Humanity in the Age of Dotage
November 1999By Tom Martin
Tom Martin is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
I do not know when the Modern World became the Post-Modern world. However, it is obvious that we the living have history all to ourselves when it comes to naming the age in which we have accidentally landed. Our historians would have us believe that Socrates was wandering about in the Ancient world; the Romans created an empire in the Neo-Ancient Age and produced a variety of civic-minded philosophies which ended in debauchery followed by the sacking by the Vandals, which in turn brought the Dark Age of St. Benedict's monastery from which St. Francis awoke to find himself in the Middle Ages; then Descartes (who so smartly separated his mind from his body) enlightened the world to "firm and constant knowledge in the sciences" by doubting his senses, thereby opening the door to the Modern Age, which preceded the Post-Modern Age in which we are now (supposedly) living.
However, it makes as much sense to look at the Greeks and say they were not ancient, they were youth. And as they were young, they were innocent -- so innocent that their imagination was filled with gods and goddesses, Harpies and Cyclopses, Hydras and nymphs. Until, that is, they were awakened from their ignorance by Socrates to the search for self-knowledge and by Aristotle to the quest for the "highest good." All of which was merely the precocious pursuit of youth enamored of Reason, without love, forgiveness, or a sense of evil.
The freedom and spirit of innocent youth gave way to the Teen Age of man: a proud and passionate age of intense desire, conquest, and learning to think. It was a willful age marked by physical strength and the longing to find meaning in life. It was the age of philosophers and caesars. The teachers of the Teen Age were split among the Epicurean delights, the resignation of the Stoics, and caesars of the soul ranging from Caligula to Constantine.
Seneca captured the spirit of the hormone-driven age ("It is a gathering of beasts!") and directed his lectures to the practice of virtue, assisting in the battle between the higher man and the hedonistic desires of the flesh. Epictetus taught the universality of virtue: All men have the capacity for virtue, with which he coupled, "I am a citizen of the world." Marcus Aurelius's mediations offered consolations for the pangs of the flesh and the horror of the nothingness that awaits the soul after death by prompting man to live for the moment: "Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee." The Teen Age was marked by action, athletics, and performance of civic duty. Nevertheless, philosophy remained mortal in the face of death. How natural.
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