The Plague and Early Modern Philosophy

Alessandro Manzoni’s novel I Promessi Sposi (1840-42) is set during Milan’s plague outbreak of 1629-30. In Don Ferrante’s rightly famous scholastic paralogism, the plague cannot exist because, being neither substance nor accident, it has no room in Aristotelian natural philosophy. Therefore, the great affliction must be something else, and public hysteria is unjustified… In this mocking episode fiction meets history. It reminds us that denialism and scepticism about epidemics are not recent phenomena and that Aristotelian natural philosophy was hindered by circular reasoning and disregard for empirical experience. The paper will discuss a hitherto little-known topic: the philosophical reactions to nature’s most threatening face, the plague. Famously, Lisbon’s devastating earthquake of 1755 prompted Voltaire to declare the end of theodicy. The plague was philosophically different. It was a series of shocking events which questioned traditional views of nature, evil and divine providence. It was also, crucially, incompatible with an Aristotelian worldview. Between fear, resignation and incomprehension, only changing natural philosophy could create the conditions for understanding the plague.