Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Curiosity does not have an especially good reputation, and one often finds the word coupled with “mere” so that “mere curiosity” can be elegantly dismissed as though beneath the dignity of the speaker, who can then go about his much more grand and august pursuits without the distraction of the petty, grubbing motivation of mere curiosity. There may be some connection between this disdainful attitude toward curiosity and the prevalent anti-intellectualism of western civilization, notwithstanding the fact that most of what is unique in this tradition is derived from the scientific spirit; it is no surprise that any driving force in human affairs eventually provokes an equal and opposite reaction.

Many civilizations that publicly value intellectuals do not value the contributions of intellectuals, so that this social prestige is indistinguishable from a kind of feudal regard for special classes of persons. This is not what happened in western civilization, in which scientific knowledge bestowed real wealth and power — in our own day no less than in the past — and so provoked a reaction. One of the most famous stories from classical antiquity was how Thales, predicting an especially good olive harvest, hired all the olive presses at a low rate out of season, and then let them out at inflated rates during the peak season, proving that philosophers could earn money if they wanted to do so.

There are a great many interesting quotes that invoke curiosity, for better or worse — Thomas Hobbes: “…this hope and expectation of future knowledge from anything that happeneth new and strange, is that passion which we commonly call ADMIRATION; and the same considered as appetite, is called CURIOSITY, which is appetite of knowledge.” Edmund Burke: “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — which highlight both the admirable and the disreputable side of curiosity. That curiosity has both admirable and disreputable aspects suggests that one might be admirably curious or disreputably curious, and certainly all of us know individuals who are curious in the best sense of the term and others who are curious in the worst sense of the term.

Human beings are adventurers of the spirit. We must count among the attributes of human nature some basal drive toward questioning. This drive could be given an exposition in purely intellectual terms or in purely emotional terms; I think that the intellectual and emotional manifestations of human curiosity are two sides of the same coin, and that is why I suggest positing some basal drive that lies at the root of both. And it isn’t quite right to reduce this drive to curiosity, as we can formulate it in terms of curiosity or in terms of need.

Curiosity is often contrasted to a presumably more esteemed mode of interrogating the cosmos, that we may call existential need. Jacob Needleman often addressed the contrast between “mere” curiosity (which he sometimes called “low curiosity”) and present need. Here is an example:

“It has been said that any question can lead to truth if it is an aching question. For one person it may be the question of life after death, for another the problem of suffering, the causes of war and injustice. Or it may be something more personal and immediate — a profound ethical dilemma, a problem involving the whole direction of one’s life. An aching question, a question that it not just a curiosity or a fleeting burst of emotion, cannot be answered with old thought. Possessed by such a question, one is hungry for ideas of a very different order than the familiar categories that usually accompany us throughout our lives. One is both hungry and, at the same time, more discriminating, less susceptible to credulity and suggestibility. The intelligence of the heart begins to call to us in our sleep.”

Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, pp. 3-4

I disagree with this on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start, so instead I will simply say that the kind of existential need Needleman wants to describe is highly credulous and suggestible, and what answers to this need are almost always in the form of an old and painfully familiar form of cognitive bias. However, to try to do justice to Needleman, I will allow that, for an individual immersed in the ordinary business of life who, through some traumatic experience, suddenly comes face to face with profound and difficult questions never before posed in that individual’s experience, then, yes, ideas of a very different order are needed to address such questions.

While I do not think that aching questions are likely to lead to truth — I think it much more likely that they will lead to self-deception — I do not deny that many are gnawed by aching questions, and some few spend their lives trying to answer them. The question, then, is the best method by which an aching question might be given a clear, coherent, and satisfying (in so far as that is possible) answer. Here I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann:

“Nowhere is the disproportion between effort and result more aggravating than in the pursuit of truth: you may plow through documents or make untold experiments or think and think and think, forgo food, comfort, and distractions, lie awake nights and eat out your heart — and in the end you know what can be memorized by any idiot.”

Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, section 24

However aching our question, presumably we would want to spare ourselves the wasted effort of an inquiry that deprives us of the satisfactions of life while giving an answer that could be memorized by any idiot. Kaufmann did not go far enough here: sometimes individuals who make just such an heroic effort to get at the truth and only arrive at an idiot’s portion convince themselves that the idiot’s portion is in fact a great and profound truth.

Whether or not existential need can be satisfied, how are we to undertand it? Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and one of the founders of existential analysis, identified a condition that he called the existential vacuum, which he defined as, “the frustration of the will to meaning.” Frankl knew that of which he spoke, having lost most of his family to Nazi death camps and himself having been interned at Auschwitz and liberated only at the end of the war. Here, in a longer passage, is his exposition of existential need:

“Ever more patients complain of what they call an ‘inner void,’ and that is the reason why I have termed this condition the ‘existential vacuum.’ In contradistinction to the peak-experience so aptly described by Maslow, one could conceive of the existential vacuum in terms of an ‘abyss-experience’.”

Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, New York: Plume, 2014 (originally published in the US in 1969), Part Two, “The Existential Vacuum: A Challenge to Psychiatry”

One could readily suppose that existential need is occasioned by the existential vacuum; that the former is the condition and cause of the latter. Another and more recent approach to existential need is to be found in the work of James Giles:

“…existential needs are not the product of social construction. For in contrast to socially constructed phenomena, existential needs are an inherent and universal feature of the human condition.”

James Giles, The Nature of Sexual Desire, p. 181

This is not necessarily distinct from existential need occasioned by Frankl’s existential vacuum; one could formulate the existential vacuum so that it is either “an inherent and universal feature of the human condition” or not. And there may well be more than one form of existential need. In fact, I think it is clear that there is a plurality of existential needs, and some of these can be sublimated through scientific inquiry and can be satisfied, while some play out in the fruitless manner described in the passage above from Kaufmann.

How one approaches the mystery that is the world, by way of scientific curiosity or by way of existential need, which we might call the scientific approach and the existential approach, each reflect a valid human response to the individual’s relationship to the cosmos. Most of us, at some point in life, poignantly feel the mysteriousness of the world and the desire to give an account of our existence in relation to this mystery. Consider this from John Stuart Mill:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be…”

Now, John Stuart Mill was an almost preternaturally rational man; he was not given to flights of fancy, though the high-flown rhetoric of this passage might suggest this. The scientific approach to mystery is a rationalistic response to the riddle of the world; answers are to be had, but the world is boundless, so that any one answered question still leaves countless other unanswered questions. The growth of knowledge is attended by a parallel growth in the unknown, as our increasing knowledge makes it possible for us to formulate previously unsuspected questions. One might find this to be invigorating or disappointing: there are real answers, but we will never have a final understanding of the world. The existential approach to mystery acknowledges that the human mind may not be capable of comprehending the mystery that is the world, but this is coupled with a fervent belief that there is a final and transcendent answer out there somewhere, even if it always remains tantalizingly out of reach. These are subtle but important differences in the conception of “ultimate” truth as it relates human beings to their world.

A distinction might be made between scientific mystery and absolute mystery, with scientific mystery being a mystery that admits of an answer, but which also admits of a further mystery. An absolute mystery admits of no answer, nor of any further mystery. The world might take on the character of scientific mystery or of absolute mystery depending on whether we approach the world from the perspective of scientific curiosity or existential need. In other words, the kind of mystery that the world is — even if we all agree that the world is girt round in mystery, as Mill says — corresponds to our attitude to the world.

One could argue that scientific curiosity is a sublimation of existential need. If this is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of this, or to attempt a return to the original existential need. The passage from existential need to scientific curiosity may be a stage in the development of intellectual maturity, as irreversible as the passage from childhood to adulthood.

One might go a step further and call scientific curiosity the secularization of existential need (or, rather, the secularization of religious mystery, which then invites a treatment in terms of the Max Scheler/Paul Tillich claim that all human beings are engaged in worship, it is only a question of whether the object of this worship is worthy or idolatrous), recalling Karl Löwith’s theory of secularization, which made much of modernity into a bastardized form of Christian eschatology. This presupposes not only that existential need precedes scientific curiosity, but that it is the only authentic form of human questioning, and that any attempt to introduce new forms of questioning the human condition is illegitimate.

We are today faced with questions that our ancestors, who first felt the disconcerting stirrings of existential need, could not have imagined. I touched on one of these questions in my post on Centauri Dreams, Cosmic Loneliness and Interstellar Travel, which drew more responses than other of my other posts to that forum. Our cosmic loneliness can now be expressed in scientific terms, and we can offer a scientific response to our attempts so far to answer the question, “Are we alone?” This is one of the great scientific questions of our time, and at the same time it speaks to a modern existential need that has been expressed in Clark’s tertium non datur.

The growth of human knowledge and the civilization created by human knowledge may have its origins in the questioning that naturally emerges from an experience of existential need. Perhaps this feeling never fully dissipates, but in so far as the dissatisfaction and discontent of existential need can be redirected into scientific curiosity, human beings can experience at least a limited satisfaction derived from definite scientific answers to questions formulated with increasing clarity and rigor. Beyond this, we may have to wait for the next stage in human evolution, when we may acquire mental faculties that take us beyond both existential need and scientific curiosity into a frame of mind incomprehensible to us in our present iteration.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the Shadow of Civilization

28 September 2012


Submerged Civilizations: another species

An early modern depiction of a Viking temple from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) by Olaus Magnus.

to add to the zoo of civilizations

I have learned many valuable lessons from hostile criticism. It was Bertrand Russell’s criticism of Bergson (across several different books) that led me to read Bergson himself, and when I did so (mindful of Russell’s own advice that, “to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him”) I realized that even if all of Russell’s criticisms were technically true in the narrow sense, that none of them touched the spirit of Bergson’s philosophy. Like Russell, Walter Kaufmann was a master of the deftly-executed hatchet job, done with a clear conscience. By calling some of Kaufmann’s criticisms of other philosophers “hatchet jobs” I am not saying that they are wrong or illegitimate, I am only making a point about the spirit in which they are executed.

You will not be surprised to hear, then, that it was Walter Kaufmann’s essays on Toynbee that led me to read Toynbee, so I began my reading of Toynbee with Kaufmann’s criticisms ringing in my ears. Kaufmann took up Toynbee in the last two chapters of his From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Chapter 19 “Toynbee and Super-History” and Chapter 20 “Toynbee and Religion.” After you read these two chapters you are likely to feel dumbfounded that Toynbee had the temerity to publish such half-baked thoughts. There is, then, an element of incredulity involved when hostile criticism leads you to look up the original author to see what he really said.

Just as Russell was right about Bergson, Kaufmann was right about Toynbee, but i have still returned to Toynbee and found something of value — not all the baroque details of the exposition, and not even the grand schema of his thought, but the occasional idea, plucked out of context here and there. I have, in this manner, plucked many ideas out of Toynbee, who has proved to be a fertile source for ideas about the typology and classification of civilizations.

I have been explicit in my own criticism of Toynbee, as when I pointed out in Why We Are All Eskimos that Toynbee had it exactly backward when he classified Eskimos (and, more generally, nomadic hunter-gatherers of the far northern latitudes) as an “arrested civilization.” Nevertheless, I find the ideas of arrested civilizations (Eskimos and Polynesians for Toynbee) and abortive civilizations (Vikings and the “Celtic Fringe” of Irish Christianity in late antiquity and the early middle ages) to be quite useful and, indeed, enlightening. In coming to a comprehensive understanding of civilization, we also need to study the blind alleys of civilizations and sub-civilizational development.

Toynbee also discussed “fossil” civilizations (this seems to have particularly irritated Kaufmann) and another kind of civilization that he does not name or explicitly identify, but illustrates with an imaginative story:

“If Christendom had succumbed to the Vikings — falling under their domination and failing to convert them to its Faith — we can imagine the Mass being celebrated mysteriously for centuries in the underworld of a new society in which the prevailing religion was the worship of Aesir. We can also imagine this new society, as it grew in wisdom and stature, failing to find satisfaction in the religious heritage of the Scandinavian Völkerwanderung and seeking for the bread of spiritual life in the soil on which, when the Völkerwanderung had subsided, the new society had found rest for the sole of its foot. In such a spiritual famine the remnant of an older religion, instead of being stamped out as in our Western history witchcraft was stamped out when it caught the attention of the Church, might have been rediscovered as a hidden treasure; and some religious genius might have met the needs of his age by an exotic combination of the submerged Christian rite with latter-day barbarian orgies derived from the Finns or the Magyars.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 1, Part One, 1, C, I, b (p. 99 in my edition)

