By Emily Hulme
Once upon a time (and a very good time it was) men were happy and free, hardly paid taxes and almost certainly never swore. If they did wish to curse another, their tongues would revolt and instead they would mutter such invectives as, “May my foe live into blessed old age” or, “Let him eat cake, preferably with cream cheese frosting.” Such was the state of things until various and sundry market forces, etc. etc., led the people to determine the best course of events was to devalue the very currency of their souls. From this Golden Age, as Hesiod and Vergil et al. name it, man slowly sank to silver, then base iron. No conspiracy of either politics or alchemy has brought this spirit of unabashed human potential back as more than a passing shade, a slippery dream that is precisely a dream and nothing more.
Yet, it persists. Let us plumb history first to see how this has played out and then take account of how today we are still troubled by a past that never was. Fun fact to remember the next time a misguided news anchor decries the insidious effects of rap music and Grand Theft Auto: Hesiod already was lamenting the decline of the human race in the eighth century B.C. Cranky Roman senators complained about the same thing basically the whole time the Republic existed (which, for those of you who don’t think it matters, was longer than the existence of the United Sates). They then got a taste of occasionally brilliant, often megalomaniacal leadership under the Empire. Naturally, Edward Gibbon referred to this as the happiest period for mankind in history. Looking back, French revolutionaries took the Roman Republic as their model, despite the fact we know retroactively it had a 100 percent chance of leading to disastrous civil war. Obviously, their attempt for a Republic worked out much better under Robespierre, and did not immediately collapse into a state led by a single venerated military leader.
Only by the peculiar mixture of vainglorious self-consciousness and deliberate pattern blindness toward contrary evidence that characterizes the human brain do we suppose any of these ages support our conviction that heaven on Earth is possible. In short, to be malcontent with your age is what propels the entire human experiment forward. As one chemistry professor of mine put it, life is a redox reaction and equilibrium is death. There’s a good reason we “rest in peace” but live in anger, resentment, fury and ultimately in a state of constantly having hopes dashed.
For obvious reasons, the Golden Age must always be not now, or, at the very least, not here. Another planet might be acceptable, but it’s also fashionable for Americans to locate it on the European continent. Hence, we have the glories of European universal health care and civilized tolerance. One is at least partially true, but comes with the caveat of such glories as doctors’ strikes in Germany; to give just a little sense of scale, one deal in 2006 was reached after 12 weeks of striking in which up to 13,000 doctors participated. The other seems questionable in light of the ongoing rebuff of “Muslim” Turkey by the E.U. and the Swiss ban on minarets (seriously, have you seen the ads?).
So, then, what about going back to the simple ways of our ancestors? This is what et in Arcadia ego is all about–Arcadia is this mythical pastoral land where people are unsophisticated and by dint of this, happy in a way high-strung, latte-sipping New Yorkers can only envy. They have home births with midwives and eat organic only, which I needn’t remind anyone are all the rage now in such backwoods as Palo Alto. Of course, this comes with the deaths in childbirth and food shortages that are part and parcel of such traditions. In fact, I seem to have neglected that et in Arcadia ego is a memento mori, if we’re talking Latin phrase usage.
This all brings us to that distasteful phrase: “Ignorance is bliss.” In a baffling affront to human logic, presumably rooted in Romantic excess sown by a certain Rousseau, the Holden in all of us yearns for the “innocent” state before knowledge. This is, incidentally, also the infantile state. But not only is this not possible; it’s not even desirable. Since this phrase has gained currency particularly in situations where one person finds out their significant other has cheated, let’s take Tiger Woods’ many women/mistresses/girlfriends/paramours as our case study. Is the problem (a) that his wife found out, or (b) that he was cheating? Only in a perverted move toward blaming the victim does “ignorance is bliss” make sense. Knowledge was never the real problem.