Friday, September 2, 2011

Quote of the Day (Samuel Pepys, With a Study in Terror: London’s Great Fire)

“Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down. Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire: rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far as the Steele-yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs. ———— lives, and whereof my old school-fellow Elborough is parson, taken fire in the very top, an there burned till it fell down: I to White Hall (with a gentleman with me who desired to go off from the Tower, to see the fire, in my boat); to White Hall, and there up to the Kings closett in the Chappell, where people come about me, and did give them an account dismayed them all, and word was carried in to the King.”—The Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry for Sunday, September 2, 1666

Look past the archaic spelling and long sentences that might make this quote slightly foreign to modern readers. Concentrate on the word pictures created by Samuel Pepys, midlevel 17th-century British naval bureaucrat, and you’ll find not merely a diarist with an eye for masterful detail (the sentence on the “poor pigeons” is positively unforgettable) but someone who might be our contemporary as he chronicles how a society, blessed with greater freedom than any other known up to its time, almost collapses because of unexpected stress.

Today’s historians make sure to mention the good that followed the conflagration: the comparatively low loss of life, along with the new, more fire- and plague-resistant city that arose over the ashes of the four-fifths of the urban land area consumed in the three-day blaze. Pepys will have none of that. He knows that, whatever else the Great Fire of London has done, it has already had a deleterious impact on conduct.

Pepys is shocked to discover that nobody tries to quench the fire. Instead, it’s every man for himself, as people rush “to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire.” Because of failure to act and selfishness, nothing is immune from the blaze, “even the very stones of churches.” (In fact, more than 80 churches--including old St. Paul's--would burn to the ground.)

Similarly, although he is better known for description of battles and campaigns, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, in his classic History of the Peloponnesian War, after a highly clinical account of the plague (now believed to be typhoid fever) that took the lives of one-third of Athens in the summer of 430 B.C., describes, in equally exacting terms, the effect on the civic psyche:

“Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but 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. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.”

We have had hundreds, maybe thousands, more journalists, historians, fiction writers, even bloggers than were present in the ages of Thucydides and Pepys, but I’m not sure any surpassed them in analyzing the moral costs involved when cracks develop in civilization. Technology might have changed over the centuries, but human beings, for better or worse, have not altered so dramatically--something we might bear in mind as we remember the reaction of our own society under the pressure of a fathomless disaster a decade ago. (As this article from my local paper, The Bergen Record, indicates, the much-vaunted civic spirit following 9/11 started to erode by mid-decade. The costs of this decline to our already-divided society are enormous.)

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