Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair
!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” 

Shelly’s great poem “Ozymandias” teaches us that civilization is a fragile thing. Human history is not a march of progress from barbarism to shopping malls. We do not always move forward in wisdom, intelligence, and technology, or in economic or political accomplishment. Sometimes we go backward. And sometimes we collapse.

The human subject of “Ozymandias”–Ramses II–was the Great Pharoah who ruled Egypt from 1279–1213 BCE, when it was the most powerful empire in the world. During the late Bronze Age, the Mediterainain world had developed a surprisingly complex network of cultural and commercial ties. These societies–including Mycenaean Greece, Pharaonic Egypt, and the sprawling kingdoms of the Levant and Asia Minor–had a level of sophistication that would not be seen in the world for hundreds of years.

In or around 1177 BCE, however, all of these cultures collapsed. The commercial and cultural networks unraveled, the ability to read and write was largely lost, and a highly organized and connected culture became. . . . well, we aren’t sure what it became because people stopped keeping records. But we are pretty sure that it wasn’t pleasant.

Three hundred years later, when new cultures emerged in the Mediterranian, all they had were oral legends about the times before–the Trojan War, the wanderings of Odysseus, the Exodus of the Children of Israel. All of this happened off of the historical stage and had to be reconstructed later once cultures reinvented written language. The cultures that they remembered were much more fragile then they understood.

The fragility of civilizations is one of the great themes of the scriptural record. It is part of human nature to believe, as Laman and Lemuel believed, that the great city of Jerusalem can never be destroyed (1 Ne. 2:7). People who live in complex societies–not just advanced nations, but large and complex global networks–have a hard time believing that things will not always be more or less what they have always been. We can see the fragility of civilization in the mirror of history. It is much harder to see it while it is going on. But enough civilizations in the world’s history have collapsed that we can now see clearly that they were very fragile all along.

So, it turns out, are we. This may be the great lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic: it is exposing, in ways that nothing since the Great Depression exposed, the fragility of all of the things that we call “civilization”–things like money, trade, art, big cities, bread, and circuses. It has taken only a few months for some of the unquestionable assumptions of our world to become questionable.

And what has done all of this? A microscopic predator too small to even see. This, too, is part of the archetypal structure that undergirds our civilization. Look at a standard chessboard, where the lowest piece, a pawn, can become a queen. Or a deck of cards ranked from Two to Ten, with the royalty on top except for the lowly Ace, which is the only thing that beats a King. Somewhere in our collective unconscious lies a meme that says, “the smallest things can undo the largest things.” A microscopic virus can topple a global civilization.

Societies across the world are engaged in great and necessary debates about how to respond to the COVID-19 virus: when do we shut things down? When do we open things up? How do we keep the most vulnerable members of our society safe from harm? I don’t know the right answers, and I am not even sure that I know the right questions.

But all of the actions on the table are human responses to the virus. It is not correct to say that “government-mandated shutdowns have ravaged the economy and thrown millions of people out of work.” The novel coronavirus has ravaged the economy and thrown millions of people out of work. Government-imposed shutdowns have been one response to the virus, and they have had serious economic consequences. But every other possible response to the virus–letting millions of people die, for example, or trying to open businesses with limited human interaction–would have serious economic consequences too, and there is no guarantee that they would not be worse.

This is because the social and economic networks that constitute our highly advanced global civilization are based on trust and confidence. It is confidence that turns the trillions of binary digits in the world’s bank accounts into money that can buy food and cars and elections. Confidence allows for global trade and international diplomacy. Confidence prevents our lives from becoming solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

And, no matter how we respond to it, the COVID-19 virus has zapped our confidence that the world will continue to be what, for us, it has always been. Simply opening the doors of restaurants and theatres is not going to fill them up, just as offering more things for sale is not going to encourage people to buy more stuff.

What is the answer? I have no idea. But all of my humanitarian instincts, and most of my economic ones, tell me that the most important thing we can do now is preserve life. Because where there is life, there is hope.

But we also have to realize, as Shelly teaches us in his great poem “Ozymandias,” that civilization is a fragile thing.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this.

  2. It is surmised that Chacoan culture declined due to climate change and environmental degradation. Cline seems to argue that climate change and environmental degradation were also central to the Bronze Age collapse. I don’t know if I would say that literacy was lost since several empires, including Egypt and Assyria, had written languages as did others. But I agree that the rate of literacy certainly declined. There is no credible evidence that there was an Israelite exodus nor that the Israelites were anything other than minor tribal chieftains or “king” vassals of other historically significant empires. However, all empires end, as the poem you quoted so movingly recounts.
    “I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you someday. (Rhett Butler)”

  3. The virus, at least in the US, invaded a country that had willfully removed the guards that would have allowed faster action to contain it. Those guards had been deemed unnecessary by those in charge of keeping the country safe.

  4. larryco_ says:

    “We do not always move forward in wisdom, intelligence, and technology…”

    I was watching an episode of Mystic Britain on the Smithsonian Channel a few weeks ago and they were discussing the Black Plague of the 14th century Europe. While I found it overall interesting, I particularly paid note of the fact that the presenters found the attempts that people made to ward off the plague quite amusing. From strange markings put on locked homes and church doors to “physicians” dressing like chickens and wearing masks, the hosts found their attempts to ward off an unseen and unfathomable force that would kill 100,000,000+ quite primitive.

