“Now is the winter of our discontent,” Shakespeare wrote nearly 500 years ago. Talk about something standing the test of time! Indeed, there are many quotes from his prescient plays and striking sonnets that still aptly describe human beings today. As I write, it is nearly April, 2020, and the world is caught in convulsions of the chaos created by coronavirus. The pandemic, like something Shakespeare would have taken inspiration from, highlights both the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the wonderful and the absurd. It shows everything about human beings, the human condition, and humanity’s aspirations — and failings. It is through this lens that I write a bit about what is evident all around us now, in the winter of our discontent.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” one of America’s greatest individuals said of his tumultuous time (Thomas Paine). We have been through World War I and II and the Depression and a Civil War and the collapse of the financial system in 2008 since that dark day in the midst of revolution from England. Indeed, the world has lost tens of thousands of lives, and if the flu epidemic of 1918-1919 is any indication, we may find that this miniscule creature — the virus — is capable of bringing humanity to its knees, much like the longbow changed the nature of war in Western Europe (because it could pierce plate mail armor, thus rendering it more of a liability than an advantage).
Is not that just like human beings; we can create metal plates attached to chain mail for the purposes of defending values and virtues such as justice and honor, yet we can also create an arrow that travels at such speeds and with such force that it pierces it in ways that other weapons, such as swords and halberds, cannot. Thus, we devolved rather than evolved that fateful day. The same is said of dynamite, which the inventor of (Alfred Nobel, of all people!) thought would be a boon to humanity because of its power to move mountains. True to form, human beings used it for ill, and Nobel could hardly see that coming. Perhaps he needed to read more Shakespeare. This is reminiscent of the automatic machine gun, which the inventor of was sure would show all humankind how foolish war was (the carnage would turn our stomachs to mechanized war). Boy was he ignorant. One look at the “D-Day scene” from Saving Private Ryan will drive that lesson home.
If there is any doubt about human psychology, Sigmund Freud (or great novelists such as Tolstoy or Woolf) will enlighten. Few have been as instructive throughout the ages as Shakespeare. What he did with the English language, the production of plays, and threading the needle of politics of the era were remarkable. Sophocles and Socrates also penetrated deeply the human psyche far earlier, but Shakespeare is a writer par excellence, perhaps the ultimate in human literary achievement. Consider:
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare was highlighting justice, mercy, revenge, love, and friendship. These timeless values and virtues come up over and over again in nation after nation. Witnessing stars in the heavens, human beings are going to act in predictable ways; give a group resources and certain things will happen — not like clockwork, but with a decent degree of predictability. Put Americans in the midst of a pandemic, in the year 2020, with Donald Trump as president, with the infrastructure we did or did not cultivate over the years, and x, y, and z will surely follow. True, there is always room for random events, but as one can see from reviewing the “Cuban missile crisis” or reading of a small town in Mississippi in 1930, nothing particularly shocking results. Indeed, there is a saying from the Bible that “there is nothing new under the sun.” We repeat the same patterns over and over and over again. Ad infinitum, it might be said. Indeed, the elusive writer or writers of the book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes (perhaps a person named Koholeth), was a profound observer of the human condition, and human psychology, as well as being an eloquent and persuasive writer.
Shakespeare famously wrote, in Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Perhaps most hauntingly-familiar as one sees what humans do during this pandemic is the quote, “Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
It’s enough to make one need to sit down and sigh. I cannot say that Will Donnelley is wrong with this barbed argument: “63% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. He said COVID-19 was just like the flu, was contained, would fade away in a few days, promised a vaccine very soon and killed a guy in AZ with his medical advice. This is the dumbest fucking country on earth!”
David Remnick of The New Yorker encapsulates a fair point of view of Trump, a man who conned his way into power (as real estate magnate, media personality, and then, absurdly, as president). He then used all manner of skullduggery, chicanery, and hyperbole to smear his adversaries (which includes the media, by and large), game the system, and control the narrative. Trump could easily be a Shakespearean character — probably, hopefully, a tragic character — and it would make for great entertainment if it weren’t so damned real. I assume that when Romans first became aware of General-Caesar-turned-Emperor-Caesar, they saw the bluster and the cleverness, but also the lust for power and the destruction of tradition. Indeed, interviews of Trump often make me feel as though I am witnessing in real life a dark, id-driven villain Shakespeare dreamed up. The man has aspects of Richard III, Julius Caesar, Claudius, Lady Macbeth, and Iago all rolled into one flawed, absurdly obvious tragic character. Here is Remnick’s statement:
Early last week, the Trump era—which defined itself by a lurid celebration of “alternative facts,” a contempt for science, and an assault on global institutions and the “administrative state”—came to an end. Regrettably, Donald Trump remains in office, but, at least for the moment, he appears to have ceded the argument: he cannot bend the harshest realities of the world to his fantasies. The aggressive and deadly coronavirus is unimpressed and unimpeded by the bluster of a con. Yet the prolonged process of Trump’s humbling, the time it took him to recognize the power of the global pandemic that has emptied our streets, has put untold numbers of Americans at risk.
