Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

Death and the Coronavirus

The Triumph of Death, from a 1503 edition of Petrarch (Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)
A meditation for the plague

‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” wrote Samuel Johnson, whose mind, without fear of hanging, was concentrated on death throughout his life. Johnson concentrated on death with, in a word, “terror.” He thought, mistakenly, that he was not a good enough Christian, and that nothing pleasing awaited after his demise. None of us is to be hanged in a fortnight, either, but, these days, with the plague of the coronavirus upon the land, all our minds are concentrated on death. Turn on the television or radio, national or local, and one discovers that the dread virus is topics 1 through 896. News of the increased number of people who have the virus, the numbers of those who, locally, nationally, and internationally, have died from it, is inescapable.

Two of Pascal’s best-known passages come into play in connection with the coronavirus. The first has it that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The second speaks to the human condition: “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom each day are butchered in the sight of others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.” The coronavirus has forced almost all of us, either in enforced or self-imposed quarantine, to sit quietly in our room, and the news of the continuing deaths it is causing — of the obscure and the celebrated — concentrates our minds on Pascal’s dark human condition.

Montaigne, whom one does not think of as a dark writer, felt one couldn’t think too often or too much about death, especially one’s own. He wrote about death in three separate essays — “On Fear,” “Why We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Until after Our Death,” and “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” — and his general point was that we should accustom ourselves to the idea of death, of our own death specifically, in order “to educate and train [our souls] for their encounter with that adversary, death.” Doing so, we would thereby fight free of the fear of death, so that when it does arrive “it will bear no new warning for [us]. As far as we possibly can we must have our boots on, ready to go.” Montaigne wished to die tending his cabbages, but, alas, he was instead the victim, at 59, in 1592, of quinsy, a disease of the throat that can be painful and that, in his case, rendered him speechless at the close of his life.

“So it has come at last, the distinguished thing,” uttered Henry James of death on his own deathbed. Far from clear is what is distinguished about it, death, that most democratic of events, “an old joke,” as Turgenev once referred to it, “that comes to each of us afresh.” Yet if not death generally, then some deaths do seem more distinguished than others. Surely there are good and bad deaths, and sad because unnecessary deaths. A good death for men, most would agree, is one on the battlefield in a war fought for an important cause. The classic good death is thought to be that of Socrates, his principles intact, calmly drinking hemlock in the company of friends. For a woman a good death might be one in which she dies for her children or to stave off the death of others, a death marked by selflessness. A good death is often thought an easeful death, one unaccompanied by pain or mess. A death in one’s sleep at home at an advanced age is for most of us the very model of a good death.

Perhaps the most famous easeful death was that of the philosopher David Hume — famous because James Boswell recorded it in his Life of Johnson. Hume “was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present,” Boswell wrote. “He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end.” When Boswell asked him “if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness,” Hume answered: Not in the least, “no more than the thought that he had never been, as Lucretius observes.” Boswell reported Hume’s calm in the face of death to Samuel Johnson, who retorted: “He lied. He had a vanity in being thought easy. It is more probable that he lied than that so very improbable a thing should be as a man not afraid of death; of going into an unknown state and not being uneasy at leaving all that he knew.”

Sad deaths sometimes seem to constitute the preponderance of deaths. Sad is a death that comes about through malfeasance, foolish misbehavior, accident. Sad it seems to die too soon because of heavy smoking, obesity, drugs, careless driving. (I write “too soon,” but then Balzac, in Cousin Pons, notes that “death always comes too soon.”) A too-early death, in which one is deprived by a large measure of the full share of one’s days, is inherently sad. Too early is any death that falls well below the life expectancy of the day. One thinks of Anton Chekhov, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of whom died in their forties.

In literature, Tolstoy did death best, whether it was the suicide of Anna Karenina, the prolonged dying of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky after the Battle of Austerlitz in War and Peace, or the insignificant (to all but him) death of Ivan Ilych Golovin in “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Tolstoy writes: “Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that ‘it is he who is dead and not I.’ . . . Each one thought or felt, ‘Well, he’s dead, but I’m alive.’” Ivan Ilych himself cannot confront his fate directly, and for a long stretch he refers to death as “It”: “He would go into his study, lie down, and again be alone with It: face to face with It. And nothing could be done with It, except to look at it and shudder.” As for perhaps the most famous death in English literature, in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, Oscar Wilde remarked that “one must have a heart of stone not to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Which brings us back to death by coronavirus — surely one that, by the nature of its accidental, its almost haphazard quality, would be sad indeed. There is no avoiding this blasted virus — “Kung Flu,” an acquaintance of mine calls it — either on the news, on the streets, or in one’s consciousness. Because of it we are advised to avoid social gatherings, eating and drinking in public places, discretionary travel. We are instructed to make up for the time ordinarily spent in these pleasant pursuits by washing our hands throughout the day for no less than 20 seconds each time and the rest of the time trying to remember not to touch our faces. In grocery shops, on the otherwise empty streets, most people one encounters are wearing face masks and blue rubber gloves. If the coronavirus continues for an appreciable time, the man or woman who invents a full-body condom will make a fortune.

The news is utterly dominated by talk of the coronavirus, with only the weather report offering relief. Owing to the virus, sports, that opiate of us male masses, have been eliminated. On every news show, physicians are called in to tell us what to do to elude the virus, what we need to worry and not worry about. Two different friends sent me advice, via YouTube, given by a youngish, overweight M.D. with a ponytail, on how to unpack my groceries safely, which, as he demonstrated, can easily be done if you have, say, 40 or so minutes to give to the project and perhaps an extra quart of disinfectant on hand to do it properly.

In the British Spectator, Theodore Dalrymple, apropos of the coronavirus, makes the distinction between genuine danger and the frisson of danger, the latter being available to us through horror movies, roller coasters, thrillers, the former being true terror, and concludes that the coronavirus entails genuine fear. “A mixture of definite statistics — the absolute or cumulative number of deaths day by day, for example — and projections of present trends indefinitely into the future, together with unknown quantities such as the true rate of mortality and an absence of any sense of proportion,” he writes, “promotes obedience and a trust in authority as the only shield we have.” What we are afraid of, of course, is an all but arbitrary death by germ. “Seven thousand old people have died in Italy, 13,800,000 have not,” Dalrymple writes, “but the 7,000 are infinitely more real to us than the 13,800,000, and further deaths, even at a slowing rate, can only reinforce our fears.” None of us wants to die for no better reason than that we came too close to a stranger carrying the virus or put our hand on an infected counter or package, or an index finger on an elevator button. To do so, not to put too fine a point on it, would be unreasonable.

How would Epicurus (341–270 c.e.), that most reasonable of philosophers, have confronted the coronavirus? Epicurus, contra Montaigne, instructs us to get our minds off death. Not to worry, he advises. After death comes oblivion, in which you will be returned to the state you existed in before you were a child. As for rewards or punishment in the afterlife, perish the thought, for if there is no God or gods, then worrying about His or their judgment is a waste of time. The same goes for pain. Two possibilities here, either it will go away or it will worsen and you will die, upon which benign oblivion will follow. Hey, no problem! Yet why do I see Epicurus, were he alive today, washing his hands yet one more time and checking for his face mask before leaving the house? The man was a philosopher, true, but he was no damn fool.

This article appears as “Death and the Virus” in the April 20, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.

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