not ever worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one
country where humanity is always landing.
- - - Oscar Wilde1
Individual and social identities are created, transmitted, revised and undermined through narratives and practices. Narratives tell people who they are, what they should aspire to become and how they should relate to others. They are invariably linear, as they are structured around a plot line that imposes a progressive order on events, selecting and emphasizing those that can be made supportive or consistent with it. Frank Kermode suggests that to make sense of the world we "need to experience that concordance of beginning, middle and end which is the essence of our explanatory fictions."2 Practice is repetitive behavior that is widely shared and culturally regulated. It can be sub-divided, as Montesquieu famously did, into manners [manières], norms [moeurs] and laws [lois].3
Narratives and practices are often designed to uphold existing social, religious, political and economic orders. Practices serve these ends when they become habitual.4 Charles Taylor maintains that practice not only fulfills rules, but gives them concrete shape in context. Practice is “a continual ‘interpretation’ and reinterpretation of what the rule really means.”5 Change in actual or fictionalized practice can threaten existing orders so institutions have a strong interest in regulating them, just as their opponents do in changing them to reflect reformist or revolutionary ends.6 The same is true of narratives. In early modern Europe, the Catholic Church, which had propagated Latin Vulgate translation of the Old and New Testaments, voiced strident opposition to vernacular translations. The first printed English language translation, John Tyndale's 1525 , was banned in England and English clerics visiting the continent bought and burned all the copies they could find.7
Narratives and practices interact in complex and still poorly understood ways. Narratives often describe or critique existing practices. They introduce and encourage new practices, generate support for them or attempt to destabilize existing ones. Practices sometimes reinforce existing narratives, as does the reading of scripture in churches and synagogues. New practices encourage new narratives, even new narrative forms. The boundaries between text and practice are blurred as there is considerable overlap. Postmodern literary theory has further muddied the waters by categorizing as texts what formerly would have been described as practices.8
Narrative has long been a vehicle for social analysis. In the late eighteenth century, David Hume insisted that history is functionally indistinguishable from novels and epic poetry because it is made meaningful by fictional emplotment; a mere recital of past events being nothing more than a chronicle.9 In the nineteenth century, William Dilthey, hoping to bridge the growing gap between what would become known as the humanities and social sciences, made the case for a sociology of biography.10 Social science nevertheless developed more in opposition to the humanities than in collaboration with it. Margaret Sommers aptly describes narrative as social science's “epistemological other.”11 It is an ideographic mode of representation that is discursive and generally atheoretical, in contradistinction to social science’s quest for theory based on quantitatively testable propositions. Beginning in the 1980s, researchers in psychology, legal theory, organizational theory, anthropology, medical sociology were nevertheless drawn to narrative because of what it revealed about the understandings people had of themselves and their social worlds.12 In recent years, comparative politics and international relations have turned to narratives for much the same reason. This interest and the rise of constructivism as a paradigm, parallels and reflects widespread recognition of the importance of identity politics. As constructivism emphasizes the central importance of intersubjective understandings, it directs our attention to narratives and practices as locales where such understandings arise, spread and are challenged.
Over the course of the millennia we have witnessed dramatic shifts in narratives and practices. At the macro level, these shifts raise problems about the continuity of cultures, just as the reworking of ife stroies does about the continuity of individuals. At the analytical level, this evolution poses conceptual challenges. We must exercise great care about using one culture’s categories and understandings to study identity construction and maintenance in other eras and cultures. Variations in how people understand, construct and theorize identity -- or do not theorize it all -- are nevertheless a valuable analytical resource. They allow us to study the present in comparative perspective and thereby develop a more comprehensive understanding of identity narratives and practices and the conditions that shape them.
Humanists describe different kinds of narratives, study how they work and the projects for which they are utilized.13 My interests overlap with theirs in part. I want to know why certain kinds of narratives are used to propagate or probe identities, but also what they have to tell us about the process by which people and institutions form, reconfigure and re-order their identifications. Narratives are absolutely critical to the sense of selfhood felt by individuals and attributed to social collectivities. Paul Ricoeur maintains that people come to know themselves only indirectly by means of cultural signs, most notably narratives of everyday life. “Narrative mediation underlines this remarkable characteristic of self-knowledge.”14 We may be hard-wired to think this way as experiments show that people will construct narratives to impose order on unconnected events and images.15
We not only tell stories about ourselves but about others.16 This phenomenon is reciprocal and generates narratives and counter-narratives. Not infrequently, our narratives are influenced by others. We cannot understand the various ways Jews, the Irish, African-Americans or women have come to define themselves without taking into account how others have stereotyped them.17 Identity is thus a kind of bricolage that builds on life experiences, cues from others and reflections on both.18 This is true for groups, institutions and countries, not only individuals. Constructivist scholarship indicates that “great powers” and “civilized states” are social categories, whose markers and boundaries have steadily evolved since their creation. The narratives that construct these identities help to shape how people think of their countries and how they should behave.19
Life narratives only rarely take the form of written autobiographies. The most prominent early example was St. Augustine’s, penned in the fourth century of the Common Era.20 Autobiography became a popular genre in the eighteenth century. More often, life narratives are piecemeal and inchoate. They take the form of internal dialogues and real or fictional conversations with others.21 In modern times, novels, plays and films have also served as vehicles to present life experiences and to construct identities. People often identify with their characters and sometimes even seek to emulate them. Romanticism and its core project of discovering and expressing oneself was effectively propagated by the best-selling novels of Rousseau and Goethe.22
Shared experiences and common understandings of them sustain communities as well as individuals.23 Seminal works on nationalism -- by Hans Kohn, Carleton J. H. Hayes and Karl W. Deutsch -- maintain that a shared past, based on territory, language, religion, history, or some combination of them, is the foundation of nationality.24 Deutsch defines a people as “a community of complementary habits of communication.” Stylized representations of the past have the potential to create a “we feeling,” and hence a sense of community among those who internalize these narratives.25 At least as far back as Herodotus, students of community have recognized the largely mythical nature of such narratives. Fictional origins and historical events are retrospectively woven into master narratives to “invent” a people and provide them with a distinctive and uplifting past.26 In this chapter and the next, I examine two of the earliest and most successful master narratives: the Old Testament and Iliad. The former helped to create and sustain a strong sense of community among Jews and the latter among Greeks.
Narratives that construct or propagate identities often do so self-consciously. This is true of many autobiographies and for the Iliad and the Old Testament. Augustine wrote his autobiography and Rousseau and Goethe their novels to advance religious, philosophical and cultural projects. Goethe was amazed at his success and horrified at the suicides that his novel prompted; “copy cat” suicides are generally described as the “Werther Effect.”27 The Old Testament and the Iliad were collaborative projects, transmitted initially by word of mouth and not written down until centuries later. Changes in their language, contents and style tell us something about the evolving nature of the projects they were used to advance. Personal life narratives are equally creative products, although we may be unaware of the extent to which we edit, reinterpret and even invent memories to support them.
Collectively, narratives track the evolution and relative appeal of different kinds of self-identification. This is rarely the goal of any single narrative, some academic studies aside, but an unintended system level effect of many individual narratives. Political theorists have studied philosophical tracts and literature to fathom the emergence of individual identity.28 Historians have done the same with national movements and identities. International relations scholars have relied on a variety of texts to identify and analyze competing national narratives. Ted Hopf uses newspapers, official discourse, popular novels, film reviews, and memoirs to track the identity discourse in the late Soviet Union and first years of post-Cold War Russia. He discovered four distinctive narratives, each of which frames Russian relations with the West and “Near Abroad” differently and vies for supporters among the public and government officials.29 Stefano Guzzini analyzes the revival of geopolitical discourse as a response to post-Cold War identity crises in Russia, Eastern Europe and Turkey. In these countries, previously established national identities have been challenged from within and without. Geopolitics has been mobilized to circumscribe boundaries and provide justifications seemingly more acceptable to public opinion and third parties than narrow definitions of national interest.30
As these examples illustrate, narratives can be partisan or analytical about identity. The most common analytical narratives track the rise, fall, uses and consequences of particular identities. This approach was pioneered by Greek tragedy, whose characters are constructed as archetypes. They can be considered thought experiments as they create uni-dimensional, and hence unrealistic, characters to probe the individual and social consequences of their identities. Modern novels have characters with inner lives and distinctive personalities but many also explore, problematize or advocate specific identities. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published between 1605 and 1615, and generally regarded as the pioneering modern novel, parodies chivalry and honor-based quests. By showing their absurdity, even madness, it seeks to undermine traditional aristocratic identities, anchored in honor codes. Early English novels, notably those of Richardson, Fielding and Steele, describe newly emerging roles and identities that would come to be associated with the bourgeoisie. In chapter five, I make the case that the three operas on which Mozart and librettist Carlo Da Ponte collaborated critically examine ancien régime and the Enlightenment identities.
