The American Soul in a Time of Plague

Published June 22, 2020

National Affairs - Summer 2020 issue

Moments of extended crisis — and the Covid-19 pandemic certainly counts as a crisis — tend to reveal the many faces of man. We find ourselves reeling as normal life — the daily errands, the outing to a ballgame, the walk to a child’s bus stop — comes to an abrupt halt. We fear illness and death, and we shudder at the bags of dead bodies that pile up like mammal carcasses in temporary morgues, prompting us to lament that “the preeminence of man over the animals is nothing, for all is but a fleeting breath.” Yet we also stand in awe of the heroic doctors and nurses caring for sick strangers even with protective masks and gowns in short supply. And we pray for the brilliant scientists — with minds and souls made in the image of God — working in teams around the world to develop a vaccine, to re-assert some measure of human control over this near-invisible, indifferent, and novel pathogen of death.

One of the marvels of modern life is that most people, most of the time, take safety and sustenance for granted. Things tend to work: We have heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, food at the grocery store, routine vaccinations for young children. In contemporary America, life is not usually “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To be sure, social problems and sickening poverty (by modern standards) abound. And long before the pandemic, America was plagued by severe cultural problems: broken families, high rates of depression, increasing numbers of suicides, a spiritual crisis that co-existed alongside our then-vibrant economy. Yet even with all these difficulties, comfort and order were still the taken-for-granted norm.

Then the novel coronavirus arrived on our shores, and we could no longer take our personal and political stability for granted. Entire swathes of our economy shut down, governors declared statewide lockdowns, and Americans hunkered down in their homes to wait out the pandemic. Then just as some states began to lift their quarantines, George Floyd was murdered. Our streets filled with rage, and our nation was again shaken to its core.

These trials called for deeper reservoirs of endurance — and summoned forth deeper questions about what really matters in our lives as individuals and as a nation.


My own family’s ordeal began early — on March 3, 2020. I had spent the previous day visiting with my dear friend and teacher Leon Kass, one of America’s most profound thinkers and writers on the human condition. In hours of conversation, Covid-19 never came up. We were both surely aware of the crisis engulfing China and even parts of Europe by that time — the images of quarantine and death from a world away were painfully visible on our screens. But our minds were on other things. Even on my drive home later that day, during which I listened to a live White House press conference, it was apparent that our leaders still believed (or at least hoped) we could keep the pandemic at bay.

The next morning, I drove my daughter to school — an orthodox Jewish yeshiva in the Bronx — at 6:30 a.m. The doors were locked. Just one security guard was there. We had missed the urgent text alert announcing that one of my daughter’s classmates had contracted Covid-19 and that the school was closed. And so it began: for our family, for thousands of families, for New York, for the nation.

The next few weeks felt like a novel kind of purgatory. Since I had likely been exposed to the virus, my office was immediately closed. Our children’s Jewish day schools — the first two schools in New York hit by the virus — were thrust into the national spotlight. Everyone hungered for information — checking for updates on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Twitter feed, joining digital town halls run by our schools and synagogues, still hoping that maybe, just maybe, containment was possible.

Then my own daughter began running a fever. Then she developed a terrible cough. Our doctors had little idea, as yet, where to go or what to do other than to send her to the emergency room. Which is where we ended up: rushed in through a back door, greeted with masks, whisked away into a special containment unit. Back at my house, state health-department officials in full hazmat suits arrived to test the rest of our family as anxious neighbors watched and wondered. We were given multiple phone numbers for overlapping jurisdictions — the hospital, the municipality, the county, the state, the federal government — and sent home to wait for the test results. City officials came knocking with a written legal affidavit requiring us to keep our daughter in an isolated room and ordering the rest of us not to leave the premises. The National Guard descended on the town next door, where my daughter’s classmate lived, to set up a containment zone. For the first time in our lives, we began asking once unimaginable — even primordial — questions: Do we have enough food? Enough soap and cleaning supplies? Enough gas in our car if we need to go somewhere fast?

