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Chapter 3:
Awakenings of Monotheism

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Awakenings have been the shaping power of American culture from its inception. —William G. McLoughlin

THE SUPRISE OF REDNECKS debouching from the Appalachians into the Atlantic plain and the explosion of Pentecostalism in the inner cities has unnerved those who had convinced themselves that religion was a thing of the past, now that God was dead. 

The idea of a spontaneous, widespread religious revival is today considered rather shameful, overdetermined with images of Elmer Gantry and the sawdust trail.  Our modern elites in the media and the academy sneer at the simple pieties of the revivalist.  They regard the manipulation of crowd emotion by the charismatic preacher as fraudulent, and delight in the hypocrisy of the man of God who succumbs to the sins of the flesh as proof that his message is a lie.  Yet these same people swoon without irony over the spontaneous religious movement we call “The Sixties,” celebrate the “consciousness raising” of progressive political movements, and, in the 1990s, notoriously overlooked the flaws of that charismatic man of the people, Bill Clinton.  Popular movements, their leaders and their followers, whether welcome or unwelcome, progressive or religious, are a fact of human history.  Perhaps they are trying to tell us something.  For religious awakenings are not new, or even exceptional.  The most important Awakening in the United States was the one that gave it birth.

In the middle of the 18th century a powerful outburst of Protestant enthusiasm erupted in both England and colonial North America.  In Britain, John Wesley and his brother Charles preached a revival of Protestant religion using a simplified doctrine called Methodism.  It “contained nothing new in doctrine.  Its emphasis was on the practical side of life.” (Johnson 1979 p62)  It was Christianity reduced to the bare essentials, adapted to the needs of the simple mechanics who were changing the world out on the margins of England, developing water-driven cotton weaving, steam-driven mine pumps, and iron bridges.  

The upper crust was offended by Wesley’s revival.  It was concerned that his preaching would foment revolution.  But Wesley would have none of it.  The people that converted to Methodism, he wrote, the upper echelons of the working classes and others anxious to improve their status, almost all became frugal and industrious in their new-found faith, and they achieved a modest competence.  As their wealth increased, their interest in religion began to fade—and also their interest in overturning the established order.

Wesley was excoriated for reducing religion to the capabilities of the lowest people and allowing untutored and barely literate mechanics to preach.  True, Methodism had little to say to the tip-top swells of London, but it spoke volumes to the struggling mechanics in Carbondale and Ironbridge.  In the crucible of Methodism these rough countrymen transformed themselves into the respectable chapel-going English lower middle class.  Work all you can, save all you can, give all you can.  This was the simple doctrine that Wesley taught.  It inspired mechanics to the ministry in the eighteenth century, and, as we shall see, continued to do so in the late twentieth century.

At the same time that the Wesley brothers were inspiring the mechanics of England, preachers Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were preaching revival in New England, and from the scattered farms ordinary people came in their thousands to participate in a Great Awakening that convulsed the social order and led directly to the American Revolution.

George Whitefield was only twenty-three when he broke into the American colonies with his itinerant preaching and brought a dramatic new style to the pulpit.  He had gone to Oxford with the Wesley brothers and had belonged to the Holy Club they had formed at the university.  Then he came to America, and launched the first great modern revival, the Great Awakening.  To Americans used to moralizing and doctrinal sermonizing from the pulpit, his charismatic style:

startled and enthralled his audiences.  Whitefield... would sing hymns, wave his arms, tell stories in colloquial language, employ vivid imagery, weep profusely over his own melodramatic appeals, and pray extemporaneously and directly to God, as though he were talking to him.  On provincial Americans who had never seen anything like it, the effect was electric. (McLoughlin 1978 p61)

Benjamin Franklin knew Whitefield, admired his eloquence, and grew a substantial business printing many of his sermons.  Once, when Whitefield was preaching outside in the city of Philadelphia, the practical Franklin walked around in the crowd to estimate how far his voice could carry, and thus how many people could hear his voice.  Franklin also helped a preacher threatened with excommunication by the Presbyterians on account of his heterodox views.

