Restoring the Golden Age: Mythology in revolutionary ideologies and culture

Dan Edelstein, University of Pennsylvania


This genealogy of revolutionary ideologies is a study of the “entry of myth into modern political thought” (Jean-Luc Nancy). Where scholars have analyzed these ideologies through the lens of various Judeo-Christian myths (Messianism, millenarianism, eschatology), this dissertation demonstrate how revolutionary dreams were consciously animated by a different myth: the myth of the Golden Age, in one of its variants (such as Arcadia, Troy, Atlantis, or Hyperborea). Not only does this myth epitomize a socio-political ideal of which revolutionary theorists were conscious, it also constitutes the meta-myth of all mythology, as it encapsulates the time and place when gods and humans intermingled, i.e., when mythical narratives unfolded. Because the political and spiritual representations of the Golden Age shared numerous characteristics, the two easily merged. In this manner, revolutionaries drew heavily on mythological inferences, calling on myths to fill in their pictures of a future utopia. This mythological dimension is most visible in revolutionary culture. During the French Revolution, for instance, ancient myths were invoked to authorize cultural institutions, religious worship, and even political systems. But the notion of revolutionary culture can also be extended to extra-revolutionary artistic productions and social practices (such as Masonry and the Carbonari): in a second part, I analyze the interplay between Romantic representations of revolution (Blake, Novalis, Shelley, Nerval, Sand) and the revolutionary ideologies of the 1830's and 1840's (Saint-Simonianism, Pierre Leroux, Proudhon, the young Marx). It was revolutionary culture, I argue, that disseminated, popularized, but also transformed revolutionary theories: here, the spiritual, sometimes magical, dimension of the Golden Age dreams was given special significance. These occult reworkings of the revolutionary faith ultimately produced the most horrific ideology of the twentieth-century, Nazism; the desire for Elysian fields thus led to the killing fields. This dissertation thus illustrates how the revolutionary faith kindled the cult of the occult in modernity.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|European history|Romance literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Edelstein, Dan, "Restoring the Golden Age: Mythology in revolutionary ideologies and culture" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125810.