Václav Cílek: The World After Covid

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 1, 3rd November 2020

Plague as an Innovation: The World After Covid

Modern historians have sometimes suggested that our age began with one great voyage, the discovery of America in 1492 and ended with another great voyage – the Apollo mission to the moon in 1972. But it could also be said that the modern age was born from the large, recurring waves of Black Deaths at the end of the 15th century and ended with the current twenty or thirty-year period of internet development, when we experienced a series of economic crises and as coronavirus made fun of globalisation. Maybe one day we’ll frame the modern age with both these pandemics. As the German historian Hans Bergdolt demonstrates, the epidemics only highlight and accelerate the trends that existed before them and that were already transforming society at a rapid pace.

Large pestilences manifest themselves as compound crises consisting of several factors. They usually came in the favourite trio – plague, war and famine. They took time to spill across, to return, after which the world transformed, and then came regeneration. Most major crises share their scenario: crisis – chaos – regeneration, and we can have a feeling that a lot of seemingly unrelated things happen simultaneously. The world changes in several respects at once – the weather is different and so is the tax. The number of forest fires and prophets is on the rise. The historian Prokopios, who observed the great plague of the Justinian era, describes a situation where people became not only more profound and more responsible during and after the period of plague, but also much worse, trying to grab whatever still remained of the world. Historian Ernest Renan told us that we know of only two real problems in history – why Rome rose to greatness and why it disappeared. Something similar applies to epidemics which appear from seemingly nowhere, do what they please for a while, and then mysteriously leave for elsewhere, only to return again, at some point in the future. Justinian’s plague appeared in 541 and returned fairly regularly every 20 years for two more centuries. The medieval Black Death manifested itself in England and parts of Europe by five to six waves that arrived every decade. Similarly, the Renaissance period in Italy and the Baroque period in Germany are considered to be one long but intermittent epidemic. Plague historians even believe that the beautiful paintings of the Italian 16th-17th century and the development of harmonious polyphonic music, which brings such peace to the soul through its beauty and sense of hope, are a cultural reaction to the constant urban wars and recurring plague waves. In any case, it is likely that the coronavirus epidemic will remain with us in some psychological or cultural form for years to come, and the 21st century may even become a Baroque equivalent of these repeated epidemics, of varied courses and different local intensity. How did people of past eras respond to such situations? 

The Plague of Athens and the birth of classical tragedy

The plague in Athens, possibly a smallpox epidemic, was described by the warlord, historian and philosopher Thucydides in 430-426 BC in his History of the Peloponnesian War. But it was not until the city was renovated prior to the 2004 Olympics that archaeologists nearby Kerameikos uncovered a grave from that period containing 150 dead bodies thrown on top of each other chaotically. At the time the discovery caused a sensation, because the ancient Greeks have always been very attentive to their dead. The city must have been possessed by a real panic to permit such an ungodly behaviour. The Classics historians have always understood the plague as a political force that destroyed the prudent Pericles and brought to the fore a brilliant strategist, the pragmatic and contradictory Alcibiades. Sophocles’ or Euripides’ ancient tragedies have for hundreds of years been mostly judged from a literary point of view, but they can also be seen as a reaction of a society shaken by disease and war, which is looking for a form of purification-catharsis. As an example of this, shortly after one such epidemics, a large theatre of Dionysus was built under the Acropolis in 420 BC and in its upper corner, the healing temple of Asclepius. This scenario is repeated in some other localities also. A metaphor about the “sick city”, later often quoted, appears around this time. An ancient theatre had a number of functions. It represented a connection with high art, cleared stagnant emotions, passed on traditional values to the younger generation and thus connected the community. Aristophanes in his comedy Frogs also proclaims that the goal of the theatre is to create a better city. Plague has always been understood in two ways: as a real disease, but also as a metaphor for a sick community. Both within the theatre and Asclepius’ shrine one looks for pharmacon – a cure for social ailments and also for the disease. This is also our current situation. Right now we are overwhelmed by the number of patients, but we are also beginning to wonder whether the whole world around us is not sick.  Thukydides goes even further and demonstrates that during the Thirty Years’ Peloponnesian War, there were more earthquakes, floods and famines than ever before. The imbalance that has affected the world has manifested itself in a thousand ways. As if everything were changing and the plague was just one of the symptoms of this transformation.

