About a month ago, I walked out of the University of Oklahoma College of Law’s Coats Hall for spring break. I had no idea it would be the last time I left Coats Hall as a student. Back then, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed as far removed from Norman, Oklahoma, as the city of Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus apparently originated. There were, after all, just three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma as of March 13, 2020.
Today that’s no longer true, and many worlds have since been turned upside down. Thankfully, my world remains relatively upright — for now. My law school classes continue, albeit online, and my wife, who worked remotely already, continues to receive a paycheck. But the future of the industry in which she works — commercial interior design — faces a future as uncertain as any because “There is no such thing as social distance when it comes to international trade, travel and business.” Disrupted shipping schedules, and the shuttering of local receiverships and furniture installers, could soon bring her industry, like so many others, to an abrupt halt.
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Although my wife and I have been insulated from the worst of the pandemic’s economic damages, we remain at risk of contracting the coronavirus. As millennials, we appear to be at a measurably lower risk for contracting the disease, but we’re still in danger and so are being told, like everyone else, to stay put. We’re happy to cooperate because shelter-in-place orders are about more than protecting people our age. They’re about flattening the curve and preventing the spread of the disease.
Notwithstanding the existential threats to the global economy and public health, I remain afraid of another enemy altogether: the hidden enemy of idleness. And no, not the kind of individual idleness that can be remedied by taking up an extra activity or two, like reading a few books or completing a jigsaw puzzle or 10. I’m talking about systemic idleness, the kind from which only the toil of brain and hands, to borrow a phrase from Melville, can protect.
I remain afraid of another enemy altogether: the hidden enemy of idleness.
Strip men and women of their right or ability to work and sooner or later you’ll find yourself face-to-face with man as he was in his warring state of nature — regardless of whether there’s an actual war or not. “[T]he nature of War,” after all, “consisteth not in actuall fighting; but … during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, I.13.7). Now is such a time.
President Trump may have already declared war on the coronavirus, but right now we need decision-makers to declare — and prioritize — another war against the hidden enemy of idleness and its attendant isolation and societal suspension. Although none of us knows what will happen or where we’ll be on the other side of this uncertainty, we do know that the longer man goes without work, the sooner he finds himself slouching toward that state where “the life of man,” as Hobbes so eloquently — and so frightfully — put it, is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, I.13.8). And, he continues,
in such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving; … no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death (Leviathan, I.13.8).
May it never be.
Grayson P. Walker is a third-year student at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Before law school, he worked as an American history teacher, campus minister, and staffer in the Texas House of Representatives.
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