Areopagus Readers' Special
Welcome one and all to another Readers' Special — where the Areopagus is written by you. Last week I asked this question:
Is the idea of the "Golden Age" just nostalgia, or was there really a time in the past when things were better than they are now? If so, when?
And I received a wealth of such thoughtful responses that it would have been unconscionable not to share them with you. That is what I have done, then, and it is the work of your fellow Gentle Readers that shall accompany you this glorious September weekend.
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Thoughts on the Golden Age
We begin not with a reader but with Hesiod, an Ancient Greek poet who lived in the 8th or 7th century BC, not long after Homer. In his Works and Days we find one of the earliest known references to the idea of a "Golden Age". Hesiod described Five Ages of Man in descending order of purity and goodness: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and Iron Age. It was in the fifth and final of these ages that Hesiod considered himself to be living in, a fact he openly laments:
Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.
And here, for comparison, is how he described the Golden Age:
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
And so, Hesiod having set the scene, I pass the proverbial microphone over to you, my Dear Readers...
History, almost by definition, does not exist. History is a shared memory and the vast majority of it is both unknown and subjective. Every time we recount a memory it becomes a memory of a memory ad infinitum. Present zeitgeists influence our interpretation of the past so heavily that the lens of the now obscures any neutral interpretation of the then. This lens can be of many different tints, rose, sepia or obscuring, and depends on where the viewer stands. If one is to be pedantic for the sake of it, one could point out that we never live anywhere but the past and thus our view of history is confounded by us being a constant part of it, time being our inescapable captor.
Now that we have established history to share many of the complexities of quantum sciences, we need to register the fact that the collective subconscious of different cultures have varied conceptions of the historical and how it interacts with the present-day world. Modern Western linear interpretation, American First-Nation cyclical time and Australian Aboriginals’ layered time, are all legitimate ways to understand the past and although contradictory, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. History, by the virtue of being experienced, then becomes present…before once again becoming history. The reason we read Herodotus can be manifold: because we enjoy the stories, because we want to learn, or because we have been forced. All of these will be different in what they take from the work. The very words with which these stories are written and interpreted have a meaning when put on the page, but one that will change with temporal and societal conditions. Take for example the etymology of the word ‘amateur’ and juxtapose that to the disdain in which modern syntax is prone to putting a term that fundamentally means ‘to love’ what one is doing.
Furthering this somewhat nuanced understanding of the past is the act of recreating it. This is not a modern phenomenon. Namuchiae dating back to 46 BCE and other land-based reenactments were an important part of the Roman gladiatorial experience, which itself was an early attempt to replicate different historical people of the Roman empire. I suppose one could even make the stretch to say that the Venationes were replicating man’s earliest struggles against the natural world. Britain’s largest reenactment society, The Sealed Knot, makes it very clear on their website that they are an apolitical organisation and do not want to be understood as having a political agenda. However, reenactment is political by definition as the majority of it focuses on battles and wars, and conflicts need opposing ideologies to happen. Even by replicating that we are acknowledging it and, if one is to believe many of the accounts of the reasons we tell stories, to draw a moral lesson from the situation. What happens if, for example, in a battle reenactment of the American Civil War, that the confederate side refuse to follow the script and defeat the Union. Does this change history and create an alternate timeline? Presumably in most peoples’ minds it would not, but the refusal to replicate history would suggest that is a subjective and malleable substance. One only needs to see the furore around political figures wearing nazi uniforms to understand that history is intensely modern and inescapable.
Now that these opinions have been put into place we can start to discuss if a Golden Era of history ever existed. If we are to examine a wide array of religions and mythologies, the best time was an ancient unreachable past. The permutations of Hesiod’s ages on the Western psyche is one that’s influence has ishaped everything from the Bible to the Fairy tale. The cultures that point to a Golden Age that is not in the ancient past instead venture forth the idea that it is something that will happen in the distant future and is often religiously motivated. So, we can establish that very few populations believe that we are in the Golden Age ourselves. Most cultures instead, leaning upon the ‘good old days’ theory, postulate that the slow decline of morals and character is leading to the end times. Call it Ragnarok or call it the Yawm ad-din, the end of the world is inexorably closing in. So, for the majority of people the eschatological goodtime is in the past. But, from a more secular standpoint there are a number of temporal spaces that are frequently pointed to as the pinnacle of humanity: Classical Athens, Post-Augustan Rome, Moorish Cordoba, Elizabethan Britain, the Summer of Love, etc.
