Like many families across Canada this year, my family celebrated Easter alone at home, the three of us gathered together around the table. Attempts to compensate for the current situation were made via email, telephone, FaceTime, and Zoom, but those conversations with friends, colleagues, and extended family members seemed to be missing something.
In some of my conversations, concerns were raised about the sustainability of our essential services given the circumstances, and about the risks our essential workers are taking in continuing to do what they do. An aunt of mine posted to the Internet a song she composed and performed about the challenges of working on the front lines as a lab tech at the hospital. Our social media feeds are nowadays full of professional artists and amateurs alike sharing similar creations relating their frustrations. Around the world people are making noise and offering applause in recognition of our essential workers. They deserve all the praise they’re getting, and I trust that many of them—from cashiers and warehouse workers to bank tellers and garbage collectors to butchers and triage nurses—are savouring any expression of gratitude sent their way, given that many of them are otherwise used to being taken for granted at best. I would not deduct one ounce of appreciation from all of those who are braving today’s invisible danger to ensure we remain provided with the means of our continued survival. Allow me to add to that chorus my own thanks.
As someone whose trade is teaching philosophy, however, I, too, continue to do my job amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of the present situation—teaching my classes (online, for now), grading papers, and writing articles. And quarreling about the meaning of words. Consistent with my reading of the classics, I would here offer only this little quibble—not with our admirable service-providers themselves, but about the way the rest of us have been referring to them.
I would propose that we should refer instead to necessary workers and services, rather than essential. Calling them necessary implies no downgrading of their significance or value. What’s more fundamental that what’s necessary? Something that’s necessary is a sine qua non for everything else. But I would further reserve essential for reference to those qualities or activities that refer to what is distinctively human, representing the essence of humanity—essential to any of us in principle irrespective of how necessary anyone’s job may be deemed by the policies of the day.
I would reserve the designation most essential for whatever involves those aspects of the human condition that reflect us at our best and pertain to what is highest in us. These are the sorts of things that help us not only to survive but also to thrive, to not only live but live well. That the current situation makes it even harder for us to observe or enjoy these activities, tempting us not only to neglect but disparage them, is something that we should draw attention to and highlight, not ignore, precisely because we must insist on looking forward to a time when we’ll be able to restore them to our lives more reliably and regularly.
My wife, a talented singer-songwriter and private voice instructor, confessed recently that she feels useless the way things are going. All of her gigs are cancelled, and she has closed her studio to students. She continues to compose new music and shoot footage for future videos, all the while posting free vocal lessons to Facebook and fragments of performances to Instagram, but she sometimes wonders what’s the point. I remind her that given the state of things, bringing smiles to a few faces, or reminding others that they’re not alone in what they’re enduring, is a real good in the world, a gift shared.
This feeling of hers is, however, only an extreme case of something that many artists, not to mention small business owners, pastors, teachers, political activists, and many others in our society have been experiencing under what passed for normal life until recently—normal in an age dominated by a technological mindset and its imperatives, under big governments and big businesses, international organizations and global markets, mass media and corporate entertainment. It was already a life tending toward isolation, distancing, and incivility, making us lonely, keeping us separated, afraid, and antagonistic, wondering how to compete and what it means or takes to succeed. Even before the present outbreak, our education system, with its emphasis on applied science, technology, engineering and medicine (it doesn’t even teach most of us much about economics anymore either, for some reason), was training us to train our attention on the body only, to the neglect of the human spirit.
The irony is that, originally, modern society was in part based upon the promise that more and more people would not only get to live in safety and prosperity, but also gain access to and enjoy the goods that were previously reserved for only a very few. More and more, however, it came to seem, that the more we were in theory able to offer those goods to ever more people, the more we tended in practice to forgo or eschew them.
In order to cultivate and enjoy the more essential things in life, the necessary things must be taken care of. But the necessary things are not ends in themselves; they are the means by which we make it possible to better bring into being the things that are essential for living well.
