Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Empire of Lies

The Trajan Column was built in order to celebrate the victories of the Roman Armies in the conquest of Dacia, during the 2nd century AD. It shows that the Romans knew and used propaganda, although in forms that for us look primitive. In those times, just as in ours, a dying empire could be kept together for a while by lies, but not forever.  

At the beginning of the 5th century AD, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote his "De Mendacio" ("On Lying"). Reading it today, we may be surprised at how rigid and strict Augustine was in his conclusions. A Christian, according to him, could not lie in any circumstances whatsoever; not even to save lives or to avoid suffering for someone. The suffering of the material body, said Augustine, is nothing; what's important is one's immortal soul. Later theologians substantially softened these requirements, but there was a logic in Augustine's stance if we consider his times: the last century of the Western Roman Empire.

By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich. The Empire itself had become a lie: that it existed because of the favor of the Gods who rewarded the Romans because of their moral virtues. Nobody could believe in that anymore: it was the breakdown of the very fabric of society; the loss of what the ancient called the auctoritas, the trust that citizens had toward their leaders and the institutions of their state.

Augustine was reacting to all this. He was trying to rebuild the "auctoritas", not in the form of mere authoritarianism of an oppressive government, but in the form of trust. So, he was appealing to the highest authority of all, God himself. He was also building his argument on the prestige that the Christians had gained at a very high price with their martyrs. And not just that. In his texts, and in particular in his "Confessions" Augustine was opening himself completely to his readers; telling them all of his thoughts and his sins in minute details. It was, again, a way to rebuild trust by showing that one had no hidden motives. And he had to be strict in his conclusions. He couldn't leave any openings that would permit the Empire of Lies to return.

Augustine and other early Christian fathers were engaged, first of all, in an epistemological revolution. Paulus of Tarsus had already understood this point when he had written: "now we see as in a mirror, darkly, then we'll see face to face." It was the problem of truth; how to see it? How to determine it? In the traditional view, truth was reported by a witness who could be trusted. The Christian epistemology started from that, to build up the concept of truth as the result of divine revelation. The Christians were calling God himself as witness, it was a spiritual and philosophical vision, but also a very down-to-earth one. Today, we would say that the Christians of late Roman times were engaged in "relocalization," abandoning the expensive and undefendable structures of the old Empire to rebuild a society based on local resources and local governance. The age that followed, the Middle Ages, can be seen as a time of decline but it was, rather, a necessary adaptation to the changed economic conditions. Eventually, all societies must come to terms with Truth. The Western Roman Empire could not do that, It had to disappear, it was unavoidable.

Now, let's move forward to our times and we have reached our empire of lies. On the current situation, I don't have to tell you anything that you don't already know. During the past few decades, the mountain of lies tossed at us by governments has been perfectly matched by the disastrous loss of trust in our leaders on the part of the citizens. When the Soviets launched their first orbiting satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957, nobody doubted that it was for real and the reaction of the US government was to launch their own satellites. Today, plenty of people even deny that the US sent men to the moon in the 1960s. These people may be ridiculed, they may be branded as conspiracy theorists, sure, but they are there. Perhaps the watershed of this collapse of trust was with the story of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" that we were told were hidden in Iraq. It was not their first, nor it will be their last, lie. But how can you ever trust an institution that lied to you so brazenly? (and that continues to do so?)

Today, every statement from a government, or from an even remotely "official" source, seems to generate a parallel and opposite statement of denial. Unfortunately, the opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth, and that has originated baroque castles of lies, counter-lies, and counter-counter lies. Think of the story of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Somewhere, hidden below the mass of legends and myths that have piled up on this story, there has to be the truth; some kind of truth. But how to find it when you can't trust anything you read on the Web? Or think of peak oil. At the simplest level of conspiratorial interpretation, peak oil can be seen as a reaction to the lies of oil companies that hide the depletion of their resources. But you may also see peak oil as a scam created by oil companies that try to hide the fact that their resources are actually abundant - even infinite in the diffuse legend of "abiotic oil." But, for others, the idea that peak oil is a scam created in order to hide abundance may be a higher order scam created in order to hide scarcity. Eve higher order conspiracy theories are possible. It is a fractal universe of lies, where you have no reference point to tell you where you are.

