Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Course the Nations Run

There’s a fine irony in the fact that most of the modern thinkers who’ve tried to grapple with the history of human consciousness have fallen into exactly the sort of uncritical embrace of industrial civilization’s worldview I critiqued in last month’s post. I could cite any number of examples, some of whom will probably be familiar names to my readers. The one I want to discuss just now, though, is a little less widely known; his name was Owen Barfield, and he was a peripheral member of the Inklings, the Oxford literary club that orbited the twin stars of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the years before and during the Second World War.

Those of my readers who are familiar with Barfield’s short but fascinating 1957 book Saving the Appearances will have recognized that something like half the points I made in this blog’s first two posts are restatements or reworkings of the arguments from that book’s first chapters. The crucial difference, of course, is that Barfield deployed those arguments in the service of exactly the claim I rejected in last month’s post:  the notion that our habitual ways of constructing the world in modern industrial civilization have some kind of privileged place in human history.

To give him credit, Barfield didn’t fall into the sort of simplistic thinking you so often get from today’s scientific pseudoskeptics, the boneheaded literalism that treats the highly idiosyncratic modern way of constructing the world as though it were objective reality as such.  He started, as I’ve done, from the fact—proven repeatedly by modern science—that the world we experience is constructed by our minds out of the raw material of sensation, which itself is a bundle of electrochemical reactions set off by a literally unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time. He then argued that a sort of half-conscious awareness of the participation of the mind in the world that it experiences is the normal condition of human consciousness, and was universal in prehistoric times.

Now it deserves to be pointed out right here that we have precisely no idea how people’s minds worked in the prehistoric past, for much the same reason that nobody’s yet managed the cognitive testing of allosaurs I joked about in last month’s post. It’s been fashionable for a couple of centuries now for people in the industrial world to think of cultures with less sophisticated technologies than ours as living fossils of our own past—to say, for example, that hunter-gatherer tribes in today’s world are “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you.  That’s very popular nonsense these days, but it’s still nonsense; the hunter-gatherer peoples still clinging to existence in isolated corners of the planet are just as much a part of the world of 2014 as you and I, and just as many millennia have reshaped their cultures and consciousness since the end of the last Ice Age as have reshaped ours.

So we don’t actually know whether human beings in prehistoric times shared a common condition of consciousness.  Nor is it reasonable to assume that this same condition is also to be found in today’s less technologically complex societies—or, more exactly, in the distinctly biased interpretations made by early twentieth century European ethnologists of the thinking of what were then still labeled “inferior” or “savage” peoples, on which Barfield based his argument. Nor, for that matter, is it justifiable to take those same speculations and apply them to every civilization in human history before ancient Greece and the ancient Hebrews, and skip over a great deal of documentary evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and so on, in order to make this claim stick. I’m sorry to say that this is what Barfield did, though it’s only fair to admit that it was a common enough mistake among European intellectuals in his time.

There’s an additional wrinkle in Barfield’s argument, though. This hypothetical common condition of consciousness in prehistoric times, which he called “original participation,” isn’t simply a vague sense of the participation of the human mind in constructing the world of experience. It also includes the sense that when human beings look out at the world of experience, the world of experience is looking back at them. To Barfield, original participation is a state of consciousness in which the world is full of living, conscious presences who aren’t us. He toys with a variety of terms for this view, but his last word—literally the last word in the book—is this:  “the other name for original participation, in all its long-hidden, in all its diluted forms, in science, in art and in religion, is, after all—paganism.”

Oh, the horror! And of course that’s exactly the point. Barfield was a Christian philosopher, and like a certain class of Christian philosophers, he was concerned to discourage people from checking out the competition. He also shared a belief, common to many Protestant thinkers, that the presence of life, mind, and meaning anywhere in the cosmos outside of human brains somehow risks distracting people from God. Thus, as Barfield explains in the last chapter of Saving the Appearances, what makes the scientific revolution important in human evolution was that it finished the job of freeing us all from slavery to original participation, so that we could finally realize that the cosmos is actually dead, mindless and meaningless, and any life, mind and meaning we find in it are all put there by us.

Or, rather, they’re put there by man. Barfield makes a point of insisting that the collective noun “man” isn’t simply an abstraction, but that this being called man has his own history, which is distinct from that of individual men (and presumably individual women as well, though he doesn’t get around to mentioning them in his argument). Man’s journey up from his early bondage to original participation, in Barfield’s view,  is destined to pass through our unparticipated scientific state of consciousness until, taken up by Christ into God, man consciously and freely puts meaning into a wholly inert and passive cosmos under some sort of divine guidance  This state of affairs Barfield calls “final participation,” and it’s his abstract but explicitly labeled version of the New Jerusalem, just as original participation is his Eden, complete with pagan snake.

I’ll have something to say about this being called “man” a little later on in this post, and I’ll have quite a bit to say in future posts about the biophobia and noophobia, the stark shivering terror of life and mind, which industrial civilization inherited from certain trends within historic Christianity and has deployed in a variety of more or less secular forms ever since. Here, though, I want to focus on a different point, which is that the odd historical gaps and evasions that run all through Saving the Appearances probably aren’t there by accident. Behind Barfield’s book looms the shadow of a considerably more significant thinker, whose ideas are the foundations on which the argument of Saving the Appearances is built, whose conclusions that argument is pretty clearly meant to refute, and whose name, curiously enough, Barfield never mentions in that context at all.

Giambattista Vico was a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Though it’s generally conceded by scholars these days, to borrow a phrase of Anthony Grafton’s, that “Vico bestrides the modern social sciences and humanities like a colossus,” he spent his life in comparative obscurity, and his most important book—Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, which is usually and understandably abbreviated to The New Science—is far more often mentioned than read. Those of my readers who might consider turning its pages should probably be warned in advance that it has nothing explicit to say about magic at all, and it takes close study and reflection to catch the revolutionary insights it offers into the nature of magic and the history of human consciousness.

Those insights came from a simple but crucial recognition. In his studies of poetry, rhetoric, and law, Vico noticed again and again that the cultural products of the oldest strata of Greek and Roman culture had many features in common with equivalents from the post-Roman dark ages, and that the trajectory from those beginnings followed the same patterns. He noted, for example, that the oldest Roman and Greek law codes, like the oldest law codes from dark age Europe, were simple lists of crimes and their punishments—“if a man steals a loaf of bread, let him be beaten twelve times with a birch stick”—and that each legal tradition proceeded from these utterly concrete beginnings into greater and greater levels of  abstraction, finally culminating in an elaborate theory of law. He noted similarly that the Greek epic poetry traditionally attributed to Homer has an enormous amount in common with such early medieval works as The Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied, and that classical and European literature both went through similar transformations on the way to the abstract, reflective, mannered prose that his age shared with, say, the prose authors of the early Roman Empire.

The crucial point, to Vico, was that the passage away from what Barfield called original participation and he called the heroic mind was not a journey that all of humanity makes together. It was a journey that each human society traces out in its own arc through time.  The modern world, far from filling the role of grand turning point of the ages that its cheerleaders so often assign it, is simply one more example of what Vico calls “the course the nations run,” going through the usual stages in the usual order on its way toward the usual end.

That end, as my readers will probably have guessed already, is not Barfield’s final participation, though the two concepts have certain wry parallels. Vico was as devout a Christian as Barfield, but he rejected Barfield’s notion—which is of course far from unique to Barfield—that the workings of salvation somehow have to be shoehorned into the course of ordinary history. To him, theology was one thing and history was something else entirely. In words that had a certain degree of fame a few generations back, Vico refused to immanentize the eschaton: to confuse, that is, the supernatural entities studied by Christian theology with the material and historical realities of life in this world. The idea that historical changes in consciousness would bring about the arrival of the New Jerusalem was as absurd, to his way of thinking, as the claim that somebody could draw the abstract idea of a circle on paper with a pen.

Thus the endpoint of the historical process as Vico understood it was not the transcendence of history but a return to the common starting point. To see how this works, and begin the process of applying it to the work of the operative mage, it’s helpful to extract Vico’s thought from its original eighteenth-century metaphors and follow his cycle in twenty-first-century terms.

Imagine, then, the survivors of the collapse of a civilization—not a fast collapse, since this would leave them with all the mental furniture of their former society, but the long and ragged arc of decline and fall that’s the standard mode of collapse in actual history.  Our survivors, as they huddle together in whatever makeshift shelters they’ve been able to contrive, haven’t simply lost the material trappings of the fallen civilization. They’ve also shed the philosophies, sciences, and ways of understanding the world that the dead civilization developed, partly because educational and cultural institutions are usually among the first things to go when a civilization begins to implode, partly because watching a civilization wreck itself doesn’t exactly inspire trust in its habitual ways of thought. As the survivors have children, and the children grow to adulthood in a harsh and mostly empty landscape, the last scraps of the old civilization’s way of understanding the world give way to something new.

The realities that define the postcollapse world, Vico points out, are not conceptual abstractions but concrete sensory experiences. Those are the things that matter. Abstract theories of law that presuppose vanished social institutions and conditions don’t matter; what matters is setting up clear and specific rules that anyone can learn and follow: “if a man steals a loaf of bread, let him be beaten twelve times with a birch stick.”  Abstract rational theories about how the world works don’t matter; what matter are clear, lively, memorable narratives in which colorful figures act out the things that people need to know—and since it’s much easier to memorize speech if it’s full of rhythms and repeated sounds, the myths and legends that emerge from this process are always transmitted in the form of poetry. Three themes—religion, marriage, and the burial or other disposal of the dead—become the anchors around which communities coalesce, because these define, in concrete, sensory terms, the relationships that matter: religion, the relationship with the nonhuman environment; marriage, the relationship with mating and children, and thus with the future; burial, the relationship with ancestors and thus with the past.

