The Loss of the Golden Age
AE Reiff

Eight lines in the Odyssey
Fifteen in Works and Days,
nine about the Blessed Isles,
parts of two poems by Pindar,
Hyperborean and Blessed Isles.
Voila! Have you seen them!

What could have made Homer think the world had been a better place? The Beatles? The Littl' Bits? We answer by opposites. He didn't. The world was no different then. Those first poets took opposites seriously and held up a mirror to life. The golden age was the opposite of the age of iron, their real subject. The negation of gold by iron is the proof of the gold's existence. It was argument by antithesis. If you concede that Homer was as wise as a modern, able to perceive contradiction, apply humor even while being a little serious, then you can see that he might not believe everything he said, but still say it for effect, for fun, for sheer perversity. He's a poet.
No matter what the Greeks or the Romans Virgil and Ovid have said, there was never any sense in these texts that the golden age was a deep unconscious yearning of the human mind. That was invented by critics of the last two hundred years. The golden age was an effort of the powerful to justify their own alienation from the natural world.
The problem of the golden age is one of poetry, not philosophy, religion, politics or anthropology, unless it's psychology and we are forced to accept that all peoples that have a history have a paradise, a state of innocence, a golden age. Statements like this are never going to end. Any combination of millennial endings, prehistoric epochs, myths as collective fantasies embodying ideals and memories will be taken as credible. But such statements about the myth of the golden age are not even secondary evidence of "prehistoric eras" or states of consciousness, especially when foisted out of the last centuries. If, as argued, the golden age is an idea of the primitive, a paradigm of the noble savage discovered and rediscovered in every landfall, at least by Europeans, then the ethnologist who seeks to save the heathen from his own naiveté transfers to him his own, and the golden age becomes a speculative transference of modern alienation.
This golden age of unrealized being was only recently discovered. While peace on earth and personal property were judged yea and nay in Ovid, the elaborate psychological and mythological extrapolations from them are a modern fusion foisted in revenge perhaps for what Ovid did to Virgil, and maybe even further back in revenge against "our ultimate forefathers," as critics say.
These clichés issue not from poets so much as from teachers who long for such a state themselves, who compare Adam's eviction from Eden with the loss of the golden age and ask big questions like "what did men live for," as though this were answered by preachments on peace and war, plenty and want. Yes the Italian renaissance had an Ur-myth of the pleasant landscape, pleasure, locus amoenus, but when we discriminate golden ages, divide what the sources said from what the critics say they said, we see that the golden age has been abstracted.
These reinterpretations increase with time, but the sources stay the same. Montaigne is saddled with responsibility in his account of the noble savage with everything of Rousseau's and the new world Indians are reinterpreted by both as hippies who might be praised or blamed for seeking Homer's reputed life of ease.


Still we want to know what we lost in the losing of it. The original glimpses of the golden age in the Greeks and their transmutation by Virgil and Ovid are the main course of this banquet. The idea of a Greek golden age comes with the notion that everything began well but decayed. The few lines in three ancient Greek poets understate this concept. Greek poet Hesiod said god Cronos made a golden race of men who were mortal. They had a good life, lived like the wealthy, like kings, but died. Later ages decayed from gold to silver to bronze and iron, steadily got worse. Folk in these ages died too, but badly, like the peasant. So bad was it that the spokesmen of the rich say today that everybody who lives in this Iron Age continually dreams of living in the gold. We are all supposed backwardly mobile. Hesiod's way of explaining how things came to their present iron impasse opposes the unknown gold with the known iron.
These four ages had a minor fifth especially for heroes. Either that or their stories aren't straight. Maybe just because Homer preceded Hesiod and didn't know the ages were to be limited to four he sent his hero Menelaus there. Menelaus was of course Helen of Troy's husband, so needed his reward. Sending Menelaus alone to the golden age is like NASA sending Gene Shoemaker's remains to the moon. He is that polycarbonate vial, still the only one of its kind on the moon, though when it proves a popular spin-off more are coming. Shoemaker might get company sooner than Menelaus, who only had his loneliness relieved when kindly Virgil sent Aeneas' father Anchises along a thousand years later.
Roman retellings of the Greek golden age are not copies, they are the raw stuff that put the golden age on the map. Ovid took from Hesiod the notion of an age without law. That was the law, no law. Lawlessness, anarchy, free love and communism were all manufactured gold to Ovid, but this freedom vs. legality was a joke on the Greek origins, a poetic license. No such radicalism existed in the first accounts. Ovid's golden age was beloved by the Italian renaissance for these exaggerations, but it was Virgil who made possible every earthshaking change Ovid implemented. They dreamed up a political and social seduction scheme that absorbed all Italians, early and late, from the Latium of Virgil and the ethic of Ovid to Sannazaro.
