The Dance of the Visions 2.0

on July 30, 2012

It’s been just over three years since I started using this blog to lay out a theory of human history as controlled by an evolving sequence of visions of the underlying nature of reality.

My original intention was to present the basic elements of this theory in a simple manner and then work my way forward from prehistoric times, showing how the successive visions have been manifested in historical events, philosophy, and art. However, I soon found myself caught up in something very different — a prolonged attempt to refine the theory itself.

Since then, I’ve been wrestling with fundamental questions involving the dynamic behind the rise of new visions and the decline and fall of old ones. Over the last year, I’ve finally answered most of those questions to my own satisfaction — but in the process, this blog itself has become a sorry tangle, a veritable bird’s next of overlapping themes and repeated self-corrections.

So what I mean to do is start afresh — at least to a degree. I’m not going to rehash arguments I’ve already made or attempt to prove that the sequence of visions exists and works the way I say it does. That’s what the last three years have been about. Instead, I plan to sketch out the broad picture and then trace the sequence of visions through history, pretty much as I meant to do in the first place.

Of course, getting the bird’s nest straightened out doesn’t mean that the result will exactly be simple. The visions serve as a elaborate system of mythic bookkeeping, in which clusters of closely related philosophical assumptions control every aspect of human culture, and even subtle changes in the relationships among different visions can have a dramatic effect on how we live and work and think.

However, the underlying principles of the theory can be stated fairly concisely.

My first premise is that we humans have access to what might be called higher knowledge — a non-rational way of dealing with existence that functions as a form of intuitive problem-solving but that also leads to certain mystical intimations which have been remarkably consistent through all eras and cultures:

  • That existence is far vaster and more complex than anything we can know through direct sensory experience.
  • That we ourselves are an integral part of this larger universe and that, reciprocally, it is part of us and affects everything we do.
  • That we have a moral obligation to act on our awareness of this higher reality by putting its interests ahead of our own and by remaking the everyday world to align it more closely with our glimpses of transcendent possibility.

My second premise is that although we humans are natural mystics, we are also practical, hard-headed types who are justifiably skeptical of our own mystical intimations unless we can reconcile them with our factual knowledge of the world around us. This tension creates a powerful dynamic that impels us to search for points of reconciliation wherever we can find them — in the latest discoveries of science, in our experiences as members of social groups and movements, or in the bizarre landscape of our dreams and hallucinations.

The sequence of visions grows out of this dynamic, with each vision representing one particularly successful reconciliation between higher knowledge and a specific area of ordinary knowledge.

Every vision at its peak appears so persuasive and so universally applicable that large numbers of people are swept up in it and begin attempting to transform the world, society, and their own lives in accordance with its implications. However, every vision also has built-in limitations that eventually cause it to fail and be discarded — the most critical of which is that they are all ultimately based on lies.

To cite some specific examples, the universe of stars and galaxies cannot be equated to the higher reality of our intimations. Subscribing to a political cause, no matter how just, is not the same as obeying an inner voice that transcends all mundane politics. And although the archetypal beings of our imagination may speak words of profound wisdom, they are never fully reliable and cannot be taken as representing ultimate truth.

These are not fatal impediments when a vision is in its tentative early stages and is embraced only by prophets and poets, who recognize it as a fruitful metaphor and not a final word. But as visions mature and become the belief systems of entire cultures, they start to be taken literally and to be enforced by social pressure. At that point, it grows increasingly difficult to see past them to the greater reality of which they are at best faint echoes.

That is the primary reason why all visions eventually fail and give way to successors that are based on new scientific knowledge, new political forms, and new personal experiences.

There are, however, additional complications.

One is that the visions come in three distinct types, depending on whether they derive from our experience of the physical universe, of society, or of our own minds. These are very different knowledge systems that start from differing premises and are capable of arriving at very different conclusions about the nature of reality. For that reason, it is much easier to reconcile higher knowledge with one or another of them in isolation than with all three of them at once.

But it seems we can’t just leave it at that. Higher knowledge itself tells us that ultimate reality has a unitary nature, and that entices us to try to combine visions of all three types into a grand synthesis. These attempts are often philosophically fruitful, but their central objective is not mystery but sense, and they easily devolve into purely intellectual arguments that distort the visions involved and contribute to their decline.

In addition, we don’t merely intellectualize the relationships among the visions — we also emotionalize them. Like children playing with their dolls and action figures, we identify the visions as archetypal personas, cast them in melodramatic confrontations with one another, and even enact those confrontations in our own lives.

What’s more, different people may tell very different stories using the same cast of characters. For those of a progressive bent, the newest visions typically become the heroes while the older visions are viewed as repressive tyrants. Call this scenario the Rebel Alliance versus the Evil Emperor. But at exactly the same time, those who are conservative by nature may regard the established visions as defenders of all that is pure and holy while demonizing the newer ones as forces of destruction and desecration.

These casting choices underlie most of the great historical confrontations — the wars and revolutions and conflicts between believers and non-believers. But although everyone wants to paint themselves as the good guys, the eventual outcome is always the same. As time passes, the very oldest of the active visions becomes increasingly hollow and repressive and is finally discredited and discarded. And meanwhile, the guiding vision of the insurgents is coopted, toned down, and installed as a new guardian of society. The king is dead, long live the king.

However, there is also a second aspect to the emotional side of the visions which goes beyond archetypal story-telling and taps into our deepest and most instinctual hopes and fears.

It seems as though every one of us — revolutionaries and reactionaries alike — is motivated by what may be a nostalgic recollection of the earliest days of humankind, when we all participated in a common repertoire of simple hands-on technology, lived in small family units where everyone knew each other, and discussed the exotic landscape of our dreams around the campfire. Beyond that, we also share the same anxiety over any unleashing of the destructive forces of unrestrained sex and aggression, and the same primal terror of the unknown.

Because these hopes and fears are universal, they do not attach to particular visions so much as they control the overall timing of the cycle of change. At certain moments, a majority of us are driven by positive expectations and an openness to innovation. That is when people are most interested in the newest visions and when those visions develop most rapidly.

But at other times, the majority is driven by fear and a desire for security, and then we seek reassurance in the older and more familiar visions and let the newer ones slide. This regular alternation of impulses is, among other things, why the vision that leads the insurgents always becomes the new monarch.

So altogether, the cycle of visions appears to be driven by four factors that can be equated with the traditional schema of earth, air, fire, and water. At its heart is our attempt to reconcile the pure mystical intimations of higher knowledge — fire — with our practical hands-on experience of earthly things. Then to either side stand the intellectual needs symbolized by air and the emotional needs symbolized by water, both of which tug the visions back and forth, loudly demanding that they either make rational sense or cater to our innermost hopes and fears.

The devil is always in the details, of course. Identifying these four elements doesn’t explain how their competing claims can come together in a recurring sequence of such extraordinary complexity and perfection that I have compared it at various times it to both a Rube Goldberg device and an elaborate clockwork mechanism.

For the moment, however, I mean to set those details aside in favor of the broad picture and do what I was intending to do before I got distracted three years ago — which is to follow the cycle of visions through human history, allowing the working of its mechanisms to reveal itself as I proceed.

Read the Previous Entry: The Sticking Point
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