Justinian’s plague and the birth of Europe

Justinian’s plague is considered one of the world’s three major pandemics. The second was the medieval Black Death and the third the Asian and especially the Chinese epidemic of the 19th century. In the case of the plague, doctors most often repeated the advice of the ancient physician Galen: “Escape early, escape far and don’t return for a long while!” The descriptions of the Justinian plague, in which up to 5,000 people a day died in Constantinople-Istanbul, are terrifying enough for us not to repeat them here, but their civilisational impact is interesting. The plague was returning for two hundred years and weakened the entire Middle East. Many large regions were partially depopulated. This enabled several waves of migration. Around 568, the Lombards moved from the present-day Moravia and Austria further south, conquered northern Italy and founded Lombardy. The vacuum of powers was also seized by the Slavs, who invaded the borders of the Byzantine Empire and occupied a large part of the Balkans. After that came an event with an inconspicuous beginning but a far-reaching impact. It was the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad and the triumphant advance of early Islam, first to semi-depopulated Syria and almost simultaneously to the surrounding states torn apart by internal crises and weakened by the plague. Across Spain and southern France, Muslims were trying to conquer Europe, which may have led to one of its great beginnings. The kingdoms of Europe could not rely on Byzantine aid. At the same time, they had to face a great and powerful enemy, something only possible through joint forces. While Charlemagne or Harun el-Rashid have been considered the great players of that period, equally, it was a rat infected with the plague and the flea, which disseminated it further, that were the real driving force behind history. Of course Europe originated from a number of influences like streams, but almost certainly one of these was the first world pandemic – Justinian’s plague. And if we don’t want to see the world from a European perspective only, we can also note that the plague transformed the whole of Arabia as well as the organisation of Chinese state power. Perhaps we too will witness something like this. Effective fight against the epidemic in the name of higher principles – the saving of human lives – requires the centralisation of power which then spirals out of control. What if the current Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong has been accelerated by coronavirus?

The Black Death of the Middle Ages

The plague of 1348 more or less avoided Bohemia, but in some parts of Europe, up to half its population perished. It returned several times, effecting the psychology of people constantly threatened by deadly diseases. It’s the same with floods – when there is one, we take it as an anomaly that we quickly forget, but after the third such event, we already know that it has become part of our reality. In the Jewish and Christian conceptions, the plague is considered a wound of God. The tradition called it the Egyptian wounds and the Jewish exodus. The plague is therefore considered to be the beginning of some new journey or phase. Even the famous general practitioner Jacme d’Agramont said that “when our sins have destroyed the air around us, then the art of medicine is of little value, because only He who has tied the world’s ties has the power to untie them again.” Many heretical movements and mystical treatises of the time are a response to the reoccurring waves of epidemics. Too often social unrest and illness come together. One French study showed that the epidemic and war coincided at least six times in 1348, 1362, 1374, 1388, 1450 and 1465. In the next three years, the war just preceded the plague. People of the time understood well the practical aspects as well – many unburied bodies (humans and horses) caused flies to multiply leading to the spread of plague. But at the same time, mystical treatises were created, such as the Book of Revelation of the famous English mystic Juliana of Norwich, who survived even eight waves of plague. People were restless, looking for the cause – asking who was at fault? Was it a corrupt church, as the Hussites thought, or the richer people of other faiths, especially Jews, as the city’s poor assumed? Responses to fear and changes of status varied, ranging from revulsion towards church, to penitent marching of flagellants and the particularly cruel pogroms in Jewish neighbourhoods. But family relationships also changed. As Boccaccio later described in his Decameron, people escaped into the countryside but were afraid of one another. A man shunned his wife and children. There was a great sense of alienation, but also examples of self-sacrifice, such as among young Czech Jesuits who decided to go and treat the sick and most of whom perished.

