The Rebelling Peasants

“Social Distancing.”

The “distancing” part is obvious enough: stay at home, and if you have to venture out, maintain the six foot buffer zone.

The “social” part is more difficult; we rack our brains for ways of overcoming our isolation, spending hours on the phone, “zooming” familiar faces, or boosting our presence on social media to the next level.

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in the 1700’s that men were naturally solitary creatures, happy in their independence from others. They only entered into a “social contract” once they started grasping at personal property; it became clear that some set of rules would have to govern men’s interactions now that they were competing for the goods—the territory, fruits of the land, shelter, and women—that had once freely been used by anyone.

Rousseau probably wouldn’t be surprised to see coronavirus escapees flood the supermarket and stagger out under armfuls of TP. After all, he believed that society was only invented to make it easier for each person to hold onto what’s his—to build himself a small kingdom and own it safely alongside other people’s kingdoms.

He’s friendly with the neighbors because their fences set off his own lawn so nicely. He’s charitable to his employees because they keep his business afloat. He donates to food kitchens because nobody wants to be threatened by the hungry homeless. Sure, he feels pity for anyone who’s suffering, and is willing to help as long as it doesn’t jeopardize him.

But when it’s a question of who gets the last container of Clorox wipes in Walmart, or who’s freezer will be stocked with meat in the months ahead, it’s every man for himself. “The good of society” becomes a lackluster motivator when “the good of me” is in the balance. After all, if

society was only invented to protect me, I can walk out of the contract if it’s not in my best interest.

This is the root of revolution: the rebelling peasants of the French Revolution and the American hoarding food in the basement are fueled by the same impetus. Both decided that the status quo was intolerable, and stood up for themselves at the expense of others.

Seeing men as individuals rather than social creatures nicely explains their urge to hoard when they feel they’ll lack something essential. But “social distancing” hasn’t just sent people happily into their well-stocked homes to wait out the storm. As carefully as we might stack the toilet paper roles away in the closet, nobody is arguing that they will make us happy. Once we’ve checked all the boxes and filled our pantries, we sit alone and become…lonely.

We want to communicate. It’s one of our deepest urges. It’s one of the most rewarding ways we can spend our time, and it’s really our only option when we’re filled to the point of bursting with how much it means to be human. Who can bear suffering, or bear the experience of beauty, without his soul overflowing into his friend’s? Life must be shared, and social distancing strains us like hoses on full blast, clogged.

We’re faced with two phenomena: hoarding and loneliness. Don’t they contradict each other?

Most people explain the phenomenon of loneliness with the obvious observation: people are social animals! Social distancing is an unnatural ripping apart of people who naturally stick together.

But the corresponding phenomena of hoarding goods at others’ expense raises the question: Was our society truly united before this began? Or were we a Rousseau-style homogenization of individuals who really only cared about ourselves? If we were nothing but a well-stirred blend of oil and water, it was only natural that we’d eventually drift apart.

At root, do we deserve the great joy of friendship if we respond to a crisis by putting our own needs before our friend’s? Do we deserve a flourishing society in peace time if the whole idea of society dissolves in a crisis?

In World War II, hoarding was seen as unpatriotic. It was a whitewashed treachery to be full while one’s countrymen starved. But hoarding is also the logical consequence of philosophies which isolate man instead of viewing him as part of a larger whole.

By contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “it is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group.” Like Aristotle, who termed man the zoon politikon or political animal, Aquinas believed that our urge to be social was deeply ingrained in us; society was a rich fabric woven of individuals who contributed, each in his own way, to the common good of the whole. For Aristotle and Aquinas, we naturally want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

The Catholic’s answer to social distancing isn’t to try gluing ourselves to our friends through FaceTime. It’s a deeper answer, simple, costly, and wholly satisfying. We belong to a Mystical Body. This means that there is no such thing as “me” versus “everyone else.” Truly I am an individual, but as a Catholic, my individuality becomes a way to identify with others. In my own soul I see the print of my brothers and sisters in Christ; our needs are one.

To say that men are naturally social is to promise both great happiness, and great sacrifice. Happiness because we can love, and love means fullness. Sacrifice because we must love, and love means the gift of self to the other, often feeling more like a self-annihilation than the self-fulfillment that it truly is.

While it’s easy to share when we have enough, it hurts to think of going without because we’ve shared. And yet this readiness to share what we don’t have much of—be it TP, time on the phone when our nerves are already frayed, a smile when we feel depressed, or a sacrifice whose fruits we may never see—is the true remedy to social distancing.

We will only cease to feel lonely when we have emptied ourselves for our friends; when we give out of our own nothingness.

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