As my daughter — thank God — quickly recovered, my father-in-law suffered a heart attack. And so we rushed him to the emergency room, which by then had transformed into a kind of police state. The hospital received him, but no family members were allowed past the parking lot — a rule that was rationally understandable (it was “for everyone’s own good”) but emotionally incomprehensible (“we can’t just leave him here”). After a week of advanced procedures and heroic care, he recovered and was eventually released. We were blessed again, so we felt, even as the death notices from our schools became more frequent, with grandparents of our children’s friends lost to an amoral, incomprehensible, yet all-too-normal assault on man’s dominion over nature.

Somewhere along the way, I began reciting the daily Jewish liturgy at home. I must confess that praying every morning was not my usual pre-Covid-19 routine. Saying Shaharit (the Hebrew name for the morning sequence of prayers) was not part of some great personal religious awakening — I had already gone through that conversion many years ago. But like so many others, I felt that the moment demanded a change in my habits: It required a greater appreciation for the fragility of life, for the mystery of being, for the human need for redemption. In the words of one of the opening prayers:

What are we? What are our lives?
What is our loving-kindness? What is our righteousness?
What is our salvation? What is our strength?
What is our might? What shall we say before You,
LORD our God and God of our ancestors?
Are not all the mighty like nothing before You,
the men of renown as if they had never been,
the wise as if they know nothing,
and the understanding as if they lack intelligence?
For their many works are in vain,
and the days of their lives like a fleeting breath before You.

This liturgy served as a required daily reminder of the human condition in full, a summons to seek the truth about who we are. Reciting it each morning reminded me yet again of the genius of ritual, especially in an age that manages partially to hide the hardest edges of life.

During these months, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan penned a series of eloquent columns capturing the existential questions burning inside us. Her piece published on May 21 read:

No matter what you do for a living, when you weren’t busy introspection knocked on the door and settled in….Many have been reviewing their lives, thinking not only of “what’s important” or “what makes me happy” but “what was I designed to do?” They’ve been conducting a kind of internal life review, reflecting on the decision that seemed small and turned out to be crucial, wondering about paths not taken, recognizing strokes of luck. They’ve been thinking about their religious faith or lack of it, about their relationships. Phone calls have been longer, love more easily expressed, its lack more admitted.

Noonan believed — or hoped — that this metaphysical introspection would turn out well. “We will emerge a plainer people in a plainer country,” she predicted, “and maybe a deeper one. Something big inside us shifted.”

Just a few days later, a white police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd — an African-American man. Provoked by the officer’s act of unspeakable evil, moved by the all-too-human pain of needlessly having to bury a father of five, waves of anger poured into our city streets, at times gathering into a flood of reckless destruction and ingratitude toward an imperfect nation that is still far more just than nearly any political order in history. And so our fear of a natural disease was compounded by a stark reminder of the human disease — our sinful nature, our twisted hatreds and utopian illusions, our ever-present potential to regress to life as a war of all against all.

Amid plague and protest, a mirror was held up to the American soul; the “beast with the angel in him” was yet again on full display. The old enduring questions confronted us with urgent, double-barreled force: What is man? What is the good? Is there a God who cares about our world of broken, suffering, messiah-seeking mortals?


When the pandemic began, we turned first to the scientists for help and guidance — and perhaps salvation — in confronting a novel terror. We looked to the experts for reliable data about the diffusion of the disease, for rapid testing to separate the sick from the well, for social-distancing strategies to minimize the spread, for hospital protocols to minimize suffering and death, for medicines to help us overcome the virus, and for the holy grail — a vaccine — that would protect us from it.

Naked and vulnerable in the face of nature’s latest incomprehensible assassin — a pathogen we could precisely classify but not yet control — we instinctively looked to those expert in the ways of nature to protect us, to fight back against nature using nature as their instrument, to re-assert our life-seeking humanity against the plague’s blind inhumanity. Perhaps it should not amaze us that the medical experts take their mandate to preserve human health so seriously. Saving every human life — standing up against death — that is their calling. And perhaps in a moment of crisis, when doctors and nurses are stepping up as heroes and so much is riding on scientific breakthroughs, it would be rude to ask our modern medical experts a deeper question: Why do they care so much about one infected person, one elderly patient dying in a nursing home, one individual in a large, silent cosmos who needs a respirator that we do not have?

