By Gordon Rugg
The idea of a Golden Age has been around for a while, in one form or another.
How many forms? There’s a good argument for there being 28 forms.
Why 28? That’s what this article is about. I’ll look not only at the idea of the Golden Age, but also at some of the related issues which ripple out from it, including archetypal plots in fiction, history and politics.
Gold, silver and bronze from the Classical Age
As usual, the story involves Ancient Greek philosophers getting things partially right, and causing confusion that lasted for millennia. It also includes mystical German philosophers contributing their particular type of chaos to the mix. Fortunately, and with a neat symmetry, it also includes Ancient Greek historians and rationalist German philosophers taking a much more insightful and useful view of the issues.
Plato is a prominent figure in the early stages of the story. He subscribed to the view that there was an early Golden Age, when everything was quite wonderful, and that subsequent ages involved a steady decline, which is set to continue for the future. It’s essentially the “When I were a lad” view of life, dressed up in impressive words.
Hegel, and various other philosophers, on the other hand, took the view that things were getting steadily better, from rough and bad early days towards a mystically ideal future. It’s essentially the “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better” view of life, dressed up in words so vague and impressive-sounding that he made a good career out of them.
When you start looking at these views in terms of how they could be represented visually, you realise that they can be shown neatly as a timeline with three times (past, present and future) and three values (Gold, Silver and Bronze). [Note: Classically educated readers will probably spot that I’ve simplified Hesiod’s Ages of Man model, and have used Bronze where the original model used Iron, to make the underlying principle more clear.]
This gives you three possible values for the past, each of which can then go to each of three possible values for the present, and then to each of three possible values for the future. That gives you 3 x 3 x 3 possible combinations, making a total of 27.
In the next section, I’ll work through some of those 27 combinations. I’ll deal with the 28th view in the final section.
The 27 combinations
Here’s Plato’s view, shown as a diagram. I’ve used yellow circles to represent the Golden Age, grey circles to represent the Silver Age, and green circles to represent the Age of Bronze.
In Plato’s version of events, things start off well, then decline to the present day, and will keep declining in the future.
Here, in contrast, is Hegel’s view. Things start off crude and bad, but get steadily better, and will some day attain a mystical wonderful ideal.
Here’s a different view, in which everything was, is, and will be wonderful. It’s the sort of view favoured by Dr Pangloss, in Voltaire’s Candide.
Here, in contrast, is the Eeyore view, of gloom, more gloom, and yet more gloom.
Those examples all involved views of history and/or life.
However, you can also apply exactly the same approach to stories, which have an initial state, a middle, and an end state.
The image below shows a classic story structure, involving fall and rise, with an ending happier than the beginning. In terms of story grammars, it starts with an awareness of a lack, then goes through various challenges, and ends with a resolution, which fills the lack.
It’s the structure of Emma, and of every romantic tale by Dame Barbara Cartland, where the heroine starts off with a life that requires only a husband to bring complete happiness; after tribulations along the way, the story ends with marriage and bliss.
Here, in contrast, is a classic Greek tragedy structure, involving rise and precipitous fall, with a body count at the end. It’s also a view of history that has been widespread from Ancient Greece to the present day: A particular person or a nation rises for a while, but will eventually fall.
I won’t go through all the other possible combinations, because that would take too long, but the principle should be clear by now.
This approach gives a clean, simple model for categorising views of history and fiction. The same principles apply to politics, which are closely intertwined with beliefs about history and about underlying principles in human events.
The 28th view
All the models above are based on the underlying assumption that a particular point in time can be meaningfully described with a single value judgment, as either Gold or Silver or Bronze.
Reality, however, tends not to work that way. That’s the core of the 28th view, which can be summarised as the “Do you really think it’s that simple?” view.
Often, in history, one nation’s Golden Age is golden at the expense of its neighbours. There’s a wry classical-era remark about a Roman provincial governor which sums it up: “He came to our rich province a poor man, and left our poor province a rich man”. It’s the same within nations, where an age that was golden for one part of the population was often very different for other parts.
So, as is often the case with philosophers, there’s an interesting phenomenon going on, but some of their explanations for it have nudged much of history and philosophy and politics into a direction which isn’t very helpful.
Thucydides the historian was well aware of these issues before Plato became famous, and had few illusions about the realities. The philosopher Karl Popper was also very well aware of just how dodgy Plato’s arguments were, and wrote scathingly and at length on the subject. He was equally scathing about Hegel’s writings about progress.
It’s an important issue, because beliefs about society and history have a profound effect on politics, and on what happens in our world. Simplistic beliefs aren’t likely to have a good effect.
This doesn’t mean that the concept of progress, or the concept of decay, should be abandoned. When they’re applied on a smaller scale, to topics such as medical knowledge or urban sanitation systems, then those concepts are much more useful.
So, how could we tackle these concepts in a more useful way?
In technical terms, they need to be used only within their range of convenience, i.e. in contexts where they can be applied meaningfully.
Also in technical terms, they need to be properly operationalised, i.e. translated into specific terms that can be measured reasonably accurately.
They should also be used in combination with game theory and systems theory, which were created to model exactly the sorts of competition for resources that make these concepts meaningless when applied at the scale of nations or periods of history.
I’ll close with a chicken joke about Hegel. It isn’t the best joke ever, but it gives an idea of what his philosophy is like, and besides, you don’t get a chance to tell a joke involving Hegel and a chicken every day.
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hegel: To realise the reason in history.
As I said, not the best joke ever; it’s probably a good place to end…
Notes and links
Sources of original images:
“Stater Lampsacus 360-340BC obverse CdM Paris” by Unknown – Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-04-13. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stater_Lampsacus_360-340BC_obverse_CdM_Paris.jpg#/media/File:Stater_Lampsacus_360-340BC_obverse_CdM_Paris.jpg
“Silver croeseid protomes CdM” by Jastrow – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silver_croeseid_protomes_CdM.jpg#/media/File:Silver_croeseid_protomes_CdM.jpg
Cropped from: “Petelia Æ 14 mm 610084” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Petelia_%C3%86_14_mm_610084.jpg#/media/File:Petelia_%C3%86_14_mm_610084.jpg
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
Overviews of the articles on this blog: