People used to face challenges and risks to obtain higher goals in life. They understood that there were goods higher than material success and even life itself. Such goals included great deeds, artistic expressions and personal sanctity. Such accomplishments brought honor, glory and salvation upon those who made great efforts.
The present COVID crisis highlights a fundamental change of mentality that plagues postmodernity. Many now believe that the purpose of life is to live it in the most comfortable and safest manner possible. Any risks or challenges must be avoided at all costs. This outlook reflects the tragic triumph of the ideas of seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbes’ World of Self-Interest
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was not a man of high ideals. His was a pragmatic world of self-interest and passions, which he believed governed most men’s lives.
In Hobbes’ world, people need no longer act in function of the highest good found in union with God. Instead, they are motivated by fear of the greatest evil. They are conditioned by a supreme terror in the face of death. Hobbes declared, “for every man is desirous of what is good for him, and shuns what is evil, but chiefly the chiefest of natural evils, which is death.” Thus, the purpose of life was to satisfy the passions defined by this self-interest and self-preservation while avoiding death.
Hobbes was intelligent enough to see, however, that people tend to clash violently when they seek different self-interested goals at the same time. That is why he supported the existence of a strong centralized State power he called Leviathan—the title of his principal work—to harmonize this natural clash of interests, which, unless controlled, would become “the war of every man against every man.”
A well-organized and powerful government, an absolute monarch at his time, would assure this cooperation and the commonwealth’s well-being.
The Hobbesian Vision of COVID-19
This toxic philosophy orients the policies that deal with the coronavirus crisis. Present measures are based on Hobbes’ irrational fear of death taken to an extreme. Today’s Hobbesians hold that the greatest good is life itself, and everything must be done to avoid dying.
Thus, when the coronavirus crisis struck, everything went into lockdown. The idea was to avoid all risks, no matter how remote or small. The minute a possible COVID case appears, for example, the whole area must be sanitized. Everyone contacted by the COVID patient must self-quarantine. A sense of panic prevails. No risk must be left unaddressed. The most absurd measures are taken to prevent the slightest possibility of a single death.
Thus, there were hundreds of counties across America in which no one died of COVID. However, they were locked down, and their commercial, social and religious lives completely disrupted. Walmart stayed open, but churches were shut down despite the lack of evidence that religious service spreads the virus any more than consumer shopping does. The irrational fear of death created an atmosphere of paranoia. The enforcement of health regulations became rigid and uncompromising. The draconian rules excluded commonsense and allowed for no exceptions.
This irrational fear of death is unnatural and the cause of high stress. It eventually leads to conflict with those who question the wisdom of suppressing most activities. That is why this Hobbesian COVID-19 view requires Leviathan, the dictatorial state, coercing enforcement of capricious rules. Leviathan is needed to keep people compliant, through fear of death.
The COVID crisis gave rise to socialistic government policies that seek to control lives in the name of saving lives. It threatens society with a cure that is far worse than the disease.
Destroying Society While Saving It
There are two main problems with the Hobbesian COVID policy.
The first one is that it creates a climate of fear that paralyzes all activity. The radical lockdown becomes the default position. Panic-stricken, people flee from danger without measuring the consequences.
The lockdown mentality is to act first and deal with the consequences later. In a system that does not allow for risk, lockdown is the only possible solution. Socialistic governments are only too willing instruments to implement it.
However, this solution solves nothing. Everyone now realizes that this policy has proven to be extremely destructive. In the panic to save a single life, far more lives were lost. The needless closing down of hospitals prevented countless people from obtaining the treatments and diagnoses they needed. Tens of thousands of lives were lost or shortened. The imprudent shutting down of the whole economy has triggered an unprecedented economic crisis that already weighs heavily upon citizens’ lives, but will do so unimaginably more in the years ahead. The uncertainties and fears of the crisis are affecting the psychological health of millions. They are leading to an increase in depression and suicides.
From a religious perspective, the shutdown of sacramental life for countless Catholics caused great spiritual suffering and endangered the salvation of countless souls. Some died without confession or last rites.
Hobbes’ irrational fear of death results in needless deaths not avoided and lives not worth living.
The second problem with the Hobbesian COVID policy is that it prevents the finding of solutions to the crisis. A society bereft of risks may avoid the dangers of disaster, but it also removes any possibility of triumph. America is in chains today through such a policy.
Life entails risk. To do anything of consequence, presupposes risks. People can overcome obstacles and propose original solutions if they are not scared of failing.
The problem with Hobbes’ irrational fear of death is that even reasonable risks are discarded. The most common daily activities, such as driving, involve risks, yet everyone measures them and acts accordingly. Many of these routine activities are far riskier than the danger of contracting the coronavirus. However, with fear driving all decision-making, the coronavirus crisis paralyzes all commercial and social action.
For example, most major school districts will not have the courage to hold in-person classes this fall. They consider it unsafe. These measures are taken, although The Wall Street Journal (June 13-14) reports that “children under 14 are between 6.8 to 17 times less likely to die of Covid-19 than the seasonal flu or pneumonia.” Children are also 128 times more likely to die from an accident. The education of countless children will suffer needlessly because of the shutdowns and the lack of courage on the part of politicians, educators and parents.
In this scenario, the only entity large enough to act without fear of retribution is big government. Blame can be conveniently distributed across a vast bureaucracy. The government can ease the pain of its mistakes with the massive outflow of debt dollars.
In a reasonable society, people know how to evaluate danger. These problems could be mitigated significantly.
The Hobbesian Nightmare
The Hobbesian solution is much more a nightmare than an option. Hobbes taught people to live out their passions and desires yet to cooperate with others out of fear of death. He declared there is “no finis ultimus, utmost aim, nor summum bonum, great good, as is spoken in the books of the old moral philosophers.”
Hobbes’ morbid outlook holds that there are no goods higher than material success and even life. People are reduced to the mediocrity of their whims and desires.
On the contrary, the Church taught the faithful how to prepare for death by focusing them around the supreme good, which is God Himself. Christians practice virtue out of the love of God. They are taught that there are goods more precious than life itself—like virtue and the Faith. The Church’s many saints and martyrs are testimony to this upright and properly ordered scale of values.
The Failure of Hobbes
God established a Church whereby people might live together, loving and helping one another out of love for Him. Hobbes wanted a Leviathan central government to keep people from killing each other in the pursuit of their selfish interests.
Most modern philosophical schemes prove to be unworkable. Hobbes is no exception. The COVID-19 disaster represents the triumph of Hobbes’ nightmare. He promises cooperation and big government in the face of the fear of death from COVID.
It isn’t working. Instead, Hobbes has given America a “war of every man against every man.”