The pandemic in light of Shakespeare & Henrik Ibsen. Criticism of the pass.

Written by Urfan Ul Hassan - December 2021


"A friend to all is a friend to none" -Aristotle

The pandemic has demonstrated several theories from social psychology and evolutionary psychology in real life. For example, the effects of social pressure, conformity and the willingness to blindly follow authority. Many people talk about "trusting the science" without understanding the scientific method. The scientific method entails asking critical questions about everything. The pandemic has created disharmony between people in societies. As Socrates said, if individuals are in disharmony, the city will also be in disharmony.

The word virtue will be used in this article: virtues are all good qualities in human beings: forgiveness, toughness, bravery, patience, justice and other good moral qualities. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle promoted virtue ethics. Virtues are assumed to be important because they are in tune with nature; we develop the best version of ourselves if we live by virtues.

In light of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

The story in Measure for Measure will help us reflect on the pandemic. Each character plays an important role and represents ideas. You should reflect on each character and see how they relate to the pandemic. Who are you in the story? I am only presenting highlights below. You can and should watch professor Sugrue's beautiful presentation of Measure for Measure here.

The story takes place in the city of Vienna. The King of the city informs everyone that he has to travel away for a while to do business. The King appoints the character Angelo as the leader to rule the city while he is absent. Angelo views himself as the perfect human being without any flaws. Angelo has a strong and positive reputation in the city. In reality, the King does not travel anywhere; he is still in the town but disguised as a Monk. He sees and hears everything and influences the events in the story without anyone knowing. Lucio is a third character that promotes evil in society. He tries to turn good people into enemies of each other. Lucio talks bad about the Monk to the King, and bad about the King to the Monk.

Isabella is a nun that believes strongly in her values and virtues. She does not want to break her values and virtues for anything. She is especially concerned with the virtue of forgiving others. Isabella's brother has been sentenced to death for adultery. He is in prison awaiting death penalty. Isabella acknowledges that her brother should be punished. However, she believes that the death penalty is too severe of a punishment. She believes her brother should ultimately be forgiven.

Lucio knows that Angelo is not a perfect human being, even if Angelo believes that of himself. Lucio deceptively asks Isabella to seek Angelo and ask him for forgiveness of her brother. This is Lucio's attempt to observe a truly good person turn into the enemy of another person who believes himself to be good.

Thus, Isabella seeks Angelo and asks for forgiveness of her brother. At first, Angelo dismisses her. However, over time, he falls for sexual lust towards her. This is what Lucio expected and wanted to happen. Angelo begins to realize that he is like other people; he is not perfect after all. He develops a major conflict within himself over his sexual lust. Ultimately, Angelo informs Isabella that her brother will only be released if Isabella has sex with him. Isabella's brother also asks her desperately to give up her virtues and have sex with Angelo. However, Isabella refuses; she knows that her integrity and principles are more important than death itself. She experiences tremendous levels of stress and adversity, but she remains most steadfast. She informs her brother that he must prepare himself to face death.

Disguised as the Monk, the King creates a friendship with Isabella. He helps Isabella with a thorough scheme in which she makes Angelo think that he has had sex with her. In reality, Angelo has sex with another woman. Angelo realizes after this act that he is even less perfect. He quickly orders the guards to go through with the execution of Isabella's brother anyway. Angelo's inner conflict is pushing him to madness; he experiences feelings of shame and he has now committed the same crime as the man he is executing.

However, the King makes sure that Isabella's brother does not get executed, but that Angelo thinks that the execution is performed. At this point, Isabella also believes her brother has been executed.

The King suddenly announces that he is returning to the city. As he arrives, Isabella approaches him and tells him everything Angelo had done in his absence. She accuses him of murder and adultery. The King receives notice from Lucio that it is the Monk who has brainwashed Isabella to come up with these accusations. The King says that he's busy and has to leave, and that the "perfect man" Angelo can decide whether the Monk is guilty or innocent. The King leaves but quickly returns disguised as the Monk.

The Monk is thus arrested and has to meet for trial. The are many people present at the trial. Angelo judges the Monk to be guilty and he takes off the Monk's hood. Lucio, Angelo and everyone present are standing in shock; The Monk is revealed to be the King himself.

