The Fall of Man
In his work “Structural Anthropology,” Claude Lévi-Strauss proclaims “myth is language.”* With this linguistic function, it is no surprise that myth construction has long been a process of conducting history. Across cultures, certain narrative structures recur and persist, even when their supernatural trappings are discarded. One such myth is that of the Golden Age. It is the notion that, once upon a time, humanity thrived and our ideals and values were realized to their full potential. According to most versions of the Golden Age myth, this perfect state has since been corrupted. Humanity is in a period of decline, having lost something fundamental to it. In the Judaeo-Christian world, this idea takes form in the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. In the beginning, the first man and woman lived in paradise. They existed in harmony with nature, and spent their days tending the Garden of Eden, free from the pains of shame and death. But an act of disobedience results in their banishment. Original sin enters the world, condemning future generations to death and damnation. According to Christian doctrine, all of human suffering can be traced back to this moment. In an increasingly secularized West, few interpret the Biblical account literally. However, its underpinning anxieties persist. The notion that humanity is in decline, and that the Golden Age is behind us, pervades literature and language. It is adopted and utilized to great effect by politicians on all sides. And it is only when we recognize the mythological implications behind statements such as “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control” that we can begin to dispel such rhetoric and combat manipulative narratives.
Golden Age myths tend to be comprised of three elements: Firstly, the idea that the past was better than the present, that there was a time when humanity existed in a perfect, or near-perfect state; Secondly, that there was a specific moment at which this state was corrupted, and came to an end. Past this point in time, humanity is though to be in decline; And finally, the act of looking towards the future, of imagining a return to the ideal state that humanity once enjoyed. Often, such myths prophesy a particular figure capable of instigating the restoration of the long-lost Golden Age. For Christians, the Fall of Man must be understood in the context of the whole history of salvation. It is not merely an origin story for human suffering, but a part of the divine plan that culminated with the crucifixion. Humanity is incapable of redeeming itself, but that does not mean that hope is lost. When Jesus sacrificed himself, the burden of sin was lifted. Hence, the Biblical narrative prophesies Christ’s second coming, upon which the worthy will be restored to paradise.
This narrative structure manifests across religious and literary traditions. According to Platonic philosophy, the soul once resided amongst the Forms, of which the material world is a pale reflection. The immaterial mind is a prisoner constrained by the body and deceived by the world of appearances. Only by studying the Forms by means of philosophical inquiry may one’s soul be liberated, returning to the world of Forms to which it belongs. A similar idea is found in Arthurian legends, set in an imagined past. Under King Arthur’s reign, Camelot thrived. The Knights of the Round Table represented the highest ideals of nobility and chivalry. But this era of prosperity comes to an end with Arthur’s death. Similar to the Fall of Man, the decline of the Kingdom is instigated by female transgression. This time, it is Guinevere’s infidelity that sets Arthur’s downfall in motion. And just as Jesus’s death is accompanied by the promise of a second coming, the Arthurian legend ends on a hopeful note. Camelot may have fallen, but we are assured that the King will return in Albion’s greatest time of need.
The belief in a return to grace is an essential element of Golden Age myths. Upon first glance, these stories of loss and decline appear pessimistic. Part of their appeal is that they offer an explanation for human suffering, perhaps making it easier to bear, providing a coping mechanism of sorts. There is also an optimism underpinning notions of an idealized past. If the Golden Age is in our past, then such a state must be possible. It reassures us that our pursuit of an ideal society or state of being is not futile.
It is this sense that something has been lost which politicians take to their advantage. When tracking the evolution of mythologies, we must look beyond the literary and religious canons. Myths are more than outdated origin stories to be made obsolete by more scientific alternatives: They are the narratives that shape our conceptual landscapes. Though myths might be consigned to the status of fiction, the mythological structure persists outside the myth. It remains integral to a society’s collective consciousness. And in the political sphere, this structure is utilized to legitimize certain ideologies. The Biblical account of the Fall locates the corruption of humanity in a primordial past, and finds hope of redemption in a divine Messiah. For the Platonist, the mind may only return to the World of Forms once it has been freed from the physical body, whilst the Arthurian legends look to a sleeping King to restore us to glory. In the hands of politicians, the story takes on a new kind of immediacy. Rather than relying on supernatural forces, the politician asks us to place our trust in them and their vision. They assume the role of both prophet and Messiah. We cease to be at the mercy of divine forces, or the products of our ancestors’ sins, and the redemption that we seek becomes something far more tangible.
A political ideology that advocates any sort of change is founded on the conviction that contemporary society falls short of some ideal, be it equality, conservative family values, or Proletarian ownership of the means of production. One of the simplest, most persuasive ways of justifying an ideal is to assert that it is the way things ought to be, because it is the way that things once were. Rhetoric of this sort chooses a version of history to suggest that humans would naturally adhere to a set of values had society not become corrupted by hostile forces. Anarcho-primitivists, for instance, believe that problems such as overpopulation, coercion, and alienation can be traced back to the transition from foraging to agricultural subsistence, from hunter-gather to farmer. They advocate a process of de-industrialization and “rewilding” in order to return to an uncivilized state. According to this theory, the decline of humanity was the result of economic advances rather than the violation of some divine decree.