Relatively few narratives probe the concept of identity itself. In the Introduction, I noted two such works: Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and Robert Musil’s, A Man Without Qualities. Bracketing the modern era, Hobbes and Musil make the case that identity is a purely social construct by peeling away the roles and practices into which people have been socialized. Underneath, both authors contend, there is nothing but raw appetites. Several of the texts I examine implicitly probe the concept of identity and a few do so explicitly. Most of the latter are science fiction novels. They raise the question of what it is to be human by problematizing existing makers and boundaries between humans and other species.
My focus on identity directs my attention to three related kinds of narratives: golden ages, utopias and dystopias. They have been used to construct, propagate and analyze identity. They make their respective appearances in eras of change when new justifications for order were required and new hopes kindled about the possibility of transforming or even transcending traditional identities. In the West, the respective popularity of golden age, utopian and dystopic narratives is an excellent barometer of belief in progress and the relative appeal of religious versus secular foundations of order. I will nevertheless argue that many, if not most, utopias are anti-modern in orientation.
Utopias are elite narratives and generally optimistic about the prospect of a better life in this world. Dystopias, another elite narrative, are quintessentially pessimistic. Golden ages are popular, pessimistic narratives as they trace the irreversible decline of the human race. The Christian reading of the Garden of Eden nevertheless embeds a deeper optimism because it holds out the prospect of rebirth and life in heaven.
Since the ancient Greeks, a major tradition of Western thought has regarded active participation in society as a precondition of human fulfillment. One of the common goals of utopias, from Plato to the present day, has been to design societies that successfully integrate people into society. Utopias foster harmony and happiness. Their critics maintain that their harmony is superficial and socially costly as utopias are achieved and maintained by repression from above and suppression from within. Critics read many utopias as dystopias, as I do in chapter four with The Magic Flute. Golden ages can also be read as dystopias, and for many of the same reasons. Chapter five, which examines the post-Enlightenment German reconstruction of ancient Greece as a golden age, offers such an interpretation. In the conclusion, I will argue that these opposed readings can be attributed to the strategies utopias employ to address the tensions between reflexive and social selves. These strategies in turn reflect different understandings of what it is to be human.
Golden Ages, utopias and dystopias are only some of the narratives used to interrogate practices. Others include stories of creation, states of nature, social contracts, ideal type deductive systems and genealogies. They rely on a range of strategies to evoke a set of favorable responses from diverse readers. I have chosen golden ages, utopias and dystopias over other narrative forms for several reasons. Many of the texts that I examine (e.g., the Iliad, Aeneid, Magic Flute, Looking Backward, Left Behind) have had far wider audiences than political or philosophical tracts. Next to the Old Testament, the Iliad is arguably the most influential text of Western culture.31 These works have influenced popular as well as elite conceptions of self.
A common feature of golden age, utopian and dystopic narratives is their ability to distance us from the world we know by creating fictional ones in which, with a little imagination, we can situate ourselves. Sheldon Wolin notes the “impossibility of direct observation” of social alternatives and therefore the essential role of imagination as a “means for understanding a world [one’] can never know in an intimate way.”32 Golden ages, utopias and dystopias create and draw us into such worlds, emotionally and intellectually, and by doing so offer otherwise inaccessible vantage points on our worlds.33 Immersion in alternate worlds encourages us to reflect upon and question practices and identities in our society that we may have taken for granted. Reflection can arouse or focus desires for change. It can also strengthen our commitment to existing practices and identities when alternative worlds convince us that change is likely to impoverish us physically, emotionally or psychologically.
Golden ages and utopias are instantiations of ideal worlds, and dystopias of their opposite. For most of human history, these worlds were important vehicles for advancing normative claims. Counterfactuals also serve this end, but in a narrower instrumental sense.34 One can always make the case for a better or worse outcome if another course of action had been followed. Better and worse ultimately depend on some notion of best and worst. Normative claims accordingly require ideal worlds. In Western culture, golden ages and utopias were created in part for this purpose. In the early modern era, they were joined by state of nature narratives and later, by the additional modes of argumentation.