Eventually, it is a problem of epistemology. The same that goes back to Pontius Pilate's statement "what is truth?" Where are we supposed to find truth in our world? Perhaps in science? But science is rapidly becoming a marginal sect of people who mumble of catastrophes to come. People whom nobody believes any longer after they failed to deliver their promises of energy too cheap to meter, space travel, and flying cars. Then, we tend to seek it in such things as "democracy" and to believe that a voting majority somehow defines "truth". But democracy has become a ghost of itself: how can citizens make an informed choice after that we discovered the concept that we call "perception management" (earlier on called "propaganda")?

Going along a trajectory parallel to that of the ancient Romans, we haven't yet arrived at having a semi-divine emperor residing in Washington D.C., considered by law to be the repository of divine truth. And we aren't seeing yet a new religion taking over and expelling the old ones. At present, the reaction against the official lies takes mostly the form of what we call "conspiratorial attitude." Although widely despised, conspirationism is not necessarily wrong; conspiracies do exist and much of the misinformation that spreads over the web must be created by someone who is conspiring against us. The problem is that conspirationism is not a form of epistemology. Once you have decided that everything you read is part of the great conspiracy, then you have locked yourself in an epistemological box and thrown away the key. And, like Pilate, you can only ask "what is truth?", but you will never find it.

Is it possible to think of an "epistemology 2.0" that would allow us to regain trust on the institutions and on our fellow human beings? Possibly, yes but, right now, we are seeing as in a mirror, darkly. Something is surely stirring, out there; but it has not yet taken a recognizable shape. Maybe it will be a new ideal, maybe a revisitation of an old religion, maybe a new religion, maybe a new way of seeing the world. We cannot say which form the new truth will take, but we can say that nothing new can be born without the death of something. And that all births are painful but necessary.


  1. "It is a fractal universe of lies, where you have no reference point to tell you where you are." Perfect. The only way is to study. But it is not for everibody and nobody can study everithing.
    An "epistemology 2.0" I think we will found, but not now. It will be born fron the putrefation of the "Fractal universe of lies". So we need to wait.

  2. "So we need to wait" Jacopo said. For new truths to be born replied Michael.
    Lies used to make me very mad, I spent much energy trying to refute them.
    I quit buying lies and or looking for them. The Lie has less of my energy.
    That is the truth.

  3. I think Epistemology 2.0 is exactly where we need to be. Underneath that is maybe Metaphysics 2.0. The Final Theory is just the realization that every theory is ultimately wrong, i.e. is only valid within some limited domain. As society relocalizes, these domains will shrink. CERN will crumple, the Hubble telescope will vaporize. Procedural standardization is a cornerstone of truth maintenance. We won't have the resource to maintain standards globally.

    More thoughts:

  4. That fantastic texts reminds me one of my favourite writers: John Michael Greer.

    His thoughts, ideas and explanations are every day more and more solid.

    This also reminds me the word anacyclosis, greatly explained also by JMG.

    And this leads me to some worrying conclusions about Jared Diamond's Colapse: almost all civilizations that managed to avoid collapse, were governed by authoritarian means.

    I don't know if Druidry will become a new religion, but for sure, soon, we will find a war between old ones, including Marxism. It would not be nice.


