Friday 23 November 2018

Colin Wilson and the wisdom of the 1950s

Colin Wilson published his first book, The Outsider, in 1956: it was an international sensation and best-seller, and it was about the alienation of modern man.

The Outsider was a deep analysis; and in his second book, a year later, Religion and the Rebel; Wilson completed his argument and outlined what must be the solution: this solution was Romanticism and Religion (specifically a Romantic Christianity).

Although Wilson was far from the first to reach this conclusion - for example Owen Barfield had been absolutely explicit about it in Romanticism Comes of Age a decade earlier - but accessible to only a tiny audience of Anthroposophists...

My point is that by the middle 1950s we knew what was the fundamental problem with our Western Civilisation and what to do about it; and we also knew what would not work.

What has happened over the past 60 years is that we now no longer know what is wrong with our civilisation, and all the ideas of what to do about it that have occupied so many people for the past two generations have been wrong and harmful.

We have spent decades of a vast and thousand-fold enlarged and still-amplifying realm of public discourse in the mass media; in analysing, discussing, debating, implementing and resisting stuff that cannot possibly work - even if it was perfectly implemented in an ideal world.

This applies without exception to the entirety of mainstream political, social and academic discourse - it has been a truly colossal... what? Waste of Time? Displacement activity? Deliberate harm?

And still it goes on! Truth and True-Motivation recede further and further from consciousness. And in this respect the opposition are no better than The Establishment; since the opposition spend all their time analysing, debating and resisting the Establishment agenda - and remain utterly indifferent to the fact that even-if the world was remade in the way they aspire-to; it would only get us back to where we were in the 1950s...

- which we know (from Colin Wilson, at least) was intrinsically intolerable to the human spirit.


John Fitzgerald said...

I was astonished last year when I read the last chapter of Religion and the Rebel. CW's analysis of civilisational decline and the redemptive role of the Outsider could have been written yesterday it's so relevant. A key Romantic Christianity text if ever there was one!

David Burgin said...

I recently learned that a small publisher, Aristeia Press, is going to bring all of Colin Wilson's Outsider cycle back into print, both as ebooks and paper copies.

Wilson had such a gift for writing about very serious matters in an easy, accessible style.
He was a big part of my own intellectual development in my twenties.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Knowing what is wrong with civilization doesn't help.

The fact is that civilization is inherently cyclical, because the fundamental purpose of civilization is ultimately inimical to the maintenance of civilization. The point of civilization is to alleviate natural selective pressure. The alleviation of this pressure results in a decline in fitness (only partially genetic, much of the practical lack of fitness is the result of decay in nurture and individual volitional expression). The decline in fitness erodes the portion of the population capable of competently maintaining civilization.

The only way to resolve this contradiction is for civilization to fail in its fundamental purpose. The monstrous regimes of the twentieth century (and smaller examples throughout history) tried to solve the problem by withdrawing the benefits of civilization from the masses while retaining the benefits to an elite. This inevitably (and properly) failed, it contradicts the principle of justice and the fact is that the reason to have an 'elite' is so that they can address the most crucial and difficult decisive tasks of maintaining civilization. If the elite remain aggressively shielded from natural selective pressure, the competence to do the most critical maintenance (where a point failure can cause the most damage) will be eroded all the more quickly. If those high order decisive tasks are left to someone else, they will immediately disband the now functionally pointless 'elite' as a matter of course.

Besides, the attempt to introduce selective pressure on the masses while in the context of civilization is not natural, it is artificial, and the results are vastly different. The determinant of success under artificial selective pressure is the ability to evade the notice of the artificial selective mechanism. This is impossible under natural selection, which doesn't 'notice' deviations from fitness.

Besides being futile, the attempt to halt the civilizational cycle of founding, development, prosperity, decadence, collapse is misguided in the first place. It is looking at the existence of civilization from within it, which has no proper perspective. Civilization is a good thing because it is cyclical. In biological terms, the genetic fitness of the population as a whole is greatly assisted by a cycle in which there is expansion under low natural selection pressure interrupted semi-regularly by intense selective pressure. It allows high genetic diversity while ensuring that unfit elements are purged from the population. Obviously constant low natural selective pressure leads to devolution of genetic fitness, but constant selective pressure is harmful to diversity as the population is shepherded towards a singular optimum for that particular selective pressure. Allowing a population to expand and then having relatively short interruptions of intense natural selection pressure means that many different solutions can survive and continue to develop in later cycles.

Human fitness is not exclusively genetic, there are also cultural and individual volitional elements to it. Civilization is a natural (but not instinctive) result of human development. It has a larger purpose than merely genetic fitness and diversity, the heritage humans pass on to succeeding generations is more than just genes. The merely biological model cannot capture the full purpose of civilization.

