Decline and Fall of the Golden Age

In the West, in the Classical and Christian worlds, and also I think in the East, for example in the pre-Qin tradition of great ancestors, the Golden Age lay in the past. It was a concrete actuality, now wasted and ruined, but with its glimmering traces scattered across the world.

In the Enlightenment, the story was inverted. There was no past Fall. Humanity was forging light from darkness. The Golden Age lay in the future – no longer actual, but still real, with a potential being latent in historical inevitability. This inversion of the old story made it a long way. From the pre-Qin worship of the ancestor kings, we get to Mao’s vision of a superior future race, with “six hundred million equal to Yao and Shun”.

Today the Golden Age has lost even this latent reality in the pregnant moment. We say at most that a better world is possible – its potential being shadowy and contingent, a mere maybe – if we play our cards right. Every day we downgrade the odds. Neither the Classical vision of an ancient light whose embers still burn, nor the Enlightenment miracle of a lantern ignited from pure darkness, instead we have some sort of Manichean gambling table where light plays chance against darkness. Darkness has all the advantages of dishonest play, and neither benign gods nor historical inevitability, nor even something as dignified as the goddess Fortune – only mere dumb luck governs the cards.

No human spirit can live by a rational stake in a meaningless gamble. Our religion, unlike the religions of the past, doesn’t act according to function. The visions meant to comfort and guide us – the Light of the World and the Golden Age – have become just another source of anxiety, alongside the stock prices, elections, atmospheric carbon levels, wars, and diseases. Everything is a wobbling line chart, but the human spirit, I think, can only really live in a story. We parade our superiority over our ancestors, but unlike them we are very bad at the one thing we need the most, which is religion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s