  5. I have also been studying some aspects of Augustine’s work. Probably his most influential work was 'City of God' (with the unwritten subtitle 'City of Man'). Augustine (354-450) looked at the decaying empire and civil institutions of his time and had the insight to realize that all political organizations — not just Rome — must decay. He argued that the only permanent organization was the one above us: The City of God. Therefore he devoted his thought to trying to understand the constitution of the City of God. In doing so he started an 800 year project that became the central intellectual challenge of what we now choose to call the Middle Ages. The project finished with the work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He was a brilliant man but, I would suggest, that he ended up as a failure — or at least as successful as anyone could be in this endeavor. At that point the project stopped and since then we in the West have had very little interest in theology — it’s a topic that just doesn’t matter to us much anymore.

    But I do wonder if this may change; our generation (or the ones that follow us) might create its own Augustine — someone who would look for what is permanent in a society that is changing and declining. If so I would expect a growth in an interest in things spiritual/religious. I would also expect to see a growth in monasticism — another common response to material decline.

    Your thought that we will also see a demand for greater intellectual honesty is interesting. To stretch the point, I wonder if the success of Sanders and Trump in the current primaries is partly due to their perceived honesty (or, in Trump’s case, his honesty about his dishonesty, if you know what I mean).

    1. Good point. Both Sanders and Trump, in different ways, are trying to project a "trustworthy" image and having some success at that.

  6. Here is the test for different versions of "truth" about the events of 9/11/01, Newtonian Physics, gravitational acceleration of falling object. The roof of WTC Bldg. #7, fell to the street about 5:20 PM that day in the amount of time that a basketball dropped from the roof would have fallen, a perfect tie. That fall was unresisted by any structure, and was perfectly symmetrical, as you will see in the video, not a slowly-twisting-agony-of-collapse.
    The only way for the roof to fall unrestricted is for all structure to be removed ahead of the falling roof, which is "controlled demolition" with sequenced explosive charges placed at every structural member, little ones, hundreds of them, computer-sequenced. No plane hit that building, or even came close.

    1. john, as a trained architect i can tell you there is absolutely nothing controversial about the collapse of those towers. what was witnessed is completely consistent with physics and behavior of steel structures when subjected to uncontrolled fires.

      and you have to wonder why they would bother to rig the towers to bring them down anyway. you'd think merely destroying their top halves by flying 2 airliners at 500 miles an hour, killing hundreds of people, would be EASILY sufficient and dramatic to get public support for war. they could have their cake and eat it , in that they could get support for war, AND rebuild the sybols of captalism afterwards with the argument that not even such a major event can destroy american symbols of power. a win win situation. even the plane part alone would require a conspiracy of monumental proportions. so why would 'they' compound problems exponentially and risk subsequent discovery of the plot. bringing the towers down with detonations was logistically implausible, unnecessary strategically and technically not even necessary, as uncontrolled fires would make their collapse inevitable anyway.

    2. Andy, uncontrolled fires in buildings are, unfortunately, not a rare phenomenon. Please provide us an example of a building collapsing at free-fall acceleration due solely to uncontrolled fires. Have people been pulling my leg that this is unprecedented? Are there really cases I have not heard of? "They just...just... wouldn't!" doesn't cut it with me.

    3. Every collapsing building falls at near free-fall speed. This is a consequence of energy conservation laws, and is independent from most assumptions on the collapse itself. If you hear about someone telling that a free-fall collapsing structure is "strange", then you may safely discard everything he/she is telling.

      I don't want to enter in the debate, however. What the post says is that the debate about 9/11 is a clear sign of mistrust, without any authority that is generally accepted as reliable (a good "source of truth"). Not the government, of course, but neither a trained architect or a professional phisicist (the "science"). The box has been already closed and the key thrown away.

