On Living in a Pandemic Age

C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” first published in the 1948 issue of the annual magazine Informed Reading, and later included in the anthology Present Concerns, has undergone something of a renaissance in recent weeks, and understandably so. Written the year the United States carried out the Sandstone nuclear tests at the Pacific Proving Grounds, the piece addressed the increasingly pressing question of “How are we to live in an atomic age?” While acknowledging the novel existential threat presented by nuclear armaments, Lewis’s answer was calm, gently fatalistic, and almost dismissive:

Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents. In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.

This was only Lewis’ starting point; his practical advice was rather more positive, urging his readers to

let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Lewis was a consummate realist. In the tense days of 1939, he thought it

important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective … The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice … The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

Are we sure this is still the case?

Often it seems that the security of the hive takes precedence, and that we have stepped out of what the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch called the biological and cultural stream that heretofore connected us to generations past and future. We are less and less to think in terms of a “permanent human situation,” one in which, as G.K. Chesterton memorably put it, “the chief parts of human doom and duty are eternal.”

So it is not hard to see why “On Living in an Atomic Age” has found renewed popularity in the COVID-19 era. Lewis’ widely-shared essay eloquently reminds us that the menace of Wuhan Syndrome, while neoteric in virological terms, is far from unprecedented in historical terms, and that, even as the virus and the governmental response to it combine to spread death and misery across the world, we ought not lose sight of the “sensible and human things” that make life worthwhile in the first place. Such admirable sentiments, I am sorry to report, invariably prove controversial in our degenerate age. Jon Mathieu, writing in The Christian Post, demanded that we “please stop posting that C.S. Lewis quote” on the grounds that “a global pandemic is not the same as the threat of an atomic bomb,” and that any insistence on the value of “sensible and human things” might lead readers “to flout the many warnings, suggestions, and mandates to quarantine.” Aaron Earls, meanwhile, has warned that “most of us could not do anything to prevent a nuclear bomb dropping on our city, but we can all do something to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

In actuality we cannot “prevent” the spread of a respiratory disease, merely slow its spread, and even that will come at an unfathomable cost, but this is perhaps besides the point. More importantly, it is hard to accept the contention that Lewis’ essay is irrelevant merely on the grounds that the specific threat of SARS-CoV-2 differs from that of nuclear annihilation, particularly when the great Christian apologist explicitly references the plagues routinely visited upon London, or the likelihood of a microbe breaking our bodies. Recall that around the time Lewis was born, diarrheal diseases like cholera and dysentery alone claimed the lives of some 1,100 per million in Great Britain, and influenza fatalities were typically between 250 and 500 per million before the Spanish flu outbreak pushed those numbers up to an astounding 3,129 per million in 1918 and 1,170 in 1919, according to the British Ministry of Health’s 1920 Report on the pandemic of influenza. A century and a half ago, phthisis regularly killed 2,116 per million, scarlet fever 716 per million, and typhus 484 per million, this time according to the Registrar-General of England. (By way of comparison, as of this writing Britain is thought to have suffered 443 deaths per million from Covid-19, the United States 221 deaths per million, Germany 85 deaths per million, and Australia roughly 3.8 deaths per million, though these numbers are inexact due to the vagaries of testing and certain tendencies in the attribution of cause of death).

Grievous though these numbers were, they were never permitted to harm the common weal in such a way as to purge “sensible and human things” from public and private life in the manner we are experiencing today. Advances in modern medicine have made numbers like those absolutely incomprehensible, but the absence of the historical context that such numbers provide has played no small part in producing the present crisis. We have for the first time quarantined the healthy, and locked down most of society, thereby committing something close to collective socio-economic suicide while, most shockingly of all, hardly bothering to protect the most vulnerable, those in nursing homes and similar facilities who now bear the vast brunt of the pandemic. What we now perceive as Nature’s ultimatum would perhaps have been noteworthy but hardly considered exceptional in ages past, but thanks to modernity’s toxic mixture of pride and anxiety we are seeing most everything being thrown into disarray for the foreseeable future.

Freddie Sayers, writing in Unherd, made an interesting comparison between the Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, who along with Anders Tegnell has steered his nation’s policies away from draconian lockdowns, and Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, the (recently-disgraced) theoretical physicist by training who, despite having completely misjudged both the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 and the swine flu outbreak of 2009, has been largely responsible for the direction of Britain’s muscular response to SARS-CoV-2. As Sayers observed,

In the ‘Giesecke’ worldview, this [perpetual lockdown] would amount not to a victory but to a surrender. The world becomes a place of indefinite anxiety, with the constant threat of curtailment hovering over all that is best and most human in life — family get-togethers, religious worship, children playing, plans for the future, creative projects – it risks becoming a conscribed, smaller, more fearful world. At its most extreme, a long-term ‘suppression state’ really could start to feel like oppressive regimes of history, from the Puritans to the Communists, that misguidedly tried to remake the whole natural order in pursuit of a single definition of virtue. People who recoil from any move in this direction can hardly be dismissed, or called immoral.