There are many features of this passage that perfectly illustrate the qualities of Toynbee’s thought that rightly irritated Kaufmann. Toynbee was definitely of the “tender-minded” temperament, and he tried to place his own religious faith in the best possible light. For my part, I should much rather participate in the orgies of the Finns and Magyars and leave Christianity submerged, but Toynbee had a touching attachment to his Christianity, and I have no doubt that Kaufmann was right when he identified this as the source of Toynbee’s thought and his popularity, especially in America. Amid all the tedious details about internal and external proletariats, people want to be reassured that all is for the best and good will triumph in the end. Well, we need not fall to this level of vulgarity to find something of value in Toynbee’s conception of a submerged civilization.

Toynbee’s fantasy of a submerged Christianity in the underworld of a triumphant Viking civilization is, in fact, the exact opposite of what did happen: a submerged Viking civilization in the underworld of a triumphant Christendom. And I think it is right to say that Viking civilization was submerged and that it didn’t just vanish in a puff of smoke when the leadership of Scandinavian society was converted to Christianity. In fact, Viking civilization moved to Iceland. Iceland remained Viking and pagan for quite some time after the Scandinavian continent was firmly under Christian control.

Even after Iceland, too, was converted to Christianity (a transition that is captured in Njal’s Saga) it continued to be culturally part of the Viking legacy for hundreds of years. It was not until the high middle ages that the Icelandic sagas were set to paper, constituting one of the world’s great literary tradition, and in a sense even expressing the essence of Viking civilization after than civilization had effectively disappeared from history.

In several posts (among them, Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm, Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology, and Axialization and Institutionalization) I have suggested a generalization of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, so that the one-off process that Jaspers identified can be conceived as a more general process of axialization that occurs in different societies in different times. I will not try to give a full exposition of this at present, but I realize now that the idea of an Axial Age can be made both more general and more particular. Among the Axial Age that Jaspers identified, a global transition of world history manifested in many different civilizations, we can identify subdivisions within this Axial Age, as, for example, the axialization of Hindu civilization and the axialization of Buddhist civilization, etc.

This sketch of the concept of axialization can then be applied to submerged civilizations, and what I am here suggesting is that in the case of Viking civilization that it achieved its axialization after it became a submerged civilization, with its axialization taking the form of the literature of the Icelandic sagas. In so far as the essence of a civilization may continue in its submerged form, even after that civilization has disappeared from history in its explicit form, its essential elements may yet be expressed in a posthumous axialization.

One way to express this would be to say that abortive or arrested civilizations attain their fully civilization status only in the event of ex post facto axialization. Or this observation can be employed as the ground of a distinction, and we can distinguish between abortive or arrested civilizations with and without ex post facto axialization.

The Christian occlusion of Viking civilization was permanent, although Viking civilization continued in the shadows for centuries allowing it to come to a furtive axialization. There is also the possibility of the temporary occlusion of a civilization. Civilizations conquered or colonized almost always result in the native civilization going underground and becoming a submerged civilization. An obvious case of this is the civilization of the native peoples of the Americas, which continues to this day, more than five hundred years later, as a submerged civilization. Who is to say whether or not this submerged civilization might not rise again in the fullness of time, although the thorough-going syncretism of Latin Christianity and native elements argues against this.

A perhaps less obvious example might be that of the temporary occlusion of Hindu civilization during Britain’s three hundred year rule of the Indian subcontinent, or any of the other major colonizations of world history, when that colonization eventually came to an end and a post-colonial regime attempted to restore the civilization that preceded conquest and colonization. In the case of Hindu civilization in India, the submergence was relatively brief; it could be argued that there was also a submergence of Hindu civilization under the Muslim Mogul emperors.

