O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s . . .
Thus exploded the raging King Lear in Shakespeare’s play when he realised that his two daughters were trying to deprive him of all that represented his identity. The king’s daughters were badgering their father about letting go his expensive entourage of soldiers and retainers. The king reasoned that humans would be no different from the animals if they did not need more than the fundamental necessities of life.
These times of crises and lockdowns give us an opportunity to revisit the question: what is essential? What is indispensable? Provisions are difficult to procure, every meal that we have makes us alert as to what we consume so, at the end of the day, we do not have to face a shortage of food. Many of us have felt that we do not have access to entertainments, to all those luxuries we are used to. Only last Thursday the French President Emmanuel Macron declared that he would close down all “espaces publics indispensables” indicating that not only schools, colleges and universities, but all non-essential businesses where the public can freely enter, including bars, restaurants and cinemas, would be closed down. It means that major towns and cities across France would appear incredibly quiet and only food shops, petrol pumps, pharmacies and the indomitable French tabac (tobacconists), albeit on reduced Sunday opening hours, would remain open. (In France, a tabac sells many indispensable items such as government payment coupons and newspapers).
France is not unique. It is happening in every big city all over the world including India and people everywhere are learning, once again, how to do with less than they have been used to for so long. The first criterion of determining what is essential is to know what is essential! Does it comprise those basic needs without which life would be interrupted by illness and death? That is, our need to maintain health and satisfy our hunger and thirst for without that the interruption would be immediate. Yes, this is the first criterion of what is essential, and it is indisputable, even if it sometimes requires to be established which makes science and medicine essential!
But, in modern societies, there is another aspect of knowing what is essential and that includes the political. That is to say it is not enough to know what is essential, but we must also know who determines it: who, in the name of what, with what justifications and what consequences, takes that decision for everyone else in a society. So, it is not only a question of needs, but a question of justice. What is essential is not only what we cannot do without, it is also what we need to share with each other. The subsistence level indicates not only what everyone needs to live, but what everyone has the right to demand in a just society. It is, therefore, possible to arrive at the obvious conclusion: the essential need, before all those other vital needs, is the need for justice. And, in fact, when an epidemic has spread all over the world, if we limit or restrict our lives today to the essential, it is not just to save ourselves, but to save others. This is what we call solidarity, and it involves all the standards of justice: equality, even in the distribution of goods, especially those that are the most vital, even when they are likely to be scarce and insufficient, protecting the vulnerable, respect for the laws, respect for public discussion, concern for each human being. This sense of justice is the most basic of those essential needs, for it allows the proper and free dispensing of all that is essential.
But even this is not enough. There is another dimension of the essential, the lack of which is obvious today, from the most comfortable isolation to the loneliest of deaths and the most painful mourning. Yet, we still do not know how to make room for it. I am speaking of relationships between humans. This need is both obvious and generally threatened with extinction in our times. Even when there is enough provision to satisfy our hunger and thirst, we may still die of sorrow, of separation, of mourning, and we know that ‘attachment’ is a condition of our mental life, therefore of life itself. In La Peste Camus wrote: ‘The one way of making people hang together is to give ’em a spell of the plague.’ It is love for the fellow beings that make people ‘hang together’. It is the pestilence that makes it difficult for us to let people, who are not known to us, die: ‘I can’t say I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbour, hasn’t one?’ [La Peste] We, selfish beings that we are, need a pandemic to make us rise above ourselves: ‘What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.’ [La Peste]
Thus, when every morning, I find a group of nonchalant young men below my window in a large gathering, I want to read aloud these few lines written by a visionary writer long ago: ‘Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come.’ [La Peste] My young neighbours need not read Camus. They need to regain that sense of love, sympathy or attachment for their fellow humans; they need to know that it is our most vital need in times of distress. An epidemic tests more than our physical endurance. It is a test of our humanity.
I began with a quote from King Lear. There was a major plague in London in 1606 which led to the closure of the Globe and all the other theatres in London. It raged through the summer and early autumn and it touched the Bard’s house too, leading to the death of his landlady. Did Shakespeare write the bleakest of his tragedies during a plague quarantine? The echoes of death, destruction and desperation are not difficult to find in that play. When Gloucester says: ‘Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father … we have seen the best of our time,’ doesn’t he deplore the same absence of love, of attachment, of fellow-feeling?