Thucydides, Historical Solidarity, and Birth in the PandemicRoundup
tags: Thucydides, childbirth, womens history, classics, COVID-19
Sarah Christine Teets is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the University of Virginia. She has a PhD in Classics from UVA and and MA in Classics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is interested in identity in Classical antiquity, imperial-colonial encounters in the Roman world, and mental illness in antiquity.
I never felt any particular fear for my safety, or my baby’s, during my first pregnancy in 2016. I felt even more confident as I prepared to give birth to my second child in the spring of 2020. This changed dramatically in mid March, when suddenly my due date at the end of April coincided with the first projected peak in local hospital resource use because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I found myself obsessing over descriptions of the nightmare conditions of Italian hospitals, what the triage system would look like in an American context, stories of birthing mothers in New York being forced to labor and deliver without their partners. This obsession fed a crippling anxiety spiral as I found myself largely unable to detach my thoughts from my worst fears.
At the same time, I also found myself repeatedly – and somewhat inexplicably – thinking about a passage in the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s narrative of the plague of Athens of 430 BCE. It wasn’t immediately clear to me why, though I was sure it was at least in part because of the sudden flowering of bad hot takes comparing Thucydides and the plague of Athens to our modern “plague.” In the upheaval of suddenly becoming a full-time homeschool teacher to my three year old, my mind found some comfort in continuing to do what Classical philologists do: analyze passages of ancient Greek literature.
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.”
The intriguing bit here, to me, is what Thucydides said about his motives for describing the symptoms. He of course had his future reader in mind and the possibility of this same plague happening to that future reader. The reader, having studied Thucydides’ description, will be armed with a measure of foreknowledge, which will make him capable of not being ignorant.
Since my grad student days of reading Thucydides, this particular passage has interested me deeply in ways I could never quite put my finger on. Anecdotally, I have seen my own students as well as professional Classicists appear to read passage 2.48.3 and unconsciously fill in the blank with the other side of the clichéd quote by George Santayana about not knowing history and being doomed to repeat it. That is to say, they assume that Thucydides was saying that if his reader studies his description of the symptoms of the plague, they’ll be able to recognize the disease and do something about it. Not only did Thucydides not say this, this interpretation contradicts his assertion earlier in the narrative at 2.47.4 that all human skill and all appeals to the gods did nothing: the doctors, said Thucydides, died at higher rates because they had more contact with the sick. So, for Thucydides, knowledge and skill not only don’t help against the disease, they may make you more vulnerable to it.
The idea that failing to know history means being condemned to repeat it is more an ideological commitment than a critical engagement with the value and purpose of historical knowledge. Historian Sarah Bond describes this absurdity succinctly in a Twitter thread from 2019:
Philosopher George Santayana (1905) coined the oft-misquoted “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But the reason to study history is not so we don’t repeat or rhyme it (we will regardless), it is to translate the people, pain, & pleasure of the present.
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.
When I have asked my own students to discuss Bond’s formulation, many of them have commented that it had never occurred to them that studying history might have any other purpose. The idea is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard for many readers to recognize that Thucydides said nothing of the sort. Again, Thucydides offered his reader only knowledge, and implied that it is not the actionable kind of knowledge. What has long intrigued me is that he said nothing about why he thought this knowledge is worth having.
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