Progress bereft of achievement leaves us worse off than before

I have a framed print in my office. I like it, but it is also there to remind me of something important.

The painting is of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome, showing the great dome towering above the figures below. The people depicted are not dressed as Roman citizens of the time when the building was constructed, the beginning of the second century A.D. Instead, they are wearing clothing from the Middle Ages. What makes the painting interesting is that none of the people pictured in that structure knew how it was built.

The point, to me, is to remember that just because time progresses, society does not necessarily get better nor civilizations advance. Despite what we would like to believe, they often get worse.

In the case of our medieval Italians, time had passed and, rather than accumulating a better lifestyle and more knowledge, they had lost much of what was known before.

The secret of the concrete used in the construction of the Pantheon was lost by the disintegration of the Roman Empire and it wasn’t just lost for a little while, it was lost for 1,000 years.

People in Rome walked through buildings and by monuments they were not able to reconstruct and saw examples of knowledge and technology they could not reproduce.

They drank from aqueducts they could not adequately repair and much of their life was less comfortable than the lives of those who lived in the city hundreds of years before them.

Medicine, astronomy and engineering all fell back and, hundreds of years after their authors’ deaths, the rediscovered works of Aristotle and Galen were thought to be the leading texts in science and medicine.

This brings us to our modern view, where many seem to believe that no matter how much punishment we inflict on society, we will continue to progress in the comfort and convenience of our people. This is not usually the case.

Bad choices in leaders and government often result in worse situations in the future than were in the past. While the general thrust of civilization, at least in much of the Western world, has been toward a higher quality of living, large portions of history have seen that progress regress from poor choices and pandering leadership.

Two things seem to run through the collapse of great societies: redistribution to those who do not labor to win their support and the taxation to pay for it.

To the early Romans, work, achievement and practicality were what marked them as achievers, while discipline and innovation gave them one of the most effective militaries the world has ever seen.

The term “Cives Romani,” a citizen of Rome, was a goal many worked to achieve and was not handed out lightly.

The Roman state had many unattractive features but was still mainly held together by pride and common sense.

As the citizens’ work grew, coffers filled and demagogues realized that by distributing free food and entertainment, the people could be subverted and they could do as they pleased.

It didn’t happen all at once, but when enough of the people began to live at the indulgence of the state, the strengths of the Roman people began to disappear and the powerful armies were replaced by indifferent hirelings.

Fewer people worked and those who did paid more. Emperors debased the currency and seized the property of the wealthy, but eventually, even that failed and the empire fell.

President Obama likes to speak of moving forward, but what is the destination? Forward doesn’t mean anything unless you know what you’re moving toward. Are you moving up, down or over the edge of a cliff?

Movement means nothing by itself and progress isn’t a good thing if you’re progressing toward a bad result.

This week, some in the media wished to pretend Mitt Romney made a mistake pointing out something alarming out about our society when he underlined the danger of too many people reliant on the power of the state to redistribute wealth for political gain.

This seems to be the forward motion to which the president is referring. Let’s hope we remember the lesson of the Pantheon.

Rick Wagner writes more on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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