Civilizations across Africa, Asia, and the Americas were all submerged to a greater or lesser degree. Some have reemerged into the light of day; some, like the Vikings, have been permanently extirpated, but may yet experience a posthumous axialization. But the widespread fact of submerged civilization points to the importance and usefulness of the concept.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Post-Modern Christendom

5 August 2011


In several posts I have argued that entities must change in order to survive, and to express this I formulated what I call the Principle of Historical Viability: “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes.” failure in this context means annihilation, and thus I have first expressed the principle in the negative. An affirmative formulation of the Principle of Historical Viability is simply this: “An x is historically viable when it changes as the world changes.”

While this is really nothing more than natural selection favoring those entities that can adapt most readily to changed conditions, I took the idea a little farther (in Adaptation and Viability) when I recently formulated what I called the paradox of survival:

“Change is the price of historical viability; complex adaptive systems ‘succeed’ by adapting to changed conditions, but when the conditions are globally changed a global response is necessary, and a global adaptation means that the complex adaptive system has been changed beyond recognition. In other words, the ‘success’ of a complex adaptive system extrapolated over time means that, in order to survive, a complex adaptive system must change its nature, and if it is an entity of a wholly changed nature that ultimately “survives” as a result of adaptation, it is at least arguable that the entity of the original nature has not survived and therefore the survival strategy of complex adaptive system has failed.”

I was very interested to read a story on the BBC today, Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world, perfectly exemplifies these principles in the sphere of religious thought. The BBC story covers Reverend Klaas Hendrikse in the Netherlands and his this-worldly, perhaps atheistic interpretation of Christianity. The BBC article said that traditionalists had tried to expel the radical reverend, but, “a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.”

We are a very long way from this being the case in the Western hemisphere, which lags behind Europe’s cultural developments by about a century (largely because it lags about a century behind Europe in industrialization and the attendant social changes this imposes), but this is clearly the future of “religion” in what once was Christendom.

From the brief sketch of Hendrikse’s views in the BBC piece, it is clear that he is expressing views that reflect the evolution of European intellectual life, especially over the past five hundred years. Shrill and ideologically-motivated people will be blind to this, but take my word. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about this. Hendrikse is quoted as saying, “God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.” This is a perfect evocation of recent philosophical thought, which has mostly jettisoned the metaphysical aspects of traditional Christianity while retaining the cultural aspects.

Like it or not, this is what Christianity is becoming. And in so becoming, Christianity is demonstrating both that it remains historically viable, and that it is slowly changing into something that would not be recognized by those who formulated its doctrines in distant lands and distant times. In changing into something unrecognizable, Christianity is coming to perfectly exemplify the paradox of survival.

This isn’t the first time that theologians within the church have attempted to come to grips with the changing climate in which they practice their faith. Walter Kaufmann, who was not a Christian, was particularly contemptuous of the so-called “Death of God” theology, which he called, “predictably stillborn” (Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p. xvi). While I completely sympathize with Kaufmann’s insistence upon intellectual honesty, I can also see the handwriting on the wall, and I know that neither piety nor wit can cancel half a line.

These reflections are particularly appropriate now in the wake the unfolding debate in the media as to whether Anders Behring Breivik was a “Christian terrorist.” Certainly he came from a Christian tradition, and there seem to be some reactionary threads in his manifesto suggesting the importance of the Western religious tradition, and that this tradition be maintained in the face of growing Muslim influence in Western Europe. But does that make Breivik a “Christian terrorist”? If he was, Breivik does not seem to have taken his Christianity too seriously, unlike Christian terrorists in the US who have bombed abortion clinics and shot abortion doctors. These latter folks are serious about their religious beliefs.

But exactly who is, and exactly who is not a Christian in post-modern Christendom? This is not at all easy to say, especially since Christianity is rapidly evolving to adapt to changed conditions. And it has been rapidly evolving since the Protestant Reformation, followed by the social shocks of the industrial revolution.

In his wonderful television series Magnetic North, Jonathan Meades observed (I can’t remember which episode this was, but it was the same sequence of his appearance in the Hanseatic cities of Northern Germany) that it was in Northern Europe that Christianity began to “grow up” and “self-secularize.” I agree with this judgment. And it is in this tradition of progressive self-secularization that has given us a post-modern Christendom that retains many features of Christian culture while dispensing with the dogmas that once separated true believers from all the rest.

