Apocalypse Then: what would past ages have made of COVID-19?

By Sam Harrison (@seph1812)

As the implications of COVID-19 became clear last month, many of us began to ask why we had not done more to prepare for it: we had known for some time that the virus had the potential to become a pandemic, and for years experts had been warning successive British governments of the dangers of a flu-like pandemic.

But perhaps we should not have been quite so surprised. It is now over fifty years since scientists first started alerting the world to anthropogenic climate change. New evidence mounts every week to prove that the natural world is disintegrating around us, and we know full well that the implications of this for us are cataclysmic. And still we fail to take the drastic action that we know to be necessary.

Why are we incapable of taking the threat of social collapse seriously? In part, it seems to be a failure of the imagination: we simply cannot believe that systems might fail. This might seem an absurd proposition, in an age where disaster films and series proliferate: 2012, The Walking Dead, the list goes on. But the appeal of the disaster story should be seen as a symptom of our incapacity to recognise the very real threats around us: the destruction of civilisation is so much consigned to fantasy that we almost start to yearn for it. It is precisely our faith in the stability and permanence of society that allows us to take pleasure in envisaging its destruction. And notice that in all these narratives, we identify ourselves only with the survivors, allowing us to feel that we would be among those who, by luck or by skill, begin the challenge of rebuilding.

This is a historical novelty. For most of Europe’s history, the impermanence of all earthly societies was accepted as a matter of course. During the Reformation, Protestant writers such as Johann Sleidan (1506-1556) conceptualised world history through the ‘four monarchies’ model, based on an interpretation of the second chapter of the Book of Daniel. For Sleidan, four of these monarchies – the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires – had now passed, meaning that the fifth, the Kingdom of God, could not be far away.[1] It became natural to think of history in terms of the destruction of societies and states.

Although eschatological doom-mongering lost much of its force in the eighteenth century, writers continued to develop the theme of encroaching political and social catastrophe, often with slightly distasteful relish. Montesquieu (1689-1755) was convinced that every style of government – republic, monarchy and despotism – would be decayed by the growth of corruption, which is given a foothold by the government’s own excess. In France, the weakening of the nobility threatened to unbalance the state. Even Britain, whose mixed constitution seemed a paragon of stability, Montesquieu predicted, would eventually collapse when the legislative power became too overbearing.[2]

At the very end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) found himself musing on why human beings, whose numbers grew exponentially, had not already grown too numerous for the arithmetically increasing food supply. It must be, he concluded, that societies self-corrected by killing the excess numbers. If a society ever eliminated want, it would quickly collapse under the weight of its own population.[3] The influence of his thinking continued in the early nineteenth century.

This briefly changed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Political writers, like Edward Bellamy, as well as popular novelists like Jules Verne, wrote of the power of science to change every facet of life.[4] The future was increasingly conceptualised in terms of constant technological improvement and the idea that it promised the death of the state itself faded. But as the twentieth century progressed, the horrors of the two world wars, colonial, Communist and Fascist genocides, and the development of weapons of mass destruction ushered in a new age of pessimism about the future of society. In the 1940s and 1950s, writers across the political spectrum, from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno to Martin Heidegger, worried about the growing capacity of technology to destroy human beings.[5]

Optimism returned with the end of the Cold War and the apparent hegemony of liberal democracy. The spirit of it was symbolised in Francis Fukuyama’s famous work The End of History and the Last Man (1992) – an irony, given that Fukuyama intended the book partly to warn of the enervating effects of liberal predominance. The world seemed to be becoming inexorably richer, more liberal, more democratic, more open and technologically more advanced.

Of course, today we fancy ourselves less naïve. We know that climate change presents an existential threat, and polls suggest that we are starting to treat it as a priority at the ballot. But our politicians have been slow to act: it is perhaps no coincidence that most of them entered politics in the 1990s and early 2000s, when optimism was at its peak. We might well find that coronavirus and climate change have struck us at the very least fortuitous historical moment. The question now will be whether we can recognise the reality of ecological collapse, while retaining optimism enough to dream radically of the future.


[1] Alexandra Kess, Johann Sleidan and the Protestant Vision of History (London: Routledge, 2017).

[2] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Thomas Nugent trans. (Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001), pp.130-42; see also p.32, p.238, p.357.

[3] T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Donald Winch ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[4] Peter J. Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p.16.

[5] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, John Cumming trans. (London: Verso, 1997); Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ in Basic Writings, David Farrell Krell ed. and trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

Image: John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, oil on canvas, c.1851. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Apocalypse Then: what would past ages have made of COVID-19?

  1. On a micro-level, I don’t know if anyone’s interested in this (vaguely linked) post about a previous pandemic: https://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/royston/surviving-the-pandemic

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