When I was in high school and studying ancient history, I often wondered how great ancient civilizations fell. Not only did they fall, but what followed was often hundreds of years of dark ages. How did their accumulated knowledge get lost? The Egyptians had their vast wealth, accumulated over centuries. The Greeks had their beautiful art. The Romans had their powerful military. 

Photo Illustration by Carrie Zeidman

I knew that many civilizations were destroyed by barbarians with inferior weapons but greater numbers and greater ferocity. But how was all that knowledge lost? Beautiful buildings were destroyed but also the mathematical and architectural knowledge needed to rebuild them. Ancient civilizations knew how to build arches and columns, but Medieval Europeans needed flying buttresses, jury-rigged scaffolding, to keep their buildings from collapsing. The Greeks knew about human skeletons and musculature to sculpt emotionally powerful statues. They understood perspective to paint complex landscapes. Yet Medieval sculptures were flat, often out of proportion, and without detail. Medieval paintings were two dimensional, simplistic.

As a young man up until the 1980s, I feared nuclear war from outside enemies. Now I fear destruction from within.

Could this ever happen to modern civilization? I grew up in North Philly with a middle class but fairly intellectual group of kids. We played the normal games: wrestling, tag, hide-and-seek, and the now politically incorrect cops-and-robbers and cowboys-and-Indians. But after we were worn out, we would gather on the concrete steps of the front porches of our identical row houses, each identifiable only by the address numbers and an occasional awning or tree. We would discuss politics, history, religion, and other topics that our parents generally avoided. Where would we be in the year 2000? Would the ozone layer be depleted, requiring us to wear hazmat suits? Would we finally have flying cars? Spaceships to other planets? And the overarching question was, would civilization survive? If it ended, it would most certainly be from nuclear war—we could imagine no other reason. Certainly our American values were strong and universally held by all American citizens. And our world-class education system and our advanced technology would prevent us from losing our knowledge of math, science, and art.

Years later, I discovered that many of these great ancient civilizations crumbled from within. Or the fall  was at least accelerated by serious internal problems. Rome, for example, had huge financial deficits, high unemployment, and oppressive taxation leading to soaring inflation. Crime was also destructive in the form of bands of pirates. Government corruption and political instability further sped up the collapse.

As a young man up until the 1980s, I feared nuclear war from outside enemies. Now I fear destruction from within. Contrary to what my childhood friends had always assumed about the future, our advanced technology is now used by Big Tech oligarchs to censor information and suppress debate rather than spread information and encourage debate. Our education system teaches anti-science and anti-math where right answers matter less than who is performing the calculation. Our society has created a caste system based on skin color, ethnic background, and sexual activity. Being in a particular group gives you a preferences over others. Gives you opportunities over more qualified employees.

Even the study of history has been distorted and corrupted to support today’s woke agenda. They teach that America was not founded on freedom, justice, and opportunity but rather as a means for enforcing the opposite values of slavery, injustice, and repression. As during the Dark Ages, our younger generations are losing the information they need to improve on society, to build upon it, to make it better. This is exactly how knowledge gets lost for generations—teachers indoctrinate the young with misinformation, oligarchs suppress debate, idealogues ostracize nonbelievers, governments punish nonconformists. The words of the ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero in the novel A Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell, come to mind: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.”

I no longer wonder how great civilizations collapse and how important knowledge is lost for centuries. I’m afraid I’m seeing it happen right before my eyes.