The Myth of a Golden Age

Those with a love for old books and the immutability of truth exhibited by their continued relevance even after many years often long for a restoration of the “good old days” they find in these immortal volumes. It is a great irony that nostalgia for a murkily remembered “golden age,” however, is as perennial as the actual existence of said golden age is lacking. Some of the best of these old books are themselves examples of this desire for a restoration of the glories of a mythological past, themselves written as arguments against the perennially present opponents of the perennial. Among these is John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon, a 12th century explanation and defense of liberal education.

John addresses his arguments to one “Cornificius,” a man who all too closely resembles contemporary peddlers of postmodern utopias. Like those today who scoff at the wisdom of the past, Cornificius, says John, “boasts that he has a shortcut whereby he will make his disciples eloquent without the benefit of any art, and philosophers without the need of any work” (14). In this, John’s enemy Cornificius sounds very much like the neo-pedagogues who set children to the task of “creative writing” without first requiring of them any of the immersion in the classics and any of the painstaking acquisition of the rules of grammar which once made great writers great. “Behold, all things were ‘renovated,” John says of Cornificius’ school, in a passage which might be recited today about our neo-pedagogues without any alteration or amendation, “grammar was [completely] made over; logic was remodeled; rhetoric was despised. Discarding the rules of their predecessors, they brought forth new methods for the whole Quadrivium from the innermost sanctuaries of philosophy” (16).

In the face of this, John feels the yearning for better days long ago which all of his ilk, the lovers of eternal truths, feel. “‘To revive golden yesterdays and return to happier years,’” says John, “would, as Seneca muses, be ‘most pleasant’” (203). The sensitive and intelligent reader, along with John and Seneca, feels this longing too, and rightly so. If such “golden yesterdays” filled with philosophers, lovers of wisdom in the truest sense, actually existed sometime somewhere, would it not have been the most wonderful place and period in all of the annals of mankind? Alas, it is not so. Continuing, John writes that he is “oppressed by a bitter sadness, owing partly to the realization that the good old days have gone” (ibid.). They have not gone, however; it is, rather, that they never existed. John seems here to overlook the irony of quoting Seneca, a philosopher who lived more than a thousand years before John’s time, in a reminiscence about “the good old days.” It might equally be wondered just what “golden yesterdays” Seneca himself was referring to when he wrote. Surely he could not have had in mind any era in which the mass of people lived virtuous lives and sought truth through reason, as both John and Seneca, as well as any sensible reader of either author, would have them do. Such a time, wonderful though it might have been had it actually occurred, is not be found in any period of the history of the world. A society of philosophers is not a real place, but the glorious product of Plato’s vivid imagination.

Of course, John and Seneca are not the first nor are they the last to fantasize about a golden age. It is, in fact, the widespread indulgence in this very fantasy which has produced those periods in history that most closely resemble a golden age. The monks who preserved the great heritage of Greco-Roman civilization through the Dark Age which followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD were indulging this very fantasy when they copiously compiled and copied the many manuscripts of Greek and Roman philosophy, poetry, and literature preserved in their monasteries. The architects of the Carolingian Renaissance and the other medieval renaissances which followed it were engaging in the same sort of indulgence in the fantasy of a golden age. The very name “Holy Roman Empire,” which attached itself to the empire at the center of these renaissances is itself an indulgence in this fantasy. Perhaps most famous of all is the indulgence in this fantasy by the great figures of the Italian Renaissance, who one and all looked back with admiration and longing to a bygone era which existed only in their own minds.

The modern man, the Cornificius, in whatever era he might live, however, recognizes these fantasies as false and forsakes them altogether. Instead, he proposes that man reorient himself from the past to the future to shape his activities in the present. In Cornificius, we encounter our modern Darwinians and Nietzscheans. They have rejected the myth that men are the descendants of the gods in favor of the myth that men are the ancestors of the gods.

The greatest irony of all, however, is that these visionaries of a “brave new world” and prophets of a coming utopia are the architects of the greatest periods of decline and destruction the world has yet seen. The whole history of the 20th century is a monotonous horror story of failed utopias forged in the blood of the masses they were supposed to liberate. The countless bodies of the 20th century’s utopian regimes in Hitler’s Europe, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, and Kim Il-Sung’s Korea, to mention only but a very few of the many great utopian hopes, are sacrifices at the altar of the myth of the future. If the golden age of the past is a dream, the golden age of the future is a nightmare.

The great and unforgivable blunder in all utopian visions, including the ostensibly slightly less genocidal visions to be found amidst the ruins of what once were America’s best universities, is in fact in their rejection of the myth of the golden age. It is in this “noble lie” that the real hope for man’s future is found, albeit through his past. As John of Salisbury so eloquently informs us, “our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our own natural ability, but because we are supported by the [mental] strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers” (167). Our ancestors are frequently dismissed for their lack of the knowledge and technology we possess today, yet our possession of this knowledge and technology is due to the work of our ancestors. To reject them for their ignorance is easy, but foolish. John directs us to the work of the wise; “scholars of our own day,” he says, “drawing inspiration and strength from Aristotle, are adding to the latter’s findings many new reasons, and rules equally as certain as those he himself enunciated” (177). If we would indeed forge a better future, it is our task to build upon the work of our ancestors, not to overturn it. And if we are to build upon it, we must first immerse ourselves in it and acquaint ourselves with it thoroughly. We must long for a return to the “golden age” they enjoyed. We must, in short, read old books. And what better old book to read than John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon, an old book which is a celebration of old books?

Triumph of capitalism, decline of culture

The southern attack on northern materialism was more difficult. Several historians have recently suggested that many ante-bellum northerners were themselves disturbed by the increasing materialism and selfishness of their emergent capitalist society, and turned in admiration to the gentility and ease of the southern aristocracy. There is no question that some Republicans, particularly upper-class conservatives, looked favorably upon the southern character. Richard Henry Dana of Boston, for example, admired the aristocrats of both North and South, and wrote his wife after a visit to Virginia that he had been favorably impressed by he “true gentility” of the slaveholders and the “patriarchal side” of slavery. He even told a Free Soil audience in 1848 that they should avoid expressions of hostility toward the South because “there is much to admire in the Southern character; there are some points in which it is superior to our own.” Young John A. Kasson had similar reactions when he visited Virginia in the 1840’s, and even William Cullen Bryant wrote friendly reports about southern life in the 1840’s, praising the civility and manners of the aristocracy and their genteel charm.

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, pp. 67-8