Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hesiod was right

I appeared on RTE1 television yesterday, Ireland's national network, as colour commentary for the US inauguration. It was my second appearance there, my last one being on election night -- and this time I wasn't there until 5 am Irish time.

I commented on the parallels between this change-over in the USA and the Brexit in the UK, and how this was our Brexit, at least for now. I also talked about some of the economic hardship many Americans are going through, especially in rural areas -- something that's often a surprise to people in Ireland, who visit places like Times Square or Las Vegas and often think of the USA as a universally wealthy country.

I don't have any video links online, but I'll post them if I find them. Thanks, everyone, for all the well-wishes!


Do you remember some of the other writers around the time of Homer? I asked. 

“Sure, there was Hesiod,” said The Girl, remembering our lessons. 

Very good! I told her. 

“Don’t get too enthusiastic, because I can’t remember anything he wrote,” she added. 

Works and Days was his big one, I said. Do you remember any of the stories from it?

“Pandora’s Box?” She said apprehensively.

Great – you know this better than you think you do, I told her. He also wrote the story of the Golden Age, claiming that at first humans were incredible and golden, and then their civilisation rose and fell. Then the silver humans had a civilisation, and they rose and fell, and then bronze, and then iron – that’s where we get terms like Golden Age and Silver Age today.

“It’s the story of our lives, basically,” she said.

Why do you think he was picturing the world getting worse? I asked.

“Well, it usually is,” she said casually.

Maybe – some things have gotten better, some worse. These days, people think of the world as getting gradually bigger, faster and richer, because it has been for a few centuries, and we think it’s going to keep happening forever. But Hesiod was living in a Dark Age, when great empires were in the past – his world had been getting worse for a few centuries, so they thought it would keep going forever.

“He was basically emo before emo was cool,” she said. “Distressingly accurately so.”

Who else was that way, though? I asked. You gave me Beowulf for Christmas, and it talks about how much better things used to be. Gilgamesh sought ancient survivors of the first disasters. All these stories were written thousands of years apart, in different parts of the world, but they were all written – or sung, originally – in a Dark Age, an Age of Heroes after the fall of a great civilisation. That’s when heroes appear – before the civilisation falls, the way we are now, there’s not as much need or opportunity to be heroic.

So when you read medieval epics, it talks about ruins, ancient wisdom, buried treasure – all because they had those things left over from the Romans. Tolkien later distilled these epics into Lord of the Rings, where the good people “fought the long defeat” in a world that was slowly declining.

A thousand fantasy novels since, and games like Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft, built on the kind of pseudo-medieval fantasy that Tolkien made popular. Now we think it normal to read books, see films and play games about barbarian heroes searching ruined dungeons for ancient scrolls with magical powers. But all that was real for the Venerable Bede or people in the Niebelung sagas, because most of the Roman battlements had collapsed, few people could read, a few books contained forgotten wisdom, and fleeing Romans had buried their gold. In that Age of Heroes, and in every previous Age of Heroes, that’s what the world looked like.

“In my mind, that’s the way it is,” she said. “I think they were right. I mean, there are ups and downs, but the general trend is downward. The things that have gotten better have only been small, and are outweighed by the worsenings.”

She pulled out a pen and drew what she meant; a slow downward line, and then an irregular oscillation through it, like a sound wave. “See?” she said. “Sometimes things are getting better, like lately, but most things will get worse overall.” She seemed not in the least disturbed by this, any more than people are disturbed by the knowledge that seasons will change or that children will grow up.

That’s the opposite of what most people think these days, I told her. Most people think the future will be faster, richer and better, because for the last few generations, the world has been getting better. 

“Only for humans!” she said. “And then only in certain places!”

Well, that’s a good point, I said – a lot of the forests have been cut, the seas fished out, and so on. Much of the natural world has gotten worse.

“The natural world is everything there is,” she said. “We’re selfish, so we think we’re the centre of everything, so we just ignore the rest of the living world around us. We were given the entire world as a gift, but we destroyed so much of it – people talk about how we’re “losing” the Arctic ice or rainforest, like people have nothing to do with it, but they’re just avoiding any … what’s the word … guilt?”

Culpability? I asked.

“That’s it,” she said.

How do you feel about that? I asked. So much of the natural world being destroyed?

“I just feel like it’s the truth,” she said.

I know, but does it make you sad?

“Sure it makes me sad, but I’m not naturally a sad person,” she said. “We only have a limited time on 
this Earth, so we have to make the most of it. We can’t worry about what we can’t change; we just have to pick ourselves up and fix what we can.”

I like your attitude, I said – I think that’s healthy. That’s a very Stoic attitude.

“I’m Stoic-ish,” she said. “I mean, they didn’t care about consequences, right?”

Stoics believed you just did what was right, I said, no matter the consequences. Fiat justa, ruat caelum -- let justice be done even if the sky falls.

“See, I care about the outcome too much to be truly Stoic,” she said.

That’s not a bad thing, I said. I’m Stoic-ish too.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170123T153458Z

Fiat justitia, ruat caelum - justitia = justice (feminine singular), whereas justa = just things (neuter plural). "Fiat" requires SINGULAR noun. A plural noun would take not "fiat" but "fiant". :-)


Tom =

(Estonian diaspora, near Toronto)

Brian Kaller said...

Tom, I stand corrected. Thanks!

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170123T153944Z

Thanks for this!

Hesiod has a prediction: if you think things are bad now, just wait; eventually children will be born with their hair grey. He has a wonderful, realistic, sensibility, as do the Anglo-Saxon (pre-1066) poets.