State of nature narratives are counterfactual extrapolations to get at phusis [nature] by stripping away nomos [convention]. They purport to describe human nature uncorrupted, or at least unshaped, by society, and use it as the template to construct social orders. The legitimacy of these orders and the principles on which they rest depend on their supposed fit with human nature. From Hobbes on, state of nature narratives played a powerful role in the development of the liberal paradigm.35 Contemporary examples include Nozick’s explicit appeal to a state of nature and Rawls’ use of the original position as a conceptual analog.36 Following Rousseau, the state of nature is sometimes portrayed as capturing the original historical condition of humankind. More often, states of nature are thought experiments intended to highlight what their authors believe to be the most fundamental attributes of human nature. Hobbes arguably fits this model as does Rawls, who makes no claim that his original position could exist in practice. To get to the state of nature it is essential to do away with some features of the world in which one resides. As Hegel observed, philosophers cut away various human traits and related behaviors and what they leave behind and emphasize are subjective choices that reflect their cultural setting and ideology.37 States of nature are Rorschach Tests that tell us more about their authors than they do about the character of humankind.
Three other modes of moral argumentation emerged in the modern era: Kantian deontology (and its Rawlsian variant), utilitarianism, and deliberative democracy or discourse ethics. Discourse ethics claims to be more concerned with process than with ends, at least in a direct way. Unlike the Kantian criterion of universalism, these normative conditions are, or are at least purported to be, far less determinative, and accordingly do not require an ideal world. Discourse ethics is reflexive, making rules themselves a subject to argument, and thereby hoping to encourage fairer and more open-ended dialogues. Discourse ethics nevertheless assumes egalitarian reciprocity and universal human respect, neither of which Seyla Benhabib contends, have enough substantive content to specify a singular ideal framework.38 The presuppositions of universal human respect and egalitarian reciprocity are themselves based on a prior, underlying conception of the good, which, of necessity, rests on some idea of an ideal world. The “should," as always, requires some image of a better and attainable society.
Although states of nature, and subsequently utilitarian frames, have dominated philosophical and political narratives, utopias endure. It is interesting to ask why some authors choose to use them in lieu of other formats to advance normative arguments. One reason may be their rhetorical potential and ability to reach wider audiences. In the 1960s, Aldous Huxley’s Island, an attempt to critique contemporary society by means of a utopia, attracted considerable attention among the well-educated general public.39 The same was true of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, which became something of a bible for many young people.40 Utopias also have a subterranean existence. Many scholarly narratives, discourse ethics, for example, smuggle them in without acknowledgment. This is also true of golden ages. Sociobiology’s unrealistic description of hunter-gatherer societies and, until quite recently, anthropology’s portrayal of Neolithic societies as largely peaceful "uncorrupted" worlds, are cases in point.41 The American anthropological community is overwhelmingly anti-war and evidence of a peaceful past offered some justification for the claim that humanity could and should return to its “natural” state of existence.
Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas, coauthors of the classic account of golden ages, consider them expressions of either “chronological” or “cultural primitivism.” The former describes an idyllic world that never was, while the latter rhapsodizes about earlier, simpler societies in which life is imagined to have been more tranquil and satisfying. Both discourses reflect discontent with contemporary life and tend to become prominent in eras when change makes life more difficult for people.42 Some students of golden ages insist that “cultural primitivism” is the product of urbanization. Northrop Frye reads the story of Cain and Abel in a similar light; the murder of Abel, a shepherd, by Cain, a farmer, symbolizes the “blotting out of an idealized pastoral society by a more complex civilization.”43 Moses Finley suggests that the description of the Garden of Eden in Book Two of Genesis is an implicit critique of what are often considered the two principal evils of society: competition for women and for wealth.44 Conflict over women must hark back to the emergence of the species, but that over wealth, Finley insists, requires a prior division of labor and is accordingly associated with development and "progress."
It seems fair to say that golden ages reflect a desire to escape from hierarchy, injustice and all that is understood to be confining and corrupting. Golden ages of all kinds typically do away with technology and often dispense with private property, laws, meat eating, money, armies and warfare. Order is maintained by individual self-control in response to “natural” human impulses. Such worlds are moral, but in a different sense from real worlds. Virtue, in the eyes of Romans and Christians alike, is the avoidance of temptation.45 "Primitive" peoples appear virtuous only because they have not been exposed to the many temptations of civilization.