The King, who has seen and heard everything, will now judge everyone. The King is the man with absolute knowledge of right and wrong. All the characters receive a symbolic and a specific punishment. In essence, the King forgives everyone, even the evil characters. The King demonstrates that forgiveness is a punishment:

- First, the King says that Angelo will receive the death penalty. Angelo readily accepts and even asks for it; he is too ashamed of his own actions. The King's intention of saying this is to test Isabella; he gives her the choice between forgiveness or execution of Angelo. Isabella, even with the belief that her brother has been executed, decides to forgive Angelo. She still believes in her values and is a virtuous woman. Angelo is left to confront himself with his fall from goodness to evil. Angelo is stricken with sorrow and regret. The King and Isabella both understand that forgiving Angelo is a form of punishment; a punishment that hopefully will make him a better person in the long run. Notice that the person who believed himself to be the most good turned out to be the most evil.

- Isabella's strong character demonstrates the importance of virtues. Isabella was brave and did not give in to social pressure. Isabella is she who will not steal because it is wrong by itself (virtue ethics - stealing will hurt her own self), not because it has consequences for society (utilitarianism, social contract). Isabella would have been unjust toward herself if she moved away from virtues.

At one point in the story Isabella indeed moved away from being virtuous as she was willing to trick Angelo. Evil against evil. Isabella learned that evil against evil is foolish as Angelo still decided to execute her brother. However, Isabella demonstrates her true character as she forgives Angelo at the end. The King forgives Isabella's brother at the end and she is informed of the good news.

- Lucio has to observe that all of his evil scheming led to nothing. All evil is bound to fall in the long run, even if it works for a while.

- The King demonstrates the value of virtue ethics. All of the characters have to confront themselves at the end. This is a punishment and reward by itself. The King has the insight into the human mind. The King realizes that forgiveness will hopefully bring out the best in everyone through their self-reflection. It does not matter whether you're in a palace or in a prison - nobody can be saved from themselves.

Stop and think:

1. Who is Lucio in the pandemic? 

2. Who is Isabella, and who is Angelo?

3. What does the brother in prison represent?

4. Who is the King?

Angelo follows utilitarianism while Isabella follows virtue ethics 

"Social contract" is an idea that comes from thinkers such as Hobbes. He was known the idea of the state of nature. The idea assumes human beings to be machines in the universe and that survival is the highest goal. The social contract does not inform of what is right and wrong; it is morally neutral. It's a strategy for survival.

Utilitarianism is a moral model that focuses on the consequences of actions. It assumes that humans ought to do what causes happiness and pleasure for the majority. It assumes that happiness is the highest good in life. Utilitarianism does not agree with virtue ethics or with Kant's ethics in which intention is more important than consequence.

Virtue ethics stresses that virtues are inherently good as they are natural and in tune with nature. Being brave does not bring happiness immediately, it actually causes pain and adversity. This is better than short term happiness because virtues make humans grow their potential and live with nature. Thus, humans who follow virtues achieve the ultimate and true happiness in the long run. Isabella does not steal, even if she can get away with it, because it hurts her own self.


Humans can choose whether they want to be Angelo or Isabella

All humans can choose between Isabella or Angelo. Isabella was a good person through her virtues and values. Angelo perceived himself as good. Notice that both individuals attempted to be good after the best of their knowledge. Most humans want to be good. Angelo had misunderstood what goodness really was. Thus, he became more and more evil without truly noticing himself.

In the pandemic, Isabella represents the people that understand that it is better for us to be courageous in meeting with sickness and death. We ought to be brave in a difficult situation. We ought to respect that it is just that other people have a free choice. We ought to understand that pressuring others is wrong. We ought to be moderate in our assumptions about others and the world. We ought to protect freedom of choice, and not follow information blindly. And we ought to be wise and reflecting over the situation.


Isabella's brother has utilitarian thinking 

Isabella's brother asks Isabella to give up her values as it costs her close to nothing. The consequences are good for the majority - him and Angelo. However, Isabella understands that the consequences do cost something; to move away from virtues is to wrong oneself. Isabella proves that utilitarianism is too robotic and it alienates human beings.

The King forgives Isabella's brother. The King is also of those following virtue ethics. Notice that it wouldn't cost the King much to go through with the execution of her brother. However, he knew that there are better ways to act; her brother is forgiven and becomes a better man at the end.

Human beings ought to keep their integrity even if they lose something that they value, instead of keeping what they value through evil works and thus ultimately lose their integrity. 

