At A Certain Point, People Just Forget

Human knowledge does not last forever. We, as a society, do not retain every small thing that we know simply by virtue of the fact that we knew it once upon a time. Knowledge, if not used, disappears. It has happened before, it will happen again.

Gothic Art
Contrary to what some may believe, Gothic-period art was not the result of an artistic movement per se. Gothic art is the result of European society's having literally lost the knowledge once commonly held by the Greek and Roman empires. Consider that icon of the period: the Gothic arch:
Courtesy wetcanvas.com
One is free to believe that Gothic arches are beautiful as architectural structures. Setting aside questions of aesthetic value, however, the fact of the matter is that Gothic arches came into existence because Europeans forgot how to do this:
Courtesy Wikipedia
How did they forget? Well, it's simple. Their religious leaders told them that the pagans and their witchcraft was evil, so they burned the libraries and destroyed the knowledge. After a while, everyone who once knew how to do these things died off. For aesthetic reasons, we may take solace in the fact that the loss of this knowledge resulted in another kind of beauty, found in the Gothic arch. But the Roman arch wasn't just beautiful, it was also useful. It was the literal foundation of the Aqueduct.

But, the whole Gothic period of art represents failed attempts to recreate the art of the Greeks and Romans. Gothic paintings, for example, are nearly bereft of depth perception. Like the drawings that young children produce, "far away" objects are shown small and high up on the canvas, while near-field objects appear large and at the bottom. The art is crude and poorly expressed. This isn't a matter of taste and preference, it is nothing more than the loss of knowledge. The Gothic artists were attempting realism, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans did. But the medieval artists didn't know how to do it. It wasn't until the Renaissance that the required techniques were rediscovered.

That is precisely why the Renaissance is called "The Renaissance." It was a rebirth of artistic knowledge that was thought to be lost forever.

The Cognitive Time-Horizon
Those who chose to destroy the Greek and Roman libraries obviously had a very short cognitive time-horizon. They could not think past their silly religious myths, and they doomed the ages to one thousand years of ignorance with respect to the Roman achievements. Think how long a thousand years is. An eon. A millennium. Their preposterous myopia, fueled by their dictatorial religion, resulted in misery for fifty generations of human beings. Fifty generations, think about that.

Clearly, when we are talking about fifty generations, no one person has sufficiently long a cognitive time-horizon to provide meaningfully for the future. We cannot possibly expect the knowledge of a few Roman geniuses to endure that long, while the dogmatists are burning books.

What we see in modern history, however, is that it does not take longer than a single generation to eradicate knowledge in a single society. Consider Bangladesh, for example. The Pakistani government slaughtered Bangladeshi intellectuals during the violent period of the 60s and 70s. Once they were gone, the Bangladeshi people had to rediscover all the art, language, philosophy, history, etc. that previously flourished in the region. In some sense, when one travels to Dhaka, one has the impression that this knowledge was never truly rediscovered. In the meantime, the people of Bangladesh have established a new set of knowledge, a new way of doing things. No matter what the benefits of these new ideas are, the old knowledge once held by the intellectuals of the first half of the 20th Century is gone, for the most part. The future is all that they have.

We also see this phenomenon in the Western world, with respect to nuclear physics. Because nuclear energy is highly controversial, and because nuclear weaponry is widely understood to be an atrocity, the field of nuclear physics - and especially its more practical subsidiary, nuclear engineering - attracts few new students these days. If we do not nurture this kind of knowledge, it will soon be lost as all the experts retire and die off.

War And The Cognitive Time-Horizon
We also see knowledge dying off with respect to America's wars in the Middle East. The destruction of the World Trade Center occurred over a decade ago. Since then, the United States has been at war in the Middle East.

The wars have dragged on for so long that American citizens no longer really understand what it means that their country has occupied a whole region of the world with military force for a period of over ten years.

When we think about drone strikes, we think about them with a very short cognitive time-horizon in mind. Any given drone strike seems reasonable to us, if the intelligence is reliable. Why not bomb a terrorist if we know where he is and what he is up to? The problem with this sort of thinking is not in the lone drone-bombing, but in the fact that the drone bombing have been ongoing for a period of over ten years. No one community should be forced to endure multiple-bombings-per-week for a period of months, much less years. What on Earth are we doing? How can we justify these atrocities?

We cannot. And what's more, none of us do, because none of us conceive of these bombings as they really exist for their victims. We have no concept of "multiple-bombings-per-week-for-a-period-of-years-on-end" because whenever we think about drone killings, our cognitive time-horizons are focused on the short run.

Today, I argue that we are no longer in the short run. Our wars have been going on for over ten years. Whatever the supposed merits of a few drone attacks, they disappear when applied to the time-horizon of years. Whatever were once the benefits of the so-called "war on terror," those benefits disappear when we consider that this has been going on for over a decade.

It cannot continue. It is not tenable any longer. We cannot be the lone aggressor in a ten-years-war against a group of people who have no political designation and no clear, hierarchical leadership.

Like the medieval dogmatists who burned down the Roman libraries, we are acting in defiance of the future. We are careening down a murderous path without perspective on the fact that it is now ten years later and ten years of war takes a toll on the occupied nations. We're losing touch with the knowledge that we are bombing real people - innocent people, in many cases. We're losing all perspective.

The result of this loss can only be a desensitization to war. Even this past election cycle, the debate was over "defense spending." Defense spending, not the funding of a decade-long occupation of multiple Middle Eastern nations. We don't even use the correct language anymore.

Frankly, it's frightening. No one can justify this.


  1. Hi, I'm a visitor from RWCG. There were some good points in this post but, for me, they were marred by:

    1) Architectural errors. The Gothic arch is superior to the Roman arch both in strength and flexibility and it therefore allows for the creation of bigger, more complex structures with less stone: http://www.visitingdc.com/images/notre-dame-de-paris.jpg.

    2) Discredited theories of decline. The fall of the Western Empire was a collapse of complexity and security rather than a matter of deliberate self-stupefaction by religious idiots. I don't know what your source is -- Gibbon? -- but the Eastern Empire, which fell only in 1453 and was thus culturally continuous with the united Roman Empire, was a Christian empire which retained the Roman portfolio of technologies and the corpus of classical science and philosophy; this shows that the religious element is not controlling.

    3) A simplistic and misleading account of technological change. The disappearance of major public works like aqueducts during the medieval period is to be expected when there is no longer a massive, internally secure state to sponsor them. But the medievals surpassed the Romans on a number of technological fronts -- shipbuilding, agriculture, textiles, metallurgy -- so it's nearly as facile to say that the medievals "forgot" Roman skills as it would be to say that we moderns have "forgotten" lath-and-plaster wall construction or how to carve fiddles in our garages. It's more accurate to say that the requisite economic niche ceased to exist for social reasons.

    4) Equivocating on the word "European". Perhaps most importantly, the medievals simply were not the same people as the Romans. Roman civilization was always more focused on the Mediterranean than on Europe as we think of Europe; by the time the Empire was divided, the eastern half was far richer and more important, with Italy itself having declined to be something of a backwater. Therefore, the medievals are best though of, not as regressed Romans but, but as Romanized barbarians who needed to learn all of the arts of civilization from scratch. The Merovingian kings, for instance, were upwardly mobile barbarian chieftains whose ancestors had lived in thatched huts, not Romans who'd forgotten how to build in marble.


    1. Hi there, and thanks for reading!

      Well, first things first, let me say that I am out-matched on the historical component here. I won't push too hard on minute points here. The thrust of my argument is that (a) If people don't use the knowledge they have, that knowledge goes away; (b) There are real, tangible examples of this in the history of civilization; and most importantly (c) I observe this happening with respect to the United States' wars.

      We may choose to quibble about the finer points of European art history, but such academic points in no way reconcile the war question, which is my main point here.

      So I welcome your corrections above, and concede my errors. I feel the main point still stands, however.

      Thanks again!