The Covid Inquiry resembles nothing so much as Tom Sawyer persuading his friends to whitewash a picket fence on his behalf and for the benefit of everyone. Expensive, this whitewash. Dominic Lawson, who notes that the Chilcott Inquiry cost only £13 million, predicts that the Hallett Inquiry is likely to cost more than £200 million and become the most expensive public inquiry ever held. The only surprise so far is that there have been no surprises. Before I draw your attention to the only thing of any interest which has happened during the Inquiry, let me quote Nietzsche’s Gay Science, Book I, Aphorism 37, to establish a line of argument:
One has promoted science during the last centuries partly because it was through science that one hoped best to understand God’s goodness and wisdom…; partly because one believed in the absolute usefulness of knowledge…; and partly because one believed that in science one had and loved something selfless, harmless, self-sufficient, and truly innocent in which the evil drives of humanity had no part at all… – in sum, because of three errors.
One admires Carl Heneghan and all the other scientists on the right side of this battle: but, let us be frank, even these scientists display the same sort of left-brained, cognitively-dissonant, evidence-based unconscious biases as the Vallances and Whittys. Lady Hallett has tried her best to amuse us with her jokes about not understanding graphs and her comment – which serves as a summary, so far, of the entire proceedings – that if something is good in one respect then we can ignore, surely, all the many other respects in which it is bad. But the only profound thing that has been said in the entire Covid Inquiry so far is the following fragment by Sir Patrick Vallance, uttered during the Public Hearing of November 20th. The KC and the Witness were contemplating some pages of notes that Vallance had submitted to the Inquiry concerning his observations about meetings held on October 30th 2020. Vallance politely suggested a correction (I quote from p.143 of the transcript, lines 10 and 11):
I think that’s “Homeric logic”, at the bottom of that page, it’s a mistake, not “Humeric”.
The KC replied, “Yes”, but was obviously not interested, and moved the questions along. “Homeric, Humeric, Tomato-Tomarto,” he probably hummed to himself complacently, as he hoped something would come up shortly involving profane language.
But this small pedantic correction of Vallance caught my eye for several reasons. One is that I have never seen the word ‘Humeric’ before. Another is that ‘Homeric’ does sound a bit like the sort of thing that might come up in a meeting with a Prime Minister, educated in the classics at Eton and Oxford, who might occasionally find himself musing on whether Dominic Cummings most resembled the winged Pegasus, the doomed Boxer (of Orwell’s Animal Farm – excuse the unclassical allusion), or a Trojan Horse. So I checked the transcription of Vallance’s handwritten notes from October 30th 2020, also published on November 20th. This is the obscure note in question:
PM speaks to Humeric logic that people only believe what is in front of them now rather than the future.
This is not easy to parse. But I think Vallance was actually wrong to offer his small correction. I think the Prime Minister, surprisingly perhaps, did mean ‘Humeric’ and not ‘Homeric’.
First of all, Homer is not known for his logic. He was a poet, not a philosopher. Admittedly, I have found an old paper from the journal Classical Philology about ‘The Logic of the Homeric Simile’. In this paper, published in 1922, the scholar Paul Shorey claimed that “Homer is too abstract and logical for modern geniality and breadth”. But what he meant was that, in understanding Homer, we have to avoid simple and literal, or, dare I say, scientific, interpretations. We have to remember that it was possible for Homer to use several similes in succession without intending contradiction. Homer could mix metaphors with abandon. Shorey’s point was that some critics, including the respected Gilbert Murray, tended to interpret Homer too literally and then condescend to correct him for his mistakes. But I cannot imagine that the Prime Minister had any of this in mind. Such a poetic point would have seemed defeatingly irrelevant to the descendants of Gilbert Murray present at the meeting.
