Monday, September 22, 2014

The Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Dragon

Last month’s post explored the modes of consciousness that blossom and fade at different stages in the rise and fall of civilizations. I want to go a little more deeply into those modes, because they have a great deal to teach about how magic works, and also about why it is that magic reliably falls out of fashion at a certain point in the historical cycle, and comes back in from exile at another point later on.

In order to pursue that exploration fruitfully, though, a couple of points need to be sorted out in advance. First of all, it’s crucial to get away from a certain bad habit of thinking that Vico and Barfield, the writers surveyed in last month’s post, both imposed on history: the notion that we can know what human consciousness was like at the very beginning of things. What the ancient Egyptians called the First Time exerts an extraordinary magnetism on the human imagination, and can make it very easy to forget just how long our species has been on this planet, and just how many changes it  passed through before its earliest historical traces first come within our view.

Vico and Barfield both lost track of that, and claimed to be able to see how human beings must have thought in the First Time. Both of them, to be fair, had reasons for that mistake. Vico lived before modern geology had broken the grip of Biblical literalism, and the best historical scholarship accessible to him indicated that the world was less than six thousand years old. Given that assumption, it was entirely reasonable for him to assume that Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations were literally the first ever to arise on Earth, excepting only the antediluvian culture described early on in the Book of Genesis; the fact that he was dead wrong thus really wasn’t his fault.

Barfield’s case was somewhat more complex. By his time some sense of the real age of humanity and the planet had become fairly widespread, but ethnology and anthropology in the years when his ideas were formed still insisted on a linear model of cultural evolution every bit as rigid as the Biblical scheme that Vico used. In 19th and early 20th century European scholarship, all human societies, ancient and modern, were assigned fixed places along a line of progress that led straight up to modern white European men. In this scheme, all of the tribal societies in what’s now the Third World were put at the bottom, lumped in together with Neanderthals and the like, and sweeping pronouncements about “the primitive mind”—always in the singular—were drawn up on wholly ethnocentric grounds and imposed on every society, and every person, who had been assigned to the lowest rung of the ladder.

That imaginary “primitive mind” is the source of Barfield’s “original participation;” the ethnologists he cited in the pages of Saving the Appearances accepted the scheme I’ve just outlined, and so did he.  That’s why, for example, he took cultural categories that don’t make sense in 20th century English terms—to name one of his examples, a special relation between a white cockatoo and the sun that was in some sense more important than the relation between a white cockatoo and a black one—as evidence that the people who thought that way must be engaged in some strange, primitive, pagan kind of thinking. Had he been so minded, he could have used this same example as evidence for just how powerfully the process of figuration shapes the universe of our experience, and just how arbitrary some of the culturally constructed aspects of human figurations can be; he could then have applied that logic to the habitual figurations of 20th century Englishmen, with useful results.

But he was not so minded. He was committed to a linear view of history, and in particular to the kind of linear view, still very popular today, that placed modern industrial humanity as the vanguard of the species, moving ahead of anyone else through the gateway that led to the final consummation of human destiny. By definition, therefore, every other culture has to be somewhere back along the route that leads to us, and no other culture could possibly have gotten to where we are before we did. That landed him in difficulties we don’t need to discuss here; the crucial point is that his “original participation” is a phantom, a projection of ethnocentric misunderstandings on the inkblot patterns of the distant past.

The same is true of every attempt to imagine the way human beings thought and felt and understood the world more than five thousand years ago. The stunning diversity of the human cultures that have risen and fallen during the relatively brief window since writing was invented should warn us against any attempt to impose a rigid scheme on the hundreds of millennia of forgotten societies before that time. Somewhere back there, a very long time ago, our ancestors evolved out of some older species of hominid which may not have had spoken language as we know it; somewhere even further back, the hominid lineage itself evolved out of something not that different from chimpanzees. We don’t know, and almost certainly will never know, anything about the stages and transformations of consciousness that accompanied that immense and prolonged process of evolutionary change.

