Wednesday 2 June 2021

Nostalgia for the 'Intellectual Soul' (Medieval) era; when objectivity reliably caused spirituality

A theme I encounter again and again (both among Christians, and as part of the New Age) is something I term nostalgia for the Intellectual Soul era - which is the strategy of seeking to enhance spiritual life by means of objective and symbolic manipulations. 

This was normal (and effective) from the ancient classical times of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and through the Christian Middle Ages (both in the East and the West). These times were underpinned by what Rudolf Steiner terned the Intellectual Soul phase of human consciousness*

The Intellectual Soul can be understood as a gradual transition. At the beginning systems of objective physical phenomena would - pretty reliably - induce desired spiritual states. This was the basis of ancient religions. 

Thus we get the use of ritual and symbolism in religion; based on the idea that if you do this physical thing, then that spiritual state will be the result. 

There are thousands of examples: religious processions, icons, statues, sacred buildings on sacred places. There are the sacraments such as baptism, the mass, marriage. Practices such as prostration, genuflection, and kneeling to pray - and in general using particular words. That certain physical procedures can be used for divination, or for exorcism. That reading scripture has an innately beneficial spiritual effect... 

Another aspect is that the proper ritual ordination of priests will have an objective and permanent effect on the spirit - so that priests become a qualitatively different kind of Man; with distinctive powers to operate the systems, rituals and symbols.  

Another aspect of the Intellectual Soul is the idea of objective symbolic 'systems' such as numerology, sacred geometry, astrology, alchemy, magic... and that (done properly) these causally yield reliable spiritual (and other objective) consequences. 

All these are instances that demonstrate the 'intellectual soul' assumption that the physical leads causally to the spiritual.   

However, looking across the span of history we can observe that there was a loss of the effectiveness of ritual and symbol, a loss of the power of ritual and symbol. Until in the modern era they are feeble (yielding only weak and transitory effects) or absent from many people's lives. 

Yet although the Intellectual Soul is much diminished - it is not altogether absent. Although ritual, symbol and system are much weaker and less reliable than they used to be when it comes to yielding real world and subjective consequences - they still retain some power. 

Therefore, there are always people and movements that are attempting to revive the Intellectual Soul, and to restore it to former potency and centrality. 

And always these attempts have some success, but never enough; and each successive revival/ restoration of 'Medievalism' achieves less than the one before.  

Given the alienated spiritual desert that is modern mainstream life; I am sympathetic to the attempts at revival and restoration of the intellectual soul; and I too feel (sometimes intense)  nostalgia for the medieval systems, symbols and rituals. 

Yet I think we need to recognize that the Intellectual Soul era was itself a halfway-house, a transitional phase; and that it can never be made sufficiently strong again to be the centre of a way of life (a civilization); because Men's minds (souls) have changed. 

This can be verified by looking within our-selves; where we can see that even the most complete imaginable revival and restoration would never be sufficient to satisfy us. We can imagine an ideal medieval world - but cannot imagine our-own actual-selves as ideally fitted to live in it in the way that Men did centuries ago. 

I believe that some people (such as me) can still get much help from the Intellectual Soul ideas and practices. But that we should take care Not to pin our hopes on them as a strategy for life - Nor to hope for revival and restoration as a viable or desirable civilizational path for the future. 

*The Intellectual Soul is an intermediate state coming between:

1.The immersive and passive, notaleinated 'Original Participation' of pre-religious, animistic ancient hunter gatherer times. The world was spontaneously-perceived and known-directly to be purposive and meaningful. 

2. The modern Consciousness Soul which began to emerge from about 1500 (end of the Middle Ages) and was dominant by about 1800. 

In the Consciousness Soul; subjectivity is very fully alienated. This means that the default is for modern adolescents and adults to be non-spiritual. There is no spontaneous apprehension of the divine. The world is experienced as material and accidental, not A Creation. The soul is seen as merely an artefact. Death is supposed to be annihilation of the person. 

The Intellectual Soul can be understood as a 'one and a half' intermediate phase; in which the alienated consciousness has emerged, but can (by symbols, rituals, etc) make a bridge to return (temporarily) to the original state of immersive participation in a living and purposive world. 


Francis Berger said...

I agree on all points. I think the difficulty lies in the recognition that many aspects of the past were spiritually better than they are now, but they were only spiritual better for that particular past consciousness.

Our task is to move forward, not backward - but it's difficult to imagine how anything better can possibly emerge from the spiritual desert our modern world has become. I think this is a big sticking point for many (in addition to the aspect of moving into unknown, uncharted spiritual territory). It's presumably easier to take on an old form than it is to conceive of a new one.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Yes, I think the situation is that we can't dispense with the residue of older forms without losing something helpful in these difficult times; but should perhaps wean ourselves from *dependence* on them - and not expect to make this type of 'objective' religious practice the basis of the future.