Published On: Mon, Apr 6th, 2020

What Do We Do Now? Larger Lessons From The Pandemic

 Prof. Louis René Beres

“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

To survive and prosper after COVID-19 – a pandemic with pertinent political as well as biological origins – will require both courage and reason.[1] There is nothing new or insightful about such a prescription; nonetheless, it is well worth reiterating. After all, despite its apparent obviousness,  useful recommendations for seeking integrity and rationality in public affairs are frequently disregarded.

This is hardly a contestable proposition.

There is more. In these starkly vital security matters, at least one thing is certain. Before this two-part requirement can actually be met, more will be needed than perpetually transient changes in American politics. Though still generally unacknowledged, the political sphere of human change is always epiphenomenal, in the United States and everywhere else. Always, it offers only an imperfect reflection of what lies far more meaningfully below.

What matters most in all such dauntingly complex circumstances is an underlying willingness to seek what is best for the entire polity and its corresponding society.[2]

In the United State, this rudimentary lesson has never been learned.[3]  Now, yet again, we seek some sort of idealized “change” in the upcoming presidential election. But sans a courageous and thinking electorate, this latest search will represent just another visceral exercise in misunderstanding and futility.[4] And all this despite a now primary obligation to rid the United States of a grimly corrosive and starkly injurious president.

The lessons are plain. Left unmet, the conjoined obligations of  courage and intellect could signal not only extended disease pandemics, but also nuclear terrorism and/or nuclear war.[5] Like any genuinely terminal disease, the only “cure” for such unprecedented political violence must lie in prevention.

Such grievously destructive prospects of terror-violence and war are not in any way inconceivable. Nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive, of each other or of any ongoing disease pandemic. In an absolutely worst-case scenario, these sorts of extreme human aggressions would intersect with assorted biological aggressions and economic crises, perhaps to the point of becoming synergistic. By definition, in that hard-to-face kind of interaction, the “whole” of any insidious effects would exceed the arithmetic sum of its myriad “parts.”

There is even more here to consider. Still lacking both courage and intellectual commitment or mind, we the people of the United States ought not to express surprise or incredulity at the sheer breadth of our collective failures, staggering by any measure, whether past, present or future. Over too many years, the casually seductive requirements of wealth and “success” were allowed to become the presumptive foundation of America’s economy and society. Although seemingly plausible pillars of national reassurance, these requirements have turned out to be very high-cost delusions.

In essence, over these many years, American well-being and “democracy” have sprung from a self-defeating posture of engineered consumption. In this wrongheaded derivation, our core marching instructions have remained clear:  “You are what you buy.” It follows from such persistent misdirection that the country’s ever-growing political scandals and failures are the predictable product of a society where anti-intellectual (Jaspers’ “anti-reason”) and unheroic lives are actively encouraged and even taken for granted. More insidiously, these dreadfully unambitious lives are measured not by any rational criteria of mind and spirit, but dolefully, mechanically, absent commendable purpose and without “collective will.”[6]

There is more. What most meaningfully animates American politics today  is not a valid interest in progress, but rather a steadily-escalating fear of  personal defeat and private insignificance. Though most readily apparent at the presidential level, such insignificance can also be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued; that is, about not being “wanted at all.”[7]

For any national rescue to become serious, unblemished candor must first prevail. Now, ground down by the hammering babble of pundits and politicos, we the people are only rarely motivated  by any elements of insight or courage. To wit, we are just now learning to understand that our badly injured Constitution is subject to dissembling increments of abrogation by an evidently impaired head of state who “loves the poorly educated,”[8]  who proudly reads nothing at all, and who yearns openly not to serve his country,[9] but to expand its fractionation and be gratifyingly served by its suffocating citizens.

In brief, this president openly abhors genuinely challenging  thought and wants desperately to be an emperor. For the United States, it is a lethal and unforgivable combination.

There is more. To understand the full horrors of both the Corona virus and Trump presidency declensions, we must first look soberly behind the news. Accordingly, in these United States, a  willing-to-think individual is now little more than a quaint artifact of some previously-lived or previously-imagined history. At present, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, our American mass society displays  no decipherable intentions of  ever taking itself seriously.[10]

“Headpieces filled with straw…,” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American society. He would have observed, further, an embittered American herd marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, too often incoherent, and in dutiful but pitiful lockstep toward ever-greater levels of serious illness and unhappiness.

What next for the imperiled American Republic? We the people may wish to slow down and smell the roses, but our self-battering country now imposes upon its exhausted people the breathless rhythm of some vast machine. Before Cocvid-19, we witnessed, each day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles, transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday, a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward , possibly even of any hope itself. Now the economy has been largely shut down, perhaps irremediably, and we the people are even forced to yearn for prior levels of hopelessness. The ironies here are staggering, and sorely discomfiting.

