Is Covid-19 ushering in a new era of history?
A carte blanche from Raphaël van Breugel, historian, former professor and director of Saint-Hubert college. Novelist (1).
The health crisis continues and its share of restrictions too. Everyone expects a relief, a perspective, the shared hope of being able to relive, come together, touch the reality of a daily life that today escapes us. Will this be possible soon, or will we have to, despite the vaccines, despite the multiple barrier gestures, despite the confinements, the curfews, learn to live with this virus? What if this virus had already forced us to live with its consequences? What if, without realizing it, we had already entered a new axial age?
The meaning of history according to Karl Jaspers
In his book titled Origin and meaning of history, published in 1949, the existentialist German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) presented the concept ofAchsenzeit, literally pivotal age, to explain that humanity as a whole had known an axial period around the 6th-5th centuries BC, a period when almost simultaneously the modes of thought had been profoundly modified a little worldwide. New relationships with faith, beliefs, science had emerged and would never leave human history. Some followers of Jaspers will see in the Enlightenment a second axial age. Since then, the theory of the German philosopher, friend of Heidegger, has been discussed at length, commented on and criticized. I will not go into this debate, it is not the subject of this contribution. Let us remember, however, that the theory of axial age has the merit of emphasizing elements liable to contribute rapidly to profound changes in human thought and therefore in the behaviors which may result from it.
For several decades, the world has undergone profound changes of all kinds, changes that are accelerating and continuing. The digital revolution, to name but one, has profoundly changed our relationship to the world and to time. Our behavior has adapted and we have included its consequences in our daily lives. Even if it is, without a doubt, a key moment, this digital revolution cannot be considered as a real axialization of the world.
Covid-19: towards an axial third age?
On the one hand, it is not experienced in the same way everywhere in the world, and, on the other hand, the generations are affected differently by the effects of this movement. The same goes for global warming, or for raising awareness around this warming. Even if here and there we see changes in behavior or habits, this movement is still ultimately very marginal with regard to the issues that arise from it. While there is evolution in both cases, there is no axialization because our relationship to the world, to the other, to life, to the values of living together has not radically changed.
If the first two axial ages brought humanity to the paths of reason and freedom, where will this third age take us? Because it is, on closer inspection, a possible new axial age. In a very short space of time, the whole world has been affected by the effects of this pandemic. Everywhere (or almost) the same reactions were recorded. Prudence or fear have led to measures to drastically reduce freedoms whatever they may be. For the first time undoubtedly in human history, many democracies have adopted the same liberticidal measures as dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. For the first time, the same rules were applied almost everywhere: distancing, wearing a mask, limiting travel, closing non-essential stores, restaurants, cultural and sporting places, in short, all the places of conviviality which recall that man is also and above all a zoon politikon (2) or be social. Almost everywhere, a form of confinement has been attempted with or without a curfew. Everywhere, an anxiety-provoking, alarmist speech was heard or uttered. Everywhere, to paraphrase the philosopher Comte-Sponville, the love of life has been sacrificed for the fear of death. The result of this management or rather the result of this collective fear will cause a global recession, a runaway debt, massive job losses, cascading bankruptcies, collective depressions … In addition, you add to this the general disorientation of a youth which misses these crucial moments for the construction of its future.
Sanitary above all else
The Covid-19 crisis will therefore have caused an unprecedented economic, social and psychological tsumani and it is still impossible today to measure the consequences in the medium or long term. It is in this that this pandemic could represent a new axial age, a pivotal age which would make us switch quickly in a new type of society, in a new conception of reality, where man, to save the lives of a few. , would decide to limit, restrict the life of the whole, and where the man, bludgeoned by a sanitary and hygienist discourse, would consciously abandon all or part of his freedoms, a modern resurgence of this voluntary servitude highlighted by La Boétie . When health takes precedence over freedom, isn’t democracy in danger? Tocqueville was already worried in the 19th century. Are we not willingly living this democratic twilight? Already, the Coronalert application; tomorrow, the health pass and the vaccination obligation. In addition, the relationship with the other would risk changing profoundly, the other having become potentially pathogenic, a threat to life, a possible propagator of death at the tips of his fingers or his breath. What relationship is possible when the other is possibly a carrier of death? Part of our apprehension of reality would risk disappearing if we accept this atomization of the individual, this withdrawal into oneself, identity, in the name of these precautionary principles. Man would cease to be one zoon politikon to become a sanitized version of himself, with no real awareness of his new enslavement.
The first axial age had seen humanity enter the age of reason, the second age into that of freedoms, that the third age does not come to cancel the first two in a vision of overprotective hygiene. This period will undoubtedly leave traces, but it is time to regroup so that these traces are not indelible. Let this pandemic not be the pretext for stopping the march towards freedoms and a definitive attack on critical reason.
(1) “It is eight hours”, published by L’Harmattan, 2020.
(2) Editor’s note. Aristotle: man is a political animal.
Title, chapters and intertitles are from the drafting. Original title: Covid-19: towards a new axial age?