Prophet of the Pandemic

Psychological Contagion and the Roots of Conflict

Luke Burgis
5 min readAug 18, 2021


The great French social theorist René Girard spent a large part of his career studying plagues and pandemics in ancient literature. He noticed something fascinating: in every instance, the psychological contagion that spread fear and anxiety and led to faction-forming is inseparable from the microbial and infectious contagion that caused a health crisis.

In fact, the word most frequently used for “plague” in ancient Greece (in both Sophocles and Thucydides) is nosos, which simply means “sickness.” When there is a civil war between Greek cities, it is described as a nosos. Likewise, the plague that devastates Thebes in the famous story of Oedipus Rex is a nosos.

Isn’t it also interesting that the case of the plague in Thebes is attributed to the breaking of social taboos by Oedipus? He killed his father and married his mother. For this social transgression, Oedipus caused a microbial infection. He must be killed or banished from society so that the plague will end.

For centuries people have read this story (and many others like it) as fanciful mythologies—what silly, pre-scientific people they were, attempting to put an end to a plague by punishing incest!

But what the Greeks knew—perhaps even better than we do—is that the disruption to the biological order and the disruption to the social order are one and the same.

Nothing has changed. Human nature remains the same. If anything, our perceived mastery over nature and our technological advancements have only bolstered our pride and our blindness to the psychological, social, and spiritual sickness that will last long after the virus is under control.

If we had even one measure of competence in anthropological and social issues—an understanding of basic features of humanity—for every 10 measures of scientific study and epidemiological press conferences, we’d be in far better shape. As it stands now, though, the pandemic is still seen primarily through a materialist lens without eyes to see the people, in the fullness of their humanity, who are struggling to make it.

If you’d like even a minor glimpse into the depth of that problem, here is a reply left on a YouTube video that…



Luke Burgis

Author of “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” Find more at