A guest post by the faculty of Mount Liberty College
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
– French Proverb
There is nothing new under the sun, saith the Preacher
The current turmoil in American society is a reminder of the value of knowing the past. The past may not tell us exactly what to do about our present troubles, but it can certainly offer insight into how similar problems were dealt with in the past by the wise and even the not-so-wise. If nothing else, a study of the past provides assurance that mankind has experienced tremendous trials before and has not only survived, but prospered.
Let us look at three manifestations of world troubles, and see what perspective history can provide.
Reading history, it quickly becomes apparent that inequality has been a concern from the beginning of time. Early legal codes protected property, but lawgivers worried about concentration of wealth. The tension between these two principles was known to the Ancients, as it is known to Bernie Sanders. When Plato, a proto-Socialist argues for common ownership of goods (not to mention wives and children), Aristotle responds
What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. People pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common; or, at any rate, they care for it only to the extent to which each is individually concerned. Even when there is no other cause for inattention, people are more prone to neglect their duty when they think that another is attending to it. . . .
Aristotle’s argument is not necessarily irrefutable and should not be accepted without testing against (countless) historical examples. What is irrefutable is Bernie Sanders’ apparent ignorance of a debate that is 3,000 years old.
Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire during the Antonine Plague. If Marcus did not give us a blueprint for combatting the plague, his writings at least provide an example of how one can keep one’s equilibrium during a pandemic that perhaps even claimed the life of his co-emperor.
The Black Death of the 14C baffled the best minds of East and West. Comparing and contrasting the explanations for it proffered by the physicians at the University of Paris:
We say that the distant and first cause of this pestilence was and is the configuration of the heavens. In 1345, at one hour after noon on 20 March, there was a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius. This conjunction, along with other earlier conjunctions and eclipses, by causing a deadly corruption of the air around us, signifies mortality and famine
with those in the Islamic community:
Epidemic diseases have many causes that may be grouped into four kinds: a change in the quality of the air, a change in the quality of the water, a change in the quality of the food, and a change in the quality of psychic events.
This might at the very least give us a sense that some progress has been made, and perhaps some hope for the future. We might be comforted by the likelihood that Covid-19 is unlikely to take 50% of the world’s population, as the Black Death did.
The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed 50 million people, marking the lives and literature of a generation.
And how to escape? Examine The Decameron in comparison to today’s gated communities and complaints about the racial and ethnic disparities in Coronavirus lethality. If there are no answers there, we might remember that Edgar Allan Poe warned us in “The Masque of the Red Death” (and its echo in The Phantom of the Opera) that there is no escape from the vulnerability of mortality.
Nor are societal breakdown unprecedented. Comparisons of street violence today might recall the Parisian mobs of 1793, or even the Nika riots of the 6C, when Blue and Green racing factions terrorized Constantinople and caused the emperor to take flight. Might the role of his wife in that episode provide food for thought?
Further food for thought lies in the certainty that people will not, in the long run, live with chaos. In time they will look for the Man on the White Horse to restore order. Then we can start all over again to wean ourselves away from dictatorship.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “we cannot escape history.” But (as he knew), we can ignore it, or never learn it in the first place. Our ability to respond to the future will be the weaker if we do.
Mount Liberty College is a four-year liberal arts college located in Utah, dedicated to the transmission of human culture thru a spirit of open inquiry, the Socratic method, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. We are convinced that our goals can be reached without massive student debt and without submitting to the rejectionist spirit of the age.