Conceptions of Paradise: The Age of Gold to Eden

I recently had the opportunity to lead a “seminar on seminars” with a few fellow colleagues in a new middle-school and elementary school program, and the text of the seminar was from Book I of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the “Four Ages of Man”. During the course of the seminar we got to thinking about whether it was the case that man or god caused the changes between the ages, and also whether the changes between the ages were caused by a sort of change of focus or degeneration by man away from that created by God (or the world) and a larger and larger focus on that which is created by man. During the course of the conversation, we began to see parallels not only between the Fall of Man in Genesis being similar to the fall from the Generation of Gold to the Generation of Silver but also a similar progression from the creation of possessions and the envy and therefore the first crimes like that committed by Abel against Cain. The text with amplification is included below.

(1) The Four Ages of Man: From Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I:

Bk I:89-112 The Golden Age

“This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. There was no fear or punishment: there were no threatening words to be read, fixed in bronze, no crowd of suppliants fearing the judge’s face: they lived safely without protection. No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel to other lands: human beings only knew their own shores. There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coiled horns, no swords and helmets. Without the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security. The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself. Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from Jupiter’s spreading oak-tree. Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak.”

One of the first things which one notices is that in this idyllic paradise nothing is created by man. All is self-growing or autogenous. There are no human tools, laws, musical instruments. Humans perhaps do not even have words or thoughts or memories. They simply exist without knowledge or craft or art. And “human beings only knew their own shores,” which may just as well mean that man “knew himself” or rather, lived according to his shared nature with the divine and the world. Naturally, this golden age accords perfectly both with the description in Homer’s Odyssey of Kalypso’s Eden-esque Ogygia and of course with Ogygia itself as well!

“Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resind and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
(Genesis 2:8-17. NIV tr.)

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(“Garden of Eden”)

Now one sees that all is also provided for man within Eden as well–though it is said that man “works” the land, given man’s later punishment for eating the fruit of Knowledge is “toil”, this “work” may more be considered tending to the garden and enjoying it. The basic point, though, is this: in Paradise there is not yet knowledge of human things like laws, tools, and property, but what is there is a basic recognition, potentially even unconscious, that the world provides that which man needs. Ogygia and the Isle of the Cyclopes is much the same.

“There was a growth of grove around the cavern, flourishing,
alder was there, and the black poplar, and fragrant cypress,
and there were birds with spreading wings who made their nests in it,
little owls, and hawks, and birds of the sea with long beaks
who are like ravens, but all their work is on the sea water;
and right about the hollow cavern extended a flourishing
growth of vine that ripened with grape clusters. Next to it
there were four fountains, and each of them ran shining water,
each next to each, but turned to run in sundry directions;
and round about there were meadows growing with soft parsely
and violets, and even a god who came into that place
would have admired what he saw, the heart delighted within him.”
(Homer, Odyssey 5.63-74)

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(“Odysseus and Kalypso” Jan Brueghel)

To add to the Edenic nature of Ogygia, one need only look at the similarity between what she tells Odysseus exists in the outside world and what God sentences man to in Genesis:

“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,
are you still all so eager to go on back to your own house
and the land of your fathers? I wish you well, however you do it,
but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardships
you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country,
you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household
and be an immortal, for all your longing once more to look on
that wife for whom you are pining all your days here. And yet
I think I can claim that I am not her inferior
either in build or stature, since it is not likely that mortal
women can challenge the goddesses for build and beauty.”
((Ibid. 5.203-213)

One sees that a key feature of remaining within a paradise is that one (1) remains immortal or gets to be immortal and (2) one avoids toil or suffering at all, whether it be a Greek, Hebrew, or Roman idea, and (3) one lives with the earth and neither subjects one’s self or others to laws or human conventions. One even sees this here in Book 9 the Land of the Cyclopes, which shares several of the same features:

“From there, still grieving at heart, we sailed on further
along, and reached the country of the lawless outrageous
Cyclopes who, putting all their trust in the immortal
gods, neither plow with their hands nor plant anything,
but all grows for them without seed planting, without cultivation,
wheat and barley and also the grapevines, which yield for hem
wine of strength, and it is Zeus’ rain that waters it for them.
These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels;
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed
among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others.”
(Ibid. 9.105-115)

Regardless of tradition, therefore, conceptions of paradise involve one living in a world without (1) work, (2) laws, and (3) human inventions. Does this suggest that the very notion of “rules” or “laws” and “work” are human notions, and that in human generating them or coming to know them, the world becomes worse for humans? We will observe these changes the Age of Silver in the next piece!

(“The Close of the Silver Age” by Lucas Cranach)

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Are We Romans Yet?

“I live in Sicily as a foreigner, but I love this country More than any other. This is my home now, My true dwelling place.” –Ovid, Metamorphoses Bk V 572-557 (Lombardo tr.)*

Consider the diverse peoples who came together to form and defend Troy: Lykians, Aethiopians, Amazonians, et alia. At one time, and for one lucid moment, these people were united in a just and singular goal: defend home. Then imagine them scattered to the wind in the wake of their defeat. Many of the surivors–those not enslaved–followed Aeneas, forever stopping and starting in cities that would never be called home. Later, after his own women burned many of his ships, King Acestes of Sicily would take the less warlike and honor-driven people in, and for many, their journey ended there: et in Sicanis ego.

