View from
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Gods and Beasts: An Aristotelian View of the “Corona-Years”

(Youtube)

Yet, today, what seems most poignant about this story of just a few years ago is not so much that the young man had the opportunity to meet his friend in person as that meeting face-to-face was still considered an essential requirement by either him or his community—the consummation, if you like, of their friendship.”

Until the shroud of lockdowns fell, however unevenly, upon a fitful world in 2020, the prevailing understanding of human beings was still that they were situated in and belonged to distinct geographically-based communities. Stories of people venturing into the Internet wonderland to strike up close, lasting relationships with other individuals whom they might never meet in person were still rare enough then to be newsworthy. One such story, which made the news while I was in New York City in 2017, concerned a young black rapper from Harlem who had declared to a group of his friends that his best friend was an 81-year-old Jewish woman who lived in Florida and was his online Words with Friends partner. After hearing about this story—which of course contained various romantic elements, such as the fact that the usual barriers of race, age, and geographical location had been overcome through the shared love of playing games together—the pastor of his church had organized a fundraiser for the young man to travel to Florida and meet his elderly friend in real life. Photos of their encounter went viral on Twitter, while The New York Times and other outlets declared that their friendship was “melting hearts.” Yet, today, what seems most poignant about this story of just a few years ago is not so much that the young man had the opportunity to meet his friend in person as that meeting face-to-face was still considered an essential requirement by either him or his community—the consummation, if you like, of their friendship.   

I also had a few acquaintances, at the time, who confided in me stories similar to the one above: stories of finding people on social media—such as Snapchat or Reddit—and developing intense friendships or seemingly real romantic relationships, even though there were no immediate plans to meet in person. Yet I regarded these stories as odd; moreover, the illusory and escapist quality of such connections was clear. It can be easy to get along with someone when one does not have to face the challenges involved in, for instance, evaluating each other’s physical appearances or real-world personalities, to mention just a couple of the usual complicating factors. Partial knowledge can also be more misleading than no knowledge at all; and getting to know the real person behind an Internet “avatar” has the danger of ruining the fantasy on which the connection is built. In one of the stories related to me, the person said that after dating a girl through online chatting for six months, engaging even in a face-to-face Skype call created so much panic in him that he turned off his screen and claimed to have had technical problems.     

But fast-forward to 2022. Who does not have a story of a good friend, lover, business partner, or teacher whom they have never met in real life? Even beyond the fact that schooling and business have often been moved online is that people have been opened up to an array of quirky, culturally exotic experiences that were not part of their horizon of possibilities before. Here in Athens, Greece, my aunt has spoken to me with delight about taking dancing lessons, along with her young children, from street rappers in New York City during the lockdown. One of my own exotic experiences during this time has involved taking lessons in tai chi, a “slo-mo,” internal martial art, while here in Athens from a teacher based in Sydney, Australia.  

Let me share more about this last experience for the illustrative value it may have. I initially found my instructor through coming across YouTube videos of him performing tai chi. These were videos which, more than anything else I had seen, persuaded me of the real elegance and beauty of the art. Despite the awkwardness of not sharing the same physical space, I found I preferred studying tai chi postures with him than at the tai chi center I had been attending previously in New York City. And it worked out for me that the Australian dollar was much weaker than the American dollar: 70 AUD, the price for each meeting, came to just 53 USD. I went ahead and paid for a package with the instructor. Yet I never completed the package, despite not being one to waste money, because, somewhere along the way, I began to feel a sense of nausea at the idea of meeting with someone so many time zones apart from me. This nausea was not irrational; it came from the unconscious understanding that the learning of tai chi is meant, not only by tradition but also by the very interiority of the art, to be an investment in a close and enduring relationship with an instructor. My whimsical decision to learn from this instructor was turning increasingly into an unworded promise that I would someday travel there. As someone whose life is already unhelpfully divided between Europe and the United States, the idea of throwing an added continent into the mix was too much for my body to swallow. Overly sensitive though I might have been, I sensed the starkness of my choice: either to have a slightly fantastical relationship with an instructor I would never meet or to travel unimaginable distances as part of my training.  

The problem with relationships transacted at great distances goes beyond the somewhat illusory and escapist quality that may attach to them. It is also that they vastly increase our available options in a way that can leave us overwhelmed and continually uncertain in our commitments. In my own case, I came across three more tai chi instructors by “surfing the net” who motivated me enough to begin training with them, though I continued to be conflicted on how to weigh their degree of proximity to me against their level of appeal. Was I likely to travel to Colorado one day if I continued with a trainer who credibly described himself as the foremost Western expert in two standard tai chi styles? Or was it better to continue with a rather personable instructor I found, who, like me, lived in Athens? Would it be a good compromise to continue in the program of a highly reputed teacher residing on the Greek island of Corfu, whom I could conceivably travel to meet with sometimes in person? Still, none of their performances of tai chi were as breathtaking as that of the Sydney instructor. Like the proverbial camel between two wells, I became stagnant through indecision.

