homo sicut arbor

More than any other psychological state, uncertainty colors the daily life of social distancing. How many pounds of rice should I stockpile in the kitchen? Will my beloved neighborhood restaurant be long gone when the city reawakens in a few…months? Perhaps most uncertain of all is our own biology: am I sick? Every audible breath is a moment of divination, every cough a call for augury.

It’s strange to feel so unmoored when life is tied down to these domestic docks of ours. To shuffle metaphors a bit, the quotidian routine of quarantine forces me to identify not with an anchored boat but instead with a nearby magnolia tree: restless for springtime but stuck in immobile solitude.

This immobility has already instituted some new daily habits—the group-Zoom dinner party chief among them—while jump-starting old ones that slip away during the semester’s bustle, like journaling and reading through offbeat Latin. This morning’s discovery was Giannozzo Manetti‘s On Human Worth and Excellence (1452), recently translated by Brian Copenhaver for Harvard’s I Tatti series. Rebutting a certain medieval verdict on man’s lowliness and even worthlessness, Manetti’s text presents a vision of and argument for hominis dignitas: the dignity of the human being.

It’s an uplifting read in our own unexpectedly cloistered days, especially when Manetti considers the incurable diseases of his own time. He does not, to be sure, deny the grim, unpredictable reality of pestilence: “Naturally feeble, to begin with, and then weakened by illness of some kind, our bodies quickly slip and fall toward death: to put it more plainly, then, we find our bodies in daily life fluttering like birds and suddenly tumbling into catastrophe” (4.3). Perhaps better to identify with the sturdy magnolia than with transient sparrows.

Manetti would simply urge us to fasten upon that magnolia’s purple buds, finding in their petals a moment of respite from an ascendant pandemic. “More kinds of pleasure than distress rule this ordinary, everyday life of ours,” he writes (4.22). “Strange to say, there is no human activity, if we attend carefully and correctly to its nature, that we do not enjoy at least a little”—the harmony of a song, the scent of a flower, the texture of a soft fabric. Amid these extraordinary stresses, may you also look out the window and find something ordinary to admire, at least a little.