But the journey was not over for Aeneas; ever did the signs point to Latinum and War;  war, with a seven year long journey sandwiched between it and the Ten year long Trojan War before it. Twenty years of suffering–When ever do we find home? When ever do we, like Aeneas’ followers, become Romans? Is home our birthright, or do we, like poor Helenus and Andromache risk falling for pale illusion? Or like poor Polydorus and Palinurus, do we simply lack the fate or strength to make it home? Is home, perhaps, a little more difficult to attain than one might at first suspect?

When we came together; some from undergraduate colleges in the Southwest, others from the Northeast, others from being cooks in the south, and others from the deep colds of the Midwest, we were disparate and many. At St. John’s we became one. We were Johnnies, or put more correctly, we were GI’s. We were friends united in learning and transforming our natures and lives, substantially. But St. John’s is no end point, no telos. One must be-at-work-while-staying-at-self-and-then-go. The gates of ivory close; the cave must be returned to; the heights of the Empyrean precede the inevitable return to the mundane; Jacob’s or Plato’s ladder must be scaled down. One leaves through the gate of horn. We then multiply and become plentiful. But though we came as disparate people, did we leave as one people? Are we not now all Romans now, though once we were fallen Trojans of Phrygian, Thracian, Amazonian, or Near-Eastern stock? No, obviously not. A fallen Trojan does not a Roman make. Journeys, sufferings, losses, and war await one. St. John’s is a beautiful beginning, but a beginning all the same.

St. John’s offers a taste of home, but a taste, like the Lotus Eaters would attest, that one never can go without drinking from again. Just as Alcibiades was overcome by his desire to see within Socrates, to see his inner light, the light beyond the shadows of the cave—those inner depths sometimes called pristine heights, so must one afflicted by the gadfly which flits about plains less noble than Elyisum, restlessly, strive for Hyperborea beyond the clouds, or Rome beyond the Aegean sea. A distant point, hare-like in its elusiveness, the distance to which is only ever halved; Sicily may have to do. My lips are cracked, my breath dry. The air without is dry and arid. Where is home? The answer is so cruelly simple. Home must be built, not found. Such homes as exist ready made for others are denied you now, Brother Aaron.

I say this not to discourage, but like Teiresias in Homer’s underworld, or Anchises in Vergil’s, to counsel. To return home, or where once was home, like Agamemnon, expecting all as it was, is to invite severe misfortune. All is not as it seems, though once that was all one’s eyes could darkly see. One must now, with scales fallen out from eyes, mist parted, see that which is, and actually bring about what once could safely exist in hope alone.

My evenings at St. John’s involved pleasant conversation, thoughtful debate, and were often followed by giving Dionysos his due after Apollinian days. The Even-star fell on my days where happiness was equal during morning hours to those hours covered by Selene’s cool light. My nights now are largely solitary, and though my knowledge and wisdom daily increase, so does my loneliness and estrangement from those around me. I continue my work in isolation; I grow strong, my life’s work is happening, and yet I long for my former Troy, the company of my dear Creusa. My work continues. I strive onward hoping for Athene’s counsel; avoiding Poseidon’s wrath.

I miss my home. I know it does not exist; it must be founded at yet unknown costs. And yet still do I linger on un-spun thoughts, restless sentences dripping from worn-through keys. A barista, rude in tone, low in thoughts, calls me back to the mundane. Doesn’t she know from what heights she drags me down from? My fall is Luciferian. Pandemonium will not do. Only Rome. Such grasping hands belong not alone to baristas: the ignoble belly. I hold a lowly steward’s grip on Agamemnon’s weathered staff—molding youth, expressing knowledge, transmitting culture. All are excaliburs of thought. What gives me happiness and long-lingering hope causes pain all the same. I have never been without this feeling. Is this what the Pious son of Venus and swift-footed Peleion felt with goddess mothers? Such simple and short-enduring pride, exaggerated with filial love when they were present, followed by such keen pain at their eternal and inevitable passing by?

To reach a crescendo, Ovid’s Tristia comes to mind:

“When the saddest image of that night recurs which was for me the final moment in the city, when I recall the night in which I left behind so much dear to me, a tear now also glides from my eyes. Now the day was nearly at hand in which Caesar had ordered me to depart from the bounds of farthest Ausonia.”

But this is no elegy; it is the beginning of an epic. Suffering and nostalgia for what is lost is not this life’s major theme. Suffering is but hand-maiden, constant companion to something greater.

All this goes to show the layers with which life and fate conspire to confound and confront one. I am, perhaps arguably, a success in terms of the thinking of St. John’s, though I once declared its program a failure (in terms of finding one opportunities to share one’s acquired wisdom for a wage). Two years after graduating I am responsible for developing four years of Great Books course-work in a Charter school system—truly avant garde–not having accepted what was already laid down. Many of my fellows chose Carthage or Buthrotum, burning their ships, but I, possibly with the love of some Venus or Minerva, sailed on, ever in search of Lavinia, which I must build.

This is the life I wish to live. This is the life the moirai set out for me. And yet, like Aeneas, I was not warned by Helenus nor Celaeno of the sorrows I would face. Perhaps, though, I was? A life of meaning is not at all times happy. I feel the nagging sorrow, the tristia, and loneliness of those who travel West, those who approach the great Ocean’s border, and I am as of yet still unsure how to fill this void. I long for meaningful company and conversation, and I require more and more the farther I progress. I know these are the long days of struggle on the sea, but clarity can be difficult as the Dog-Star rises on the horizon, or the Sun sets in Capricorn, causing fear to all sailors braving the wine-dark sea.

*Written for all those who once knew home at St. John’s or some other brief Eden and are now on their nostos, wherever that may be.