As much as Western society has become secularized over the course of the past couple centuries, the Judeo-Christian mythos still forms a backdrop to the predominant modes of thought in our society. Two myths predominate: the myth of the Fall, and the myth of the eschaton.
The Fall is the story of how we have been exiled from Paradise, struck down from spiritual perfection to a mundane, corrupt materiality. The eschaton is the story of where we are going: that the pain and suffering we experience has an ultimate meaning that will revealed; that what has been lost will be recovered; that the conflict and misery in this world will be reconciled; that evil will not have the last word. One looks back to a glorious past whose ways we have lost and to which we must return. The other looks forward to a bright and hopeful future, in which there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and good will triumph over evil. The prevailing scientific materialism would suggest that both of these are nonsense, and that history is nothing but “one damn thing after another.” However, I would suggest that few people, even committed materialists, actually believe this. Most of us have, in some form or another, if not a philosophy of time, at least a mythos of time.
The eschatological view has dominated modern thought. Though ostensibly throwing off the yoke of religious superstition, the secular humanism of this time had a fervent eschatology in which religion itself was part of a barbaric past that would be superseded by a future in which humanity would soon be perfected through the power of reason. The Whig view of history, as it came to be known, suggested that the history of humanity was one of ascent. We began as savages, fighting one another for dominance in a world that was, as Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short,” and arose into intelligent beings capable of reason, virtue and invention, throwing off the shackles of ignorance, subservience, and superstition. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection seemed to reinforce this view, or at least it certainly did so in Herbert Spencer’s sociological interpretation of it. The belief that advances in science and technology would create a brighter future for all resonates with us to this day, and is in many cases so sacrosanct as to provoke mockery and ridicule toward anyone who dares question it. There are more liberal and conservative versions of it, but the myth of progress is one of the defining features of modernity.
This has provoked a whole series of reactions. Along with the Enlightenment came a Counter-Enlightenment. For “throne and altar” conservatives like Joseph-Marie de Maistre, this upheaval in science, politics, and philosophy was nothing but chaos threatening to destroy an order that had kept society together for centuries. This so-called “reason” of this age was simply an eagerness to overthrow the wisdom of the past. Romantics such as Percy Shelley or Lord Byron saw in the industrial revolution not a march of progress toward a technological utopia, but a corruption of the natural world, in which the beauty and elegance of nature had been replaced with a cold, mechanistic, instrumental logic that commodified the world and turned society into one large factory where everything is mass produced and everything is standardized and robbed of any uniqueness.
In response, figures like Hegel developed a more nuanced approach. For Hegel, history was not so much constantly getting better, but rather unfolding dialectically, with the ideas of one era negated by their antithesis, which in turn are negated by another antithesis. Through this tension of thesis and antithesis, a new synthesis emerges, and the cycle continues on. For Hegel, this is the process by which Spirit becomes self-aware. Karl Marx posited that it was not ideas but material conditions that drove these historical processes, with each era having its own form of class struggle. Yet both of these approaches shared in the eschatological tendencies of modernity. They both saw an ultimate “end of history” toward which world events would eventually lead.
Another “end of history” was announced in the twentieth century by postmodernism. In this case, however, it was the end of history as a process toward some goal. Modernism, with all its hopes of human perfection and the triumph of reason, had seemed overturned by the brutality of fascism and two world wars. The myth of progress, faith in reason, the perfectibility of man—these could no longer be maintained. We were instead left with a matrix of floating signifiers that only pointed to other signifiers, never getting us any closer to the Real.
Others begged to differ. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw in evolution a trend toward increasing complexity, with a corresponding increase in consciousness, leading toward the creation of a “noosphere” that would span the globe as a network of ideas and technologies connecting humanity to one another. Henri Bergson conceived of an “elan vital,” a vital force that moved evolution and history forward in a process of ever-expanding value. Alfred North Whitehead developed a metaphysics in which events were the fundamental unit of reality, with each moment contributing novel information not found in its predecessors in a process called “appetition.” Jean Gebser saw an evolution in different modes of thought from early humans to the present day, going from archaic to magic to mythic to rational, and toward a new mode of consciousness he dubbed “integral,” which moved from the three-dimensional spatial awareness of rational thought to a new four-dimensional temporal awareness. Disciples of Gebser such as Ken Wilber and William Irwin Thompson have spawned a new generation of “spiritual evolutionaries,” who see the expansion of consciousness as not merely a personal goal as mystics, but as a trajectory toward which the cosmos is unfolding.
Not so fast, warn a chorus of naysayers. Against the secular modernists, post-modernists, and “evolutionaries,” these pessimists saw in this alleged expansion of consciousness only a loss of ancient wisdom. Oswald Spengler, in his famous book The Decline of the West, wrote of a process by which civilizations are born and grow, but eventually decay from a “Culture” rich in art, music, and religiosity, to a civilization of base materialism, in which economics, technology, and politics are the driving factors. Spengler proved a major influence on one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers: Martin Heidegger. Best known for his work Being and Time, Heidegger challenged the Cartesian view of mind-body duality and the correspondence theory of truth, suggesting instead that knowledge and Being should best be understood in terms of a kind of “unconcealment.” His later works, however, presented a further challenge to modernity, seeing in modern technology the conversion of the world from a mysterious realm of possibilities to be revealed into a “standing reserve” of matter and energy to be used instrumentally for human consumption, leading toward an era of nihilism and total war, which he predicted would ironically be celebrated as a glorious and enlightened era.
