Love and Death

Algis Valiunas follows the grossest accounts of great authors about human reactions to plagues, giving the impression that these reactions are limited to degradation and heroism (“In Plague Time,” Summer 2020). We have no reason to doubt Thucydides’ account that the prospect of imminent death led the Athenian people to abandon law and decency, nor Boccaccio’s beguiling description of the psychological mechanisms by which people sought to divert attention from the awful (what Montaigne called “the vulgars’ remedy”), nor Daniel Defoe’s gross painting of casual deaths. Alas, the prospect of death seldom improves humans. But that is a lesson too easily learned and of little usefulness. So is the fact—all too evident among us today—that fear, even unfounded, is a powerful motivator that only heroic effort can overcome.

Had Valiunas focused a bit more on Samuel Pepys and Alessandro Manzoni, he might well have pointed to natural habits of the heart that, Hobbes notwithstanding, even fear of imminent death often is powerless to cancel—namely common sense and love. Consideration of these is instructive in itself and peculiarly useful in our circumstances.

Pepys, it seems—wrapped up as he was in his career and focused on his collection of fine wines—reacted

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