To identify what makes these eras so appealing we have to understand the zeitgeist of the era behind them. Classical Rome is probably the most exhaustively etched across the common knowledge of the Western world. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (pub.1776) famously stated ‘“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”, this book was one of the most influential of all historical works, particularly on the public school Brits who would most influence education’s core texts around the world for centuries. So, another question is raised by these historical periods and how they were recorded: Do we want to see this era of Rome or do we want to see the Rome that Gibbon has created for us?
All of the above eras ended poorly, Athens in the Peloponnesian wars, Rome to the rise of Commodus, Cordoba to the Reconquista, Eliabeth being succeeded by James I who struggled with the Thirty Years war and the Summer of Love whose youthful idealism faded into the corporate capitalism that we see today. Nothing lasts as the adage goes and, unless one adopts Parmenides’ views, time is always ticking. A Golden era is far too subjective to ever have existed, perhaps there might have been a precise time in History that I would have found happiness beyond any other, but that the reader would have found deeply upsetting and difficult and vice versa. History with gender, ethnicities and religions becomes a further kaleidoscope of difficulty to see as a single entity and further removes the idea of there ever having been a time that is universally better than the other. Perhaps to be pedantic one can reinterpret Aristotelian concepts and understand that history is nothing more than theatre to be interpreted by the spectator.
As such, I am still of the belief that History only exists as a concept and philosophical theory. When we talk of history it becomes present (or as close as we can understand it), and to try and put ourselves into the shoes of a historical character is a failure in understanding Nagel’s famous essay. We cannot understand what it would have been like to live in the past any more than I can understand what it is like to be a badger. As such, I believe that not only would it be impossible for us to choose an objectively ‘best’ historical era, but the pursuit of such is also foolish and shows a lack of understanding of the tenets of history. If we believe that we could have made a Golden Era in the past, I believe that we should focus on making it our future instead.
When I think of the term “Golden Age” I think of a time in one genre of human creativity or another, be it in film, literature, music, or visual arts, in which there were an exceptional amount of great popular works being released that have since stood the test of time and are still appreciated today. I myself do not believe that Golden Ages actually exist outside of the considered opinions of critics and enthusiasts, because I’ve noticed that while there are generally agreed upon Golden Ages for certain periods of arts and culture, I’d argue that every age has both its popular works and its underrated gems.
In my experience, one’s “Golden Age” shifts from person to person based on their own life experience. I know many Millennials who consider the 90s a “Golden Age” of pop culture, while some that are slightly older than me think the same of the 80s. Many consider the Golden Age of films to have ended in the 60s but I believe that many of the best films in history are from the 70s and 80s. But this is because these are the films I grew up with and informed my opinions at a formative age. Any perceived “Golden Age” is all about one’s perspective and is certainly a key artifact of nostalgia.
I also have never believed that there was a time in the past where things were objectively better overall than they are now. Yes, you could argue that there’s a significant decline of quality in the arts in the 21st century. But having grown up in the 90s, I remember there was plenty of crap that was extremely popular at the time that people by now have forgotten about. Now we just remember the best of each decade because we are viewing those works through the lens of nostalgia-colored hindsight. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but by focusing on so called “Golden Ages” you can end up overlooking great works being created much more recently or even right now.
Speaking of now, I could argue that we are living in the middle of a Golden Age of creative works in the 2020s. For all of the recycled mishmash and unimaginative sequels, reboots, and spin-offs, with technology being what it is, anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can produce works worthy of being published for the world to see. We just can’t see a Golden Age in progress because we’re living in it, and are very likely at its inception. Twenty five years from now I may be proven correct, but subjectively I’ll likely have more people disagree than agree with this potential future. In any case, I think that Golden Ages are overrated, and while they can be useful for preserving the best of a given era for future generations, I believe that people worship far too much for their own good.
Nostalgia is a vice. At least that is how I’ve come to think of it. Like a delicious but strong drink, it is wonderful and soothing to experience in moderation. It can be even better to share with friends. But over indulge, gorge yourself, and suddenly things fall apart. Nostalgia is much the same way. It can warm us with memories of a past life, but cannot sustain us. It, like drink, is a passing feeling.
But nostalgia is a tricky word because, as the author John Green wrote in his debut novel Looking for Alaska, “imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” We create an illusion of what our future life will be that is as hazy and unclear and unreal as our warped visions of an idealized past. We can even become nostalgic for things we’ve never experienced. For a distant “golden age” we never saw and never will.