Could it possibly get any worse than this?[11]

Until now, we the people have lacked any dignifying sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties and the comforting but self-perpetuating brotherhoods of war.[12] As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in our medieval prisons, increasingly infected by the Corona virus, two-thirds of those released will return promptly or slowly to crime and mayhem. At the same time, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – essentially, those who have transformed  personal cowardice into a religion – look forward to Trump presidential pardons.

They can do so with real confidence.

Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd,” said the ancient philosophers. Why?

Oddly, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we displayed unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just a “crowd.”[13] Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson had described us as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not paralysis, fear and trembling.  Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged that Americans “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to become willfully thinking individuals), but today an entire nation remains grudgingly content with the very tiniest of elevations. In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned civilizations never to seek a “higher man” in the” market place,” but that is precisely where America discovered master-of-ceremonies Donald J. Trump.

He was, after all, seemingly very rich. How then could he possibly not be both smart and virtuous? As Reb Tevye famously remarks in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know.”

Inexcusably, the true enemy faced by the United States is still We the People. Accordingly, as we may learn from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” And so we remain today, poised fixedly against ourselves and our survival, in the midst of an unprecedented biological crisis nurtured by multiple US presidential policy forfeitures.

Bottom line? In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped by harshly demeaning patterns of cowardly conformance. Literally amusing ourselves to death with illiterate and cheap entertainments, our endangered society fairly bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, we ought finally inquire:  Isn’t there more to this suffering country than abjured learning, endless imitation and expansively crude commerce? However we might choose to answer, the actual options are plainly and increasingly limited.

There is more. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed the poet Walt Whitman, but today the American Selfis generally created by stupefying kinds of “education,”[14]  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and by a pervasive culture of unceasing rancor and gratuitous obscenity.

In fact, only a rare “few” can ever redeem courage and intellect in America,[15] and these quiet souls typically remain hidden, even from themselves. You will not see them engaged in frenetic and agitated self-advertisement, whether to maintain control over a deeply-corrupted White House or to capture it for themselves in the next election. To be sure, our necessary redemption as a people can never be found among the crowd, or mass, or herd or horde. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating country, but not while we the people insistently inhabit pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thinkers, that is, by rote, without mind and without integrity.[16]

Going forward, inter alia, we must  insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and virtuous[17] citizenry. In this immense task, very basic changes will first be needed at the individual human level.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an art (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a reflection of unique individuals.[18] In this important regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes even further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”[19]

Looking to both  history and logic, it would be easy to conclude that this monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction lies beyond our normal human capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to collective surrender. But this would be unconscionable. Far better for the citizens of a sorely imperiled United States to grasp for any residual sources of national and international unity, and exploit this universal font for national and international survival.

Today, of course, this universal and unifying source for an indispensable coming-together is the worldwide Corona virus and its palpably unspeakable harms. Sometimes, out of a commonly-faced horror, humankind can turn tragedy into gain, and build something unique, welcoming and durable. This is potentially just such an ironic but promising transformative moment, but only if it is first duly recognized and suitably exploited.


[1] To recall Karl Jaspers on opponents of Reason, such an unphilosophical spirit gives currency “to everything that is inimical and alien to truth. That is, it serves to sustain and magnify all “perversions of truth.”

[2] Consider, in this regard, the relevant observation of Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man: The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

[3] Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and was  a place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[4] German philosopher Karl Jaspers warns presciently in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “Conscious of his emptiness, a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm. In vain.”

[5] The ancient Greeks and Macedonians were fond of calling war a struggle of “mind over mind,” rather than one of “mind over matter.” To be sure, similar sentiments animated ancient Chinese

military strategist, Sun-Tzu, and much later, Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz.

For authoritative early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[6] The origin of this term in modern philosophy lies in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps still more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenerary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948), and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[7] “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for?,” inquires the poet W H Auden in The Age of Reason. “Are we simply not wanted at all?”

[8] Said candidate Trump in 2016, “I love the poorly educated.” This strange statement appears to echo Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at Nuremberg rally in 1935:  “Intellect rots the brain.”

[9] This brings to mind the timeless observation by Creon, King of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have….anyone who puts his own populate before his country.”

[10] “The mass-man,” we learn from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

[11] In this connection, cautions Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles art all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[12] War, of course, is arguably the most worrisome consequence of an anti-intellectual and anti-courage American presidency. For the moment, the most specifically plausible area of concern would be a nuclear war with North Korea.

[13] “The crowd,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Here, the term “crowd” is roughly comparable to C.G. Jung’s “mass,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd,” and Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[14] In an additional irony, these already unsatisfactory kinds of education will be supplanted by even more intrinsically worthless forms of learning. Most notable, in  this regard, is the almost wholesale shift to online education, a shift made necessary and more widespread by the ongoing disease pandemic, but unsatisfactory nonetheless.

[15] The term is drawn here from the Spanish existential Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, especially his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

[16] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[17] As used by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the term “virtuous” includes elements of both wisdom and knowledge as well as morality.

[18] Says Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”

[19] Carl G. Jung eagerly embraced the term “soul” following preference of  Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor and colleague.

Louis René Bereswas educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat(Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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