Aristotle is famous for saying that man is a political creature who belongs, by nature, in a community, what the Greeks called a “polis.” One who does not belong in a community is either a beast, who is unfit to enter it, or a god, who does not need it. The value of a community is that, in it, human beings realize the specific attributes of being human, such as studying the arts and sciences, training one’s body and physical abilities, and engaging in philosophical contemplation and political activity—all in the context of their relationships with each other. The ideal community, in his view, was moreover supposed to be neither too small, nor too big—extended enough to provide for the needs of civilized life but limited enough that its members would enjoy face-to-face relations with each other. The Aristotelian ideal of a perfectly sized political community corresponded roughly to the number of people who could be seated in a Greek theater. Although the Greeks were certainly aware of larger political entities, such as those in Egypt and Persia, they deemed that political communities smaller than an empire were not only more desirable but actually more civilized.

We have strayed very far from this ideal of Greek antiquity in modern times, but our 21st century experiments in building meaningful connections with far-flung individuals via the Internet, whatever admitted thrills these bring, have challenged that ideal more than any other development in human history. Communities in the age of the virtual are not only more expanded (as, for instance, Italy already was in relation to the Republic of Florence, or Germany in relation to the Kingdom of Prussia) but additionally lack any internal cohesion. They have a sprawling, formless, and evanescent quality to them, and the people we “know” today are increasingly likely not to have any knowledge of each other, and, thus, the sense of community is increasingly tenuous. Needless to say, this development arose before and would no doubt have progressed independently of any fears concerning a virus. However, it seems undeniable that the “corona-years” have catapulted us more decisively and more unabashedly in this direction than anything prior. Even the older generations and more rurally-based populations, normally stalwarts of traditional living, were funneled into the virtual order of relating under the pressures of lockdown. Electronic tablets around the world were distributed through government expense at record levels.

Many will cheer on this development. In an age of planetary problems, they will understandably say, “Is it not important that we are developing a trans-national consciousness?” What else will stop us from destroying oceans and forests, warming the globe, and nuking the earth than greater sympathy for each other and a greater “hive mind” to tackle these dangers? Moreover, the facility with which we can meet strangers (i.e., people who are “strange” in comparison with what we are used to) today may have a humanizing influence on the way we regard our various Others. It nevertheless seems fair to say that, from the moment that we are building world-based communities with a view to addressing world-based problems, we are aspiring to the role of gods rather than of men or women.

In Aristotle’s view—which arguably expresses the classical Greek view more generally—participating in a community of a circumscribed, internally cohesive nature was not only a desirable way of life; it was the only one that permitted the development of specific human potentialities or, said otherwise, in which human-ness could be fully active. To try to be gods, just as to try to be beasts, would not only be a quixotic thing; it would involve forsaking something more fulfilling and choice-worthy. From this perspective, what we might ask ourselves is: How is it that we have found the move to virtual connection tolerable? Why are not our instincts, reason, and human decency rebelling against the erosion of integrated, tangible community? For surely we are not under the illusion that these changes, which have brought so many conveniences, new thrills, and economic opportunities to people everywhere (notwithstanding all the local businesses that shut down when outcompeted by online retail), will be undone when we are past our fears of contracting the dreaded virus.   

Aristotle’s formula may, interestingly, also provide the explanation for our acquiescence in this. To be a human being is to be something between a beast and a god; and, while acting as either a beast or a god may, on its own, be instinctively unappealing to us, it is very possible that acting as both a beast and a god at the same time may paradoxically create a sense of balance that leads us to feel, however uneasily, still “human.” And it has indeed been one of the odd facts about the corona-years that we have been prodded or pushed in both of these directions at the same time. Public measures to limit the contagion rendered us, in the first place, beasts, unfit to enter into community with others. Corralled in our homes, many of us (including this writer), faced the prospect during some periods of exorbitant fines if we tried to leave our immediate districts without a valid excuse. We have been wearing masks for two years that conceal our faces and muffle our voices—and which, to those opposed to the measures, have perhaps been experienced as a form of political muzzling in addition. In the wake of vaccines, we have become accustomed to showing our identification cards and permission slips (i.e., vaccination certificates) as an everyday feature of entering private and public spaces. Above all, let us not forget the many pockets of unvaccinated individuals—angsty and often working class—who are still being treated in many places as beasts that are “unfit to enter.” 