There’s no need for us to establish here any particular distinctively human activity as the principal one; we can admit a plurality of them. Among the activities that are most distinctively human are the arts, including literature and music, philosophy, religion, and what I would call politics properly so-called. Human beings tell stories and create complex expressions of our longings, sorrows, and excitement; we feel wonder and anger and can use rational language to communicate our understanding or criticisms of things; in different ways we may come to grips with the truth that we are neither the greatest power in existence nor the ultimate source of truth; and we are capable of personal and active engagement in our communities to pursue the common good together.
These are the kinds of activities that prevent us from being defined solely by our labour and consumption patterns and keep us from living as mere subjects and spectators. They distinguish us from other animals that are only prey, predators, or pets, satisfying appetites, butting heads, or seeking refuge from the painful and the fearful. There are of course other distinctively human activities I could add to my list, such as athletic competition—the demonstration of prowess gained through discipline, vying for honourable victory, as distinguished from animal shows of force intended to establish dominance.
For the present purpose, I’m setting aside the activity of tool-making, since it mainly serves our animal instincts and desires, plus it’s something we share more in common with the other animals than the other activities I’ve listed above. Moreover, it looks like it’s our devotion to technology that somehow got us into this mess—whether on account of the ease of international travel, perhaps the climate crisis as Pope Francis suggests, or maybe some other instance of artifice.
The fine arts, the liberal arts, religion, and politics are activities that require healthy communities for their cultivation. We cannot have them in a Hobbesian state of nature. We cannot have them if we live under a fully Hobbesian regime, either, however. Despotic governments suppress all art and rhetoric that is not propaganda, all philosophy that is not ideology in the service of the regime, all religion that is not worship of the state and its leadership, and all concern for justice that is not reducible to an exercise of power on behalf of the ruling party in accordance with its demands and commands. A society that deprioritizes, denigrates, and despairs of the most essential human activities is one that has been well prepared for submission to necessities, whether real, perceived, or imposed. Where we’re fortunate enough not to live under despotism we require reminding that would-be authoritarians are always waiting in the wings ready to rescue us from a crisis if only we’ll receive their benefactions, affirm their doctrines, and join them in putting pressure on those who don’t jump on board as eagerly. The shame of taking the soup is always exacerbated by the persistence and memory of those who refused it.
The current situation lends itself to magnifying our concern for what’s necessary, what pertains to us as animals in need of securing the basics of survival, and we may show disregard for what’s more essential to living well as human beings specifically. And understandably so! Even those of us who normally exhibit greater enthusiasm and aptitude for the arts, the disciplines of contemplation, or community involvement, whether as a result of temperament, habituation, voluntary engagement, or professional commitment, are tempted under the current circumstances to busy ourselves instead with watching the news, scrolling social media apps, taking stock of our supplies, and passing the time with amusements. Me, I have spent a lot of time this past month cuddled up with my new best friend, Turner Classic Movies. We fall out of old routines too easily and get used to anything, unfortunately.
And so it is now, at a time that I suspect is still very early in our confrontation with the great challenge before us, I would like to suggest that we remember this distinction between what is necessary and what is essential, so that we may not forget the latter while we are preoccupied with the former. I recommend doing so in the hope that Canadians and Americans will in time emerge from the current situation and discover that our founding values remain intact, including religious freedom, limited government, freedom of thought and expression, as well as our fundamental commitment to equality— especially with respect to the belief that the finest and most beautiful things in life naturally belong to all of us to pursue, share, and benefit from together. Not everyone makes a profession of them, but they are available for everyone to participate in and enjoy—or at least, they should be.
The workers who are putting in overtime now to provide us with the necessary services we desperately need will surely be starving for more from life once they are able to catch their breath. I’d like to stay confident that the rest of us, too, will be tired of isolation and overstuffed from binging on streaming that we will impatiently insist upon an end to whatever emergency measures the current situation necessitated, yearning again for the restoration of essential activities in our lives and communities. It is absolutely essential that we get there eventually, lest we get stuck in the realm of absolute necessity indefinitely.