The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, comes at an awkward moment for a number of important people. One is Prince Harry, who must confront his grandmother and brothers for the first time since the Sussexes’ infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey several weeks ago. Another is Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, despite the Duke having vastly simplified his problems by specifying in his will that he wished to be given a royal funeral rather than a state one, must now decide how he and the London police are going to handle what will still amount to a major and emotional public event at a time when the PM is succumbing to what people in high office and delicate situations call “an abundance of caution” by stating that Great Britain’s huge, and hugely unexpected, success in vaccinating 47 percent of the British public and achieving a 95 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths since the peak of the pandemic, is not, after all, sufficient to justify the removal of restrictions on social gatherings, free movement around the country, and travel into and out of the United Kingdom.
The body of the Duke, who hated “fuss,” is to be removed to St. George’s Chapel in Windsor where it will lie in state for more than a week before burial in the royal crypt there. Even in the absence of a funeral cortège down Constitution Avenue, large public gatherings in the heart of the city are inevitable. Johnson (and the Lord Mayor) must decide how these situations are to be managed in the present hyped environment. After them comes the British medical establishment centered upon the National Health Service, which can be counted on to raise its profile still further while having its loud and imperious say. (Lastly, there is the Duchess of Montecito, who must decide whether to accompany her husband back to England and face the music at Buckingham Palace, but that of course is strictly her problem–and his.)
Writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Joseph Sternberg described what he sees as the “dangerous interactions between a fearful political class and an overweening medical class;” between the Prime Minister and his Tory government who fear a new viral “wave” that they (reasonably) suppose would be popularly blamed on them, and the perfectionist British medical establishment that is willing to sacrifice the wider wellbeing of Great Britain to the total eradication of the virus within her borders. (“One case is one case too many,” etc., etc.) If medical practitioners in the UK really believe any such thing possible, they should all be packed off to Bedlam as madmen. (I assume the place still exists.) Partly because even to imagine a national state of “zero-Covid” is madness, and partly because the NHS and the British health care system have been grabbing all the social and political power they could take hold over the past year, it is natural for Britons to conclude that in Britain as elsewhere—including the United States—the lust for power is all there is to it. For better or for worse, that is far from being a comprehensive explanation. Though it is the obvious one, it is also a partial one; an explanation that accounts only for conscious motives while ignoring deeper and unconscious ones.
Intellectually speaking, modernity is a conceptually fragmented and dissociated thing from which a sense of proportionality has almost entirely disappeared. The world has always been ungraspable by a single human mind, or a collection of minds. In their limited attempt to comprehend it, and their partial appreciation and valuation of it, people have always relied on one intellectual and emotional synthesis or another that allowed them to form a sense of the world’s wholeness and unity. Until quite recently, as history goes, religion provided that synthesis. Religion revealed for human beings the world in its various multitudinous parts, and the ways in which they relate one to another: inorganic nature, organic nature, plant nature, animal nature, human nature, the universe, and God. Religion shows the relative value of each part and the value of the whole. It demonstrates as well the value and nature of happiness and unhappiness, well-being and ill-being, and how they too are related; it permits us to understand the ordered priority and importance of human thoughts, human enterprises, and human achievements. In the absence of a religious structure, we are unable properly to evaluate and rank obvious goods and benefits among themselves, and also those that are obviously evil and of no use.
Here is a typical modern example. Nature is obviously a good, for man and of itself. Industrialism has badly damaged nature over the past two centuries. Most people are aware of the human benefits of industrialism. A minority of them—probably—is aware of the destruction and wishes to do something about it. Half of the human race—maybe—is blind to the situation, or cognizant of it but doesn’t care. The activist minority, loving and even worshipping nature while lacking a developed system of religious belief into which to integrate their love, believes that environmentalism is the most important thing in the world, to which every other good must be sacrificed. For them, whatever is good for the natural world morally outweighs everything that is good for everything else, and must, always and everywhere, receive priority, above even human prosperity and welfare. Capitalists—financiers, industrialists, and so on—think the same way about big business: a larger GNP, a stronger stock market, more bulldozed and “developed” land amount to the ultimate good, morally and materially. Medical bureaucrats—Dr. Chris Whitty in England, Dr. Fauci in the United States—are prepared to close down nations indefinitely in their perfectionist single-minded zeal to eradicate a highly infectious disease from society, one hundred percent. Fit these single- and narrow-minded interests together into an integrated social pattern, or system, and you have a society that has, quite literally, gone mad; mad to the point of national suicide, which is as mad as you can get.
It is ironic that liberals who, taken as a group, are the most single-minded of anyone are also people for whom the term “wholistic” is a shibboleth. But it is not ironic at all that they are secularists as well.