By Josh Rueff on July 02, 2013
Right now “world peace” is a cliche beauty pageant answer.
Prosperity means possessions to most, working is toiling for another, and the words “good” and “noble” have very little to do with anything.
But according to the ancient history of the Greeks, Hindus, Norse, Rome, and much of the Middle East there was an age when things were better. During this age minimalist living was the preferred lifestyle, and the results were impressive.
The Golden Age
This time in history was called the Golden Age.
It was an age of uninterrupted peace and prosperity. Work was limited to gathering food from the earth, which they considered an abundant and unlimited resource, and this work wasn’t considered work at all since it was merely gathering the abundance that was already given – would you call unwrapping a Christmas present work?
Greek tradition (and the art from the European Renaissance) assumes that the Golden Age originated in Arcadia, a rural and pastoral area in Greece.
There had been, from the beginning of classical speculation, two contrasting opinions about the natural state of man, each of them, of course, a “Gegen-Konstruktion” to the conditions under which it was formed:
1. Soft Primitivism: One view, termed “soft” primitivism in an illuminating book by Lovejoy and Boas conceives of primitive life as a golden age of plenty, innocence, and happiness—in other words, as civilized life purged of its vices.
2. Hard Primitivism: The other, “hard” form of primitivism conceives of primitive life as an almost subhuman existence full of terrible hardships and devoid of all comforts—in other words, as civilized life stripped of its virtues.
Arcadia, as we encounter it in all modern literature, and as we refer to it in our daily speech, falls under the heading of “soft” or golden-age primitivism. Arcadia and its inhabitants were famous for their musical accomplishments as well as for their ancient lineage, rugged virtue, and rustic hospitality. 1
In the epic Mahabharata, the Hindus describe this age as the “Krita Yuga”:
“Men neither bought nor sold; there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness.”
The Greek poet Hesiod describes the Golden Age in the didactic poem Works and Days:
Men lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.
What’s even more interesting than the historical documentation of these Arcadian habits, is the similarity of modern hunter/gatherer societies to the people in the Golden Age.
Hunter Gatherer Work Habits
Hunter/gatherer groups are usually seen as primitive, unhealthy, and impoverished people. Their “uncivilized” way of life is often romanticized, but rarely lauded as an ideal lifestyle.
Historian Peter Farb wrote:
“Most people assume that the members of the Shoshone band worked ceaselessly in an unremitting search for sustenance. Such a dramatic picture might appear confirmed by an erroneous theory almost everyone recalls from schooldays: A high culture emerges only when the people have the leisure to build pyramids or to create art. The fact is that high civilization is hectic, and that primitive hunters and collectors of wild food, like the Shoshone, are among the most leisured people on earth.” 2
His viewpoint is supported by anthropologist Yehudi Cohen in his book Man in Adaptation: The Cultural Present.
“In all, the adults of the Dobe camp worked about two and a half days a week. Because the average working day was about six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, despite their harsh environment, devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest working individual in the camp, a man named =oma who went out hunting on sixteen of the 28 days, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest.” 3
There’s a few key differences between the Golden Age style of minimalist living and the typical modern lifestyle:
1. Time Allocation: Most Golden Age time was spent on family, friends and leisure – this was possible because of minimal work hours.
2. Material Mindset: The Golden Age was marked by minimal belongings. Because most hunter gatherers are nomadic, material possessions were cumbersome and limiting, so less time was spent on getting more things, and more time was spent on perfecting the limited possessions they had (craftsmanship). Quantity is often valued over quality, and even the highest quality items are made as cheaply as possible in the modern market.
3. Money: There was no such thing as money in the Golden Age of mankind. Many of the problems we face in modern society are caused by the pursuit, lack, and perceived lack of money. Without this preoccupation, the Arcadian ideals remained pure, at least to a higher degree.
So the question that remains: Is it possible for us to recreate the Golden Age?
Admittedly, it seems a bit far fetched, though many claim it to be not only possible, but necessary. I would cede that in many cases, technology can help us attain an even higher degree of the minimalist style of Arcadian living. But we’re also very dependent on technology that requires money to maintain. Our gas, electric, AC, heating, etc.
What was blissful to the Arcadians may not be for the pampered, first-world individual.
Living in a tent with no air conditioning or wifi. Gathering food – not from the conveniently organized shelves of the supermarket, but off of thorny brambles – by digging in the dirt, climbing trees, and hunting.
Would living this minimally be worth it? Maybe for some, probably not for most.
But the possibility of a new Golden Age should be kept in mind!
If the Hindus are right, human advancement is cyclical, and the return to the Golden Age of natural prosperity is inevitable. Time will tell.
1. A. O, Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935).
2. Farb, Peter (1968). Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State.