Dec 1, 2009

The Age of Iron

The Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, wrote of the five ages of men, the gold, the silver, the bronze, the heroes living in the western isles, and the fifth, the iron age, his and ours.

“This is the Race of Iron. Dark is their plight.
Toil and sorrow by day are theirs, and by night
The anguish of death. And the gods afflict them, and kill
Though there’s yet a trifle of good amid manifold ill.”

Not exactly a comfortable existence. And what is likely to happen to them?

“With beautiful bodies veiled in their robes of white
Forsaking the human race for the gods, in flight,
Forbearance and Righteous Wrath depart, and leave
Evil too great to resist, and mortals who grieve.”

Not good, you might say.

“And Zeus will destroy them in turn on his chosen day
When children at birth show heads already grown grey”

And destroyed they may well be, though the precise name of the destroyer varies according to taste; if you wish to identify the heads grey at birth as already burdened with huge debts, feel free.

It is not the movers and shakers of that time that we remember. It is a certain fat balding old guy who went out whenever possible to escape from his wife and to hoist a few flagons with his mates, young guys who hung on his every word, and even wrote them all down, that we teach in our schools; the leader among them laid the basis of all western philosophy, including a good eighty per cent of Christianity, for the next three thousand years, and the nerdy second in class became the tutor of Alexander the Great, and was also the founder of all western, and most eastern, science. (His record achievement of having a technical manual, the Optics, still in use at a prestigious European university some two thousand five hundred years after his death turns textbook writers green with envy.)

Alexander had an interesting family background, certainly very different from the wholesome family life all good Americans claim and that none of them actually possess. His father was the inventor of the wedge tactic in battles as opposed to the standard straggly line, and his mother claimed a mysterious god as the true father of Alexander. (Does that remind you at all of the permanent pain in the life of Winston Churchill, that his wife had a lifelong affair with Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate, leaving Churchill free to concentrate on affairs of state since in the British Upper Classes divorce was not an option?)

Those who gloried in the description of America as the “New Rome” now have to deal with the arrival at 500 AD. You’d think one could live quite comfortably amid the accumulated loot of empire for a good few years after that empire had ended, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Franks and Gauls turned up, all kinds of riff raff, Goths and Visigoths, and made demands, and even shaggy Mongolian types, intent on plunder. Until the practice was banned, Roman citizens often sold themselves into slavery to escape the financial burdens laid on them by the state.

But while the race of iron is in control, we live in interesting times; we have no choice.

“Fifth is the race I call my own and abhor,” says Hesiod
“Oh to die, or be later born, or born before.”

The dying is no problem, under the beneficent program of Dr. Kissinger implemented by all American presidents since Carter. Just go to Afghanistan. The rest is more difficult.