The Age of Plastic?


There is an old Greek myth that describes how humanity has passed through a number of ‘ages’ or phases: the first was the golden age, followed by the ages of silver, bronze and iron. The myth is a metaphor for a gradual, successive decline in moral standards and quality of life. The question is, what age are we in now?

First, a summary of the different ages of mankind, from Hesiod’s 8th century BC poem Works and Days, starting with the golden age:

First of all [110] the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods [115] 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 evils. 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 upon their lands with many good things, [120] rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

The ‘golden ones’ were covered by the earth but their spirits are said to remain on earth as guardians of men, roaming about, keeping watch on people’s conduct. After them came the race of silver:

It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. [130] A child was brought up at his good mother’s side a hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time and that in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and [135] from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honor to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.

Next came the race of bronze men:

They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. [150] Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, [155] black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

Zeus then made a fourth race, a god-like race of hero-men called the demi-gods. Some of these died in battles at Thebes, and others at Troy, and still others dwell at the far reaches of the earth in the isles of the blessed. Next came the race of iron:

For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. [180] And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. [185] Men will dishonor their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. [190] There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right, and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. [195] Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. [200] And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

Given that Hesiod was writing in the eighth century BC, one wonders whether we are in an even more far gone age: the age of plastic perhaps, or the age of copper or fibre? And what defines our age: environmental destruction, social isolation, negativity, war and dislocation? Or, if one believes later authors such as Ovid (who wrote another version of the myth in his Metamorphoses in AD 1), have we passed beyond these phases and do we now live in a post-age era, defined by longer life expectancy, the miracles of technology, better and faster communication and the wonders of vitamin supplements!

Hesiod, author of Works and Days, from which this myth originates, was not feeling optimistic about life. He was in the midst of a family dispute with his brother Perses who had unfairly snatched the larger portion of the family inheritance. At the beginning of the work, Hesiod urges his brother to end the strife that is tearing them apart and to heed his cautionary words. It suits Hesiod’s purpose, in other words, to describe the moral decline that he sees as characteristic of his times.

On the other hand, this devolutionary model of mankind is not an uncommon theme in Greek myths (and fables) and it presents a rather interesting contrast to modern notions of man’s endless evolution, progress and development.

I wonder if Perses and Hesiod ever resolved their dispute? I wonder whether humanity is evolving or devolving? I wonder how you would define the current Age of Man? I suppose the answer to that question depends on the cup beside you and whether you see it as half full, or half empty.


Hesiod. Works and Days. Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

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Author’s private collection of photos.

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