How To Create A Golden Age: Instructions for Use January 27, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
There are grey moments in history and there are black moments and, then, every so often there are wonderful conflagarations as the very paper that the past is written upon catches fire. Think the sheer brilliant evenescence of Athens in the fifth-century B.C.; Baghdad in the ninth century; or, indeed, Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth century where a Socrates was at every street corner arguing over the weather with a Leonardo. But what creates these golden ages or even their mini equivalents: ‘art’ (if that is what it was) in Paris in the late nineteenth century; literature in Dublin c. 1900; the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s; and even grunge in Seattle in the 1990s or ‘Madchester’ music at about the same time? Beach has wondered about this one for a few years and he offers the following very tentative thoughts, hoping though that readers can help out.
1) Cities: Golden Ages need geniuses and geniuses come in flocks. You don’t get a Michelangelo in isolation, he appears in association with five or six other great men and great women. What this means, and what all the examples above confirm, is that you need an urban space with a concentration of individuals so talent can sift itself out or be attracted from the hinterland of the city. The cityless Middle Ages are a study in how not to create genius.
2) Meritocracy: General education and even generalised literacy probably do not create Golden Ages. The modern western idea of sending half of the population to university has changed the nature of universities not the population: we now have secondary school stretching into the early twenties and what used to be called ‘university’ beginning with doctoral programs. (Don’t get me started on masters…) However, the ability of a system to talent spot and privilege the able from an early age, even if they are from a poor background is absolutely fundamental. Michelangelo was pulled out of relative poverty at fourteen when Lorenzo de Medici saw one of his first sculptures.
3) Money: Golden Ages depend on money. In all the examples that come to mind there has been surplus capital sloshing around in private and in state hands. What this means, of course, is that the magnetism of the golden age city grows considerably and can attracts outside talent, while internal talent can be rewarded for their creations or their originality. Starving artists are all well and fine and might create great works: starving cities won’t.
4) Competition: As a dryish liberal Beach would love to say that Golden Ages depend on freedom. But his instincts tell him that this is not the case. Socrates was poisoned by the state, Michelangelo and Leonardo grew to maturity under the Medici tyranny (curse their blue balls). But if individual freedom is not the crucial ingredient perhaps freedom for competition is. In other words the ability of families and clans to out-do-each other within a city is crucial: you commission Giotto and to beat you I’ll commission Brunelleschi. Jones has Plato round for dinner so Smith has to put on a street party for Aristotle.
5) Patriotism: Patriotism is used only loosely here to mean not love of country but the love of city (which in the case of Florence and Athens were in themselves ‘countries’). All of these magical places had an extraordinarily strong sense of identity and enjoyed and deserved the passionate loyalty of citizens. Without that strong sense of identity there is no umbrella under which a golden age can be built, there is no yeast in the bread, no wench in the bed. Golden Ages need their brands and the city as well as providing people and surplus capital provides those identifying marks. An enemy with another world view is also useful: Athens had Sparta; Florence had Milan.
Other ingredients or disagreements about these above: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
31 Jan 2014: KMH writes: There is only one thing I can add immediately, namely the golden age should be a period of time relatively free of war, conquest, or other mass exertions which exhaust the energy of the people or nation. Thinking about this, we might add that the period should also be relatively free of famine or plague, also serious earthquakes. These sorts of unfortunate events may only occur at the beginning or end of the age, so that there is no doubt its birth and death.’ I have mixed feelings about this point. It is interesting though. Thanks KMH!
31 Jan 2014: Then BM writes about the need for cross-polination between cultures. Thanks BM!
8 Dec 2016: Southern Man is back. ‘I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I suspect KMH is wrong. Actually struggles that bring identity into focus are the key. Athens vs Persia, Florence vs Milan… Competition then, but not just within, but between states.