Throughout history, disasters have tended to bring people together and cause a feeling of community between people who normally wouldn’t say two words to each other. However, there is one kind of disaster that does the opposite and actually mimics Hobbes’ idea of a state of nature: epidemic.
In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a major plague strikes Athens during the war killing 1/3 of the population of Athens. Thucydides explains how the citizens began to give up hope and trust in the oracles. He also says unaffected people were afraid to visit the sick who in turn, “died with no one to look after them.” (Thucydides 154) These conditions clearly mimic Hobbes’ idea of state of nature. People abandoning all beliefs and being concerned with nothing but their own preservation is indicative of the true nature of humans. There were some people who were exceptions to this and helped out the sick with no concern for their safety, but a vast majority of the populace was merely concerned with their own health. Thucydides also comments on the chaos brought upon by the plague saying that it caused, “the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness.” (Thucydides 155) Instead of the cooperation of people, citizens were committing crimes with no fear of sentencing because of looming death and acting with no regards to the law.
In Rebecca Solnit’s “The Uses of Disaster”, she says that the interruption caused by disaster can, “provide a satisfaction so profound it transcends even disaster’s devastation.” (Solnit, 32) Generally people do not feel satisfied or a sense of community during or in the aftermath of a plague. Most of the time, people are avoiding each other in order to not get sick. During an epidemic, people become less concerned about their neighbors’ safety and more concerned with their own well-being. Solnit also talks about how large groups of people come together to help the victims of a major disaster. This is the opposite of what would happen in the event of an epidemic. The coming together of a large amount of people would most likely make the disease spread faster and to more victims. Ailing people are actually encouraged to stay away from others in order to keep the disaster to a minimum.
On campus today, it is easy to see the affects of a pandemic on society. When students are spotted with medical facemasks, others make sure to steer clear for fear of catching the H1N1 flu. We are more concerned with not getting sick ourselves than helping sick individuals. The affects of H1N1 on campus are a very small-scale example of the conditions an epidemic would cause on society. Students aren’t running around the street breaking laws and giving up their beliefs but there is a definite attitude change as to how willing they are to help others.
Most large-scale disasters cause people to join together and form communities to help others. Epidemics and plagues work in the opposite way causing people to separate from one another and revert back to a small-scale Hobessian state of nature.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. Introduction and Notes by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.
Solnit, Rebecca. “The Uses of Disaster: Notes on bad weather and good government.” Harper’s Magazine October 2005. 31-37