Still, we should not consider the rise and fall of civilization as a problem that needs to be solved. Of course, considering the fall of civilization is appropriate to those engaged in the task of maintaining civilization, but when those with the competence to maintain civilization are excluded from the social prestige necessary to do so, they should no longer waste their efforts and concern.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - For Christians, human history is linear, not cyclical - the 'cycles' are nearly all fundamentally different, although of course human societies have broad similarities.

If civilizations are 'for' anything, they are intended for the benefit of men's experiences - so that they can best learn what they most need to learn. Behind all this there is theosis of individual Men.

Of course, what actually happens in a civilization or its fall is seldom exactly what God wants, because God works with the (not-controllable, non-predictable) results of our agency.

The wide range of human experiences through history and in this world are either meaningless or have a divine meaning; if they have a divine meaning then we know the kind of meaning that implies.

And what kind of thing we ought to be doing - but of course, the specifics, and doing it, are another matter.

Chiu ChunLing said...

In the specifically Christian sense, knowing what is wrong with civilization doesn't help because civilization as such is irrelevant to Christianity.

A Christian life has no restriction to civilization, and only accidental interaction.

The point has been made by many ruling elites that Christians represented a danger to civilization, or at least to their particular civilization. And this charge is rarely so entirely specious as it is in regard to Western Civilization. Western Civilization is founded on Christian beliefs and behavior, so Christianity was structurally essential to the continuation of Western Civilization. But to civilizations that weren't founded on the basis of Christianity, it was usually significantly true that Christianity represented a serious disruption to the socio-economics and legitimacy of the non-Christian civilization.

While living a Christian life doesn't require civilization, if Christians preach Christ's teachings (a part of the Christian life) and lives them, then eventually Christianity will become a significant cultural influence on the rise of a civilization (perhaps after significantly causing the downfall of the previous civilization). But there is nothing special about such a civilization that ensures it cannot decline into decadence like any other civilization.

The Christian response to the end of a civilization is to recognize civilization as merely a means to an end, and not any particularly Christian end, but entirely materialist ends.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - That is indeed what I think we need to think about; but the majority of Christians have been members of denominations that assume an agrarian type society; with a priesthood and institutional church - whereas before civilisation these were not possible. I get the impression that few Christians have considered how the religion would, or wouldn't, work in a hunter gatherer society - and what this tells us about the essence of being-a-Christian.

manfred arcane said...

re: Romantic Christianity
Forgive me for this off-topic, but I am interested in whether or not are you familiar with writings of Arthur Machen and would you consider him to be a Romantic Christian? I mean his fictions like "The Great Return", "A Fragment of Life" or "The Secret Glory", or his his rather Coleridge-like treatise "Hieroglyphics"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ma - I've heard of him but never read him. I was under the impression he was a neo-pagan, rather like Kenneth Grahame?

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'll mention again that pure hunter-gathering is a poor setting for Christianity, pastoral life (even if only to a token degree, or learned from books) is pretty essential to understanding Christ's teachings. Or rather, if you are a hunter-gatherer, and you learn Christ's teachings, one of the first things you'll do is establish some elements of pastoral life.

Literacy is also important to Christianity, but is difficult to maintain (or justify) in pure hunter-gatherer life.

manfred arcane said...

Mr Charlton
Not at all!
"Machen's strong opposition to a materialistic viewpoint is obvious in many of his works, marking him as part of neo-romanticism. He was deeply suspicious of science, materialism, commerce, and Puritanism, all of which were anathema to Machen's conservative, bohemian, mystical, and ritualistic temperament. Machen's virulent satirical streak against things he disliked has been regarded as a weakness in his work, and rather dating, especially when it comes to the fore in works such as Dr Stiggins. Similarly, some of his propagandistic First World War stories also have little appeal to a modern audience.

Machen, brought up as the son of a Church of England clergyman, always held Christian beliefs, though accompanied by a fascination with sensual mysticism; his interests in paganism and the occult were especially prominent in his earliest works. Machen was well read on such matters as alchemy, the kabbalah, and Hermeticism, and these occult interests formed part of his close friendship with A. E. Waite. Machen, however, was always very down to earth, requiring substantial proof that a supernatural event had occurred, and was thus highly sceptical of Spiritualism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas, his disapproval of the Reformation and his admiration for the medieval world and its Roman Catholic ritualism did not fully tempt him away from Anglicanism—though he never fitted comfortably into the Victorian Anglo-Catholic world.

The death of his first wife led him to a spiritual crossroads, and he experienced a series of mystical events. After his experimentation with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the orthodox ritual of the Church became ever more important to him, gradually defining his position as a High Church Anglican who was able to incorporate elements from his own mystical experiences, Celtic Christianity, and readings in literature and legend into his thinking."

I think that you'll appreciate his stuff. He certainly deserves more Christian readers. This piece should give you a good taste of what he's all about: