[Translator’s note: Agamben has again requested that I translate his latest essay on the ethical implications of the coronavirus crisis.]
“The plague marked for the city the beginning of corruption… No one was any longer disposed to persevere in what he had previously judged to be the good, because he believed that perhaps he would die before achieving it.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II.53)
I would like to share with whoever wants it a question on which for over a month now I have never stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country has, without noticing it, politically and ethically collapsed in the face of an illness? The words that I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of the abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a matter of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not prepared to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the points that follow will not be able not to agree that — without noticing it or by pretending not to notice it — the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.
- The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of dead persons. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, that persons who are dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their cadavers should be burned without a funeral?
- We then accepted without too many problems, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War (the curfew during the war was limited to certain hours), our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, de facto suspending our relationships of friendship and love, because our proximity had become a possible source of contagion.
- This was able to happen — and here we hit on the root of the phenomenon — because we have split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is actually the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was actualized in modern science through apparatuses of reanimation, which can maintain a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this condition is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are today seeking to do, and it becomes a sort of principle of social behavior, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out.
I know that someone will hasten to respond that we are dealing with a condition that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat this other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency never stop reminding us that when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it has been called with a significant euphemism, will be society’s new organizing principle. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, in good or bad faith, cannot be cancelled.
At this point, because I have declared the responsibilities of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibility of those who had the duty to keep watch over human dignity. The Church above all, which, in making itself the handmaid of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is that of visiting the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith.
Another category that has failed in their duties is that of jurists. For some time we have been habituated to the rash use of emergency decrees by means of which the executive power is de facto substituted for that the legislative, abolishing that principle of the separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been surpassed, and one has the impression that the words of the prime minister and of the head of civil defense, as was said of those of the Führer, immediately have the force of law. And we do not see how, going beyond the temporal limits of validity of the emergency decrees, the limitations of freedom could, as is foretold, be maintained. With what juridical apparatuses? With a permanent state of exception? It is the duty of jurists to verify that the rules of the constitution are respected, but the jurists are silent. Quare silete iuristae in munere vestro? (Why are jurists silent on what concerns them?)
I know that there will inevitably be someone who will respond that the sacrifice, which is of course serious, has been made in the name of moral principles. To them I would recall that a norm that affirms that we must renounce the good to save the good is just as false and contradictory as that which, to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.