Today, I’ve been reading chapter two of Wilson’s amazing book, Religion and the Rebel. The chapter is entitled, The Outsider and History. As a matter of fact, I just received in the mail today my hardcover copy of the book, a first edition no less. I am thrilled! For my previous articles, I’ve been using a borrowed soft copy from the Internet Archive, which is a veritable goldmine for some of these older gems.
The study of civilizations is crucial in understanding what produces the existentialist rebel known as the Outsider. For our purposes, we are concerned with what produced the Outsider in the past three to four hundred years or so, for these rebels have had a profound influence on our culture. Sadly, it may not be enough to save us. Wilson brings things into focus concerning why history is such an important element in the philosophy of the Outsider:
Civilisations wreck when they lose control over their own complexity. And they begin to lose control the moment they begin to think in materialist categories; for ultimately, all power is spiritual power” (127).
Western civilization has been in decline for many years. Jean Gebser attempts to pinpoint the moment when we entered, what he calls, the deficient stage of the mental-rational structure of consciousness. He claims it was when Petrarch ascended Mount Ventoux in 1336. Whether this is true or not is debatable. The point is that the West has long been in decline due to a surrender to materialism, at the expense of our souls, our myths, our rituals: basically, our religious connection to the sacred. Wilson is saying that history bears out the fact that, when civilizations resort to what William Blake calls “abstract philosophy,” essentially positivism, they begin to disintegrate. What we’ve seen the past one hundred years or so just proves the point. The West, and perhaps the world, is on the brink of total collapse. Why? Because we have lost our spiritual power.
Our society is spiritually rotten, and the Outsider is the lone individual who instinctively rebels against it. All living creatures live mainly by instinct, man is no exception. But when a civilisation reaches its phase of disintegration, an instinct for health is not enough; intuition needs a spearhead of conscious intellectual effort” (125).
Until today, I knew very little about Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West. I have read about him in the past, and probably covered him briefly in college (although I don’t recall), but didn’t really know where he fit in, especially with the Outsider issues we’ve been talking about. Wilson does an excellent job of summarizing his views (and those of Toynbee, et al), in relation to the Outsider. He refers to Spengler as an “historical existentialist” (97). “Spengler’s is a rebirth of the idea of destiny and purpose” (ibid.). He believed “the mark of greatness is always intuition, not logic” (ibid.). Spengler was a follower of Goethe and Nietzsche, so I would venture to say he was both a romantic and and an existentialist. He believed that civilizations are like human beings, in that they
…are born, grow to maturity, and finally die out. Human beings are made of biological cells. Civilisations are made of human beings, who die out and are replaced by new generations just as the cells of our bodies are completely changed every eight years. Progress? There is no such thing. Just as every generation of human beings is as stupid as the last one, so it is with civilisations. The aim? There is no aim. It is just a biological process, like life itself” (95).
Yes, Spengler is a pessimist concerning our civilization. He sees the fragmentation of it as inevitable. He may be right, but I tend to be a bit more optimistic. Throughout my life, I’ve always had a good intuition about things, and I don’t see us relinquishing the amazing society we’ve built over the past two thousand years. Certainly, it is not perfect, but no civilization is. We can regain our spiritual power if enough of us become visionaries. It only takes a small minority to change things.
We must realize that the rationalists of the Enlightenment made a huge mistake by throwing out our intuitive abilities, our myths, and our religious sentiment. They created the cult of Reason and worshiped its goddess instead.
There is an excellent proverb which says: Throw out your dirty water before you get your clean. The eighteenth-century rationalists threw out the dirty water of mediaeval concepts of purpose and man’s place in the universe. For nearly two hundred years, the bucket has been empty – although the rationalists were too delighted with their new toy, and too deficient in the Outsider’s craving for purpose and meaning, to notice they had no water” (97-98).
Rationalism has accomplished many great things for mankind and the world, but is it worth sacrificing our entire civilization for? Where does the obsession end? The Outsider’s problem, Wilson says, is caused by the “bifurcation of nature,” which is an idea Alfred North Whitehead talked about. Wilson plainly states, “The bifurcation of nature is the cause of the decline of the West” (99), and the Outsider is the result. More on this later.
We are now at the point, Wilson says, “where the Outsider and Spengler join hands. For the Outsider’s sense of urgency and approaching doom is precisely the same sense as Spengler’s. The Outsider only exists because our civilisation has lost its religion” (99).
This is not religion as we think of today, as in dogmatic religion. This is the true meaning of religion, as Rudolf Otto defined it. This is mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery before which one both trembles and is fascinated). True religion is the linking-back to the sacred Source, from the original Latin word, religio. This is what our civilization cries out for. The mystical, the numinous experience that gives meaning and purpose to every life.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957
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