According to Ferguson, however, “the world has achieved what he never thought he would see in this century, and has collectively stopped a highly infectious respiratory virus in its tracks. The South Korean model offers hope for an unprecedented new technology-driven response to an epidemic. For an expert who has spent years looking at fatality rates and modelling outcomes this must feel like huge progress: the entire world united against a disease.” That we are facing economic ruin, the rise of dystopian “Chinese-style dirigisme,” and the loss of human lives from poverty, famine, suicide, domestic violence, deferred medical tests and treatments, and so on, somehow does not enter into the calculation. This is, in many ways, the apotheosis of Lasch’s “new narcissism,” that new world paradigm in which the “sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future” is abjured in favor of temporary, illusory succor. The pseudonymous Twitter personality Kantbot has joked, “Don’t roll back restrictions. ACCELERATE. Lock people in sensory deprivation tanks with WHO broadcasts playing on padlocked headsets. Until the virus manifests as a Cthulhuean entity and liberates us from the lockdown that is flesh.” In a world of snitch hotlines, pandemic drones, and digital immunity certificates, maybe such a mode of existence is not so far-fetched after all.

It is for this reason that the call to “please stop posting that C.S. Lewis quote” comes across as so risible, though at least this attempt to shut down the marketplace of ideas is merely precatory. Far more sinister was YouTube’s takedown of videos of a press conference held by California doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, on the grounds that their opposition to ongoing lockdowns on more holistic public health grounds violated the site’s “Community Guidelines,” specifically for having allegedly disputed “the efficacy of local healthy [sic] authority recommended guidance on social distancing that may lead others to act against that guidance.” I suppose records of any public appearances by Johan Giesecke, or Anders Tegnell, or the estimable Sucharit Bhakdi, or Lord Sumption, or any other figure deemed guilty of coronavirus thoughtcrimes, should likewise be purged from online platforms forthwith.

One suspects that the aspect of C.S. Lewis’ essay that bothers the would-be oligarchal collectivists the most is the assertion that potentially existential threats to our person need not wholly dominate our minds. COVID-19, unfortunately, has done that already, in large part thanks to the way in which the media has fashioned public opinion. As Geoffrey Luck presciently pointed out in Quadrant in early April, the omnipresent “message of fear, of an unknown and invisible killer, is designed to condition the citizens to accept unquestioningly the repressive measures prescribed for them by their betters.” Mr. Luck pointed to one Tagesspiegel editorial as emblematic, warning as it did that the Wuhan coronavirus “spreads above all about what makes us human: closeness to each other. Confidential conversations, joint efforts on the sports field, tender touches – all of this helps the new corona virus on its way through the world. Hands, nose, eyes, mouth: For SARS-COV-2, people are open wounds waiting to be infected. Some people simply cannot afford it.” We are asked now to look at life not even from the perspective of the hive-dwelling insect, but from the perspective of a mere virus, with society itself recast simply as an accumulation of “open wounds” — a horrible, devastating image to the susceptible among us. As a consequence we are to be systematically deprived of all “sensible and human things,” though remember: big-box grocery stores are just fine.

When I have seen “On Living in an Atomic Age” cited in recent weeks, I have seldom found any mention of Lewis’ actual conclusion, which is even more interesting and provocative:

We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture or class, is not worth having unless it can be had by honorable and merciful means. The sacrifice is not so great as it seems. Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.

It is facile to dismiss such an argument on the grounds that the existential threat of a nuclear holocaust is not precisely analogous to that of a virulent pandemic. As one can plainly see, it is not really the atomic bomb that concerned Lewis therein, but the rather more dangerous spectacle of our society’s malignant, metastatic narcissism, and for modernity that is the sorest point of all.

  • Tony Tea

    It’s the Age of Over-reaction. What makes it even worse is that the reaction to the over-reaction is invariably an over-reaction. As a group, we’ve lost the ability to stand back and get a solid perspective. Or maybe it’s always been that way. At any rate, shrill claims for immediate action, followed by immediate action seem to dominate the landscape.

  • Peter Smith

    Lovely essay. C S Lewis being a convicted Christian knew that we shouldn’t be living our lives cowering under the threat of the day. And present-day Christian leaders? Well, they largely fell over themselves to close churches. Not a hint of objection. Collectively worshiping God is apparently just a fair weather activity.

  • ianl

    > “Confidential conversations, joint efforts on the sports field, tender touches – all of this helps the new corona virus on its way through the world” [quote from a Tagesspiegel editorial]

    That opportunism is a prime aspect of evolutionary process. The effective contagiousness of respiratory diseases depends as much on homo sapiens’ genome driven socialisation as any characteristic of the virus. We had real difficulty dealing with the HiV virus – because it seemed to be transmitted through sexual contacts, and we humans are really screwed up over the range of our sexuality. And viruses themselves are mutant offsprings of RNA segments derived from the normal metabolism of immune processes.

    There is true beauty in the dynamism of evolutionary processes.


    C.S. Lewis is idolized among many evangelicals. However Lewis’ own words prove he was certainly a professing Christian. Peter Smith, above, uses the words “convicted” Christian. Whether CS Lewis was a true Christian or not is debatable.

  • Michael Fry

    Elizabeth B., Michael’s wife

    … the omnipresent “message of fear, of an unknown and invisible killer, is designed to condition the citizens to accept unquestioningly the repressive measures prescribed for them by their betters.”

    As Peter Luck has correctly noted, create a fear and a certain human instinct to obey leaders who claim to ameliorate it will come to the fore. Also unleashed will be a dreadful authoritarian desire on the part of ‘enforcers’ to interpret instructions to the letter, no matter how petty, how stupid or indeed (as in the major case of the Holocaust) how immoral these instructions turn out to be. Some of the enforcements we have seen concerning Covid19, going way beyond what is reasonable or necessary, and the Stasi-like snitching the population have been encouraged to engage in is yet another demonstration of how easily humans are led to folly.

    Fear itself must be looked honestly in the face from the top of Lewis’s precipice and given its human due, and only that, as we respond as we see fit within our capacity for reason and continue as much as we can in our everyday moral being.

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