The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. —Gramsci
Does a crisis show us what we are ‘really like’? Whether it does or not, it has already been instructive to experience this one, in which our institutions are being stress tested, perhaps to destruction. As many have noted, COVID-19 is a political and economic crisis as well as a medical one. Its size and complexity can leave us groping around for the right interpretive and predictive tools. There are a number of models that we can turn to to help us understand how we react, or might react, and these often rest on assumptions about ‘human nature’. The problem is that they don’t agree on some basics, and thus can’t all be right. So which is the best one to turn to in a crisis?
Two Views of Human Nature
The view of humans and their social arrangements associated with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is a bleak one: the human animal in the ‘state of nature’ – that is, without government or law – is in a state of constant war, or preparation for war, since no one can be sure of their own security. In the state of nature, life is ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, chapter XIII, 1651).Only a strong sovereign power can ensure peace by imposing it through force, or the threat of force. If the civil and political bonds of such a peace are broken, we can expect people to revert to type as self interested individuals, with “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes ): a return to the state of nature triggered by the breakdown of the central authority, driven by fear of the other and only restored by force or the threat of force. Read more »
Nostalgia is a fascinating and remarkably common phenomenon. We have all heard older people comparing the present unfavorably with the past in spite of–or even because of–obvious material improvements in the standard of living. Most of us over the age of twenty-five have probably done this ourselves. Often the fond remembrance involves some account of how we lived more cheaply, were closer to nature, were more self-sufficient, enjoyed uncomplicated daily routines, or contented themselves with humble pleasures. The underlying idea is that things were better because they were simpler.
But nostalgia for simplicity is not confined to individuals reminiscing; across cultures it is also a persistent motif in oral and written literary traditions. In religion, philosophy and literature, it has often taken the form of harking back to an unsullied past or a golden age of happiness and virtue. The biblical account of Adam and Eve in paradise is paradigmatic, but there are many other examples. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing over two and half thousand years ago, laments the sorry condition of the world he lives in compared to that inhabited by the first humans, a “golden race of men,” who lived “free from toil and grief…..for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly.” The Roman poet Ovid similarly describes a Golden Age when
…..of her own accord the earth produced
A store of every fruit. The harrow touched her not,
The lines underscore not just the absence of toil or tools but also the way people desired little and lived harmoniously with nature. In these idyllic circumstances there was no need for laws, since “rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed.”