How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!
The thought of ghost towns has been on my mind as of late. Not so much the dilapidated wooden remnants of the old gold and silver prospecting communities scattered about the old American West, but the abandoned cities in the central and eastern United States. Some of these were abandoned when the local steel or paper mill closed down. Others were closed due to some type of pollution or environmental condition making living there unsafe. Whatever the cause, the sight of them left unkempt, and given back over to nature, has always been a source of both fascination and unsettlement to me.
I suppose what makes them both simultaneously, is seeing them as a consequential outcropping of both a natural consequence and divine judgment. They are a microcosm of an empire under the judgment of the wrath of abandonment (Romans 1). Like death from a thousand cuts, we collectively become a problem too large to fix, and thus, are discarded altogether. These abandoned places also remind us of our own society's impermanence.
IMG Source: Link
On a larger scale, you would think, given the reality that the world is littered with the remains of once-great (and some not-so-great) civilizations, the sight of these would be as commonplace as the remains of dead animals on the road, or fallen trees in the forest. But they're not. They are grown over by nature or remain off the beaten path, bypassed by newer roads. They remain disturbing because they also remind us not just of our own impermanence as a society, but as a species. We are, after all, mortal, finite beings, living in a finite world. Everything we have ever known has had an expiration date. If anything, change is the only constant we have ever known.
But it's more than that, isn’t it?
I mean, we have the luxury today of looking back through time and seeing all the empires that have come and gone. We feebly attempt to comprehend their existence from a historical-academic perspective, but we can't really know what it was like until it happens to us. What I mean to say is, the end of those civilizations, were not just some adventure in academia. Civilizations end all the time, and their endings, both past, and present were horrifically endured by someone. It wasn't academic for them; it was real life.
Consequences and Neglect
As part of my professional reading curriculum for the military, I was given the book, Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield some years ago. It was this book that was later made into the blockbuster movie 300 some years later. The story is about the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans making their last stand against the overwhelming hordes of the Persian King Xerxes at the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. While the story is a historically factual book, it is retold in fictional format, making it a “faction” of sorts. The entirety of the story was told by Xeones, who was a captured Greek soldier now serving in Xerxes's court. The most provoking story within this book that impacted me the most was not the famous battle at the 'Hot Gates' (as they were called), but when Xeones' town was sacked. Here was his chilling retelling of that event to King Xerxes.
His Majesty has presided over the sack of numberless cities and has no need to hear recounted the details of the week that followed. I will append the observation only, from the horror-benumbed apprehension of a boy shorn at one blow of mother and father, family, clan, tribe and city, that this was the first time my eyes had beheld those sights which experience teaches are common to all battles and all slaughters.
This I learned then: there is always fire.
An acrid haze hangs in the air night and day, and sulphurous smoke chokes the nostrils. The sun is the color of ash, and black stones litter the road, smoking. Everywhere one looks, some object is afire. Timber, flesh, the earth itself. Even water burns. The pitilessness of flame reinforces the sensation of the gods’ anger, of fate, retribution, deeds done and hell to pay.
All is the obverse of what it had been.
Things are fallen which had stood upright. Things are free which should be bound, and bound which should be free. Things which had been hoarded in secret now blow and tumble in the open, and those who had hoarded them watch with dull eyes and let them go.
Boys have become men and men boys. Slaves now stand free and freemen slaves. Childhood has fled. The knowledge of my mother and father’s slaughter struck me less with grief for them or fear for myself than with the imperative to assume at once their station. Where had I been on the morn of their murder? I had failed them, trotting off on my boyish errand. Why had I not foreseen their peril? Why was I not standing at my father’s shoulder, armed and possessed of a man’s strength, to defend our hearth or die honorably before it, as he and my mother had?
Bodies lay in the road. Mostly men, but women and children too, with the same dark blot of fluid sinking into the pitiless dirt. The living trod past them, grief-riven. Everyone was filthy. Many had no shoes. All were fleeing the slave columns and the roundup which would be starting soon. Women carried infants, some of them already dead, while other dazed figures glided past like shades, bearing away some pitifully useless possession, a lamp or a volume of verse. In peacetime the wives of the city walked abroad with necklaces, anklets, rings; now one saw none, or it was secreted somewhere to pay a ferryman’s toll or purchase a heel of stale bread. We encountered people we knew and didn’t recognize them. They didn’t recognize us. Numb reunions were held along roadsides or in copses, and news was traded of the dead and the soon to be dead.
Most piteous of all were the animals. I saw a dog on fire that first morning and ran to snuff his smoking fur with my cloak. He fled, of course; I couldn’t catch him, and Diomache snatched me back with a curse for my foolishness. That dog was the first of many. Horses hamstrung by sword blades, lying on their flanks with their eyes pools of numb horror. Mules with entrails spilling; oxen with javelins in their sides, lowing pitifully yet too terrified to let anyone near to help. These were the most heartbreaking: the poor dumb beasts whose torment was made more pitiful by their lack of faculty to understand it.
Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire (Chapter 17)
I found this testimony to be not only very sobering but very real. This was not just the result of warfare in the 5th century B.C.; it was common to war of every age. The consequences of war are always the same- death and destruction. Things are burning and the natural order of things is turned on its head. Having seen the results of war up close and personal, I can (as some of you can also attest to) its perpetual ugliness and utter revulsion to all that is good and wholesome. But war, for all its ugliness, is sometimes unavoidable. John Stuart Mill once wrote-
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse."
Although violence has been a mainstay of the human condition since the days of Noah, the first organized and recorded battle is found in Genesis 14. Here, Abraham put together 318 of his finest warriors and went to rescue his nephew Lot. So although ugly, some wars are necessary, which lends credence to Mill's quote of man's unwillingness to fight at any cost, which only invites more aggression.
In this vein, I suppose the next worse thing other than having your civilization ripped from you quickly, is watching your way of life crumble slowly before your eyes. Like watching something left to rot or rust over a period of days, weeks, months, and years. While the rot and rust always come in varying degrees and stages, it always first begins with neglect.
The first victim of neglect is always the nation's moral center. The virtuousness of the moral center almost never comes out of a time of plenty but from the hard times. The hard times are almost always due to calamity, war, or famine. There is a popular, yet fairly accurate meme making the rounds these days that describes the cycle like this:
Hard times create strong men
Strong men create good times
Good times create weak men
Weak men create hard times
The second victim of neglect is a civilization's religious or ideological beliefs. These ground the moral center into a codified system of rights, wrongs, and laws which are created to deal with both. They give the society or civilization meaning or purpose, and when these become neglected (or not attentively shepherded) they become relaxed, then neglected, and lastly, corrupted.
The next victim of neglect is its culture. The culture reflects the moral center and religious beliefs of a nation or kingdom. Who or what does that culture put on a pedestal? The more decadent the culture, the more corrupted both the moral center and its religion become. Decadance always comes in three distinct phases: sexual immorality (hedonism), increased lawlessness, and increased violence.
After this, the next victim is its economic power and prosperity, which begin to reflect the cultural rot and the declining moral priorities of a nation. This is where the wrath of abandonment becomes most visibly felt amongst the varying classes. However, one mainstay is usually the same- the poor get poorer, and the wealthy get wealthier, and the divide causes the latter to ignore or exacerbate the problem by not living in reality.
The last victim is its military might, which at this point, is usually already strained and then that generation of young men are needlessly squandered in some last-ditch war of desperation to save the kingdom. Once that happens, the people, culture, and language disappear, and its once unique way of life is swallowed up by the tattered pages of history.
to be continued.