“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)
The original pandemic (“Covid I”) was a crisis of both science and philosophy. Though the conspicuous crisis threat was biological – a virus-based pathology and its derivative harms – America’s remediation strategies were undermined by assorted forces of unreason. More precisely, during the pandemic, anti-science bias revealed an enemy that Karl Jaspers would have called an “unphilosophical spirit.” By the 20th-century philosopher’s definition, such a confounding spirit not only “knows nothing” of truth, it “wants to know nothing of truth.”
In the matter of Covid I, this dissembling spirit was pervasive, far-reaching and (to borrow from military parlance) “force-multiplying.” It was most plainly manifested by a substantial dismissiveness of competent medical authority. It is still widely embraced by large segments of the population.
How did we get here? In candor, thoughtful philosophical explanations are always a challenging task for Americans. Millions do value their university degrees and affiliations, but these heartening sentiments generally have more to do with expected career benefits or sports-team loyalties than with any supposed worthiness of higher education per se. Soon, for this sizable minority, the potential annoyances of vaccination and masking could once again override the well-founded conclusions of medical science.
Not much has changed since the “Trump Era.” But whatever the particular crisis setting, truth remains “exculpatory.” Any proper judgments concerning “Covid II” ought still to be fact-driven and science-based.
There are times for every nation when history, reason and intellect deserve absolute pride of place. Today, at the possible beginnings of another Covid outbreak, this could be one of those times. What needs to be done?
To remind, in the United States and in any other nation-state that has founded a society upon some valid forms of dialectical education, politics can offer only a reflection of what is real. Because our collective unwillingness to acknowledge this key limitation, Americans ultimately suffered more than one million pandemic fatalities. For comparison, this number represents approximately twenty-times the total American military’s loss of life during the Vietnam War.
For the moment, at least, Donald J. Trump is out of power, but the crudely retrograde sentiments that first brought him to the presidency endure unabated. Now, still lacking sufficiently dedicated commitments of “mind,” We the people should not express surprise at the breadth of our recent failures or the plausible odds of a lethal recurrence. Casually, in increments, and over many years, the seductive requirements of wealth and “success” were permitted to become the very highest ideal of American life. Always, unsurprisingly, these “unphilosophical” requirements turned out to be high-cost delusions.
Today, possibly facing “Covid II,” America’s vulnerabilities remain rooted in anti-reason and anti-science, in an “unphilosophical spirit’ that “wants to know nothing of truth.” There are also variously prior and overlapping economic explanations. American well-being and “democracy” have sprung from a calculated posture of engineered consumption. In this easy-to confirm source of national debility, our marching orders fuse into one amply-clarifying conclusion: “In the United States, you are what you buy.”
It follows from all this that America’s political and public health failures are the product of a society where anti-intellectual lives are actively encouraged. Accordingly, an individual American’s life success is still often measured not by any rational criteria of reasoned judgment, but by his or her visceral compliance with a discernible “collective will.” In the United States, such presumptive “will” is typically centered on the disjointed urgings of “mass.” It’s not that such irrational urgings apply equally to all conceivable matters of mind, but that they surface wherever the expected benefits of intellectual exertion appear “too theoretical.”
There is more. What most meaningfully animates American politics today is not any defensible interest in learning, progress or survival, but a steadily-escalating fear of personal insignificance. Though usually most apparent at the presidential level, such (literally) dreadful insignificance can be experienced collectively, even by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued or not being wanted. Among other things, these anxieties are potentially impactful on the country’s most critical health policies.
Before any struggle against “Covid II” could become serious, an unblemished spirit of science and philosophy must be allowed to prevail. Perpetually ground down by the babble of jabbering pundits and half-educated politicos, We the people are only rarely motivated by any recognizable elements of insight or courage. Ironically, we are just now learning to accept that our politics-battered Constitutionis being subjected to fully intentional blows of public abrogation. These stupefying blows include randomly incoherent assaults by a former head of state, by a previous president who “loves the poorly educated” and who loathes any hints of compassion, science or philosophy.