Thus any description of what human consciousness was like in the early days of our species is a fable, not a fact. That’s one thing that has to be understood to make sense of the cycles I hope to describe here. The other thing that has to be grasped is that any description of where humanity is heading, along the lines of Barfield’s “final participation,” is equally fabulous. There’s a definite point to such fables, and it’s been traditional for a good long time to use them as a teaching tool in occult schools, but it always needs to be remembered—to quote a famous passage from Dion Fortune’s contribution to the genre—that these things are intended “to train the mind, not to inform it.” 

The habit of mistaking fables for facts, and thinking that their value depends entirely on their truth or lack of same, is a common barrier to understanding what they have to teach. Often, furthermore, it’s a deliberate barrier, meant to function as what one of my teachers irreverently called a “flake filter,” a device for chasing off people who aren’t suited to occult training. It so happens that the same purposes can be accomplished by narratives that can inform as well as train the mind, and it’s been my repeated experience as a teacher of these matters that “flake filters” are easier to find than they once were—in particular, expecting students to study and understand a few dozen pages of text about, say, the shape of time is usually quite adequate. That’s why I’ve chosen to use the ordinary cycles of history as the frame for these essays, and why I plan on using the ordinary workings of ecology as a similar frame in a related context—but that’s a discussion for another time.

The key to the magical dimension of historical cycles lies in a detail of history that Vico and Barfield both grasped firmly: the fact that human beings don’t think the same way at one stage in the historical process as they do at other stages. Barfield’s claim was that all of humanity passes through a single process of change in consciousness, starting with his hypothesized “original participation” and ending in his equally hypothetical “final participation.” Vico’s, far more troubling to the modern mind, was that each nation goes through predictable changes in consciousness, and that modern societies are repeating the same stages that can be traced in the classical world. It’s always possible to claim that Barfield is right on the largest scale, since it’s possible to claim anything at all about that without risk of disproof, but in terms of time frames that are subject to verification, the facts support Vico instead.

There are various ways to talk about “the course the nations run,” the cycle of consciousness through which each society passes over the course of its history, but I’m going to use a few of Vico’s own examples here. As mentioned earlier, the earliest law codes in any civilization are specific, concrete lists of crimes and their punishments.  The final law codes in any civilization you care to name are intricately crafted tissues of abstract reasoning. That movement from the concrete to the abstract, from the richly sensory image to the richly intellectual concept, is among the consistent features of the history of a civilization—and so is the collapse of abstraction in the final era of a civilization and its replacement by a newly concrete consciousness rooted, once again, in sensory images.

The movement from concrete to abstract consciousness that both Vico and Barfield understood in their own ways, and it’s one of the things that makes Barfield’s Saving the Appearances and his works on the history of language worth reading despite the Procrustean bed of linear time into which he forces his data. Take any word in modern English that has an abstract connotation—for example the word “abstract” itself. English got that word from Latin, and in Latin, its original sense is clear: ab- is a prefix meaning “from, away from, out of,” and traho is a verb meaning “to pull.” (A tractor, similarly, is something that pulls.)  An abstraction is thus a set of perceptions that have been pulled out of their original setting amid the other details of everyday life, and turned into a concept. Put another way—and this will be crucial for our further work—an abstraction is a model of experience, created by cherrypicking certain features of that experience and treating those as the things that matter, while dismissing every other feature as secondary or irrelevant.

That’s a necessary process. As Aristotle pointed out indirectly a very long time ago, human beings reason in categories, and the process of figuration discussed in earlier posts is largely a way of fitting the data of human sensation into whatever set of categories the individual in question has inherited from his or her biological, cultural, and personal past. Still, not all concepts are created equal. There are some concepts that are very close to sensory experience—“child,” “tree,” “sun,” “walk,” “quickly,” all refer back to things that can be perceived directly by the senses and can be called to mind in the form of clear mental images:  that is, representations in the mind of remembered or imagined sensory experiences, visual or otherwise. There are also concepts that are much further away from sensory experience—“meaning,” “relationship,” “therefore,” “existence,” “consciousness” all refer to concepts assembled from other concepts, categories of categories.

