Journey to the Golden Age

Benjamin Voros/Primošten, Horvátország

There on a plain, a multitude. From a distance—a hill or the eye of a soaring bird—one could see numberless little dots in the shape of men assembled around a lesser crowd in the middle. There was a great distance separating them. Focusing the gaze, one could make out the silhouettes: a great many feathers brandished in the air over a palette of colors that gave the frenzy an almost carnival atmosphere. A pointillist would have had a field day with the scene, were it not for the shimmering, almost blinding brilliance of the crowd in the center.

The shimmer was that of metal. The surrounded crowd in the center was on guard in the full paraphernalia of battle: breastplate, spear, sword, and unmistakable quiet terror escaping from furtive faces. A great cry rose from the feathered circumference. It was a call to the gods. Despair won among the metalled men. They turned inwards and they too, on their knees, spoke words to their gods.

Then among the paltry men of the center, six broke from the mass and dragged their horses forward. They began to trot and the cataphracts turned towards a single point in the great multitude surrounding them. Their hooves drummed the no man’s land. On collision, this arrowhead of flesh and blood cut through the innumerable mass and launched many feathered men off their feet, strewing them about. Bucklers began cracking skulls. Behind the charge, a group of swordsmen closed in and began slaying the feathered warriors.

This maneuver was repeated against various points of the circumference to deadly effect. At last, on the final attack, one of the horsemen seized a great plume standard and, dashing away, held it high for all to see. The encircling army that had forced their attack froze and then broke. Their king had been slain and their gods had abandoned them. The metalled men had snatched victory from the jaws of annihilation.

It was a battle of Homeric proportions. We even know the names of our cataphracts: Hernán Cortés, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado, Cristóbal de Olid, Juan de Salamanca, and Alonso Dávila—the last heroes of the Iliad. Yet the Trojans and Achaeans in this skirmish were two and a half millennia late to the battle of Troy.

Until the discovery of the city’s ruins, the battle of Troy was thought by moderns to be nothing more than a fable of great men of the past. The events recalled are so fanciful, so impossible to men of reason and logic, that they were written off as fictitious. Yet no such charge could be laid on the battle of Otumba, where 800 tired, desperate Spaniards routed 20,000 Aztec warriors. It was an impossible outcome, the stuff of legends. Bernal Díaz del Castillo and many others bequeathed recollections of the conquest of Mexico in writing. Though no great bards, they left us with a singular word pebbled in our mouths: providential.

Hernán Cortés was a providential man. The Conquistadors and their misadventures are no less infused with impossibility than Homer’s Myrmidons. One can imagine Neptune whispering in Cortés’s ear as he sailed from Cuba on an illegal voyage toward lands where no man from the Old World had ever been. Hera might have glided over the Spaniards as Cortés ordered his ships destroyed and spoke these words: “We could look for no help or assistance, but that which came from God, for we no longer possessed ships in which to return to Cuba, but must rely on our own good swords and stout hearts.” And in his account, Bernal Diaz does report the apparition of saints at the height of certain battles.

It is no longer fashionable to qualify Cortés as providential. The vogue these days is Cortés as génocidaire. Those six horsemen were but horsemen of the apocalypse and Cortés was but the executioner of an end-times orgy of violence. There is credence to that qualification. An entire hemisphere of civilizations was depopulated in a spasm of diseases, exterminations, and enslavements. But the question remains unanswered: how could a few hundred men bring down an empire of millions? How could the Spaniards have triumphed at Otumba without providence?

Cortés knew who and what he was. Bernal Díaz recalled him making comparisons to antiquity as he carried out the burning of his ships. When some of his men later challenged that no great Roman general had ever thought it prudent to burn his own ships, he answered “You are, however, perfectly justified in saying that the most renowned generals of Rome even cannot boast of such military exploits as we can. Future historians will also have to relate, if God be willing, greater things of us than of them.”

As he defeated Guatemoc and laid Tenochtitlan to fire and sword, Cortés must have swirled about in his mouth the same Homeric lines as Scipio Africanus did at the destruction of Carthage: “The day shall be when holy Troy shall fall, and Priam, lord of spears, and Priam’s folk.” Cortés and his Myrmidons, the last men of antiquity, opened for us a great and globalized modernity. The Iliad ends at the conquest of Mexico.

