Dr. James Chamberlain: Pandemic lessons from Socrates

 

James Chamberlain

 

 

This fall, students around the country will read -- as generations before them have -- Plato's account of the trial and death of his beloved mentor Socrates. This text remains timeless for its treatment of perennial issues confronting humans, perhaps the most pertinent of which for our times concerns Socrates's attachment to what he saw as the good life. Having been found guilty of corrupting the youth and impiety by a jury of 501 of his peers, Socrates refuses the offer of assistance from his friends to break out of jail and seek exile outside Athens. For Socrates, life is simply not worth living if he cannot pursue justice and wisdom, both of which he deems impossible if he disobeyed the ruling of the jury and fled his homeland.

 

More than 2,000 years later, while many may not relate to the substance of Socrates's view of the good life, the idea that there is more to life than our existence as a biological species still rings true. We rightly pride ourselves on our scientific, cultural, artistic, and sporting achievements that quite simply make life worth living. And so at this time of pandemic, it is understandable that we would want to return to them as quickly as possible. As much as we may adapt to life under quarantine and try to make the most of its upsides, prolonged social and physical isolation is neither desirable nor sustainable.

 

Socrates was convinced that attempting to preserve his life by breaking out of jail would undermine his chances of leading a good life. Today, we face a situation with some similarities to his but also a key difference. Like him, we all undertake (different) risky activities in pursuit of what we each see as a good life, agreeing that simply trying to stay alive is no life at all. Also like him, we understand the importance of social interaction to human flourishing in its all its many shapes and colors. Finally, our condition resembles that of Socrates in that, as much as we might wish that life would be as it was before the trial/pandemic, we see that it cannot be so. Indeed, Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center recently warned that "things are not normal, and we can't behave as if they are, because we're fooling ourselves and the numbers are showing that what we're doing now is not working."

 

 

This fall semester our universities plan to open to give students the college experience that is so integral to the good life of our society. But the measures that will be put in place to mitigate the risk of infection will make that experience almost unrecognizable to previous cohorts. Even if they succeed in mitigating the risk of virus transmission in classrooms and lecture halls, in a matter of weeks Mississippi's college towns are about to receive tens of thousands of people in the age group that has the highest infection rate. No doubt many students will act responsibly. But for some, the lure of social gatherings and close contact with friends will prove too strong. Of course, there is only so much that universities can do to encourage responsible behavior off their campuses. However, public universities and their Board of Trustees are acting irresponsibly by encouraging so many students to return this Fall under the pretense of a possible of having a 'traditional college experience'.

 

Fortunately, our situation diverges from Socrates's in one key respect. Unlike Socrates, by temporarily prioritizing life over the good life and doing all we can to keep our communities safe and healthy, we need not forego the good life once and for all; rather we would secure life for a time when all might once again pursue the things that make it worth living. For this reason, we need to accept that, while far from ideal in terms of the experiences and interactions it facilitates, universities should offer the maximum possible number of courses online, reserving face to face encounters for clinics, labs and other 'hands on' classes that genuinely cannot be delivered otherwise. Socrates is revered for putting a life of wisdom and justice ahead of mere biological life. Posterity will look less kindly on us if we jeopardize life unnecessarily through an impatient and premature return to our version of the good life.

 

 

 

Dr. James Chamberlain is an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University.

 

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