The novel coronavirus has managed to spread to all corners of the globe, altering our ways of life profoundly, bringing sickness and death everywhere it goes. Every day, the news brings reports of our ongoing battle against a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years. While infected patients and tired doctors struggle against the virus in hospitals wracked by medical shortages, the rest of us have been called upon to work from home and practice social distancing.
While the injunction to stay at home initially sounds simple, it’s proven to be quite challenging for many. Not seeing friends, not going out, and not attending in-person classes grates on our sensibilities as social animals. Social distancing is additionally difficult for those who suffer from mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. Suicide hotlines have already seen a surge in calls as people feel the acute impact of forced isolation. Even for those who are not clinically diagnosed with depression or anxiety, the 24-hour media cycle is overwhelming, filled with misinformation and idle talk.
Arendt was no stranger to hard times. A German-born Jew who studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, she fled the Nazi menace for the United States in 1941. In Men in Dark Times, published in 1968 during another time of upheaval, she briefly considers mental escapism as a method of surviving a turbulent world and decides against it:
To what extent do we remain obligated to the world, even when we have been expelled from it, or have withdrawn from it? […] How tempting it was, for example, to simply ignore the intolerably stupid blabber of the Nazis. But seductive though it may be to yield to such temptations and to hole up in the refuge of one’s psyche, the result will always be a loss of humanness, along with the forsaking of reality.
Thinking, when employed in this way, is not useful to us or good for us. How many of us stop paying attention when President Trump or another demagogue begins to speak, only to retreat into ourselves and our own thoughts? Arendt decries this kind of alienation from the world. Thinking must not become a hiding place into which we frequently withdraw when the world tires us with all its ills and evils. Instead, Arendt calls upon us to take on the most difficult attitude of exercising love for the world (amor mundi), in spite of all evil and suffering contained in it.
While some of us risk disappearing into our thoughts and withdrawing from the world, others are not able to be alone with our thoughts. We find it unbearable and turn to distractions—binge-watching YouTube videos or endlessly scrolling through social media. This choice is also a mistake. We must instead find a way to be with our thoughts without disconnecting from the world.
What Arendt teaches us in the era of COVID-19 social distancing is to think about thinking in the right way. We can begin to do this by recognizing a crucial distinction between the existential states of solitude and loneliness—a distinction Arendt introduces in her final work, The Life of the Mind. Solitude is the state in which we only have ourselves for company, and lack human companionship. Loneliness is the state in which we do not even have ourselves for company.
After our Facetime calls with our friends and relatives end, we have only our own company to look forward to. This can seem rather daunting—however, the sooner we realize that we can never truly be alone as long as we are engaged in thinking, the better. Thinking, as Arendt puts it (crediting Plato’s Gorgias), is the “soundless dialogue of the I with itself.” When I think, I become two-in-one, and I am able to view myself as an interlocutor. While I cannot withdraw into this soundless dialogue forever, I can bring its fruits back to the world, where they can have real impact. The imperative to “think what we are doing” suggests that thought must always return to the world. Furthermore, thought, as Arendt acknowledges in The Human Condition, can be translated into art, literature, music, and other things which can comfort and contribute to the human experience.
There is yet another sense in which Arendt extols the importance of thinking: It is meant to be what staves off evil. Though thinking on its own cannot eradicate evil, thoughtlessness can result in nothing but evil, as Adolf Eichmann and many unthinking others throughout history demonstrate. In modern times, we are privy to a full range of moral and social issues only exacerbated by COVID-19. The pandemic has disclosed to us our deeply problematic attitudes toward the old and the disabled and toward the values we place on labor and service.
Never has Arendt’s problem with the term “political economy” been so clear as it has now, when the two seem to be more at odds than ever. Politics on her view cannot just concern itself with economic instrumentality: It must be viewed as valuable in its own right, and as the original and most life-giving activity of the public realm. Of course, Arendt thinks the public realm has already been in decline for a long time; the rise of mass society and our individualistic retreat into the private realm of the household have ensured that. The pandemic threatens the collapse of the public realm if everything’s public significance is reduced to its contribution to the economy or sheer survival.
Now more than ever, we must engage in the soundless dialogue with our inner self, and ask the question, “Can I live with myself?” Can we live with ourselves if we sacrifice the old and vulnerable, and especially if we do so to save the economy? Even Adam Smith denounced naked self-interest and advocated the development of one’s sympathetic imagination. Like Arendt, he reminds us that we must think about what we are doing because we have to live with ourselves. In The Life of the Mind, Arendt asks who would want to be friends with a murderer—and answers her own question by saying that not even the murderer himself would be a good candidate.
Thinking, now more than ever, is the tool we need to move beyond apathy, boredom, or loneliness. In her foreword to the 2018 edition of The Human Condition, Danielle Allen writes about what Arendt’s insights offer for our era:
Life moves faster than science, whether natural or social. Factories close. People find themselves out of work and smitten by depression. People die. People go to prison over the many years it takes the scientist to hypothesize, collect data, test, confirm or disconfirm, and replicate. And so it goes on. When we confront the hardest social problems—like mass incarceration or economic disruption as occasioned by globalization, or climate change—we need to accelerate the pace of our acquisition of understanding. We have to use every available tool to think about what we are doing.
In order to come up with novel solutions to the problems that arise in our era, we will have to engage in what Arendt calls “thinking without a banister.” We must discard the guard-rails limiting our thought so that we can face the new challenges of our time with creativity and aplomb. Epoch-defining events like the COVID-19 pandemic require epoch-defying ways of thinking.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt famously compares the world to a table that people gather around: a table that relates and separates people at the same time. Arendt can’t tell us how to cope with COVID-19, but she does give us back the art of thinking, an art which will help us reclaim our world and rearrange the table, ravaged as it is by forces both within and beyond our control. So long as we retain the ability to think— though, not going to the extent of losing ourselves in our thoughts and always coming back to the world in the end—we are never truly alone. Finally, Arendt compels us to look forward with hope— noting that, “Even in the darkest of times, we have the right to expect some illumination.”