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CommunityCultureLosing the Knack for Disaster: Thucydides and Our Time

Losing the Knack for Disaster: Thucydides and Our Time

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By Dr. Robert Zaller, Drexel Distinguished University Professor of History Emeritus

Not long ago, life was perilous.  The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide, had plenty of more ordinary competitors.  Measles, mumps, diphtheria, polio, chickenpox, smallpox, scarlet fever, and many others were frequent visitants.  Tuberculosis always lurked.  Crippling and fatal diseases were so much a part of life that, like the weather, they passed almost unremarked by observers.  Now and then, when they were catastrophic enough, they left a mark in history, literature, and art.  The plagues of Egypt were part of the biblical story, a punishment laid by God on the persecutors of the faithful, but also, if one looks a little more closely, a parable of the arbitrary nature of devastating illness.  Losing one’s firstborn, as in the Exodus story, was in one sense a carefully crafted punishment that struck at the basis of inheritance, law, family life, and generational continuity.  But it also singled out the young and innocent.  Stripping away the divine story, it depicted the ferocious and arbitrary nature of plagues in general.  This was how things were in the world, up to very recently and by no means uniformly.

Later on, the Greek historian Thucydides left us a vivid picture of the plague that decimated Athens in 430-429 B.C.E. at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.  Thucydides’ history of the war gave us not only the world’s exemplary work of historical narrative but its first novel as well.  The difference between history and the novel is that history is constrained by facts and the novel is open to invention—to complete fiction, if it so wishes.  But the historian must select and arrange his facts.  He must decide what to talk about and what to omit.  The plague in Athens coincided with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, which had started a year before.  It was, certainly, a part of the story of the war, but it was not an event of long-term military consequence.  Athens recovered and prosecuted the war for a full generation.  Why, then, did Thucydides give it a full chapter in his book, and make it one of the most memorable?  

What Thucydides was doing in the plague chapter is what the novelist does.  He was picking out a single thread in a narrative flow to suggest a wider meaning.  The story of the plague is counterposed to another famous chapter in his history, the Funeral Oration of Pericles in which Athens’ political leader pays tribute to the fallen of the first year of the war, and in doing so depicts the virtues of his city and its democracy as the cause for which it fights.  It’s a wonderful speech, and still quoted as a definitive statement of the democratic ideal.  It’s also a grand piece of literature, since there was no formal record of the speech, and although we may be confident that it was made, its text would have to have been reconstructed and “edited.”  Thucydides, and all historians until fairly recent times, had to create what novelists call dialogue in order to present speech.

Thucydides, of course, did not have to present Pericles’ speech at all in order to get on with his story, any more than he needed to describe the plague.  He could simply have mentioned them as incidental events—“Pericles made an eloquent speech in praise of Athens’ fallen soldiers”; “Athens suffered a severe plague shortly after the war broke out that seriously interrupted its military activities and forced it to adopt a defensive posture.”  Instead, he chose not only to give each great prominence but deliberately juxtaposed them in his text.

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Thucydides offers us no explanation for this, but the attentive reader will need none.  Pericles’ address gives his hearers the most flattering image of themselves; Thucydides’ account of the plague gives us the worst of their reality.  After describing the horrors of the plague itself, it details the collapse of civilized order:

. . . as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.  All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. [Emphasis added.] . . . Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance . . . . Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner and not just where they pleased . . . . Fear of gods or law of men there was none to restrain them.  As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads . . .1    

What Thucydides does and doesn’t say here colors his entire narrative.  In Exodus, the plagues that befall Egypt are the product of divine will, and spare the Hebrews.  Pericles’ speech in Thucydides is part of a solemn religious ritual, the burial of fallen warriors.  Everything is done here to acknowledge and honor the gods.  During the plague, the gods are ignored after presumably having been invoked in vain, and the very distinction between the sacred and the secular disappears.  The author or authors of Exodus tell us that their plagues are the act of God to protect the just and punish the unjust.  Thucydides tells us no such thing.  No one is spared, and no god is invoked to account for the plague.  Nor is there any suggestion that Athens itself is being singled out for punishment.  Thucydides is himself an Athenian by adoption, and he will later in the war fight for Athens as a general.  There is no moral in the story, and no condemnation of the Athenians for their conduct.  They merely act as men do when utterly desperate, anywhere and everywhere.  Thucydides doesn’t tell us this, any more than a novelist labels his characters good or bad.  His story simply tells us how human beings behave under certain circumstances.

