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Lessons from Antiquity for Our Current Pandemic

(Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts)

“Thucydides subsequently goes on to say, ‘In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness.’”

Plague is a common recurrence throughout history. Luckily, we do not live in an era when a quarter to a third of the population would be killed off by the sudden outburst and lingering persistence of a pandemic. Of all ancient writers and thinkers, Thucydides had the most to say and most to teach about politics in an age of pandemics and pandemonium.

One of the most consequential events of the Peloponnesian War occurred during its initial outbreak: the infamous “Plague of Pericles.” Like our own epidemics, Thucydides recounts how the plague was seized by political opportunists—imperialists and pacifists alike—who were steadfastly opposed to Pericles’ entrenchment war policy. That the plague strikes Athens after the hubristic but oft romanticized “Funeral Oration” gives us pause for consideration.

Thucydides was far from a celebrator and apologist for Athenian democratic imperialism. He was, in fact, a soft critic of Athenian democratic imperialism. He loved the Athens he grew up in. He despised its downward plunge into tyranny, which he associated with the opportunism of demagogues, political and militaristic hubris, and the general arrogance of the Athenian mentality. 

Thucydides writes, “that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to the rule of religion or of law.”

During the Funeral Oration, Pericles boasts that Athenians will always uphold the rule of law no matter what. He lauds the Athenians and their character for their ritual observances of Athenian customs: legal, political, and religious. As Pericles says, “When you realize [Athens’] greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard.” This “greatness,” Pericles argues, is why Athens is “unique” among all the polities of the world. Yet, when he proceeds to describe the disastrous consequences of the plague, the thin façade of Athenian exceptionalism is torn down and revealed to be hollow. “[T]he catastrophe was so overwhelming,” Thucydides writes, “that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to the rule of religion or of law.” Thucydides subsequently goes on to say, “In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness.”

Pericles was never as popular as our received wisdom suggests. Boris Johnson may have a bust of Pericles, but the general Athenian population and ruling class certainly kept Pericles at an arm’s length. They would embrace him when he did well. They were also the first to strike at him when things went awry. And when the plague swept through Athens, the political knives came out.

The expansionist party, which wanted to assert Athenian hegemony over the Mediterranean world and maintain Athenian dominance over the Aegean economic system, was distraught when Pericles recalled the Epidaurus expedition. The plague, then, became the convenient tool for the expansionists—shall we say, in polite language, the ancient internationalists—to levy their criticism of Pericles. Never let a crisis, an opportunity, go to waste.

Likewise, the pacifist party also condemned Pericles for the plague. The pious and anti-expansionist religionists who generally comprised the anti-war party were steeped in the ancient traditions of their ancestors. Plagues were, for educated men in their time, a divine punishment for wrongdoings. 

Throughout Greek literature, we witness transgressions met with divine punishment. That the plague immediately follows the Athenian transgression of political norms as they invade other city-states—and after the bold proclamations of Athenian exceptionalism by Pericles—Thucydides tips his cap to this tradition of Greek literary composition, even if he himself gave little consideration to likelihood of the plague being a divine punishment. (Thucydides begins his section on the plague by discussing how it also ravaged non-combatant territories like Africa.) The pacifists blamed Pericles’ arrogance and thrusting of Athens into an unlawful war as bringing divine retribution against the city. 

As we know, Pericles eventually fell to the plague himself. In the power vacuum, with the plague still raging, the expansionists and pacifists clashed for power. Cleon, an urban middle-class populist and staunch imperialist, won the struggle and embarked on a new policy that seemed to reverse the fortunes of Athens and bring her to near victory much to shock of Sparta and her allies.

What we see in Thucydides’ account of the plague, which swept across Athens, are things we are already familiar with. Intensified political squabbling and fighting erupt. Superstitions emerge. Accusations of blame abound. The rule of law crumbles, and once cherished liberties and rights vanish.

Whigs may be offended by Thucydides’ outlook on human nature, but most people with basic common sense find much wisdom and truth in Thucydides.

“Human nature being what it is,” Thucydides reminds us, is why The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians remains an enduring work. Thucydides nowhere states what that human nature is. But reading his history gives us a clear indication of what he thought: Human nature is generally evil, prone to selfishness and opportunism, promoting power over and against the rule of law which causes justice—a non-natural reality consummated by nomos—to become a victim of human transgression and violence. Whigs may be offended by Thucydides’ outlook on human nature, but most people with basic common sense find much wisdom and truth in Thucydides.

We hear talk, during times of crisis and epidemics, of the need to “come together” and “to heal.” In reality, however, most people are aware of the hidden realities that Thucydides lays bare for us. In times of crisis, politics carries on and becomes increasingly ferocious. Since politics is about power—and power is often seized by the opportunistic use of force—those who “come together” and promote “healing” are unfit for power and are swallowed up by the zealous believers of whatever political cause they are promoting.

Yet Thucydides’ realism is marked by a tragic irony. Although Thucydides sees through the empty platitudes of civilization, he is nonetheless a staunch defender of nomos and the civilization that it breeds. The civilization that Thucydides weeps for is the civilization premised on nomos, which provides the thin line against chaos in all its form. Thucydides abhors the arrogance and hubris that comes with political power and opportunism, yet he was the first to really pinpoint this enduring reality which we moderns like to willingly forget. 

We, moderns, still sympathize with the spirit of Thucydides. We, too, dream of a society ruled by law which banishes opportunism, corruption, and excessive power to allow for a functional civil society that respects the public-private distinction. We, too, dream of a just society where injustice is punished and ultimately eradicated. Yet, as Thucydides observed, epidemics—which are product and manifestation of physis—always seem to shed the skin of nomos and reveal the horrifying and saddening reality of human nature and the power conflicts that have marred the city of man ever since Cain murdered Abel.

Paul Krause is writer and editor with advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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C.M.
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C.M.

I don’t know about how things will shake out worldwide on a political level, I would not be surprised if some opportunists use the crisis to enhance their power. As Rahm Emanuel said “Never let a crisis go to waste”. But I think it worth pointing out that anecdotally, on the small scale, I’ve never seen people be this nice to their neighbors, particularly the elderly nor have I seen so many families spending so much time together in seeming happiness. Which examples better represent general human nature are for the individual to decide I suppose.

Bonnie
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Bonnie

“P lague is a common recurrence throughout history. Luckily, we do not live in an era when a quarter to a third of the population would be killed off by the sudden outburst and lingering persistence of a pandemic. ”
This is a statement that will never be corroborated by a virologist or epidemiologist. It is a mistake to compare this particular virus, as it is presently unfolding, with other plagues that were mass killers. We are simply lucky this time. A virus as contagious as this one that kills children and the young is still very much a worry for experts. The future always holds more pandemics, be they viral or bacterial or other organisms, and some of them will kill masses of people, that is simply a fact. We need to become much more realistic at planning and implementing pandemic preparedness and public education because, this time, we were caught with our pants down.