We can call the first kind concrete concepts, and the second abstract concepts. There’s a continuum connecting them, created by repeated abstraction—that is to say, repeated construction of categories that moves further away from the concrete experience at its root. “Sally,” “girl,” “human,” “primate,” “mammal,” “animal,” and “life” are all descriptions of the same child playing in a sandbox; each movement further into abstraction allows something to be said about wider and wider circles of other concrete phenomena, which is what gives abstract thinking its power; at the same time, it allows less and less to be said accurately about those phenomena, which is what gives abstract thinking its vulnerability to delusion.

Now it so happens, as already pointed out, that civilizations start out thinking in concrete concepts. That’s true of their law codes and their literature, their political institutions and their practical arts, and every other dimension of their lives. In the earliest stage, the stage Vico called the barbarism of sense, those concrete concepts aren’t related to one another in any compelling way, and the result is chaos—mental chaos, but also cultural, social, and political chaos, because people who can’t assemble a meaningful world in their heads aren’t going to be able to do so in any more concrete sense either.

What puts an end to the barbarism of sense is the emergence of a pattern that reduces the cognitive chaos to order: not an abstract pattern, as the capacity for abstraction is just beginning to develop within the newborn culture, but a set of concrete mental representations charged with emotional force. The social form that gives context of this emergent pattern is a religion—one could as well say that the religion is the emergent pattern. North of the Mediterranean, for example, the representations around which a new society crystallized in the wake of Rome were the core images of Christianity.  Images, not abstract concepts: what mattered in the post-Roman chaos was not abstract theology but the tremendous images of God born in a stable, wandering with his disciples in Galilee and Judea, dying a brutal death on the cross, emerging alive from the grave, and rising miraculously into the sky.

Thinking in the early stage of a civilization always centers on some such set of emotionally charged representations that bring order to the cognitive chaos of a fallen civilization. Such thinking differs in important ways from the sort of thinking that’s common nowadays, or more generally in the last centuries of any civilization. We think abstractly, analytically, sorting out our perceptions into one or another scheme of categories; people in dark ages think concretely, synthetically, relating their perceptions to one or another set of compelling images. Thus it never occurred to medieval authors to suggest that Christmas should be celebrated at the time of year when shepherds in Judea actually keep watch in the fields, as the Biblical narrative specifies.  To the medieval mind, the birth of Christ and the winter solstice, when the first slight northward movement of the sun’s apparent path in the sky announces the return of light and life to the world, belong so self-evidently to the same synthetic pattern of imagery that mere history had no power to separate them.

The transition from the numinous, emotionally charged images that surround a civilization’s cradle to the finely wrought but passionless abstractions that gather around its deathbed takes place, broadly speaking, in three stages. It so happens that very often, those three stages are assigned distinct names by historians, which makes the process easy to trace. In the modern Western world, those three stages are called the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Era; in the history of ancient Greece, they were the Archaic period, the Classical period, and the Hellenistic period, and so on. I propose to give them more general names, and since this is a blog about occult philosophy, I don’t propose to limit myself to the sort of dry nomenclature historians think they have to use these days.  The names I’ll use for these periods are the time of the Unicorn, the time of the Phoenix, and the time of the Dragon.

Let’s take them one at a time. The unicorn, as I trust all my readers know, is the most elusive of beasts as well as the most magical. It moves silently through the greenwood, leaving only the very occasional mark of its cloven hooves to tantalize hunters, charcoal burners, and stray princesses. Here it represents the first phase of the life cycle of a civilization, which is similarly reticent about leaving records and other detailed traces in the soil of history, and is similarly full of magic. Unicorn Time is the age when emotionally charged representations of the sort just described dominate human consciousness, and as at least some of my readers will have guessed, such representations are central to the art of magic.

