After one month into the North Carolina covid19 lockdown, my mother (who is 78 years old, has multiple comorbidities, and lives alone) said something to me on the phone. She said, in essence, “I would rather die from covid19 than be isolated from my friends and family.”
She was on to something important, but it’s taken me a few months to put together my thoughts. C. S. Lewis wrote a famous essay called “First and Second Things” where he argued that whenever a person or society places lesser goods ahead of greater goods, they will lose both as a result. He uses a couple of simple examples:
“The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.”
He makes the further point that many British during the decade leading up to WWII wanted peace at all costs with Hitler and Germany. But their desire for peace at all costs brought them war instead.
How can we apply Lewis’ maxim to covid19 and the lockdowns? What human good has been prioritized before all others? It seems to me that the proponents of lockdowns believe the following: “We must stop the spread of covid19 at all costs to keep people from getting sick and dying.” Most other human goods must be subordinated to this good.
Is this a worthy goal? Yes. Is this an authentic good for the people of our nation? For sure.
Most people just stop there, but Lewis asks us to take a step further. Should this good (or goal) of stopping the spread of covid19 at all costs be prioritized above all other human goods? Should it be our First Goal?
To answer that question, we need to rank human goods. Many philosophers have ranked human goods, but I am going to follow the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Christian philosopher who ever lived. Aquinas considered eight popular candidates for what constitutes the greatest good for a human being and ranked them in order of most foolish to most wise.
The eight goods are:
- Bodily Health
- Goods of the Soul (wisdom and virtue)
Notice that the goal of “stop the spread of covid19” fits under the category of bodily health. Bodily health, according to Aquinas is not the most important good for human beings. In fact, he ranks pleasure, goods of the soul, and God as all being higher than bodily health.
What this means practically is that if a person prioritizes bodily health (not getting ill, being physically healthy) above all else, they will ultimately miss out on the goods of pleasure, wisdom, virtue, and God. How so?
Let’s take pleasure. There are many things that give us pleasure that we have lost because of lockdowns. Playing or watching organized sports. Going to movie theaters. Having dinner parties with groups of friends. Going to amusement parks. Traveling. Working (yes, some people get pleasure out of their occupation). I could go on, but you get the point. By prioritizing bodily health, we are now missing out on many of the very things that make life pleasurable! Missing out on so many of life’s pleasures brings depression, anxiety, and stress, all of which hurt our bodies.
Let’s take goods of the soul, wisdom and virtue. Here I want to focus on the virtue of love. The classical definition of love is “acting for the good of another person.” Because of our covid19 lockdowns, our ability to love other people has been severely limited. Why? Because the most powerful and poignant acts of love usually require face-to-face contact. We love others by touching them, embracing them, talking to them in person, giving them our full attention. We need human contact to feel loved.
“Remote love” is inferior to in-person love. We all intuitively know this. Receiving a text from a friend just doesn’t compare to talking to that same friend face to face. You can’t hug people remotely. You can’t embrace a loved one remotely.
Some of us work because of love. We work to generate income to provide food, shelter, and clothing for our family. This is an act of love that lockdowns have prevented for many people.
If we are unable to give or receive in-person love (the highest kind of love), we are undoubtedly harming ourselves physically and psychologically. People die from lack of love. People die from loneliness. People suffer greater stress when they don’t receive love. So by placing bodily health above love, we end up losing both. This is what my mother sensed so early in the lockdown.
What about the perfect good of God? For the Christian, there are many ways to know God in this life. Two primary ways we grow closer to God are corporate worship and service to the needy. Corporate worship consists of gathering together with other believers to sing, pray and talk about God. The lockdowns have prevented corporate worship from occurring.
What about service? Christians are called to serve those who are in need. This tends to be a hands-on activity! It is certainly most effective when done face-to-face. Can you imagine Mother Teresa serving the sick and poor in Calcutta by Zoom calls? The whole image is ridiculous.
For the person who is not worshipping corporately or serving the poor, they are not enjoying God as they should. Much like the loss of love, the loss of worship and service is devastating to the physical, mental, and spiritual health of a person.
Let me bring this home. I realize that there is a time element that mitigates the damage of the lockdowns and we can debate how long a lockdown is warranted given the suffering covid19 or any other infectious disease may cause. My point is broader. What I am saying is that my mother had it right. There comes a time when the avoidance of a disease ruins your life. By trying to save your life, you end up destroying it.
Lockdowns drain the world of pleasure, love, and service to God. If you become obsessed with the lesser good of bodily health, you will end losing the greater goods. Bodily health is a means to end. It is not the end itself. It is a means to enjoy your life, to love others, and to worship God. If you don’t understand that, then you have placed the second thing first and you will lose both.