Age of Revolutions

I have, on occasion, mentioned Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s study of the European Revolutions entitled Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. It’s one of the works in which he applies his “grammatical method” to the study of history, in this instance the Modern Era as Age of Revolutions and how precedents established in the Renaissance and the Reformation made the subsequent revolutions of the modern era — the Lutheran, the English Civil War, the French, and the Russian Revolutions — necessary and logically consequential. The new image of man represented in Renaissance humanism and the rebirth of the Greek Mind meant a complete revaluation of the human form, and a remaking of the human form, in all its members — mind, body, soul, and spirit — in the image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

For this reason, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man has become the iconic form of the fully secular and fully rationalised human. He has discovered the power of geometric thinking — as “euclidean mind” — but has, at the same time, become trapped in those geometries and defined by them. There is also in Vitruvian Man, the faintest echo still of Christ on the Cross.

The four revolutions of the Modern Era, then, could be said to be a reforming of the Anthropos in all its members congruent with this new archetype and idol — Vitruvian Man. And the totalitarian character of each of the revolutions — through Luther, Cromwell, Robespierre, and Lenin — was owing to its specialisation of one aspect of the fourfold human in terms of mind, body, soul, and spirit and the reduction of the human form to this one characteristic alone. Everyman a priest; everyman a gentleman; everyman a king; everyman a worker. And the totalitarian character of our own era is proclaimed equally in the liberal ideal — “everyman an entrepreneur” or self-made man.

There was an obvious clash of ideologies between “everyman a worker” and “everyman an entrepreneur” in recent history, though both strongly emphasised the purely economic function and use of the human. But the liberal (and neo-liberal) utopia of a “universal civilisation of commerce” specifies “everyman (and everywoman) an entrepreneur” as its ideal type. Much of the duplicity of our times — the double-think, the double-speak, the double-standards, and the double-bind — is owing to the sheer impossibility of reconciling this ideal type with ecological reality and with the economic requirements of consumerism.

Each of the modern revolutions, while they did emancipate some facet or aspect of the human whole from obsolete and anachronistic “truths” or forms, also hyper-exaggerated that emancipated aspect, eventually turning it into a caricature of itself. Each of them claimed to represent the advent of a new human type, but which type — the “New Man” — was a caricature by this exaggeration or “privileging”, as they now say, of one potentiality — the mind, the soul, the spirit, the body — all now reworked, however, within the larger model and image of Vitruvian Man as the perspective consciousness structure. Reworked in his thinking, reworked in his feelings, reworked in his willing, and reworked in his sensibilities, the “Modern Man” was a “revaluation of values” in the flesh, and a very different creature from what had preceded him. And it is in these terms that the four revolutions, when we forego the mere “point-of-view” for the “overview”, conform to the pattern represented by Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”,

Rosenstock-Huessy's "cross of reality"

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”

It’s in those terms that the four revolutions of the Modern Era follow “ecodynamic laws”, as Rosenstock-Huessy described it along with the peculiar fact that four generations separate each from the other.

To digress a bit here, this pattern is also found in Jean Gebser’s taxonomy of civilisations as “structures of consciousness” when we apply the “grammatical method” to its intepretation,

Cross of Reality D

and which we likewise find mapped in the same quadrilateral, psychodynamic structure or “psychological types” described by Carl Jung (although the correspondences with the “cross of reality” are not exact, and we have replaced “intuiting” with “willing”),

Jung's four psychological functionsFurthermore, we see that this mapping, or quadrilateral logic, corresponds to William Blake’s own illustration of the “four Zoas” of the disintegrate Anthropos.

Blake: the fourfold human

Blake: the fourfold human

It’s the tyranny of the Zoa named “Urizen” (who is the rational function) that most concerned William Blake in much of his poetry and mythology of the four Zoas, and Urizen corresponds to Gebser’s “perspectival” or “mental-rational consciousness structure”. In many other cultures, the same four Zoas are referred to as “the Guardians of the Four Directions”, as noted in earlier posts. In those terms, Gebser’s “four structures of consciousness” — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational — correspond to the Guardians of the Four Directions. The fifth is the integral, also called “Christ Consciousness”, “Buddha Mind”, or “Golden Flower”, “Diamond Mind”, “Pearl of Great Price” and so on.