    4. patormsby, actually totally uncontrolled fires in large buildings are fairly unusual. steel is treated by special fire retarding paint or encased in concrete not to make them invincible, but to allow time for evacuation and time for fire services to act. steel frames are not invulnerable. read any construction design course book and it will stress the importance of protection of the steel and how steel loses strength in fires and at what temperatures. the 9/11 case was an incredibly rare incident (you dont think it was rare??) and almost unique. if you think it was ordinary, feel free to give me cases of any other skyscraper, and of the same design, that had a large jet liner flying into it at 500mph, and then went untended...and survived. as the buildings were both incredibly tall and seriously damaged, and also were subjected to an instant raging inferno, i dont really have to spell out why the fires went largely uncontrolled in spite of heroic efforts of some fire fighters. or is that a silly conspiracy too.

      comparing the trade center to smaller steel framed buildings is also disingenuous. the collosal mass of each floor of the world trade center means collapse will inevitably be a far more catastrophic affair. even if fires are not tended, which they are in most cases, smaller buildings may just buckle and deform because their mass is far lower. why the buildings collapsed was explained by structural engineers after the event and there is nothing odd or suspicious about it. it was designed for plane impact, and fulfilled its design criteria, but was never designed to withstand a big jet liner flying into it at 500 mph. that it survived so long is a testiment to its strength actually.

  7. Thanks Ugo, for a necessary invitation to review our underlying assumptions and worldview.
    All information comes through some process, which costs somebody something.
    We might trust information that we work to obtain, ourselves, more highly than information which is force-fed to us through every video screen "for-free". We should discern that way.
    Most information comes through a muddled mix of channels and motives, doesn't it?
    We have to test it, somehow.
    For the 9/11 events, I suggest the test of Newtonian Physics, which applies quite well. One can really sidestep the materials-science, which says that jet fuel (kerosene) can't burn hot enough to weaken structural steel. One can also sidestep the emotional shock of the repeated viewing of the Twin Towers falling, which makes abstract analysis difficult.
    One need only look at the fall of WTC Building #7
    It fell spontaneously as the evening news was already playing, so was not part of the remembered narrative of shock for that day. It got "another building fell later" kind of mention, and no video.
    What it did, was to fall at free-fall acceleration, the same as if a basketball had been dropped from the top. The top hit the ground in that same amount of time. That means that the acceleration of gravity was unresisted. The steel structure of the building provided NO resistance to the effects of gravity upon the falling roof.
    There is only one way for that to be the case, and that is controlled demolition, with sequenced explosive charges placed on all structural supports, hundreds of coordinated explosions. That takes a long time and a lot of engineering expertise to set up, at least a month, not half-a-day. The video of the collapse, and some information, are here.

    1. "For the 9/11 events, I suggest the test of Newtonian Physics, which applies quite well. One can really sidestep the materials-science, which says that jet fuel (kerosene) can't burn hot enough to weaken structural steel."

      you sound like you need to learn something about 'newtonian physics' yourself mate. also a bit of building science wouldn't go amiss. so are you saying steel frame structures are not weakened by fire, even totally uncontrolled ones in high mass buildings with horrendous amounts of combustible materials, that are initially turbo charged by hundreds of gallons of high octane aviation fuel and astronomical kinetic energy released by large jet planes moving at 500 miles an hour. now, this is exactly why everybody who is qualified to have an opinion doesn't take 9/11 'truthers' seriously. because what happened is exactly the sort of situation that would destroy a skyscraper. at least your not using the usual pathetically uninformed argument that 'steel doesn't melt at fire temperatures' lol.

      truther arguments are simply garbage. its hard for people with a conspiratorial mindset to believe, but sometimes things really are not conspiracies and are actually as they at first appear.

    2. The legend of the "controlled demolition" of the twin towers in New York is hugely interesting. I hope that John doesn't take offense if I say that it doesn't just lack scientific validity but, as Andy correctly noted, flies straight in the face of common sense. The question is, rather, why it is so common, so often repeated, so widespread. And everything that exists must exist for a reason.

      One possible line of understanding is that it was planted by the PTBs in order to discredit the 9/11 "truthers." But that still doesn't explain why it was so successful. I think the only way to tackle this curious virtual creature is to consider in light of Tertullianus' famous line "I believe it because it is absurd." So, believers in the controlled demolition idea are stating something like "you want me to believe something absurd? Then I'll believe something even more absurd and that will fix you for good!" - At Tertullian's time, people were asked to believe that the Roman Emperor was a semi-divine being on whom the Gods had bestowed the power to rule. And Christians reacted by declaring that God was the son of a carpenter who had been executed on a cross like a common criminal. Not less absurd than thinking that someone managed to demolish the twin towers by exactly timing the detonation of the explosive charges in such a way to perfectly simulate a free fall.

    3. There is one fact: usually concrete absorbs energy to be demolished (or any non-liquid material). Lots of energy. You cannot destroy a block of concrete by blowing a little air at it not even if you heat it at 1000 degrees.
      So a concrete building collapsing is converting gravitational energy into demolishing work. A free falling object instead is converting all gravitational energy into cynetic.. and that is a requirement for freefall, else it would fall slower.
      So something doesn't add up and the controlled demolition is a possible and consistant explanation (we've seen other buildings, it works!). Another one is that magically all steel in the entire building liquified and all concrete lost any strenght at the same precise moment creating a symmetrical freefall. Which one is more believable?

  8. Ugo, a very thoughtful and historically informed piece this time, thank you. Expresses a distinct sense of yearning at the end, one that I share. This line goes into my permanent quotes file - beautifully rendered and exquisitely accurate:

    "It is a fractal universe of lies, where you have no reference point to tell you where you are."

  9. Dear Dr. Bardi

    I have got to read your blog entries with pleasure, but I found this entry a bit weak, even although I agree with your main thesis. Please, allow me to explain a couple of disagreements:

    1) First you assume that the Roman Empire's fall is due a high taxes and high inequality. But it is well know that the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire were much more unequal that the late Empire. Firstly the number of slaves was much higher when the Roman Legions were conquering new territories that when they were on the defensive. Secondly, Roman citizenship was universalized in 212. Thirdly, it's unclear that taxes were higher at the end of the fourth century that in former times. And fourthly there were no significant differences with regard to these two issues between the Western and the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire.

    I would like to recommend two very documented, well-written, and quite actual books about the Roman Empire's fall, that dismiss a series of theories, not very well-founded, that swarm about the peak-oil circles:

    Peter Heather. The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford University Press (2005).

    John Bryan Ward-Perkins. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press (2005).

    2) You consider that science has lost its credibility due to bad predictions. I agree that science is perceived much less credible nowadays, but in my opinion the main reason is "the industry of making ignorance". I would again recommend a pair of books:

    Agnotology. The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Edited by Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger. Stanford University Press (2008).

    Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press (2010).

    1. Of course we lack data about the inequality trends in the Western Roman Empire. We would love to have their Gini index and see how it varied from the Republic to the late Empire. However, a good case can be made that inequality increased with the general economic decline of the Empire, just like it is happening for the modern Western Empire. That you can see from a lot of "proxy" data; for instance, the Emperor becoming more a semi-divine ruler; the disappearance of the Roman Middle Class, the "equites" around the 4th-5th century AD, the militarization of all the political structures. And, at the same time, the army became staffed mainly with salaried foreigners while Roman citizens were mostly reduced to the "plebs," Roman citizens, yes, but destitute and impoverished, only a little above slaves, but not much. And Christianity was popular mainly with these lower classes. There had to be a reason!

    2. BTW, there is a recent tendency to emphasize the military aspect of the Western Roman collapse. In addition to the two books you cite, also Peter Turchin is arguing in this sense. There are good reasons for this; possibly it is a factor that had been too much downplayed. But we shouldn't exaggerate, either. The Western Empire was a hollow shell by the time the Huns swept through it.

    3. And, finally, I know how science has been attacked by powerful forces. My point is that it won't make a good new religion, it is too elitarian. Just like Mithraism was in Roman times.

    4. There was a study done...

      Wealth inequality of the Roman Empire compared to today --It's worse today!

  10. I wouldn't dismiss the notion of a semi-divine emperor residing in Washington dc
    It is a nation cursed with some very peculiar religious views.An obsession with god has been all pervasive for millennia, our time will be no different.
    about 50% of Americans are convinced that the Earth is less than 10000 years old.
    They are equally convinced that infinite consumption is an inalienable right, to be backed up by force of arms (sounding decidedly Roman here!)
    They are in denial that anything is wrong with their economic system, yet will be faced with collapse in the next few years.
    Thus you will have irresistible denial colliding with immovable reality.
    Already there are wacky presidential candidates promising infinite growth linked to irrational prayer.
    by 2020, when the gullible electorate realise that their growth-prayers have not yet been answered, they are going to spin their prayer wheels even faster, and vote a real godbotherer into office, all else having failed.
    With the economy in a tailspin by 2020, and with nothing else on offer, the only solution will be a theocratic dictatorship. Such rulers always set about eradicating other religions.
    Too far fetched?? All it takes is a few similarly god-infected high ranking heads of the military and a cohort of theocratic (read fascist) lunatics to have a similar outlook, and the rest will fall into line.
    It has happened before.

    1. Absolutely right. I won't dismiss at all the idea of a divine emperor residing in Washington DC. In Rome, all what it took was a single, shrewd man: Octavianus. In some 40 years of rule, he turned the position of "imperator", that before him had meant just "commander," into a divine authority bestowed by the Gods to a single man. It doesn't seem to have been that difficult.

    2. I think it is likely the right branch of the global elites has been creating sunni caliphate (big one version) for more than the last decade (2 long and complicated 2 try 2 explayn that here)
      It is possible that one of the next steps if\after successfully creating it is to organize a Crusade to fight it :)

    3. Not looking too good

    4. Ugo,
      Great comment on wealth inequality during the long process of the Roman Empire's collapse! Also, did we not already have a theocratically inspired leader in Bush Jr...

      'God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq'

  11. Hello,

    The funny thing with the way you describe the fall of the Western Roman Empire is the same than the way the Bible describes the fall of Jerusalem. Kings have become always more unjust, didn't respect any social rules anymore and eventually Jerusalem collapsed in front of Babylon. God send them for 40 years or so in exile so that they would learn again what real life is and then let them come back to Jerusalem. I haven't read yet what happens when they come back, I am now reading Ezekiel in exile. Somehow this is also the story of the Babel tower, just that we never went back to a one langage world where people believe that they can be as powerfull as God. It looks like when a human society gets too complex, it can't manage itself properly anymore and need a collapse to be able to start again with new fundaments. The deeper the problem, the wider the collapse.

    In Ezekiel, there is also a Cassandra type of comment.
    Then I came to those who had been taken away as prisoners, who were at Telabib by the river Chebar, and I was seated among them full of wonder for seven days.
    And at the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
    Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the children of Israel: so give ear to the word of my mouth, and give them word from me of their danger.
    When I say to the evil-doer, Death will certainly be your fate; and you give him no word of it and say nothing to make clear to the evil-doer the danger of his evil way, so that he may be safe; that same evil man will come to death in his evil-doing; but I will make you responsible for his blood.
    But if you give the evil-doer word of his danger, and he is not turned from his sin or from his evil way, death will overtake him in his evil-doing; but your life will be safe.
    Again, when an upright man, turning away from his righteousness, does evil, and I put a cause of falling in his way, death will overtake him: because you have given him no word of his danger, death will overtake him in his evil-doing, and there will be no memory of the upright acts which he has done; but I will make you responsible for his blood.
    But if you say to the upright man that he is not to do evil, he will certainly keep his life because he took note of your word; and your life will be safe.

    Best regards,



  12. Hello Etienne, I believe that in the Bible stories of the fall of Jerusalem were a proxy prediction for Rome. Thank you for the script.

  13. Somebody should send this piece, in the Italian, to Francis. Good work, Ugo!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)