Invited to offer reflections from the humanist perspective on our current situation, I can think of two general headings: what is this situation telling us about ourselves and what is it telling us about our society?
You might think it’s impossible to speak in general about what is happening to us as individuals. Some people are having a luxurious lockdown, cocooned in their beautiful homes and gardens with good food, fine wine, adorable pets, mountains of books, and more entertainment subscriptions that they could ever exhaust. Others have no opportunity for green space, evaporated financial prospects, few pleasures, poor nutrition, and abusive households.
Still, however relatively pleasant one person’s situation is compared with another’s, there is an existential challenge which is universal. However privileged and splendid our isolation, still it is coerced and it is unnatural. Even those of us not feeling sad or lonely have had our thinking and our emotions altered in some way, even if unrealised. We are thinking short term, we are clenched in a defensive mode, we are hunkered down. That part of our experience is shared.
In the mid 20th Century, the Dutch humanist Jaap van Praag, a survivor of the Nazi occupation, pioneered the psychological concept of ‘resilience’. His advice that we focus on developing this strength in ourselves can do us all good. However constrained a human being’s circumstances, there is always scope for some measure of personal control.
We are not animals to which things just happen. We bring meaning and purpose to events, we are not simply rocked by them. And we can all become more resilient than we are. This humanist idea of resilience goes back to the stoics. They counselled everyone to look deep into themselves, find that store of strength that is in each of us, and use it to build up our resilience, carve out a space for our control. If we cultivate this in challenging circumstances, we develop and improve – and what excellent circumstances the present situation is giving us for that.
Many of us are too burdened in the present by work or worry to notice this, but most of us, when we do look back after this, will find we coped with more than we knew we could cope with. That can be a source of strength for us.
So much for the personal dimension. What about the situation beyond our own front doors? I think balanced contemplation of that situation can bring a lot of comfort, in that much of UK society’s response has been positive.
It had become fashionable to see society as irredeemably atomised. Some people welcomed this, longing for a world of individual consumers. Others deplored it and took aim at the godless liberal citizens of nowhere. For many it caused honest concern. In fact, as the humanists among us might have expected, we have seen both a display of social bonding locally in street and village and neighbourhood as the present crisis has unfolded, and a sense of national and international bonding and community too. Millions have volunteered formally or informally and thrown themselves into the enterprise of caring for others. That tells us something about our society.
There is a lesson here too about the sources and strengtheners of social morality. Britain is one of the least religious societies in the world. This has been decried by many as drying up the (allegedly religious) sources of our social values. In fact I believe it does the opposite. The advance of a liberal morality is progress compared with a past morality of rules and taboos. It has led to a reduced opprobrium for acts which harm no one, like homosexuality, and increased disapproval of acts that harm others, like drinking and driving. It is based, ultimately, on empathy instead of commandments, and it has come into its own in the present situation. By and large we have shown rational self-restraint in the service not just of ourselves but of each other.
Beyond empathy, a new light has been shone for many of us on our interdependence, and the dependence of all of us on all those in the public service. The differences will reassert themselves when the time comes – and no liberal could hope for anything else – but a great commonality has also been revealed and many will remember it is there.
Another positive development may come as a result of the greater presence of death in our news and shared culture. We are hearing about it more, talking about it more and thinking about it more. This merely accelerates a healthy trend that was already in progress, of reducing the taboo around death and coming to terms with the realities of it in our modern situation. It raises welcome questions about dignity at the end of life and what is of real value in the context of a life.
Epidemics happen. That can’t be helped. All that we can do is meet them in the right spirit. By and large, we have done that, and done it well.
This crisis, though severe, has not destroyed the benefits that have come to us from the progress of science, humanism, freedom, and social justice that have shaped our modern experience. If anything, it has accentuated them and brought them into active service as never before. In past millenia, humanity was most often in blind panic in the face of epidemics, which burned through communities without mercy. Today, even as we stay at home, unimaginable human ingenuity in the organised enterprise of medical science is being expended to contain this virus, save life, and preserve civilisation.
I am not just clutching at straws. Past epidemics have destroyed civilisations. The democracy of Athens, the European medieval social order, the Aztecs and the Incans. That will not happen to us.
Given that these are words written for a political outlet, you might object that they don’t touch that much on politics. I wouldn’t agree. The nature of our society, our beliefs about what a good life and a good death might be, our awareness of our dependence and interdependence: these are all realities that post-lockdown politics will have to adjust itself to if it aspires to be authentic to the British people. Even the fact that we have as individuals been through a shared experience is of relevance to our political life. Few experiences – apart from wars with a home front – are truly national. But this one really is. We will all have been through something together, it will be a permanent reference point for us all, and it will shape every aspect of our culture.