This past September, Apple TV+ launched an ambitious science fiction television series described as “based on the award-winning novels by Isaac Asimov” that “chronicles a band of exiles on their monumental journey to save humanity and rebuild civilization amid the fall of the Galactic Empire.”
The show takes its name, Foundation, from the first of three Asimov novels originally published as short stories from 1942 to 1950. Asimov received the prestigious Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series in 1966 for the novels. Decades later, he added several prequels and sequels to the body of work. The books were considered notoriously difficult to adapt to film, as efforts by studios in the late 1990s and mid-2000s failed to achieve results. However, Apple TV acquired the rights in 2018 and ordered a ten-episode season. Released to mostly positive critical reviews, Apple ordered a second season last month.
Foundation purports to tell the story of the coming end of the Galactic Empire, ruled by three clones of the emperor, Cleon I. Imperial power rests with the seemingly consistent cloned rulers, who enforce galactic peace through extreme violence. However, trouble erupts when Hari Seldon, a university professor of mathematics, develops the theory of “psychohistory” (“a predictive model designed to forecast the behavior of very large populations”) that he claims foretells the fall of the empire. Arrested and tried for treason, Seldon confronts the cloned emperors and predicts the impending collapse of peace, security, and order in the galaxy. The TV show chronicles the adventures of the imperial clones, Seldon’s band of exiled followers, and the impending collapse of galactic society.
No book can be understood without reference to its author and what influenced him. Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was born in Russia, but his family moved to the United States when he was a boy. He earned advanced degrees in chemistry, which led to a position as a professor in biochemistry at Boston University. Asimov enjoyed creative writing from an early age and was drawn to science fiction. Although raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, Asimov rejected his family’s faith, became an atheist, and embraced the Enlightenment ideals of humanism and rationalism. He was named “Humanist of the Year” in 1984 by the American Humanist Association, an organization dedicated to establishing a “progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life,” and served as its president from 1985 to 1992. Asimov continued to write and speak on scientific topics until his death in 1992.
Asimov found inspiration for his Foundation narrative after reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon (1737-1794) was an English Enlightenment scholar who was raised Anglican, converted to the Catholic Faith at Oxford while a student, and then reverted to Protestantism when his outraged father sent him to Calvinist Switzerland to regain the “true” faith. Later, after meeting Voltaire, the French skeptic and enemy of the Church, Gibbon embraced skepticism and rationalism. In his famous work on the Roman Empire, Gibbon posited the theory that the Church enfeebled the once mighty imperial structure. He speculated that the Church’s objection to Roman immorality and its failure to embrace the Roman way of life disrupted the unity of the empire.
According to Gibbon, the teachings of the Catholic Church produced a “servile and effeminate age,” where Roman imperial society was undermined by the clergy and its insistence on living Christian virtues. He argued that the political life of the empire was radically changed by the adoption of the Christian faith as the official (and only) religion in the empire in the late fourth century. Emperors, Gibbon opined, were distracted by worthless and ridiculous religious disagreements, which hampered their ability to deal with the rising political and military situation on the imperial borders.
Gibbon’s theory on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire became the standard narrative in the English-speaking world and found favor with Enlightenment thinkers with an animus against religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Enlightenment intellectuals believed that the Church was a negative influence in the world and that the collapse of the Roman Empire produced a thousand-year “triumph of barbarism and religion” that was finally broken with the return of the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance. The Frenchman Denis Diderot (1713-1784), an Enlightenment leader, summed it all up when he famously quipped, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
The influence of Enlightenment intellectuals, and especially Gibbon’s work, is clearly seen in the first episode of Foundation, when Hari Seldon stands in the docket during his treason trial. Seldon predicts the collapse of imperial civilization within five centuries (Rome collapsed at the end of the fifth century) followed by a dark age of barbarism and violence consisting of 30,000 years, which Seldon argues can be reduced to a thousand years with the creation of an Encyclopedia Galactica, a compilation of human knowledge that can be used by future generations climbing out of the post-imperial dark ages as a “foundation” for the re-establishment of civilization. After rebels detonate suicide bombs, initiating events that may lead to the empire’s demise, the emperors decide to spare Seldon’s life and send him along with his followers into exile on a remote planet, where they will compile their Encyclopedia Galactica to ride out the impending dark ages.
Now it’s time to set the record straight. Although the Foundation Apple TV+ series is a well written show containing majestic set pieces, beautiful cinematography, stunning computer-generated graphics, and a cast of fascinating characters brilliantly acted, its foundation (pun intended) rests on a tired anti-Catholic historical myth about the role of religion and the Church in the collapse of ancient civilization.
Contra the show’s writers—and Isaac Asimov, and Edward Gibbon—embracing the Catholic faith did not cause the collapse of the Roman Empire. The early Church did not desire the downfall of the established political order and in fact supported the Roman state, spiritually through prayer and materially by individual Christians joining the army, working as imperial officials, and paying their taxes.
The empire persecuted the Church and tried to eradicate it for numerous political, religious, and social reasons. The Church’s moral teachings certainly placed it at odds with Roman culture, and there is no doubt that these were a cause of Roman animosity against the Church. Ten general persecutions exploded against the Church in its first four centuries of existence. The Great Persecution under Diocletian in the early fourth century was undertaken at a time of relative peace and stability in the empire and certainly did not distract the emperor from more important affairs of state, as Gibbon claimed. By the time of the western imperial collapse in the late fifth century, Rome had made peace with the Church and embraced its teachings for over a hundred and fifty years.
So if the Church was not responsible for the “fall” of Rome, who or what was? The key to understanding the question of why Rome collapsed is found in the Roman army, which underwent a series of transformations that doomed the longevity of the empire. The Roman army of the early empire comprised Roman citizens who saw military service as a central piece of citizenship. The army, totaling 300,000 men, focused on a perimeter defense on the borders of the empire to protect the 60 million imperial inhabitants. But by the third century, the Roman army had become a professional entity with recruitment primarily drawn not from citizens, but from slaves and poor free men. Recruiting became difficult, so imperial bureaucrats developed the idea of offering the Germanic tribes on the imperial borders entrance into the empire in exchange for military service. By the fifth century, the Roman army in its vital components was staffed by ethnically German warriors, raised in the empire and self-identifying as Roman but not beholden to the wealthy Roman nobility nor the imperial bureaucracy.
The empire collapsed in the West in the late fifth century because it was exhausted from five hundred years of imperial rule. Romans lost confidence in their society. Central bureaucratic control from Rome collapsed in the West in the late fifth century, and power fell into the hands of the local Roman military commanders—again, ethnic Germans. These local chieftains were forced to forge a new identity and societal structure when the last Western emperor was overthrown in the late fifth century. Contrary to what the Enlightenment thinkers claimed—and the line of thought that provides the grist for Foundation—the Church, with its bishops and dioceses (organized according to the imperial governmental structure), provided the Romans a chance at unity in belief, practice, and life.
No one needs to be convinced that Foundation is a work of fiction. But unfortunately, in our age, rife as it is with animosity against the Catholic Church, what does need spelling out is that Foundation is based on fiction, too—not true history, but the tendentious work of bitter philosophers and historians with an axe to grind against the one institution mandated by God to produce hope and light in a chaotic world.
Image credit: Apple TV via YouTube.