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 Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth.
Hesiod, the author of this gloomy prediction, lived in troubled times. The glory days, if anyone could still remember them, had been four or five centuries earlier, when the offspring of the gods lived in their great palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Boeotian Thebes. The palaces had been burnt by invaders, and many of the Achaeans had fled. Hesiod’s own village in rural Boeotia, like much of mainland Greece, was experiencing a continuous crisis. Land was scarce and infertile, and prospects were bleak. In a dispute over inheritance, Hesiod had lost out to his brother Perses, who had bribed the village chiefs to give judgment in his favor, and Hesiod directs much of this poem, Works and Days, to advising Perses against greed and contentiousness. Hesiod may have been the first known writer, though by no means the last, to have converted personal misfortune into a gen- eral prophecy of doom.
Hesiod’s works are masterpieces of history. History, remember, is not what happened in the past, but neither is it the nit-picking exercise of dissertation writers stringing footnotes together in an exercise of what Clyde Wilson calls “honest plagiarism.” The historian is someone who goes in search of reality and imposes his vision of the past upon his people.
Hesiod, in his quest for truth, told many tales of gods and men, how order came from an original jumble of elements, how the divine powers begat each other, and how one race succeeded another in the Hesiodic “progression” from gold to silver to bronze to iron. Since ancient times we have gone through ages of lead, tinfoil, corrugated cardboard, plastic, and our own age of genetically reengineered organisms created in the image of man.
It is the old old story of man’s decline from the Golden Age, his expulsion from Eden. It corresponds to our personal sense of history. In my day, children walked to school and returned at midday for a lunch their mother prepared. Now it’s nothing but working mothers and punk children. Once when I was delivering a declamation of the “O tempora o mores” type dear to every reactionary, a listener pointed out that every crank since Socrates had made the same com-
plaint. Well, I responded, what if they were all right?
Obviously, entropy is a fact of human history, but it is not the only fact. Although we typically fall short of our fathers in many ways, we may in some fields, most obviously science and technology, exceed them. Thus, a rich historical vision that is true to human experience must include some provision for the revivals that punctuate the deepening gloom with shafts of golden light. Even old Hesiod put the age of heroes between the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron, and Romans of Augustus’ time celebrated the return of the Golden Age. It was in Augustus’ reign that the Messiah came, Who interrupted the downward course of the human race and Who, when we have sufficiently degenerated again, will return to rescue the faithful.
We cannot help thinking this way, not because we are Christians who have the truth, but because we are human beings in whom the seeds of truth were planted from the beginning. The myths and legends of earlier peoples, then, find their fulfillment in the Christian story. Thus, our minds are in the grip of one of two paradigms—or both of them: the paradigm of steady decline and the paradigm of renascence and renewal. But for both of them to work in tandem, there must be Dark Ages to separate the Ages of Gold: the Greek world between the end of the Bronze Age and the Homeric epics, or Christian Europe between the fall of Rome and the coronation of Charlemagne. Whether we have entered our own Dark Age is a subject of some controversy, but it is hard to ignore the mounting evidence of financial decline and death-metal culture.
Even though these paradigms, dictated by the Logos, are true, we should resist the temptation to apply them simplistically. A little chaos,“a little revolution now and then,” can act as a tonic. If the Mycenaean citadels had not fallen, Greek civilization would never have arisen in the rubble. Undoubtedly, the effects of the Roman collapse were even more catastrophic to those who endured them, but in the ruins of the empire bold men began to carve out baronies and kingdoms, monks wrestled with thorny problems, minstrels learned new songs, and farmers invented the moldboard plow. A Dark Age is what you make of it.
The history of ancient Egypt is dominated by these paradigms. Out of chaos emerged the Old Kingdom that united Upper and Lower Egypt before collapsing back into disunity during the First Intermediate Period. Wise rulers gradually reunited Egypt to create the Middle Kingdom, which fell into chaos and disunity in the shock of the Hyksos invasion, and, after a Second Intermediate Period, the even more brilliant New Kingdom arose. More recent Egyptologists tell a rather different story, pointing out that it was in the so-called intermediate periods (their two Middle Ages) that Egyptians made their greatest cultural breakthroughs.
