Ten philosophers to help us through the coronavirus crisis
Unthinkable: Sartre and Schopenhauer make the list but Peig Sayers deserves inclusion too
Existentialist philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre enjoy the freedom of the beach in Rio in 1960. Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty
Our movements have been restricted by the Covid-19 lockdown, but there’s nothing to stop our minds from running free. In that spirit, Unthinkable this week brings you a Top 10 list of philosophers to help us make sense of the coronavirus crisis.
1. Lao Tzu
Covid-19 was first reported in China, so why not start there philosophically. Lao Tzu represents an ancient school of thought that promotes equanimity, embraces paradox and - in common with several other Asian faiths - emphasises life’s cyclical nature. “Being and non-being produce each other,” intones the “old master”. The way of the Tao involves lots of silence and sitting still - advice repackaged today as mindfulness.
Read: Thinking Through China by Jerusha McCormack and John G Blair, an accessible introduction to Chinese philosophy and culture.
2. Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics are philosophers for all seasons - not just for global pandemics. They pre-empted aspects of modern therapy by teaching people how to manage negative emotions. Some of their disciples run free online courses at https://modernstoicism.com.
Seneca is the movement’s father figure but Marcus Aurelius the catchier writer. His meditation on the daily miracle of breathing has profound relevance against the backdrop of Covid-19. “You are composed of three things: body, breath, and mind,” he writes. “The first two belong to you in so far as you need to take care of them, but only the third is yours in the proper sense.”
Read: Stoicism Today: Selected Writings, edited by Patrick Ussher, and produced by the team behind Stoic Week.
3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
For those who feel like we are in late capitalism, Rousseau is good company as a mapper of socio-economic transition in an earlier era. His ideas in The Social Contract underpinned the French revolution. His Emile, a manifesto on “natural” education, has many fans - though not in the Department of Education and Skills (the idea of putting youths through the Leaving Cert this year or any year would have horrified the Swiss-born writer).
Probably his most relevant work right now is Reveries of the Solitary Walker, an accompaniment to socially distant strolls, containing his reflections on life, love and ageing. On turning 65, he writes “So I am left with my grasses to keep me going and botany to occupy my mind.”
4. Arthur Schopenhauer
Influenced by Buddhism, Schopenhauer was one of the first western philosophers to question speciesism - the idea that humans are more important than other animals or the natural world. Think of him as a curmudgeonly Greta Thunberg with a side-act in cultural criticism. “Want and boredom are indeed the twin poles of human life.”
Read: The Philosophy of Schopenhauer by Bryan Magee
5. Peig Sayers
Ireland can lay claim to some great philosophers, George Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson and Edmund Burke included. But it also has a rich tradition of native philosophy that mirrors the “peasant wisdom” which sustained communities across the globe for thousands of years. This is intuitive, inherited, communal wisdom, learned not at university but from the “school of life”.
Poet-philosophers John O’Donohue and John Moriarty are feted chroniclers of this tradition but storyteller-sage Peig Sayers deserves special mention. Lamenting being separated from her children (emigration was the issue in her day rather than cocooning), she consoled herself with the thought: “Is fearr súil le glas na súil le huaigh.” (“It is better to expect a release from imprisonment than a release from the grave.”)
Read: Timeless Wisdom: What Irish Proverbs Tell Us About Ourselves by esteemed psychologist Aidan Moran, who sadly died last March, and Michael O’Connell.
6. Jean-Paul Sartre
While Albert Camus’s The Plague is the must-read philosophical novel of the lockdown (a Japanese translation has sold more than a million copies since the coronavirus pandemic broke), his existential frenemy Sartre has perhaps the single most important idea to offer us as we grapple with the boundaries of freedom.
We like to imagine we’ve no choice, thinking, for example, “I’ve bought tickets for Cheltenham so I must travel”; “The restrictions are eased so I must go shopping”; or “The smartphone is in front of me so I must pick it up”. This is what Sartre calls living in bad faith. “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.”
Read: At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell
7. Hannah Arendt
Preferring to style herself as a social theorist rather than academic philosopher, then a role greedily dominated by men, Arendt never allowed ideas to stray far from real life. A left-wing thinker who refused to be tribal, Arendt explored the human capacity for good and evil without catching the modern disease of cynicism. Her exploration of how scientific progress and economic growth has led to “alienation from the earth” has an even more urgent feel today.
Read: The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt
8. Viktor Frankl
Narrative gives meaning to life. So what happens when there’s no end in sight - as is the case with Covid-19? In his classic psychoanalytical memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl makes the case that love ultimately sets you free.
9. John Rawls
Members of the next government would do well to swear into office on, not the Bible but, a copy of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.
The most important work of political philosophy in the past century, it articulates a notion of “justice as fairness” that, following the 2008 crash and in the midst of our current economic upheaval, is finally getting a toehold in public debate.
- Read: In the Shadow of Justice, an impressive exposition of why Rawls matters, by Katrina Forrister.
10. Patricia Churchland
When the finger-pointing starts in a few months’ time we need to guard against “outcome bias” - the error of thinking that blame should necessarily be attached to the worst outcome. Some countries will do better than others through sheer luck.
Churchland is one of a new breed of philosophers who blend ethics with psychology and neuroscience. Accused by some of scientific reductionism, she does however highlight the significant role that our biological inheritance plays in moral thinking.
Read: Touching a Nerve: The Self as a Brain by Patricia Churchland