Friday, March 12, 2021

Covid and the point of history

I saw a comment the other day that I can't recover right now. The gist of it was: considering how much interest we have now in the 1919 pandemic, what will be judged most important about 2020 a century from now: this pandemic, or climate change and environmental destruction?

What reminded me of that was a post on History News Network by a young American classicist named Sarah Christine Teets. While caring for a newborn and a small child, she's been pondering what Thucydides wrote about the Athenian plague of 430 BCE.

Here’s a brief explanation of the passage, usually referred to by the number 2.48.3. After Thucydides described the initial outbreak of disease and asserted that medical science was utterly useless against it, he introduced his description of the symptoms with the following: “I will say how it happened, and whoever studies this, if the plague ever strikes again, because he knows something in advance, would be particularly able to not be ignorant; these things I will make clear, since I myself got sick and saw others suffering it.” 

She goes on to argue that this is the kind of statement often taken to mean that if we learned from history we might avoid its mistakes. But Thucydides, she points out, believed there was no wisdom that would have averted the plague: history offered no solution. For the lesson to be learned from Thucydides, she quotes a fellow scholar, Sarah Bond, on another value of history:

There is absolute worth in remembering the past, but let us not cast it as something we do to keep us from repeating the mistakes in the historical record. This is rarely the case. Vonnegut noted: “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

What we can do is use historical literacy to create perpetual empathy towards humanity & to instill in us a hunger to understand, to inquire, & to document. That is the worth of history. And it is empathy which we can & should repeat into the future.

There is "useful" history. Most of the highly technical and quantitative economic policy that we will rely on to keep the world economy rightside up during and after this pandemic is based entirely on careful modelling and analyzing of past successes and failures in economic policy-making. Much of law, you might say, is built upon endless review of a long history of past lawmaking.

But Teets makes an important point.The empathy argument may the main thing that keeps people returning to the history of Covid-19, as to the Athens of 2500 years ago.  

I've been reading a recent history (Cundill Prize longlister, in fact) of the Florentine plague of 1630: Florence Under Siege, by John Henderson. Henderson mentions that the 1630 outbreak there is notable not only for Boccaccio's Decameron (empathy!) but also because the measures Florence took to fight the plague became models for how Europe tried to deal with successive epidemics for the next several hundred years: specialized hospitals, plague cemetaries, isolation and quarantine, border controls, limits on trade and movement. Nothing worked very well, of course, and except for the vaccines, it all sounds rather like the world's struggles with Covid-19. 

Societies have sought historical lessons with which to respond to plagues, that is. History hasn't actually provided solutions, and maybe shouldn't be expected to.       

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