Prophet of the Pandemic

Psychological Contagion and the Roots of Conflict

The Truth about Plagues

René Girard spent a large part of his career studying plagues and pandemics in ancient literature. He noticed something fascinating: in every instance, the psychological contagion that spread fear and anxiety and led to faction-forming is inseparable from the microbial and infectious contagion that caused a health crisis.

In fact, the word most frequently used for “plague” in ancient Greece (in both Sophocles and Thucydides) is nosos, which simply means “sickness.” When there is a civil war between Greek cities, it is described as a nosos. Likewise, the plague that devastates Thebes in the famous story of Oedipus Rex is a nosos.

Isn’t it also interesting that the case of the plague in Thebes is attributed to the breaking of social taboos by Oedipus? He killed his father and married his mother. For this social transgression, Oedipus caused a microbial infection. He must be killed or banished from society so that the plague will end.

For centuries people have read this story (and many others like it) as fanciful mythologies—what silly, pre-scientific people they were, attempting to put an end to a plague by punishing incest!

But what the Greeks knew—perhaps even better than we do—is that the disruption to the biological order and the disruption to the social order are one and the same.

Nothing has changed. Human nature remains the same. If anything, our perceived mastery over nature and our technological advancements have only bolstered our pride and our blindness to the psychological, social, and spiritual sickness that will last long after the virus is under control.

If we had even one measure of competence in anthropological and social issues—an understanding of basic features of humanity—for every 10 measures of scientific study and epidemiological press conferences, we’d be in far better shape. As it stands now, though, the pandemic is still seen primarily through a materialist lens without eyes to see the people, in the fullness of their humanity, who are struggling to make it.

If you’d like even a minor glimpse into the depth of that problem, here is a reply left on a YouTube video that featured a piece of classical music.

What we are witnessing is a breakdown in human relationships. René Girard, reflecting on the book Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, took particular note of a frightening dream that one of the main characters has near the end of the novel. “Raskolnikov has a dream during a grave illness that occurs just before his final change of heart, at the end of the novel,” writes Girard. “He dreams of a worldwide plague that affects people’s relationship with each other. No specifically medical symptoms are mentioned. It is human interaction that breaks down, and the entire society gradually collapses.”

Girard saw a prophetic voice in Dostoevsky, the great novelist, who in the following passage (written in 1866, long before the Spanish Flu even came to pass) is describing what is essentially a mimetic crisis: the breakdown of a society when nobody knows who to trust, nobody knows who to imitate (because there are no more shared models: everyone is a little Cartesian god who decides for himself), and any form of coordinated action is rendered impossible.

Here is the passage in full, which is worth reading slowly:

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.

No coordinated action is possible in this situation—but uncoordinated and spontaneous action is. Throughout history, Girard discovered that this uncoordinated and spontaneous action has most often taken the form of the scapegoat mechanism: someone or something is singled out as the cause of the problem. The community united against them in order to save themselves from themselves. It’s a form of religious sacrifice that brings order out of chaos.

We are already headed quickly in this direction, but it’s not too late to turn back.