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Thucydides on epidemics and social norms


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In the summer of 430 BCE, in the second year of the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans, the city of Athens was struck by a devastating plague. The historian Thucydides, who caught the disease and survived, provides a calm, detailed and forensic account of its symptoms and effects, which influenced later depictions of epidemics like those of Daniel Defoe and Albert Camus. In the early weeks of the present pandemic, as editors sought to offer their audiences a variety of perspectives on the event and writers seized their chance, there was a spate of articles in newspapers, magazines and online media about Thucydides’ account. Its reputation as the first ‘scientific’, or at least non-supernatural, description of plague dovetailed with Thucydides’ established reputation as an authoritative and prescient analyst of human affairs – the idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’, for example, continues to be widely cited as the key to understanding US-China relations – while it was an irresistible coincidence for UK-based commentators that Boris Johnson’s hero Pericles was Athens’ leader at the time (and later died from the disease).

Although they often mentioned Thucydides’ claim that his work would be a guide to the present and future as well as the past, articles in UK publications generally confined themselves to descriptive accounts of the Athenian plague and literary responses to it, sometimes with vague reassurances that we moderns are better prepared for such events than the ancient Greeks. US-based writers have been far readier to anticipate the possibility of ‘history repeating itself’, and so of learning important lessons from Thucydides; Athens lost the war and its democracy was overthrown as a result of the plague because its people and leaders were found wanting and its society was fatally weakened – but we can benefit from this experience, at least to recognise that we may be facing a crossroads of national destiny…

Social psychology of disease

Despite suffering a terrifying (though unknown) number of deaths, Athens was not in fact overcome by disease; the military defeat and political upheaval that these authors attribute to the plague occurred over twenty-five years later. But in any case such readings misunderstand Thucydides’ project; he aimed not to predict the future in crude terms, but to understand the underlying causes of events on the basis of what he called ‘the human thing’, the tendency for people to think and act in similar ways in the same general circumstances. The key to learning from his account is not to identify an inevitable sequence of events that will repeat in future, but to consider what those past events reveal about patterns of human behaviour.

Although Thucydides described the symptoms and course of the Athenian plague in gory detail – and later readers have been unable to resist the temptation of retrospective diagnosis – the most significant element of his account is its psychological dimension. The first and strongest response, he noted, was fear, in the face of an unknown threat that spread invisibly and unpredictably, affected different people in an apparently random fashion, and resisted any attempt at cure. Those who contracted the disease fell into fatalistic despair, making it more likely that they would succumb; the healthy then shunned the sick, regardless of their social and family obligations, so that many died of neglect – while those who did continue to care for them often caught the plague themselves. People cast around for explanations, whether rationalising (external enemies poisoning the water supply) or superstitious (the fulfilment of prophecy), but neither traditional religion nor medicine offered any relief or reassurance.

Secondly, the sense that death might strike randomly at any time displaced other fears, even those that served a positive social function: the fear of punishment for committing crimes, and the fear of social disapproval for flouting collective norms and values. Athenians increasingly behaved selfishly, self-indulgently and illegally, no longer concerned that their actions might have consequences in the longer term, or willing to forego short-term pleasure for the sake of social reputation. “Immediate pleasure,” remarked Thucydides, “became the new honour and the new value”. The fact that the plague killed the pious and the impious without discrimination removed any incentive to limit one’s behaviour for the sake of being seen as virtuous – and we can suspect a feedback effect, as it became obvious that others were ignoring traditional norms and laws, further reducing the incentive to conform to them.

In these passages, as elsewhere in his work, Thucydides did not offer explicit ‘laws’ of human behaviour, but described events in a manner which invites generalisation. His description of the collapse of social order reveals the mechanisms that normally maintain that order – concern for what others will think, fear of punishment, a longer-term perspective, belief in the rightness of conventional values – and their fragility in the face of a sufficiently large external shock.

Thucydides on Covid-19

It’s important to stress that Thucydides does not tell us how people will respond, but how they might respond; we always have to keep in mind the effect of major changes between now and then, such as the vastly greater power of modern medicine (though it’s striking how far people still reach for less rational explanations, such as Chinese enemy action or the baleful effect of 5G). We can reasonably assume that modern society will (eventually) produce more effective responses to the threat of coronavirus, rather than simply waiting for it to go away. But it is less clear that this expectation is sufficient to keep everyone behaving ‘normally’ in abnormal circumstances.

What might Thucydides make of the present state of things? Coming from a society without police, where social order depended on individual self-restraint and citizens effectively policing one another, he would probably have approved of the Thursday night clap for NHS, and practices of ‘mask shaming’, as a sign that people still cared what others thought of them. He might well be concerned about the dangers of ‘behavioural fatigue’ – but, rather than seeing this as inevitable, as UK government advisers apparently did, he would focus on the likely causes, above all seeing others ignore the rules and get away with it. Inconsistent messages from government, telling people what they want to hear and disclaiming all blame, would be exactly what he expected from politicians in a democracy – which doesn’t make this any less dangerous, or any less corrosive to collective wellbeing.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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