But how, then, does this story relate to the history of the war itself?  This, too, is something Thucydides leaves us to figure out for ourselves.  In war, men inflict death on one another; in a plague, it is imposed on them.  When the plague stops, the war resumes.  What men had endured passively, they now mete out deliberately.  The difference is precisely in the presence or absence of volition.  Where volition is present—where men will what they do—it is possible to seek for causation:  a war starts for this or that reason, and is won or lost by particular choices and circumstances.  When volition is absent—when something happens that no one wants or is capable of bringing about—then, if the scale of the disaster is sufficient, the search for cause is futile.  Thucydides, again:

All speculation as to [the plague’s] origins, if causes can be found adequate to produce so great a disturbance, I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature, and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again.2

Thucydides does not say that natural causes are not behind the plague; indeed, he catalogues its symptoms precisely to assist a future “student.”  He simply says that they lie beyond human ken, at least for the time being.  One avenue of speculation, however, he appears to foreclose:  divine causation.  Nowhere in his book does he suggest that the gods make things happen, or that they are present to do so.  In Thucydides, there are human causes and natural ones, but no others.  Human and natural causes may of course interact; ancient armies were notorious plague-bearers, and Thucydides observes that the outbreak of the plague in Athens coincided with the occupation of Attica by Spartan forces.  But such connections have no moral dimension as such.  And the absence of any divine intention, or at least any ascertainable to the ‘student,’ creates in Thucydides a world that can still shock today when armies continue to pray for victory and give thanks when it comes.  What he tells us, in the end, is that the human and the natural worlds go their separate ways, and that when the latter has done its worst, men simply pick up with what they were doing before.

It is perhaps for this reason that history, literature, and art have so little to say about natural disasters.  The Black Death of the fourteenth century C.E. was powerful enough to transform the social and political structures of Europe, but only Boccaccio’s Decameron—and, centuries later, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year—notably commemorated it.  No less strikingly, the Spanish flu, which erupted in the last year of World War I and killed several times over as many as all the war’s firepower did, is almost entirely absent from conventional histories of the Great War, despite its profound impact on it.  For most scholars at least, history exists on one plane, and natural interruptions, however great, exist on another.  Our present century, with the reality of largely man-caused climate change upon us, is likely to require a different kind of storytelling.   For the moment, though, we are still the children of Thucydides.  

There was no vaccination for the Spanish flu, but penicillin and a number of other so-called wonder drugs were developed in the next generation.  Treatments for tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other scourges largely eliminated them, at least in First World nations.  Childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and polio also disappeared, thanks in part to a public education system that mandated vaccination, and “getting vaccinated” became a ritual of youth.  With little residue or cultural reminder, epidemics became seemingly a thing of the past, and not until AIDS did most Western countries experience a lethal mass contagion beyond pharmaceutical control.  Even with AIDS, however, its linkage to sexual behavior seemed to confine it to those who took imprudent (or, to some, immoral) risks.  Thucydides’ plague, like its many successors, was terrifying precisely because it was unavoidable, striking the just and the unjust alike.

Two great novels of the twentieth century served as a reminder of the time of epidemic, but both were symbolic rather than descriptive.  Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain dissected the societal sickness and collapse of the West in World War I through characters confined in a Swiss sanitorium for tuberculosis.  Albert Camus’ The Plague depicted the moral rot of Nazi-occupied France in the response to an unnamed affliction that besets an Algerian town.  Similarly, two films that depict, respectively, a recurrent epidemic and the greatest of all recorded pandemics, William Wyler’s Jezebel and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, have a certain moral cast.  In Wyler’s film, set in antebellum New Orleans, a slave society is suddenly beset by an outbreak of Yellow Fever, then a devastating illness treatable only by isolating the sick and doomed on a former leper’s island:  in other words, leveling master and slave to the same condition.  In Bergman’s, people fleeing the cities struck by the Black Death find they have only taken death with them, and with it a crisis of religious faith.

We, too, are trying to make sense of Covid-19 by linking it to the sin we are conscious of in our own time, the destruction of wildlife habitats that bring creatures with lethal viruses to our hyperurbanized world, and more generally the havoc of climate change.  At the same time, we know that our sciences have learned how to create and manufacture deadly diseases themselves, and that major powers have stockpiles of bioweapons that could wreak disasters on the world second only to nuclear ones—see, for a cinematic treatment of this subject, Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak.  With what we know of what is called gain of function research, experiments to produce enhanced viral strains for which antidotes can be designed, the distinction between kill and cure is easily blurred, and the fact that a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where Covid may have first appeared, was dedicated to such research has led to debate about whether the disease was natural or manmade.  It is also known that American virologists, including Anthony Fauci, have had joint projects with the Wuhan lab.  Dr. Fauci has vigorously denied any connection between SARS-class viruses like Covid and his own relations with Wuhan, but then his public discouragement of masking at the outset of the current pandemic has put a certain dent in his credibility.

What all this suggests is that resistance to vaccines developed under government sponsorship carries with it a background of suspicion that is not necessarily fantastical.  There is a considerable population, too, that has been schooled to regard government itself as the conspiracy of a so-called Deep State that exercises power for nefarious, not to say Satanic purposes, and another one of minorities that have been subjected to medical experiments in the past without their knowledge or consent.  The result has been a hard-baked skepticism that, amplified by social media, has led a majority of the population as a whole in some states to refuse vaccines now available and, to this point, safe, effective, and life-saving.

