Head Boy’s Blog
All around us we hear that we are living through unique and unprecedented times. While that is certainly the case in many respects, we can often find up some interesting parallels and thought provoking perspectives to modern day issues in the pages of history.
Marcus Aurelius realised this centuries ago when he advised us in his Meditations, “To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again – the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging…All just the same. Only the people different.”
Ironically, he wrote this during the fifteen-year long pandemic that hit the Roman Empire in 165 AD, known as the Antonine Plague. Almost 2000 years later, his words have not been proved wrong; history’s pages have since been filled with recurring accounts of plagues, pandemics and quarantines. Europe was regularly visited by the plague between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, so there is plenty of historical pandemic literature to dip into.
Most people have heard the famous line “A plague on both your houses!” from Romeo and Juliet, written in 1592. In fact, Shakespeare refers to the plague hundreds of times in his plays because that was one of the biggest issues of that time and references to the plague would have been understood by the theatre goers of the day. Friar Laurence explains in Romeo and Juliet, the Elizabethan version of a stay-at-home order:
“the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.”
As well as referring to it in his work, it is likely that the plague actually helped Shakespeare to write his plays. There were three separate episodes of the plague in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, each one forcing theatres to close and people to self-isolate. It is during these periods of self-isolation that Shakespeare is said to have been at his most creative and written a number of his famous plays, including Macbeth and King Lear.
Isaac Newton also appears to have thrived during self-isolation. In 1665, the Great Plague hit England and universities closed, among them Cambridge. Newton came back home to self-isolate in Lincolnshire until the spring of 1667. During that time, he came up with his theories on optics and calculus as well as having an apple fall on his head that led to his work on gravity. “All this was in the two plague years of 1665–1666. For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded Mathematicks & Philosophy more than at any time since,” Newton wrote about this period.
Down in London at the same time, Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diaries and these give us a uniquely detailed insight into what was going on in London at the time as well as the prevailing mood, and some of it is remarkably relevant to today’s situation.
On 30th April 1665, Pepys first mentioned the start of the Plague in London and the accompanying anxiety that people had, “Great fears of the sickenesse here in the City, its being said that two or three houses are already shut up.”
At the beginning of July, he wrote of “the season growing so sickly that it is much to be feared how a man can ‘scape having a share in it” and by mid-August he was shocked to see how the landscape of London had changed: “But Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people… and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up” and “no boats upon the river”.
The final entry for 1665, though, is a much more optimistic one and reads, “It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague…But now the plague is abated almost to nothing… to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to open again.” I find this a really heart-warming entry that takes on a new depth of meaning in the current circumstances and offers the hope that we are all seeking.
Pepys goes on to say in the same entry that, “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.” So despite the troubles that were happening around him, Samuel Pepys seemed to have made the best of his own personal situation.
The poet, John Donne, in contrast, was really unhappy in self-isolation, which he had to go through in 1623. “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude,” he lamented. The experience of being alone and isolated affected him so deeply that he was prompted to write his most famous meditation, which I have reproduced here in its entirety as it is so relevant today.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were:
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
It is this idea of being “involved in mankind” that we see all around us 400 years later. The individuals and communities that have come together at every level to support each other and clap for our carers and raise funds and make masks and form online support groups. Because even though we have been forced to distance, we will always find a way to connect together as “a part of the main”.
So we find in the pages of history, accounts that we can relate to, emotions that validate what we are feeling, advice and comfort that we can depend on. We find examples of those that suffered and struggled with the lack of human contact, and those that thrived and produced their greatest works for which they are still remembered. That is no different to the human condition we see around us today.
Of course, last but not least, history tells us that there is hope. Humanity has beaten everything that has come our way. Together, we shall do so again because as Marcus Aurelius said, “A disease like the plague can only threaten your life but evil, selfishness, pride, hypocrisy, fear—these things attack our humanity.”
In a time of limited choice, we have wisely chosen not to succumb to those.