Golden Ages Are Coeval

The conquest of the New World by the Spanish and Asia by the Portuguese began right at the end of the Reconquista. The Iberia of the fifteenth century was a place of unmatched vitality that emerged suddenly onto the world stage. The comparison to the Romans that Díaz recalls in passing is easy to view as some kind of rhetorical flourish. But the historic reality was that this last chapter of antiquity consistently rhymed with the earlier ones. The Iberians of the time were conscious that their own great achievements were on par with those recounted in the histories of the Romans and the Greeks. Portugal even birthed its own Virgil to write The Lusiads:

Let Fame with wonder name the Greek no more,
What lands he saw, what toils at sea he bore;
No more the Trojan’s wand’ring voyage boast,
What storms he brav’d on many a perilous coast:
No more let Rome exult in Trajan’s name,
Nor Eastern conquests Ammon’s pride proclaim;
A nobler hero’s deeds demand my lays
Than e’er adorn’d the song of ancient days,
Illustrious Gama, whom the waves obey’d,
And whose dread sword the fate of empire sway’d.

In the third stanza of the famous Portuguese epic, Luís de Camões places Vasco de Gama and the Portuguese right next to the Greek heroes, Aeneas, the Romans, and Emperor Trajan. The mandatory classicist education of the nineteenth century still makes us accustomed to seeing the use of these classical references as merely idealized images one can draw on when one has run out of things to say. Yet there is far more than that occurring in the poetry of Luís de Camões: Hernán Cortés and Vasco de Gama are credible contestants. An Iberia which has just thrown the Moors out of Europe and carved up the rest of the world among itself by meridians at the Treaty of Tordesillas is one where these references to the great feats of antiquity no longer feel distant. Why would that escape its poets?

That great age of exploration is not thought of as a golden age stricto sensu. Unlike Moorish Spain, there weren’t any great flourishing cities filled with philosophers, scientists, painters, and wealthy merchants selling gold-laced silks. The Iberia of the time was a highly militarized, rather poor, feudal society. Portugal was a society of fishermen with barely a million inhabitants. The only things Iberia produced in mass were soldiers and mariners.

Yet, they conquered the world. Events as incredible as the Battle of Otumba abounded all over the globe. In the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese were developing the grand strategic trade interdiction of an entire civilizational bloc. As incredible as it sounds, Afonso de Albuquerque, with the paltry number of men and ships he had, laid waste to the entire Indian Ocean from Mogadishu to Malacca. In 1507, a Portuguese detachment of 400 men captured the 4,000-strong fortress of Hormuz and choked commerce in the Persian Gulf. Those 400 men were enough to strangle the Islamic world. The kleos aphthiton per capita at the time was very high.

The meaning of these references was far from idealized or symbolic. Artists are the mirrors of their time and that very same third stanza records a historical reality. Camões puts Gama next to the Greeks and the Romans because he sees him and the period in general as coeval with the great periods of antiquity. Despite the many centuries separating them, Gama was of the same kind and character as these heroes. For Camões, Gama brought the heroic age back into the world. Likewise, the Iberian society of the period fragmented chronological time and its people claimed to be contemporaries of the greats of antiquity—not descendants, not future iterations, not merely inspired by them, but actual contemporaries and peers. Antiquity was no longer a set of distant forms to be imitated but a place filled with friends to converse with and rivals to outdo.

Surprisingly, this fragmentation of chronological times cuts in both directions. While the golden ages of antiquity become coeval with the Reconquista, scholars have named the contrary impulse: “denial of coevalness.” Sometimes, you want to disassociate with contemporaries you view as inferior. For the Iberians, the Americas, Africa, and Asia were stuck in a backward time, a savage state, despite technically existing as their contemporaries. As Camões writes in the very opening stanza of The Lusiads:

What kings, what heroes of my native land
Thunder’d on Asia’s and on Afric’s strand:
Illustrious shades, who levell’d in the dust
The idol-temples and the shrines of lust:
And where, erewhile, foul demons were rever’d,
To Holy Faith unnumber’d altars rear’d…

While the Spaniards and Portuguese were fully conversant with the other golden ages, they viewed the peoples and cultures that populated their same earth as remnants stuck in an illegible dark age.

