We’ve been through too much simply to go back to where we were

May 15, 2020
COVID world

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 15th May 2020


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When the worst of the pandemic is over, what kind of future will we seek? Will we try as far as possible to go back to the way things were? Or will we try to create a more just and caring society? What impact does collective tragedy have on the human imagination?

The philosopher Hegel said that the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. But the great prophets of the Bible who experienced tragedy, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, said in effect, we must learn from history if we are to avoid repeating it. We have to use the pain we’ve been through to sensitise ourselves to the pain of others, the poor, the weak and the vulnerable – the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Collective suffering can move us from I to We, from the pursuit of self-interest to care for the common good. Which will it be for us?

It’s worth looking at the last two great tragedies in Western history, World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and World War II. After 1918, nothing much changed. It was an age of individualism and inequality, of the Roaring Twenties and the great Gatsby, wild dances and even wilder parties, as if people were trying to forget and put the past behind them.

It was fun, but it led to the great strike of 1926 and the great crash of 1929, the recession of the 1930s and the rise in mainland Europe of nationalism and fascism. And a mere 21 years after the war to end all wars, the world was at war again. On that occasion, Hegel was right. People learned nothing from history.

The reaction to World War II was quite different. There was the 1944 education act that extended secondary education to everyone. There was the National Health Service and the birth of the welfare state. America produced the Marshall plan that helped a ravaged Europe to rebuild itself. The result was 75 years of peace. People knew they had to build something more inclusive. When war or disease affects all of us, you learn to care for all of us.

I hope that’s what happens now, that we build a fairer society, where human values count as much as economic ones. We’ve been through too much simply to go back to where we were. We have to rescue some blessing from the curse, some hope from the pain.