Inter alia, Donald J. Trump abhors reason-based considerations of law, intellect or independent analytic thought. For the United States, it remains a knowingly perilous and unforgivable combination. At the end of his chaotic and self-serving presidential tenure, Trump’s personal defeat was paralleled by his extensive personal derangements of medical science. Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers: “I believe because it is absurd.”
There is more. To understand the coinciding horrors of the Covid I and Trump Era declensions, we must first look beyond mere reflections. Even now, in these United States, an authentically willing-to-think individual is little more than a quaint artifact of some previously-imagined history. At present, more refractory than ever to personal courage and authentic learning, an American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of taking itself seriously. Even after Trump, Covid II is already on its way to inflicting politics-accelerated harms.
“Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American society. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “mass” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, in grimly plausible lockstep with portents of future Covid epidemic illness. What next? Whatever our specific political leanings or party loyalties, our exhausted people will still need to navigate the incessantly breathless rhythms of a vast and uncaring national “machine.”Artificial intelligence (AI) could never rescue us in the absence of a more widespread and pre-existing “natural intelligence.”
We Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we even displayed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than “mass.” Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson described us as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not by moral paralysis, anti-reason or “fear and trembling.” Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals), but today an entire nation remains grudgingly content with the very tiniest of elevations.
In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned decent civilizations never to seek the “higher man” at the “marketplace,” but that is exactly where America first discovered Donald J. Trump. To combat Covid II, we ought to look elsewhere in 2024. Our next president, Democrat or Republican, man or women, will need to center on more than money and commerce. In all matters, he or she should want to know somethingof truth.
The core enemy faced by the United States as it would confront Covid II is not any one specific person or ideology, not any one political party or another. It is We the People. About this we can learn even more from Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” So today we still remain poised against ourselves, against our latent intellectual capacities, contra our own efforts at managing Covid II.
Bottom line? In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped not by any exceptional human capacities, but by relentless patterns of conformance. Amusing ourselves to death with illiterate pastimes and cheap entertainments, our imperiled American society still bristles with moronic jingles, shameless hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely we ought finally to be willing to inquire: Isn’t there more to this long-suffering country than abjured learning, relentless imitation and marginalizing commerce? Whatever we might choose to answer, available options are becoming increasingly limited.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed American Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, in general, the self-deluding American Selfis created by numbing forms of “skills-based education,” by unhidden patterns of tastelessness and by a defiling culture of gratuitous rancor. Prima facie, such a culture can never be rendered consistent with science and reason.
The struggle against Covid II could resemble our fight against Covid I. Once again, our necessary redemption as a people and aa a nation could not be generated from “mass.” Once again, the resolution of a major medical problem would need to proceed hand-in-hand with critical intellectual and political refinements.
There is a correct way to fix our deflected country, but not while We the people stubbornly inhabit pre-packaged ideologies of unreason and anti-thought.
Going forward against Covid II, we ought finally to insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a literate and virtuous citizenry. In accomplishing this immense task, basic changes will be needed at the level of microcosm, at the level of the individual person. Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an art, the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of unique individuals. In this same regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes even further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”
It would be easy to conclude that the task of intellectual and moral reconstruction – a task necessarily antecedent to any successful management of Covid II – lies beyond our normal American capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to any such fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to collective surrender. Far better that the citizenry grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity and exploit this universal font for national and international survival.
We have been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” This spirit, if unrevised, would leave us unprepared to meet the core biological threats of Covid II. To meet these threats, We the people will finally have to understand the primal intersections of science and philosophy. Only by renouncing an “unphilosophical spirit” could we Americans become suitably prepared to combat another possible disease epidemic.
To the extent that it resembles the original Covid I pandemic, Covid II would be more than “just” a medical or scientific problem. It would also represent a philosophical problem in the sense that ever-present forces of manipulation, criminality and anti-reason could once again stand in the way of problem resolution. To solve this philosophical problem in time, We the people will first need to value science-based evidence more highly than any false-reassurances of political contrivance.
Should such an essential valuation be expected?
Are we fully prepared for Covid II?