Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Third Stance

One of the intriguing patterns Arnold Toynbee thought he had discovered in the late stages of a civilization was that its elite elements polarize into archaists and futurists, thus into those who seek solutions in the past and those who seek them in a radical break with the past. But this sort of view was not particularly original even in the mid-1930s when the first volume of Toynbee’s A Study of History appeared: the left and right were clearly visible and painted in appropriate colors already. Toynbee’s discernment showed itself because he suggested that neither of these orientations had much of a future. Futurists and archaists would engage in a more or less meaningless battle until disorder finally triumphed. But Toynbee also saw emerging at late stages of mature civilization a third element: neither of the left nor of the right—neither of the West nor of the East, to echo the Koran’s Niche of Lights (24:35)—but an elite that looked up, as it were, detached itself and turned its sight toward the transcendental, rose above the battle yet in the midst of life, in but not of the world, and, from this curiously immaterial but yet fixed point, it begins the process from which a new culture can eventually arise. Toynbee called this third position “transfiguration,” and “etherialization.” He saw it as a detachment from the macrocosm and a return to the microcosm—put very simply: “Stop fixing the world and start improving you.”

This was not merely an abstract codification of historical fact. Toynbee wasn’t merely looking back, discovering Christianity in the rotting womb of a decadent Rome, and rendering this picture as a general historical rule. But he did see, beginning around about the turn of time from B.C. to A.D. the rise of multiple original religious impulses. These included Gnosticism (before it became Christianized), the revived cults of Isis and Cybele, and, most notably, Mithraism. Indeed those times were very similar to ours beginning around the early 1960s. All manner of old religions were invading the Roman realm in new guises, including Eleusinian, Dionysian, Orphic, and neo-Platonic cults and groups, and—among them—a new Jewish religion. One element—that third element—of the society supported them all. Christianity eventually emerged as the victor and, in the process, also absorbed features of others. Rome became Christendom, a new culture.

This is a divergence from my theme but interesting in the context. Toynbee also noted the behavior of two proletariats, as he called them: the masses. The internal proletariat, thus within the limits of the civilization, tends in the late stage to become alienated from the dominant (read governing) minority—the turn-off. And the external proletariat (read third world) becomes antagonistic to the Imperium and, rather than striving to be included in it, begins to fight it.

I’ve often wondered what it might really have been like in old Rome—knowing full well that big abstractions almost completely lose the meaning that they try to synthesize. What does "archaist" actually mean in daily life? The answer, I find, is three-fold: study history, look around, and look inside. At my birth in 1936 the zillion cults of this latter day, not least weird religions from abroad, were not even faintly visible either in Hungary or in the United States. Hare, hare, hare! There was neither culture war at home nor yet its equivalent that we call the War on Terror now. And my own personal history has been a gradual detachment from the macrocosm, if you like. With the passing of the decades, I’ve come to see more and more clearly that the big battles aren’t worth fighting. You win today, but in the see-saw the other side will triumph tomorrow and think that a new epoch has begun. And so it shall be until a new dispensation eventually gives meaning to the whole again. That will take place when we are once more properly oriented to the greater reality.

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