The emphasis on natural virtue may explain why golden ages are placed so far back in the past or so far away geographically if set in the present day. Greeks and Romans imagined distant lands populated by peoples who lived simple, stress-free lives. In the Iliad, Zeus turns away from the unremitting violence of the Trojan Plain to the far north and the land of the noble mare-milking Albii, “the most decent men alive.”46 Pliny characterizes the land of the Hyperborians as a pastoral utopia; there are no seasons, seeds are sown and harvested on the same day and Hyperborians die only when they tire of life.47 Sir John Mandeville’s Blessed Isles, like the mythical Atlantis, lie somewhere beyond the Pillars of Hercules and are inhabited by a godly and innocent people whose virtue offers a sharp contrast with the corruption of Europeans and their religions. In the age of discovery, Europeans continued to imagine paradises in uncharted seas, no doubt influencing Thomas More to place his Utopia in this setting Alternatively, like Rousseau and Gauguin, they glorified the lives and virtues of the peoples that European voyagers actually encountered.
Golden ages are common to Judeo-Christian and Greek culture and in both cases appear to have roots in earlier Mesopotamian myths and texts. The Greek word for paradise [paradeisos] most likely derives from Median paidaeza, meaning “enclosure.” It can be broken down into pari, signifying “around” and daeza, meaning “wall.” In Persia, it was frequently used to describe enclosed gardens. Paidaeza is a loan word in Akkadian, Hebrew and Aramaic, and best known to us from the English word “paradise,” a synonym for the Hebrew gan Eden [Garden of Eden] inGenesis 2-3.48 Earlier Mesopotamian texts reveal no conception of a golden age but do reflect the “cultural primitivism” of Lovejoy and Boas. The Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, describes the life of the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Our most complete text (in Akkadian) is from the 7th century BCE, and Gilgamesh may have been an historical king in the 27th century BCE. The people of Uruk are unhappy with Gilgamesh, who is a harsh ruler and deflowers engaged women. Aruru, the goddess of creation, conjures up the wild-man Enkidu. He roams the wilderness with animals who treat him as one of their own. Shepherds are terrified by him, and in response to their fears, Gilgamesh sends the temple prostitute Shamhat to seduce Enkidu. She comes onto him disrobed and provocative and they make love for seven days, after which the wild animals flee from him. Enkidu has no recourse but to enter human society, learn to speak and use his knowledge of the wild to support himself as a hunter.49 He quickly becomes the sidekick of Gilgamesh and loses his life on one of their adventures. There is an obvious, if superficial, parallel to Adam’s corruption by Eve in the Garden of Eden. For the Sumerians, however, Enkidu's pre-civilized existence, while it may have invoked nostalgia for the simpler life, was certainly not a life they envied or wished to emulate. Urban Sumerians, the epic’s audience, looked down their noses on their impoverished, unlettered, and unsophisticated country cousins.
The Torah's description of Eden is first presented in Genesis, 2-3 and a variant appears in Ezekiel 28:12-19. Adam and Eve live well in Eden without having to work. They have a simple lifestyle without clothes or crafts and do not appear to eat meat. They are ignorant of shame and moral distinctions. Eden is an ideal state of existence in contrast to the hardships, sufferings and uncertainties of real life. It is recognizably fictional as people in pre-literature pastoral societies suffered all the same tribulations of post-exile humanity. Paradise assumed a wide range of meanings over the ages. For Christians, the Garden of Eden became closely connected to the Kingdom of God, or Heaven. Early Christian writers interpreted Eden literally and metaphorically, producing wildly contradictory accounts.50 Modern readings generally understand it as a golden age narrative. Some Christians have come to view the expulsion favorably as it set humanity on the path to independence and self-knowledge.51 For ancients and modern believers alike, Eden offers the sharpest contrast to the world in which real people live. Everything is possible that is not in real quotidian life. Augustine even imagined that Adam, when still in paradise, could raise and lower his penis at will and procreate with Eve without penetrating her.52
The Eden story appears to suggest that Earth was created as a paradise for humans who failed to recognize how well off they were and were expelled for violating the Lord's injunction not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It is significant that curiosity appears to have driven Adam and Eve to break the one taboo established by their deity. Curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge are the basis for technology, improvements in the quality of life and ultimately, of reflection about the nature of the world and the human condition. There can be little doubt that then, as now, cultures, and many individual people, were highly ambivalent about curiosity and where they thought it led. It is a primary catalyst for change, which is most often regarded as threatening, politically and psychologically. Change, when it occurs, inevitably gives rise to nostalgia among those who do not share in its benefits and provides an important motive and audience for golden age discourses. The film "Goodbye Lenin" offers a powerful and comic illustration of this phenomenon in the former East Germany.
