This leaves only the matter of dealing with our own suffering. Of course we rely upon science and the healing arts to ease the physical suffering, limit the loss of life, and shorten the epidemic. However philosophy offers many voices of intellectual, spiritual, and even emotional consolation; the most developed analyses and responses include:

1.   Hinduism – suffering is due to karma, that is, the consequence of prior actions – not true perhaps of the virus per se, but likely of some aspects of suffering due to our inadequate planning. The Hindu solution is fulfillment of duty, piety, and virtue. I would add greater preparation for future crises.

2.   Stoicism – suffering is due to fate and providence which we do not control, but lessened by what we can control, our own reaction. Its solution is detachment and the reluctant acceptance of our plight.

3.   Epicureanism – suffering is due to deterministic providence, but our experience of it can be diminished by ataraxia, essentially contentment with what we can easily attain and avoidance of unnecessary stress or unease.

4.   Buddhism – life itself is suffering, universal, but not inevitable. Peace is achieved by meditation, elimination of desire, the adoption of optimism over negativity, hope, presence, and love.

5.   Christianity – suffering as original sin or the unfathomable purposes of God. Its consolation is endurance as proof of faith and a path to sacred existence.

6.   Existentialism – suffering as due to the indifference of the universe. Relief comes from transcendence, self-affirmation, courage, and the recognition of our vulnerability as a fact of the human condition. Viktor Frankl might add for those sick with the virus or who have lost loved ones to it, to find meaning in their suffering by being worthy of it.1

Last I would add that when seen against the canvas of the history and future of mankind, this pandemic reveals the sameness of our situation with those of all people. We perhaps of all of nature’s creation experience the pinnacle of suffering; it is the price we pay for the blessing of our great intelligence and knowledge of existence. But none of us is alone; times like these remind us of our tie to all men past, present, and future, of our interdependence, our mutual caring, and our incredible power when united to craft a sanctuary for human expression, creativity, and dignity. We alone can make of Earth either heaven or hell, and by choosing the former achieve a measure of the divine out of the simple chemicals that make up our species.

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“…there came the death-dealing pestilence, which, through the operation of the heavenly bodies, or of our own iniquitous dealings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God, had some years before appeared in the parts of the East and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had now unhappily spread to the West.” – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (describing the plague in Florence in 1348).

Again I wish to express my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship to all during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing in these essays is intended to diminish the loss others have suffered. Instead I hope to find a philosophical grounding in order to extract the lessons and meaning of this tragedy and the possibility of consolation.

In this last essay on the pandemic, I hope to pull together the four prior essays and those just before on the subject of suffering into a meaningful conclusion. First we must accept the ontological and existential certainty of human suffering, and as such we must develop a response and path to consolation. While suffering can be seen as an evil, it seems more accurate to say that suffering is the consequence of evil, including in this case the coronavirus. The evil of the pandemic has two manifestations: the natural evil of the virus itself, and that resulting from the free choices  or actions society makes for mitigation including for example the economic fallout and the curtailing of freedoms.

Within the framework of free will, each of us can choose an ethical course, at a minimum, siding against the pandemic by (1) avoiding being an agent of evil,  that is, spreading the virus, by social distancing, (2) assisting as possible the medical system’s fight against the virus, and (3) suppressing selfish ends like hoarding supplies. We can also assume the role of agents of good by the free offer of help to the most affected, the elderly, furloughed workers, and the needy. Last we can fulfill our civic duty by voluntarily following the directives of designated authorities and complying with the recommendations of medical experts (except in the unlikely scenario of unethical requests).

(continued next post)

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