Leadership, Religion and Science Through Pandemics
Pandemic Diary Entry 42
May 25, 2020
I have a cousin who is a very good Christian and yet a scientist. During our Zoom conversations she regularly points out that Science will be what finally pulls the world through this.
My reading of the classics during this pandemic has shown the importance of Leadership in working with both science and religion.
And I do believe that Religion is important, it is where many will find strength and solace. As a point of fact, before we had science it was often the church that showed the leadership necessary to deal with horrible diseases.
Today, however, we do have science. We also have libraries full of books that teach us about failed leadership in times of crisis. And yet, we still have leaders that turn to magical thinking over science, and abnegation over responsibility.
Digging into history one finds many religious leaders that believed in the importance of science during pandemics. Our present day leaders should take a page from their playbook.
Moses ben Maimon (ca 1135–1204 CE) , more commonly known as Maimonides, was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher and one of the most influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages.
Maimonides wrote of the ten plagues of Egypt. These were the ten disasters imposed upon Egypt by the god of Israel, as told in the Book of Exodus (Chapters 7–12), whose purpose was to force the Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go.
Maimonides believed that science and religion could work in tandem. He wrote in The Guide to the Perplexed:
“We must first form a conception of the Existence of the Creator according to our capabilities; that is, we must have a knowledge of Metaphysics. But this discipline can only be approached after the study of Physics: for the science of Physics borders on Metaphysics, and must even precede it in the course of our studies, as is clear to all who are familiar with these questions.”
Ibn Rushd or, in English, Averroes was an important religious scholar and a physician in the time of the Antonine Plague. Averroes greatly contributed to the world of science, including understanding a disease which we later came to know as Parkinson’s.
These two men were masters in their field, both teaching and writing about the tension between the “rational” or “intrusive” sciences and the “religious” or “traditional” sciences within Islam.
But, as they say, there are no atheists in foxholes.
Throughout axial and medieval times plagues appeared that would decimate societies. These calamaties helped spur the emergence of several of our modern religions. These new beliefs helped influence how people interacted with others during a epidemic and how others shunned the outside world.
The Antonine Plague (165–180 CE) and the Cyprian Plague (249–262 CE) ravaged the Roman Empire. These two plagues killed roughly a quarter to a third of the population, including emperors Claudius Gothicus, Lucius Verus, and possibly Hostilian.
Michael Blume, an expert in religious studies at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany posits that as people moved into cities, they needed to find a substitute for families, and religion served that purpose. “When you have disease, it’s augmenting this process. Particularly among Christians, being part of a congregation, ensured some help would be available in times of need.”
The Antonine Plague is also called the Galen Plague after Claudius Galen, who was said to be the greatest physician of ancient Rome. Originally Galen fled to his country estate where he planned to stay until the danger was over. The emperor called him back during the second round of the plague where he was instrumental in the attempted fight against the disease.
The Galen plague prompted shifts in western religious practices of the time. While Marcus Aurelius was busy blaming Christians for the plague because they refused to to join the rituals appeasing the Roman gods all while frantically building and rebuilding the temples and shrines of the Roman gods, Christianity was beginning to coalesce and spread throughout the empire. Non-Christians saw their neighbors helping others despite the dangers showing them “Christianity is worth dying for”.
Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, Egypt, recounted during the Cyprian Plague “At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”
Of his fellow Christians Dionysus commented “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead … [a death that] seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.”
During this same plague Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, Bishop of Carthage, said “Although this mortality had contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.” “Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains”.
The plague of Justinian began in 541–542 CE, and popped up off and on until 750. It took 50 million lives. This plague was viewed by Justinian’s people as God’s punishment for his unjust rule.
During the Black Plague Konrad von Megenburg a German philosopher and chronicler concluded that society itself had caused the plague by its sinful behavior. Interestingly though, despite his disdain for the Jewish people he was tasked with the responsibility for proving they did not cause it.
