Disease and democracy

How the plague of Athens influenced ancient democracy, and the pandemic can influence ours

John McGuire - Marie Curie Post Doctoral Fellow in Philosophy

Charles Jalabert. The Plague of Thebes: Oedipus and Antigone (1842), Musée des beaux-arts de Marseille

The ungraspable magnitude of current pandemic has prompted some writers to seek guidance from similar turning points in the history of ‘great’ civilisations—despite, as Hegel observed, there being “nothing so insipid as the constant appeals to Greek and Roman precedents.” Indeed, a number of recent efforts to draw parallels between our present moment and the ravages the Great Athenian Plague (430-427 BCE) are illustratively vapid. The authors concoct hasty comparisons between the sober leadership of the Athenian general Pericles and the venal incompetence of modern administrations—concluding with predictable bromides about electing capable leaders and upholding democratic norms. Nevertheless, I do think there is something to be gained from considering the ways in which a sudden and devastating outbreak of disease changed the trajectory of one of the earliest democracies—and led Hippocrates to repurpose the term ‘epidemic’ to classify a disease spread “throughout a people” (epidemios) as distinct from individual illness (nosos).

To begin with, let’s purge ourselves of romanticism, and probe Thucydides’ contrast between Pericles’ calm commissioning of the Peloponnesian War versus the increasingly vocal protestations of an ‘ungrateful’ citizenry. A quick and effective exercise is to recite his oratory in Donald Trump’s whinnying Queens accent—thereby testing whether browbeating the Assembly and trumpeting his own humility and worthiness as a leader retains its purportedly dignified character:

(2.60.4) “[I]f you are angry with me, it is with one who, as I believe, is second to no man either in knowledge of the proper policy, or in the ability to expound it, and who is moreover not only a patriot but an honest one.”

(2.64.3) “Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because she never bent before disaster; because she has expended more life and effort in war than any other city, and has won for herself a power greater than any hitherto known, the memory of which will descend to the latest posterity…[I]t will be remembered that we held rule over more Hellenes than any other Hellenic state, that we sustained the greatest wars against their united or separate powers, and inhabited a city unrivalled by any other in resources or magnitude.”

Stirring stuff indeed. And, as Thucydides recounts, the Assembly was eventually persuaded to withdraw peace envoys from Sparta, and to redouble the Peloponnese war effort—a war Athens eventually lost, and which resulted in the brief and bloody installation of the pro-Spartan Thirty Tyrants, whose achievements included the rounding up and summary execution of over 1500 citizens, including Socrates.
Thucydides’ praise for Pericles should repel us—not least of all for valorising the overcoming of dissent by a charismatic military leader in pursuit of rapacious imperialism. Democracy, in any recognisably modern sense, is not the goal here. Pericles’ rhetorical aim is not to clarify the rationality of Athenian foreign policy, but to foster a willingness among the citizenry to put aside ‘private afflictions’ (like starvation) and expend all their energies upon restoring Athens’ symbolic greatness:

(2.65.9) And so Athens, though in name a democracy [λόγῳ μὲν δημοκρατία], gradually became in fact a government ruled by its foremost citizen [ὕπὸ τοῦ πρώτου ἀνδρὸς ἀρχή].

Given how tenuous our grasp on democratic legitimacy had already become during the pre-pandemic rise of Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Orbán and Erdoğan, we have good reason to consider our present trajectory in light of the moral and political salience of disease. There are discomforting similarities between the sacrifice demanded by Pericles and contemporary chest thumping about ‘saving’ the stock market. In both ancient and modern contexts, sacrifice is demanded not for strategic defence, but for glory: recapturing America’s elusive greatness; ensuring the supremacy of Athens amongst all other Greek peoples. Survival of ordinary citizens is subordinated to securing their chosen leader’s legacy.

As evidenced by Thucydides’ account, the Athenians clearly associated the onset of plague with the outbreak of war—not only for the factual concurrence of the two, but also as a deeper moral and conceptual pairing. It is reflected in the homophonous quality of the oracle Thucydides mentions when describing the weak-minded masses: “A Dorian war (pólemos) shall come and pestilence (loimós) with it”

Although Thucydides dismissively attributes this adage to superstitious ‘old men,’ the linking of disease to moral-political disorder permeated popular culture: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (c. 429 BCE) tells the story of a doomed king unknowingly bringing his curse to Thebes and subjecting its citizens to needless suffering until his tragic patrimony is revealed; in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, it is Hercules’ endless conquests (both avaricious and erotic) prompt his wife Deianira to gift him with a poisoned robe in a misguided attempt to enchant him into staying home. As Robin Mitchell-Boyask notes, both tragedies end with the expulsion of the hero from the city through death or disfigurement, suggesting a deliberate link between the pharmakon (productive remedy) and the pharmakos (scapegoat). Ancient Athenian medicine relied heavily on purgatives (laxatives and emetics)—just as it sought to solve political disorders by ‘scapegoating’ politicians and enforcing ostracism.

The onset of plague in Athens made existing depravations impossible to bear, and prompted the demos to assert its collective kratos in ‘prevailing over’ and in ‘bringing an end’ to the machinations of influential individuals. Thucydides’ disdain for democracy stems from the capacity of the unremarkable masses to scupper the noble efforts of the deserving elite. The demos does indeed appear to have been as fickle, disloyal, and thankless as its oligarchic and aristocratic critics allege.

‘Excessive’ prominence in Athenian politics brought with it expectations of a fall, regardless of the incompetent management, corruption, or shameless status-seeking that often accompanied such influence. Military disasters and disease pandemics were taken as ‘signs’ that leadership had faltered; that the glory-seeking and risk-taking that had made them champions of the people had turned toxic and evil. Those who had led the people into such a state could not be trusted to lead them out. This particular mode of scapegoating was also targeted upwards rather than against slaves, non-citizens, and women (whose abuse and exploitation belonged to the ‘normal’ running of the polity rather than moments of crisis.)

Pericles was eventually brought to trial and fined. He later managed a brief political comeback before succumbing to the plague himself in 429 BCE (a fate those who have done so much to exacerbate the current pandemic appear to be avoiding).

If we should feel the need to emulate anything about the ancient Athenians it is precisely their instinctive distrust and disloyalty towards those who seek to perpetually inhabit positions of leadership. Although we dismiss the supernatural linking of disease to ‘divine’ punishment, we may still retain a disenchanted understanding of hubris, by which the heedless pursuit of economic growth and geopolitical advantage sows the seeds of societal collapse.

‘Democratic’ agency has always been crude and clumsy. We should not let ourselves be embarrassed by this. Too often we forget that the only kind of power we really exercise as a democratic ‘mass’ entails throwing support behind a plan, mounting an obstacle to its execution, or forcing a decision into reverse.

Inevitably we will be cautioned against judging our leaders too harshly, both now amidst increasing invocations of ‘wartime’ solidarity, and later, as attempts are made to claw back whatever charitable dispensations have been offered to placate our fears and insecurities. It is therefore of vital importance for the self-understanding of democracy—when the pandemic has eased, when we have mourned our dead, and regained our ability to plan more than two days in advance—that we seek to reinvigorate this political heritage. And throw the bastards out.

John McGuire

John McGuire

Marie Curie Post Doctral Fellow