Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Prehistory continued until the time of the scientific revolution, until the 17th century

There are two huge contemporary obstacles to spiritual growth, materialism, and its corollary, the idea of progress. I'm currently in the middle of a fascinating book that discusses this, The Order of the Ages: World History in the Light of a Universal Cosmogony, by Robert Bolton. Bolton points out that our traditional division of the human adventure into prehistory, history and post-history is not exactly accurate. This is because prehistory didn't really end 5000 years ago, or whenever written records begin. Rather, for all intents and purposes, prehistory continued until the time of the scientific revolution, which didn't really get underway until the 17th century. Consider, for example, ancient Egypt. Although it is considered a part of history, it "retained the same theocratic form for some five thousand years without any radical or irreversible change in its spiritual or social order." This is a rather staggering idea to contemplate; I'm not so sure we can contemplate it, since we are so imbued with the ideas of progress, change, and evolution, which were inconceivable for the ancients.
As Mead suggested in God and Gold, I don't think we understand the extent to which we are all -- religious and secular alike -- living in a world with such radically different assumptions than any humans who existed previously. In short, we are living in history, and must therefore cope with linear, irreversible time, whereas premodern peoples lived in a timeless state -- or, to be perfectly accurate, a cyclically temporal state that resonated with eternity. Traditionalists maintain -- and they may well be correct about this -- that this premodern, timeless mode is normative for human beings, and that we were never meant to be where we are. Certainly the numbers are on their side, given that human beings only stumbled into this thing called "history" so recently. Perhaps life is so confusing because we were never meant to be here -- we literally drifted into this temporal viaduct, and now we can't get out or find our way back into the timeless.
Again, it's almost impossible for us to think in this way, because we have to eliminate from our minds all of the anxiety that goes along with the temporal mode, which is also intrinsically quantitative and materialistic (as I will further explain below, if not later). For example, we are naturally very concerned with the linear amount of time we spend on the planet -- the quantity of our years -- in such a way that it can eclipse the quality of our life. Part of the reason for this is that in the modern world, quality no longer resonates with eternity, so it might as well be just more quantity. In other words, in the modern world even quality tends to be reduced to quantity. We can all experience this, for example, in the bland "flattening" of aesthetic qualities. Most everything is constantly "different," and yet, just more of the same.
This especially becomes noticeable if you are able to step outside history and live in a more timeless mode. There is a kind of constant change which, ironically, is no change at all, since change is only possible in light of permanence. If everything is changing, then it is logically equivalent to nothing changing -- like fashion, it's difference without a difference, or mere agitation. So it's a kind of timelessness, but somehow the opposite of the timeless plenum enjoyed by our furbears. How to describe it? It's sort of an empty plenum or overflowing vacuum, is it not? A cornucrapia of BS. Now, just to throw another mankey wrench into the works, Bolton points out that we are actually no longer living in history. Rather, that ended way back in -- well, people can argue over exactly when history ended, but it was definitely over by the start of the 20th century.
History over? How can that be? World War I, World War II, the communist revolution, the British invasion, the Red Sox winning the World Series? Yes, just agitations in the posthistorical void.
Maybe. Perhaps I should point out that I'm just grappling out loud with some of Bolton's ideas. Taking them out for a test spin, so to speak. Because they are so very different from our usual way of looking at things, it requires a leap of sympathy in order to consider them in good faith, rather than just rejecting them out of hand. Ultimately we are coming back to the question of whether progress actually exists, or whether we're just fooling ourselves while the apocalypse waits just around the corner, ready to interrupt our regularly scheduled post-historical delusions once our spiritual degeneracy is complete.Bolton notes that as late as the fourteenth century there was "nothing that need necessarily have led to anything different after another five hundred years, whereas the pattern of changes from the fifteenth century onward was unmistakably cumulative." So that is when history began. But it was very, very different from our post-historical situation, since it still resonated with the timelessness that preceded it, and in fact, can be seen as a sort of "prolongation" of those timeless qualities, now in time.
With the entrance into history proper, Bolton writes that it was as if a damn had burst, so that all of the potential in these eternal ideas flooded out into time. But eventually the force of the "explosion" weakens, until we have reached our present state of exhaustion, in which we are more distant than ever from the living principles that animated our civilization. To a large extent, time, history, and change are all tied in with the development of science, which, for the first time, introduced real -- and seemingly inevitable -- progress. However, again, our technical progress over the past few hundred years is so "directly demonstrable and tangible" that it "can almost stifle any sense that something else may have been lost at the same time." In fact, Bolton argues that these tangible changes serve to reorient us to matter, which has the consequence of masking "a relentless loss of both a consciousness and of a spiritual energy of a far more essential kind."
This needn't necessarily be thought of in an explicitly religious way. I'm thinking, for example, of Van der Leun's reverence for the 16th century essayist Montaigne, whose.... whose essaying over a range of timeless human concerns remains unsurpassed over 400 years later. Or consider Bach, or Shakespeare, or Rembrandt. How did they do what they did? It has been commented that it couldn't have been "difficult" for Shakespeare to have written his plays, for if it had been difficult, it would have been impossible. One could say the same of Mozart, who had a kind of musical fecundity that is probably literally inconceivable to us. No one today seems able to do what Shakespeare or Mozart or Montaigne did so effortlessly back then, under conditions that we would find impossible to begin with. Why is this?
According to Bolton, it has to do with the nature of time and our fall into materiality and quantity, and the consequent historical movement away from a kind of consciousness that is no longer familiar to us. Or, to be perfectly accurate, it is still accessible, but it must be self-willed. For reasons we will get into later, in the post-historical world, consciousness contracts unless active counter-measures are taken.

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