by Emrys Westacott
Nostalgia is a fascinating and remarkably common phenomenon. We have all heard older people comparing the present unfavorably with the past in spite of–or even because of–obvious material improvements in the standard of living. Most of us over the age of twenty-five have probably done this ourselves. Often the fond remembrance involves some account of how we lived more cheaply, were closer to nature, were more self-sufficient, enjoyed uncomplicated daily routines, or contented themselves with humble pleasures. The underlying idea is that things were better because they were simpler.
But nostalgia for simplicity is not confined to individuals reminiscing; across cultures it is also a persistent motif in oral and written literary traditions. In religion, philosophy and literature, it has often taken the form of harking back to an unsullied past or a golden age of happiness and virtue. The biblical account of Adam and Eve in paradise is paradigmatic, but there are many other examples. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing over two and half thousand years ago, laments the sorry condition of the world he lives in compared to that inhabited by the first humans, a “golden race of men,” who lived “free from toil and grief…..for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly.” The Roman poet Ovid similarly describes a Golden Age when
…..of her own accord the earth produced
A store of every fruit. The harrow touched her not,
Nor did the ploughshare wound her fields.
And man content with given food,
And none compelling, gathered arbute fruits
And wild strawberries on the mountain sides…..
The lines underscore not just the absence of toil or tools but also the way people desired little and lived harmoniously with nature. In these idyllic circumstances there was no need for laws, since “rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed.”