From a reader:
I’ll try to be brief, but your corner post raises several interesting points.
First of all, you are correct that for most of European history it was thought that civilization was declining, and the scolarship of the past was looked upon as a golden age. There are however some caveats. First, the gap between the educated, and the uneducated was huge. As early as 200 BC the educated Greeks knew the world was a sphere. It was even measured to a very high degree of accuracy. Atomic theory, the heliocentric solar system, viral disease theory, all these were postulated and debated by the Greeks. The vast majority of the people never had a clue about them. Egyptians laid out the pyramids with incredible precision, but their methods of geometry were wizardry to the common man. Knowledge was power, and was guarded jealously. Look at the Masons. An organization that started as a trade guild to fix employment conditions and membership (the first closed shop) survives to this day as a secret organization. Most people who were “uneducated” however probably knew more about the few acres where they lived and farmed than we can imagine. They would have known every plant species, it’s uses, what it meant to the soil, when it blossomed, etc. Different people needed to know different things for different reasons.
The real arrogance of our time is that we somehow think ourselves more clever than these “uneducated” people of the past. They were genetically the same, with the same brain power that we have. In fact, most of them would probably be far more resourceful, have better memories, be better at problem solving, etc than we, because they relied on their brain power rather than the internet and reference books. My favorite example is the “Ancient Astronaut” theory of the pyramids. That there is no way the Egyptians could have been clever enough to figure out how to make all those straight lines, and move all those huge blocks. One simple question, why not? Since we have machinery and earth movers, we can’t imagine doing without them, so we project our inability to solve these problems onto them.