The most conservative reading of Genesis 2-3 supports the contention that human beings should not only bend to divine will, but to higher human authority as well because they neither know what is best for them nor can effectively overcome temptation. This is the traditional Roman Catholic interpretation, which posits original sin as the consequence of inadequate resolve in the face of temptation. Not surprisingly, Augustine attributed such lack of resolve to curiosity.53 His explanation gives rise to a conundrum: why would an all-knowing and omnipotent deity create human beings with such a flaw, and one moreover, that would lead them to rebel against him at the very outset of their existence? Traditional Jewish readings of the serpent, apple and expulsion emphasize free will and choice and are more tolerant of human failings. Eden is the first of many examples in the Torah and Jewish liturgy in which humans succumb to intellectual, sexual or material temptations but are encouraged to try yet again to live up to higher standards of behavior. For Christians and Jews alike, the struggle for self-improvement is understood to be a defining characteristic of human beings.
Nietzsche recognized that the wealth of texts far exceeds the intentions of their authors or even the cultures that produce them.54 As Oscar Wilde put it: "When the work is finished it has. . . an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say."55 More recently, Stanley Fish observes that good texts point away from themselves to ideas and feelings they cannot capture. They invite readers to enter into a dialogue and to create a “community” between author and reader that transcends generations.56 Golden ages have functioned this way over the ages. They may have been created to justify the status quo; the Eden myth was certainly used this way for two millennia by the Roman Catholic Church.57 Leibniz’s invention of monads and his description of his world as the best of all possible ones is a secular version of this argument, although one advanced by a deeply religious man.58 The Garden of Eden and Hesiod’s ages of man serve as a bridge between nature and culture, pre-history and history and fantasy and reality. Their ability to inspire fantasy was undoubtedly an inspiration for utopias that seek to transform the world to recreate something as satisfying as the Garden of Eden. Golden ages, like so many other human creations, thus carry with them the possibility of inspiring projects diametrically opposed to their authors’ intentions.
Tradtional Jewish and Christian readings of Eden attribute the decision to eat the apple and gain knowledge to curiosity. The Enlightenment yoked curiosity and reason together as the driving forces of human betterment. This shift finds its quintessential expression in Arthur C. Clarke’s clever riff on the Garden of Eden myth. His City and the Stars depicts a utopia many millennia in the future: a city where the conditions for human happiness, including de facto immortality, have been provided by its founders. Human beings have been genetically programmed to accept the city’s life style, but even futuristic science cannot rid them of curiosity and a streak of rebelliousness. The consequences of one man’s violation of the city’s strictest taboo -- avoidance of the outside world -- leads to his cleverly engineered departure from “Eden” and subsequent adoption of a more “natural” life that includes mortality.59 Clarke provides subtle hints throughout the novel that the city’s founders intended such rebellion and actually programmed the periodic creation of individuals with characters that would make them dissatisfied with paradise.
City and the Stars highlights a fundamental truth, one known to the ancient Greeks: paradise in any form is inherently unstable because it is static. Such societies must exist in splendid isolation, untouched and uncorrupted by contact with the outside world. For this reason, Plato situated his Kallipolis and Magnesia at the peripheries of Greece and the original European utopias were located on distant and largely inaccessible islands. Even in isolation, an ideal world would not remain stable for very long, as Plato acknowledges in his Republic. Human curiosity and desire for material goods and higher status lead some people to act in innovative and destabilizing ways. Adam Smith, a typical Enlightenment thinker in this regard, maintains that this drive “comes with us from the womb.”60 If so, no degree of socialization and stipulated order can effectively suppress these instincts; there will always be people who are dissatisfied and willing to explore new experiences and arrangements. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as some modern Christians contend, was perhaps inevitable and beneficial.61
Greek myths, like their Hebrew counterparts, reveal deep ambivalence about progress. Prometheus, whose name means “forethought” in ancient Greek, was a Titan. He was famous for his intelligence and theft of fire from Zeus to give as a gift to humankind. Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus where his liver was eaten every day by an eagle or vulture but regenerated every night. Heracles ultimately killed his avian tormentor and freed Prometheus from bondage. Early Greek texts alternatively praise or blame Prometheus for setting humanity on the road to civilization, innovation and technology.62 Zeus punished men more generally by having Hephaestus mould the first woman whose descendants would henceforth torment the male of the species. In his Theogony, Hesiod does not give this woman a name, but she may be Pandora, whom he identifies in Works and Days. When Pandora first appears before gods and mortals, “wonder seized them” as they looked upon her. But she was “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.”63 Zeus sends Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus with a jar from which she releases “evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death.”64
