Time Out of Mind
In March, on the eve of leaving Cambridge, I asked a particularly wise friend of mine if he had any book recommendations for quarantine. Without missing a beat, he responded: “The Dialogues of Plato.” Plato, he told me, is a philosopher for times of crisis: a thinker who puts chaos in the context of the eternal. Later philosophers may have gotten more right, but few were better at sensing the underlying transcendence of reality.
Plato, of course, lived in his own time of upheaval: born in the wake of a plague that killed a quarter of Athens, he would live to see his city conquered by Sparta, and was himself later sold into slavery. But my friend was referring to the Dialogues’ content, not their historical context. In the world of the Dialogues, the physical universe is a mere shadow, a pitiful dilution of ultimate reality. Behind the chaos we encounter in everyday life, Plato maintains there subsists a timeless world of Forms — a heaven of unchanging objects corresponding to the changeable objects we observe below.
It’s official: the end of the pandemic is on the horizon. After months of false starts and shaky optimism, Pfizer announced yesterday that they had developed a vaccine with 95 percent efficacy against COVID-19. With numerous competitors on the brink of their own vaccines, experts expect inoculations to begin as early as December, a bright capstone on one of the most chaotic years in memory.
After months of wildfires, murder hornets, and (no joke) dead people elected to office, the news of an effective vaccine was refreshingly positive. I don’t think I need to rehearse all the reasons 2020’s been so miserable — the list would outstrip my word limit, and there are already websites devoted to that. Instead, apropos of the vaccine, I think it’s a good moment to stop and reflect on just how lucky we are to live in a society with that kind of technological capability.
It’s no secret that the United States is a deeply polarized country. According to a Pew Research study, the ideological gap between the median Republican and Democrat voter ballooned between 2004 and 2017. More troubling, political scientists like Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin have observed that voters today are more galvanized by hatred of the opposition than confidence in their own side, leading pundits on both sides of the aisle to worry about the nation’s long-term stability.
If you type “sell out” into the search bar of the Harvard Confessions Facebook page, a number of posts pop up. One laments “wanting to sell out” but being “too deep in nonprofit work to do so.” Another characterizes one’s friends “sell[ing] out one by one” as “the saddest thing to see.” Yet another describes being a premed as “one of the most sell out tracks that exist,” glossing medicine as a career that makes “cuts in people’s bodies and bank accounts to buy that new Rolex.” Most of the remaining posts are similar, contrasting the altruism of non-governmental agencies and social work with the selfishness of the for-profit world.
Like many generalizations, this picture contains a kernel of truth. We’re all called to contribute our utmost to social welfare, a mission NGOs aim toward explicitly. Those who sacrifice life and livelihood to fight social and biological pathologies deserve our utmost praise. And it’s hard to argue that financial institutions or even medical corporations have always done their part to serve the global community.
For much of this year, COVID-19 has been shining a bloody spotlight on the racial and economic inequities racking the country. Nationwide, people of color are nearly five times as likely to be hospitalized, while in New York City, those living in the poorest neighborhoods are over twice as likely to succumb to the virus. In any country, these inequities would be deplorable; in ours, they are scandalous. In a country home to 15 percent of the world’s GDP, it seems unthinkable that we lack the resources to adequately address these issues.