Higher Knowledge and Elite Control

on October 31, 2011

Since there’s nothing that human beings can’t crap up, even higher knowledge has its downside.

Many of the problem arise because there are never more than a few individuals who can consistently experience the insights of higher knowledge in a focused manner. It therefore falls upon those few — the shamans, prophets, and visionaries — to convey their intuitions to the rest of us in the form of art, philosophy, and religion.

But as they do, distortions inevitably creep in. Compromises are made with what the audience already believes to be true. The message is watered down to look more like the simple cause-and-effect of ordinary knowledge. And insights that can not be simplified may take on an air of impenetrable mystery that discourages further inquiry.

The result is a kind of “higher knowledge for dummies” — which is as close as most of us are likely to get to the real thing. And though even this diluted version may trigger flashes of genuine higher knowledge in those who embrace it, it can also act as an impediment if they take it at face value and refuse to seek further.

And this is what happens in ideal situations, when those transmitting the messages of higher knowledge do so with no thought of personal gain. If elements of ego and dominance are allowed to intrude, things can go very wrong indeed.

What makes the accurate transmission of higher knowledge so important is that, to an extraordinary degree, our ability to experience our own lives and the world around us as real and meaningful depends on the extent to which we identify them as manifestations of higher reality.

This means that the masters of higher knowledge literally hold in their hands the power to construct reality for the rest of us — not by changing the laws of physics, as in Waldo, but by defining the moral values, the significant connections among people and events, and the larger social wholes that give our lives meaning.

This continual re-creation of reality is a gift we we have received over and over again from our greatest artists, scientists, and political and religious leaders — and when all goes well, we accept those gifts in ways that broaden our sense of the possible and enhance our own humanity.

But when hard times creep in and the range of possibility narrows down around us, we may lose our faith in a better world and cling to any belief system that promises to explain why our lives have gone so wrong.

At such times, we become vulnerable to demagogues, cult leaders, conspiracy theorists, and outright charlatans. They may peddle a twisted and pernicious version of higher knowledge, one infused with greed and fear, but as long as it provides a sense of purpose and belonging it will find adherents..

It’s fairly easy, of course, to identify the perverted message of a Hitler or a Charles Manson — at least for those who stand outside the charmed circle. But there’s another way the search for higher meaning can be misappropriated, which is more subtle because it is seemingly more benign. That is through the cycle of visions itself.

As I’ve stated repeatedly, every vision begins with an attempt to reconcile our intimations of higher knowledge with some aspect of ordinary knowledge — and during a vision’s early phases, that component of higher knowledge remains strong and true. But once a vision matures and takes on a leadership role in society, it is reconfigured to serve the purpose of social stabilization and increasingly loses touch with the truths that first inspired it.

By the time it reaches its final phase, the vision has fossilized to the point of demanding a kind of kneejerk reverence for whatever fragments of higher knowledge it still retains, while suppressing newer insights that might undermine its central premises. And at the very end of its period of dominance, it abandons higher knowledge entirely and becomes nothing more than the sterile ideology of a ruling class,

This kind of decay afflicts visions of every type, but it appears to be particularly acute in the case of inner experience-based visions, since those are most closely allied to higher knowledge and possess the greatest power to either liberate or enslave the mind.

A few entries back, I explained the succession of inner experience-based visions as resulting from a need to remain plausible in light of the advance of scientific knowledge. That’s partly true, but it’s only half the story. The other half has to do with the repeated rise and fall of elite control.

Over and over throughout history, ruling elites have attempted to appropriate the latest inner experience-based vision in order to claim a monopoly over the dissemination of higher knowledge. But though they may succeed in the short run, the long-term outcome is always that the vision becomes hollow and lifeless, and both higher knowledge and social control slip through their fingers.

The first such appropriation occurred in the late Neolithic, when growing distinctions of wealth enabled the richest and most powerful individuals to become permanent rulers over their fellows. These early monarchs justified their new-found status by remaking the ancient spirit vision of the shamans in their own image, elevating simple nature spirits into all-powerful celestial gods and claiming to be sons of the gods or even gods themselves.

Because literacy was confined to an official priesthood which served the king, and because the peasants had no outside sources of information, these god-kings found it easy to control the nature of reality for 2500 years. But eventually the illusion wore thin. Shaman-kings degenerated into warrior-kings, their subjects became cynical and alienated, and the old empires collapsed at last.

That collapse made way for a new system of petty kingdoms whose rulers were still powerful but were no longer regarded as sacred. And between about 800 and 300 BC, the most innovative of those kingdoms provided the seedbed for a spectacular flowering of higher knowledge, propelled by prophets, poets, and philosophers who were not servants of any monarch.

This flowering, together with the latest scientific theories, shaped the revelation vision — which established the principle that there could be no direct physical contact between heaven and earth and thereby put an end to the reign of the god-kings. The struggle was a long one, but it was finally settled in the 4th century AD, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and stopped pretending its emperors were divine beings.

A new monopoly over higher knowledge was already on the horizon, however, and the powerful institutions of church and state began proclaiming that they were founded upon divine revelation and that to oppose them was a sin against God. But by now it was impossible to keep the peasants and craftsmen entirely ignorant, so elite control had to be reinforced with draconian penalties against heresy and lèse-majesté.

This second monopoly lasted for roughly a thousand years and broke down only at the end of the Middle Ages, when both church and state were growing increasingly corrupt and losing whatever claim they had once possessed to authentic higher knowledge.

This time, however, the complete collapse of the old order was limited to Europe, where the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome had prevented the full weight of imperial rule from taking hold. As a result, the next great revival of higher knowledge would be centered in the city-states of Italy and the new nation-states of northern Europe, while the rest of the world was left behind.

That revival led to the emergence between the 1400’s and the 1600’s of the reason vision, which was founded on a rejection of the possibility of miracles or divine revelations of any kind. This effectively did away with the absolute power of church and state — but once again the battle was long and bloody, and Europe was wracked for generations by wars of religion, executions for heresy, and fanatical witch-hunts.

The turmoil died down at the end of the 17th century, but a whole raft of radical new ideas had been loosed upon the world, thanks in large part to the invention of the printing press, and could not easily be suppressed. This meant that the next attempt to monopolize higher knowledge would have to be relatively subtle and indirect, based on censorship and indoctrination rather than on naked coercion.

In the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, power was wrested away from the last of the divine-right monarchs and placed in the hands of a new elite class consisting of the wealthy and educated. This class presented itself as innately superior to the unwashed masses on the grounds that its members were more rational and therefore closer to the Mind of God — but to maintain that claim required keeping the lower orders free of both rational thought and potentially dangerous ideas.

For that reason, the Victorian era was marked by a rigid class system, manifested in two very separate tiers of education, religion, and popular entertainment and reinforced by powerful social sanctions against the poor getting above their station. Within the general sphere of Western civilization, only the United States was relatively free of these divisions — and it was therefore in the US that the next great outbreak of higher knowledge would occur.

But now I find myself in a peculiar position, because I seemed to have arrived at a conclusion that the period from 1915 to 1945 was as epochal a turning point in human history as Classical Greece or the Italian Renaissance — and that American films and popular music and science fiction were the chief vehicles of that development.

And that may be so — but I sure didn’t see it coming, and I need to think about it very carefully.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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