Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Conversation

FLG's classmate was looking at the construction site of the new science building. His gaze was fixed on some big pipes.

FLG: You alright?

Classmate: Huh? Hey FLG. Yeah, I'm fine. Just looking at the plumbing.

FLG: Know anything about plumbing?

Classmate: A little. Not much. But water and shit are pretty much what defines civilization.

FLG: Water and shit?

Classmate: When people say the words advanced civilization, they usually think about art, literature, architecture, culture...but what really defines advanced civilization is providing water and getting rid of shit cleanly. That's what made Rome great, not the roads or the legions or the buildings. It was the aqueducts and sewers.

FLG: Funny, years ago, I did a presentation on the Paris sewers. It was one of the first orders of business for Napoleon once he became emperor. Perhaps that set the stage for the subsequent artistic explosion there later that century.

Classmate: Can't discount the relationship. It's not just the foundation of advanced civilization, but the very definition of advanced civilization itself.

FLG: I'm not sure, but I don't think that Classical Athens had a great water or sewage system. Yet, it certainly had advanced civilization.

Classmate: If there was an advanced civilization, then they had an effective way of getting clean water and rid of shit. If experts don't know of one, then they merely haven't discovered it. Water and shit are the hallmarks of advanced civilization. Dark Ages? Little water, lots of shit.


Anonymous said...

In Distant Mirror Tuchman said the Dark Ages were actually quite a lot better than those after for sewage - palaces had places for it to go, there was thought about trenching in towns, etc. Some sort of pussy-footing delicacy and ignoring the subject had taken hold by the 16-17 century, though, which resulted in the famous shit stair at Versailles. dave.s.

Andrew Stevens said...

Wasn't it one of Robert Graves's novels where he has a Greek character ruefully remarking that the Greeks had been "conquered by a race of plumbers"?

arethusa said...

I don't think the Athenians were as interested in plumbing as the Romans, but the Greeks did have extensive public fountains with the water coming in from outside the city, where it was less polluted. There were drains everywhere - the Great Drain in the Agora still coughs up important finds, and most of the Greek theaters I've seen have a drainage system.

If anyone is really interested, there's this book, "Water Management in Ancient Greece."

S. Petersen said...

I devised this thesis once as a 20-year-old stoner. A little clever until the last about the Dark Ages: it only holds there if you don't know that they weren't really "dark" in the sense suggested here.

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