I came across a remarkable collection of works produced by Thomas Cole, the English-born American artist who is credited with founding the Hudson River School. Cole possessed an uncommon ability to capture broad strokes of history in his landscapes. Cole aimed to produce a “higher style of landscape” imbued with romanticism and naturalism unparalleled in his time.
One particular series of paintings, “The Course of Empire,” stood out to me in light of our recent considerations. This series of five paintings tells the tale of the rise and fall of a great civilization and are titled: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Consummation, Destruction and Desolation and are shown in order below:
These paintings remind me of a quote from Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.
Doesn’t this sound all too familiar?
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am inclined to disagree with the notion that eternal progress is untenable. I hold out hope for humanity as a whole and for the individual life in this regard, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.
Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer once said “Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity.” Must it always be so? Was it always so? The Greeks and Roman told of an antediluvian Golden Age, a time perhaps best described by Ovid in his Latin narrative poem, Metamorphoses:
The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.
What would it take to return to a world governed by uncorrupted reason?