This practice of the bifurcation of time does not seem to be limited to the Iberians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This thread runs down nearly all golden ages as they remain in conversation with each other. One of the most enduring stories of Caesar was that he wept at the statue of Alexander the Great because he had accomplished so little at the same age by which the Macedonian had conquered the world. The histories of the Gallic wars and later conquests are littered with such little humanizing stories of Julius Caesar.

But what is striking about this one is that Caesar considers himself a peer to Alexander. Why else would he weep in losing the contest? For Caesar, Alexander was not some high-minded ideal, nor a conjuration from the past, but a contemporary rival. It was as if the more than two centuries separating the two men had entirely collapsed in the instant when Caesar visited the famous statue. This thread continued throughout chronological time: Alexander himself was contemporary to Achilles. Augustus was literally contemporary to Caesar, then Charlemagne became contemporary to Augustus, and Napoleon to Charlemagne.

One can easily read this as simple inspiration, but the golden ages have strange relationships to time. Clovis I, who was the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, was also the first Frankish king to convert to Christianity. His wife was a Catholic and insisted throughout their married life on Clovis’s conversion. One story recalls Clovis’s religious instruction, during which he was told about the crucifixion of Christ by two monks. Clovis became visibly angry, jolted out of his seat, and exclaimed as he grabbed his ax: “If I had been there with my Franks, I would have revenged his wrongs!” It’s as if Clovis was of the same age as Christ. The level of empathy with this period is so significant that Clovis almost saw himself as an actor, a direct participant, in the midst of what was chronologically a long-gone period that had slipped into mythic time for the rest of the world.

Much later, Nietzsche also identified this characteristic of genius in Twilight of the Idols:

The relation of a genius to his age is that which exists between strength and weakness and between maturity and youth: the age is relatively always very much younger, thinner, less mature, less resolute and more childish.

The genius, the providential man—or the providential wit or artist—comes from an older, more mature time because he is inscribed within that very long thread and the existing age is not. The specific point in time in which he appears is inconsequential. What matters is his coevalness and continuity with all the other golden ages and their heroes.

Our age has its own ideas about providential men; it also has its own relationship with the past. For our age, the past is an Orient—an exotic other—where it can project all its fantasies, psychoses, and perversions. This manifests in two forms. The more obtuse minds of the age join in a Panglossian unison, claiming that they live in the best of all historical worlds, seeing the past as a wretched dark age. Meanwhile, the sharper wit feels the absence of greatness in his own time and, being of an intense sensibility, falls into a deep and paralyzing state of mourning.

Evidently, in our age, we have our Panglossian matra on full blast. The introduction of critical pedagogy in academia and the resulting near-dissolution of the humanities departments are just modern versions of this very old exercise. They are methods of confounding the past by conjuring monsters to scare away any inkling of continuity with past heroes. But within this exercise, the age creates an absence as it pronounces itself on the providential men of the past. If one studies the conquest of New Spain, now it is only to condemn Cortés as another génocidaire on par with Idi Amin. Admiration is a grave offense. Yet, no one even entertains the possibility of a competing peer. In the minds of our age, the possibility of a modern Hernán Cortés is nil.

The Methods of a Golden Age

There is a sense that all golden ages are subspecie aeternitatis. In all places and times, the leaders of societies in ascendance have been particularly prone to seeing themselves as on the same footing as the great periods of the past. To be able to empathize with the various high points of the past, you have to be animated by the same vital energy as those men and societies and see yourself as the same kind of person.

But mere scholarship isn’t the way to share in that mythic consciousness. Today, we collectively have more facts and precise knowledge about antiquity than at any point since the collapse of the Roman Empire. But for all that knowledge, we haven’t produced a Caesar or an Alexander. Their kind cannot be reinvented by manuals. The Iberians managed it because their circumstances produced the right kind of people. In the absence of such, the real consciousness of the golden ages of the past is illegible and impenetrable despite our intricate knowledge of the historical facts.

As Nietzsche stated, the appearance of providential men and the accompanying golden ages are really a matter of chance. Yet one cannot fail to notice that before Cortés, King Ferdinand, and Queen Isabella, there were six centuries of Reconquista—there was an Alfonso VI and an El Cid. Before Vasco de Gama and the Infante Henrique, there was Afonso I. Before Caesar, there was Gaius Martius.