Secondly, if Homer had any sort of logic, apart from a poetic one, it was the one Simone Weil seized upon in her famous essay The Iliad, or the Poem of Force. She wrote: “The Greeks had a force of soul that allowed them, for the most part, to avoid self-delusion; they were compensated for this by understanding how to attain in all things the highest degree of insight, purity, and simplicity.” Well, this doesn’t sound very relevant to COVID-19. In The Iliad there was a refusal to despise enemies or blame misfortune on guilt: misfortune was simply misfortune, and the dead were to be pitied, though not spared. Homeric logic was simply that force had to be stared in the face. This does not fit the hypocrisies of modern politics. And it hardly has anything to do with “people only believe what is in front of them now rather than the future”.
If one turns to the chapter ‘Of the Origin of Government’ from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, however, one finds evidence that the Prime Minister may have had David Hume in mind rather than Homer. This is from Book 3, Part 2, Section 7 of the Treatise:
Nothing is more certain than that men are, in a great measure, governed by interest, and that even when they extend their concern beyond themselves, it is not to any great distance; nor is it usual for them, in common life, to look farther than their nearest friends and acquaintances… [We] yield to the solicitations of our passions, which always plead in favour of whatever is near and contiguous… This is the reason why men so often act in contradiction to their known interest; in particular why they prefer any trivial advantage, that is present, to the maintenance of order in society, which so depends on the observance of justice.
This is a long quotation, but revealing – it certainly sounds much more applicable to COVID-19 logic than the violent cleavings and stern sentiments and ‘Let it rip’ of The Iliad – so I shall continue:
The consequences of every breach of equity seem to lie very remote, and are not able to counter-balance any immediate advantage, that may be reaped from it. They are, however, never the less real for being remote; and as all men are, in some degree, subject to the same weakness, it necessarily happens, that the violations of equity must become very frequent in society, and the commerce of men, by that means, be rendered very dangerous and uncertain. You have the same propension, that I have, in favour of what is contiguous above what is remote.
By ‘contiguous’ Hume means what is advantageous, even in a small way, now; by ‘remote’ he means the avalanche or tsunami of consequences to come later. (No, no one did a cost-benefit analysis.) And he has become so very personal (‘I’, ‘you’) because he wants to make it clear how ubiquitous fault is:
You are, therefore, naturally carried to commit acts of injustice as well as me.
It is hard to think of a line more explanatory of how secular damnation arrives. And I shall quote one more line:
This quality, therefore, of human nature, not only is very dangerous to society, but also seems, on a cursory view, to be incapable of any remedy.
Hume goes on to argue that since human nature cannot be altered, the only hope is that we can find a government we can trust.
Now, you may well say that this is all irrelevant, or even proves the Vallance-Whitty-Cummings-Cain point that everything was about establishing the best scientific understanding, trusting the Government, saving the NHS, locking down earlier, etc. “Is it not the case,” you might say, “that Hume wanted to sanction experts who could focus on the future and condemn the common crowd for focusing only on the present?” To which I say, flatly, “No.” For what our modern scientists did was something remarkable. They made the panic and scare about COVID-19 (inaugurated by China, Italy, the WHO and Imperial College) into a matter of ‘contiguous’ significance and made everything else – ordinary life, habits, rituals, friendship, commerce and learning – into something of ‘remote’ significance. They even used the word ‘remote’ about all of that. Everything we had formerly taken to be contiguous was now to be ‘remote’: interviews, meetings, conferences, classes, parties, funerals. And the contiguous would be the scientific imperative to do this, do that, do the other, schnell.
Consider the Nietzsche quotation. What our Government did was to twist our sanctified sciences – famous for their godlike indifference to ordinary contiguity – and make them the most distorted and dangerous vehicles of contiguous interests. They compounded ordinary human venality with grotesque displays of coercion, evidence, statistic, projection, panic and scare: and, what is more, they believed it. Even worse, they still believe it. (The difference between ‘I believe’ and ‘It serves my interest to aver’ is of course nonexistent in this context.)
So, whatever Vallance and Co. were talking about on the October 30th 2020, it is very likely that it was ‘Humeric logic’ and not ‘Homeric logic’ which best captures what the Prime Minister was struggling to remember while listening to the agitated contiguities of his counsellors. Alas, he did not remember it well enough.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.