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Thucydides, the pandemic philosopher

Uma Shankar | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

No illusions: Thucydides noted that people lost faith in law and religion when they saw death level everything with equal frenzy   -  ISTOCK.COM

Thucydides not only survived the Great Plague of Athens but also left behind enough wisdom to help us navigate a virus-stricken year

* Thucydides (460–400 BC), a philosopher, historian and military general, lived in Athens

* Thucydides suffered the plague himself, but fortunately survived with pain and wisdom. As a committed historian, he recounted the progression of symptoms — fever, cough, diarrhoea, disorientation, memory lapses, and so on

* He reflected upon the relationship between human intelligence, judgement and how disease could exploit the physical and moral weaknesses of men

* There is even a contemporary reference to fake news in his writings. Thucydides asked his followers to be wary of negative messages and distorted figures of the afflicted born out of distress

It was almost 2,500 years ago, during 430 BC, the second year of the Peloponnesian War, that the Great Plague of Athens struck. Fear gripped the masses as an estimated 100,000 people died. The capital of ancient Greece was enveloped in a terror so grave that the Spartans withdrew their troops, not willing to risk their lives at the hands of pestilence.

During this time, Thucydides (460–400 BC), a philosopher, historian and military general, lived in Athens. As a keen political observer and a sceptic, he built a positive core from the practitioners of Hippocratic medicine (based on the healing power of nature) and the sophists (Greek teachers of philosophy associated with moral scepticism). Known for his writings on war and history, Thucydides regarded history as being caused by the choices and actions of human beings.

Now, in a Covid-19 pandemic year, when we find ourselves living in paranoia, anxiety and isolation, it is pertinent to recall Thucydides.

“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” he is famously known to have said in an address to the people of Athens. While ordinary people live with horror and hopelessness in the face of devastation, a philosopher finds an opportunity to get closer to wisdom and self-reflection. Thucydides realised that taking control of oneself was a prerequisite before one could exercise control over the outside world. He was hardly 30 when the Great Plague ravaged the city. It even claimed Pericles, another military general of Athens, who died along with his family. Pericles’s death was a disaster for Athens, as the war continued and the city was ruled by many inferior generals in later years.

Thucydides suffered the plague himself, but fortunately survived with pain and wisdom. As a committed historian, he recounted the progression of symptoms — fever, cough, diarrhoea, disorientation, memory lapses, and so on.

War was a violent teacher, Thucydides wrote, and the plague, too, was a painful tutor. He had an impressive insight into the minds of his fellow Athenians. He reflected upon the relationship between human intelligence, judgement and how disease could exploit the physical and moral weaknesses of men. Humans felt protected by the role of god and the rule of law. But where there was fear, he deduced, we lost faith, hope and judgement. When a catastrophe became this overwhelming, people, not knowing what would happen to them next, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law. It brought about moral panic, social disturbance and religious disbelief. When fear became ostensible, he observed, people lost religious faith, as they saw death level everything with equal frenzy. As far as law was concerned, they believed no one was expected to live long enough to serve penalty. So, the human mind went berserk, he noted. Yet, according to him, it was possible to transcend one’s own immediate circumstance.

As a meticulous record keeper, he reported how crowding in Athens, along with inadequate housing and sanitation, enabled the disease to spread rapidly. He was aware that poor public health and safety measures allowed the plague to take root and wreak havoc on people’s lives.

In 4th century BC, everything was oral. Much of the literature about Thucydides, as can be found in WKC Guthrie’s History of Greek Philosophy and the Encyclopedia of Greek Philosophy, is a compilation of how people recall his oratory powers.

His speeches reveal his firm conviction that events are not governed by divine guidance nor does history have an ultimate goal. Thucydides observed that public memory was shaped in accordance with what each had individually suffered. Many survivors had lost limbs, eyes, fingers, and so on. Survivors reflected on death and pain from their stored memory.

Thucydides not only survived the epidemic but also the ignominy of exile. In 424 BC, after failing to reach the city of Amphipolis with his fleet in time to prevent its capture by the Spartans, he was sent on exile. But that didn’t snuff his passion for being a noteworthy critique. “...by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely,” he wrote. His work ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ (compiled later) is a definitive text that set an unmatched standard for the scope and accuracy with which history could be documented.

The bravest are those who have the clearest vision of what is before them. We can’t remain cosy and live in a comfort zone when we have to fight the disease externally and overpower one’s fear and anxiety internally, he noted.

Self-control makes self-respect, which, in turn, builds courage to face a calamity. And therein lies the secret to happiness, he maintained. The gods played no role in it. The philosopher understood the ways in which fear and self-interest, when submitted to, guided individual motives and, consequently, the fate of nations. He saw extreme irrationality unfold during unstable times. There were no immunising antibodies to the harsh psychological effects of plague or war, which invariably resulted in frustration and anxiety.

There is even a contemporary reference to fake news in his writings. Thucydides asked his followers to be wary of negative messages and distorted figures of the afflicted born out of distress. People neither have the energy nor the inclination to cross-verify, he noted.

“We secure our friends not by accepting favours but by doing them,” he said, urging people to not fall prey to self-interest. In a Thucydian universe, where one learns from a pandemic, the strong do what they can and the weak submit to disease, power, and providence. That’s enough clarity to help steer the ship until the next storm.

Uma Shankar is principal and head of the philosophy department, SIES College, University of Mumbai

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Published on October 16, 2020
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