"What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?" -Jesus


Lucio - pass and media setting good people up against each other

Why people in power often feel they have to turn to evil tactics can be summed up by this quote by Machiavelli in The Prince: "A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil."

Machiavelli isn't wrong. However, to counter this thinking, the people that the media communicates to must turn to virtues. If the media communicates to Angelo, they will realize that they have to use evil tactics that work. However, if media is communicating to Isabella, they will be forced to become honest. The best option is for both the people and the media to strive for virtues. They will thus strengthen each other.


The King - those with knowledge

All psychologists have specific knowledge about how people think. Psychologists should fight a narrative that dehumanizes people. Psychologists ought to have insight into the social psychological processes that has evolved in nature (e.g., conformity, willingness to blindly follow authority, dehumanization, group-think and others). Psychologists, not medical doctors, have a special responsibility to enlighten societies about this.

Human beings can and should have different perspectives on a given problem. This must be respected in a free society. If society's thinking creates social pressure and splitting of people into groups, we will ultimately get a stagnating society. Those that understand history realize that the pass represents dangerous ideas. The pass causes in/out-group thinking. In psychological studies such thinking leads to dehumanization.

The pass has become a tool to break down people and to put pressure on people that disagree. This is not virtuous. Reflect on Nietzsche's quote:

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”  -Nietzsche


The King - those with authority

Humans that have actual authority must live by virtues. It can be scary and intimidating for those with authority to express their real opinions, especially if it goes against the mainstream narrative. It is thus especially important for those in authority to reflect on what justice really means. I recommend following Socrates' definition. People with authority have a moral responsibility to be brave and stand for truth. This will help themselves. If they do not, they will over time fall and become like Angelo. 

"Philosophers must become kings, or those now called kings must become philosophers" -Plato, The Republic



In light of Henrik Ibsen's "En Folkefiende" - art of integrity and toughness

In this play by Ibsen, the protagonist is a doctor called Stockmann. The event takes place in a small town. He has the responsibility to make sure that the water at the city's swimming facility is not polluted. However, he discovers that the water is polluted. He wants to inform the city about this, but he is met with firm resistance. The media, the general public and politicians all resist his attempts to enlighten everyone about the problem of pollution. An eventual improvement of the facility will cause higher taxes and it will cause political turmoil.

Stockmann wants to hold a lecture about this, but nobody wants to give him a platform. An old man, once a captain, gives him his apartment as a platform. Stockmann realizes that the pollution of water isn't the real issue; the pollution of minds is a greater issue. He proclaims that the majority is ignorant as they want the truth to be hidden. After this, Stockmann is viewed as an enemy of the people.

Stockmann is of those virtuous. He is tough during adversity and does not stray away from his values. He is fired from his job and his family is bullied. He risks losing everything. The old captain is also bullied and shunned. Everyone that helps Stockmann lose their job. The majority vandalizes his house constantly. They want him to move out of the city. However, Stockmann chooses to stay and fight for the truth. He remains in the storm. With broken windows around him, Stockmann rises in the chaos; he concludes to the people that are present around him: "You see, the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone"


Understanding conspiracy in light of Ibsen and Socrates

Language is power. To call other people for conspiracy theorists is an irrelevant argument. It is an attempt to dominate other people through language. The sophists attempted this against Socrates. The sophists were not interested in truth; they were only interested in winning discussions.

A person who encounters conspiracy theories must also show virtue by having balance in their assumptions. They ought not to believe information blindly and thus land on extreme conclusions.

When someone presents a highly unlikely theory to me, I ask for proof and arguments for their theory. I do not dismiss them by using emotion. I also attempt to reflect on their intention of presenting such a theory. The scientific method requires an open mind. Read my article about Plato's allegory of the cave.

The intention of a conspiracy theorist is often to enlighten other people about something they think is true. It might not be true and they must be careful of their assumptions. Nonetheless, these people are courageous for speaking their mind. They are virtuous as they try to enlighten others even if that means he or she will lose their reputation and be bullied.

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”  -Nietzsche


Many (power) against the few (knowledge):

Polemarchus to Socrates: "Do you see how many we are?" 

Socrates answers: "Of course"

Polemarchus: "And you think you're stronger than all of us? If not, stay where you are"

Socrates: "Is there a possibility that I can convince you?"

Polemarchus: "Why would you try to convince us when we choose not to listen?"

 -Plato, The Republic