One thing I have learnt from studying Classics is just how many theories that I had previously considered relatively recent, even modern, in fact found their first expressions in the Ancient World, and not just the Classical World, i.e., Greece and Rome. When I asked my husband, not a Classicist, whether he had any burning questions about Classics or the Ancient World, his response was, ‘why have so many of their skills been lost?’ He was thinking principally about the buildings, art, particularly sculpture, as well as some of their feats of engineering, many still standing. To this one could certainly reply that tastes, trends, and cultures change so particular styles are not replicated by a different people and methods become forgotten. They may be rediscovered as trends look back to earlier times. For example, the Renaissance saw a huge (literally) rebirth, rediscovery, and promotion of Classical culture, learning, and emulation in all areas, from literary efforts to public building work.
Memory should not be underestimated as a factor in events. Greek historian Polybius knew this very well. In his sixth book, when a ruler, ruling group, or people forgets why their particular political system was adopted and they no longer recall the misfortunes that led to its establishment, it marks the beginnings of a change for the worse in government. Laws, duty, and the true essence of government, the well-being of the people, are no longer valued as they once were. Power and ambition replace duty and restraint (Polybius, Histories, 6.6-9).
So, in Polybius’ opinion, comfort and complacency can lead to a harmful forgetfulness. I would certainly agree with Polybius that forgetting can lead to a failure to learn important lessons from history and a repetition of mistakes.
But there must be more factors in addition. Why was Aristarchus of Samos’ theory of heliocentricity forgotten for so long? For so many years I thought this theory had to wait until Copernicus. Yet in the fourth century BCE, this Greek fellow had already suggested such a theory and with good reasoning.
I think the following factors are also at play in causing this ‘Lost Learning’ that I have described:
that perhaps societies need to learn things for themselves, rather than accepting what a previous one or another has done (I am certainly not saying this is always the case)
that a theory’s value may not be fully appreciated in its own time, so gradually it passes into the mists of time.
that a civilisation is taken over by one that possesses very different beliefs or ethical systems, and so passionately that they seek to stamp their power upon the old by obliterating their ideas as well as their buildings. If their beliefs are wrong, their knowledge and learning can only be wrong, too. The Name of the Rose and the feared second book of Aristotle's Poetics springs to mind.
that (and this is one I think we particularly suffer from nowadays) a society feels it is far advanced and has moved way beyond early societies, which come to be regarded as primitive, and so the ancient origins of their learning are dismissed, ignored, and in the end forgotten. The number of ‘modern’ scientists who have never heard of ancient atomic theory still saddens me.
The ‘forgetting’ can be quite deliberately implemented as part of a cultural statement, or simply allowed through self-congratulation and ignorance; it is not just something that occurs with the passing of time.
I could go on and discuss plenty of examples, but I would like readers to reflect upon this for themselves. What have you come across in history that has made you think, ‘wow, how did they achieve that?’ or, ‘gosh I didn’t realise they had already thought of that!’
We need to be careful. Humans have made great achievements throughout different periods and across time. Just because our tools seem far advanced, does not mean that we are necessarily quite so far ahead as we think.
Some further food for thought
On this matter, I can highly recommend the following books:
Moller, V., (2019) The Map of Knowledge. How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found: A History in Seven Cities (Picador)
Nixey, C., (2017) The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan)