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Myth of the Golden Age

The real reason that kids don't respect their elders.


One of the most common complaints today is that young people do not respect their elders. While this lament is nothing new to history (I'm sure the Roman emperors thought as much of their murderous offspring), there seems to be a greater chorus of complaint in the modern world that something is not right with the youth. Older people cry that younger people are violent, insensitive and amoral. Younger people counter that the old are out-of-touch. Scientific progress is responsible for this degradation of intergenerational relations.

Throughout most of human history, the spiritual life of people focused on some remote and inaccessible Golden Age, which flourished thousands of years before the most remote ancestors lived. This was the First Time of Osiris, when peace and plenty washed the now-parched land of Egypt. This was the Reign of Saturn, when the father of Jupiter ruled Italy in unending bliss. This was also the time when Krishna walked among men and bestowed blessings on India, and Quetzalcoatl and Viracocha ruled in splendor throughout the Aztec, Mayan and Incan domains. This was the time of Eden.

What all these myths had in common was a profound belief that the best days of humanity were far behind them, in the remote and mythical past. The story of humanity, therefore, was one of a divine tragedy as the Golden Age descended through Silver and Bronze and Iron to the current age of man, Clay. But while these stories gave a tragic dimension to humanity as a whole, they reinforced the role of elders in traditional society, for the elders were closest to the Golden Age, having lived long and been present back when things were (presumably) better. They connected cultures to their earliest roots in the wonderful First Time when gods and men shared the bounty of the cosmos.

Up until the Enlightenment, this view of the world continued to be the most prevalent, even though Christianity promised a heavenly paradise in the future world to come. While Christian philosophy began the inevitable change from looking backward to gazing forward, the glories of the world to come were still something transmundane. For people in this world, the grandeur of the departed Roman Empire provided a high point of civilization that seemingly could never again be reached, prompting historians up until the 18th century to declare the Age of the Antonines the happiest in man's history.

Then, during the Scientific Revolution and its successors, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, something changed. Science began the transformation of wisdom from something accumulated from the brilliant minds of an infinitely remote past to something acquired in an always-approaching and never-arriving future. Scientific inquiry led inexorably toward the doctrine of Progress, which stated that man marches on a nearly straight line from barbarism to civilization, that technology always becomes better and more useful, that man always becomes wiser than he was before. The Golden Age still existed, but now it existed in the remote and inaccessible FUTURE, a time all might hope to someday experience.

As a consequence, the story of man stopped being the story of an inevitable decline from glory and became the story of an equally inevitable rise to glory. But while this sense of Progress applied to humanity as a whole, it removed the tragic distinction to the individual, whose life must now be seen as a slow decline from grace.

With the past stripped of its wisdom, the old have nothing to offer once their bodies fall victim to the ravages of time. They can hold no wisdom in a society of Progress, for their knowledge is old and therefore obsolete. The young have a monopoly on the future, and if the Golden Age is yet to come, then the young will be the ones to experience it, for they are closest to the future. So in the modern age it is the children, the young, who are the ones with knowledge and wisdom born of progress and inevitable advancement. "Children are the future," runs the proverb. Its corollary is plain: The old are the past. The old are useless.

So it is no wonder that children do not respect their elders. The elders have nothing to offer them except the experience of slowly losing touch with the ever-changing world of Progress. But the young can only look forward to a future of uncertainty, for the Golden Age yet to come will never arrive, and today's youth must become tomorrow's elders. There can be no respect for morals or values, for they are relics of the past, possessions of the old and inferior, condemned by tomorrow's Progress.

The philosophical change from humanity as children of gods to humanity as father of gods has led to a reaction among those seeking guidance. The young who have no authority to govern their lives save that of the Doctrine of Progress and the old who have lost their purpose have turned in recent decades to philosophies, religions and pseudo-sciences that seek to restore the nameless ancients to their traditional place as holders of wisdom. Cults of ancient astronauts, beliefs in lost Atlantis and a return to pre-Christian religions are all a result of a deep-seated need to restore the old social order.

However, neither the old ways nor the modern approach can deliver a simulacrum of ultimate truth, for the Golden Age of Tomorrow will never arrive and the Golden Age of the First Time never was. Until a philosophy arrives that can offer the promise of a Golden Age in the here and now, young and old alike must always turn to unsatisfying alternatives in an attempt to find order in the universe science tells them is purely material and indifferent. The final synthesis of the old and new must be thus: Eden can only be the present, for the past is gone and the future may never come.

2001 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.