Other radical political theories have drawn more consciously from Christian mythology. John Ball, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, called for rebellion on the grounds that there were no nobles and serfs in the Garden of Eden. During the English Civil War, a group of British radicals known as “Diggers” set out to recreate the conditions of the Garden of Eden on earth by planting crops on common land. Though peaceful, this was perceived as a dangerous challenge to private ownership and class structure. They understood the Fall as a constant event, with the true corruption of man represented by private property. Gerard Winstanley, a Digger leader, looked to the Norman conflict of 1066 as the beginning of political decline in England. He understood the enslavement of the English as a “Norman Yoke” upheld by the nobility, and advocated a return to Anglo-Saxon values. Again, we have the structure of a Golden Age mythology, identifying an era of prosperity and moral superiority that has been lost as a result of some evil action.
In modern discourse, this approach has been most successfully utilized by the political right. Conservatives point to the perceived move away from traditional Judaeo-Christian values as the cause of social and economic ills. Even when not articulated explicitly, this is the message implicit in slogans such as “Make America Great Again.” A call simply to “Make America Great” suggests ideals of patriotism, progress, and possibly, though not necessarily, ambitions to see America gain supremacy on the world stage. The addition of the word “again” transforms this message, communicating something far more specific and tapping into a very particular strand of patriotism. In a single sentence, it embodies the worldview at the core of Golden Age and Fall of Man myths. It tells us that America was once great, but that something has caused it to fall. It may, therefore, be restored to its former glory by resurrecting values or policies that are in decline. Trump’s supporters interpret this narrative in a very specific way that accords with an existing value system. They attribute the supposed degeneration of America to the erosion of conservative, “Christian” values. They argue for more stringent abortion laws and the restriction of Muslims from entering the country. The Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” has a similar effect. By suggesting that something vital has been lost, it presents EU membership as the cause of Britain’s perceived economic and social problems. When posters print pro-Brexit slogans alongside images of queuing refugees, it becomes clear that it is not only parliamentary sovereignty that is to be restored. By voting in favor of Brexit, we may “Take Back Control” from immigrants who are considered to have altered the country beyond recognition. By adopting a narrative structure that is so familiar and intuitively compelling, politicians are able to make these ideas accord with an existing worldview.
But a myth is not a lie and should not simply be dismissed as fiction. That is, the psychological states expressed by mythologized narratives are genuine, and it is the application of mythological structures which render them dangerous. The conviction that things were once better clearly resonates and communicates something about the way human beings relate to the world. The Fall of Man narrative is most prevalent during periods of real hardship. When the Great Depression of 1929 left Germany with rising inflation and unemployment, the Nazi Party advocated a return to traditional rural values, as opposed to the more liberal climate of 1920s Berlin. Following the banking crash of 2008, the Conservative Party argued that only a return to the right wing economic policy of the 1980s could restore financial security. When a period of relative prosperity is followed by one of economic downturn, it is natural to imagine that decline is linear and hardship is unprecedented. The fall comes to be understood within the scope of a lifetime, or a generation, and we look to anything that has perceptibly changed within that period in order to explain our troubles. Often, as with 1930s Germany, economic decline is attributed to a move away from traditional ways of life. Similarly, new waves of immigration tend to be presented as the cause of a country’s economic or social ills.
Whilst a particular hardship may be very real, accepting mythologized historical narratives without question leaves a population vulnerable to political manipulation. The strongest defense against such rhetoric is, therefore, critical demythologizing. Academic analysis of historical evidence can be used to determine whether an era is truly unprecedented, or if it accords with an observable pattern. For instance, the notion that the West has seen linear progress towards liberal, secular values ignores the fact that periods of liberalism have often been followed by eras of moral restrictions or economic austerity.
Deconstructing the mythology surrounding an ideology also allows one to identify exactly what is being propagated. When Trump calls the electorate to “Make America Great Again,” we must ask to which era he is referring to with the word “again.” As many on the left have pointed out, one does not have to look far to encounter racial segregation, slavery, or other atrocities. A woman or person of color born in the “Golden Age” so ambiguously defined by Trump’s supporters would likely have found themselves at an economic disadvantage, without civil rights. Having demonstrated the weaknesses of any argument resting upon the assumption that society is progressively deteriorating, one may now understand what Trump’s version of history reveals about his value system—that women’s reproductive rights are problematic, that gender equality is unimportant, and that non-white immigrants are undeserving of residence. Whether or not one accepts these beliefs, they look very different detached from the narrative structures employed to legitimize them.
In conclusion, the mythology surrounding the Fall of Man reaches far beyond the confines of the Book of Genesis. It strikes at the heart of two fundamental human desires: It offers an explanation for suffering and hardship, and reassures us that we are capable of something greater. Despite the value of myths as a way of understanding such needs and anxieties, they can become manipulative devices in the hands of politicians. The notion of the Golden Age is used to support ideologies by constructing histories that accord with deep-rooted sentiments, but lack a certain academic integrity. They are compelling as hermeneutical devices that allow us to understand our experience and shape our worldview. Only by challenging and revising these histories may we address the values at the core of political rhetoric and critique those who exploit existing narrative structures for political gain.
*Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Claire Jacobson, and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, Structural Anthropology. (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 210.