Lessons from the distant past tell us that viruses can be powerful positive catalysts in our civilisation
One tiny piece of DNA, surrounded by a layer of proteins, floating in a droplet of water tinier than the eye can see. That’s all it is, that’s all it takes, to change the course of an entire species, an entire civilisation. A tiny molecule barely visible even on a regular microscope, yet powerful enough to change the course of history, as it has done hundreds of times before: from mysterious illnesses that wiped out ancient civilisations, to the viruses that wiped out much of indigenous Native American populations, to the famous Plague of Athens that brought down an empire.
The coronavirus, and any virus, is a message from Earth. A message that no matter how different and powerful humans think they are, they are still connected to the rest of Earth, literally. All viruses begin their invasion by using a lock-and-key mechanism: their proteins are counterfeit keys that unlock the gates of our cells, masquerading themselves as delivery vehicles. However many times we change the lock through evolution, a virus will always evolve that will find the magic combination to break in. It is a cat and mouse game that humans and viruses have played for millions of years, but it is unclear who is the mouse and the cat. It is irrelevant. Without a lock there is no key, without a key there is no lock. On this planet, we are all connected. Viruses enter our body and commit suicide when the host dies. There is a beauty to this tragedy, a full circle moment, when the lock finds its key. And the learning is that everything is connected. Species that disrespect other species, treat them as separate, will come face to face with the key that will unlock them and destroy them. There is always a balance between locks and keys in the ecosystem. If the locks become too many, keys multiply to reduce them. If the keys become too many, they die without their lock.
A Viracle Miracle
Just before the plague, ancient Athens was at its height: it had become an arrogant, capitalist empire. Its fleet of ships would roam the Aegean and even further afield into the colonies, bullying their way into collecting taxes for the Empire from “lesser peoples”. It was truly an empire of modern proportions, driven by the same vices of today’s capitalism: greed, subjugation, exploitation.
And then the virus arrived, at the worst possible moment for Athens. Under siege by the Spartans for years, and crowded inside the confines of the ancient citadel, Athenians were the perfect target for a virus. Once it struck, it rapidly spread and decimated a huge proportion of the population. The war ended with victory for the Spartans.
But out of the ashes of this civilisation, a new one was born. A new Athens that was almost the entire opposite of the one before: humble and less materialistic. This Athens was penniless: the Spartans had burned all the ships, so there were no taxes to collect, no pottery and olive oil to export. The economic powerhouse of Athens, which ruled the Eastern Mediterranean, was over. People were living a meagre existence and going back to basic living. What was Athens going to export now?
Yes, the Greek Philosophers that we all know and love, that we still read and lean on for guidance even today, came not out of the glorious Athens we all know. They came out of the destroyed, humbled Athens. Although this Athens never reached the economic dominance of its predecessor, it dominated the rest of human history and civilisation with its arts and philosophy, to this day. A philosophy that came out of the trauma of death and destruction, out of coming face to face with a virus, and letting go of the addiction to money. The new Athenians were a new breed. Having lost everything, they started contemplating the purpose of human existence. They became philosophers. Some of the most famous Athenian philosophers were easily mistaken for beggars walking in the Agora, led by their hunger to understand what makes a human, a citizen, a social activist, a good or bad person. Freedom of speech, the right to self-determination, and existentialism were born. All of this because of a virus, to which we owe so much today.
Coronavirus is our Humbling Moment. But it can also transform our civilisation.
to be continued…