The spirits of that first generic Greek golden age race were supposed to have been guardians in the minor fifth of the heroes, but all spirits and races of gold fled the implications of their decline in the Iron Age. The first golden age was like Plato's ideal gymnasium. Hesiod had some maiden choruses but there were few complications of women and children. The difference between the iron and the gold, government and none, property rights and the common good, seduction and freedom, was the attitude of mind. The Iron Age had the lust of the heart and the pride of life. It got so bad Ovid had the gods abandon it, leave the earth to men. Why did the gods leave the earth? The same reason you move further out, the neighbors.
Only if we assume that Homer, Hesiod and Pindar knew of a large oral tradition which had no surviving remnants can we think the golden age had any existence for them other than its occasional mention. The golden age was a patchwork, not a systemic idea. Its reconstruction as literature is an archeology with few remnants.
There being no known skeleton of the golden age, no epic, no drama, only poetic fragments, if not figments, we have what the nineteenth century called myth. Had Latin poets, meaning Virgil and Ovid, not developed their fancies of the golden age, we would still wait its discovery. Their golden age was like the later idea of India or Eldorado, an entertainment, not a piety or a philosophy of improving mankind. For Virgil, renaissance pastorals, philosophers, Jung and Freud the "place of perfect repose and inner harmony. . . always remembered as a garden" is romance. Philosophical pietists maintain that such a place is remembered by everyone. Do you remember?
Golden age literature got established by equating similars, Hyperboreans with Elysians, both with amniotic bliss, but there were only three qualities originally mentioned and the three Greeks share the details the way today, before a movie, you might look up a review to make yourself seem wise. When Pindar quotes, cites or resonates with Homer he is seeking inspiration not to confirm a doctrine.
Romans cribbed the Greek golden age into empire. Italian renaissance pastorals and lyricists out-cribbed the Romans but were themselves out-cribbed by the Spanish and English new world explorers. Eight lines in the Odyssey about Menelaus, 15 in Works and Days about a golden race, another nine about the Blessed Islands, two parts of two poems by Pindar, one concerning the Hyperboreans, the other the Blessed Islands again. Voila!
Have you seen them!
There is little if any sense of nostalgia in these sources for a lost state of oneness or a lingering state of virtue. Those were not the benefits. The benefits were fair weather, three harvests, no sickness. There had to be some means to justify calling it gold.


It only became a golden age when Virgil turned the thing on its head and said it was ahead of us, not behind. People are suckers for opposites. That there was something to look forward to, that such a state could exist in the future, pleasured a nostalgic looking back to the state which had putatively been. Caught between past and future, references either way were effective; anything but saying this the present age was golden.
The golden age begins with Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, begins and ends with it, since Virgil so completely transforms the idea. What Virgil refers to in Georgics I and II repeats himself. Poets do repeat themselves, but it is more dangerous when other poets repeat them. The good line echoes a thousand years, but corn transplanted to a cabbage patch is a disaster. Virgil's gold celebrating the birth of a new child and a new race in the fourth eclogue, ended up in Siculus' Eclogue I proposing that Nero was going to be the king to bring this to pass. Nero, the perfect iron man, was going to be the golden age king. Desperation.
Confusions of the golden age out of Virgil were better and worse. Strabo said the Elysian Fields were the Fortunate Islands. Plutarch discovered Cronos in Ogygia. Pliny deemed the whole, Fortunate. But Menelaus Homered to Elysium by dying and the heroes who lived in the Blessed Isles got balsamic circumstances from Cronos, says Hesiod. All such places might as well have been on the moon. But domestication was waiting, Virgil transplanted the golden age from its home across the sea to Latium, that is, Italy, leading Menelaus and heroes to their new Roman villa. Breezes, harvests and health were supplied just as they had been at the ends of the earth. The conversation was better though, for Menelaus had Aeneas' father, Anchises, to talk to. It is all Virgil's doing in his Eclogues and in the Aeneid. So the Romans made real progress in building the afterlife.
One administration may call it nation building, planting democracy. Virgil planted Elysium and the Golden Age. Once located, as poets in the courts of all kings will argue, the golden age in Rome given by God made its kings into heroes.. Blessed and golden places sprang up anywhere, although in the discovery of his "new world" of woman Donne passed any bounds Virgil could have foreseen.
Ovid added line and sinker to the golden age when he invented a political, social, pastoral package of the perfect life. His best of all possible worlds fleshed out Virgil. All chiliasts marvel that Ovid could call it merely the first millennium. He gave it laws and said it had no laws. People had no thought of ill, trusted each other. There were no judges, it was a libertine paradise. Everybody just stayed home like (the later) Caesar wanted them to. No cities, no boats, no war in the age of gold. Up popped the cherry and the vine. You could pull gold mistletoe down from the oak. Keats would have called it a season of mist and mellow fruitfulness. One thing is certain, they made the golden root in the pastoral.