Pandora is an analog to Eve in that she brings suffering to mankind, although she does so through no failing of her own but on the instructions of the leading deity. The Pandora myth functioned as another prop for misogyny, although its more fundamental purpose, as with the Garden of Eden, was to serve as a theodicy. If the world and human beings were created by a benign god or gods worthy of respect and worship, the existence of evil and suffering are anomalous and require an explanation. Golden Ages – at least the original Western ones – admirably serve this end. The Greeks and Jews nevertheless resolve the anomaly somewhat differently. The Prometheus and Pandora myths suggest that humans are the playthings of gods, not all of whom are benign. The Garden of Eden exonerates the deity by making Adam and Eve’s expulsion and subsequent life of hardship the result of their decision – an exercise of free will -- to disregard the one restriction imposed on them. Both sets of myths attempt to reconcile human beings to life as they find it. The Greek myths further suggest that efforts to control one’s environment or escape from its sufferings are only likely to produce more suffering. They became the foundation for the tragic vision of life elaborated by later Athenian playwrights.65
Unlike their Jewish counterparts, Greek myths distinguish contemporary men from their predecessors. In the Iliad, Nestor refers to an earlier generation of superior and stronger men.66 Pindar laments the old days of “superheroes.”67 The fullest account is given by Hesiod in his Works and Days, which describes a paradise in which a “golden race” once lived like gods, free from toil and grief. They never aged or wearied of feasting. They lived in peace with one another and did not work because the earth yielded its bounty spontaneously. When they died in ripe old age it was as if they went to sleep.68 This golden age was set in the time of Cronos, before he was overthrown by his son Zeus.
The golden age degenerated into one of silver as its people gave way to a new race that was less perfect, physically and mentally. They had shorter lives and were more belligerent. Zeus ultimately destroyed them because of their impiety. A third race, of bronze, was created. It was more violent and cruel, although superior to their predecessors in brawn and brains. The bronze race destroyed itself by its intemperance and violence. It was followed by the age of heroes, who were superior to their predecessors, and were reborn after death on the Island of the Blessed. A fifth race, human beings, constitutes an iron age. They continue the decline temporarily interrupted by the age of heroes. Humans are the weakest and least intelligent but most quarrelsome of races. They suffer because they are governed by force instead of justice. They succumb to old age and all of its infirmities, if they live that long. Their lives end with unpleasant deaths. By using a sequence of metals, each less valuable than the other, Hesiod indicates a steady decline in the quality of races.69 Separation of golden ages from the present by multiple races suggests that there is no going back.
Golden ages are ambivalent about technology and reflect the attitudes of the societies that produced them. Progress is sometimes considered a boon for mankind, and fire was readily accepted by humans when it was offered to them by Prometheus. But progress is also a catalyst for nostalgic narratives. This was true in ancient Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece and Rome and also post-industrial revolution Europe and Japan.70 In Hesiod’s account, only the iron race has agriculture. Romans considered agriculture a blessing and a curse. It sustains the human race but was closely connected with war. Roman citizens were farmers and soldiers, and exchanged plows for swords as circumstances required. Many Roman authors, Virgil among them, linked agriculture and manufacture, and described both as forms of warfare against the natural world.71 In the Middle ages and Renaissance, Eden was taken as evidence of decline; people were thought to be short-lived and short in stature in comparison to their Edenic and biblical predecessors. The closing lines of King Lear affirm that the young "Shall never see as much nor live so long."72 In the Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo contrasts the permanence of the moon with the body, "this muddy vesture of decay."73 The Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment reveal a similar ambivalence about progress, although the positive and negative features of progress are now advanced by different individuals or schools of thought.
Modern interpreters of Hesiod and Vergil have tried to reconcile their seeming contradictions about progress by every obvious strategy: they sequence positive and negative takes, suggest these authors modified or revised their views over time, find hidden keys that reconcile apparent inconsistencies and describe one of the opposing positions as concessions to political pressure or attempts to appeal to different audiences. This ambivalence, we shall see, is equally characteristic of our world and of the future worlds that science fiction creates.