The most orthodox Darwinians do not have a very satisfying answer to this question. For many years, they have tried to convince us that human beings are merely gene-spreading vessels like every other animal, that life and death are simply fascinating phenomena with no special human meaning. As the late political philosopher Peter Lawler put it almost two decades ago, the human person has “received one scientific demotion after another until nothing of our proud individuality is left. So why shouldn’t we say that our struggle against nature is a senseless illusion?”

Seen through the cold, rational, detached eye of Darwinian science, plagues and pathogens — especially those that wipe out the elderly, whose procreative powers are long gone — are nature’s way of keeping the cosmic story in motion. We may have more sophisticated ways at our disposal than do the birds and bees to fight back against such forces, they admit, but the true scientist accepts that man is a beast with no angel inside him. This knowledge, they continue, should liberate us from the pain and pathos of going through life with too much anxiety about the death of oneself or one’s loved ones, or too much responsibility for preventing the deaths of strangers. One might call such reassurance “Darwinian therapy.”

But most normal people do not buy this argument; they certainly do not act as though Darwinian metaphysics is true. And the Cartesians — in the name of science — reject the Darwinian answer entirely. Indeed, they see man as radically different from the rest of nature, consisting of a mind or spirit trapped inside a broken animal body — one that we should work relentlessly and methodically to fix. As Descartes himself put it:

[S]o soon as I had acquired some general notions concerning Physics…they caused me to see that it is possible to attain knowledge which is very useful in life, and that, instead of that speculative philosophy which is taught in the Schools, we may find a practical philosophy by means of which, knowing the force and the action of fire, water, air, the stars, heaven, and all the other bodies that environ us, as distinctly as we know the crafts of our artisans, we can in the same way employ them in all those uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.

Thus while we may flirt with the Darwinians, we are all Cartesians now. We believe that the purpose of science is to extend human life by becoming the “masters and possessors of nature.” (This is especially true in America, which Tocqueville once described as a nation of Cartesians who have never read Descartes.) Our intense awareness of our own mortality, combined with our rational capacity to battle against it through medical technology, is what makes human beings different from everything else in the natural world. And the scientific method — the method of “twisting [nature’s] arm to make her cough up her secrets,” as Leon Kass once described it — is very effective. It is how we have defeated epidemics like polio in the past, and it is how we will most likely defeat the current plague. We thus have good reasons for our Cartesian mindset.

But the Cartesians have their own difficult questions to answer: First, in the battle against disease, what happens when too much concern for every individual life interferes with general progress? In the name of health, how much “collateral damage” should we accept? Should we turn away elderly patients to preserve medical resources for the young? Should we conduct experimental trials on healthy human subjects that put them at risk but accelerate the quest for a vaccine?

Second, what happens when the pursuit of health through scientific rules and protocols interferes with other human goods — individual pleasure and adventure, friendship and community, economic flourishing and national strength? Must the Cartesians always rule?

Finally, modern science and its technological weapons achieve many proximate successes for which every man and woman — especially parents of healthy children, living in an age when infant mortality is miniscule — should express their deepest gratitude. Yet nature, in Cartesian terms, always and ultimately wins the final battle — after all, we are all mortal. This leaves us to wonder again: Is the Cartesian playbook all we have? Is it the full truth about who we are as human beings?


When the Covid-19 crisis began, the nation was united in the hope that we could shield ourselves from the pandemic — or at least “flatten the curve” to limit the damage. Collectively, we sought to understand the nature of the disease — whom it threatened, how it spread, what would happen if we fell ill. And despite social-distancing directives, our shared sense of uncertainty about what we faced and what to do about it brought us together, as one institution after another and one state after another moved quickly toward some version of a complete shutdown.

In these early weeks, Dr. Anthony Fauci — who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for over 35 years — emerged as the voice of authority. A distinguished scientist and doctor, Fauci became the chief rabbi of the Cartesians and the principal authority figure for a nation unified by its desire to fortify itself against danger and uncertainty. But as time went on, the limits of Cartesianism began to emerge. Though they remain heroes to some, Fauci and the managerial and scientific elite became villains in the eyes of others. Three distinctive revolts against Cartesianism — nationalist, libertarian, and religious — demanded to be heard.

The nationalist revolt proclaimed some version of the following:

We are all aware of the health risks and dangers of the virus, and as a nation, we should do everything prudent to prevent the spread of this awful pathogen. But health alone should not be — cannot be — our only national priority. Instead, we should face this virus with the same spirit of national resolve with which we face every challenge and opportunity. We should stop hiding in our houses, waiting for the scientists to set us free. We should continue to build, produce, educate, and innovate. Of course, the sick should stay home, and the very sick must be cared for. But living with risk — and accepting the reality of mortal loss — is always the price of national strength and national flourishing. So while other nations shut down, we should re-open. While they drive themselves into a long-term recession, we should renew our commitment to national growth and prosperity. While they hide in fear, we should work and build as a matter of civic duty.

The libertarian revolt proclaimed some version of the following:

We are all aware of the health risks and dangers of the virus. But what is freedom if not the right of every individual to assess those risks for himself as an individual — to make choices about the trade-offs between life’s many competing goods? As a nation, we should provide everyone the best information possible about this terrible virus. But we should also let every state, every community, every individual make free choices about how to live well in the face of these risks and trade-offs. For those moved by fear above all, we respect their choice; let them stay home in comfortable safety. But for those individuals — especially the young and healthy — who see limited risk or who dare to live with risk, let them live in liberty and then live with the consequences. For that is what it means to be a free society.

Finally, the religious revolt proclaimed some version of the following:

We are all aware of the health risks and dangers of the virus, and our churches should do everything sensible to prevent the spread of this awful illness. But health alone is not our only priority as a religious community seeking to live in holiness. Shall God go un-worshipped in absolute obedience to the god of health? Shall the newly dead go unburied and unmourned because we are afraid to gather together in pious memory? We respect the freedom of every religious community to set its own guidelines for religious life in this moment of crisis. We would never try to dictate the right path for others. But we believe that religious freedom also means the freedom to gather, even in times of crisis and even with the risks of living our faith. For what is faith if not the willingness to profess that faith, even in the face of our mortal contingency? We should not be reckless; prudence is a virtue. But our worshippers should return to their houses of prayer to stand together before the one true God, who alone understands the mysteries of mortality. And we should not deprive our parishioners of the daily bonds of community that give their human lives — however long in this earthly realm — eternal meaning and purpose.

No one should simply accept any of these arguments in full. And yet, can anyone deny that each of them contains some element of truth? In March, with Covid-19 cases escalating and death tolls mounting, a president, a populist, or a priest who gave such speeches would have been seen by many as a heartless villain or an irrational fool. But as the weeks passed by — as the isolation of the lockdowns took its toll, as the wreckage of our economy began to worsen, as we gradually discovered that Covid-19 does not threaten old and young alike with equal force — these dissenting voices began to make more sense to more people.

It was then that a liberal-conservative divide began to emerge. American liberals largely deferred to the Cartesian experts, setting aside all other concerns in the name of health and insisting we remain isolated until we can re-assert some measure of human control over the virus. Meanwhile, American conservatives of various stripes — nationalist, populist, libertarian, religious — demanded that we put the Cartesians in their place as one valuable voice in the human chorus, but not the ruler of all. American federalism is the messy, ingenious way that we allow these different voices to compete in the public square, with each state seeking its own, always imperfect, balance of competing goods and priorities. And as a form of political order, federalism reflects a deeper truth about the mixed character of our humanity: our conflicting values and responsibilities, our resilience and our contingency, our courage and our fear.

Like Fauci, the hero of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague is a Cartesian doctor par excellence who fights for man against nature. But he also recognizes that his Cartesian weapons will ultimately fail — that he must “share with his fellow citizens the only certitudes they had in common — love, exile, and suffering.”

As we live with and through this pandemic, more and more people have come to realize that rationalism alone cannot guide us. We also need prudence — an older kind of virtue that demands we bring reason to bear on irrational situations, irreconcilable conflicts, and the darkest mystery of all: the human quest for life, for redemption, for immortality, married to the harsh reality of disease, pain, loss, and death.


A contemporary of Camus, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was a religious existentialist who sought to make sense of the many faces of the human condition. In a remarkable essay called The Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik looks for guidance in the two creation stories of Genesis. In them, he sees two different accounts of the beginning of man — two sides of human nature, which he calls “Adam the first” and “Adam the second.”

Adam the first is “aggressive, bold, and victory-minded. His motto is success, triumph over the cosmic forces. He engages in creative work, trying to imitate his Maker (imitatio Dei).” Adam the first is the Cartesian scientist, standing up for human life and human dignity against the inhumanity of nature. As Soloveitchik put it in his 1965 essay:

Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques, and saves lives is blessed with dignity.

Adam the first is a majestic, impressive figure. But he cannot ultimately secure, by his own hand, the eternal ground of existence that he seeks. He achieves partial victories but succumbs to ultimate failures. He cannot make himself into the architect of his own redemption or the source of his own sanctity. Which is why the deeper Adam — the transcendent Adam — is Adam the second.

Created from the dust of the ground to which he shall return, Adam the second is aware of the mystery of his existence and the limits of his own powers. Adam the second is not a rival to Adam the first, but rather the other side of the human story. He is not God-like, but God-seeking. Or, as Soloveitchik put it:

Dignity is acquired by man [Adam the first] whenever he triumphs over nature. Man finds redemption [Adam the second] whenever he is overpowered by the Creator of nature. Dignity is discovered at the summit of success; redemption in the depth of crisis and failure:…”Out of the depths have I called thee, O God.”

For men and women of faith, life only makes sense because God hears their — our — cry. He remembers and redeems — remembering both the sick and the sinful, redeeming both our broken bodies and our broken souls. He sustains hope in the darkness, even and especially when Cartesianism alone cannot save us.

In the selection from the daily Jewish liturgy that I quoted above — ”What are we? What are our lives?” — I ended the prayer midway: with the human cry that all our works are in “vain,” that all our days are like “a fleeting breath,” that “the preeminence of man over the animals is nothing.” But the prayer then continues: “Yet we are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the children of Abraham, Your beloved, to whom you made a promise on Mount Moriah.” These words lead us not to the crisis of death, but toward the triumph of God’s covenant.

In the concreteness of this prayer, a deeper lesson is revealed: Just as we hope God cares about his chosen people — ”the congregation of Jacob, your firstborn son” — so should we care about those entrusted to us — our families, our patients, our communities, our nations. Our redemption begins not in any sort of abstract or universal promise of redemption; it begins when we tend to our particular commitments, our unique web of obligations. It is a lesson that those now protesting in the streets — especially the best of them, those moved by the genuine, mournful yearning for a better political and social order — would do well to learn: that to repair the nation, we need first to repair the broken hearth.

Long before Covid-19 — and long before the protests and riots — there was much to bemoan in modern culture. Marriage rates and birthrates were plummeting. The number of hours parents were spending with their children was lower than ever. Time lost on screens, in escape from reality, was on the rise for young and old alike. In the very age that made healthy childhood the norm — and infant suffering and death the rare exception — we were choosing against the sacred task of procreation, formation, transmission: the real work of a culture. The sacred hearth was diminishing before our very eyes.