Whitefield’s theatrical revivalist production was no amateur hour.  He was a gifted publicist, and planned his itinerant ministry like a commercial product introduction.  People were amazed that he could create crowds out of thin air—his farewell address on Boston Common was said to have been attended by 30,000 at a time when the population of Boston was 20,000—but Whitefield was not.  “He believed that he had been charged by God to cause a spiritual awakening.”  He and his assistants were skilled advance men who knew how to attract crowds, and spent time and money to make crowds happen.

Whitefield was a master of advance publicity who sent out a constant stream of press releases, extolling the success of his revivals elsewhere, to cities he intended to visit. These advance campaigns often began two years ahead of time. (Finke, Stark 1992 p88) 

Of course, the skills of a great entrepreneur and publicist are worth nothing if his product and his message fail to resonate with the market.  Timing is everything.  According to William G. McLoughlin, the critical factor that drove the Great Awakening to success was a breakdown in the traditional patriarchal family structure.  In the seventeenth century fathers, by deeding land to heirs in their wills, maintained control over their sons until they reached middle age.  Young people were kept in subordination to their elders, and accepted this subjugation as the price of acquiring title to land—the chief form of wealth—eventually.  Their egos were subordinated to community.  This social order began to break down around 1700 as young men moved further west, acquiring inexpensive land and establishing an independence from father and the rigid Puritan community.

Freedom throws off the yoke of subservience, but it rips away the veneer of security that protects a life lived in subordination to a strong master.  The security of subordination is replaced by the terrors of responsibility.  But man cannot live alone face to face with reality.  Life is not a smooth progressive growth curve.  It is a terrifying battle with reality, and mankind cannot survive face to face with the reality of nature red in tooth and claw.  The smooth surface of Apollo is a necessary to hide the frightful reality of Dionysian frenzy.  Culture is the veneer of hope we construct to block out the absolute terror of reality.

The emancipated sons of the Puritans had torn down the curtain that had sheltered the New England communities of the seventeenth century.  As they emerged from their collective passivity, swimming away from the school of community, they found themselves alone and unprotected, individual egos in a storm-tossed sea of sharks.  They needed a new form of community to give them hope, to quiet the cosmic anxiety of self-hood and give them the courage to go on.  George Whitefield decided that he would be the man to give them their new hope as he preached the Great Awakening in the generation from 1730 to 1760.

In the conversion experience, these rebellious sons and daughters were released from their fears.  They found that God forgave them for their rebellion against their fathers’ ways, and by accepting God’s forgiveness, discovered themselves reinstated in paternal grace. “Soon, out of the awakening emerged new churches and new sects... Individual freedom and fraternal union went hand in hand.” (Finke, Stark 1992 p59)  The old hierarchy of fatherhood morphed into a new structure of fraternalism.  When George Whitefield preached to Americans that “sinners could repent and be saved if they really wanted to” he implied a power of agency that belied his supposed Calvinist dogma of predestination.  This meant that, instead of salvation being pre-destined, people could save themselves by their own actions.  If they could be saved by their own actions, it only remained to discover how.  Suddenly, people could be in control of their own lives, not predestined to Heaven or Hell by birth or by the divine roll of the Elect. 

Although Whitefield represented himself as a Calvinist while effectively breaking with Calvinist predestination, the Wesley brothers formally broke with Calvin and his key doctrine, preaching that Christ died for all men and not just for the predestined Elect.  Above all, men had the power to work out their own salvation.  This approach won many converts in England, as Methodist itinerants preached to the poorer members of the community, forming small groups of converts as pietistic cells within each Anglican parish.

What causes a great religious outburst like the Great Awakening?  And why should it have occurred in the mid-eighteenth century?  Why should two related outbursts occur at the same time, one in England and one in England’s colonies?  William McLoughlin addresses the question directly in Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform.  Opposing the modern interpretation of history regards religion as a sideshow to the real business of politics and economics he proposes, on the contrary, that it is religion that drives politics.  He finds that the Great Awakening drove the American Revolution, the Second Great Awakening in 1800-1810 drove American politics into abolitionism and the Civil War, and that a Third Great Awakening of Social Gospelers drove the welfare state politics of the twentieth century.  In his reading of history, it is preposterous to suggest otherwise.  Was not Marx’s system a religious movement that within a generation spawned a gigantic political movement inspiring revolutionaries across the world to gigantic deeds in his name?  And was not fascism a fundamentalist response to socialism, advancing the instinctive values of blood and land against the rootless community of the socialist brotherhood?

