Sunday, June 25, 2006
The West as equivalent to the Cosmos
‘The West’ is a symbolization. ‘The Cosmos’ is also a symbolization. I am therefore not necessarily comparing or equating apples and oranges.
More focally, I am defining cosmos in terms of the pop anthropologist Mircea Eliade, the pop philosopher Ernest Becker, and the eminent philosopher of history Eric Voegelin (with influences also from Paul Ricoeur, Lévi-Strauss, Thorkild Jacobsen, Henri Frankfort). In Becker’s terms, a cosmos is a ‘canopy of meaning’ which a culture weaves in language around themselves, a canopy that re-presents the reality that is around them, endowing it with significance and utility for them.
On one level, human beings are surrounded by Chaos—the “great blooming and buzzing confusion” of William James who used this phrase to describe what surrounds human infants before they have learned to process and organize the data around them. That same confusion does not, however, vanish as the human infant grows up: it remains around us all the time, on one level. What has changed as we grow up and become (more or less) intelligent and enculturated is our ability to organize the surrounding reality into (more or less) meaningful and useful structures. Another important feature of this tendency to organize chaotic reality into meaningful and useful reality is that it is a process from which society and history are inextricable: it is not, and as far as we know cannot be, done by an individual without social and historical input and cooperation.
Now, let’s dispense summarily with a bit of silly nonsense I can see lurking in the wings: when the growing human proceeds to organize the chaos around him, he is not simply ‘inventing’ a false reality out of whole cloth. This has become a standard conceit of the modern quasi-Gnostic movement I have called ‘PC multiculturalism’—particularly of its natural science and pop science wings, but also, inexorably, of modern Western culture at large, insofar as PC multiculturalism has become culturally dominant in the modern West. No: The growing human who organizes the chaos around him and thus participates in the cultural project of weaving that ‘canopy of meaning’ Becker wrote about is not simply inventing a false reality—or, for the more radical PC multiculturalist, superimposing one false reality upon another false reality (for, you see, there “is no reality”, only The Matrix...).
No: what the growing human is doing is co-creating reality out of chaos. As some medieval Jewish mystics and certain Christian philosophers of the early modern period speculated, Creation is not simply an act done by God at the beginning of time, once and for all: it is an ongoing process, an ongoing project of cooperation between the divine and the human. One important mythopoetic text in the history of religions that would supply luminosity to this idea is Genesis 2:19-20, where God asks Adam to name the animals: this clearly conveys the idea of divine-human cooperation in organizing, through the gift of language, a previously less organized, in some sense less meaningful reality.
We may say, then, that reality is not simply either Chaos or Cosmos: it is, rather, a paradoxical tension between both. This paradoxical tension, in turn, is not a static system: it is, rather, a dynamic process. Furthermore, this paradoxical tension is not merely the dynamic process which Mircea Eliade studied across various world cultures throughout history—the cycle of coming into being, staying in being precariously through religious rituals, then going back out of being, mirroring the rhythms of nature which the ancient Greeks summarized as genesis-akme-phthora (birth-flourishing life-decline into death).
What Eliade did not quite factor in must be augmented by the analyses of Eric Voegelin. The rhythmic cycle Eliade noticed among cultures all over the world and throughout history belong, according to Voegelin, to a former ‘compact’ level of consciousness that historically has been superseded by a new ‘differentiated’ consciousness. This ‘differentiation’, furthermore, has, according to Voegelin, only occurred maximally in the West. This differentiation of consciousness is a historical process that on one level is quite complex as presented and unpacked by Voegelin. I will attempt to simplify it here.
The differentiation of consciousness changed the orientation of the Western mind from an indefinite participation in the cyclic rhythms of the cosmos to one that disturbed this cyclic rhythm with an irruption from transcendence in the form of revelation (or what Voegelin also terms pneumatic experiences)—an irruption that awoke in humans an eschatological desire for a transfiguration of the cosmos, or salvation from the cosmos.
Why would man need to be saved from the cosmos? Because, as Hesiod noticed (and as any ordinary human can observe—and Hesiod, being a shepherd, was a prototypical ‘everyman’), the cosmos is filled with pain, grief, toil, disease and death which, when intermingled with our ephemeral pleasures and joys, make us long for a world free of these impediments to happiness.
Why didn’t man for all those millennia before the differentiations occurred (roughly beginning in 1000 A.D.) come also to this obvious conclusion—namely, that the traditional participation in the cosmic rhythms is not enough to assuage the deeper longings of the human psyche? This, Voegelin would say, is a mystery, which can be partially alleviated by the reminder that the former ‘compact’ level of consciousness (before the differentiations that paved the way for the various monotheistic revelations with their consequent philosophy and theology replacing or augmenting the former mythology) remains true after the differentiations. The former ‘compact’ level of consciousness is not rendered false by the new truth of the differentiations: it becomes seen as an older perspective on the same truth. I.e., the compact participation in the cyclic cosmic rhythms is a viable way to deal, existentially and socially, with the mystery of existence. Something new, however, has come about in history, and it is worth taking into account. The compact mode of pre-revelation and pre-philosophy religion is not the only way to deal with the mystery of the rhythms of existence, the rhythms of birth-life-death. Nor is it, perhaps, enough for what the soul hungers and thirsts for: an existence of love and happiness beyond the limitations of the body.
That new response to the mystery of existence was the epochal process of differentiations of consciousness which attended the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece with the noetic experiences of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (and of their precursors, the Pre-Socratics); and further south across the Mediterranean, the birth of Israelite monotheism with the pneumatic experiences of Abraham, Moses and the Prophets—which later unfolded in, among other expressions, the increased illumination of the Israelite revelations with the pneumatic experiences of Jesus and his disciples.
Then came, in later centuries, the magnificent symphony of the grand synthesis of Graeco-Roman Philosophy and Judaeo-Christian Revelation in the civilization known as Christendom. This was the civilization that was a noetic culture; and this is the civilization that has through protracted and complex processes suffered Gnostic deformations and now seems centrally infected such that we can now say the West has in certain senses shifted paradigmatically from being a noetic culture to a Gnostic culture.
All is not as hopeless as my final sentence above might indicate: for one thing, this paradigm shift into a dominance of Gnostic culture involves not so much the robust Gnosticism we saw in the violent outbursts of Nazism and Communism (which, incidentally, were put down through the determined blood, sweat, tears and ingenuity of the rallying West); but rather a peculiarly bland “Gnosticism Lite”, oddly (and thankfully) intermingled with a rather strong and healthy survival of the noetic culture (strong enough, as we just noted, to generate the civilizational “white blood cells” necessary to fight the more virulent forms of Gnosticism in the 20th century).
In our era, we have not been seeing so much a conquest of noetic culture by Gnostic culture, nor a revolution overturning the one for the other, nor some coup d’état of evil “Elites”, so much as a ‘coup de state of mind’—a shift in worldview by the general society by and large (with exceptions that prove the rule). One must neither overestimate nor underestimate the problem and the dangers of this process, nor indulge overmuch in optimism, or pessimism, with regard to how it will deal with the metastasizing problem of Islam in our time.