We are presently living through a pandemic, Covid-19. It is an existential crises, which will change the way we see the world. It is obvious that this pandemic is not simply a crises of physical health. It must pose questions as to the way that we live and treat the world around us, spiritually, as well as environmentally. It is a crises that arose from the concrete conditions of modern life and therefore will shake the very foundations of this modern world.
Where can we find insight, into what can be done, once this pandemic is over?
In a recent article, Covid-19 is Nature’s Wake up call to a Complacent Civilisation, George Monbiot, writes:
“We have been living through a bubble, a bubble of false comfort and denial. In the rich nations we have begun to believe we have transcended the material world…Living behind screens, passing between capsules - our houses, cars, offices and shopping malls - we have persuaded ourselves …that we have reached the point all civilisations seek: insulation from natural hazards.”
It is such an insightful introduction to the article . The implications are clear. We have pitted ourselves against nature, we have separated ourselves , “living behind screens, passing between capsules.” Dangerously, as a civilisation we have been living under the thrall of an illusion, that we have “transcended the material world.” Like all illusions, sooner or later, they are to be crushed by reality - unless, we learn!
All this reminds me of a central theme in Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, which is an Modern Epic of eighty mystical poems, written by the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Reading and reflecting on these poems is a wondrous experience. They provide layer upon layer of insight, as if through a looking glass, scales falling from the eyes, one sees with clarity for the first time, the reality behind all the illusions so carefully built up in the modern world.
The Epic describes the existential journey through life of a fictional prophet Zarathrustra. His journey starts with him teaching the doctrine of The Superman.
He talks of realising his own values, beyond good and evil, to extend his creative will to its fullest extent. Nature is described as a dwarf, or a poisonous snake, to be waged war against. It is a battle of control and will. He believes man’s redemption is to live life totally, autonomously, commanding the domain of nature, metaphorically, roaring, like a lion. At times, Zarathrustra believed that his autonomous will had conquered nature. He had transcended all that holds him to the earth, the spirit of gravity. He had the audacity to assert his power against the whole natural world. He has striven for, and believed that he had attained, individual sovereignty.
However, beneath the triumphalism, there is a nagging melancholy, a foreboding, that kept on returning. This sense of melancholy reaches a climax in the poem entitled The Convalescent. Finally the illusion that man has an autonomous will, separate from nature, is exploded.
The Convalescent starts with Zarathrustra jumping up and screaming like a madman. He is summoning up to contest and to confront his abysmal thought. The abysmal thought is the realisation that he cannot control nature through his autonomous will, it is vaster more powerful than him. There is only one conclusion to this contest - Zarathrustra falls down defeated and remains like a dead person. He has been clobbered by the power of nature. After seven days, when he regains consciousness, he is pale and trembling. The number seven is a hugely significant number. It is used by many different philosophical traditions, indicative of the stages one has to go through to reach a realisation of huge significance.
Even though this ordeal was devastating, he awakes to the realisation that he is not separable from nature. To fight against it is to lead only to crises, and it is in this understanding that lies the key to his and man-kinds redemption. He has lost his small-mindedness, but gains an overflowing sense of the mystery of life, in all its depth. It is the shattering of this illusion that is the first step on the way to true freedom. The rest of the Epic unfolds from this central theme, until Zarathrustra realises fully.
It is clear, that as the existential journey embarked by Zarathrustra starts as a humanist project, it ends with mystical revelation. An Epic written in the Western Philosophy tradition ends in reaching into the depths of Being to discover that which is inseparable, that which is binds us all.
On awaking, he is spoken to in wonderfully evocative terms, which can, perhaps, give us all hope:
“The wind is laden with heavy fragrance that longs for you, and all the brooks would like to run after you” (p233, Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, F, Nietzsche, Penguin Classics,1969)
This is a statement of love. Once one understands the place of humanity in nature, then two things happen. The heavy fragrance is that which longs to be followed. All great music, poetry, philosophy, longs for you to trace itself back to its own source. Rather like through its wonderful fragrance a flower commands you to follow back to the beauty of the flowering. Then, once the source is realised, the brooks, flowing with love, will run after and through you. This is man's redemption, to be over-flowing with love. Instead of the roaring lion, one has entered a new metamorphosis of humanity. That which is the transparent, innocent free-wheeling human being, living totally, not divided from, but fully absorbed into, the full depth, potential and scope of the mystery of Being.
In the modern world we have tended to act as a roaring lion. We have insulated ourselves from and had a controlling attitude to nature. As with Zarathrustra’s crises, there is a feeing that nature has clobbered our way of living and seeing the world. This terrible pandemic may have positive implications, only if, it enables a deeper understanding of our relationship to existence itself. If we do not learn from this, then the next crises of nature, may be even more devastating in consequence.