The global spread of the coronavirus has forced us to confront our own mortality, and fears about illness and death weigh heavily on the minds of many.
But there’s a risk that fear for our own life will outweigh fear for the collective to the extent that, however unwittingly, we start to act in a way that causes harm to the collective - the global phenomenon of panic-buying is an obvious example.
As early as the first century BC, Roman philosopher Lucretius predicted that humanity’s fear of death could drive us to irrational beliefs and actions that would harm society. And as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, three of his key predictions are coming true.
Prediction one: being afraid of death corrupts our subjective experience of life.
Lucretius made the case that people aren’t afraid of death unless there’s an immediate danger of dying; it’s when illness or danger strike that we get scared and strive to understand what comes after death.
The goal then becomes alleviating these fears. Some people do so by imagining that they have immaterial souls that shed their bodies or that there is a benevolent God, Lucretius writes. Others might imagine an eternal afterlife, or an immortal soul that is more important than the body and the material world.
But such beliefs carry an ethical danger that people may become preoccupied with something that literally does not matter at all. This fear and anxiety, Lucretius says, stains everything in life. It ‘leaves no pleasure clear and pure’ and it could even lead to ‘a great hatred of life’.
The question of the existence of God aside, the scientific evidence does suggest that anxiety about death isn’t good for us; studies show that this type of worrying can lower a person’s immune system and make it more vulnerable to infections (which, needless to say, is not ideal during a pandemic).
Prediction two: being afraid of death deepens social divisions and puts certain groups at greater risk.
In addition to staining one’s own experience of life, Lucretius predicted that the fear of death could escalate social divisions, because when people are afraid of dying they might think that withdrawing from others will help keep danger, disease and death away.
And while Lucretius wouldn’t have been opposed to social distancing if everyone was able to do it, this isn’t what’s actually happening around the world. Due to many factors, the gig economy being a notable one in the bunch, the sad reality is that the wealthy are able to distance themselves while the poor are being made increasingly vulnerable to death.
This phenomenon is well-documented in terror management studies; the fear of death results in a desire to escape, at the expense of disadvantaged groups. In China for example, rural migrant workers were blocked from quarantined cities, kicked out of apartments and turned away by factory owners, as authorities tried to control the spread of the coronavirus.
In the US, poorer workers do not have the luxury to work from home when schools close, and cannot afford to take sick days or see a doctor, which makes them more vulnerable than those who can afford to isolate themselves.
There is evidence of increased social divisions on the basis of race as well as class; Asian Americans are experiencing increased discrimination, with even schoolchildren becoming the targets of racist comments, and fewer people are going to Chinese restaurants out of fear of being infected.
Prediction three: being afraid of death inspires some people to accumulate wealth or political power at the expense of the community.
Lucretius predicted that some people will take advantage of social crises like plagues and wars to try and gain political power to secure a legacy for themselves after death. He wrote that this ‘blind burning after elected office coerces wretched people to go beyond the boundaries of what is right’ by sacrificing the good of the people for political position.
As well as political power, Lucretius warned that those who fear death may also think they can extend or preserve their life by ‘rising to the level of the greatest wealth’. Although, of course, the belief that the accumulation of power and wealth will secure their life is false.
You can look to President Trump as a manifestation of this prediction. By downplaying the spread of the coronavirus in America, Trump protected his electoral campaign as well as the US stock market (and by extension, his own wealth). In doing so, he placed political position and wealth above public health—just as Lucretius predicted.
There are politicians who learned about the virus early on and sold their stock while downplaying the danger to Americans. Now corporations are seeking tax-payer bailouts for economic damages related to the impact of the virus in what Naomi Klein is calling ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’.
Advice from Lucretius on how to avoid these predictions:
According to Lucretius, being afraid of dying is irrational because once people die they will not be sad, judged by gods, or pity their family; they will not be anything at all. ‘Death is nothing to us’ he says.
Now, not fearing death is easier said than done. That is why, for Lucretius, it is the most important ethical challenge of our life. Instead of worrying about what may happen after death, Lucretius advises people to focus on keeping their bodies healthy and helping others do the same.
We need courageous caring, not fear.
You can find out more about Lucretius’ ethics in Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion by Thomas Nail, published this month by Edinburgh University Press.
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