The Revolution Will Not Be Published

I just finished reading Joseph Campbell’s compelling third volume of The Masks of God.  I have not read the other three volumes, although the second volume is waiting patiently on my shelf; nor have I read any of his other books.  There is so much material covered in the third volume alone, from prehistoric European culture to Zoroastrianism to Islam to medieval Christianity, Babylonian mythology and the rise of Israel. And these are related to the patterns of world religion that have emerged throughout the world and that receive greater explanation in the previous two volumes, which cover primitive mythology and Oriental mythology (East Asia, India, and Egypt), respectively.

Not having read his other works, nor being an expert in mythology, I should probably be more hesitant to venture any opinions about his work or use it as a basis upon which to venture opinions on other matters, but I have had a lot of caffeine today, and nothing can stop me now, despite Nietzsche’s warnings about coffee and wannabe philosophers.

Campbell’s argument rests in no small degree on the proposition that the ancient world, in nearly every corner, shared a common set of mythological symbols that were readily understandable across cultures.  These interpretations were, however, neither static nor uniform.  Economic, scientific, and political changes generated new interpretations, rebellions against the established traditions and authority, as well as assimilation of foreign myths and competing formulations.

In the modern world, we tend to think ideologically, philosophically, scientifically, rationally, or we like to think we do.  Part of our modern mythology is that we have been freed from or are in the process of freeing ourselves from ghosts, goblins, and gods.  There has been a kind of psychic break in the West, where the myths are simply impenetrable and ridiculous to us, although they occasionally bear literary merit.  The strength of the grip of this mythological mindset came as quite a shock to me when I first came to Asia, despite all of my best attempts to read up on Confucius, Laozi, Buddhism, and Hinduism in years prior.

This mindset seems quite robust closer to home, as well.  The Islamic world has reacted violently, for lack of a better word, to modernity, as has Christianity.  There are certainly plenty of “moderate” adherents to both faiths who claim that their respective religions and religion in general can be quite compatible with modernity, so long as the founding myths are reduced to insignificance and the faith in question is reduced to “love”, or more precisely, humanitarianism.  In our age of social democracy, religion has become quite useful in this guise.

Unfortunately, however, there are a number of backward, reactionary extremists.  Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Pastor Jones down in Florida, Osama bin Laden, President Ahmadinejad and so forth.  These people are motivated by bigotry, hate, or (with condescending generosity) ignorance.  Ironically, I am myself on the opposite extreme, somewhere in the neighborhood of Christopher Hitchens, although I have not read his book God is Not Great, since I am already convinced of the fact.  Having grown up in one of these fundamentalist cults as a youth and having dallied in Buddhism in Asia, words cannot express my antipathy for religion, whether fire and brimstone or gentle smiles and selflessness.  In some ways, the gentle smiles and selflessness are more sinister and insidious.

Nevertheless, I have a kind of grudging respect for these radical religious movements, so long as I can view them from a distance and not be in danger of falling under their power, because they are in many ways a reaction to the utter vacuity of modern life.  Jacques Barzun, author of From Dawn to Decadence, does not use language as strong as that to describe the end cycle of modernity, but he points to the ennui of our age and the breakdown of artistic expression that became evident in the years immediately approaching the First World War.  Like Barzun, we cannot view this degeneration in a simply negative light.  Within this decay there are new modes of expression germinating that will bring about a new culture; the decay itself is inevitable when a culture loses its reason for living.

I suspect, however, that the impetus for this new culture will emerge from these radical, extremist movements.  It is these radical, backward sects that tend to maintain a sense of purpose, no matter how irrational, when the civilized world has descended into wisdom, moderation, and knowledge.  In the wake of Greco-Roman classical rationalism reemerged Indo-Iranian mysticism in the garb of Mithraism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, Judaism, and Christianity, not to mention a number of other sects in between.  This religious reaction swept over Europe, the Near East, and North Africa in the form of Christianity and later over the Middle East and swathes of Asia and Africa in the form of Islam.  Christendom was brought down not by the Renaissance and a return to classical rationalism, but by a burst of religious passion and mysticism that culminated in the Protestant Reformation.

In our age, however, what is there to react against?  If you are a libertarian or a conservative who believes in a limited state, there is certainly plenty to object to, but this is not a religious cause.  Libertarians tend to be so absorbed in the consciousness of their own individuality that it is almost impossible to imagine them sacrificing themselves in any number or for significant duration for their own cause.  They imagine themselves to be the true inheritors of the Founders, but the Founders were liberal republicans—although these words have lost their meaning in our age.

We have no state religion and, aside from some of the current hysteria, complete freedom of religion and speech.  I do not think that there is a reaction against statism or secularism, as such, brewing.  I think there is a reaction against the entire structure of society and civilization.  We have seen it in the quasi-religious movements of communism and fascism, but these lacked the existential oomph to win the day.

Campbell describes the recurring battle between prophet-poet-philosopher and priest.  The genuine poet, the one who mythologizes and creates—the ‘unacknowledged legislator of the world’—is in constant dialogue (if you will) with the fundamental forces of reality, whether that reality is conceived of as Nature or God or History or the Cosmos.  The priest is a mere administrator, one who claims authority from the revelations spawned by the poets of yore, but who is threatened by even the merest hint of new revelation.

In this secular age, our priesthood is the academicians.  A whole class of specialists and tinkerers who—were one of the Gospels to be submitted for publication in our day and age—would reject it for lack of verifiable references.  And, as someone who despises religion, who am I to object?  But, something of the depth of life has been lost in the uniformity of academic thought that pervades nearly every branch of science in the civilized world.  Among my fellow secularists, they are unable to react to religion outside of a bounded scientism.  In economics, you must master any number of arcane mathematical techniques in order to be considered a true scientist.  These academicians, with rare but notable exceptions, achieve their place in the caste by virtue of having spent a number of years saying as much as they can about as little as possible.  Once they gain admission to the caste, they then go about declaiming on as many subjects as possible on this thin sliver of erudition.  Thus do I read a professor of economics praise ancient Daoists for being free-market libertarians and criticize Platonists for being economically oblivious statists!

Our intellectual bureaucracy has sliced and diced up culture to such a degree that it has effectively ceded the field to these new prophets, who draw upon an ancient view of life that recognizes tradition, authority, mythology, prejudice, and inequality, and so forth.  They may be half-baked products of the modernity to which they react, but they draw on these myths and traditions that have become alien and barbaric to our secular, modern sensibilities but yet may contain truths we cannot bear to contemplate.  Perhaps we do not have inalienable rights.  Perhaps we are not equal.  Perhaps the individual doesn’t matter.  Perhaps “facts” are less important than “truth”.

There is at least one corner of the Islamic world that is violently opposed to the basic values of (Western) modernity.  As the stupidity of our socioeconomic and political system generates increased instability and we lose faith in our intellectual bureaucrats, do not be surprised to see religious revivals sweep over and convulse the world, as well as a host of preposterous ideas and assertions that hearken from a different age.


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