The point of Menelaus and Anchises, those lonely heroes and their blessedness, was that the afterlife was for the virtuous Good. Gold appears by logic of transference from virtue. Only the good could live in the ease of the golden age. Thus a series of pretenses occurred associating the golden age as a pastoral ideal. Rome is good, hence pastoral. Rome is pastoral, hence good. It doesn't much matter what geographic entity is used, the association is the same. Because the virtuous got gentle breezes and three harvests, in reverse, if you had gentle breezes and three harvests you must be good. Pretend to them, and you have them. This pretense, this theatre taken as reality, became the whole reason for being of the golden age. If it was said to be so it was so, the pose of nations and states as gold. Roman nobles dressed up as shepherds just look good.
There are three golden ages. The invented one scholars say the primitives remember and celebrate. The undifferentiated natural world, the one the primitives actually live in where oneness, air and life are one. And the golden age the scholar says existed and thinks about. Lovejoy and Boas led the twentieth century in defining this last as a "discontent of the civilized with civilization."


It is a joke to say the golden age is lost because the rich are too. The loss of the rich is not an obvious societal problem. Is the golden age? It depends on what you think. Is the golden age a universal myth of consciousness yearning for peace or a psycho myth of the filthy rich?
The excellence and virtuosity that wealth and high standards produced when the rich were titled and landed was always the continuity of civilization fostering from antiquity the high arcs of sculpture, painting, fine arts and a class of standards, Sir Philip Sidney throwing off a sonnet sequence. It was out of these aspirations that the golden age prospered and grew to its exaggeration in Rome and everywhere. Wealth dressed in jeans maybe resembles the noble dressed down as a shepherd, aping the peasant, but the noble took off his costume when the play was ended. The millionaire's wealth mires him in the middle class. The Orpheum theatre is as much a mystery to him as those lost standards. Those landscapes on the wall? It is not known that in Arcady Orpheus shepherded, that the ideal landscape is an abstraction of fine art. We have to leave the millionaire lost if we want to plumb the loss of the golden age as an artistic, literary, psychological problem.
We pretend the golden age is an invention of the rich who no longer exist in order to show that the golden age disguises and expressions common to all ages were only show. It is painful to lose those nymphs lounging in eternal gardens on gold couches where the vine trails fruit of itself and pastel sheep graze under silver clouds as sylphs and satyrs play and the poetic shepherd boy blows his pipe through all that age from Theocritis to Blake. Oh shepherd boy, thou harmless shepherd boy! Throw out Keats and Shelley too for they are Arcady's brothers. The pastoral landscape, the golden age, the rich are gone and what remains is subject of an elegiac poem.
There are caveats to this. We still need to explain how golden age shibboleths remain in literature, art and criticism, but that is because they lag substantially, centuries perhaps. Literature has not grasped Shoemaker's encapsulated polycarbonate remains in a vial on the moon, the new Arcady, unless we speak too soon.
The Pelicans For A Golden Age have argued for 200 years it was a dream of the universal unconscious, but only the rich benefited in the Iron Age from celebrating the lost gold. The loss was a substitute for real life for them, a compensation of guilt maybe, a sanction of upper class treasure and pleasure. But even if the rich no longer exist to sustain the myth, which is replaced with microfinance and global flat, the golden age was never a dream of the unconscious in the first place. Neither were the events sustaining our memories. They were real. We lament the golden past both because it was an invention foisted upon the dim origins of consciousness and because it is a fantasy. We backtrack to see the process of this myth of the rich who gained from the material benefits of the gold they said we all sought to find.
It was not a spiritual quest for Wholeness, but a material one for social control. Afterward, via their thought makers, these controllers said that gold nature was moral, a psychic good. They posed as altruists celebrating this idealism as if they wanted to be like the peasant in its recapture, to milk cows, detassel corn, plow fields. The golden age as an upper class myth abstracted from its origins produced aristocrats who celebrated the peasant, but didn't do dishes, cut their own grass or raise their own children. They pretended to be alienated from nature in order to celebrate this status.
The golden age was always a mythic celebration of how the rich were alienated from nature by their wealth, dressed as peasants, but otherwise financially clothed. Discontent of the civilized with civilization sums up the Queen dressed as a milkmaid, the nobleman dressed as a shepherd, just trying to rediscover their roots. Nobility divided from folk all right, but the big myth of the golden age was that the nobility wanted to be ordinary. They didn't want to be folk any more than the folk were alienated from nature, unless you think farmers pine for the great outdoors. Nobility wrote books, endowed professors, defined the golden. They just needed to milk a cow. The golden age was their dream substitute for a cow.
The first poets used the golden age to critique the Iron Age in which they lived, but the iron has rusted even more than when those flakes and oxidation drifted Roman streets. Virgil was alleged to close that rift between the isolated self and its natural environment, that yearning for still more distant periods, that prelapsarian longing to reestablish contact with. . . his aboriginal situation," a time of oneness, spring, childhood and love.