Another film, the last I’ll cite, suggests the profound change in public attitudes between the golden age of the wonder drugs and our disillusioned present.  Earl McEvoy’s The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) focuses on a woman who unknowingly arrives from abroad infected with smallpox, and immediately spreads it.  The plot revolves around the desperate efforts of health authorities to find her.  At this point, a smallpox vaccination had been introduced, but in the film it is in short supply.  There is, naturally, fear and anxiety, but no question on the part of anyone about getting the vaccine as quickly as possible:  the disease is deadly, and it is a godsend that protection exists.  (The film dramatized an actual smallpox outbreak in the city three years earlier, and photographs still show New Yorkers lined up around city blocks for their shots.)  

Vaccines were never perfectly effective, of course, and they could carry devastating side effects:  Thalidomide is still the most notorious case.  But viruses deprived of their hosts could be suppressed over time through vaccination.  America had 35,000 annual cases of its most feared virus, polio, in the early 1950s; it has had none since 1993.  One after another, the plagues of the past were eliminated.  Vaccinations became routinized, mostly for childhood diseases.  And so it was that we lost the knack for disaster—the vigilance we once had for recognizing epidemics, and dealing with them as best we could by the automatic imposition of controls.  The first cases mobilized a collective response.  When Henry Fonda collapses in a crowded room in Jezebel, his body is immediately shunned, and his friend Donald Crisp must carry him away alone.  It is a still-striking image of an immediate terror that grips everyone.

The American experience of Covid-19, and to a lesser extent of it elsewhere, has been in marked contrast.  When the first case of it was reported in Washington State, Donald Trump assured the public that it was an isolated event that would be contained.  Health experts knew better, of course, but dared not contradict him.  No pandemic had occurred in a century, and it was scarcely imaginable to a lay public today.  When stores and businesses began to shutter and sporting and cultural events to cancel, it was with the assurance that closure was temporary.  The citizens of ravaged New Orleans in Jezebel, could have told us better.  We could not believe, and some of us, still denying the reality of Covid, even now cannot.

Such skepticism is not simply an American phenomenon.  Vaccine resistance is widespread in the Western world, even in countries where national leaders do not, as in ours, question the efficacy of vaccination.  To a degree, this is unsurprising.  Vaccines from various quarters have appeared with hitherto-unknown speed, different levels of efficacy, and varying side effects.  Their technologies also differ, with some of the most prominent—Pfizer, Moderna—involving novel stimuli.  Given the suspicion that the virus itself was a manmade product that had escaped (or been released) from the Wuhan lab or some other site, a theory now being officially investigated by the Biden administration—a connection between Covid and its suppositional cure was not difficult for some to make.  If the disease had actually been created, might not its purpose be to get a gene-altering cocktail into as many arms as possible?  And would it not be preferable in that case to take one’s chances with the disease itself?

Such theories might appear less credible had governments not assured their populations that atomic fallout was harmless, or that nuclear reactors built on earthquake faultlines were safe.  But it is the explosion of social media on the Internet over the past thirty years that has made conspiracy the coin of the virtual realm.  There is no longer, as in the innocent days of network television and print newspapers, a generally accepted pipeline for public information, but a vast bazaar where one can buy the reality one likes or is directed to.

Thucydides, were he to return today, would not be overly surprised by us.  Our panic, confusion, and terror would be familiar to him, and likewise our world of rumor, speculation, and suspicion.  He would find in today’s Greece, too, many of the same attitudes and responses as elsewhere.  The Mitsotakis government took aggressive steps to lock the country down after seeing disaster unfold in Italy.  The result of these actions was that Greece was initially spared the appalling mortality rates experienced elsewhere, and many of its restrictions remain in place.  But Greece could not do without its summer tourism, tied as it was to the demands for debt repayment imposed on it by the European Union and still suffering from the effects of an imposed, decade-long depression.  For tourists, of course, the whole point of travel was freedom of movement, and servicing them exposed the general population to Covid.  Greek mortality, too, soon rose, as it is doing again this summer with the Delta variant of the virus and tourism especially from Britain, whose feckless prime minister, Boris Johnson, has recently announced a national holiday from Covid which the disease itself will very likely enjoy.

At the same time it is now being reported that vaccine abstention in Greece has been rising.  Some of this has come from the sense that the worst is over, and that survival so far suggests invulnerability.  Some of it is resistance to further commands from the government.  Much of it is disinformation from global conspiracy machines such as Facebook, which have created mass and thus far virtually uncontrolled propaganda platforms.  The reality is that the best of the vaccines work well thus far in preventing or mitigating Covid, at least to date, with side effects that appear to be with rare exceptions tolerable.  But the reality is also that far too few vaccines are available worldwide, and not nearly enough people are taking them to provide herd immunity even for the fortunate few.  

Thucydides wrote his History in the conviction that the war between Athens and Sparta would be the great conflict of his time, and that there would be valuable lessons to be learned from it.  Disaster as well, provided it is not too infrequent, can keep us on our toes.  But the major lesson history would seem to teach us is how little we learn from it, and how rarely we act on what we ought to know.     




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