Friday, March 27, 2020

Deadly Epidemics as a Challenge to Darwinian Liberal Science: Athens (430-429 BC)

Pandemics pose a challenge to the Darwinian liberal science that I have defended on this blog.  I have argued that a Darwinian liberal science promotes the moral, political, and intellectual progress of humanity by securing the conditions for satisfying the natural human desires for life, liberty, and intellectual understanding.  But the deadliest pandemics--like the plague in Athens, the flu pandemic of 1918, and the COVID-19 pandemic today--seem to show the deadly power of nature to frustrate those desires.

They seem to show that our Darwinian science of nature fails to give us enough knowledge of and power over the natural world to protect ourselves from deadly infectious diseases.  Those pandemics also seem to show that our efforts to control them force us to sacrifice our individual liberty as we submit to the authoritarian regime of public health planning.  And insofar as those public health policies can never fully succeed, many human lives will be lost.

I admit that this does show how Darwinian liberal science is, and always will be, limited in how far it can go in fully satisfying those desires for life, liberty, and intellectual understanding.  Nevertheless, I still contend that the history of pandemics manifests the progress of the Liberal Enlightenment and Darwinian science in improving, even if never perfectly attaining, the conditions for gratifying those desires.

I have written about the plague in ancient Athens (here and here).

The plague appeared in Athens for the first time in the summer of 430 BC, the second year of the war between Athens and Sparta.  Pericles, the preeminent military and political leader of Athens, died from the disease in 429 BC.  Oddly, Pericles probably had some responsibility for the plague because of his policy of forced evacuation of the rural population of Attica from the countryside inside the walls of Athens during the invasion of the Spartans.  The confinement of so many people crammed into the city created the conditions for the spread of the disease, which probably entered at the port at the Piraeus.

Thucydides was infected, but he survived; and his immunity allowed him to study the disease in others.  In his history of the Peloponnesian War, he carefully describes the history of the disease and its effects.  Like Hippocrates, he was looking for the natural causes of disease rather than assuming that such a disease must come from the gods.  He noticed that those people who prayed to the gods apparently failed to alter the course of the disease.  People even stopped worshipping the gods.

Like other careful observers, he could see that the disease was somehow passed through the transmission of some natural agent from one person to another.  But his scientific observations were limited by the fact that the bacterial and viral causes of this disease were invisible to human beings without microscopes.

The plague killed as many as 80,000 people, which was about one fourth of the entire population of Athens.  Although this weakened Athens for a few years in the war with Sparta and her allies, Athens recovered quickly economically, militarily, and culturally.  In the fourth century BC, Athens reached its greatest efflorescence--as measured by wealth (per capita consumption), population growth, and cultural achievement (including the philosophical schools of Plato and Aristotle).  This happened because Athens was an open access society with democratic, economic, and intellectual liberty.  I have written about this here.  This shows how a free society renews itself even after suffering the most deadly epidemic.

In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius continued the work of Thucydides in looking for the natural causes of human history including disease, and he spoke about how the human progress in natural discoveries and inventions has given human beings increasing power over nature, which some readers have seen as anticipating Francis Bacon's modern project for progress through political enlightenment and technological science.

But some Straussian readers of Lucretius--particularly, John Colman--have rejected this Baconian interpretation of Lucretius by pointing out that he ends his book with a darkly disturbing description of the plague in Athens, which seems to "correct" his account of technological progress by indicating the limits to the human power over nature.  I disagree with this because I see Lucretius as suggesting that while human power over nature can never be absolute, it can be increased as our knowledge of natural causes increases.

In fact, Lucretius was the first philosopher to explain diseases such as plagues as caused by germs (or "seeds") that are invisible to ordinary human vision.  In modern times, the germ theory of disease and the microscopic study of microbes has increased our knowledge of bacterial and viral diseases in ways that has allowed us to lessen or even eliminate these diseases.

In my next post, I will compare the plague in Athens with the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, in which we can see for the first time modern science confronting a global outbreak of disease.

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