Witches, Warlocks, Heretics, and Free Thinkers
While “post-modernity,” as a period of “choatic transition,” is considered historically unprecedented (which in some ways it is) it is, in other ways, not so unique that we can’t find precedents for it in history, as the malaise of other civilisational forms and types. So, when the philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of “The Malaise of Modernity“, the features and characteristics of that malaise belong also to all periods of such chaotic transition. During the Renaissance/Late Middle Ages, for example, what Taylor calls “malaise” was otherwise called “melancholia” (or “the black bile”).
And while the features of post-modernity parallel, remarkably, those of the waning of the Middle Ages as a period of civilisational malaise and chaotic transition, there are other historical precedents just as meaningful and significant.
All the great names of history are remembered largely because they arose in such periods of malaise or chaos in their own times. The Buddha arose in India during a period of Indian civilisational malaise thanks, in large measure, to the suffocating spiritual orthodoxies of Brahmanism and the rigidities of the caste system. At the same time, this orthodoxy was being challenged by multiple competing “schools” or “paradigms”, as we might call them today. And in the context of this suffocating orthodoxy that was Brahmanism, the Buddha emerged as a “Free Thinker”.
As Buddha had reinvigorated the spiritual traditions of India, Jesus in Palestine also emerged as a central figure in a period of malaise and “chaotic transition”. There was a plurality of creeds, and countless “Messiahs” (ie, competing “paradigms”) all claiming to be Israel’s salvation. As the Buddha had challenged the suffocating and stifling orthodoxy of the Brahmans or dominating priest caste, Jesus challenged the suffocating orthodoxies of the Mosaic Law and the corruptions of “the scribes and Pharisees”.
Turning to Greece, we also find that what some people mistakenly think of as the Greek “Golden Age”, marked by the figure of Socrates, was in fact not that at all. It was a period of civilisational malaise and melancholia. Again, there was a multiplicity of competing schools of philosophy — Stoics, Cynics, Sophists and so on — as well as declining regard for the gods. Socrates was notable as a “Free Thinker” in that context, and he was condemned by the authorities for crimes of impiety and “corrupting the morals of youth” because of his unique method of “doubt”, which we call “Socratic Method”. Very little was off limits to Socrates’ inquisitive mind. But that mind was inquisitive precisely because of the civilisational context of malaise and decline, not “Golden Age”, of the mythological consciousness, and the search for a new inspiration and new organising principle and new foundation for truth in the midst of the apparent chaos of competing paradigms.
The same may be said of the rise of Mohammad. In Mohammad’s time, there were reportedly some 365 idols of the gods housed in the Kaaba in Mecca — the tutelary djinn (or genies) of each tribe — one for each day of the year. Gods represent values, so this plurality of the gods, one for each day of the year, represented what today we would refer to as the “multiversity” — a day was simply a fragment of a year. The situation in Greece, at the time of its demise, was quite similar, with reputedly some 1,000 deities, major and minor, as evidence of the atomisation, fragmentation, and dissolution of the mythological consciousness structure.
The situation in which these figures emerged was very similar in their respective times to what we today call “post-modernity”, but also with the peculiar fact that in most cases, the new inspiration or organising principle did not establish itself in the civilisation in which it emerged, but was eagerly adopted by those on the margins or peripheries. The new inspiration or principle had to emigrate to survive and thrive. The soil in which the new seed was planted, the new inspiration and organising principle, had become too weak, too infertile, too decadent, to support or sustain the new seedling. It had to emigrate.
Each of these figures, the Buddha, the Christ, the Philosopher, the Prophet, arose in periods of malaise and in response to a great need appropriate to their time and place. Without that sense of need, or malaise, no one would have paid them the slightest attention.
Although the indigenous peoples of the New World (and Australia and New Zealand) are undergoing their own version of “chaotic transition” in their contexts, I want to focus here today on the one of more recent memory in Western civilisational history — the demise of Christendom and the accompanying Reformation and Renaissance, which likewise were not causes of decline but effects of it, and the quest for a new principle of inspiration and civilisational renewal and reorganisation, which are now usually associated with the names Luther or, perhaps, da Vinci or Copernicus, but more generally with the image of “the Free Thinker”, who was usually a heretic.
