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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Plato on Fate Of Modern Civilization

Two and a half thousand years ago, in his "Critius" dialogue Plato told the story of Atlantis, a prosperous state which collapsed under the weight of its own wealth and the arrogance of its people.

Putting this into modern economic parlance, Atlantis perished because its GDP was excessively large.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, it would have seemed absurd to suggest this as the cause of a state's downfall. Although it is worth noting that over the millenia, many an empire came to an untimely end exactly in this way.

Around prosperous states -- whether Sumerian cities, Rome, Byzantium or Mongol China -- enclaves of nomads formed sooner or later, violently envious of and despising their neighbors. "It's a disgrace that idle and lazy people eat out of beautiful dishes, while courageous people have no place to rest their heads," the German leader Alaric, who sacked Rome in 410 B.C., is reputed to have said.

The barbarians could neither read nor write. They were inferior to the inhabitants of the empire in all respects, except in bravery and envy -- in which they excelled. This dismal situation was overcome in the 15th century with the invention of firearms. From this moment on a state's prosperity was determined by its military might.

And now everything has come full circle. As it turns out, contemporary civilization is so complex and its citizens so molly coddled that a dozen suicide terrorists, armed with knives, were able to kill more people than the Japanese killed in Pearl Harbor.

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For the last decade a Pax Americana has held sway in the world. Americans -- just as before them the Romans in the epoch of Augustus or the Chinese in the era of the Sung dynasty -- justifiably considered themselves more enlightened and superior to surrounding tribes.

This national spirit has best been expressed in Hollywood blockbusters in which courageous U.S. Secret Service agents always avert some terrorists' terrible plans at the last moment.

The reality was somewhat different. The United States, neither desiring nor finding it morally permissible to conquer the world by force of arms, tried to rule it by creating seats of tension.

Here, Islamic extremism very much came in handy. It was most useful in Afghanistan, where the young Osama bin Laden helped the United States to fight the Soviets. It was also useful in Yugoslavia and, when the Yugoslav conflicted ended, in Macedonia.

Thus, the United States has never fought to the bitter end. They fought against Saddam Hussein but never dealt the final blow. They fought against Slobodan Milosevic, but also failed to deliver the final blow. They sought world supremacy, but were quick to remove their soldiers from those places that were too nightmarish.

The terrorist acts of Sept. 11 demonstrated the futility of creating a strategic missile defense system. They showed that everything needed to destroy a technologically advanced civilization is contained within it.

For the time being, however, there is no sign that President George W. Bush -- who is intellectually somewhat lazy -- really grasps the scope of the challenge that has been thrown down before the civilized world. His response is perfunctory: military operations, targeted first and foremost at Afghanistan. This seems to resembles the ABM program with the huge expenditure and minimal return.

The lessons of the Soviet Union -- a country that also believed a war in Afghanistan was needed to lift the national spirit -- seem to be lost on the United States.

Well, good riddance to the Soviet Union. The world has become a freer place without it. But right now it seems that Bush does not understand what's at stake: It is neither his popularity ratings, nor boosting military expenditure; what's at stake is whether the modern civilized world will repeat the fate of the Roman empire or not.

Yulia Latynina is a journalist with ORT.