For McLouglin, the religious outburst is the social equivalent of the canary in the coal mine.  It is a signal that something is wrong deep down in society, that the meaning delivered by the reigning belief system no longer provides an adequate account of the meaning of life, how it should be lived, and how it should be experienced.

Great awakenings are periods when the cultural system has had to be revitalized in order to overcome jarring disjunctions between norms and experience, old beliefs and new realities, dying patterns and emerging patterns of behavior. (McLoughlin 1978 p10)

What exactly were the jarring disjunctions that drove the people of New England into a process of revitalization?  As we have seen above, McLoughlin attributes the profound change from a collectivist, hierarchical, paternal order to an individualist social order in which individual effort was the foundation for a meaningful life.  This factor operated at a number of levels.  First of all, there was the economic.  Men found that there was prosperity and wealth for those that seized the opportunity.  This discovery was an experience directly in opposition to the presumption of Calvinism that everything was preordained.  Instead, it seemed that the material conditions of life could be changed by hard work and a good eye for opportunity.  Second, the experience of life on the frontier broke down the idea that men needed to depend on church and town fathers to guarantee social peace.  Out west, away from established political and religious institutions, men were forced to institute law and justice on their own, to defend property and person without benefit of established courts and political power.  And they found they could do it.  Men were emerging from a life of dependence into a world of freedom, and they needed help.  They found it in the enthusiastic Protestantism of the Great Awakening, an authentic and popular movement that gave them the structure and the courage to live away from the authority of the father and to live in freedom.  When, in the ensuing years, the American colonists came into conflict with their royal father in London, they found that they had already acquired the beliefs and the culture they needed to sustain a rebellion against him and to create a whole nation in ordered freedom that reflected the experience of freedom in their personal lives.

Media mogul Ted Turner famously tagged Christianity in the late twentieth century as a religion for losers.  Implied in his attitude is that religion is not a transforming social force, but a place to go and hide.  But religion is nothing if not a search for meaning, a community of people joined to explain the mystery of human life, and to imagine its purpose.  When Marx developed his dialectic of the oppressor, the oppressed, and their precipitation into communism through the catalysis of revolution, he was developing a secular religion that seemed to explain the frightening social upheaval in Europe in the nineteenth century with breathtaking power.  His religion inflamed the hearts of millions in the nineteenth century no more and no less than the preachers of the Great Awakening inflamed the hearts of the North American colonists in the eighteenth century.  The modern age, like any age is alive with the pulse of religion, secular and transcendental.  And every religion turns soon enough from private contemplation and ecstasy to the mundane work of extending its saving truth into the society at large.  But the initial outburst is a signal.  It means that something is changing; something has called for a new interpretation of the mystery of meaning. 

The Great Awakening culminated in the American Revolution.  But the outburst that preceded the Great Awakening called forth even greater turmoil.  This outburst was the Reformation that erupted into Europe at the turn of the sixteenth century.

The Reformation is the bridge that spans the great gulf between the peasant of 1000 toiling in the fields and the knowledge worker of 2000 playing with a computer.  The gulf is the difference between life by the sun and seasons and life by the clock, between the life informed by custom and tradition and the life formed by formal education.  It is the difference between the fatalism of the peasant and the directed purpose of the career open to talents.  To cross this gulf is to undertake a great journey, a daunting journey, perhaps the greatest journey that men and women have ever made.  The pilgrims who dare to make this journey desperately need a map to guide them from the grim fields of feudal oppression to the sunny green uplands of the suburban middle class.

A remarkable social movement arose to provide this guidance.  It is the great social movement of the last millennium.  We call it Protestantism.  It is the royal road to the middle class.

When Protestantism burst into the world in the early sixteenth century through the midwifery of Martin Luther, it was already strong enough to withstand the counterstrokes that immediately arose to destroy it, for its heart had already pulsed for centuries before its dramatic birth.  In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin explained why the origins of great events in the universe lie shrouded in mystery.  It is because beginnings are too small to be noticed, or even to leave a record.  We cannot observe in the fossil record how the first living cell came into existence, and we cannot see how humans first began evolving from the apes.  Nor is the greatness of the Standard Oil Company revealed in the first job obtained in 1855 by sixteen-year-old bookkeeper John D. Rockefeller as a clerk in the firm of Hewitt and Tuttle, commission merchants of Cleveland, Ohio.  When great phenomena impinge upon public consciousness, they are already fully formed, as Protestantism was when it exploded into northern Europe with Martin Luther and John Calvin in the early sixteenth century or as Standard Oil was when it exploded into public consciousness in the 1870s as the octopus that controlled most of the oil refined from the western Pennsylvania oilfields.

