How Isaac Newton Turned Isolation From the Great Plague Into a “Year of Wonders”

College students around the world left campus this month, unsure when they would return and what daily life would look like until then. Forced to leave their friends and classmates behind and return to their childhood bedrooms, young people, who on average are less impacted by COVID-19’s dire health effects, may understandably feel angry and resentful. Free and independent, with their futures full of possibility, these students are now home and isolated. It can seem wholly unfair and depressing. But the story of another college student in a similar predicament might provide some hope and inspiration.

Isaac Newton’s Quarantine Experience

In 1665, “social distancing” orders emptied campuses throughout England, as the bubonic plague raged, killing 100,000 people (roughly one-quarter of London’s population), in just 18 months. A 24-year-old student from Trinity College, Cambridge was among those forced to leave campus and return indefinitely to his childhood home.

His name was Isaac Newton and his time at home during the epidemic would be called his “year of wonders.”

Away from university life, and unbounded by curriculum constraints and professor’s whims, Newton dove into discovery. According to The Washington Post: “Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived.” At home, he built bookshelves and created a small office for himself, filling a blank notebook with his ideas and calculations. Absent the distractions of typical daily life, Newton’s creativity flourished. During this time away he discovered differential and integral calculus, formulated a theory of universal gravitation, and explored optics, experimenting with prisms and investigating light.

Newton biographer James Gleick writes: “The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.” (p. 34). Newton himself would say about this forced time away from university life: ‘For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.’”

The Great Plague eventually ended and Newton returned to Trinity College to complete his studies, becoming a fellow and ultimately a professor. The discoveries he made during his time away from campus, though, would form the foundation of his historic career for years to come and become some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs.

This is a trying time for all of us, as our lives are upended and our routines are disrupted due to the pandemic. There is much to despair about. But this could also be a time for reflection and discovery. The sudden change to the rhythm of our days, and the associated isolation, could unleash our imaginations and inventiveness in ways that might have been impossible under ordinary circumstances.

Rather than being a nadir, this “social distancing” experience could be the peak of your creativity and production. This could be the time when you formulate your greatest ideas and do your best work. This could be your year of wonders.

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Costs of Government Action on Coronavirus

Some whiny statists are complaining that not everyone is embracing the measures being imposed by government to “deal with” the coronapocalypse. It is claimed that they are endangering lives by “downplaying” the risk.

No, they are not endangering society, nor will they be the cause of millions (or even dozens) of extra deaths. People who are “downplaying” coronavirus are serving an important purpose. Besides disarming the panic-bomb, I mean.

What they are doing is acting as a drag chute to slow down runaway government overreach.

This is essential.

Those who object to the “downplayers” aren’t adequately (or even minimally) considering the costs of government intervention. You’ve seen this happen in other topics as well, such as with AGCC/”climate change”.

Government-supremacists are pushing the narrative that not taking the actions government promotes will cause deaths, but are ignoring the deaths which will result from doing the wrong thing, or even too much of the “right thing”. They are not considering the costs and benefits of both courses.

Maybe doing nothing about COVID 19 would kill more people. Of course, you have the option of doing everything you ought to do without government mandating anything. Doing something doesn’t require anything being done by government. That is a bad assumption to make. But, I will concede that ignoring the problem would probably result in some unnecessary deaths.

However…

Damaging the economy– as government is actively doing– will also kill people. For certain. It may, in the long run, kill more people than the coronavirus would have even if no one had done anything about it– but we don’t know. We won’t know. There is no way to know because you can’t rewind history and change what was done.

Yes, some people caution against comparing how many deaths are resulting now and comparing that to the total deaths in previous plagues after they were over. That makes sense. However, you can compare death rates in the midst of the event– which is something government-supremacists don’t seem to like for anyone to do. It gets in the way of the narrative they prefer.

This is why we need brakes on the speeding car of statism. Those who “downplay” the danger are those brakes. They complete the costs vs. benefits big picture for the situation. Without them you only get one side, advocating only one path. Objecting to the balance they provide is not productive or smart.

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4 Mindfulness Practices That We Need Right Now

In the middle of the chaos of the world right now, what can we do to take care of ourselves?

Let’s talk about a handful of simple mindfulness practices that can be helpful.

  1. Breathe deeply into the belly. This is one to start with, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. We get caught up in our heads, stuck in a cycle of thoughts that are rarely very helpful. So to get out of our heads and into our bodies, we can do deep breathes, into the deepest part of our bellies. Do several breaths like this, maybe for 30-60 seconds if you have time. This not only calms you down, but helps you to be more present with your body and surroundings.
  2. Check on your feelings, give yourself compassion. Turn your attention to the sensations in your body, and notice how uncertainty and fear/anxiety might feel for you right now, as a bodily experience. This, again, helps get you out of your thoughts, but also it’s important to notice how you’re feeling. Practice giving these feelings some space, letting them be (it’s OK to feel anxiety!). Then see if you can give them some compassion, to take care of yourself when you’re feeling uncertainty or frustration.
  3. Find calm in the middle of a storm. When the world is full of chaos, can we find calm? Find your breath. Let the swirl of thoughts calm down. Notice the light around you, notice sound. Notice the beauty of the moment. Widen your awareness beyond yourself, and feel the peace of a moment of stillness. You can still take action, but from a place of calmness.
  4. Send compassion out to others. Once you’ve practiced compassion for your own uncertainty and fears … once you’ve found a moment of calm and centeredness … you can open your heart to others right now. They’re afraid, they’re feeling anxious. Open your awareness beyond your home, to the others in your neighborhood and city, to others around the world, to your loved ones and strangers. Feel the worry they’re feeling. Send them compassion, from the deepest place in your heart. Let it flow out as a healing salve to everyone. Notice how this feels. Notice how it might change how you interact with others.

Let these practices help you through this troubled time, my friends.

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Pandemics Are the Health of the State

Local, state, and federal governments are using the COVID-2019 coronavirus crisis to assert more and more direct control over the lives of individuals.

The president has “banned” travel to Europe and travel from China, though control over individuals’ movements has never been within the scope of the president’s constitutional power.*

Governments have “declared lockdowns,” effectively forcing people to stay inside their homes (in some cases with criminal penalties), discussions of “shelter-in-place” and other domestic travel restrictions. These in turn will weaken and (given enough time) destroy large parts of the private sector, creating a void into which government programs and government-run industries

The government is planning to send $1000 to every American, in one swoop making all 330 million US citizens recipients of government welfare for the first time in history.

A quasi-private governmental banker council has arbitrarily set the cost of borrowing money (at the bank level) at near zero, creating hundreds of billions of new dollars out of thin air.

After all the lessons and corruption of 2008, the federal government is again pursuing bailouts for companies that are failing.

States are mobilizing their national guards. The federal government is preparing quarantine centers.

Hardly anyone is batting an eye. Some people are begging for more “strong action” from their governments.

There’s no doubt that COVID-2019 is a serious risk. But it’s kind of hard not to notice that the response in terms of vastly ramped-up government control of society (with more to come) has well outpaced even a moderate Democrat’s idea of the proper role of a state vis-a-vis civil society. And if history shows one thing, governments that gain power for an “emergency” hardly ever give it up when the emergency is over (if, indeed, they ever admit that the emergency over).

We now face an even dangerous risk than this pandemic: that the state grows in this crisis to replace large parts of civil society that will never be allowed to grow back.

Yes, the virus grows exponentially. Yes, social distancing is one of the ways we know to flatten the curve. But the development of the virus is still quite early, not all of the data is in, and yet still many people seem to be willing to surrender liberties which took centuries to gain and centuries to preserve.

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*Even if the constitution granted this power, it would still be unethical for anyone to try to enforce it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Don’t Need Rescue from Everything

I’m surprised at how seriously people are taking the coronavirus. I’m even more surprised at how many believe government can save them from it, or that it’s even government’s job to do so.

This is the same sort of thinking that has led to the recent plague of “red flag” legislation.

If you believe you need politicians to save you from a virus or from someone’s gun, then you’ll keep handing control of your life over to anyone who promises to rescue you. Whether they actually can or not.

It’s not only diseases and guns. It seems almost everyone wants to be saved from something. Maybe they fear immigrants who don’t comply with unconstitutional anti-immigration legislation. Or maybe they want to be rescued from “inequality,” whatever they imagine it to be.

Others may want to be saved from weather, poverty, different political ideologies or other religions they don’t follow, or from rich people. Some beg to be rescued from their student loan debt or their own bad choices.

Drugs, other drivers, people who might appear to be smoking but aren’t, messy yards, backyard chickens, loud parties, tall grass, and more are all things someone out there wants government to save them from.

If this seems like a long list, you are right. Yet it barely scratches the surface. There appears to be no end to the number of things you could list that some people, somewhere at some time, have begged government to save them from.

Government encourages this pandemic of cowardice.

H. L. Mencken, a favorite writer of mine from early in the 20th Century, noticed this and called it out. He wrote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

He’s right, and it’s working.

Were your hobgoblins listed above or are yours something else entirely?

It’s not that these things don’t exist, but making them into hobgoblins you fear irrationally is a path to slavery. You become so desperate to be saved you’ll accept those fanning the flames of fear as your self-proclaimed saviors.

Fear is the reaction to feeling you won’t be able to cope; of suspecting you aren’t enough. It’s a lie. You are enough.

You don’t need to be rescued from every little thing. I know you can do it without depending on government or its legislation. To conquer fear, get busy doing what needs to be done.

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Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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