Prelude to Chaos

on June 18, 2011

In my recent entries on creative imagination, I’ve been speaking of the chaos vision as if it was past history — but this is very far from the truth.

Chaos may have lost its transcendent edge back in the 70’s, but it’s still one of the dominant visions of our culture and will be for another generation yet to come. This means it is worth looking closely at what role the chaos vision currently plays in public affairs and how it might change under the influence of holism and multiculturalism during the next decade.

Before I can do that, however, I need to provide a clearer account of chaos than I’ve ever quite managed.

A friend who follows these entries recently remarked that he’s never understood why I chose to use the term “chaos” rather than a more obvious label like “consciousness.” I’ve been thinking it over, and my answer is that “chaos” most accurately describes the shifting and uncertain territory of myth space as experienced by rational-minded 19th and 20th century folk who thought they had put all that old, weird stuff behind them. Chaos is the native environment of Lewis Carroll, H.P. Lovecraft, and Monty Python.

“Consciousness,” on the other hand, is a word associated with the holism vision. It refers to a scientific theory of mind as an emergent property of the physical universe and takes little or no account of higher knowledge.

But the deeper question is why the modern Western world should have experienced higher knowledge as chaotic and disorienting — and to answer that I have to refer back to the three inner experience visions which preceded chaos

The greatest limitation of inner experience visions is that their basic materials are purely subjective. They cannot draw upon objective fact the way scientific visions do, or upon the shared emotional bonds which underlie social visions. They are rooted in the private dreams, hallucinations, and intuitions of a small number of gifted individuals, and the challenge they face is to provide a coherent account of these bizarre experiences that will force the rest of us to take them seriously.

What this means in practice is that inner experience visions are crucially dependent on scientific visions to assess the reliability of their data, decide what is plausible and what is not, and match their intimations of higher reality with the latest cosmological theories.

And that leads to a further complication, which is that whenever a dominant scientific vision falters, the current inner experience vision loses its intellectual integrity as well. This creates a variety of problems which are resolved only by the emergence of a new inner experience vision more in tune with the latest scientific understanding.

The Shamans

At the start of human history, it was easy to take shamanistic encounters with supernatural entities at face value. The spirits might vary in form or flicker in and out of existence, as is the way with dreams and hallucinations, but in the context of a scientific vision that was focused on transformation in the natural world, that seemed perfectly reasonable.

Attitudes began to change, however, when the first farmers took control of nature, domesticating and regularizing it and making the world a more orderly place. As they did, the pursuit of scientific mystery turned away from earthly things and towards the eternal perfection of the heavens.

By the start of the Bronze Age, this new cosmic order vision was propelling the rise of civilization — and the spirit vision was compelled to change in response. About that time, the old earth-bound nature spirits and ancestral spirits were superseded by powerful celestial gods, who dwelt among the stars and appeared in private to kings and high priests but never showed their faces to the common folk.

This modification of the spirit vision may have made it appear more plausible and more socially relevant, but it had a negative effect on the pursuit of higher knowledge. Not only were the peasants cut out of the equation, but understanding was gradually lost even among the elite. Shaman-kings gave way to warrior-kings, high priests turned into the CEOs of wealthy temple establishments, and both priests and aristocrats became increasingly cynical about the gods whose existence they knew to be a lie.

The Prophets

The Bronze Age ended around 1200 BC with a collapse of the old empires, followed a few centuries later by a political revival based on networks of city-states and petty kingdoms. This loosening up of society paved the way for a revival of genuine higher knowledge — but now expressed in terms of a vision that was fully in line with the assumptions of cosmic order.

There were several local variants of this new vision, but the most influential flowered in Israel in the 8th century BC, when rooting out the final vestiges of the spirit vision had became a national obsession.

The Old Testament is uncompromising in rejecting the former shamanistic ways and explicitly forbids “turning to mediums or to those who consult the spirits of the dead.” But at the same time, its primary focus is on the doings of the Hebrew prophets — who were heirs to the shamanistic tradition, but in a significantly altered form.

Instead of speaking directly to gods or spirits, the prophet experienced visions or prophetic inspirations that were interpreted as messages from the celestial realm. This new formulation of higher knowledge eventually became the basis for Christianity, as well as Islam.

A typical example can be found in the Book of Revelations, where John of Patmos tells us: “I was caught up by the Spirit; and behind me I heard a loud voice, like the sound of a trumpet. … After this I looked, and there before my eyes was a door opened in heaven; and the voice that I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must happen here after.’ At once I was caught up by the Spirit.”

John’s account of being “caught up by the Spirit” would be familiar to any archaic shaman, but his description of his experience makes it clear that he regarded it as an apocalyptic vision that he was “shown” and not a literal journey to the heavens.

This balance between archaic cosmology and higher knowledge was short-lived, however. Even as the revelation-based religions were displacing the old pagan gods, the cosmic order vision itself was fading. During the Dark Ages, the locus of scientific transcendence moved far beyond the starry heavens, to a purely philosophical realm having no physical connection to the visible world.

The remoteness and abstraction of this new concept of ultimate reality made it difficult to sustain a belief in celestial messengers, and little by little the era of prophecy and revelation came to an end. By the Middle Ages, the followers of the major religions were reduced to arguing over how to interpret the revelations of former times — and anyone who claimed to be doing the bidding of angels was in danger of being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc.

Eventually, the official channels of higher knowledge became as stagnant and socially constricted as in the late Bronze Age, serving chiefly to prop up powerful political and ecclesiastical establishments. But even as the revelation vision was being shut down, the first hints of its successor were springing up, chiefly in the form of mysticism.

The Enlightened

Inner experience is not innately mystical. Neither shamans nor prophets were mystics in the modern sense. But given a scientific vision which denied the possibility of direct access to transcendence, it was probably inevitable that higher knowledge would be re-interpreted as ineffable glimpses of that which is beyond all knowing.

By the twelfth century, higher knowledge was coming to be understood as existing solely within the individual human soul and as having as its natural outcome either enlightenment or ecstatic Oneness. Its more hallucinatory aspects were correspondingly dismissed as illusions, distractions, or at best minor way-stations on the path.

The next three hundred years witnessed a great mystical flowering that extended across the civilizations of the Old World, from Europe and the Middle East to China and Japan. But as the Middle Ages were coming to an end, something very strange happened.

The exact nature of that “something” is difficult to specify, but its results are obvious. One was a fizzling out of the mystical tradition just when it might have been expected to gain increased momentum. The other was a general damping down of free expression, with societies becoming more conservative and less open and exploratory.

I have never seen an entirely satisfactory explanation for this retreat, though one possibility is that the elite establishments of the time were simply better at hanging onto power than their equivalents of the late Bronze Age. Between about 1500 and 1700, kingdoms turned into repressive autocracies, religions embraced fundamentalism, and laws were passed to keep both peasants and the growing commercial classes from challenging the status quo.

The one place that was largely exempt from this repressiveness was Western Europe, whose newly-formed nation-states instead underwent an explosive development that enabled them to break out into the world at large and ride roughshod over more sophisticated but increasingly stagnant civilizations elsewhere.

But the real key to the divergence, I suspect, is not political but philosophical. The crucial change came in the Italian Renaissance, when intellectual tools like logic and geometry came to be regarded as a source of accurate knowledge about ultimate reality.

This naive but strangely powerful assumption converted a vision that had been centered on mystical enlightenment into the distinctively European outlook I have been calling the reason vision. And in so doing, it set in motion the entire complicated machinery of modern history.


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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