The settlement of North America, in many ways, was a voluntary entrance into a Dark Age. Although the cities on the eastern seaboard soon aped the civilization of Europe, the frontier, as it moved westward, exposed generation after generation of Americans to conditions a good deal more primitive than post-Roman Christians faced in the time of Clovis. They had to rely on themselves and on their neighbors for whatever social order or security they could achieve. The frontier experience, from Jamestown to Alaska, created an American character that was, paradoxically, more conservative and European because it was rooted in a new Dark Age, and this character, which persisted into the 20th century, partly explains how our parents and grandparents survived and even thrived during two wars interrupted by a depression.
I think of my father, who, although an atheist, was what we used to call an honest-to-God American. Nothing and nobody seemed to intimidate him. On his mother’s side, his Scottish family could trace its history in North America back to the 18th century, and it was his mother’s family that had once been rich before someone lost his business—a major utility company—in a poker game. His father’s family were Irish immigrants, though a family tradition says that they had gone to Kerry from Scotland after the ’45. Who knows? Like other Irish immigrants, the men in my father’s family were policemen and politicians. His father, said to have been involved in Chicago politics, was murdered when my father was only 14 years old, though what kind of politics gets a man murdered is not a topic on which the family liked to speculate.
My father had to identify his father’s body at the morgue, and shortly afterward he assumed responsibility for taking care of his mother and sisters. He took part-time jobs after school and even managed to go to Northwestern. I was told he took a master’s degree eventually, but perhaps this was my mother’s exaggeration. He was nearly 20 when the stock market crashed, and to make money he went to sea. In a very real sense, he never left it, though he abandoned his seafaring career not long after I was born.
He began as a coal stoker, which helps to explain his amazing musculature. I say helps, because he was already powerfully built. To improve a physique that had been ravaged in childhood by diphtheria, he had taken rough jobs: as a ranch hand, logger, and—worst of all, he said—cutting ice in the winter. Blacklisted for his union activities, first on saltwater and then on the lakes, my father decided to become an officer. He was in one of the first (perhaps the first) classes at the Maritime Academy. He tried but failed (twice) to enter the Marine Corps, even though he bribed a doctor to certify him as fit. The diphtheria had damaged his heart permanently, and he would die of a heart attack in his early 70’s. As a merchant engineer, he had enough of the war to slake his desire for patriotic danger.
Although he disliked business, he became a small businessman and eventually half-owner of a minor-league franchise. He was good at his job, and one year he was even named the Minor League Baseball executive of the year, but he never made a great deal of money. He was too busy enjoying life. He was a great shot and a fine fisherman. Until he put on weight, he had also been quite a horseman. He read incessantly, mostly history, and, like most people with too much Celtic blood, he had all sorts of opinions. He detested the German usurpers on the British throne and in general hated the English, though he took the side of his Tory ancestors who would not fight against the king and fled to Canada in the 1770’s. Every family has—or used to have—its own history of the world, and we got a triple dose, listening to my father’s stories. Any program or film on television could inspire a discourse on Al Capone, Sophocles’ Oedipus, or the rotten and perfidious Joe Kennedy, who, in my father’s view, was the exemplary member of the American elite—a gangster capitalist and war profiteer who was hell-bent on putting his son into the White House. A lifelong Democrat, he voted for Jack Kennedy anyway.
Among the many wise and weird things he told me, one remark stands out. I had, as a young man, expressed some anxiety about getting a job. He told me that he had no fear of the future. If we went completely bankrupt, he said, he could go to any town in the United States and get a job, if only sweeping out the back of a store or bar and grill. “In a week, I’d be running the place.” This was, even then, before résumés and application forms had bureaucratized the workplace, something of an exaggeration, but it was basically true. He was honest, hard-working, and resourceful. Another way to put it was that he was quite simply an American, which partly explains his love of the Southwest, especially Texas, to which he dragged my mother when both were in their 60’s. He no longer rode much, but he still liked to be around horses and horsemen.
A Dark Age is what you make of it. The true American character was forged in danger and hardship and bitter necessity, but that character has been diluted by mass immigration and weakened by the very success it achieved. The weakness of our character was revealed by the numbers of people who, against all reason, voted for Barack Obama, because they were afraid. The majority of mankind, however, is always made up of weak and frightened people. It has always been an elite—the whaling men and pioneers, cowboys and entrepreneurs—who have defined the real America. Perhaps I am letting my optimism show, but, whatever happens to the country as a whole, I believe that we Americans need not fear any Dark Age, so long as there are still a few men like my father or the Texans he came to admire.
This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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