THE GOLDEN AGE THAT NEVER WAS (2007)
I’m in a Zodiac bouncing along the waves off the north
coast of Kauai. The fog begins to lift, revealing a
coastline that looks almost kitsch in its technicolour
beauty. The guide points to a valley between the peaks.
It’s long been a favoured, illegal haunt of Vietnam vets
and others “trying to escape from reality,” he says. From
reality, or into it? I wonder. From where I sit, it doesn’t
get any more nonvirtual than this. There isn’t a billboard,
microwave tower or set of golden arches anywhere in sight.
The boat slows so we can get a better look at spinner
porpoises as they leap and twirl, trying to fling off
remoras attached to their bodies. Our guide points to two
shadows gliding by the boat. Two manta rays are mating, the
edges of their fins breaking the surface.
Hawaii has beckoned as a paradise since ancient mariners
roamed the Pacific. Literally, in many cases. In their
respective legends, Tahitians, Samoans and the Maori have
all pegged it as their ancestral homeland. The Hawaiian
language word Hawaii derives from Polynesian sawaiki, with
the reconstructed meaning “homeland.” At various times over
the centuries, they set forth in relatively primitive boats
to discover this long-lost paradise. Against all odds, they
came upon a volcanic island chain in the middle of the
Pacific, the most remote place on Earth. Today, Hawaii is
occupied by the descendents of these travellers, who
somehow found a place perfectly consistent with the
description in their myths. No one is sure how they managed
this feat of navigation.
But as glorious and bountiful as Hawaii was, there was
still conflict between newer and later arrivals and wars
between islanders. Paradise makes for pretty desirable real
estate. Today, the islands are beset with problems the
tourist bureau would prefer to go unmentioned, from
military weapons testing to agribusiness to homelessness,
not to mention a home foreclosure rate three times that of
the continental US.
The myth of a lost paradise, or Golden Age, is universal
around the world, with the term deriving from Greek
mythology. It referred to the greatest age in the Greek
spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver and Golden ages. It was a
time when humanity was pure and immortal and evil had no
sway. Remarkably, this is echoed in the Hindu or Vedic
culture, with its model of cycling Yugas, or great epochs.
The Satya Yuga (Golden Age), Kali Yuga (Iron Age), Dwapara
Yuga (Bronze Age) and Treta Yuga (Silver Age) correspond to
the four Greek ages.
In this mythological framework, we now live in the fourth
and most chaotic age, the Kali Yuga, at the end of which
Brahma will awake from his dream and the whole cycle will
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Golden Age is
connected with The Garden of Eden, in the days prior to
Eve’s covert deal with a serpentine fruit vendor.
One advantage of locating good times in the remote past,
rather than seeking them in a collective future, is that
reality testing can’t get in the way. Prophecies have a
best before date; they usually go bad. But the past worlds
of Eden, Lemuria, Mu and Atlantis are not subject to any
such limits. Pushed back far enough into the past, a Golden
Age sits outside the realm of historical proof. It becomes
a loose benchmark against which we can measure all later
Perhaps the archetype of the Golden Age is drawn from the
time in the womb and the great peace that precedes entry
into a loud, blindingly bright world. Did the mythmakers
draw upon deeply buried, intrauterine memories of floating
undisturbed in the amniotic fluid, like tiny sea divers?
Whatever the source of its seductiveness, the idea of a
Golden Age isn’t limited to religious believers. Just as
the elderly like to speak of “the good old days” –
forgetting the homophobia, racism and patriotic overkill of
the past – most of us have a personal timeframe for when
things went sideways. For some Americans, it was 9/11, when
the neocons cynically exploited the citizens’ patriotism
and the planet’s goodwill. Others go further back, to the
assassination of Kennedy, describing it as a coup in broad
daylight by the shadow government. Others say the pivotal
moment came with Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard
back in 1968, which ushered in unfettered global capital
and growing income gaps. Some believe the republic was
truly lost back in 1913 when the private banks created the
Federal Reserve, in effect turning “We the People” into “We
the Wage Slaves.”
There’s never been a shortage of negative historical
touchstones; pivotal moments when the people lost the plot.
