The Human Condition:

Formula for a Golden Age – December 24, 2011

Since we seem to be so far from having one right now, I think this is the time to pause and consider what makes a Golden Age in any civilization. Is it something you always have to look back on and discover in hindsight? Is it something that’s more satisfying and fun to remember than to experience? Is it possible to engineer the conditions for a Golden Age? And is it possible, however inconceivable, that we are in the midst of one right now?

Certainly, it is easier to identify a Golden Age in the rearview mirror. Think of the times that have been so identified: the Edwardian period, between 1900 and the Great War; the Elizabethan period, between 1558 and 1603; the Augustan period, between 27 BC and 14 AD; and Periclean Athens from roughly 480 to 404 BC.1 These times have a sentimental glow about them. They make us think of the golden light of late summer afternoons, bountiful harvests, full-bodied vintages, exuberant paintings, epic poetry, and a world at peace—perhaps not least because of the chaos and turmoil that came after them.

Those are image fragments, of course, but they still ring true. For example, the arts were on display in all such periods. The Athenians enjoyed the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, and the wit of Socrates. The Augustans were given Virgil’s epic Aeneid on the founding of Rome. The Elizabethans saw a flowering of the theater and the genius of Marlowe and Shakespeare. The Edwardians inherited the Impressionist painters and the Romantic poets and composers from preceding centuries and made the most of them. These were all arts within the reach of the average literate person and anyone with the time to attend the theater or gallery—say, the upper middle classes. In that sense, the arts of these times extended beyond the wealthy patron and his immediate circle, and could be enjoyed by a wider slice of society.

In these periods, like most times, it was good to belong to the upper tiers of society. The wealthy could eat well, drink well, and play well. What marked these Golden Ages was a surface stability and lack of active war, which is a devourer of the leaders of society as well as the other ranks. Edward—whether by intention or through lack of attention—managed to avoid the wars of Queen Victoria’s reign, such as the Crimea and South Africa. He could jolly along his nephew the Kaiser and celebrate English and German rivalry with yachting displays at summer regattas. Elizabeth ended a religious revolt between Catholic and Protestant factions and extended her father’s and grandfather’s buffer against the dynastic politics of the Wars of the Roses. Augustus ended a hundred years of civil strife between contending leaders and their pledged legions, and initiated the Pax Romana. The Athenians existed in a sliver of peace between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars.

But under the surface? Edwardian England was the center of a technological arms race in Europe that led to the first of two world wars. Elizabeth was in constant struggles with her ministers over the succession and with France and Spain over the future of Europe, and avoided the latter’s invasion only through a fortunate combination of wind and storm. Augustus maintained the peace only by clamping down an army-backed dictatorship as the last man standing from the civil wars, and he also struggled with the succession. The Athenians were in constant conflict with their neighbors and allies. For anyone paying attention, none of these were idyllic, restful periods.

Each of these periods grew wealthy with trade. The Edwardians prospered from the empire Victoria consolidated in the Middle East and India. The Elizabethans stood at the dawn of New World exploitation and picked the first fruits of Spain through piracy. Augustus welded the corn harvest of Egypt and the riches of the eastern Mediterranean onto the Roman sphere. Athens drew masses of tribute from her Delian League in the Aegean and from colonies overseas.

Although it’s never been a good time to be poor, these periods had something for the lower classes as well. The Edwardian period saw the beginnings of a progressive concern for those in need. It was also, in the United States, a period of massive immigration and new beginnings. The wealth of Elizabeth’s reign was beginning to spill over to benefit the merchant classes.2 Augustus settled legionary veterans on newly conquered lands, rebuilt the City of Rome and ensured its food supply, and reorganized the tax structure. Fifth-century Athens regularly heard the political voice of the average person—so long as he was born in Athens and not a slave or a woman.

So, what are the ingredients of a Golden Age? One part a period of fragile stability, usually with war and political upheaval as bookends. One part growth in trade and public prosperity. One part a flowering of the arts. One part opportunity for the common man. These conditions generate a spirit of public confidence. People are willing to speak their minds. People look ahead to better things.

But a Golden Age is not just about having a full belly and personal security. That way lies relaxation and a long nap. The spirit of confidence is tinged with just enough insecurity and doubt that people are inspired to scramble. And there must be a promise of improvement, so they know how to direct their steps. In this sense, living through a Golden Age might provoke more anxiety and require more hard work than people are likely to remember later.

