The current pandemic has generated a swarm of narratives – from justifications and accusations to prophecies and predictions. Many of these narratives have a common feature: each reflects the particular wishes of the author, while our shared predicament fades into the background.

Coronavirus will end the Trump presidency – or it will boost his chances of reelection.

COVID-19 will provoke a revolution – or it will restore trust in liberal democratic institutions.

It will make us more distant – or it will bring us closer together.

Thucydides, the ancient Athenian author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, long ago offered his own explanation for the mirror effect of a plague:

We see in plagues what we need to see.

One of the earliest surviving plague narratives in Western literature, his History recounts, among other events, the great plague that struck Athens in 430 BC.

In his description of this calamity, Thucydides stresses how many of his fellow Athenians struggled to assign a meaning to their suffering. They strained to assimilate the plague to traditional ideas of justice, both human and divine.

In the historian’s view, such an interpretation of illness, however understandable, ought to be resisted. When we try to justify catastrophe, we lose sight of the facts, and we delude ourselves.

As Susan Sontag later put it, “nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning – that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.”

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Thucydides has been called the father of history, political realism, and international relations theory. What Thucydides himself says about his project, with characteristic directness, is that he “wrote up” the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians, waged between 431 and 404 BC, because that war set the whole world in motion and stripped human nature naked. Thucydides was also a participant in the war, an Athenian general whose eventual exile from Athens, in 424, allowed him to view the war from all sides and to achieve a precise understanding of it.

Thucydides’ description of the plague at Athens follows directly on the heels of his reconstruction of the Funeral Oration of Pericles – “the most famous speech that has come down to us from antiquity,” according to the classicist Paul Woodruff. Together, the two texts comprise a highpoint of Thucydides’ monumental yet critical account of the war.

In the Funeral Oration, the preeminent leader of fifth-century Athens declares that the democratic city unites all praiseworthy political ideals, institutions, and practices: both equality and meritocracy, individual freedom and reverence for the law, philosophy and political action, deliberation and martial courage.

The orator commemorates the first Athenians to die in the war by offering an encomium of Athens; in so doing, he hopes to motivate the next round of citizen-soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice. His argument is that Athens is worth dying for because the city cultivates the full humanity of its citizens. Dying on behalf of Athens is a death so glorious that one doesn’t feel it; to the parents of the dead, Pericles offers not condolences but congratulations.

After Pericles shows us Athens at its loftiest, Thucydides leads us, like Odysseus, directly into the hell that is Athens during the plague – a pandemic that would take the life of Pericles himself.

To the glorious deaths of Athenian soldiers, Thucydides juxtaposes his own grisly depiction of the plague’s effects on the body – namely, his body, since he had the disease: bloodshot eyes, sore throat, fetid breath, sneezing, hoarseness, respiratory distress, coughing, retching, blisters and sores, insomnia, diarrhea, and, in the worst cases, the loss of extremities, including fingers, toes, and genitals.

To Pericles’ refusal to issue condolences, Thucydides juxtaposes the Athenian air thick with the smoke of funeral pyres. Bodily decay and lamentation during the plague give the lie to Pericles’ depreciation of the private, and his corresponding inflation of the political.

Whereas formerly the Athenians might have hoped to die gloriously in a pitched battle for the city that had taught them to flourish as citizens, during the plague they die ignominiously, alone, barely able to breathe as their bodies disintegrate in private.

With their civic self-image shattered in this way, how did the Athenians understand what was happening to them?

Thucydides remarks that “in their distress they not surprisingly remembered the following verse, which old men claimed had been recited long ago, ‘A Dorian war shall come and with it plague.’”

Yet Thucydides also notes that there was significant disagreement about the correct wording of this oracle. According to some Athenians, the verse predicted not “plague” (loimos) but “famine” (limos). So, which was it – plague or famine?

Thucydides writes that “in the present circumstances the view naturally prevailed that it was ‘plague,’ as people matched their memories to their sufferings.” If during another Dorian war a famine should occur, however, Thucydides judges that the people would then recite the “famine” version. Rather than let their suffering remain ambiguous and unauthored, the Athenians moralized and divinized it. And this need to find a cause for their suffering presaged the Athenians’ subsequent anger at Pericles, whom, unlike the gods, they could blame as the chief agitator for the war. His war plan had also exacerbated the plague by bringing denizens of the Attic countryside within the city walls.

As time passed, and the pandemic intensified, a “great lawlessness” spread. “Neither fear of the gods nor law of man was any restraint . . . no one expected to live long enough to go on trial and to pay the penalty, feeling that a far worse sentence had already been passed and was hanging over their heads and that it was only reasonable to get some enjoyment from life before it finally fell on them.” Facing imminent death, and gnawed by a deep need to make sense of their suffering, the Athenians let themselves go, enjoying the shameless pleasures of the damned.

