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The historian Thucydides, to whom we owe our knowledge of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC, traces the disease to Egypt, with several other stops before arriving in the city.© Geoff Garvey/Bridgeman Images

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a senior fellow of the Berlin/Bochum Thucydides Center.

Most Athenians were even more surprised by the plague that struck their city in 430 BC than we’ve been by COVID-19. While most Canadians first heard news about the emerging virus just after Christmas, there was no news in ancient times, and most Athenians knew little of events elsewhere. The historian Thucydides, to whom we owe our knowledge of this pandemic, traces the disease to Egypt, with several other stops before arriving in Athens. His account offers the earliest extant records of community transmission of an ailment and of specific immunity in the survivors and, roughly 2,500 years later, it remains the gold standard of plague narratives.

There would seem to be little in common between plague-stricken Athens and Canadian cities of today. Athens was filthy by modern standards – a public health disaster waiting to happen. There were physicians, but once the plague began, their ministrations proved wholly ineffective and commonly fatal to themselves. Having struck, the plague simply raged until it burned itself out. Nor did its symptoms (so carefully described by Thucydides) resemble those of COVID-19. Whatever it was (and that remains in dispute), it was not a coronavirus. It was more often fatal and equally lethal regardless of the victim’s age or health. The Athenians didn’t even enjoy the luxury of declaring a figurative war on it. They were at war already, and the Spartans were ravaging their countryside. They experienced the plague as a dire aggravation of an already dire situation, pushing them almost to surrender. (Ultimately their leader, Pericles, stiffened their spines.)

Yet for all these differences, one crucial similarity stands out. Armed though we are with modern science, our ailment, like theirs, is incurable. For now, and likely for some time to come, we too confront a disease for which we have no remedy. And in our case as in theirs, this has imposed enormous stress on our society.

The incurability of the ailment looms large in Thucydides’s analysis of its effects on life in Athens. What becomes of a city whose citizens are either ill, likely fatally, or have reason to fear they soon will be? How do they rise to the occasion – or, more likely, fall to it?

The Athenians faced a stark choice and they faced it as individuals. There were no hospitals in ancient Athens, no nursing homes or other institutions of care. There were merely private households and public spaces where the homeless (of whom there were many, wartime refugees from the countryside) suffered and died in the open. Nor were there professionals whose duty it was to cope with the epidemic, the physicians having died at the outset. The Athenians could do one of two things: They could remain in their houses, hoping to wait out the contagion in the relative safety of isolation. Or they could act as the highest standards of that day required, risking their lives by venturing out to nurse their suffering friends and kinsmen.

Overwhelmed by the calamity, most Athenians remained sequestered. The exceptions were those who, “laying some claim to virtue … made it a point of pride not to spare themselves in visiting their friends.” So visit them they did, paying the price, as the physicians had, of a frightfully high mortality rate. Unlike those failed experts, they fully understood the risk they were running. In Thucydides’s otherwise bleak account of a society in moral tailspin, these Athenians alone stand out for their unshakable commitment to decency.

There was one class of citizens exempt from the threat of the plague and therefore from the dilemma facing those who laid some claim to virtue. These were the ones who had recovered from the disease. Thucydides implies that these were few; they happened, however, to include him. They now enjoyed immunity, and they displayed the greatest compassion for the plague’s current victims. “These knew what it was from experience, and now had no fear for themselves, for the same man was never attacked twice – at least not fatally.”

So Thucydides has now described three distinct classes of Athenians in good health: the majority, whom fear kept in their houses; the minority who braved that fear, impelled by the high moral standard to which they held themselves; and lastly, another minority now newly released from fear. The last two groups joined in solicitude for the afflicted, but their motives were very different. What required rare virtue in the one – because undertaken at the risk of their own lives – could be routinely expected of the other. Can we also expect it of the growing throng of Canadians, symptomatic or asymptomatic, who will fall into this third category?