Apart from the paranoia and conspiracy theories that marked the Late Middle Ages and the breakdown of ecclesiastical and papal authority and institutions in Inquisition, there was definitely schism, sectarianism, and those “heresies” we would call “competing paradigms” today. But these, again, arose as responses to the decadence and disintegration of the Age of the Church, and not as causes of its decline. It was, again, the quest for a new inspiration and a new principle of social organisation which took different paths. The ecclesiastical authorities saw subversives everywhere, of course, except in themselves, for they had long since lost their own faith anyway. But it was the “Free Thinker” who was the boogeyman of the day amongst the higher ranking clerics who weren’t as hysterical or neurotic or paranoid as the lower ranking clerics. Witch hunt was what we would today call “the populist” response to the troubles.
The Free Thinker was the avatar of the emergent mental consciousness structure. The heresy of the Free Thinker was the sin called “novelty”, “invention” or “innovation”, which meant thinking that deviated from, or contradicted, the conventional or the orthodox, and which expressed skepticism towards the more superstitious and absurd elements of a suffocating ecclesiastical dogma. The Free Thinker eventually became the “Illuminatus” of the European Enlightenment. By no means were all Free Thinkers atheists or irreligious. They were, in the main, simply responses to the dysfunctionality of the Church and an ecclesiastical social order that had become dangerously deficient, as Gebser would use that term, and indeed destructive. To put that another way, the Late Middle Ages had also become a “post-truth society” whose orthodoxies and dogmas no longer provided adequate nourishment or an intelligible account for human experience, and the quest was on for a new principle of order and a new foundation for truth. A lot of Free Thinkers went to the stake as “heretics” rather than renounce the sense of freedom that this new principle and new foundation brought — the mental consciousness.
This new spirit of The Free Thinker, likewise, had to emigrate. And it emigrated to the “New World”, which is largely why America is really the first fruit of the European Enlightenment and why the fate of the Modern Era is so closely bound up with that of America. (In fact, we’ve even stopped only very recently speaking of the “New World” at all).
Jean Gebser, in The Ever-Present Origin, has done a pretty fine job of describing how this new, freer and exuberant consciousness was closely tied in with the opening up of space, the development of perspectivism and perspective perception in the Renaissance, and the disclosure of the third dimension of space, as against the more closeted and cavern-like two-dimensional consciousness of the medieval mind (which, nonetheless, had its own valid cultural and spiritual high points). Still, it was a time of such great turbulence, violence, and destruction in Reformation and Counter-Reformation that many were convinced that the literal end of the world was truly at hand.
The Free Thinker of today, who stands at our own “end of history”, is, however, an inverted caricature of the heroic Free Thinker who stands at the beginning of the Modern Era, as much as Parsifal, who really marks the beginning of the High Middle Ages as the fool who becomes a knight, concludes finally in the caricature of Don Quixote as the knight who becomes a fool once more. And just so, the Free Thinker who marks the beginning of the Modern Age, now ends in the caricature of the automaton and in “zombie logic”. The descendants of the Free Thinker bear little resemblance to their forebears, and are now given as much to mechanical and conventional thinking, dogmatism, and orthodoxy as their former enemies. These are symptoms of exhausted life, vitality, and inspiration.
So, once again we are in a state of turmoil and turbulence — a state of “chaotic transition” — that marks the end of one era and the onset of another, and the stakes are rather high given the destructive potential of Modern man’s technologies. Gebser refers to this as the “rational” phase of the mental consciousness structure and identifies this with the “deficient mode” of the mental. In effect, the Free Thinker has morphed into the figure of the “technocratic shaman”, as Algis Mikunas calls him or her in his essay “Magic and Technological Culture”. Here, Parsifal stands in relation to Don Quixote as the authentic Free Thinker stands in relation to his mere ape as Technocratic Shaman.
And once again, the quest is afoot for a new principle of order and organisation and a new foundation for truth as a answer to “new normal” or “post-truth society”, of the “clash of civilisations”, of the contending multiple paradigms and confusions of “the multiversity”. There is simply no doubt that this new principle and new foundation is integralism, holism, and ecologics.