The Worst Part of a Plague: Despair

Thucydides 2.48

Let each person who understands something about this, whether a doctor or a private citizen, speak about what its likely origin was and whatever causes he believes likely of such a great change. I will only say what kind of a disease it was and how someone might recognize it and be able not to be ignorant about it if it should appear again. I will describe it clearly because I was sick myself and I watched others suffering from it too.”

  1.  λεγέτω μὲν οὖν περὶ αὐτοῦ ὡς ἕκαστος γιγνώσκει καὶ ἰατρὸς καὶ ἰδιώτης, ἀφ᾽ ὅτου εἰκὸς ἦν γενέσθαι αὐτό, καὶ τὰς αἰτίας ἅστινας νομίζει τοσαύτης μεταβολῆς ἱκανὰς εἶναι δύναμιν ἐς τὸ μεταστῆσαι σχεῖν: ἐγὼ δὲ οἷόν τε ἐγίγνετο λέξω, καὶ ἀφ᾽ ὧν ἄν τις σκοπῶν, εἴ ποτε καὶ αὖθις ἐπιπέσοι, μάλιστ᾽ ἂν ἔχοι τι προειδὼς μὴ ἀγνοεῖν, ταῦτα δηλώσω αὐτός τε νοσήσας καὶ αὐτὸς ἰδὼν ἄλλους πάσχοντας.

Thucydides, 2.51

“The most terrible feature of the sickness was the despair which came when anyone perceived they were getting sick. For when they fell into to this depression they surrendered much of their will and could not endure the thought of the disease. In addition people were dying like sheep, contracting the disease by caring for one another.

This caused the most fatalities. For If they were not willing to visit one another out of fear, then they died along and many households vanished because they lacked anyone to care for them. But if they did go to visit, then they were still dying. This happened the most with those who still tried to be virtuous. Shame would not let them spare themselves as they went to visit their friends, even as the cries of the people dying were ending and the whole family was exhausted, overcome by the sickness.

But it was those who had survived who pitied the dying and the struggling because they understood what it was like and no longer had fear for themselves. The same person didn’t get sick a second time to the point of dying.”

[4] δεινότατον δὲ παντὸς ἦν τοῦ κακοῦ ἥ τε ἀθυμία ὁπότε τις αἴσθοιτο κάμνων (πρὸς γὰρ τὸ ἀνέλπιστον εὐθὺς τραπόμενοι τῇ γνώμῃ πολλῷ μᾶλλον προΐεντο σφᾶς αὐτοὺς καὶ οὐκ ἀντεῖχον), καὶ ὅτι ἕτερος ἀφ᾽ ἑτέρου θεραπείας ἀναπιμπλάμενοι ὥσπερ τὰ πρόβατα ἔθνῃσκον: καὶ τὸν πλεῖστον φθόρον τοῦτο ἐνεποίει. [5] εἴτε γὰρ μὴ ‘θέλοιεν δεδιότες ἀλλήλοις προσιέναι, ἀπώλλυντο ἐρῆμοι, καὶ οἰκίαι πολλαὶ ἐκενώθησαν ἀπορίᾳ τοῦ θεραπεύσοντος: εἴτε προσίοιεν, διεφθείροντο, καὶ μάλιστα οἱ ἀρετῆς τι μεταποιούμενοι: αἰσχύνῃ γὰρ ἠφείδουν σφῶν αὐτῶν ἐσιόντες παρὰ τοὺς φίλους, ἐπεὶ καὶ τὰς ὀλοφύρσεις τῶν ἀπογιγνομένων τελευτῶντες καὶ οἱ οἰκεῖοι ἐξέκαμνον ὑπὸ τοῦ πολλοῦ κακοῦ νικώμενοι. [6] ἐπὶ πλέον δ᾽ ὅμως οἱ διαπεφευγότες τόν τε θνῄσκοντα καὶ τὸν πονούμενον ᾠκτίζοντο διὰ τὸ προειδέναι τε καὶ αὐτοὶ ἤδη ἐν τῷ θαρσαλέῳ εἶναι: δὶς γὰρ τὸν αὐτόν, ὥστε καὶ κτείνειν, οὐκ ἐπελάμβανεν.

Edvard Munch, “Despair” 1894

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