As the film Midnight in Paris explores, the reverence we feel toward a certain era, whether it be the streets of Paris with Hemingway and Fitzgerald or Italy during the renaissance, is flawed in some way. It’s like looking at a painting from 50 feet away and declaring it a masterpiece. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, it just may not be as accurate as you assume. And the closer you get to either that remembered past, imagined future, or studied golden age, the more you see the cracks and faults.
The Golden Age l'd like to share is the dying years of steam engines on British Rail. In the early 1960's l was in my early teens and together with music my great love was for example seeing an A4 'streak' tearing through the middle track at York's station curved platform. I travelled the country and l can still smell the steam sheds l visited. These included Old Oak Common where the manager appeared in suit topped off with a bowler hat.
There was no golden age. Today we are healthier, wealthier and, if not wiser, at least better informed than ever. The only possibilities were pre 1945 when we couldn’t destroy mankind by nuclear war or, in the west, 1989, when liberal democracy appeared all conquering.
There were some high points. Around 1000AD Europeans had better bone structure than they had had earlier, and since, until mid 20th century, based on skeletons from the time. We can conclude they were getting enough to eat and not wearing themselves out with too much work. Of course the wealthy generally managed to be healthy at any time so I'm referring to peasant skeletons.The sanitation technology in Britain only got better than Roman times in mid 20th century too. So until then the Brits, at least, might justify looking back to those earlier times.Where I live (New Zealand) there was a similar high point in the 1950s. Married women rarely needed to work because working men earned enough to support a family and buy a house. There were very good state benefits for those who fell short, plus some universal benefits to ensure no one slipped through the cracks. Unemployment was very low too. However the good times were still restricted to certain groups. If you were white and middle class it was really pretty good. If you were brown and poor, not so much. For example the state bank at the time was unlikely to loan a Maori any money no matter how good his references etc were (I know of specific cases). So white businesses got to flourish on state loans, others not so much.
I think of Golden Ages as high points of execution rather than being necessarily superior to what comes later. The fields of ethnomusicology or ethnolinguistics, by analogy, examine and explore how indigenous cultures use different classification systems than our own. The effort is not to weigh them or evaluate their authenticity; it is to understand them. The Golden Ages of European theater spanned more than a century, with Shakespeare, Tirso, and Molière writing at different times, not fully contemporary with one another. That Golden Age was fueled, in turn, by the wealth of the Americas and the Columbian Exchange, including slavery. I'm not sure if it's possible to ask the question, "Was Shakespeare's legacy worth the price of slavery," because that boils down an enormous context to two factors. As you say about David, The right work of art, at the right time, in the right place.
Do we focus on the artists and artisans of Golden Ages because of the number of works? No one could write a Shakespearean play now without being accused of needing an editor and of being derivative. Are the technical accomplishments of contemporary film going to relegate monstrously successful projects like the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the same dustbin to which theater practitioners have dumped English Restoration theater? And what artists do we miss who are operating outside the confines of what constitutes a Golden Age? Those questions may be unanswerable, and the whole thing more of an existential or philosophical question, which, I'm fairly sure, Karel Čapek wrote about in An Ordinary Life.
This is an intriguing question. I always believe that history is something we can never be certain of. We only experience the present, and even though everyone has a different understanding of their reality, there is a famous saying that "history is written by the victors." What is written is only from their perspective, and there are always other sides to the story. The truth is something we may never know for sure.
One example of this is the story of the French Revolution. We come to understand the suffering of the French citizens at that time and the reasons behind their misery, as well as the luxurious life of Marie Antoinette. However, there are always different interpretations and perspectives on what truly happened.
I find the French experience similar to what we, as Sudanese people, are experiencing nowadays, but with far more complications leading to war and displacement. I long for a future where my country can live in a golden era, where citizens can live with peace and dignity.
However, I do agree that life was simpler in the past. That's why the definition of a golden age can vary depending on different standards. As life has progressed and become more complicated with all the advancements in technology and artificial intelligence, I believe the determinants of a golden age have completely shifted.
It appears to me that when we first think about the "Golden Age", it is something that most of us use in a context of depicting the times before The Great War(s), so we like to imagine that "it" was a time when all was in order, society was progressing, wealth was made, then it all went downhill from there and it ended in total annihilation.
Reasonable, but I am under the impression that it is a recurring period or event if you like. As one might say, hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times. I imagine that a similar nostalgia has been felt all over the societies following the dissolution of ancient Egypt, the demise of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, or the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, which latter is something that we Hungarians like to sometimes imagine as the period of "Golden Age", for various reasons (mostly because we were not at war and were progressing as a society and nation, for once).