In Canada, we have a wealth of options, from either the
right or left: the recent ratification of the Security and
Prosperity Partnership; the election of Harper’s minority
government; our entry into the war in Afghanistan; Chrétien
and pepper spray; Mulroney and Free Trade; Trudeau and
Meech; Diefenbaker and the Avro Arrow. In comparison,
indigenous people have one simple touchstone: the arrival
We tend to think we had it better in the “good old days,”
even if that was, in astounding retrospect, the recent time
of Clinton, the Starr Commission and sky-high tech stocks.
Go back far enough the thinking goes and somebody somewhere
must have had it great. But the more you study the past,
the more a hypothetical Golden Age recedes like a ship in
the fog. Where was it? The Renaissance with its Borgia
Popes and warring nation-states? The Feudal era with its
plagues? The Maya and Aztec empires, with their human
Imagine you are Alexander the Great, the most powerful
person in the known world of the Mediterranean, with access
to all the best life has to offer, and you have to get a
tooth pulled. If there ever was a Golden Age for dentistry,
it wasn’t before the discovery of novocaine.
Some argue that the whole sorry history of Mideast warfare
is the legacy of patriarchal societies, which subdued the
matriarchal societies of the Neolithic era. Prior to this,
people worshipped goddess figures and lived in peace. Yet
as activist and author Derrick Jensen argues quite
convincingly, this is not a gender issue; civilization
itself was the poison pill. A pattern of environmental
exploitation and shrinking resources followed its inception
in short order, with nation-states rising and falling with
As for war, there’s abundant archaeological evidence it
shades back into the mists of prehistory, long before
civilization. In his book War, military analyst Gwynne Dyer
argues that war has been a constant companion to the human
race, back to the hunter-gatherer tribes of prehistory.
Human beings have been dying at roughly the same rate from
war for centuries, and there is evidence suggestive that
the same rate held in the distant past, when there were
frequent skirmishes and raids, though with relatively low
loss of life each time. Today, armed conflicts are less
frequent, though when they occur, as in aerial
bombardments, the number of deaths can be much more
It seems that when the known world was not actively being
destroyed, it was on the edge of falling apart. A visit to
Jerusalem, or any other ancient city, can be a sobering
lesson in how eternal claims on temporary property always
ends in rubble. Hence the consoling idea of a Golden Age.
With things this bad – choose your calendrical era – it
could only have been that much better in the past.
By the ninth century BC, violence, political disruption and
religious intolerance set thinkers in a new direction.
Though they were separated by great distances, in both
miles and languages, the thinkers of the Axial Age turned
their spiritual emphasis from outward worship to inward
contemplation. Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu weren’t as
interested in an historical Golden Age or Promised Land as
much as the transformative possibilities of the moment.
can also be found in the Gnostic Gospels, which were
standard Christian fare until the fourth century AD, when
the Council of Nicea decided to leave them out of the
canonical books of the Bible. Christ was concerned with
others’ immediate inner experience of peace, love and
understanding, not mechanical rituals before the Judaic
There are three ways to read myths. The first is as fairy
tales for adults – lies, essentially. The second is as
literal truths. Most of us choose one of these two. The
third way to read them is as metaphors for existential
truths. By this reading, the Golden Age never was. It
eternally is. This tricky idea was summed up in an exchange
between the journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph
Campbell in the 1987 PBS series The
Power of Myth.
Throughout Moyers’ final dialogue with Campbell, the
interviewer tries to salvage some doctrinal semblance of
his Baptist faith, seeking confirmation that the
resurrection of Christ actually prefigures our own.
Campbell cautions against a literal reading of the Bible,
or any other religious text. If you think that the metaphor
is itself the reference, the mythologist says, you’re lost.
“It would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the
menu, seeing beefsteak written there and starting to eat
In the Christian doctrine, Moyers says, the material world
is to be despised and life is to be redeemed in the
hereafter, in heaven, where our rewards come. He challenges
Campbell in saying, “But you say that if you affirm that
which you deplore, you are affirming the very world which
is our eternity at the moment.”
Campbell responds that that is exactly what he means, and
that the eternity he’s talking about isn’t some later time,
that time has nothing to do with it. “If you don’t get it
here,” he tells Moyers, “you won’t get it anywhere.”
