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A random browse through my mailbox yielded this pearl: - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
March 18th, 2003
08:32 pm


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A random browse through my mailbox yielded this pearl:
Some years ago, I asked my friend ygurvitz, a trained historian, a question. Uncharacteristically, he fell silent for a long time, and finally said "let me think about it." Some weeks later, he wrote to me:
A few weeks back, you asked me to name three periods in history, which can be defined as "happy". In the limited scope of Western history, I am afraid I cannot find three such periods. Many are the (court) historians who would describe the period of such-and-such ruler (oftentimes their patron) as the happiest epochs of humanity; often such lies can easily be discerned for what they are, sometimes it's difficult, but generally historians -- up to the present, and the Internet may yet play a significant part in changing that -- speak for those who have the time and the leisure to write, and appreciate, history, namely, the ruling classes; and such classes rarely enjoy life without the toil, sweat and all too often tears of an oppressed populace.

I cannot provide you with three examples; even the golden period of the "enlightened emperors", namely Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (98-180 AD) is described from the point of view of the rulers; and we can be sure that this may not be considered a "golden period" by Jews and Christians, for example. The one example I *am* capable of providing is Athens at its glory - namely, between the years 490 and 404 BCE. And while this period is unsurpassed in its vitality, we must remember that the Athenians had slaves, too. Those slaves were not the oppressed, terrorized and victimized Helots of Sparta - and, indeed, of all slave-holding societies, Athens is the only one that never seemed afraid of a slaves' revolt - but were considered parts of the household, living and eating with the free men; yet slaves they were, and though their lot was good - and many were freed, and granted citizenship - they must have remembered past lives of happiness.

So, once again, I return to Hobbes' (or is it Gibbon's?) claim that history is "a list of humankind's misfortunes, atrocities and stupidity". I cannot point to a golden age; I doubt, given what we now know of human nature, that it could ever have existed - or that it could exist in the future. To paraphrase Cicero, we do not live in Plato's republic, bur among the ruins of Stalin.


Current Mood: calm
Current Music: Pictures at an Exhibition -- Mussorgsky

(2 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2003 06:01 pm (UTC)
Athens: not so great for the women, either.

I don't know -- maybe this is me and my optimism speaking -- but for me, fascinating and perhaps instructive as other eras of history are, the one we have to live in is right now. I don't get to live in fifth-century Athens or Trajanic Rome or even war-torn first-century Judaea where at least I could ask a few good questions...I get to live right now, with the people and situations that are, and it needs to be the happiest era for me, and for the people I love. I don't have another chance at it.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2003 06:39 am (UTC)
I feel discouraged by relative terms in general. There is no such thing as objective happiness, and the inter subjective, relative term "happy period in history" is a poor substitute. I would rather claim that my personal, subjective childhood had been a "happy period" in my own history - although my own court historian is soaked in sentimentality and his patron is ideally forgetful.

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