However, this crisis also reveals much about us that is positive. Indeed, goodness, virtue, love, sacrifice, courage, and generosity can only be exercised in the gritty mire; when Lincoln referenced “our better angels”, he was showing that indeed acts of courage or valor or camaraderie cannot take place in a vacuum. One might be able to achieve penetrating and lasting insight while reading a book or gazing at a sunset, but if you wish to see courage, you would need to place yourself into situations in which hot emotions and momentous decisions can take place. This was one of Homer’s great achievements, or Thucydides; they laid bare the extreme potential for all manner of reactions to life’s challenging situations in their epics and works of nonfiction. We should be so appreciative that men and women, throughout the ages, from different civilizations, with disparate credos and religions and cultural mores, thought to write down quotes and craft poems and create books for us, in 2020, to read and perhaps learn from.
Here is an interesting religious-oriented piece entitled “The good and beautiful things I’ve seen amidst the coronavirus epidemic.” In it, the author writes: “Sometimes we have to halt what we are doing and forcibly remind ourselves that isolation does not have to mean we are forsaken. When we say the Angelus, we remember that God did not abandon mankind. He sent an angel to Mary, and Mary gave a savior to us. So we are making an intentional effort to keep sight of that, when it is so easy to slide into terror and distress. We are not abandoned.”
Lawyer and journalist Chris Cuomo caught my attention one night with this quote (and true to form, I went through the effort to rewind it and audio tape it and transcribe it and place it in my website so that others would stop and think about it as well):
It’s not about Trump; it’s not even about the government; this is as much of a test of you and me. We have to be at our best! The good news is that America has always been defined by how she handles a crisis; we are a country that is forged by hard times. Hard times make strong people; strong people make good times. We are strong. And you know what? It’s not just us; the President said today ‘We’re not worrying about the rest of the world.’ Wrong. The world is dealing with it; we’re part of a community. And the world is watching the United States.
One day I also heard journalist/pundit Chuck Todd utter: “Alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.”
I also heard Rudy Giuliani pass this off as wisdom, and thought, “You can’t make this shit up!” He uttered, “Truth is not truth!”
Boy, we are in the thick of it, now. Our chickens are coming home to roost, and our better angels are surely being tested.
It would take a library as big as ten square city blocks to read what human beings have thought was worth committing to paper throughout the 6,000 or so years we have been writing for posterity. Some of it will be pedantic or personal, of course, but some will rise to the level of these profound and witty words of wisdom. Three examples of my favorites are:
“Keep me from the wisdom which does not want, the joy which does not weep, and the greatness which does not bow before children.” (Kahlil Gibran)
“Our task as men is to find those first few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must stitch up what has been torn apart, render justice imaginable in the world which is so obviously unjust, make happiness meaningful for nations poisoned by the misery of this century.” (Albert Camus)
“I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps, the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out!” (Anne Frank)
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,
of things unknown, but longed for still,
and his tune is heard on the distant hill,
for the caged bird sings of freedom.” (Maya Angelou)
“We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” (George Orwell)
Apropos of the coronavirus pandemic testing our country in ways we haven’t been tested perhaps since World War II, commentator Charles Blow writes that “a crisis always exposes the corruptibility of capitalism. This expresses itself in everything from price gouging on essential items, to congressional figures shedding stock ahead of the market downturn, to the details trickling out about the $2 trillion stimulus package agreed to between Congress and the White House. The rich and powerful will always find ways to insulate their wealth if not increase it, including on the backs of American taxpayers.” Timeless truth, Mr. Blow.
Despite the innumerable quotes one has easy access to nowadays — and immeasurable wisdom they (and proverbs, and long-form writing) contain — to some degree I am struck by the fact that we just don’t seem to get it.
True to form, we are mostly ignorant of both wisdom from the past, and events from the past. It indicts our education system in America, but also the degree to which the “powers that be” have little interest in propagating wisdom among the masses. When Marx, quite the prober of the depths of the human psyche, stated that “religion is the opiate of the masses”, we should listen. It is no coincidence that America now has a great opiate epidemic. It has ensnared friends of friends, youths with great potential, and even Rush Limbaugh, in its dark embrace. Will we rise to the challenge of dealing with the opioid crisis? 50/50 chance, history tells us.
We seem to be doing poorly here in America in the coronavirus pandemic compared to countries such as Korea, Japan, and New Zealand. This is no coincidence. The writing is on the wall, as they say.
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (William Shakespeare) Ω
Here you will find a fairly authoritative list of Shakespeare’s most time-tested insights into the mind of the human being, both in theory and in practice.
My favorite Shakespeare quotes are here, in The Wisdom Archive, along with 35,000 other insights and illuminations of the human mind throughout recorded history. In it you will find gems such as “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” and “True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”
Charles Blow wrote an intriguing piece entitled “Lessons from Lockdown” you may want to try. In it he reveals the truth that “It has been revelatory for me just how unprepared we were, not just in terms of emergency readiness, but also psychologically. I will fully admit that I had a hard time letting the true magnitude of this set it. For a long time, I simply couldn’t get my head around how dangerous this virus was and how completely it had changed the world as I knew it. Up until three days before I was to travel to Spain, I was still foolishly contemplating continuing with my plans.”
Below is a blog that I can’t say will cheer you up, but which I feel is fair and true: