Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lost Worlds

Reflections on a Visit to Pont du Gard

            On a recent study trip in Europe I visited the Pont du Gard.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Fittingly, the visit provoked thoughts about world history.
In the first century, when the Christian movement was just beginning, the Romans built an aqueduct to bring water from a mountain spring to a “colony” town called Nemausus (Nimes) in what is now southern France.  The uneven terrain of the region required a winding route for the system, more than 31 miles, digging through hillsides and leveling out depressions, so that the water could flow downhill all the way.  The aqueduct had to cross a river valley (the Gardon River), so the engineers built a bridge, consisting of three tiers of arches, and the water flowed in a covered canal on the top.
            The Pont du Gard and its bridge are a marvel of precision.  The canal on top of the bridge descends about 1 inch, a gradient of 1 to 18,241.  The 31-mile aqueduct descends 41 feet over its whole length.  Once completed, this gravity-glow system provided Nimes with water for baths, drinking, and fountains.  And the system worked, with little maintenance, for four or five centuries.  (Would your city’s water system last that long?)
            But even Roman engineering breaks down with no maintenance.  The empire fell to invading Goths, Visigoths, and other barbarians.  Without periodic cleaning, mineral buildup clogged the aqueduct and the water ceased.  For more than 1000 years, Nimes, like other medieval cities, depended on wells or local streams for water.  In medieval times, cities often had higher rates of disease than the countryside, because concentrated populations depended on limited or polluted water sources.
            Many Roman structures were destroyed by people who picked them apart, one massive stone at a time, as resources for other projects.  The Pont du Gard, though it no longer carried water, continued to serve as a bridge over the Gardon valley.  Medieval lords could charge tolls for wagons and horse traffic, so they protected the structure from looters.  In the last two centuries, governments have taken care to protect it as a tourist destination.
            What did medieval people think when they looked at the Pont du Gard?  Century after century, it stood there, 160’ high and hundred more than 1000’ long, a massive and beautiful structure, far beyond the ability of any living man to design or any lord to finance.  Most likely, they knew that it once carried water, but probably none of them had any understanding of how precisely it had been built.  We cannot see inside their minds, but we imagine they felt some awe at the knowledge of the ancients.
            The world’s literature has many examples of the myth of the golden age.  The Greeks gave us the lost city of Atlantis, the Hebrews told the story of Babel, the Babylonians told of kings who lived for thousands of years, and there are similar stories in other cultures.  Common to such stories is the idea that our distant ancestors were greater than we are—richer, smarter, longer-lived, and/or more holy.
            It’s one thing to tell a story of the golden age.  It’s something else to see proof standing like the Pont du Gard over a river valley.  For more than a thousand years Europeans could see—not just at Pont du Gard but also at other sites—clear evidence that Roman material culture surpassed anything they could build.  The richest noble in his castle in 950 or 1250 lived much less comfortably than upper class Romans of the first century.  (Besides baths and fountains, the Romans built houses with heated floors—in Britain!)  Reflecting on the Pont du Gard and other such structures, Europeans knew there really had been a lost age, an age when people knew more than they did.
            We can suppose that belief in the lost age was part of a medieval worldview.  But not in the modern world!  The recovery of ancient texts, the discovery of the new world, and especially the development of modern science brought a new idea, fundamental to the modern worldview, the idea of progress.  It’s not that we are smarter than our forebears, but we build on their accomplishments.  So we know more than any previous generation.  In the future we will learn even more, so human progress is potentially unlimited. 
To get a sense of the confidence of a modern worldview, try the novels of Jules Verne, e.g. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  The height of modern confidence in progress probably came in the 19th century.  Science and technology had produced railroads, telegraphs, electric lights, steamships, and inoculations and other ways to fight disease.  With the birth of scientific psychology and sociology, humanity could expect progress on “spiritual” problems as well.
The 20th century was not kind to the modern belief in progress.  People continued to make scientific discoveries and develop new technologies, but the uses of our technologies frighten us: nuclear and biological weapons, pollution of land and sea, totalitarian use of communication, eugenics, global climate change, and others.  Is it possible that people will come to look back on a lost age, an age when our ancestors did not know what we know or do what we can do, as better than ours?
Post-apocalyptic science fiction imagines a world like that of medieval Europeans.  A classic example is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, a story of monks living in a post-nuclear war world.  That’s not the sort of story I have in mind.  Post-apocalypse stories parallel the medieval experience; in such stories, the ancients are envied because of their knowledge and power, knowledge and power we no longer have.  I have in mind the opposite, where the ancients are envied for their ignorance and lack of power.
Philosophy has always said that knowledge is a good thing.  The post-modern idea that knowledge may be dangerous or bad is philosophically revolutionary.  Without wisdom, technology merely provides power.  So some philosophers of the 20th century (Jacques Ellul, for example) turned their attention to the dangers of technology.  In the 21st century, with technological power in the hands of terrorists or tyrants, we face horrible possibilities.  Global climate change confronts us with not possibility but virtual certainty of hardships.
The Pont du Gard is a beautiful bridge.  It stands as a reminder that engineering can make good things, things that improve human life.  It also symbolizes a lost world, a world lost through the loss of knowledge.  We stand at a time when we may long for a lost world, a world lost by the acquisition of knowledge.


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