The hyper-partisan character of our times, so much a symptom of our “chaotic transition”, is also the hyper-exaggeration of one of the four directions of the quadrilateral, which ends in self-caricature. This hyper-exaggeration is what we refer to as “bias” or “prejudice” or “self-righteousness” or “privileging”, and so on. It is to be carried away along one arm of the fourfold relation — backwards, forwards, inwards, outwards — because extremity in one direction is where “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats put it in “The Second Coming” — this “centre” being Gebser’s “vital centre” coincident with the centre of the quadrilateral.

This traveling too far in one direction is precisely what is represented by the “perspectival eye” of the triangulating mind, represented in the familiar symbol,

annuit coeptis

This form of consciousness can be compared to the beam of a flashlight in a darkened room. It illuminates very well one quarter of the room at any one time. But at the same time three-quarters of the room remain in darkness. It is very good at picking out detail but very bad at acheiving the overview. If one wants to illuminate the whole room, that requires the overhead light. Then all four corners and all four walls of the room will be seen together, as a coherent whole. This is an analogy. The beam of the flashlight, intensely focussed as it is nonetheless, is what Blake also called “Single vision & Newtons sleep”.

Reductionism and fundamentalism both reduce the human form to a caricature of the human. It’s not surprising the people then act out this caricature in daily life. Reductionism and fundamentalism are certain signs that the inspirations that founded the Modern Era in Renaissance and Reformation are now exhausted residua of an age in decay and incapable of further possibilities, and which now threaten us with complete disintegration. New inspiration, if such is to be found, must come from the “vital centre” or “source”. But that also implies a new integration, a metanoia, and a transformed consciousness, or what Gebser calls also “arational-aperspectival”.

There are clearly, in our time, new efforts being made in this respect. Whether they are sufficient to forestall the consequences of total exhaustion in breakdown and collapse remain to be seen. The potentiality of self-transcendence is there, however. The problem, though, as Gebser points out, is that man’s sense of responsibility has not kept pace with technological feasibility which, in Gebser’s estimation, presages a “global catastrophe” in the making.

This has become all-too evidently the case, and particularly since Nietzsche’s “death of God”. No one now knows who one is responsible to and for what one is responsible, and all the more so since Thatcher’s announcement that “there is no such thing as society” and Fukuyama declared his “end of history”. The death of God, the death of society, the death of history, and now the death of truth in “post-truth” society leaves not much for which and to which human beings feel themselves responsible. And in those terms, it’s not surprising that the flipside of that is “the culture of narcissism” of which neo-liberal economics is the chief expression and for which Trump and his team are now the standard-bearers.

And unless we discover some new inspiration soon, and a new sense of purpose and responsibility, the gig is up.

18 responses to “Age of Revolutions”

  1. westcoastrecovery says :

    Being new to blogging, I’m really quite impressed by your articles. Really interesting, quality stuff. Have you seen the subreddit “Sorcery of the Spectacle”? You might like it.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I take it this is what you are referring to?

      Seems to tie in with what is called “meme magic”, although “meme magic” may be only another term for slogan, cliche, etc. — anything that short-circuits thinking and becomes a substitute for thinking itself. In earlier posts I referred to that assemblage of “memes” in that sense as “the foreign installation” in the mind.

      Fundamentally, “meme magic” belongs to the self-entrancing monologue we conduct with ourselves daily, which nominally goes by the name “thinking” but isn’t. It’s more like programming. It’s more like unconscious thinking and not really deliberative. That’s the monologue we conduct with ourselves when we get up in the morning, telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like, and all through the day we are telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like, and then we go to bed at night telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like. That kind of non-deliberative monologue is easily infiltrated by external influences, ie, the “sorcery of the spectacle” or by what we earlier called “technocratic shamanism”.

      A lot of this “insinuation” of memes into this internal monologue from propaganda sources is indeed going on, and that’s what I call “the foreign installation” (which I borrowed from one of Castaneda’s books). Blake would call it “the mind-forg’d manacles” — pretty much the equivalent idea.

      I should probably post something about that — the relation between Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”, “the foreign installation”, “the sorcery of the spectacle”, “technocratic shamanism”, and “meme magic”.

      Thanks for the suggestion.

      • westcoastrecovery says :

        Yes, that’s the site. You’re welcome. I’m not very well-versed in Castaneda, however know quite a bit about Blake, specifically in relation to Swedenborg. That being said, I’ve never considered his “mind-forg’d manacles” as Blakean meme magic haha!

  2. mikemackd says :

    Me being “Mike McMumford” again, the last paragraphs from the last chapter in Mumford’s 1956 book “The Human Prospect” that Watersons’ Bloomsbury bookshop so generously gave to me. That chapter originally dates from 1951’s “The Conduct of Life”.

