What Kind of Life Are We Saving?
The only debate that has truly engaged Europe and the United States is the one about the comparative vices and virtues of the Korean and Chinese, Thai or Singaporean, Confucian or liberal models for compelling people to meet health requirements. To their credit, a number of so-called learned persons have wondered out loud, perhaps while in the grip of a scrap of Marxist memory, whether, having arrived at this point, and, as was already the case in Poland, wanting to be sure that infected persons were confined to house arrest, on pain of police action, there might not be a way to move beyond the “Asian mode of production” of sequestering bodies and to invent Western systems that would safeguard our digital sovereignty while also saving lives.
The life that we are being urged to save by staying home and resisting the temptation of reopening.
That life is a bare one.
A life drained and depleted, as in the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
A life terrified of itself, gone to ground in its Kafkaesque burrow, which has become a penal colony.
A life that, in return for an assurance of survival, was ready to give up all the rest—prayer, honoring the dead, freedoms, balconies and windows from which our neighbors, once they had finished applauding the caregivers, could spy on us.
A life in which one accepts, with enthusiasm or resignation, the transformation of the welfare state into the surveillance state, with health replacing security, a life in which one consents to this slippery slope: no longer the old social contract (where you cede a bit of your individual will to gain the general will) but a new life contract (where you abdicate a little, or a lot, of your core freedoms, in return for an antivirus guarantee, an “immunity passport,” a “risk-free certificate,” or a new kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, one that lets you transfer to another cell). In Europe, it’s a done deal. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract is being slowly but surely replaced by a life contract inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and the “panopticon” of his surveillance state. In America, the change is on its way. Will we see Barack Obama’s dream of universal healthcare overshadowed by the “army of tracers” announced by Governor Cuomo or by the Labradors trained to sniff out the coronavirus in humans?
In the process, a profound break has been made with what all the wisdom of the world, notably but by no means exclusively Jewish, has striven to say: that a life is not a life if it is merely life.
That was the lesson of the Greeks from Plato to Aristotle, from the Stoics to the Epicureans and even the Cynics (I’m thinking of Diogenes in his wine barrel, who did not sound very confined when he spat out at Alexander, “You’re blocking my sun!”). They all agreed that life was worthwhile only if it aspired to the good life.
It was the thinking of Nietzsche, the anti-Greek, who nevertheless agreed with the Greeks that life is never just that, and that unless it tends toward something else, unless it aspires to great life, unless it opens the hatches and portholes to the intelligence of other people and other things, it does not deserve to be called life.
It is the wisdom of every philosophy, truly, every one. Though they may disagree on everything else, philosophies are in accord on the idea that humanity is never identity in and for itself, never reducible to itself, but that it thrives only if—whether by action, contemplation, Spinozan effort to increase its power to be, or the divine spark—it leaves the confinement that is life in its native state.
It is the message of every human adventure.
It is the message of art.
It is the message of literature in the quest of what Sartre, in the first volume of Situations, called “the open road,” where what is most intimate will be revealed to us in the blinding light of the city, the crowd, the world. Samuel Beckett, for his part, began Waiting for Godot, his portrait of humanity claustrophobically confined, with the stage direction, “A country road. A tree.”
It is in opposition to all of that, in opposition to the thirst for a way forward that has been expressed by thinking and speaking humankind since books were born, that the epidemic of panic is rising up, poised atop a virus gone mad and that has driven us mad, swollen like an enormous statue of Baal erected in the middle of our emptied cities.
And it is to rebut the wisdom of the ages that a vast ad hoc team of dieticians, prophylactocrats, vegetocrats, and ecolocrats, with help from the monitors of our burrows, of our traceable dwellings governed from afar by Big Tech (which wants us to call it Alexa or Siri to lull us into a cloud in which there’s no reason to consider traveling since jet fuel pollutes and one has absolutely everything—operas, symphonies, the world’s greatest museums—served up digitally on the tray of an eternal breakfast in bed), is telling us, as Little Red Riding Hood was told, “Beware the open road; there lie big, bad wolves—stay home.”
From The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and the author of over thirty books. He is widely regarded as one of the West’s most important public intellectuals.