It would be easy to ridicule these recent Dutch developments in theology, just as it was easy for the Romans of the first century AD to ridicule the Christians — until the Christian Machtergreifung placed a Christian emperor on the imperial throne, and the empire moved from suppressing Christianity to promoting Christianity and persecuting its opponents. History is filled with such reversals; we should expect them rather than ridicule the very possibility.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Next Axial Age

11 August 2010


It is rare for a philosopher to have much influence over the popular mind, although it does happen occasionally. I have previously mentioned how Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm shift has been widely adopted (Philosophy of Science in the FT). Another rare borrowing is the idea of an “Axial Age.” This goes back to Karl Jaspers book, The Origin and Goal of History, although the same idea and even the same term was introduced about the same time by Louis Mumford.

Jaspers is a genuine philosopher (I mentioned him a few days ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65) and thus commands our respect. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there are fake philosophers who command the approbation of the public but who have few if any genuine ideas of their own.) Since the idea of an Axial Age comes out of Jaspers, and is not merely a manifestation of popular intellectuals, it is worth considering in some detail.

Karl Theodor Jaspers, 23 February 1883 – 26 February 1969

Jasper’s idea of an Axial Age is that of an axis of world history, and not only of western history. This he finds in a period that he characterizes as, “a spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.” And Jaspers goes on to say that, “It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, we we know him today, came into being.” Jaspers cites the presence of Confucius, Lao-tse, the Buddha, the writing of the Upanishads, Zarathustra, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Greek philosophers as empirical evidence of such an Axial Age.

I have written many posts dealing with historical periodization, and my own attempt to frame a naturalistic historical periodization that I call integral history both builds upon and transcends the traditional periodizations of western history. In this, I also aspire to defining axes of world history, although I do not see a single axis as does Jaspers, but several (which, of course, is why I referred to them as “axes”). So as I see Jasper’s Axial Age it falls entirely within the agricultural period of human civilization. In this sense, like my post mentioning the English Civil War and its ideological ramifications (The Agricultural Paradigm), we see that an enormously important age of human history, with all its changes and transformations, nevertheless lies entirely within, and is therefore at least in part constituted by, the institutions of agricultural civilization.

Since I have called attention to this on several occasions — that is to say, I have called attention to periods of great intellectual ferment that do not seem to have been triggered by demographic or economic transformations that define how the bulk of human beings live in a given age (and which I therefore take as an adequate basis for a naturalistic conception of history) — I might as well give it a name, so I can refer to it again in the future. Therefore I will call such periods or transitions between periods intra-civilizational axes. I might also call them intra-integral axes, intra-integral shifts, or even intra-integral civilizational axes (or shifts), but I fear I may lose what few readers I have if I stretch it that far. So we will leave it at that for the time being.

I do not deny that there was an Axial Age, and that it was crucial to the intellectual and spiritual development of human beings, but it isn’t a naturalistic phenomenon, and therefore doesn’t constitute what I have been calling an integral shift. And I think that Jaspers (as well as many of his defenders) would agree with me that the Axial Age was a non-naturalistic historical phenomenon and that indeed its non-naturalism is the very point. So in this respect I can make common cause with those who conceive history very differently from the way in which I do.

Bear with me for a digression. I have a habit of what may be called “binge scholarship,” by which I mean that I tend to completely immerse myself in a particular intellectual milieu for a period of time until I become sated and “come up for air,” as it were. I mentioned just such a binge of listening to Joseph Campbell lectures (in Class Consciousness and Mythology), and this resulted in several posts. I have recently returned to Joseph Campbell and am listening again to what has become my favorite set of lectures, Man and Myth. Of the Campbell lectures I have heard, these are the most dense with ideas and therefore provide the greatest degree of intellectual stimulation.

I find myself listening to Joseph Campbell again.

As I have re-listened to Campbell’s Man and Myth lectures over the past few days I am reminded of the emphasis that Campbell placed on the fact that the western tradition placed an emphasis upon the historicity of mythological events, and subsequent developments in science have called this historicity into question, which has also called the mythology into question. Campbell has also on many occasions discussed the need for myths that speak to the contemporary mind. I don’t think that he put it this way, but what he is saying is that we need to respond to a myth viscerally or it isn’t really a myth; a myth has lost its power as a myth if it no longer affects us immediately.

