What the Plague of Athens Teaches About the Pandemic of Blame

When we observe the current climate of political and social movement we need not look too deeply before discovering our (perhaps natural) tendency to seek out other nations or entities upon which to attribute blame. We should not look to blame other nations, cultures or societies for the challenge we now all face. The challenge of overcoming the current global pandemic must be met by all members of the human family.

In Ancient Athens, during the years 430-429 B.C.E, a sickness ravaged the people. Athens, the city-state and empire credited with being the world’s first democracy, began suffering from a plague that over the course of a few years devastated the lives of Athenians and contributed to the long-lasting degradation of their democracy. As is often the case when a nation or people have something tragic happen to them, many sought out who or what to blame. As Gary Bass, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, says: “Many Athenians blamed the calamity on their Spartan enemies, spreading dark rumors of poisoned reservoirs.” It may be easy to understand how people living over 2400 years ago may easily have been swayed by arguments touting this great calamity must have been the fault of a political enemy. Today, we understand much more about the science and ways in which diseases spread. The instruments of science and knowledge we posses today show us how diseases do not respect borders or what we believe to be superficially evident. Yet are we now, just as the Athenians were then, susceptible to the desire to place blame on others when worldwide emergencies occur?

There are lessons we must learn from history if we are to limit the future catastrophes we may be creating with our current actions and inaction. Bass says, “Athenians were already packed into the city as a wartime measure, and frightened people fleeing the countryside crowded it even further, creating conditions we now know are ripe for contagion.” During our current global pandemic of COVID-19, we can see there are those who are adhering to the recommendations of scientists and health experts to maintain social distancing. Yet there are also those who seem to discount this advice entirely, crowding together seemingly as though there is no public health emergency happening at all.

As we observe the world now responding to the greatest global pandemic we have seen in the past century, we can also see those who are seeking to blame other nations, other peoples and professions. Yet I propose we look to keeping our minds in the same mold as the Greek general and historian, Thucydides. As Bass says, “Thucydides maintained a rationalist’s sensibility even in wartime and plague…he saw neither metaphorical significance nor divine retribution in the epidemic. The plague was just a plague. Surviving the disease, he carefully ‘set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again.’” Thucydides recorded information and insights that may serve us well today, if we will listen to the echo of his words reverberating down through the centuries to us now. He logged details of the plague and its effect not only on the population’s physical health and death, but also pointed to the long-term erosion of democracy made manifest in how the people responded.

Blame will only keep us where we are and halt from us from making progress. Reason is what will allow us to learn from our mistakes. The rapid and rampant spread of COVID-19, Coronavirus, is an experience which calls for us all to come together as human beings; while leaders who are blaming others provide no positive benefit, and cast illusion over the reality of what is actually taking place and how we might all best respond and responsibly move forward.

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