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What caused this terrible disease, whatever it was?

Although Thucydides begins his History by proclaiming his “utmost concern for accuracy” and by offering a razor-sharp analysis of the causes of the war, in his first-person account of the plague, he refuses to speculate about the plague’s causes: “I leave it to others – whether physicians or laypeople – to speak from their own knowledge about it and say what its causes were and what factors could be powerful enough to generate such disruptive effects.”

Why is Thucydides unwilling to discuss the causes of the plague?

Thucydides was not a doctor. Like Socrates, he knows what he does not know. Refusing to discuss the causes of the plague, Thucydides nevertheless adopts the language of Hippocratic medicine; what he offers is a horrifying litany of symptoms. His hope is that the disease may be recognized, if not cured, in the future: “For my part, I will say what it was like as it happened and will describe the facts that would enable anyone investigating any future outbreak to have some prior knowledge and to recognize it.” While “the physicians were not able to help at the outset” of this outbreak of the illness, because “they were treating it in ignorance (and indeed they suffered the highest mortality rate),” Thucydides imagines that future physicians may do better.

Far from an abdication of his usual accuracy, Thucydides’ attention to the facts, his suspension of judgment, and his appeal to expert knowledge are quasi-philosophic, even proto-scientific.

There is something more. When Thucydides recounts the collapse of both his own body and the Athenian body politic as a result of the plague, he confronts the reader with disorder, and he shows how he himself lived with it, unflinchingly. Nietzsche holds up Thucydides as the archetypal realist, whose “courage in the face of reality” is the “cure” for Platonism or idealism. What Thucydides himself says, in his methodological reflections near the beginning of his work, is that his accuracy stands in stark contrast to the embellishments of civic ideology, poetry, and piety.

How so? Thucydides, unlike Pericles, is no mythmaker. Absent from Thucydides’ text are comforting or pleasing stories. In the words of the philosopher Bernard Williams, Thucydides explodes the belief that “somehow or other, in this life or the next, morally if not materially, as individuals or as a historical collective, we shall be safe; or, if not safe, at least reassured that at some level of the world’s constitution there is something to be discovered that makes ultimate sense of our concerns.”

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But perhaps we need moralism right now. Why not rage against the clear failures of the Trump administration to prepare for COVID-19?

The anger and grief that we feel in this moment are human, all too human; there is little doubt that the Trump administration has bungled its response, and that tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands or even millions – will die in the coming months.

It hardly follows, however, that with a different administration we would be out of the woods. Were Joe Biden magically able to become president right now, we would nevertheless live in a society in which health insurance is tied to employment (in a time of mass unemployment); in which grocery store cashiers must risk their lives for $10 per hour (or lose their jobs); in which hospitals have been closed en masse over the past decade; in which Congress’s “stimulus” legislation (passed with broad bipartisan support) will provide relief for all of a month.

We would still face a virus that is highly infectious, incapacitating, and too often fatal.

We would still face the stubbornness of Americans who distrust experts and who seem to associate freedom with self-assertion and pleasure-seeking, even at the expense of the vulnerable.

***

Why return to Thucydides?

Because he reveals our deep-seated desire for good news while declining to satisfy it.

And make no mistake: that our pandemic can be laid at the feet of a few culpable human beings; that it might usher in an era of social and political reform – these are meant to be consolations.

Purged of the hope for good news (when the news is in fact unrelentingly bad), we can sweep away the simplistic, self-justifying narratives about our plague, laying bare the fractured reality underneath. No doubt, many of us may not understand what is happening; Thucydidean knowledge of ignorance might lead us to suspend judgment and to trust those who better grasp the complex dynamics of contagion.

Yet the lure of good news remains, not least because we find ourselves – as Thucydides did – at a pivot point in history.  

And while it is tempting to envision a return to normality, followed by punishment for those who have erred, and a bolstered capacity to learn from experience, the arc of history, pace Hegel or Marx, does not necessarily bend toward enlightenment, freedom, or justice.

We do not know where we are headed. But decline is at least as likely as progress.

Thucydides can teach us how to confront this moment. While Thucydides began writing his History during the heyday of Periclean Athens, his work depicts the collapse of the empire and the corruption of the democracy. Thucydides committed himself to the world of democratic Athens not as a partisan or a mythmaker but as a witness, especially to unprecedented suffering.

To witness, without illusions, the suffering caused by our plague and the stress imposed by it on our fragile and unequal democracy – that is the challenge posed by Thucydides.

Daniel Schillinger is a political theorist and Marshall Center Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Richmond.

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