Facing death?

Following the plague, culture also transformed. Historian John Aberth analyses literary works and painting of the late Middle Ages and to his pleasant surprise, he finds they are not about downfall, but about hope and are often filled with zest for life. Post coronavirus pandemic, a picture of a, for instance, hanged cat, may hold less interest to  people, because we endured enough ugliness over the capricious years,  and now we yearn for peace in the soul. It is one thing to dream of decadence and quite another to live in it. It is usually assumed that during times of crisis, people need more culture, not less, but this culture needs to contain beauty and harmony such is in Dutch still-lives or in Renaissance polyphony. We can appreciate this well in the wonderful music born of the Thirty Year War. Ugly things can eventually bear beautiful fruits. One Czech musician said: “Art needs war or some such disaster, otherwise it behaves in silly ways.” In 2014, art historian Arthur White newly reinterpreted the most beautiful works of the Italian Renaissance as a direct result of re-occurring epidemics. After all, what can be stood against death? Perhaps only beauty. Modern psychologists as well as authors of antiquity go even further. They show us that reaction to a crisis starts with defence. This can be describes as building up of physical and mental resistance. We usually refer to it as resilience. But this is a case of a besieged city with strong walls, which are gradually weakening nonetheless. It needs a creativity of new solutions, which helps to form a different material, and thus spiritual, culture. However, an individual or a society that is shaken to its foundations, needs an even stronger medicine: some form of transcendence. Suddenly one cannot do without a god or some supra-personal or cosmic power. An inner conversion often occurs, which manifests itself in a way that the majority of people do not discuss, yet which leads to doing something for others. In some of the more endangered regions or states I would even expect a development of new religious forms. However, there are also gods rooted in their own time who will succumb to the pandemic. Another common pattern of behaviour that we can observe in really severe crises can be described as: crisis – building of defence (resilience) – the need for creativity – a new culture – transcendence. It is rare that the whole process takes place, because some communities or people, by their nature, focus more on defence and while others on ideals.

New Czech Renaissance

History never repeats itself, only some of its elements do. According to humanity’s past experiences we have a longer and more colourful journey through life in crisis than we can appreciate right now. There is a threat of hunger, which can cause more deaths than a pandemic. But the weather has not stabilised either, nor have other threats disappeared, such as the onset of diseases that will no longer be treatable with antibiotics. Preliminary research points to many patients, even those with mild symptoms of Covid, experiencing brain damage and more frequent and severe heart attacks, and this includes seemingly resilient young people. In addition, the compound crises of the past consisted of disparate elements such as volcanic eruptions, new agricultural practices and changes in political regimes. I don’t know for sure, but I would expect several years of chaotic and occasionally brutal periods.

And yet I catch myself looking towards the future with joy and almost optimism. Covid showed that the Czech nation as a whole is quite a pleasant and responsible ethnic group and that the Czech Republic, along with the rest of Central Europe, remains an island of normality in an otherwise turbulent world. I believe that we won’t be able avoid some sort of fundamentally positive, national renaissance, similar to the one at the end of 15th century.


Václav Cílek (b. 1955) is a Czech geologist, climatologist, writer, philosopher, and populariser of science. He graduated from the Mining Institute and Faculty of Natural Science of Charles University, and became involved in the study of hydrothermal deposits. Later, he studied samples brought from the Moon by Russian satellites. Thirty years ago, he began to focus on climate change and environmental issues. He combines a knowledge of the humanities with the natural sciences. He is the author of around 400 scientific articles and several books, including the award-winning Inscapes and Landscapes and Makom Book of Places. He was awarded the Tom Stoppard Prize (2004) for his essay work and the Vaclav Havel Foundation Vize 97 Prize in 2009. 

Images were taken by Tereza Stehlíková, on the 39th day of the UK lockdown, in April 2020. They were photographed through broken and water softened pieces of glass, washed out on the Thames beach, just outside Tate Modern Art Gallery.

Translation from Czech by Tereza Stehlíková