Confinement in the home during the corona-years made connecting with others via the cyber space a practical necessity. We had to find some way to see and confer with family, friends, clients, and colleagues. But it was more than just a practical necessity; it was also an existential one. The ways that our movements were being restricted and monitored (and the use of our mouths treated as a social liability) has made us feel, on some level, as veritable beasts. That we are not more traumatized from this experience is owed to the god-like powers we collectively discovered and availed ourselves of while we were in these states of confinement: powers to meet and talk with any number of people from any number of places (through an imaginative transcending of space and time) and to convert our tangible worldly structures into intangible ones. And these seeming god-like powers, far from having reached their apex, show promise of continuing to grow—as, among other things, Zuckerberg’s Metaverse assures us.

It might be less immediately obvious, though, that the converse to the above also holds. It is not only the case that the discomfort of being confined to our homes has been offset through our self-propulsion into cyberspace; it is also the case that the vertigo-like sensation of being hurled into cyberspace has been soothed through the intensively grounding experience of home confinement. The home, as at once safe haven and forced quarters to us, has no doubt brought a mixed bag of experiences. For some, it has meant the strengthening of familial ties, while for others it has meant prolonged isolation or, worse, living under more regular torment and abuse than had been the case previously. But, in both its desirable and undesirable versions, being stuck in our homes has meant that, in some crucial way, we have become more definitively aware of our physical situatedness than we (those of us accustomed to some level of political freedom and security, anyway) had, by and large, been before. It is this intensive experience of situatedness that enabled us not only to tolerate but to take uninhibited delight in our opposite drift towards a diffused cyber-existence.

The corona-years pushed us, then, in two opposing directions: a radically grounding, tethered one and a radically un-grounding, un-tethered one. For life energy to alternate between a more contracted state of existence and a more expanded, liberated one, is not itself strange or even necessarily a problem. Indeed, the tai chi art in which I have been training is informed by a Taoist view of energy (chi) as continuously flowing back and forth between a state of contraction (yin) and a state of expansion (yang). To practice tai chi—or to watch others practice it, as many have occasion to do in public parks—is to engage in a continuous meditation on the way that contracted energy may expand, and expanded energy may again contract, in a seamlessly flowing way. Crucial to this art, however, is to know how and when to perform the transition from contraction to expansion, or expansion to contraction, so that energy does not reach the point of being either trapped or dissipated.  

If the diagnosis of this article is correct, then the distinct experience of the corona-years is that we have been going too far in the directions both of contraction and of expansion. And having gone too far in both directions at the same time may have provided an uneasy, ironic sense of balance, but it brings up the question: “What will life in the post-corona-years resemble?” When we are once again free to mingle with others in cafes, clubs and business halls with as little inhibition as before, will we be able to handle the radicality of our distance-annihilating technology, with all of the new ways and expectations of association that it brings? For instance, geographic distance is becoming almost reduced to the concept of “time difference” (e.g., we meet at an earlier time with someone from Australia, or at a later time with someone from California). It seems possible that we will one day look on our years of being homebound in some way with a kind of visceral distress that this feeling of situatedness is no longer accessible to us. Or it might even be the case that, on some unconscious, existential level, we will desire to continue being treated as “beasts” by the government—to be tracked and monitored by it—as compensation for the far-too-untethered and dissipated lifestyle otherwise evolving into a norm. In more political terms, how can we retain a sense of the community to which we belong, without either being in fear of entering it or, more likely, sensing that we are beyond needing it?

The strangeness of the situation we are headed toward is that to continue to feel the relevance of geography will require a concerted decision on behalf of individuals and organizations. It may involve choosing to have a permanent home even when this is not necessary or choosing to have in-person encounters when virtual ones are easier to arrange. More crucially, we may give priority to our difficult but real-world relationships over romanticized virtual ones. Such choices will be counterintuitive because physical situatedness used to be something that necessity rather than aesthetic or moral choice imposed on us. We remained restricted to our locations in the past because other areas were not safe and predictable enough to travel in freely, or we were restricted because we depended on the food our lands would produce. These restrictions are increasingly lost, and new geography-canceling freedoms have been gained to boot. We now face the question of what community means to us and whether we are willing to make sacrifices to retain the fullness of this experience, even when necessity does not compel it.

Katerina Apostolides is a philosophical counselor in Athens.

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