Over time, as communities begin to prosper and interact with one another, the concrete and sensory becomes the foundation on which the first reappearance of abstract reasoning begins to build. Vico devotes many of his pages to showing how that process works out in the political development of societies, and we can let those examples pass for the present. The point that matters here is that abstract conceptual thinking starts out as a way of expanding and embroidering the original stock of concrete sensory experiences that define the new culture’s world; as social conditions change and education becomes more general, it shifts focus to that of explaining traditional images that no longer quite make sense; finally, the rising conflict between image and abstraction is settled in favor of abstract rationality, and the society has its Enlightenment, enters on its Age of Reason, and begins to suffer from the liability discussed in last month’s post, the confusion between culturally acceptable representations and the reality they represent that eventually brings the society down in flames.

Thus, in Vico’s scheme, each civilization passes through three broad and loosely defined ages in the course of its history. He borrowed a scheme from classical literature, and called these the Age of Gods, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Men: gods, because religion is the dominant social force in the first age; heroes, because aristocracies that claim descent from heroic forebears are the dominant social force in the second age; men, because humanity in the mass becomes the dominant social force in the third age. The first age begins in what Vico calls “the barbarism of sense,” a state of cultural and mental chaos in which the concrete sensory images that fill consciousness haven’t yet been brought into a meaningful relationship to one another; the third age ends in what he calls “the barbarism of reflection,” a state of cultural and mental chaos in which the abstract intellectual concepts that fill consciousness are no longer brought into a meaningful relationship with one another. Put another way, the cycle of history as Vico understands it begins in brutality and ends in madness.

As noted above, though, the barbarism of reflection, the madness at the cycle’s end, has an ironic similarity to Barfield’s final participation. In the twilight of what Vico calls the Age of Men, the rising flood of abstraction makes it harder and harder for people to recognize that the world and its contents might have any meaning or value other than what certain human beings, on the basis of one abstract consideration or another, happen to want to assign them. This has certain predictably horrific results. When the barbarism of sense reigns, a band of warriors can slaughter the inhabitants of a village out of sheer raw bloodlust; when the cycle swings around to the barbarism of reflection, a village, an ethnic group, or the population of an entire country can be exterminated because a midlevel bureaucrat somewhere, without the least trace of passion or any sense that moral issues might be involved in the process, signs a directive that renders their continued existence null and void.

That’s not the outcome Barfield seems to be imagining when he discusses final participation, to be sure. Still, it’s far from uncommon for the fantasies of intellectuals to work out in a sense much less pleasant than they anticipated, once they’re applied to the world of everyday experience, and now and again it’s possible to use Vico’s kind of logic and recognize when a common mistake is about to be made for the umpteenth time. When Barfield talks about man as a being distinct from people, and claims that man puts meaning into the world, that sounds like a harmless abstraction, but this particular abstraction is one of the classic places where the lie wriggles in and rots the apple from skin to core.

If those who don’t believe in the existence of a god are atheists, I must be an ananthropist; I don’t believe in the existence of man. I have no doubt whatsoever about the existence of people, of the whole motley assortment of our species, but I don’t believe that there’s a being called “man” who is distinct from people, and can engage in such actions as putting meaning into the world all by himself. One of the reasons I don’t believe in this alleged being is that whenever some ideology talks about man doing this or that, what that means in practice is that some specific person or group of people get to take on that role, and a great many other people get excluded from it, usually to their serious disadvantage.  

I hope I don’t have to list examples from the history of the last century or two to show how often the claim that man and man alone puts meaning into the world turns out to involve horrific consequences to whomever man’s self-appointed spokesmen don’t happen to like. Of course that same habit of assigning meaning to the world on the basis of abstract considerations rather than close observation of what actually seems to be happening also tends to impose serious consequences of its own: when those who claim man’s right to decide what matters don’t happen to notice that infinite material growth on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster, for example, it’s a safe bet that an Age of Men is going to give way to a new Age of Gods in fairly short order.

All this may help to explain why it is that the magical traditions of the world, especially those that emerge or revive in the latter phases of Vico’s cycle in each civilization, tend to insist so forcefully on exactly that sense of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos Barfield insisted that humanity had to jettison. Is this sense of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos something that we put into the mix in the process of constructing our worlds? Of course—but so is the opposite sense of the cosmos as dead, mindless, and meaningless. Neither the presence nor the absence of life, mind, and meaning in the cosmos is given to us in the raw materials of experience; both are essentially arbitrary, culturally determined ways of assembling the raw material of sensation into the representation or mental construct that each of us calls “the world.”

It’s one of the more common modern form of doublethink, as I commented in a previous post, to allow that of course the universe we experience is a mental construct rather than an objective reality, and then to turn right around and insist that some currently popular features of that mental construct—the deadness, mindlessness, and meaninglessness of the cosmos, for example—are objectively real truths, while features of mental constructs that our culture doesn’t encourage—the presence of life, mind, and meaning in the nonhuman cosmos, for instance—are just plain wrong. We’ll be contending with that sort of doublethink over and over again as this discussion continues.

For now, I’ll simply point out that experiencing the world as a community of living and thinking beings leads to one set of behaviors and attitudes toward the rest of the universe, while quite a different set of behaviors and attitudes follows from experiencing the world as a dead and mindless mass of raw material that has only whatever meaning and value certain human beings choose to give it. Which of those behaviors is more useful in the present predicament of industrial society is another point worth considering, and we’ll be discussing it, too, as these posts proceed.