethius draws his consolation from philosophy proper, which he personifies as a woman, Philosophia (the Latin, grammatically feminine, word for philosophy). Like Marcus Aurelius a few centuries before him, Boethius takes the lessons of philosophia to be roughly those of Stoicism. Philosophia tells him that what is most valuable in life is not the honours and riches he has lost but his own virtue and wisdom, which has not been taken away from him. These are the source of true happiness, even true good fortune (felicitas). With this lesson in mind, the virtuous Boethius is able to remain happy and consider himself blessed, even in his prison cell facing execution. (Buddhism is not Stoicism, but I would argue its lessons are closely related; my dissertation, especially its seventh chapter, discussed at length how Śāntideva shares the Stoic’s rejection of “external goods”. The bodhisattva can remain happy and calm even when on fire.)
There is a second reason I have found philosophy valuable in these times, as well, and this is one in which 20th-century academic philosophy can be as good as any other. Here philosophy offers not merely consolation but pleasure. That is, there is a significant pleasure in the act of philosophical contemplation itself, in the process of discovering significant truths. There is a reason philosophy is called the love of wisdom, not simply the possession of it. For this reason Aristotle thought that the gods, who did not need to worry about human concerns like health and death, lived a life characterized primarily by contemplation. Near the end of the Nicomachean Ethics he claimed that the contemplative life was therefore the most perfect form of flourishing.
But we do not have to reach the realms of the gods to partake of philosophy’s joys. David Hume, more modestly, compared the pleasures of philosophy to the pleasures of hunting. He proclaims that “tho’ in both cases the end of our action may in itself be despis’d, yet in the heat of the action we acquire such an attention to this end, that we are very uneasy under any disappointments, and are sorry when we either miss our game, or fall into any error in our reasoning.” Each activity has a goal, an end, that it seeks. Yet still that end “causes no real passion, but is only requisite to support the imagination; and the same person, who over-looks a ten times greater profit in any other subject, is pleas’d to bring home half a dozen woodcocks or plovers, after having employ’d several hours in hunting after them.” The end matters, but the joy is not in that end but in the quest for it. Similarly he compares philosophy to gambling: in all these cases we have an end that we seek (the game to eat, the wagered goods, the truth) and we are disappointed if we do not attain it, and yet there remains a joy in the activity itself, one that does not come from simply being handed the meat, handed the winnings, or told the conclusions.
In the case of philosophy – and not of hunting – this joy is easily attainable even without leaving one’s home. In earlier times, one might still have faced the difficulty of limited access to books, to the wisdom of the past. But technology happily fixes this problem: if you are able to read this, then most of the major works composed before the early 20th century are readily available to you for free online. And so one thing that these dark times will not take away is the joy of philosophical pursuit. Nor do they take away the philosophical consolation that comes from directing our minds away from external goods and their losses. These joys and consolations have been a tremendous blessing for me in these dark times. May they be so for you as well.