Readers, if any, may recall a discussion of golden ages – Renaissance Florence, the Athens of Pericles, Enlightenment Edinburgh, Boston when it was the hub, fin de siècle Vienna, pick your favorite. The question is, why do some places suddenly seem to sprout creatively, and then a generation or two later lapse back to dull normalcy?
My answer is that it suddenly becomes cool to write sonnets or do philosophy or learn computer code or paint portraits. In less happy times and places, it becomes all the rage to engage in self-flagellating piety or fights between competing street gangs or to kill infidels or gas Jews.
Because the puzzle of what produces these moments of artistic or intellectual efflorescence has long interested me, I picked up “The Geography of Genius” which purports to seek the answer. Actually, it turned out to be a chronicle of a boondoggle.
The author apparently got a pliant publisher to fund some globetrotting, so off he goes to visit once great places, though the evidence of these pages suggests the modern residents of Athens, Hangzhou and Edinburgh have got little to offer that couldn’t have been swotted up at the local university or library.
It’s a fun read, with a tidbit here and there, but the puzzle remains unsolved. I was bemused to discover, however, that the epigraph on the first page more or less validates my idea that society produces lots of what that society decides is cool.
Here’s the quote: “What is honored in a country will be what is cultivated.” Who said it? Plato.
I admit I was a bit dashed to discover that I was about 2,400 years late in having my blazing insight. But only a little dashed. After all, Whitehead ruefully admitted that all of western philosophy is nothing more than “a series of footnotes to Plato.” So I’ve got plenty of company in discovering Plato beat me to a notion.
The evidence was certainly there for Plato to see. Sparta honored the martial virtues and got plenty of warriors. Athens honored reason and beauty and got Praxiteles and Plato. The question for ourselves, as for all times and places, is what do we honor? Not what do we play lip service to, but actually encourage.
In too many poor neighborhoods, ignorance and thuggery. In our politics, divisiveness, vulgarity and scorched earth. In our financial capitals, amoral money-grubbing. In much of our pop culture, braindead exhibitionism and narcissism. Among the digerarti, socially disruptive but personally enriching innovation. None of which seems to add up to a particularly admirable society, let alone a golden age.