    Note some similarities with your post above and McGilchrist’s thesis: The Chapter is called “The Triumph over Systems”, and concludes thusly (pp. 316-319):

    Now a system, being a conceptual tool, has a certain pragmatic usefulness: for the formulation of a system leads to intellectual clarification and therefore to a certain clean vigour of decision and action. The pre-scientific age of abstraction, as Comte originally characterised it, was a general period of un-knotting and disentanglement: the numerous threads that formed the warp and woof of the whole social fabric were then isolated and disengaged. When the red threads were united in one skein, the green in another, the blue and purple in still others, their true individual text and colour stood out more clearly than when they were woven together in their original complex historic pattern. In analytical thinking one follows the thread and disregards the total pattern, and the effect of system-making in life was to destroy an appreciation of its complexities and any sense of its overall pattern.

    Such a sorting-out of systems, with its corresponding division into parties, made it somewhat easier, no doubt, to introduce new threads of still different tones or colours on the social loom: it also encouraged the illusion that a satisfactory social fabric could be woven together of a single colour and fibre. Unfortunately, the effort to organise a whole community, or indeed any set of living relations, on the basis of making any sector of life wholly red, wholly blue, or wholly green, commits in fact a radical error. A community where everyone lived according to the romantic philosophy, for example, would have no stability. No continuity, no way of economically doing a thousand things that must be repeated every day of its life: left to spontaneous impulse, many important functions would not be performed at all. By whose spontaneous desires would garbage be collected or dishes washed? Necessity, social compulsion, solidarity play a part in real life that romanticism and anarchism take no account of.

    Similarly, a community that lived on the radical principle, divorcing itself from its past and being wholly concerned with the future, would leave out as much of the richness of historic existence as John Stuart Mill’s father left out of his education: by cutting off memory, it would even undermine hope. So, too, a thoroughly Marxian community, where no-one had any life except that provided by the state on terms laid down by the state, would do away with the possibility of creating autonomous and balanced human beings: thus it would forfeit – as Soviet Russia has in fact forfeited – the generous core of all of Marx’s own most noble dreams.

    In short, to take a single guiding idea, like individualism or collectivism, stoicism or hedonism, aristocracy or democracy, and attempt to follow this thread through all of life’s occasions, is to miss the significance of the thread itself, whose function is to add to the complexity and interest of life’s total pattern. Today the fallacy of “either-or” dogs us everywhere: whereas it is in the nature of life to embrace and surmount all its contradictions, not by shearing them away, but by weaving them into a more inclusive unity. No organism, no society, no personality, can be reduced to a system or be effectually governed by a system. Inner direction or outer direction, detachment or conformity, should never become so exclusive that in practice they make a shift from one to the other impossible.

    None of the existing categories of philosophy, none of the present procedures of science or religion, none of the popular doctrines of social action, covers the method and outlook presented here. Not personalism, not humanism, not materialism, not idealism, not existentialism, not naturalism, not Marxian communism, not Emersonian individualism can comprehend the total view that, in the name of life, I have been putting forward in these pages. For the essence of the present philosophy is that many elements necessarily rejected by any single system are essential to develop life’s highest creative potential; and that by turns one system or another must be invoked, temporarily, to do justice to life’s endlessly varied needs and occasions.

    Those who understand the nature of life itself will not, like Engels or Dewey or White, see reality in terms of change alone and dismiss the fixed and static as otiose; neither will they, like many Greek and Hindu philosophers, regard flux and movement and time as unreal or illusory and seek truth only in the unchangeable. Coming to the practical affairs of life, this philosophy of the whole does not over-value any single system of property or production: just as Aristotle and the framers of the American constitution wisely favoured a mixed system of government, so one will favour a mixed economy, not afraid to invoke socialist measures when free enterprise leads to injustice or economic depression, or to favour competition and personal initiative when private monopolies or governmental organisations bog down in torpid security and inflexible bureaucratic routine. This is the philosophy of open synthesis; and to make sure that it remains open I shall resist the temptation to give it a name. Those who think and act in its spirit may be identifies, perhaps, by the absence of labels.

