For someone who is as near-sighted as I am, I dwell often on questions of sight. As the observation of those around me, hopefully from a place of some social distance in these contagious times, is a major hobby of mine, it is perhaps unsurprising that this is so. Today I would like to ponder on various types of sight that one can have and how they relate to each other. Given that social observation is likely to be a lot harder for the near future in the enforcement of quarantines and the increased social distance of our panicked society, I get the feeling that I will have to muse far more than I observe and that this will be the case for many other dear readers as well. In the meantime, though, let us ponder four types of sight, especially relating to these current times in which we live, taking them as something to feed upon and ruminate over.
The most obvious type of sight is sight. When we observe what is going on around us and record it faithfully, it can be of immense benefit to those who come along after us. For us example, let us say that we are customers at a supermarket, as I happened to be yesterday, it is instructive to note the behavior of shoppers in purchasing large amounts of noodles, eggs, bread, milk, rice, toilet paper, and microwave meals, in the knowledge that such foods that are easy to cook and prepare are going to be important in a world where everyone is stuck alone. Intriguingly, snacks like crackers were not as popular, but long term starchy rations were dramatically limited in their availability, which demonstrates the sort of mentality that people have when they face the possibility of being quarantined for weeks at a time. Perhaps someday people will read or view accounts of the present panic and will find it enlightening, but there will be little to rely upon except for our unreliable memories tinged with positive or negative nostalgia unless we and others are faithful recorders of that which we have seen. It is that faithful recording that allows us the right sort of raw material from which historical judgement can be made.
A type of sight that can be contrasted with ordinary sight is foresight. If sight allows us to be good recorders of our life and times for others after us, foresight allows us to avoid the worst of the problems to begin with. If we understand how people act in a panic, we may look ahead to see how people panic and respond accordingly. Sometimes this skill can be used for evil such as purchasing tens of thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer in order to resell for massive profiteering. But sometimes the skill can be used for good, in preparing for things that could happen and in responding accordingly. Proverbial wisdom about recognizing the sign of the skies or the behavior of animals demonstrates a high premium on being able to see trouble before it comes, even just as little bit before it comes, because of the advantages that result from it. One can see the proposal of athletes playing games in empty stadiums and then leap to the thought of people holding services in empty rooms to online viewers, and then see that happen within the course of days.
The previous types of sight relating to the present and the future, it makes sense that we would have types of sight relating to the past as well. One of the most obvious of these types of sight is hindsight. Hindsight is judged somewhat harshly because much of what appears glaringly obvious when looking back at the past is not so obvious when one is looking at the future or dealing with the present. There is an air of inevitability about the future when it actually happens, but what seems inevitable to the armchair historian is not as obvious for the statesman reflecting on what course of action to take or the participant seeking to cope with one’s times. Someday the coronavirus will be a historical relic and it will be obvious that certain action should have been taken and that certain levels of panic were ridiculous and we will be mocked for being such cowards that we freaked out about a worse than average but by no means apocalyptic curse, while simultaneously not taking obvious steps that could have mitigated the spread and severity of the illness. This hindsight will be of limited help, though, because it will not help people to better deal with circumstances that are different enough that a different response would be best in dealing with it.
The fourth and final type of sight I would like to look at takes the best elements of the previous three types of sight and synthesizes them together, and we call this insight. In some ways insight depends on proper sight, as it uses the evidence that we can gain from our observations as the fuel for reflection and as the raw materials from which wisdom can be developed. Likewise, insight helps to provide us with foresight, as drawing the proper conclusions from the past can help us to better behave in the future. Think of all the deaths that might have been saved had Hitler drawn from the historical examples of Charles X of Sweden or Napoleon when it came to the follies of invading Russia in order to force their defeat when they could obviously trade space for time and pursue the attritional warfare that would benefit a nation that had a lot of soldiers to give in defense of the fatherland. Likewise, it is quite possible that our bungling and panic will lead at least some people in the future to change the way that we behave in these situations so that things do not get out of hand. Likewise, insight changes the way we look at the past, as we seek to understand the times that others lived in and the range of actions that are available to people at the time and the way that people can both do the right thing in the face of uncertainty and do a great many wrong things as well, so that we may develop a sense of humility into how we are likely to do when the course of action is not obvious except in retrospect.12