The first attempts to found the Protestant movement failed.

Born a century before Luther around 1328, John Wyclif was a farmer’s son from Yorkshire, in England.  He went to Oxford, got an education, and taught theology and philosophy.  He developed a doctrine that the right to rule could only inhere to a virtuous ruler, including the rulers of the church.  He supervised the first translation of the Bible into English.  Wyclif’s ideas helped fire the Peasant Revolt led by Wat Tyler that leaped out of the countryside around London in 1381, although the revolt was mainly inspired by resentment at the Statute of Laborers enacted by Parliament in 1352.  After the decimation of the Black Death in 1348-49 wages had increased, and the political elite had decided to do something about it.  But the rage of the workers was not enough to prevail against England’s warrior aristocracy.  Tyler was killed, and the revolt was suppressed.  Calm had returned to the English countryside.

But all was not calm.  Over the next century, others took up the torch of Wyclif, including Jan Huss in Bohemia and Colet in England.  A century later Erasmus in Holland extended the challenge to authority with the notion that

obedience to the law is worthless unless it is based on obedience of the heart... This was to appeal from the authority of the church to the individual... [so] laymen, learned and unlearned, [could] reject the authority of the priesthood. (Stevenson 1952 p11)

Of course, it would be difficult for laymen to challenge the priesthood unless they possessed the means to do so.  In 1455, Johannes of Gutenberg invented that tool.  With the printing press and movable type, he printed and published the first “title.” And that title was the Bible.  With that single stroke he slashed the cost of the written word that previously had kept book learning far beyond the means of ordinary people.  Now the layman could study the Bible and challenge the authority of the church hierarchy, could challenge the sacramental religion of the Holy Catholic Church with a religion of the book in which every family, with their family Bible, could participate.  The Reformation started with the printed Bible.

The contrast between pre and post-Gutenberg society can scarcely be over-emphasized.  Before Gutenberg, God was in his heaven, the King was on his throne, the peasants were toiling in the fields and all was right with the world.  The church fathers spread Christianity by converting kings and princes to the faith (Fletcher 1999 2,3), and the bishops and abbots of the church were scions of the warrior aristocracy.  After Gutenberg, there came into the world a new force: the middle class of the cities and their peculiar democratic belief system, Protestantism.  Now, instead of a magisterium, a church run by the top, for the top, from the top, with doctrine revealed ex cathedra, a new concept was born.  People came together and built their own modest churches, ran them themselves, and hired and fired their preachers.

The man who symbolized this revolution was Erasmus.  Born in 1466, the illegitimate son of a priest and a washerwoman, he was a victim of the old system of priestly celibacy and struggled to obtain an education.  Excited by the first printed editions of the Bible and the Greek classics, he supported a life of scholarship by becoming the first best-selling author.  In some years, over ten percent of the books sold in London and Paris were written by Erasmus.  In the 1530s, over a million copies of his works, including his Greek New Testament, were circulating in Europe.

Erasmus represented a new force in society, He was “a product of the new urban civilization and spoke for its middle-class members.”  He “regarded the sober, hard-working, middle-ranking townsman as the Christian elite.”  It was the beginning of the Protestant idea “that there could be no intermediaries between the Christian soul and the scriptures,” (Johnson 1979 p273)

In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and Professor of Scripture, took the challenge a step further.  He railed against the abuses of Rome and questioned the right of the pope to be the sole interpreter of the Bible.  He drew up an indictment of the pope and nailed it to the church door of Wittenberg castle as “Ninety-five Theses Against Indulgences,” and translated the New Testament into German.  He set off a frenzied reaction in the breasts of the townspeople of Germany, who wanted their own preachers and their own churches, and to be free of the corruption of Rome. 

But why did Luther succeed where Wyclif failed?  Why do we still enjoy a whole spectrum of churches bearing the name of Luther but none with the name or inspiration of Wyclif?  There are probably two reasons, one economic and one political.  One we have already mentioned, the invention of printing with movable type in Gutenberg in 1455.  When the Wyclif Bible appeared, it could only be published through expensive hand copying.  After Gutenberg, the Bible could be printed and published at a fraction of the cost of scribe copying, and ordinary city burghers could begin to afford their own family Bible.  The other reason is that Wyclif’s movement was associated with the peasant revolt of Wat Tyler, and thus was identified with rebellion against the king and his barons.  Luther carefully maintained his relations with the temporal powers, even to the extent of encouraging the suppression of peasant revolt.  He never mounted a challenge against the landed power.

Revolutionary as he was, Martin Luther was not an ideologue.  His contribution to the Protestant movement was his dissent from the magisterium of the Church, and he did little to change the doctrines of the Church in Rome.  It was with John Calvin of Geneva that an identifiable corpus of Protestant doctrine began to form.

Calvin was the son of a clerical lawyer in northwest France who flourished in Geneva.  He took Luther’s rediscovery of predestination in St. Augustine and extended it.  God predestined everything, even the tiniest of events.  He decided who was saved, and deputized Satan to deal with those who were damned.  But how could anyone tell God’s will, and know if they were part of the Elect, those who would be saved?  In practice, it was determined by membership in a Calvinist congregation.  If you were a member, you were in; if not, you were damned.  In the hands of Calvin this doctrine could be used to excommunicate waverers and opponents, and the excommunicated could be handed over to the civil authorities for execution.

The Reformation was a chaotic time, a spiritual revolution provoked by a rising urban class demanding participation in matters spiritual and temporal and opposed by a Church anxious to maintain its influence and rulers equally determined to maintain their pre-eminence.  But all agreed that peasants need not apply.  The Warsaw Confederation on religious freedom held in 1574 bound the Polish princes and nobility to keep the peace on matters of religion.  However, the peasants had to obey their lords.

The spark that burst into flame in Germany from the combustible mixture of an energetic middle class and the printing press soon spread northwards to Holland and Britain.  In Holland, it became enmeshed in the struggle of the Dutch people to deal with their subjugation by Spain and France, and in Britain it became entangled in the dynastic problems of Henry VIII and his successors.

In Holland, a complex situation obtained.  Most of Holland was part of the Spanish Netherlands, the property of Philip II, and was ruled from Spain.  The eruption of Protestant communities implied a double rebellion against Holy Church and the King of Spain.   When a militant group of Anabaptists stormed the Westphalian town of M√ľnster in 1534 it was ruthlessly put down, and Protestantism went chiefly underground.  People read proscribed Protestant literature, met in unofficial groups but usually observed the forms of the Catholic Church.  Being proscribed, the Protestants could not form an overarching hierarchy, so people gathered in autonomous religious groups and developed their faith within their communities.  Protestantism was still a movement of townspeople.  Rural areas (where literacy would be low) were little influenced by the new ideas.

In England, the Reformation began with the divorce of Henry VIII from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and from the Catholic Church of Rome.  The resulting Church of England was a compromise that included elements of Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism.  The new Church still contained a large component of sacramentalism in the services of the Book of Common Prayer and remained an established church wedded to the state. 

But the continuing tie to the old power structure became intolerable to the educated English middle-class.  Rising in numbers and in power, they wanted participation in church governance rather than subservience.  By the seventeenth century their resistance to the Church of England had developed three major institutional groups: Presbyterians, who desired to stay within the Church of England but wanted to be governed by councils composed of both clergy and laity; Congregationalists, who set up congregations to rule themselves; and Brownists, who pronounced the Established Church contrary to the Bible and separated from it. (Johnson 1979 p17)  Of course, all of these attempts at democracy were experienced as intolerable by the seventeenth century Stuart kings.  The demand for participation in church governance was a head of rebellion that directly challenged the hierarchical concept of rulership on which all monarchy was based.  But when the king proclaimed that clergymen that refused to conform to the Church of England’s Prayer Book should lose their positions, the Puritans felt impelled to attack the system itself, and eventually resorted to civil war. (Johnson 1979 p17)

Their struggle, though ultimately petering out in the Restoration of 1660, left some towering monuments.  First of all was the very hesitance of Puritan-influenced revolution.  Did the Puritans chop off everyone’s head?  No, and they dithered for years over King Charles’ head.  Did they drive their opponents into jail and exile?  No.  They barely went further than unseating about half the House of Commons for a few years, and then relenting and allowing their enemies back into Parliament.  Did they set up a post revolutionary political system so that they and their political heirs could rule forever?  No.  Instead they drafted, under the supervision of Oliver Cromwell, a Petition of Right that proposed a separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. 

The man who became a regicide and Lord Protector of Britain was a small landowner in East Anglia living about 50 miles north of London.  After some economic reverses in early adulthood he apparently underwent a conversion experience so that, throughout his public career, his writings were drenched in “godliness.”  A member of Parliament, he joined the parliamentary side in the English Civil War in 1642 by raising a company of horse, and rose rapidly to become second-in-command of the parliamentary army in 1646.  The next twelve years till his death in 1658 saw the most extraordinary political events in England’s history.  It saw the execution of the king.  It saw the accession to temporal power of a commoner under a written Instrument of Government, and later the Humble Petition and Advice, two proto-constitutions that represented a first draft of the U.S. Constitution.  Cromwell was a victorious revolutionary who supervised the drafting of a constitution to divide powers between the executive and legislature.  The middle class restraint in the politics of 1650 was profoundly different from the all-out dynastic intrigues of the Wars of the Roses two centuries before.

Up until the eighteenth century, Protestantism was a bourgeois phenomenon.  It was a movement of townsmen that wrested power from the great military families that had dominated the Middle Ages, and indeed all of history in the agricultural age.  The lower orders, peasant and artisans, were not welcome at the table.  The association with peasants doomed the project of John Wyclif, and Luther owed his success to his written support of the landed princes against the peasants.  For Cromwell too, the lower orders were a problem.  More than once in his career, he suppressed leveling tendencies in the parliamentary New Model Army.  Early Protestantism was not for the lower orders.

Protestantism emboldened a literate middle-class that wanted to participate in the councils of power.  First of all, it wanted participation in its relationship with God, not as hitherto through priestly intermediaries, but directly through study of the new Bibles translated into local languages by Tynsdale, Luther and others, and of the new printed commentaries, such as Erasmus’ Enchiridion, and Calvin’s Institutes.  Then it wanted to participate in politics.  But the existing political system, grounded in the worship of land and the control of food, didn’t comprehend the needs of an urban middle class of artisans and merchants, and didn’t know how to respond to it.  Nor, perhaps, did it need to.  The ripening of middle class bourgeoisism was not yet complete in the late agricultural era of the seventeenth century.  The Protestant eruption subsided, in Britain into the Restoration of the Stuarts and another century of monarchical rule.  But there would be a difference.  The king would rule in partnership with Parliament.  In 1688, Parliament sent James II packing and the landed Whig grandees invited Prince William of Orange to ascend the Throne of Britain.

From the perspective of the modern middle class, the move from power and oppression to rule and reason starts with Protestantism.  But for those with a really expansive world-view, the move from power to law did not begin with the Reformation nor yet with Christianity.  According to Karl Jaspers, it began about 500 BC during the Axial Age.  It was a period from 600 BCE to 200 BCE during which Socrates, Isaiah, Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Confucius all flourished.

These men, who lived in the most advanced societies of the time, were not doing religion and philosophy as recreation.  They were doing it because they felt deeply that their societies were in crisis.  They were trying to solve a problem, to heal a sickness that seemed to afflict the body politic.

The problem was the breakdown of traditional face-to-face society.  Some people had ceased to conceive of themselves as members of a group and had begun to experience themselves as individuals.  As Huston Smith put it: “Reason was replacing social conventions, and self-interest outpacing the expectations of the group.”  And it was causing chaos. (Smith 1991 p162)

In traditional society people had accepted the teachings of unreflective tradition.  Since their entire identity was focused on the group, it did not occur to them that they could conceive a thought that went against tradition.  But now people walked abroad who thought of themselves as individuals, and could ask the question: “what’s in it for me?” 

This birth of the ego raised an insuperable problem for the tradition-driven society. A people that unreflectingly lived by the Way of the ancestors, “doing what is right,” was helpless before the unbridled ego and its regime of power.  The old ways collapsed as great egos arose and founded great empires.  The names of the egos endured, the ways of the ancestors did not.  We still know the king lists of Mesopotamia, and the names of most of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  Those who had power amassed it and used it.  Those who lacked power surrendered themselves to the protection of those who did. 