    The scepticism of systems is a basic thesis of this book; but it has another name: the affirmation of organic life. If no single principle will produce a harmonious and well-balanced existence, for either the person or the community, then harmony and balance perhaps demand a degree of inclusiveness and completeness sufficient to nourish every kind of nature, to create the fullest variety in unity, to do justice to every occasion. That harmony must include and resolve discords: it must have a place for heresy as well as conformity; for rebellion as well as adjustment – and vice versa. And that balance must maintain itself against sudden thrusts and impulsions: like the living organism, it must have reserves at its command, capable of being swiftly mobilised, wherever needed to maintain a dynamic equilibrium.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Good stuff, Mike! “The will to a system is a lack of integrity”, as Nietzsche put it. And this comment goes a long way in unwrapping Nietzsche’s meaning here.

  3. Entry 283699: says :

    “and “everyman an entrepreneur” in recent history, though both strongly emphasised the purely economic function and use of the human.”

    -I recently watched the 2015 3d animated version of “The Little Prince” with my son and there was a city explored wherein the motto stamped everywhere (and in mind) was “Be Essential.” It was repeated over and over and mumbled under the breath of each automaton-like worker. Your writing and thoughts made me think of that again. I must read the book now.

    Also to WestCoastRecovery I googled your idea and somehow found the movie Koyaanisqatsi, which I will now watch, thank you

    I’m reading sections of Gebser’s “Ever-Present Origin” again, because I need a lot of work;) lol.

    I do.

    And more understanding.

    Your posts help.

    I dragged him in a paper (Gebser) I wrote about human consciousness during the upper paleolithic period and art. He was in there with George Bataille (The Cradle of Humanity) and a few others. It was ok. Not the greatest, but a start.

    a last thing: Scott, your recent posts that touch upon responsibility and disintegration are forcing me to take a closer look at myself when it comes to a few creative projects milling about. This is uncomfortable for me, but good, in that I’m questioning what I’m doing more and more. I don’t know what this means but if it is happening it must be happening so yeah- that dwindled quite nicely. Now I must find a joke somewhere for the laughing of it. Anyway- thanks again for all your posts and it makes me look inward


    • Scott Preston says :

      There’s lots in Gebser that can be befuddling. If you find something particularly befuddling, bring it up. It helps us all.

      I was amused by your description of The Little Prince and the motto “be essential” that kept coming up in the movie. I haven’t seen it but it reminds of Nietzsche’s formula for self-overcoming: “Become what you are!”

    • mikemackd says :

      I found the music (by Phillip Glass) and the images from that movie, and its companion, Powaqatsi, have stayed with me over the many years since I first saw them. They didn’t seem to be making a deep impression on me as I watched them, but they did.

      • mikemackd says :

        Another movie that had a similar effect on me was one universally panned by the critics, a Bill Forsyth move called Being Human (1994). It starred Robin Williams as a cowardly dad in four different historical periods. Also unforgettable. Also shot straight into my soul without much impressing my critical faculties at the time.

        • Steve Lavendusky says :

          For now the time of gifts is gone –
          O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
          O bathos that the years must fill –
          Here is dull earth to build upon
          Undecorated; we have reached
          Twelfth Night or what you will … you will.

          • mikemackd says :

            Thank you for posting this poem, Steve. The earlier parts of it are relevant too.

            By the way, in a recent TV series of his the still boyish-looking physics populariser, Professor Brian Cox, referred to time as a spacetime component. As such, he said, that means that time does not pass; rather, we do. We pass through spacetime. So seen this way, MacNeice’s poem refers to our inaccessibility to a spacetime location in what Julian Barbour, in his 1999 book “The End Of Time”, called “Platonia”, wherein our imprint then and there remains.

            Whatever the merits or otherwise of that perspective, the concluding lines of Barbour’s book (pp. 334-335) have also resonated down the years for me. They are:

            “Like you, I am nothing and everything. I am nothing because there is no personal canvas on which I am painted. I am everything because I am the universe seen from the point, unforseeable because it is unique, that is me now. C’est moi. I am bound to stay. We all watch – and participate in – the great spectacle. Immortality is here. Our task is to recognise it. Some Nows are thrilling and beautiful beyond description. Being in them is the supreme gift.”

      • Entry 283699: says :

        Yes, I watched the first 3rd last night and about to finish it up now. Started falling in love about 15 minutes in ha. I like the big moon and the hotdog people. Cars.


        This is my art movie review.

        I’ll work on it.

        But in all seriousness- and I was being serious before but this is more serious- it definitely didn’t need any dialogue and I appreciate that. I picked up what he was laying down quite easily. And it is something to be said for putting it together myself and watching the patterns continue in the images to allow all buried emotion within to gradually erupt, or irrupt. And.

        Sometimes I forget how sad it makes me when I think about assembly lines. The movie helped me to recognize it again and remember.

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