When I was a child, I was a keen watcher of old war films that often invoked a message of patriotism or endurance in times of hardship, albeit ones that didn’t overdraw themselves into the realms of jingoism or any form of Colonel Blimp mentality. Where Eagles Dare and The Eagle Has Landed is a couple of many examples. However, my favourite example above all was the appropriately titled 1958 film Ice Cold in Alex starring John Mills, Sylvia Simms, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews. Set during the British retreat from Tobruk to escape encroaching German Afrika Corps forces, Mills’s character Captain Anson, who’s an alcoholic, leads a small group across the Sahara Desert in an ambulance van in order to reach safety in British-occupied Alexandria. During the trek across the scorching sands of the Sahara that is complemented by the suspicions towards the group’s South African member, Anson vows to never drink again until he reaches Alexandria to have an “ice cold lager”.
The current situation that the coronavirus epidemic has gifted us with is hardly as exhausting or life-threatening as the circumstances the Sahara’s unfortunate wartime travellers had to experience. There is no doubt that the epidemic has had an extreme detrimental impact, with over 5 million cases and over 300,000 deaths worldwide as of 23 May 2020.1
But for most of us, who enjoy the confines of our houses and flats with most of our basic needs (and not so basic needs) being only a walk or click away, the need to complain is little, the epidemic only testing our patience of putting up with the abnormal times of engaging with people through electronic communications alone.
Yet perhaps our cordoned activities, whilst not exactly healthy in the long-run, may benefit our values and force us to rethink how we should treat one another. Despite petty divides characterised by political opportunism or power grabbing taking force, the epidemic itself has provided a chance for national unity to emerge for countries that have been affected on the home front for the first time in decades. Behind all the layers of pessimism can this be seen. At the end of March, the NHS reported that it had recruited 750,000 volunteers – three times its initial target.2
Numerous fundraising campaigns independent from governments have been set up out of apparent individual altruism. If anything, there is good news that helps maintain hope.
But what has been witnessed in the past few months may entail a greater impact beyond the good willed attempts of containing the virus. With introspect, one may be witnessing a classic example of “unsocial sociability”. A concept described primarily by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, unsocial sociability is a hypothesis that under circumstances that disrupt society through forces of antagonism, society reinforces itself to combat such pressures that threaten its existence. As Kant describes in his “Fourth Proposition” that is part of his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”:
“The means which nature employs to bring about the development of innate capacities is that of antagonism within society, in so far as this antagonism becomes in the long run the cause of a law-governed social order. By antagonism, I mean in this context the unsocial sociability of men, that is, their tendency to come together in society, coupled, however, with a continual resistance which constantly threatens to break this society up.”
Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, p. 44.3
Chaos that overstretches itself into society thus paradoxically strengthens it. There is of course the possibility that this reinforces the collective over the individual to the detriment of society, with COVID-19 already showing examples of this in some countries. Some would be tempted to argue this puts isolationism in the forefront of society’s interests that conservatism is often assumed to postulate all the time. Believing this is what all conservatives preach would be naïve however, especially when conservatism has different meanings when according it to a certain time and place.
A silver lining however is that maybe this emphasis on nationhood will increase some form of stoicism and an appreciation of brotherhood and kinship between individuals. In times of disaster like World War II, the need for unity against a common enemy was needed more than ever. Even after the threat of Nazism was extinguished, comradeship between individuals and nations alike and their welfare for one another was still maintained; whether one sees it through the establishment of the NHS or a multinational union such as the EU. Regardless of whether one sees more virtue in one idea against an other, times of crisis, like necessity, can be the mother of invention.
It can be hoped that the coronavirus’s impact on our lives will do the same and allow us to appreciate more the values we have for each other’s lives and, in the long run, have a better ethic towards whatever challenges we may face in the future. Perhaps then can we savour the joys of life more easily like Captain Anson in Ice Cold in Alex had once he reaches that ice cold lager he savoured himself for. After all, despite learning that one of his fellow travellers through the desert was a German spy, Anson saves the spy from being executed once he develops a mutual respect for him. COVID-19 should ingrain within us the same principles that caused Anson’s action – respect and compassion.
Alex Johnson is a Co-editor of The Jackdaw.
- Worldometer (2020) COVID-19 Coronavirus epidemic. Worldometer. Available: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ [Accessed: 23 May 2020].
- NHS (2020) NHS volunteer responders: 250,000 target smashed with three quarters of a million committing to volunteer. NHS. Available: https://www.england.nhs.uk/2020/03/250000-nhs-volunteers/ [Accessed: 25 May 2020].
- Kant, Immanuel, ed. (1991) Kant: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.