By Ad astra
As COVID-19 spreads relentlessly throughout the world, bringing with it the most devastating death toll that anyone alive can remember, people the world over are asking: How will it all end?
With confirmed cases worldwide numbering almost 2.5 million, and deaths over 170,000 and rising, with the economic consequences biting savagely, and the prospect of this catastrophe lasting many months if not years, the end is uncertain. Whatever it might be, it is terrifying even for the most sanguine. The only statistic of comfort is that 646,000 have recovered.
At times of uncertainty there have been precedents from which lessons might be learned. I invite you to read an instructive article dated March 23, 2020 from The Atlantic: What the Great Plague of Athens Can Teach Us Now which carries the subtitle: Disease changed the course of the war, and shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would destroy Athenian democracy, by Katherine Kelaidis, Resident Scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.
For those of you who might find it tedious to read through this rather long article, I offer you some abstracts that might entice you.
This is not the right time for a pandemic. Not that there is a right time for a pandemic, but some times are definitely the wrong one. And no time is worse than when a nation is already in crisis, when trust in its leaders and itself is already low, and at a time when international relations are strained and internal strife widespread. Basically, if the social and moral fibre of a society is already being tested, the widespread fear of death at the hands of an invisible killer makes everything exponentially worse. Fortunately, history offers us a number of examples of when a plague arrived at the wrong time.
And none of these examples is better than the Great Plague of Athens. This deadly epidemic swept through the city in 430 B.C., the second year of the Peloponnesian War, claiming perhaps 100,000 lives and revealing in stark contrast the fissures and fractures in Athenian life and politics. The disease, largely believed by modern scholars to have been either typhus or typhoid, even killed the great Athenian general and statesman Pericles, his wife, and their sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. It was a disaster of epic proportions that altered not only the Peloponnesian War, but the whole of Greek, and consequently world, history. While the war would not end for nearly 26 years after the first wave of sickness, there is little doubt that the Great Plague changed the course of the war (being at least in part responsible for Athens’s defeat) and significantly shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would weaken and then destroy Athenian democracy.
Already you will be sensing the parallels between the Great Plague of Athens and the current Global Plague of COVID-19. Here is some more from the article:
The best ancient account of the Great Plague, as for all of the Peloponnesian War, can be found in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian general exiled from Athens after being blamed for a disastrous defeat. In exile, he was able to travel freely in a way few could at the time, and so provides a unique firsthand account of this tumultuous period. He also fell victim to the Plague, though managed to survive, making his narration of the disease’s symptoms and sensations not only reliable, but quite visceral. Thucydides has been called the “father of political realism,” and his assessment of the Plague and its consequences bears out the honour. As few others have before or since, Thucydides understood the ways in which fear and self-interest, when they are submitted to, guide individual motives, and consequently the fate of nations.
Thus, in his account of the Great Plague, Thucydides looks frankly at the practical and moral weaknesses that the disease was able to exploit. He sharply notes how crowding in Athens, along with inadequate housing and sanitation, helped the disease spread more quickly and added to the number of casualties. He is aware that a lack of attention to important public health and safety measures allowed the Plague to take root and made its effects much worse than they would have otherwise been. A stark lesson for us all.
But Thucydides is not concerned just with the ways in which poor urban planning caused the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. He is as much a moral critic as a political one. In his narration of the Plague’s devastation, he takes careful tally of instances of selflessness and courage, and those of selfishness and cowardice. It is clear that, for Thucydides at least, the death and suffering of a great epidemic (just like war) test the moral health of individuals and of societies. And a people who are not morally strong, when they become afraid, quickly slip into lawlessness and sacrilege: “For the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.” What is also clear is that Thucydides does not think this collapse into immorality is simply a result of the Plague; rather, “Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder.” To paraphrase Michelle Obama, ”Pandemics don’t make your character; they reveal your character.”
This is the danger for us all, here and now. As it was for Athens, so could it be for us. And the consequences could not be greater.
I’ll leave it to you to respond individually to this terrifying tale.
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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