“On the other hand, however, I am well aware that in Vienna there lived so many Jews as in no other city known to me in Germany, and so many of them perished from the plague that they had to considerably expand their cemetery and buy two houses for it….It would have been a foolishness if they had poisoned themselves….However, I do not want to gloss over the wickedness of the Jews, for they are enemies of our dear wives and of all Christians”.
In Islam during pandemics the focus was on keeping family safe and eschewing the outside world. 1400 years ago Muhammad told people to adopt good hygiene and quarantine themselves. “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”
Starting in 2008 Jenny Trinitapoli of Penn State surveyed 3000 people from 1000 villages across Malawi, Africa. She was trying to ascertain how AIDS, (which had been the leading cause of death in adults) affected religion in the area. There were predominantly Christian or Muslim communities with some that were a mix. She found that about 30% of the Christians regularly visited the sick, whereas only 7% of the Muslims did. As Michael Blume has pointed out, the idea of receiving help was a likely reason many changed religions over a five year period. Many moved towards Pentecostal or the African Independent Churches, primarily due to the fact that these places held a greater promise of receiving care with minimal stigma attached to those with the disease. These changes could have other influences, but disease seems to be the overriding factor.
Greek and Roman gods played important rolls in times of plagues in ancient times. While great works of literature of the time hold up examples of hubris and poor leadership by rulers leading to distrust and panic.
“Oedipus Tyrannos” by Sophocles opens with the King of Thebes wondering where the plague in his city came from. The Athenian religion consisting of a panoply of gods and the aid of oracles help Oedipus to find his fate and his role in the plague. Oedipus Tyrannos is also a study in political leadership. The play explores the relationship between leadership and humility. “Insolence breeds the tyrant” says the chorus in Line 873.
Homer’s Iliad begins with a description of a nine-day plague that infects the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the brilliant tactician, but arrogant leader of the Greeks, insults Chryses, a local priest of Apollo. Apollo is the plague god who punishes all the Greeks by sending them this pestilence.
During the Second year of the Peloponnesian War, the Plague of Athens (430BCE) took the city by surprise, killing between 75,000 and 100,000 people and devastating the city. Athenian general and historian, Thucydides, who has given us the most concise understanding of the plague, brings up the point that nothing helped: “Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether”.
Thucydides also spends a large part book two of his History of the Peloponnesian War explaining the utter failure of the city state under the plague: “As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished… instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him. For the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.”
Boccaccio’s Decameron condemns the people who fled Florence during the Black Death of 1348 in hopes of escaping the plague. “It was as though they imagined that the wrath of God would not unleash this plague against men for their iniquities irrespective of where they happened to be…”. In his book, Bocaccio attributed the plague to the influence of God or celestial bodies.
While apocryphal the plague didn’t stop the Trojan War, nor did it prevent Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polyneices from waging war and killing each other.
In ancient Greece, the infighting and nasty politics continued led by tyrannical or egotistical rulers. This behavior by Greek rulers eventually led to the Sicilian Expedition of 415 BCE which killed thousands of Athenians. One of these rulers was Alcibiades who returned to Athens at the end of the Sicilian Expedition and due to his self-serving, greed and arrogance put the wheels in motion that led to the end of Athenian law and the Athenian city state.
Great plagues have altered the fate of many governments. Great plagues helped to bring about the spread of major religions. Where we go from here will depend on good science, faith and leadership wielded with finesse.
With deaths in the United States from Covid-19 reaching 100,000 this Memorial Day Weekend, it is with a fervant prayer that we find strong leadership in this country soon.
My Horoscope for today: A goal remains out of reach, but it won’t always be the case. When you renew your quest (and you will) you’ll be motivated and prepared.
San Francisco weather: 67 degrees and sunny
NYSE DOW: closed for the holiday
Foreign word of the day: rest
OED word of the day: hendecad, (A group, set, or series of eleven things)
Days under Shelter In Place: 70
Reading: Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Studying Dante’s Paradiso
My Black and White Picture of the Day
Something Silly From the Internet:
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