Monday, November 15, 2010

Attitudes to Iron

One of our most persistent tendencies as humans is to produce the mirage of the Golden Age. We project this age both backward and forward in time. It is a poetic creation (of course). In the Greek-Roman the poet Hesiod (didn’t those fellows have a first name?) produced the metallic classification—Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron. In all of the variants of it, surprise!, we always live the Iron Age, whenever we happen to live. Paradise is the golden age of the Hebraic tradition, but because it appears in the Bible, the Garden does not usually appear in a recital of ages.

A comment here about the Heroic age—clearly not a metal. It was Hesiod’s way to refer to a period like our Second World War, thus when great heroes fill the earth—the Greatest Generation, etc. In Hesiod’s case, the reference is to the twelfth century BC, the time of the Trojan War. There are wars, you see, dime a dozen, and then there are Wars!

Golden ages that we find looking back we also discern ahead in time. But those who see the gleam of gold ahead are still writing in the Age of Iron. That age we know only too well. Virgil, positioned at the transit between the Roman Republic and Roman Empire—well, actually, in the early Empire, foresaw a future golden age in these lines (Eclogue IV, 5-8):

The age Cumaean Sybil sang has passed.
New centuries begin to roll at last.
Virgo now reigns, Saturn resumes the throne,
The Iron Age is past and gone,
A golden race arises from the rust.
Heaven has sent a new breed down to us.

Yes, I’ve tackled Virgil too, but not the Latin—just “fixing” translations into English.

Indeed one’s tempted to judge a culture by the poetic images by means of which it captures the looking back and looking forward. The glory of the Second Coming contrasts sharply with the Marxist future in which a Classless Society dawns as the State Withers Away.

The certainty that all ages are made of iron recurs to me every time I look closely into a period as yet unfamiliar to me—particularly when that time is described by a contemporary. In the high Middle Age Dante looked back to Virgil’s time in awe—and ahead to the effective restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. His own time was corruption squared, of course. He transcended this feeling by writing poetry about an idealized Beatrice in the heights of Heaven.

A transcendental attitude toward the grind of the Age of Iron is relatively rare—and a transcendental but practical approach does not attract the masses either. That attitude is encased in the saying: “Be in the world but not of it.” The maxim is very well known and has an unambiguously religious flavor. For this reason lots of people think that it is somewhere in the Bible. Google shows many people trying to find it there.

The curious fact is that this saying comes from the Sufis—and isn’t in the Qur’an either. Its original is Persian: Dar Dunya Básh: Az Dunya Mabásh. Be in the world but not of the world. It’s a rhyming maxim, thus mnemonic. Not that it takes a rhyme to remember it.

The more ordinary attitudes to life in this valley are resentment, aggression, combat—or withdrawal, indifference, resignation. Being in the world, to the contrary, strongly suggests sincere, energetic, and active participation—including service and effort—but with the heart detached. By “world,” of course, neither the Sufis nor the public nor I really mean the wonders of nature or the starry skies.

1 comment:

  1. You are a wonderous story teller. I love the way this post builds to such a powerful climax.

    And th idea that we always live in an Iron Age and that we see other ages, behind and in front of us as somehow ever different from our own, a wonderfully provocative thought. It is hard to have perspective about ones own time. It is also hard to be in the world but not of the world... But hey, who said this was easy?

    I enjoyed this post a lot.

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