Even in the darkest times, there are vital elements. One has to seek them out and assimilate to them. In the absence of genius and greatness, this process of purification of the vital elements needs to be started and iterated upon until the moment of reckoning when the providential men again make their appearance. This process of iterative purification can take centuries but is necessary. As the age purifies itself, it develops a greater empathy and understanding of the preceding ages. As the necessary biological, social, and spiritual elements are infused with vitality, the golden ages of the past become more legible and clearer, and then enter into conversation with the living.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a wave of obsession with past ages and their grim reminders that time erases all. The most succinct treatment of this obsession can be found in Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay // Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare // The lone and level sands stretch far away.” What kicked off this mania was the publication of a now largely forgotten tract by a French aristocrat, the Count of Volney, titled The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empire. Translated into English by Thomas Jefferson, it became hugely influential among the founding fathers of the United States.

Volney was a Pangloss par excellence who took orientalizing the past to its final conclusion. He left Marseille in 1782 for Syria and Egypt in order to visit the sites described in the historical texts of the Greeks. For Volney, the past was an Orient in the sense that the past could literally be found in the Near East. He visited numerous historical sites including Palmyra. In the unmistakable fashion of the midwit, he fingered something fundamental but failed entirely in getting to the substance of what was in front of him. Volney conjured fantasies, projecting on the past fashionable clichés about an age in which “no one was the slave, none thought of being the master.”

Despite his flaws, Volney was at least erudite and courageous enough to take the leap. He represented most perfectly the spirit of the Age of Reason. The accounts he made of the Levant, as well as his classification and ethnologies, were the most accurate of the day. Yet in that erudition, he did not possess the vitality and the genius to pierce beyond a simple collection of facts.

However, fate would have it that Volney encountered someone who did. In 1794, while on an agricultural improvement venture in Corsica, he made the acquaintance of a certain disgraced artillery officer, who also happened to be an ardent Egyptophile. The officer, deprived of his rank and left to rot in Corsica, was thinking of entering the service of Russia or the Ottoman Empire. In the course of their discussions, Volney dissuaded him and convinced him to stay in the service of France. This act, along with the wealth of knowledge he shared about Egypt with the young disgraced officer, would be his only encounter with genius. Likewise, Volney’s advice was pivotal to the young officer and set him on the path to empire.

When Napoleon conquered Egypt, he did what Volney failed to do. Napoleon, the providential man of his time, was able to truly enter into conversation with the great ages of the past. He wasn’t a luminary concerned with filling manuscripts but the conqueror of the East who then turned and bent all of Europe to his will. Volney, the wit at the heel of tyrants, conjured an image of Napoleon in the Great Pyramid of Giza, sitting on a sarcophagus and entertaining muftis in Arabic about his projects in the conquest of the Orient. Volney understood that Napoleon had overcome time and space itself, as well as the centuries separating him from Caesar, Alexander, and Muhammad. In that, he was absolutely correct. Napoleon, like Clovis before him, left us with a reflection on Christ:

He alone conquered the love of men. And how? By a miracle that surpasses all miracles. He asks for the love of men, the thing in the world most difficult to obtain. […] He requires it in totality and succeeds immediately. I conclude his divinity. Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, and Louis XIV, in all their genius, have failed at it.

Napoleon articulated well that coevalness, that deep sense of empathy with genius, and the collapse of the centuries to the point that his reflections are held subspecie aeternitatis. Like for Clovis, Christ is a peer for Napoleon—one he simply cannot outdo.

It is from that perspective that the ruins Napoleon encountered in Egypt became the source of a new golden age. While the Volneys of his time saw mere distance and the inexorable march of time in these ruins, Napoleon found peers, friends, and competitors in them. The seizing of ancient artifacts, like the Rosetta stone that he dragged to Paris and displayed as a symbol and testament of his conquests, were acts of empathy and competition. For the right kinds of men, ruins can be the beginnings of golden ages. Nor do ruins need to be physical. For the sages of the Late Zhou, the literature and odes of China’s past were the instruments of a potential rebirth of their own golden age.

