Colin Wilson’s sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, was published one year after his initial success. He lets us know immediately, in the opening sentence of the introduction, what his intentions are for this work: “The Outsider was an incomplete book” (1). Wilson says there were other ideas he wanted to deal with in Religion and the Rebel that he did not have the space for in The Outsider. He intends to “probe deeper into the Outsider himself, while at the same time moving towards the historical problem of the decline of civilizations” (2). So, not only will we see a greater unveiling of the Outsider’s nature, there will also be a scrutinizing of the historical issues that are leading our once great civilization down the path to annihilation, both spiritually and intellectually.
So far, I have read the introduction, which is an amazing summary of Colin’s early life up until the time he published The Outsider at the age of twenty-four. Having read James Hillman’s, Soul’s Code, it is amazing to see how the “acorn theory” can be applied to Wilson’s early years. He was truly fated to be a writer and intellectual. In this post, I will merely quote a few salient paragraphs from the introduction, and perhaps offer some brief commentary.
Over many years, the obsessional figure whom I have called the Outsider became for me the heroic figure of our time. My vision of our civilization was a vision of cheapness and futility, the degrading of all intellectual standards. In contrast to this, the Outsider seemed to be the man who, for any reason at all, felt himself lonely in the crowd of the second-rate. As I conceived him, he could be a maniac carrying a knife in a black bag, taking pride in appearing harmless and normal to other people; he could be a saint or a visionary, caring for nothing but one moment in which he seemed to understand the world, and see into the heart of nature and of God (1).
Wilson’s books are still quite timely in our day. Many of the same things that were occurring in the 1950’s are still occurring, but at an increasingly alarming rate. Certainly, many trends that were destroying civilization in William Blake’s day, In Nietzsche’s day, and in Rilke’s day, are still occurring. The so-called leaders of our various nations, especially in the West, have nearly destroyed everything that made our culture and civilization great. It is not great anymore. It has been a gradual process. Now, it is a breeding ground for Outsiders. I would venture to say there are more now that at any period in history. That might be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what course they take in the coming years. Aren’t we already seeing Raskolnikov-like Outsiders making the headlines on a regular basis, what with running trucks over masses of people, or spraying bullets in public places? This is the Outsider who usually chooses to commit suicide, and wants to take as many with him as he can. On the other hand, there are Outsiders who want nothing more than to enrich the lives of all people. As with everything in this world, just like Ronnie James Dio sings, it’s Heaven and Hell.
The first nine books of Saint Augustine’s Confessions are an Outsider document and Saint Augustine lived in a disintegrating Roman society. It did not seem a bold step to conclude that the Outsider is a symptom of a civilization’s decline; Outsiders appear like pimples on a dying civilization. An individual tends to be what his environment makes him. If a civilization is spiritually sick, the individual suffers from the same sickness. If he is healthy enough to put up a fight, he becomes an Outsider (1-2).
St. Augustine is considered by some scholars as an existentialist of his day, since in his Confessions he describes his conversion to Christianity from the viewpoint of an individual having a self-conscious religious experience that he felt brought him salvation. This is similar to Kierkegaard’s experience, or any religious existentialist. He was an Outsider living in a dying civilization, just as the Outsiders who lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The more I considered the Outsider, the more I felt him to be a symptom of our time and age. Essentially, he seemed to be a rebel; and what he was in rebellion against was the lack of spiritual tension in a materially prosperous civilization (1).
This was just as true in 1957 as it is today, except there are more Outsiders than there were then. The closer a society gets to complete collapse, the more Outsiders there will be. I see this both as a warning sign, a kind of spiritual barometer, and as a reaction originating in the collective soul of humanity. Those Outsiders who choose to fight for the good of humanity will become prophets to warn us of our impending doom, which is happening all over the planet right now. It doesn’t matter if our civilization is materially prosperous if all the profits go to those at the top of the heap, which is just another symptom of a spiritually bankrupt society. The time for turning things around is running out. We would do well to start heeding the Outsider’s/Prophet’s voices. For a civilization to be spiritually healthy, it must be concerned for all living things, not just the ones who bank billions of dollars.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957
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