Regardless, these "good" times always resulted in "weak men" creating "hard times". Are we in a period of "good times" currently? I believe so, given the last couple of decades' progress in technology, general wellbeing, safety, and as billions were taken out of under the poverty line through capitalism and access to the free market's opportunities. Hard times are probably coming. But that is entirely a different discussion.
I'd like to dodge the question slightly and reply with a quote from Lancelot (a 1977 Walker Percy novel).
“I couldn’t stand it. I still can’t stand it. I can’t stand the way things are. I cannot tolerate this age. What is more, I won’t. That was my discovery: that I didn’t have to.”
On your question about a Golden Age, I do not think it’s just nostalgia but that view depends on how you define a Golden Age. I’m referring to an overall societal Golden Age, rather than one specific to a particular field (e.g., a Golden Age of a particular type of art or music). By any empirical measure over the last few centuries, human life has improved at a relatively consistent pace. Disposable income, health and safety, access to basic necessities, prevalence of poverty, etc. As bad as things sometimes seem, there is no other time I’d rather be alive—especially if I were to be randomly dropped anywhere on Earth—than 2023. Nonetheless, I do think Golden Ages are real, though they relate more to our collective view of the present and optimism about the future. The decades preceding WWI, the 1950’s (in America at least), the 1990’s throughout most of the Western world. These were all periods where the zeitgeist shifted to a collective optimism about the promise of a world without conflict (late 19th century, 1990’s), American achievement and living standards (1950’s) and life changing innovation (1990’s). If there is a nostalgic aspect to Golden Ages, it’s a desire to return to a time when people, by and large, were optimistic about the future.
Well, as one republic said in his song, "I refuse to look back thinking days were better just because they were the younger days". Nostalgia is an inevitable trait among humans. We always like to imagine possibilities, we are aware of the fact that the world is usually so drastically changed by the simple thing called decision. Then we wonder, what could have been. Then we begin to regret, because the complexities of the present time seem to be derivative of those decisions we made in the past. We imagine a future where things are better because we made better decisions. We imagine a time before this regret with nostalgia as simpler, better times, not sullied by our past decision. We seem to forget that as the earth rotates and revolves, certain things are gathered, and certain things are dropped. We move on, yet we remember only the good things that are dropped and the bad things that are gathered. Hence the nostalgia. Someone once asked if something that happened was a bad thing. My reply was that "we would never know", because we have not lived in a world where a different thing happened. It could be this was the best possible outcome or the worst possible outcome. "We would never know."
Was there ever a Golden Age? So many periods of history in so many countries seem to have Golden Ages, and even it seems, such things as Piracy and animation have Golden Ages. And considering those I’ve heard of, the commonality is that the best bits are remembered, and nasty or inconvenient bits are forgotten, and almost invariably, the perspective is male because until very recent times of course, it was men who wrote the histories. They may have looked with longing at nymphs and shepherds, but forgot the famines and agricultural struggles, glorified Drake and Hawkins but forgot the murders and burnings at the stake. Even in very recent times in the Golden Age of TV, we remember Morecambe and Wise and the Play for Today while we draw a veil over the Black and White Minstrel Show and Bernard Manning.
I look back though, and think there must have been ‘the best times’ in the past to be a woman - perhaps being the Abbess of an important monastery or a wealthy widow running a large estate in the sixteenth century while pushing the reality of dealing with difficult sisters or awkward employees to the edge of my mind. So, no. No Golden Age, but perhaps we all need a vision of what a good life might be or was, whether it’s the withering away of the state or the coming of the Kingdom of God.
For me my answer is probably explained best by a quote from the historian Thomas Macaulay - if we look at the past properly then we see how lucky we really are in the present moment:
Those who compare the age in which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in imagination, may talk of degeneracy and decay; but no man who is correctly informed as to the past, will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present. ~ Thomas Macaulay
And that's all
After reading your wonderful responses there was a poem which came immediately to mind: Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For whether we believe that there truly was a Golden Age, a lost time when things were better, or if we believe that this moment is the best there has ever been, or even if we feel that the modern day is filled with evil regardless of the past, in all cases we can still strive to make the future better yet. That is, I suppose, the unity of feeling that has made Tennyson's verse so enduringly beloved:
Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Nothing more can I possibly add to Tennyson's immortal prosody; to your heroic hearts I simply offer my deepest gratitude. Until next week, where the solstice awaits us, I bid you farewell.