In 1518, Europe saw an outbreak of plague, and it sent a shock through the civilised world. The outbreak began sometime in July of that year when a woman in Strasbourg began to shake, quake, jump, writhe, fling out how her legs, and throw around her arms. By late August, hundreds of people were doing the same. The plague ravaged this small population. The local bishop came to say prayers over the victims, and many doctors arrived with the hope of treating the sickness. The true cause remains unknown to this day. It infected both adults and children, and those afflicted often ‘danced’ until they collapsed from exhaustion or dehydration. It is not known how many perished. Pieter Brueghel the Elder witnessed the early events and portrayed them in an engraving.
The 16th century event described above is known today as the Dancing Plague of 1518. This outbreak was not a unique event. Variants of this plague had emerged in other locations in Europe. In fact, central Europe had been afflicted with bouts of this plague for over eight-hundred years, and it would sporadically continue in other locations for another hundred years or so. In Italy, they wrongly believed it was caused by a bite from a foreign species of spider.
The name of this condition is “choreomania,” literally “dance-insanity.” One who catches choreomania does not know he has it. Had you grabbed someone from the crowd, given him a shake, performed one or two remedial face-slaps, and demanded he snap out of it, he would have looked at you as if you were mad and thrown himself back into the mob of boogying lunatics.
Interestingly, choreomania often coincided with outbreaks of viral infections or flus, and some suggest that choreomania was not itself a genuine plague but rather the outward expression of built-up anxiety in the face of some other disease. In this sense, you might say, it was the graver sickness, as it theatrically displayed the underlying distress of hyper-anxiety and deep-felt fear that, in fact, has the effect of crippling the nervous system and corrupting the immune system, potentially turning a mild virus into something more serious. To the outsider, the behaviour of choreomaniacs was ridiculous, but from within the crowd everyone looked normal, and everyone was doing the same normal thing, something that marked a perfectly fitting display of how they all felt.
Choreomania may be back. It is now clear that COVID is a relatively non-serious virus for the vast majority of people who are infected with it. The fear-mongering by which it has been accompanied, however, is both staged and extreme. As a result of this fear-mongering, all around the world people are behaving in ways that are objectively odd, but seem increasingly normal on account of their ubiquity. It is not uncommon to see people driving alone in their vehicles wearing masks and rubber gloves, apparently terrified that the virus might be watching them from the backseat or climbing, ninja-like, onto the dashboard. The masks, gloves, sanitising gel, distancing, experimental medicines, ‘boosters,’ the home-imprisonments, hammy applauding of the health service, rainbows in windows, TikTok videos . . . we are dancing. Our behaviour in no way corresponds to the deadliness of the virus, nor is it a rational medical response in any case. It is a dance, like choreomania, expressing mass hysteria.
It may be argued that choreomania was an affliction proper to an age of superstition. We could not possibly behave like that in our mature, rational, and scientific age. In reality, however, we live in the age of superstition par excellence. If you consider our superstitions objectively, from transgenderism to the political veneration of a Nordic climate oracle, you will begin to see what a difficult time future historians will have in making sense of this, the darkest of dark ages. We are a deeply superstitious people, and no doubt there are those who have taken full advantage of this unfortunate characteristic over the past two years to effect massive economic- and power-shifts, none of which have been to the benefit of civil liberties, families, or small businesses. (Just think: at the time of writing, an armed force has been deployed by the Australian government to attack its own citizens who are peacefully requesting the return of those liberties that were never in the gift of the State anyway).
If our age is so superstitious, as I claim, why do we consider ourselves as anything but superstitious? The early Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico offers something of an explanation in his great work, the New Science. He argues that history unfolds in civilisational cycles, and every civilisation, when on its last legs, inevitably enters an age which he calls the ‘second barbarism.’ This is a deceptive age, for it is marked by a deep sense of moral and technological progress, and enormous confidence in scientific and industrial advancements is commonly felt. It is widely believed, in such an age, that the content of all knowledge is largely held in the human mind, having emancipated itself from all phantoms and shades of the intellect. In truth, according to Vico, this confidence stems from an extremely truncated conception of the mind and its proper object, namely truth. It is easy to think that you possess everything, and that what is possessed is very great, when you have narrowed your purview so extensively that that everything is in fact very little.
Of course, the cyclical view of history has received countless criticisms ever since it was adopted by Oswald Spengler as the key to understanding the life of civilisations, but so too it has never been refuted. Indeed, the notion of Yuga Cycles is a central concept in the Hindu understanding of history, a concept sufficiently robust to have lasted since the compilation of the Four Vedas over three and half millennia ago. Yuga Cycles, themselves composed of innumerable cycles, each possess a special kind of civilisation under the patronage of a specific deity. Part of the genius of Christianity is its ability to bring the cyclical and linear conceptions of history into harmony. In the case of Vico’s theory, he sees the ‘second barbarism’ operating like a ‘civil disease’ that corrupts the polity from within, bringing the society in question to a close. He holds that this final stage in a civilisation’s life is characterised by four features: the prioritising of bureaucratic solutions for every problem, the unfettering of the most disordered passions and appetites, the corruption of manners, and the rise of superstitions. Sound familiar?
A people that holds that the dizzyingly complex question of personal identity can be solved by rallies and surgery, that believes that climate change is a human artefact over which we can gain control as if it were a machine, that believes viruses can be extinguished with chemicals and state-endorsed rituals, is a people with a very barbaric and superstitious culture. At present, all this is theatrically expressed with mutilations, riots, paraliturgies, penances, confessions, and coincides with bizarre policy, regulation, and legislation. From the Red Brigade of Extinction Rebellion to the revolutionary policies advanced by the Jacobins at the World Economic Forum, one can trace a single worldview with a single agenda, and regrettably it is completely mad. Such a people think that what they do is normal, but they are in fact choreomaniacs. They are dancing, and will soon collapse with exhaustion. Then the terrible and hazardous work of rebuilding the whole town will have to begin.
Sebastian Morello was trained in philosophy by Sir Roger Scruton, by whom he was supervised for his master’s and doctoral degrees. He is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist, and has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.