Campbell is such a great speaker that when he is giving an exposition of an ancient myth it is easy to believe that he is himself a true believer, and the implicit message some people take away from his books and lectures is a reactionary one: that we need to go back to the great myths, which are all, I will point out, myths of the Axial Age. In this, he is like Nietzsche, who often made such a convincing case for his adversaries that many took Nietzsche to be advocating precisely the doctrines he was criticizing. Walter Kaufmann has pointed this out in several of his books.

Walter Kaufmann (01 July 1921 to 04 September 1980) gave a rather uncharitable assessment of Joseph Campbell.

If you listen to Campbell closely, however, and listen to a lot of what he had to say (not being content with a few quotes and fragments that happen to agree with what you want to hear) it is obvious that he is a true believer in no one mythology, but in the role of mythology in human life generally speaking. I think this is what tripped up Walter Kaufmann in his estimation of Campbell, as well as a great many more lesser minds.

Campbell’s repeated statements to the effect of the need for modern myths for a modern age belies any reactionary interpretation of his works, and I am myself personally very sympathetic to this claim that Campbell makes. There are many incipient myths of contemporary industrialized civilization, but they remain amorphic, not fully formed, and are not yet prepared to take the full weight of an existential crisis, to be that which sustains ordinary men and women in their hour of need, except for a very few (non-representative) individuals.

Thinking about this aspect of Campbell’s thought at the same time as I was thinking about Jaspers’ Axial Age, I began framing these two ideas within the context of my own recent work. As I noted above, I see the Axial Age as an intra-civilizational axis that is entirely contained within the agricultural paradigm. I think that the case could be made, even though the Axial Age appears relatively late in the agricultural paradigm, that agricultural civilization had to develop to a given degree of sophistication, stability, and institutional complexity before such an intellectual and spiritual turning point could develop in this context. And this is what I think happened.

The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations. In this sense, the religious traditions of the Axial Age are fully a product and a consequence of agricultural civilization, and are specific to it. This accounts for the progressive decline (except when fanned by reactionary fervor) of these traditions in industrialized civilization. We can argue as much as we like about the future of mythology and religion (or even the future of an illusion, as Freud would have it), but the fact of the matter, as Campbell has repeatedly pointed out, is that many if not most of the mythologies of the Axial Age no longer speak to people on a visceral level. Mass man continues to render his respect to these traditions, but they do not move him as they did in the past — specifically, in the pre-industrial past.

Everything takes time, and it will take time for an authentic and genuine mythology of the industrial age to emerge. I have several times argued that industrialized civilization has sought a modus vivendi in two forms of social consensus that have failed, and that the social discontent, anomie, and drift that we see today is the consequence of industrialized civilization groping toward a third social consensus that it has not yet found (Social Consensus in Industrialized Society). Even if industrialized civilization does settle upon a third social consensus, there is no guarantee that this will be a lasting social consensus, if indeed there can be any lasting social consensus in industrialized civilization. However, I predict that if and when such a modus vivendi emerges within industrialized civilization, and the institutions of industrialized civilization can then come to maturity within a stable social context, that it will be then, and only then, that the next axial age can occur. And the next axial age will be an intellectual flourishing of industrialized civilization that will create mature, authentic, and genuine spiritual traditions specific to industrialized civilization.

All of this, as I said, takes time. Of course, things today happen very quickly. T. Greer’s vision of a growth revolution makes this clear. In an age of exponential growth things happen very quickly indeed, and we have seen things happen very quickly in our own lifetimes. But some historical processes still take time. It required perhaps 8,000 or more years for the slow development of agricultural civilization to experience its intellectual efflorescence in the Axial Age identified by Jaspers. I do not think that it will take civilization of the industrial age even a thousand years to develop to a similar degree of institutional maturity, but I do think that it will take several hundred years, and that we are not quite there yet. The next axial age is coming, but we cannot deliver ourselves of the prophecy, and say as Christ said, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1 KJV) While this is the message of the singulartarians, my message is that many generations will pass before the next axial age comes with power.

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