On Dissolute Mirth and Gaiety during the Pandemic

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/03/2020 - 8:47am in

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We are informed by Thucydides, that, during the famous plague of Athens, when death seemed present to every one, a dissolute mirth and gaiety prevailed among the people, who exhorted one another to make the most of life as long as it endured. The same observation is made by Boccace with regard to the plague of Florence. A like principle makes soldiers, during war, be more addicted to riot and expence, than any other race of men. Present pleasure is always of importance; and whatever diminishes the importance of all other objects must bestow on it an additional influence and value.--David Hume "The Sceptic"

The quoted passage is in the service of one of two examples that are intended to show, in concessive and backhanded manner, that philosophical book learning can have an effect on our actions ("in books of philosophy, from which any important effect is to be expected.") I say 'backhanded' because the sceptic thinks that in this instance the philosophical text is merely echoing "common life, and occur upon the most superficial view of human affairs." I use 'concessive' because on the whole Hume's sceptic thinks philosophical texts are, we may say, impotent when it comes to inspiring action.

But Hume's sceptic grants that reading in Thucydides about the mirth and gaiety of the Athenians during the plague, would inspire us to mirth and gaiety during our own, say, epidemic. And in so doing we would, in the face of an epidemic, seize the day, that is to say, philosophically, when imminent death seems likely, we greatly discount the future. It is notable that the sceptic insists on saying the same thing in two registers, viz.,of the so-called vulgar and of the philosophers.

As an aside, 'the sceptic' treats Thucydides and Boccaccio as philosophical authors. This is somewhat amusing because elsewhere Hume, in his own voice, calls the latter an "agreeable libertine" ("Of the Standard of Taste"), not something one can imagine anyone saying about Thucydides (whom Hume always treats with respect and the deference due the first reliable authority).

Be that as it may, the sceptic does not mention the social mechanism emphasized by Thucydides (in Hobbes' translation), "seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods even for their pleasure, as men that thought they held their lives but by the day." It isn't just the widespread nearness of death that causes 'licentiousness,' but in particular the undermining effect of death on social hierarchy that causes the dissolution of mores into mirth and gaiety. 

Obviously the sceptic may be right that Thucydides' particular mechanistic explanation may be irrelevant for the claim she wishes to make; and that all that matters to spur us to mirth and gaiety is the description of seizing the day in light of the mortal effects of the plague. Of course, reading such a description is neither necessary nor presumably sufficient to spur on licentiousness during an pandemic. But it may be a triggering cause.

It is peculiar that a predictable side effect of pandemics is dissolute mirth and gaiety. Compared to the panic that seizes the mind in anticipation of invisible, microscopic death creeping up on unsuspecting victims, dissolute mirth and gaiety sounds, even to those that prefer stable social expectations, almost like consolation.