Campbell: The experience of eternity, right here and now,
in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is
the function of life.
Moyers: Eden was not; Eden will be.
Campbell: Eden is. “The kingdom of the Father is spread
upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
Moyers: Eden is? In this world of pain and suffering and
death and violence?
Campbell: That is the way it feels, but this is it, this is
Eden. When you see the kingdom spread upon the earth, the
old way of living in the world is annihilated. That is the
end of the world. The end of the world is not an event to
come; it is an event of psychological transformation, of
visionary transformation. You see not the world of solid
things, but a world of radiance.
It might be argued that this was an easy claim for Campbell
to make; a man born into privilege, he led a charmed life
as champion runner for Columbia, and later as a
world-travelling scholar. He spent his final years living
comfortably in one of my favourite places in the world,
Hawaii. Perhaps he could appreciate this “radiance” much
easier than someone who is unhealthy, unhappy or under
And how to reconcile the idea of a perfect present with
present imperfection? As Moyers questioned, how can anyone
think of the Golden Age being in and around us, with the
world in the shape it’s in?
Yet Campbell didn’t pull his notion of a psychological
Heaven/Eden out of thin air; it was based on a lifelong
study of the mystical tradition of both the East and the
West. He was talking about something quite distinct from
politics and nation-states, intellectual categories or
organized religion, for that matter. He meant immediate
experience, even in moments that are magnificently mundane.
The present is a timeless state; we just don’t spend much
time there. But the consumer market promises to get us in.
All our videogames, movies, sports, advertising and
pornography are predicated on the hunger to forget
ourselves and our troubles, and get lost in the moment. Yet
these inventive distractions and addictions invariably fail
to satisfy and the self is left hungering for more.
This hunger is a problem that goes right back to the people
of the Axial Age. For Buddha, a central part of awakening
and inner peace was cultivating stillness and silence.
Another big factor was compassion – literally, “to suffer
with” others. For the Taoist Lao Tzu, it was a kind of
equanimity with the natural world, an understanding that it
is insane to oppose what we’re a part of. As for Christ, he
set the bar pretty high for his followers – “Love thy
enemy” – but imagine what the world might be like if they
ever really took His advice seriously.
The notion that the Golden Age is already here is not all
that welcome to pundits, politicians, advertisers and
religious leaders, or anyone wanting some control over
other human beings. But the idea persists, even though it’s
easy to get wrong. You can mistake being born into the
white, wealthy, Western world with karmic entitlement. You
can confuse apolitical navel-gazing with the end of
responsibility, when the temporal world, like the self, is
always a work in progress. But if we’re talking about
something that has been endorsed by mystics from traditions
across the world, over many centuries, there’s probably
something to it.
Beat writer William Burroughs was one of the most
influential writers of the twentieth century. He was also a
lifelong misanthrope, a man who had more attraction to
drugs and firearms than the self-serving pieties of
organized religion. But even this clever cynic felt
something stirring within himself toward the end. In his
final diary entry from 1997, the dying author wrote:
“Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience
– any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No final satori, no
final solution. Just conflict. Only thing can resolve
conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner
and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and
past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there
If the Golden Age is within us, it’s safe to say it’s dying
to get out, in one way or another. There are places in the
world that feel like paradise. For me, Kauai fits the bill.
But in the end, “paradise,” the “promised land” and the
“Golden Age” are just words. When something within
resonates with something without, we’re talking about
metaphors for inner transformation. The tragedy is when, as
Campbell says, people go to war for metaphors, thinking
they are defending eternal truths. The estate that’s most
real isn’t real estate. It isn’t here or there, in the past
or in the future, presided over by a deity in a Century 21
Through overuse, Campbell’s line about following your bliss
has almost hardened into a new age cliché, but it’s
worthwhile to recall the words that prefaced it: “You are
more than you think you are,” the mythologist insisted.
“There are dimensions of your being and a potential for
realization and consciousness that are not included in your
concept of yourself. Your life is much deeper and broader
than you conceive it to be here. What you are living is but
a fractional inkling of what is really within you, what
gives you life, breadth, and depth. But you can live in
terms of that depth.”