In 1843, the keenest of all American writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, saw it all coming in a piece called Fire Worship— a lament for the loss of the open-fire hearth, which was swiftly being replaced by the “cheerless and ungenial stove.” Families, he observed, once gathered together by the light of the fireplace for warmth, for food, for conversation, for comfort. And in the flames, they could see an allegory for the human condition in full, in all its sweet tenderness and mortal horror:

The domestic fire…seemed to bring might and majesty, and wild Nature, and a spiritual essence, into our inmost home, and yet to dwell with us in such friendliness, that its mysteries and marvels excited no dismay….It was he whom the Gheber worshipped with no unnatural idolatry; and it was he who devoured London and Moscow and many another famous city, and who loves to riot through our own dark forests, and sweep across our prairies, and to whose ravenous maw, it is said, the universe shall one day be given as a final feast. Meanwhile he is the great artizane and laborer by whose aid men are enabled to build a world within a world, or, at least, to smoothe down the rough creation which Nature flung to it.

The domestic fire both guided and instructed us as both a servant and a symbol. Like a burning bush or a torch of liberty permanently placed at the home’s center, it revealed and steered us toward the truth of our being. To be sure, the airtight stove was functionally superior — and ultimately irresistible, if the central functions of life were heat and warmth alone. Yet did we realize what “moral influences…we lost by our desertion of the open fire-place”? That there will be “nothing to attract” our children “to one centre”? That the stove generation “will never behold one another through that peculiar medium of vision — the ruddy gleam of blazing wood or bituminous coal — which gives the human spirit so deep an insight into its fellows, and melts all humanity into one cordial heart of hearts”?

Hawthorne went on to describe our centrifugal age with the lucidity of a prophet:

Domestic life — if it may still be termed domestic — will seek its separate corners, and never gather itself into groups. The easy gossip — the merry yet unambitious jest; the life-like, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way — the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word — will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of a debate and all mortal intercourse be chilled with a fatal frost.

For a few months, Covid-19 summoned us back to the hearth. For those with children, we suddenly became a nation of now-at-home parents, doing our best to rear sons and daughters in the strangest of circumstances. Sometimes we relied ever more heavily on our virtual entertainments to pacify our unruly offspring, with every man, woman, and child tucked away in their “separate corners.” But sometimes we rediscovered the arts of home and family that Hawthorne saw dying — dinner together, reading together, fixing things together — things that our pre-pandemic lives too often crowded out.

And so we wondered if perhaps — just perhaps — the Covid-19 crisis was the kind of painful shock to our domestic order that would renew our cultural understanding of what counts: family, faith, country, calling. Perhaps Noonan’s hope — that we will become a deeper people, a deeper nation, a better nation — would begin to come true.

It could still happen. But as protests provoked by a deeply wicked act morphed around the country into riots directed against the larger society, we were left worrying whether every saving grace from this horrible pandemic — any potential renewal of our cultural capital, hard-won through months of moral introspection in exile — was being flushed away.

And again we wondered: What measure of man and citizen would emerge from quarantine? Would we leave our homes slowly, humbly, more appreciative of the gift of life and the time to reflect, or would we rush angrily and bitterly back into the streets? Would we accept the long, difficult, daily labors of teaching the young of all races and creeds how to be decent and good, or would we seek, through mass protest, immediate answers to our most difficult social problems? Would we focus on the renewal of family as a sacred responsibility, or would we blame our broken government and corrupt system for all our woes? Would we return to and rebuild our churches, or would we burn them? Would we remember that faith alone points men toward the ultimate Redeemer, or would we act as if Cartesian science is the only power necessary to steer and save us?

For the hard truth is that we will never completely conquer injustice any more than we will conquer death and disease: Mortality is our fate, waywardness our lot, measured improvements and temporary victories the best we can ever hope for this side of heaven. But a sacred fire can still burn inside the American heart and home

arrayed in a simple matron’s garb, and uttering her lessons with the tenderness of a mother’s voice and heart. The holy Hearth! If any earthly and material thing — or rather, a divine idea, embodied in brick and mortar — might be supposed to possess the permanence of moral truth, it was this.

Perhaps that fire — the “holy Hearth!” — can yet renew and redeem us.

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Tikvah Fund, editor-at-large of The New Atlantis, and author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology.

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