The phoenix is also a magical beast, but it is far less silent and elusive. There is only one phoenix at a time, and after a lifespan of five centuries or so, it builds a great nest in one of the desert cities of Egypt or Arabia, fashioning it out of scented woods and resins. Once it has finished the nest, it settles into it and waits for the rising of the Sun, which ignites the nest and burns nest and phoenix alike to ashes. In the ashes appears a worm, which eventually becomes the next phoenix. Phoenix Time is the age when concrete representations and abstract concepts are both strongly present in human consciousness, interpenetrate each other, and produce an exuberant cultural and intellectual flowering, which promptly burns itself out in a most phoenix-like fashion and gives way to the next phase.

The dragon is not a magical beast, except insofar as it enjoys adding magical objects to its hoard. In theory, a dragon could do just about anything it happens to want to do, but in practice, what it wants to do is gather a great heap of treasure and lie on it, sleeping or drowsily counting and sorting every last gold coin. It is a truly fearsome beast in its prime, capable of gulping down any number of second-string heroes, but despite the claims of certain popular songs, dragons don’t live forever, and sooner or later someone is going to leap boldly past the flames and drive a sharp point into its heart. Dragon Time is the age when abstract concepts, heaped up like gold in a dragon’s hoard, dominate human consciousness and suppress magic—for a time.

Take a few minutes to think about these three mythological images, and to relate them to the historical periods to which I’ve assigned them; among other things, you might just begin to grasp some sense of the power of emotionally charged mental representations as a tool of thinking. A unicorn has nothing abstract in common with the Middle Ages, say, or the Archaic period of ancient Greece, or the comparable periods in the histories of every other civilization: the heroic age, the age of legend and myth, where facts hide themselves in the deep forests and only the occasional track of a story or a place name shows where they passed by. Connect the two in your imagination, call upon the unicorn as a means of evocation, and you’ll find that certain aspects of the medieval experience are easier to grasp and remember than they otherwise would be.

Such representations and their effects on consciousness, as already noted, are central to the art of magic. That’s why magic always flourishes in a Unicorn age, intellectualizes itself in a Phoenix age, falls into disrepute in a Dragon age, and then springs up again with renewed vigor as the Dragon perishes on the Unicorn’s horn. Religion follows much the same trajectory, and for much the same reason: the meanings at the heart of religion are easy to communicate by way of emotionally charged concrete representations, and all but impossible to communicate by way of abstract concepts. Magic and religion are thus both dismissed as nonsense at the zenith of the Dragon’s reign, because neither one makes sense to minds that are trained solely in abstract modes of thinking.

Interestingly enough, that difficulty doesn’t work both ways. Concrete representations are inclusive to the point of tolerating incoherence—you can take things that are mutually contradictory and relate them to the same mental image without any sense of contradiction—while abstract concepts are exclusive precisely because they demand rational coherence. Thus the image of the world in Unicorn Time tends to be complete but inconsistent, while the image of the world in Dragon Time is consistent but incomplete:  the monks of the Middle Ages, for example, had no difficulty making logic a part of their curriculum of study, while many scientists today can be reduced to spluttering fury by the mere suggestion that anything outside the strictest canon of rationalism has any value at all. The flexibility inherent in the monks’ attitude is one reason why Unicorn Time sees civilizations rise, just as the rigidity in that of the scientists is one reason why Dragon Time sees them fall.

A crucial shift in focus underlies this distinction.  The characteristic thinking of every civilization’s Dragon Time becomes far more concerned with the relationship of abstractions to each other than it is with the relationship of those abstractions to the world of concrete experience. Where gaps open up between abstraction and experience, in turn, the thinkers of the latter years of Dragon Time tend to be more interested in explaining away the gaps than they are in adjusting the abstractions.  A corpus of standard arguments typically evolves to help believers in the currently accepted set of abstractions argue away any experiences that might fail to do what they’re told.

Our age is as well equipped with such a corpus as any Dragon Time has ever been. In next month’s post, we’ll examine some of the standard arguments, as a prelude to the next phase of our exploration into occult philosophy.