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The position of most of us is cloudier than any of these three. That is partly because we understand our virus much better than the Athenians did theirs. This has lessened our anxiety in some ways, while aggravating it in others. On the one hand, we grasp clearly how extremely contagious COVID-19 is. On the other, we learn that it is a wimp virus, vanquished by mere soap and water. So we need only wash our hands frequently and shun the physical proximity of our fellow human beings to ensure the virus is someone else’s problem. We can hold it at bay – an island entirely to ourselves – even as it flares all around us. This matters, for it is only human not to take threats to others as seriously as we do threats to ourselves. The barriers we are building against the illness, and other human beings as its possible agents, are not physical ones only.

Nor does it help that the ailment tends to spare all but the aged and infirm – again, quite unlike the plague of Athens. While younger and healthier people have also died from it, that incidence is low enough to encourage many young people in their insouciance. (Take walks around Toronto, as I do, and you will hear them express this to each other.)

So while the plague of Athens tended toward moral clarity, ours tends toward ambiguity. Most of us (like most Athenians) eschew avoidable risks. We have improved on their example only by contriving to cast such caution as beneficence toward others. We tell ourselves that the safest, most isolating, most self-protective (i.e. least courageous) thing to do is also the most public-spirited. After all, the same isolation that protects us from infection by others also protects them from the possibility of infection by us. The very behaviour needed to avoid harm to ourselves doubles as that needed to avoid doing it to others. This might be another of the many unique aspects of this crisis: Never has moral smugness been purchased so cheaply.

As for me, I can’t pretend to have risen above this ambiguity. I too number among the righteous skulkers and make no claim that the ancient plague would have brought out the hero in me. Nor do I mean to unduly disparage our strange way of life. Some are born small, but others have smallness thrust upon them. The pettiness of our current moralism is the inevitable product of circumstance. Only by such resolute inactivity can we hope to “flatten the curve,” thereby reducing the impact of the virus. That much is true and licenses us to signal our virtue as we practise our protocols of self-protection. They also serve who only stand and wait.

Who wait for what? For science to solve our problem for us. Here we find ourselves in a much more hopeful situation than the Athenians. While they could mobilize only impotent intervenors, we can count on effective ones, researchers burrowing away in their laboratories. Should a remedy – or, more likely, a vaccine – emerge, those responsible will reap our gratitude, as well as a vast profit. Presumably they labour in safety, as do the bureaucrats (now working from home) directing the vast economic rescue project necessitated by our lockdown. While the efforts of its few most virtuous citizens availed Athens little, we rely on vast legions of scientists, civil servants and adepts in the arcana of public finance. Their script is not virtue but professional competence at their respective tasks. It is a part of the genius of modernity to substitute competence (routinely inculcated) for virtue (rarely achieved).

What remains, then, of virtue in its full sense of individual excellence, one not of blending in with the crowd but of standing outside and above it? Who are the equivalents of those Athenians who placed their virtue ahead of their safety?

Again, as we would expect in a modern society, these are primarily professionals, who as such differ notably from their ancient counterparts. We’re forbidden to emulate the Athenians: If our friends or relatives are seriously ill (or even just highly vulnerable, like the elderly in nursing homes), we can’t so much as approach them. Instead, we must cede again to those armed not with virtue but with expertise, like the scientists and others mentioned earlier. These differ from those earlier ones in bearing the unavoidable personal risk of dealing directly with the infected. This lends them an aura of nobility that those other specialists lack. They are mostly professionals who (if you praise them for their nobility) would tell you they are merely doing their jobs. They are, in that their livelihoods depend on them, and their employers expect them to continue showing up. Doing one’s job, whatever it is, and through choppy waters – that is a very democratic virtue. It embraces, in the current crisis, not just the caring professions but store clerks, transit employees and all others who must run the risk of being out in the world.

Can we adduce any contemporary counterpart to those Athenians who risked their lives to help their ailing friends despite being under no compulsion, professional or otherwise? How about those venerable health care practitioners around the globe who have heeded the call to come out of retirement to aid with the current crisis? Friends and kindred aren’t involved, or personal responsibilities of any sort. Those whose statements I’ve read tend to invoke professionalism as their motive: once a doctor, always a doctor. Still, does professionalism require a return to the profession after you’ve retired from it? I can’t help but think that Thucydides would recognize these people as having laid some claim to virtue and made it a point of pride to honour it. As such, he would wish them a better fate than those Athenians so described by him.

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