by Vittorio Bufacchi, author of:
Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown (Manchester University Press, 2021)
A good place to start is in Ancient Rome with Cicero (106-43 BC). This pandemic has reminded us of two crucial aspects of our lives: our mortality, and our moral duties towards others. For Cicero’s views on all these issues, and more, see his Cicero: On Living and Dying Well (Penguin).
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is a French philosopher who was strongly influenced by Cicero. He lived through the bubonic plague which in 1585 decimated the city of Bordeaux, of which he was the mayor, killing approximately 14,000 or one-third of the population. His Essays (Penguin) include the short piece ‘To Philosophize is to Learn how to Die’, where he famously says that “comprehending death is the key to the very art of living”.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is another philosopher who lived through many plagues, and wars. His Leviathan (Hackett) is a crucial text that reminds us of why we are naturally inclined to indulge our self-interest, but we often forget that our self-interest is always best served by engendering cooperation. This pandemic was a stark reminder of the benefits of working together, in unison, for a common good.
Unfortunately, we were also reminded of the unacceptable levels of inequalities rampant in modern society, and how the most vulnerable people suffered the most since the pandemic struck. On a global scale the world we have created has strong similarities with the misery and injustice of 19th Century England. Karl Marx’s close friend Friedrich Engels’ (1820-1895) The Condition of the Working Class in England (Penguin) is a reminder of how little progress we have made on a global scale. For a more recent analysis of injustice and oppression, Iris Marion Young’s (1949-2006) Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton) remains unsurpassed.
The fact that Covid-19 has exposed the structural injustice underpinning our society makes social justice a key theme. Brian Barry’s (1936-2009) Why Social Justice Matter (Polity) is an important book focusing on what ought to be our prime social, economic and political goal: how to create a just society. The harms of inequality are also analysed by one of the most influential living moral philosophers, Thomas Scanlon in his book Why Does Inequality Matter? (Oxford). One of Scanlon’s brightest students, Martin O’Neill, wrote a book in 2020 with Joe Guigan on The Case for Community Wealth Building (Polity), suggesting a radical new approach to economic theory and local development.
Apart from uncovering the unjust underbelly of our society, this pandemic has also exposed the incompetence of some political leaders who built their political fortunes on lies. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) wrote extensively on truth, lying and politics in The Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin).
Finally, experts and scientific knowledge were at the forefront of our battle against Covid-19, even though it would be naïve to assume that there is always unanimous consensus amongst experts. Maria Baghramian is a world authority on making sense of when experts disagree, and project leader of PERITIA, an EU-funded project investigating public trust in expertise. In 2019 she published a book on Relativism (Routledge) with Annalisa Coliva.