Golden was the first race of articulate folk
Created by the immortals who live on Olympos.
They actually lived when Kronos was king of the sky,
And they lived like gods, not a care in their hearts,
Nothing to do with hard work or grief,
And miserable old age didn’t exist for them.
From fingers to toes they never grew old,
And the good times rolled.
(Hesiod, c.700 BCE, trans. Stanley Lombardo)
Things ain’t what they used to be and probably never was.
Longing for the past is generally referred to as nostalgia – a gentle, tender feeling that might make these stories seem like nothing more than harmless sentimentality…latter form of nostalgia currently serves as the ideological foundation for political movements like Greece’s Golden Dawn, which calls for a return to Hellenic glory via radical right wing nationalism, and ISIS, which waxes rhapsodic about a distorted Islamic golden age. This alone should serve to make us warier of nostalgia’s dark side, which, I fear, is badly underestimated…It is easily weaponised by power-hungry propagandists who seek to replace nuanced discourse with patriotic platitudes, and diverse ideologies with homogenous tribal nationalism: Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan…Faced as we are with yet another global epidemic of golden age rhetoric, the time has come to inoculate ourselves against the good old days once and for all.
…Voltaire wrote an exasperated critique of the ‘bon vieux temps’ (good old times)…‘There are things in which the moderns are superior to the ancients; and others, though very few, in which we are their inferiors.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, goes the cliché, and golden age myths ensure that failure. Doubtless there is much of worth to be reclaimed from earlier ways of life. To look back responsibly, however, we must guard against turning the past into a mirror, of our faces and our values. Otherwise history becomes a bedtime fairy tale, a refuge from complexity tailored to the satisfaction of our desires, the narrative version of the nostalgic’s childhood home.
Realism about the past does not entail whitewashing the present. None of this is to deny the unique threat posed by nuclear bombs, the monstrosity of ongoing genocides, the dying species on our increasingly fragile planet, the calamitous backwards steps we are taking and will surely take in our collective lurch towards truth and justice. Rather, realism recognises that the hard work of progress demands we confront reality in all its complexity, instead of seeking solace in nostalgic fantasy. The good old days are a powerful comfort, especially when the changes wrought by technology and globalisation threaten your core identity…Perhaps it will be easier to let go knowing that the sooner we do, the sooner a real golden age may come to pass.