Dehiscence and “Golden Age”
“Dehiscence” is a term used in botany to describe the last stages in the life of a plant or flower. It is when the plant, upon reaching maturity, dies, but in the process bursts or otherwise broadcasts its seeds. In the old Dark Age Blog, I used that term to describe the last stages of an over-ripe civilisation. In this post, I want to give some examples of that, and to suggest that the “dehiscence” of the Modern Era has already occurred.
One of the most ironic examples is the so-called “Greek Golden Age”. Some scholars date it from around 500 B.C. to 400 or 300 B.C. Others even restrict the Golden Age to only the last 30 years or so of the “classical civilisation” period — the time of the active philosophical and intellectual life of Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.), Plato (c. 423 – 347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.).
The irony is that the exemplars of the Greek “Golden Age” would have laughed at such a characterisation of their times as being ridiculous. They certainly didn’t themselves think they were living in the Greek Golden Age, but in a time of the waning of Greek civilisation, now shot through with pessimism and decadence. The Greeks themselves thought of themselves as living in the “Iron Age” of the decline of civilisation, which they categorised in four stages or Four Ages of Man as “Golden Age”, followed by “Silver Age”, followed by “Bronze Age” and finally by “Iron Age”.
These Four Ages of Man correspond to the four Yugas of the Hindu cycle: the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga , Dvapara Yuga and the Kali Yuga. And if that foursome rings familiar, they are also the “four seasons” of a civilisation — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — according to Oswald Spengler’s account of the life-cycle of civilisations in his controversial work The Decline of the West.
It was actually the experience and perception amongst certain Greeks that their civilisation was in the “Iron Age” and had entered the winter of its discontent that acted as a stimulus and spur to the innovation of mental-rational consciousness. As Hegel once put it, “the owl of Minerva flies only at night”. Philosophy was the offspring of the decadence and breakdown — or growing “deficiency” as Gebser puts it — of the mythological consciousness structure.
So, it’s a bit rich to call this Age of Pessimism — and of decline and fall — a “Golden Age”. And it is even, perhaps, a fatal delusion to continue to do so. Solon, the one-time ruler of Athens and considered one of the Seven Greek Sages, was even famous for saying “Count no man happy until he is dead” — the mood that Socrates was to echo and enact later. As the Wikipedia entry notes of Solon’s rule: “He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short term, yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy”
The period that is called “The Golden Age” of Greek civilistion was actually its dehiscence. The new innovation called “philosophy” or “mental-rational” wasn’t the fruit of idle minds but a struggle for survival — the result of the pressure and stress of the surrounding decadence of the old structure of consciousness that had entered into it’s deficient mode of functioning. And that it was rejected as being salvific is the meaning of the trial and execution of Socrates.
Turning now to Israel, we see the same dehiscence in relation to the prophetic consciousness. The whole aim and thrust of Israel since its founding was to evolve the “Messiah” — the perfect human being. Israel was highly attuned to the future. Time and again, the prophets of the Old Testament have to call Israel back to recollection of its historic mission — to evolve the “Messiah”. The irony of Nietzsche is that he also takes on this prophetic role in his Zarathustra, calling upon his contemporaries to turn to the task of evolving the “overman” as new Messiah — the one who is to come. Nietzsche liked to think of his Zarathustra as the return of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, returned in time to correct his mistakes. But, in fact, Zarathustra is more closely the parallel to John the Baptist.
Some, in Jesus’s time, acknowledged him as this “Messiah” — the one foretold. Some others only recognised him as the Messiah when he was on the cross, apparently. Others never did. But only a few short years after his trial and execution, Israel ceased to exist. This new consciousness — Christ consciousness — which was the fruit of Israel’s historic mission and purpose, appeared in the context of civilisational decadence and of a consciousness structure in crisis. The diaspora of c. 70 A.D. is quite literally a “dehiscence”, for “diaspora” is the equivalent Greek term for Latin “dehiscence” — to scatter or spread. And this is called “leavening” in the New Testament or “salt of the Earth”.
There’s little doubt, I think, that Jesus of Nazareth considered himself the Messiah, and the one foretold. “I came not to change the law, but to fulfill it” probably can’t be interpreted in any other way. At first, Jesus believed that his words and his mission was valid only for the Jews. Only later did he relent and come to believe that his truths were valid for the Gentiles, too.
The irony here is this: the trial and execution of Socrates was Greece’s self-judgement — its own trial and execution. Just so, the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s judgement upon itself. The civilistions of Greece and Israel ended shortly afterwards.
The European Renaissance (or “rebirth”) is also considered a “Golden Age”. But it was likewise a response to the decadence of the High Middle Ages — a dehiscence also. The deficiency in the organised Church — the Holy Roman Empire or “Christendom” — was, as Rosenstock-Huessy noted in his historical studies, a “lack of caritas” — caritas meaning love, empathy, care. The religion of love failed, and it failed in the form of Inquisition, Crusade, and witch-hunt. The symbol of the unity of Christendom — the cross — splintered in the Reformation into mutually exclusive schisms and sects. As noted in earier posts, today’s political ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, socialism, environmentalism or anarchism) began life as theological controversies. They are, in effect, various interpretations of the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament — Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John — who are the four arms of the Christian crucifix, and who are also, in their zoomorphic forms, the four disintegrate Zoas of Blake’s mythology, and who, in more universal terms, correspond to “the Guardians of the Four Directions”. Today’s political factions are the splinters of the Christian cross, when it disintegrated through the lack of the unifying or vital centre — the lack of caritas.
In those terms, what we call “secularisation” is the dehiscence of the civilisation of the High Middle Ages — then called “Christendom” or Holy Roman Empire. Likewise, Roman legal codes were never as influential and popular during the imperial period as they were subsequent to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
Dehiscence (or diaspora) is another name for “chaotic transition”, or breakdown and collapse. And in some ways the process corresponds to Nietzsche’s “revaluation (or transvaluation) of values”. It seems that the ruling idea of a civilisation never becomes a “universal” truth until that civilisation breaks down. A peculiar current example of that is Marx’s Communist Manifesto. It became an international bestseller, apparently, only after the collapse of the USSR.
Whatever future historians might consider the “Golden Age” of the Modern Era is probably not going to be what we think, as the new principle is likely to appear in the context of “chaos” or decline. This is that “double-movement” of which Gebser frequently speaks. But I’ld say that a turn to holistic or integral or “health” is the principle that will lay the new foundation for a “new era”, and when it becomes more articulate about itself is probably going to be considered modernity’s “golden age” — the lasting fruit of its 500 year term.