The train they want to ride back to Homer however stops much before the Virgilian heart cry. The fault line between the cerebral and the natural, Puritan Fear, runs unprovoked by the dark woods and the wild men of a few hundred years ago. It separates the intellect from dark nature's fallen form. What could be more perverse than a professor writing about a farmer, telling us the farmer dreams of being one with nature? It is the professor's dream to be one with nature and with him the dream of the intellect. But he won't leave his tower any more than his students will leave the internet. The peasant has no such dream.
This invented isolated self and the assumption of its division from nature is still strong in the getaway industry where weekend city dwelling poets go to hills and workshops in order to "write." In an earlier time the queen clowning as a milkmaid was a counterfeit scene supposedly recapturing what was lost, but Ovid observed what was really lost, not however this disconnection. He lamented the effect of spade and plough on earth. What was lost according to the reinterpreted myth was the entire organic world divorced from the cerebral, which division caused that search for the pastoral ideal. But who says it was lost except for the authors?
The golden age gives these afflicted intellectual agencies an excuse not to stop talking. The artist, professor, executive, patron of the arts who dream of that time when all was one in the much ballyhooed civilization of the discontent is as separate from the rustic as the rustic is from that thought. Blame streetlights that stars aren't out. Can't feel the sun? Blame the AC. Are there shepherds in the fields by night? Who has time to sit outside? Such absurdities as poly-amory, enforced community, capitalism and communism got blamed on the golden age. It comes of too much thinking.
The golden age as an over-intellectualized self-alienated view of nature and humanity was wrapped in the guise of a pastoral by people who never had real jobs (work done with hands), let alone were shepherds. The applications, the excesses of the idea were absurd quite early, but the argument goes that Virgil and Ovid would never have made of it what they did were their creations not drawn from a deep chord of some kind. The assumption of this deep chord is the argument that seeks to prove a universal subconscious altruistic vision of nature and of man, but this "chord" is the self aggrandizement that money perfects among the wealthy, the intellectual and entitled. How absurd that the peasant had to wait until the renaissance to imitate the rich when the rich had been imitating peasants since Rome. The loss of classical tradition entire takes yet another century to squeeze the last juice from this not exhausted, but disinterested rind.
Other than the few abstractions such as no laws, etc., little thought was given in these celebrations to the positive traits of that first golden age because stasis continued there unabated. Only in nature could the effects of unabated stasis be seen. Honey in the oak became the golden bough. Grapes hung like rubies, corn was like gold. The gold flower was gold. But while the mineral transformation of nature "improved" it with gold status, this imagination never transferred to people. They never got any better. Donne asks, "But who ere saw, though nature can work so, / That pearl, or gold, or corn in man did grow?" (To the Countess of Bedford, 65-66). Flowers might be made of gold, which the handy Midas myth explained in part, but people did not look gold, even if they were made of it. The architecture of the golden age as a universal myth is decoration and diversion.
The golden age myth became a commercial dream to sell the product of wholeness to the very people who didn't need it. The ones who needed it were the ones who advertised it. Burger King needs to sell burgers. You don't need to eat them but they have to make you believe you do. The intellectual needed to sell the myth of alienation of nature to salve himself, but farmers didn't buy it. It was a play to salve the pain of not doing your own work.
Ever meet a cowboy alienated from nature? It is always the empowered modern, the court, legislature, scholar who feels alienated, disenfranchised from the natural world, the one. The empowered define their own sentimentality, transcribe and translate the oral languages, define the tribal structures in museums and in so doing they create it. What they leave was not there before they came. Then the world was one. Would you rather be one but unaware of two, or two and lament the loss of the one? In the words of these powers, this alienation was generated out of a sense of lack in the civilized observers.
I already have the past. Childhood and youth are mine forever. The present I labor to obtain I also have, but the future is the thing I lean toward. The purpose is always the same in the tension between then and now posed by idealist critics, the golden age against the putative iron, or in psychological terms, growing up against grown up, child against adult, naive against nostalgia: to empower the sanctions this juxtaposition gives to the ruling order.
Oddly these same scholars could accept the present. If they do not and long for better, for good air and clean water, it is because they are confined to their apartments, books and protocols and divorced from a greater whole, but they reject it so how can it be greater? What they really are saying is that they have no myth of paradise. This was the same emphasis of Homer, that fictional writer who invented the golden age to explain life in the iron. The dissonance of their choice to reject the primitive folk life as being superior they cannot accept as dissonant. Are not they the guardians, the referees? So if they are dissatisfied it must not be because they made the wrong choices, to live in their hats, it must be because everybody shares a universal myth of the oneness that everyone has lost. But the only ones who lost it were themselves.