These military egos ruled by virtue of the defining characteristic of agricultural life.  Though the farmer makes a living by planting, waiting, and reaping, he actually lives day to day on the grain stored at the previous harvest.  This need for storage makes the farmer vulnerable to plunder.

The situation of agricultural England in the tenth century provides a good example.  Every year in October after the harvest had been brought home and stored away, all of England quailed, wondering if the Vikings would appear that year.  Sailing in fleets of longboats the Vikings would appear in the autumn for booty, rape, pillage, and slaving, and the English, with weak kings, were unable to resist them.  If you were a farmer and somebody stole your grain right after the harvest and a full year before you could grow another crop, you would starve.  In order to avoid this fate, the farmer needed protection, and protection he got, from the military egos, the emperors, the kings, the warlords, and the lesser landowners who ran the arable world until the industrial revolution.

Unfortunately, kings and emperors do not merely fight against raiders who threaten their farmers.  They also fight one another, and that hurts the farmers.  It is not just the raping and pillaging that hurts the farmers, but something more basic.  For armies do not just fight battles.  They need to be fed, and up until the First World War, armies fed themselves mainly by living off the countryside.  They marched through the countryside, and as they marched, they “requisitioned” food from the farmers on their line of march.  Some military leaders paid for their food with coin, some with receipts.  Some just took the food by force.  If warfare between the military leaders extended for any period, the entire countryside would be completely stripped of food, as happened in the Thirty Years War in Germany from 1618-1648 when the rural population was reduced by one third.  When the military protectors go to war, the benefits of military protection for the farmer evaporate, and the difference between protector and raider blurs into irrelevance.

It was the genius of Confucius to formulate an answer to this problem for the people who lived in the valley of the Yellow River.  Confucius was a man from Lu located in modern Shantung province near the estuary of the Yellow River.  His father died when he was very young, so he was raised by his impoverished mother.  Able to acquire an education, he worked for a while as a minor government official before finding his vocation as a tutor.

Confucius lived during the Warring States period, the “time of troubles” that lasted for centuries before the consolidation of China by Qin Shi Huang Di, founder of the Qin dynasty, in 221 BCE.  The Warring States period was, it appears, an almost continuous warfare between rival warlords and chieftains.  What had started in the eighth century BCE in relatively chivalrous conflict had degenerated by Confucius’ time into mass slaughters and executions.

As military egos crossed and recrossed the fertile river valleys of China, destroying the livelihood of millions of peasants, men like Confucius tried to understand how to solve the problem of the unbridled ego that had broken free of traditional social restraint and threatened to destroy everything.

It was no use returning to the time of unconscious tradition.  That possibility had been dissolved by the rise of the ego, the raider or the prince who thought only in terms of “what’s in it for me.”  Something new was required.  Instead of unconscious tradition passed, so to speak, to a baby in its mother’s milk, tradition would be passed from generation to generation consciously and deliberately, not as natural immunizations against disease carried in mother’s milk but in deliberate additions to the social formula with which a person was fed from cradle to grave. 

Confucius solved the problem by replacing the program of unconscious tradition that prevailed in tribal society with a program of conscious tradition.  His formula was expressed in the Five Constant Relationships that prescribed his ideal of conscious tradition.  It constrained the military egoist who demanded to know only “what’s in it for me” with the demand that he integrate his competitive ego with the cooperative and self-conscious tradition of the Confucian relationships.  It was a formula that served the Chinese people down to the irruption of the West in the nineteenth century.

As Confucius had solved the problem for East Asia, the Buddha solved it for South Asia, and Zoroaster solved it for West Asia, and the Hebrew prophets solved it for the Jews.  The followers of Jesus Christ solved the problem for the Roman Empire; the bishops of the Catholic Church solved it for the warring kings, the Franks and Anglo Saxons of Northern Europe in the seventh century; and in the middle of the last millennium the prophets of Protestantism solved it for the emerging bourgeoisie.  In place of the pure power relations that had obtained before—subordination, kin, force, feud, dependency, and clientage—these prophets and seers developed the idea of conscious tradition, reason and rules, good and evil, as a basis for human society.  Nor was it found sufficient to stop at Five Constant Relationships, The Eightfold Way, The Ten Commandments, or The Five Pillars of Islam.  The rulemaking expanded into codes and commentaries.  In Exodus, for example, the chapter following the Ten Commandments is filled with mind-numbing rules about indentured servants, penalties for sheep-stealing, and compensation for damage caused by livestock.