Can a ruler or the leaders of society engineer these conditions? They can try. Political stability is well within a ruler’s or society’s grasp. Ironically, this usually requires a projection of strength rather than the cautious desire to avoid conflict: Enemies are more likely to avoid a snarling dog than a cowering one. Elizabeth, Augustus, and Pericles were all rulers who projected confidence and strength; Edward seems to have inherited the reputation from his mother. Trade and opportunity are usually within the control of government—if, that is, its ministers will release their grip a bit and trust in the efforts of entrepreneurs. The arts can always be publicly encouraged.3 Harder yet is to enlist the common people and capture their imagination: The average person is incredibly sensitive to what’s blowing on the wind.4

I would maintain that, despite all appearances, we are now living in a Golden Age, one that started with the end of World War II and persists up to the present. Consider these conditions:

War and political unrest: Yes, we have endured a cold war between various ideologies, first between free-market capitalism in the West and totalitarian communism in the East, then between tolerance of religious belief in the West and consolidation of a single belief in the Middle East. And yes, we have experienced numerous small wars at the edges of these greater conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we have not experienced massive invasion into the heartland of either set of beliefs and a final resolution by conquest. Communism collapsed peacefully under its own inadequacies; religious consolidation will eventually do likewise under the onslaught of trade and education. The wars we have experienced are on the scale of the border conflicts of Imperial Rome and the skirmishes of Elizabethan England.

Trade and prosperity: The Second World War left the United States as the last man standing, like Augustus after the civil wars. It also offered the former combatants, Germany and Japan, the chance to rebuild their destroyed, 1930s-era industrial bases with modern, postwar technology.5 The U.S. encouraged this and made them trading partners. The fall of communism in Russia and eastern Europe, and its commutation to a form of state capitalism in China, opened up global markets. Advances in computer technology and automation improved productivity and made possible a flood of inexpensive goods and efficiently delivered services. The Green Revolution expanded the global food supply. Countries like China and India ceased being economic failures and became global exporters.

Flowering of the arts: Technology—especially computers and the internet—have opened a floodgate of the arts. Books, music, movies, and the ideas they represent are readily at hand to anyone. More than that, the barriers to producing art have never been lower, because the same technology also allows anyone with a computer, a video camera, a microphone, and internet access to become a writer, musician, or moviemaker. While we may not yet have found the age’s Sophocles, Virgil, or Shakespeare, we still are experiencing a period of tremendous creativity.

Welfare of the common man: In the developed countries of the West, the life experience of the average person has never been better. Yes, there are still poor people,6 and yes, we are still in a recession. But most people expect and live a middle-class life. In the developing countries, there is more opportunity for growth and achievement. In the long view, science and technology have enabled levels of education, communication, nutrition, travel, leisure, entertainment, and personal satisfaction once reserved for kings and courtiers.

That looks like a Golden Age to me. Yes, we still have instability and anxiety. Yes, there are reasons for thinking the road ahead might be going over a cliff. But then, the Edwardians had some inkling of the Great War ahead, and the Athenians were already sliding into the war with Sparta by the time Pericles died. But the lights still shine and the music still plays.

The question is, what will people in a hundred, a thousand years, or more be looking back on? The last six decades as a time of relative peace and plenty? Or the quiet before the storm?

1. It’s interesting to note that these periods are all named for monarchs. But then, most of history has been identified with the person nominally in charge, from native American war chiefs to U.S. presidents.

2. Shakespeare’s grandfather was a tenant farmer. His father started a retail trade in wool and corn, took up leather working, and became a glover. By the third generation the family was fully employed in the theater arts.

3. Promotion of the arts may be a necessary but not a sufficient cause of a Golden Age. Certainly, the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s promoted and paid for the arts vigorously, and that wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Golden Age.

4. As one of the smartest people I know—a former journalist—once said, “People ain’t stupid.” That might be the founding stone of democracy. It links to Lincoln’s quip about fooling some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. John Brunner in Shockwave Rider caught the flavor of this with his projection of the Delphi poll: “While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.” The Germans call it the spirit of the times, Zeitgeist: what everyone knows and recognizes.

5. To cite just one example: in the 1950s, new technologies in steelmaking became readily available, from the Linz-Donawitz (LD) oxygen process to electric-arc furnaces to continuous casting. Germany and Japan rebuilt with these technologies and leapt ahead of U.S. steelmakers, who were still working with open hearth furnaces and rolling mills built in the 1920s and ’30s.

6. Consider that people in America who live below the “poverty line” actually live better than most of India’s or China’s middle classes. We simply cannot conceive of letting our poor live at the level of their poor.