As the ruins of Egypt were a source of newfound understanding for Napoleon, the ruins of Tenochtitlan were the beginning of a new civilization for Cortés. These points of founding cross even civilizational lines. Napoleon invoked as peers not only the pharaohs but also the prophet of Islam, who fought against the successors of pharaonic idolatry.

Whatever the nature of the ruins, their existence and materiality are the basis for any conversation with the golden ages. Like all conversations, there needs to be some common understanding between the two parties. A sense of materiality provides that common understanding. If one is stuck in a storm on a sailboat and glances between labored breaths toward the menacing waves climbing taller than the vessel, one gains a small understanding of the great voyages of exploration. The crews who undertook them suffered through the same mechanical operations of frantically tightening and loosening sails as they braved the tempests of the tropics. This is the deep engagement with materiality, beyond the inordinate focus on symbols and ancient trinkets. Materiality means understanding the pain of ancient sailors in every sinew of your body as you stumble back onto the shoreline.

Napoleon was in conversation with Caesar because he was surrounded by the same landscapes and endured the same hardships as his peer. The campaign of Italy was materially nearly identical to Caesar’s governorship in Cisalpine Gaul and his campaigns in Transalpine Gaul. Despite all the accouterments of modernity that the Enlightenment offered to Napoleon, the materiality of the campaign made for a fertile forum for conversation. The destruction of Tenochtitlan provided a similar sense of materiality to Cortés as the destruction of Carthage did for Scipio Africanus. The Church and its rituals granted that materiality to both Clovis and Napoleon in their conversations with Christ. It was an item of faith that they encountered Christ himself in body and soul at the Catholic mass.

The ruins, similarly, give a dangerous concreteness to these conversations. The Volneys of the world merely talk at the ruins, reinterpret them, and project the unimaginative contents of their thoughts onto them. It is the Napoleons who find them fertile grounds for conversation, who are able to listen to them, and who can learn from, dialogue with, and challenge the ghosts of the past. For them, the past is not an Orient, a far-off fantasy, but an ever-present companion. The caveat to this exercise of easing the ruins into conversation is that it is limited by the conversor’s spiritual, physical, and biological qualities. The Rosetta stone was used in the battlements of an Ottoman fort. It only revealed itself when Napoleon set foot in Egypt. The stone would only speak to those of providential quality.

To develop this quality, as well as the materiality to put it into conversation with the best of the past, takes a whole-life cultivation. We have to step onto sailboats and into fighting cages, and venture through the marshes and on distant battlefields—metaphorical or otherwise—as if the greats of the past were accompanying us along the way. None of these activities will bring about a golden age on their own. Rather, they cultivate visceral shared experiences with the heroes of the past. They are study aids. We have to read the Iliad, the Aeneid, and The Lusiads not as fantastical epics but as intimate diaries of dear friends. We have to put ourselves in their shoes and hold ourselves to their standards. We must think like they thought and act as they acted. We have to become one of them.

Part of the difficulty is in even knowing the path. Fortunately, the ruins are there to comfort and guide us. They act as a heuristic: the closer you get to the required levels of strength, cohesion, and breeding for the coming of a providential man, the more legible the golden ages become through their ruins and the more concrete they become in their materiality. That is when the conversation may begin. At first, it will be a few muted words carried in the breeze. But then the words begin to flow, as kleos unties the tongues of the gathering specters. As long-lost friends, no warmth is lost and the friendship resumes as if you had never been separated. Pleasantries and rivalries flourish. “How was it that you lived?” they ask you—yes, you open yourself up to judgment. We should ask what the past thinks of us.

The passive intellectual or aesthetic recycling of the ruins is a task of fallen men. The heroic impulse, on the other hand, is active and sudden. As Nietzsche states in Twilight of the Idols, “Great men, like great ages, are explosive material.” The implication of this statement is that the appearance of providential men is merely there to release an accumulation of enormous potential energy. The endeavor of accumulating that energy is in itself a mythical labor that must be accomplished over centuries. The collective effort of many generations crafts the tip of a spear to be unleashed upon the world. This preparation is no less noble of a task.

Avetis Muradyan is a Chief Technology Officer and emergent markets expert based in Singapore. He is a graduate of the University of British Columbia in Computer Science and English Literature. He tweets @AvetisMuradyan.