We were all riding high only recently, and suddenly, there’s not enough on the shelves of the grocery stores. How should we think about it all? The virtue of a curriculum like that at our college is that the sweep of it encompasses the memory of the most extraordinary challenges to human nature. Pandemics or plagues have afflicted human beings since the beginning of recorded history.

This week, as the students have left campus and headed back to their homes, faculty and administrators have been working to take classes online and somehow translate the spirit so unique to Wyoming Catholic College, including seminars, horseback riding, outdoor adventure, and presence not distracted by mobile phones. We are famous for our technology policy—and suddenly, we’re dependent on technology to keep this semester going. Before this week, I confess, I had no idea what a Zoom conference was; by tomorrow afternoon, I will be well into my fourth or fifth one. Everyone is either posting or watching instructional videos about Populi, Google Hangouts, and all the other things that my children and grandchildren already know all about. It’s getting easier and easier to fall into the role of an old Reagan-era naïf. (Why, I remember when the hard drive on a $1200 computer had 40 MB.)

I have been thinking today about the legend of St. Patrick casting the snakes out of Ireland and wishing that COVID-19 could suddenly be banished from the world through his intercession. Never in my lifetime—with the one exception of September 11, 2001—have I seen the normal circumstances of the nation change with such rapidity. Early last week, the story seemed still distant to Wyoming, but in a very few days, the necessity to make decisions affecting hundreds of people became more and more evident. On Friday, in the course of three intense meetings, I radically changed my own idea about what we should do and how long we had to do it. By Saturday morning, with a case of the coronavirus already present a mile away in Lander, there was no longer a question. This week, as someone in a newspaper story put it, the whole month of March seems to have been canceled.

How should we think about it all? The great virtue of a curriculum like ours is that the depth and sweep of it encompasses, not only the greatest ideas, but also the memory of the most extraordinary challenges to human nature. Pandemics or plagues have afflicted human beings since the beginning of recorded history and written literature. Our freshman encounter this phenomenon, for example, at the beginning of the Iliad, one of the first books they read. Agamemnon refuses to accept the ransom for a girl he has captured, ignoring the fact that her father is a priest of Apollo, who sends down a plague on the whole army. Before Achilles intervenes to ask for a soothsayer’s advice, many men die because of the king’s selfishness. Later that first semester, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, a plague afflicts the ancient city of Thebes, and the citizens come to beg King Oedipus to save them now as he once before saved the city from the terrifying Sphinx. Oedipus proudly undertakes this mission. He discovers that the plague will end when the killer of King Laius, Oedipus’ predecessor, is brought to light and expelled from the city. All he must do is find the killer. But as the plot unfolds, Oedipus discovers to his increasing horror that all the contagion owes to his own unspeakable but unwitting crimes.

From an Enlightenment perspective, Homer and Sophocles pull greater darkness upon his audience with his insistence that great public miseries can be intimately tied to private violations, even if the crimes are unknown to the ones who commit them. These days, we rush to disassociate moral action from public consequences. But should we be so sure? I will leave it to those with prophetic insight to discern what kinds of unacknowledged crimes we have committed. This week, no question, we are all wholeheartedly on the side of modern science and general enlightenment (good hygiene, social distancing, the search for a vaccine, more and better testing) in stopping the spread of COVID-19, but we are also being reminded that what would once have been, perhaps, a local or provincial phenomenon has become a global one because of the ease and rapidity of travel and the worldwide reach of trade.

We pray that the results of this pandemic will not be like those of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. Historians are still exploring its effect on the thought of Europe and the coherence of Christendom. Somewhat like it was the Spanish Flu of a century ago, or the other plague our freshman read about in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The symptoms that Thucydides enumerates (and he had the disease himself) are far more gruesome and deadly than the novel coronavirus, and modern scientists have still not succeeded in identifying the disease. The Athenian population, greatly enlarged by the countrymen crowding into the city from their farms to escape the invading Spartans, fell prey to this deadly plague, and all sense of boundaries fell away. Men became “utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.” Law gave way entirely. “Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none,” writes Thucydides, “it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object.” In other words, why should anyone strive for the difficult achievements that earn honor? Rather, “it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”

Ironically, the plague comes upon Athens immediately after Thucydides’ account of the glory of Athens in Pericles’ famous funeral oration. Like Athens, we were all riding high only recently, and the stock market kept breaking record after record on its upward course. And now, suddenly, there’s not enough on the shelves of the grocery stores. Our neighbor who works at Safeway told us today about a woman who came in early in this morning to fill two shopping carts with toilet paper. A limit of two per customer has since been imposed. In the meantime, just by the way, my household is accepting contributions.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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The featured image is “Oedipus Separating from Jocasta” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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