Stay in touch!

Space separates bodies, not minds, is what is written in capital letters over the entrance to the underground at Rotterdam Central Station. The saying is an example of texts by Erasmus put on public display by the Erasmus Icon of Rotterdam-foundation that aims to bring the ideas of our university’s namesake to the general public.

Space separates bodies, not minds: a nice and comforting idea, seemingly more relevant than ever in days of Corona, when there is hardly anyone left at Rotterdam Central Station. It is as if Erasmus taught us something ideally suitable for much later, digital times.

Yet as relevant as Erasmus’s saying may seem, it reminds me of the sometimes awkward, even paradoxical references to the presence or absence of others in the works of Erasmus himself. In his day and age, there were no digital media, but there were lots of letters going around. Bringing people into contact with each other over smaller and greater distances, these letters also offered Erasmus the opportunity to offer lamentations, sometimes beautifully expressed, about the absence of a distant friend: “I envy [this] letter a little, because it gets the opportunity, which I do not get: to see you ”; or: "Your letters […] fascinate me so to such a degree that I am longing more and more to see you again." In many cases, the comforting notion that one can also keep in touch with one another from a distance is weakened or even implicitly contradicted, since ultimately, for the humanist as well, spiritual contact is no more than a mere substitute for the real thing: physical presence.

This, in itself, is of course a very healthy notion, but from the viewpoint of classical philosophy, it is also a peculiar one. In all of his works, Erasmus tried to convince his readership of the ancient moral idea that human beings have the opportunity to elevate themselves, to reach a higher level of intellectual and moral awareness through religion and philosophy. The intellectually reassuring statement Space separates bodies, not minds fits exactly into the ancient notion of the spiritually and intellectually superior sage, who is indifferent to the lower mental impulses of commoners.

Twenty-first century Westerners have strayed away quite far from such opinions. We now admire exactly what the classics would despise: from a contemporary viewpoint, people are not giving a meaningful interpretation to their lives if they do not do whatever they do "with passion". Culturally the first tipping point in this direction was established in the work of the other philosopher whom I focus on in my academic research at Erasmus: René Descartes. In his Passions of the Soul, Descartes already in 1649 let go of the idea that our passions would keep us from being moral and should therefore be fought. In the same book, he also parted with the classic intellectual and cerebral focus of philosophy, drawing attention not so much on the mind, but on the body, which, according to Descartes, interacts with our social and natural environment to become the source of our emotions.

In times of Corona, Erasmus and Descartes are still far from being past their expiry dates. As much as Erasmus linked the idea of human rationality to a need for spiritualization, he never went so far in his denial of the body that he did not flee the plague himself, like every commoner. The good life was still paramount, but if we do not live, we shall never live well, is what Erasmus said. He entirely lacked the somewhat morbid longing for the ultimate happiness of the soul in the hereafter; a longing we know so well from the Cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach in the Lutheran tradition.

Yet we still need to discipline ourselves. Staying safe as civilised persons, especially in an “intelligent” – which is to say: a self-chosen – lockdown, still requires a formidable amount of mental training. No wonder that we see Erasmus's Stoico-Platonic message popping up everywhere in social and old-fashioned media today. Even Foucault, who always spoke rather cynically on the subject of discipline, has meanwhile become a thoroughbred Stoic in philosophical reflections on the virus.

It could hardly be otherwise. Following reason requires just as much from us today, so that Erasmus's detached notion of human reason continues to have its relevance. Yet in times of Corona, I personally feel the need to follow Descartes’s line of reasoning rather than Erasmus’s, and to focus on physically embedded forms of experience in philosophy. With respect to the virus, this implies taking seriously what Descartes himself saw as philosophy’s ultimate goal: the promotion of medicine. As far as I am concerned, despite the current, completely justifiable, attention to healthcare heroes, philosophical debate at present still has a blind eye to the potential success of medicine and biotechnology we may be on the verge of experiencing in the course of this pandemic. No matter how difficult it will prove to be, we may well witness this world-wide pandemic being defeated by human intervention for the first time in history – a situation we could only have dreamt of in the earlier days of the plague or the Spanish Flu. 

I prefer to follow Descartes’s line of thinking, secondly, because human mental life cannot be solely devoted to reason. The fact that, since 1500, we have developed into a society in which millions of people are able to impose on themselves a form of behaviour in which agreeing to a lockdown is by and large self-evident, is a fact that would certainly have surprised Erasmus. Yet we have been able to accomplish this cultural transformation only by not becoming the merely spiritualized angels envisioned by classical and Christian philosophers. Instead of allowing reason to flourish at the expense of our cursed passions, we have meanwhile become accustomed to a concept of reasonability that not only includes individual traits and personal preferences in our concept of well-being, but according to which our dedication to our ‘passions’ has even become a benchmark for personal development. This is how we have come closer to knowing ourselves than Erasmus ever came. A lockdown will not succeed solely on the basis of self-control and discipline, but precisely because we know what we love most. In television items on our way of handing the crisis and in public statements by Presidents and Kings, we allow ourselves not just to be disciplined, but also to be recognised as the committed, empathic and emotionally involved citizens we ourselves like to be.

Finally, what our lockdown brings me to Descartes rather than Erasmus, is the idea that civilization does not have to go hand in hand with the exorcism of the body. The classical opposition made explicit in all cultures and religions (as well as in Western philosophy before and after Descartes) between the reasonable and the physical is one of the most unreasonable ideas I know. Descartes’s turn to the notion of conscious, embodied experience is much more in line with what I, for one, crave for in times of Corona: Space separates bodies, not minds – that may well be true; but what of it? What does it bring me, here, Zooming along alone with my laptop? If only I could walk through Rotterdam Centraal again!