    Flash forward seven centuries and years of advanced medical technology and well, ah, to me it seems pretty much same-old/same-old. I suppose someone can see the enemy this time ‘cuz we keep seeing these pictures of colorful-looking suction-cup balls, but I can’t see it. And we’re told nobody can stop it, so the best thing we can do is stay behind locked doors and wear masks if we go outside. Physicians and nurses are attempting to wear protective clothing. I guess the only thing left is to try the chicken costume.

  5. Thanks for this — thoughtful and enlightening.

  6. kusokurae says:

    “It is not correct to say that ‘government-mandated shutdowns have ravaged the economy and thrown millions of people out of work.’ The novel coronavirus has ravaged the economy and thrown millions of people out of work. Government-imposed shutdowns have been one response to the virus, and they have had serious economic consequences. But every other possible response to the virus–letting millions of people die, for example, or trying to open businesses with limited human interaction–would have serious economic consequences too, and there is no guarantee that they would not be worse.”

    Are you sure that the first two sentences of this paragraph aren’t a typo? This is exactly backwards from reality. It is obviously the government-imposed shutdowns that have ravaged the economy, since there has been nowhere near the amount of death and sickness due to the novel disease to possibly account for the economic devastation we are now witnessing. About 150,000 people die every day on this planet anyway, and all of the covid deaths that have been counted so far (about 180,000, many of which should really have been attributed to other causes) barely account for 1% of all the deaths that have occurred this year. And “letting millions of people die” is not another “possible response” to the virus, since that was never a realistic outcome in the first place. Even the models that predicted 60,000 deaths in the US were already factoring in 100% compliance with “social distancing” measures, and those have proven to be spectacularly wrong. It also doesn’t take much imagination to realize that opening businesses with limited human interaction can’t possibly be worse than not allowing businesses to open at all.

    There’s something bigger going on than this virus.

  7. Billy Possum says:

    I hope whichever poet writes our demise will find a way to mention Trump’s hair. He doesn’t really have a sneer to speak of.

    Thanks for this, Michael.

  8. Michael, thanks for this post. Ironically, I’d just started reading Dan Carlin’s “The End is Always Near,” which makes some similar points about how fragile things are. (It even has a chapter on pandemic, which was… prescient.) It’s good to be reminded of how fragile things are, this “thin veneer.” And it makes me grateful for the Hope we do have.

  9. Not Sayin' says:

    I wonder how this applies to church leadership in this era when they’ve stood in the way of full participation for women, full civil rights for gay people, amassed tremendous amounts of money that they can’t see to let go of to assist in a world pandemic or clean temples and warehouses and just get older and more isolated and entrenched.

  10. Geoff-Aus says:

    Koso, you will get to 60,000 death by this time next week. Which is way more than it should be because of bad leadership.
    Where do you get your news to have this view of things?

  11. Kusokurae: I’ve heard that argument many times, “there haven’t been nearly as many deaths as we were told there would be, etc” The reason there haven’t been as many deaths as people feared is exactly because of the social distancing measures that have been put in place! 60,000 deaths in the predicted models? Haven’t you been paying attention?! We’re at 50000 plus already! And this is nowhere near finished!

  12. Good points. But you need to be more intellectual honest in your view. It’s not a forgone conclusion that every place would be equally ravaged as Lombardy or New York if they weren’t shut down. It’s possible. But it’s not even at all probable. Because even with the shutdown not every place is being equally ravaged; especially as emerging antibody studies show exposure in many places and populations that were not thought to be expected, or at least if they were, the death toll should have been higher.

    So, back to your original point. Yes the economic disaster is from the government response. I’m not even sure if we can claim that lives are saved from the government shutdown response (outside of actual treatment rendered), because the antibody studies make clear that the virus is spread much further than expected. We weren’t stopping aerosoled virus without vaccination, but delaying it to not overwhelm the ICU and ventilator beds (we were told), except again it turns out that the vast majority of people on ventilators didn’t make it anyway. So the virus has spread more than we expected, not as many died as would have been predicted for that level of infection, and the needed resources we needed to preserve access to by slowing the infection rate weren’t that needful.

    If the economic engine is unable to be jump-started and millions suffer, it will not be the virus that turned off the engine, it will be our collective hands at the key that did so, out of a mixture of eidence mingled with fear for the future.

    Different responses were and are possible. They would have different economic and physical effects.

    Case in point — antibody tests have proven people have the virus and recovered without even knowing it. “We” through our collective worries have shutdown several meat and food processing plants because people there got sick.

    We have decided the effect of getting sick is so great that it’s better to go without food, or at least strain the food supply, than have people get sick. Except, the evidence shows many already got sick.

    If a high percentage of those currently food plant workers die as a result, it will have been good to have stopped production. If few die, then we have made the wrong decision.

    You don’t get to blame the virus for erring on the side of caution, in the face of accumulated antibody evidence when you are the ones making the decision.

    Own it. Your for destroying the economy because you think it might save it. But the evidence is piling up that you’re needlessly napalming areas that were already pacified or that weren’t under attack (yet).

    If my response makes your blood boil, I hope not. We should each be engaging with this issue, and we each have a right to do so, even an expectation. Giving short shrift to either side if the argument risks locking yourself down into a close minded state, that’s dangerous when you need to be flexible in evaluating new information.