Perhaps the greatest prophet of this brand of pessimism was René Guénon. Seeking to bring a Hindu perspective to the West, he conceived of time in terms of yugas, in which time did not advance uniformly, but rather accelerated as it reached its zenith. This zenith, however, was not some glorious endpoint like Chardin’s noosphere, but an abyss of base materialism. The acceleration of time occurred because of a downward fall in which we reached peak velocity as we lost the lightness of spirit. He sought to shed light on the ancient understanding of the cosmos, emphasizing the numerous ways in which the ancients understood the world in qualitative rather than quantitative terms. Even numbers themselves were not merely quantitative, each having its own archetypal quality. He critiqued modernity’s neurotic reliance on quantification. Through quantification, we lose our sense of what is unique. Everything becomes standardized, mass produced, broken down into the lowest common denominator. In politics, economics, and religion, he saw in this a kind of misguided egalitarianism that assumed the replaceability of individuals. Through this kind of egalitarianism, we had lost the sense of initiation, in which the wise and learned counsel those below them, and lift them up.
Guénon also criticized the modern lens through which ancient wisdom was interpreted, such as Jung’s understanding of mythology. Of course, he conceded, mythology is symbolic, carrying multiple meanings. But, he cautioned, we would be missing something crucial if we interpret it as merely symbolic. We assume it is so because the archaeological record does not match what these ancient myths tell us. However, he postulated, this is because the world itself has solidified into the shape we see it today, including the fossil record that has been left for posterity. The ancients dwelled in a world that was much more open, more porous in relation to other realities. There is an interesting parallel here with Gebser, who saw magic and mythic consciousness as having their own worlds of perception, so to speak. The difference is that for Gebser, the rational ego is in a sense adaptive, creating a new dimension of perception, even if it suppresses some of the other perceptual modes, whereas for Guénon, this is purely a loss—a fall from grace.
Between the fall and the eschaton lies a messy mixture of sin and grace. There are aspects of our society that are getting better. Medical advances are allowing people to live longer. Society has become more inclusive of different races, creeds, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Yet this inclusion has largely come at the cost of meaning. We are able to tolerate multiple religions by acting as if they were all mere language games with no actual wisdom to impart on their followers. We include people from across different races, genders, and sexualities as faceless members of the same cold and uncaring society where they exist as a number, a statistic, log entry in a vast bureaucratic mess of mediocrity and anonymity. The equality we achieve is a flattening of all that makes us unique. The freedom we attain is the freedom to consume the options society sells us. Even spiritual transcendence has become a consumer commodity. So-called “New Age” spirituality has promoted a culture in which spirituality is a matter of accessorizing: a few mantras here, a little sacred geometry there, sprinkle in some sage, some misinterpretations of quantum physics, and solipsistic belief in the power of one’s own mind over the entire universe, and we call the result “spiritual.” It seems that the modern world has sacrificed a great deal of depth for a rather superficial breadth.
Yet it seems a bit rash to so readily dismiss modernity without appreciating the moment in history it represented. While the Copernican revolution is often seen as “decentering” humanity, or “dethroning” us from our privileged position in the cosmos, it was if anything an indication of humanity’s ascendancy. Aristotle’s cosmology placed earth in the center not because it was special or exalted, but because it was the heaviest of the elements, toward which all other things fall. The sun, representing royalty and divinity, held a privileged position in the celestial spheres. Far from decentering humanity, Copernicus scandalized his contemporaries by demoting the sun to a more gross and undignified position, while the Earth was exalted to the celestial realm. What a perfect metaphor for the emerging humanism of the time, which elevated humanity to a godlike status, moving Icarus-like ever closer to the sun. The traditional forms of authority which had given the world a sense of order and certainty were coming undone, and humanity was becoming the new cosmic center. Humans sought new ways to control nature and engineer society. The world became an object to be molded according to our own vision. A Promethean spirit of invention and exploration began to dominate.
In the twentieth century, this edifice itself began to crumble. Science and technology continued to advance as fast as ever, but the costs of this way of life were becoming apparent. The power of the atom had been harnessed, only to create the most destructive weapon ever. An era of unprecedented economic prosperity was giving way to mindless consumerism. The industrial technology that had propelled humanity into this new era of dominance was now found to be causing an ecological crisis that increasingly threatens to undo civilization as we know it.
Thus, we are now in another crisis, much like the one that created modernity as we know it. From the Promethean spirit that had exalted humanity, we find a new need for humility. The Cartesian world of quantification and extension had rendered nature into an object we could dominate and manipulate. Now, it’s becoming apparent that we need to enter a new way of relating to nature, based on partnership rather than domination. In doing so, we may rediscover some of the old wisdom of the ancients, who had no choice but to negotiate with their natural environment and respect its wisdom. We must look again to ancient wisdom with humility and reverence, but we must do so with discernment. We cannot return to a pre-Copernican universe with its order and certainty. Even if we wanted to, we would only have a surface-level understanding of their teachings, which were handed down through processes of initiation to which outsiders were excluded. We must therefore adapt this rediscovered wisdom to the cosmos revealed to us by modernity. This discerning blend of ancient wisdom and modern knowledge is how a new paradigm can emerge—one that is appropriate to the new era we find ourselves in.
History, I suggest, is neither a long decay from a golden age nor a linear ascent toward perfection, but a cosmic story unfolding with surprises at each turn. Each turning of the age moves us forward, but not as a progressive accumulation of what has come before. We must think of each age in archetypal terms, not merely as good or bad, but as posing a unique set of challenges to be answered. Modernity has exhausted itself as a force and is now in a state of degeneracy, but it served its own purpose at the time, and we should appreciate its collective lessons. Each age brings about a new form of wisdom, and in the process there is often a tendency to discard the wisdom of the previous age. As we enter a new age, we may find ourselves too quick to dismiss the wisdom of modernity even as we seek to revive the wisdom of the ancients. Yet we must remember that our age will have to find its own wisdom, which will itself be superseded. The past shall guide us, but the future awaits.