In The Ever-present Origin, Jean Gebser gives this cultural strain a curious name.  The world of reason and rule, the world of the rational observer, he calls the “perspectival” world that finally triumphed in 1500 with the successful realization of perspective in art.  By perspective, he means the world-view that issues from the idea of a separate Ego, indeed the whole idea of a “world-view” itself: that a person can conceive of themselves as a separate “I,” and gaze upon the world, rather than be an organic part of the world, and to believe that life has direction, and purpose, and a single Truth, that a man can have a direct relationship with God, unmediated by priestly vicar or Son of Heaven.  And that he can reason.  For Gebser, the period from 500 BCE to 1500 CE is the period in which this mental structure of reality was developed and stabilized.  With Parmenides, the radical idea that “thinking and being is one and the same” is first proposed.  By the time of Descartes, this has become “I think, therefore I am.”  For Gebser, the appearance of such figures as Zoroaster, Confucius, Chuang-tsu, Lao-tsu, Buddha, Socrates, Plato, and Jesus Christ was not fortuitous.  It marked the crisis of the beginning of the rational, the mental age, and the beginning of the end of the mythical age.

Gebser asserts that by 1500 the rational worldview had been completely worked out.  This does not mean, however, that all humankind had now been enrolled into the mental universe from the traditional, mythical world of unreflective tradition.  It only means that the most advanced thinkers had encountered the problems of the rational ego and had formulated a response.  While advanced thinkers and city dwellers had penetrated to this universe in the vibrant cities of the Renaissance, ninety percent of humans remained peasants toiling in the cyclical world of agriculture.  In Europe, they were Christians because their masters were Christian, and the heavy mythologizing practiced by the Catholic Church witnessed to the need to dumb down Christianity for its pre-rational flock.  Even then, the peasants usually practiced on the side a myth religion more appropriate to their agricultural culture.  But a tiny minority of advanced minds had worked out a rational world, the first world-view in which man could experience himself having an ego and a place in the world, a place that was symbolized by his mastery of perspective, a technique that relates everything in a two dimensional artwork to the viewer, places it in relation to him.  The stage was set for this spark to travel throughout society like a flame front wherever the right fuel was available.

Once the rational universe had been realized in Europe, the stage was set for the first great outburst of Protestantism, in the movements created by Martin Luther of Wittenberg and John Calvin of Geneva.  As we have seen, the movements were identifiably urban.  They appealed and spoke to the literate burghers of European towns who avidly snatched up the printed tracts that had started to circulate, bought the bestsellers of Erasmus, and studied their family Bibles.

Back in the Axial Age, when the idea of reason and rules was first developed, it solved the great problem of its time: how might the roving egos of the Warring States period be restrained from destroying society?  A thousand years later as the Catholic Church propagated Christianity among the kings and warrior aristocracies of Northern Europe, it solved the problem of predatory kings preying on their neighbors in endless wars of plunder and helped extend the zone of peace beyond the boundaries of clan and kin to the artificial kinship of the nation. Two thousand years later, in the Protestant Reformation, the rising bourgeoisie created a movement to assist their progress in the burgeoning cities of Germany and Holland.  In the seventeenth century, the Puritan movement in England helped the rising middle class negotiate power with the political class and formalize the new relationship in a contract between the rulers and the governed.  In the eighteenth century, in colonial America, the Great Awakening helped the colonists manage their rebellion against the fathers, and set up their own contract of governance.  In England, it helped mechanics on the road to the middle class.

In the nineteenth century this movement continued as strong as ever, renewed by a Second Great Awakening in the United States but uncelebrated, out of sight of the public press and the public history. For the writing and the chattering classes, the nineteenth century was not a century of lawful advance and slow development in the burgeoning cities by mechanics and transplanted peasants inspired by the love of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. They experienced instead a different awakening, one that inspired them to a century of revolution and required them to seize the reins of power from the stolid hands of the bourgeoisie and rule in their place.


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 TAGS


Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State


Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill