A flurry of public intellectuals are currently promoting their version of our Big Story. They’ve been appearing on screens and in bookstores. Steven Pinker crossed the Atlantic to inform us that the only way is up. Jordan Peterson has done likewise, reminding us to resist the threat of chaos with manly responsibility. Then, there’s the BBC’s new flagship series, Civilisations. It whisks us from the jungles of Mexico to the domes of Istanbul to show that we are the “art-making animal”.
I’ve watched several of the gorgeously-filmed TV programmes and read some of the weighty books. And in the background, I hear a noise. It’s a rasping sound. It suggests to me that our public intellectuals have developed a dangerous habit. They’re sawing at the branches that our civilisation sits on.
The hacking is explicit in the bestseller by Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Early on, he informs us that modern science has revealed the secret of humanity’s Darwinian success. It’s language, which he defines thus: “the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all”. By his account, we’re not the art-making animal but the myth-speaking animal – “myth” in the pejorative sense of fictions.
What doesn’t occur to Harari is that these presumed fabrications must, also, apply to the story he is telling. He’s using language, too, so why should the science he celebrates be any less deluded than the information our ancestors transmitted? Why mightn’t it not be just the latest evolutionary adaptation, with the production of technology acting as social glue for us much as the building of temples is presumed to have acted as social glue for our ancestors?
Carl Jung saw this cultural self-abuse coming. He feared it was a dangerous game, if not a kind of slow suicide. The modern, western world has developed the cocksure habit of telling itself it’s superior because it’s left the old myths behind. What it doesn’t understand is the ways in which those myths might have been true.
Jung argued that a civilisation needs a transcendent principle around which to organize. It must be a vision that exceeds the human mind, though one that the human mind can contemplate. It offers a sense of belonging that is not ultimately controlled by human ingenuity, though human ingenuity can celebrate and defend it. It’s been called by various names: God, Heaven, Brahman, Spirit.
Modernity has largely turned its back on this spiritual imagination. It offers secular alternatives instead, such as indefinite consumption, technological progress, or the greatest happiness for the greatest number. These can be good things, sometimes very good things, insofar as they go. But Jung argued they don’t go far enough. Man does not live by bread alone, as the Bible put it.
When we lose sight of transcendent ends, psychological distress precipitates. “We have come to a serious pass,” he observed in the mid-twentieth century. “Mere admonitions to believe, or to perform acts of charity, do not give modern man [sic] what he is looking for.” We have grown “insufficiently equipped to cope with the urgent psychic needs of our age,” he continued. And they won’t be met until we regain a sense that the recovery is fundamentally a spiritual task.
It will take some time. “Spiritual” is a word public intellectuals are inclined to sneer at. Indeed, many religious people jeer it too. Steven Pinker abhors religion and forgets that the values he so cherishes sprang from Judeo-Christianity. Jordan Peterson, who talks a lot about Jung, understands the fearful tragedy of the death of God over which Nietzsche quaked. But he is hesitant when it comes to his own convictions, preferring Darwinian explanations so far as I can tell, and they usually boil down to, “it’s our biology, innit”.
Mary Beard ends her Civilisations programmes with what sounded to me like a decadent flourish: “So if you ask me what is civilisation, I say, it’s little more than an act of faith.” Simon Schama’s passion provides some compensation and, as a historian of the Jews, he knows what happens when civilisations are destroyed. I imagine that this is why he begins his programmes with the grim story of Isis in Palmyra.
Jung was insistent that we need more than learned ambivalence. Emotional storms routinely sweep through human populations. Reason proves powerless in the face of such tsunamis because unconscious forces are actually what hold sway. It’s a level of humanity he called “the undiscovered self”, and it is understood by myths and spiritual traditions.
“Most people confuse ‘self-knowledge’ with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents,” he explained. “In this broad belt of unconsciousness, which is immune to conscious criticism and control, we stand defenseless, open to all kinds of influences and psychic infections.” You know it when the internet shits on you, you hate yourself for shouting at your children, you love to loathe your most despised politician.
It made Jung curious about and respectful of wisdom traditions and religions. He knew they could bring evil as well as good, but accepted that they engage with the human soul in its entirety. That’s arguably why all civilisations, bar our own, have fostered transcendent principles, respected divine visions, cherished the spiritual gift of belonging.
“[T]oday we are faced with the problem of the moral backwardness which has failed to keep pace with our scientific, technical and social developments,” he continued. “So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of modern man. Is he capable of resisting the temptation to use his power for the purpose of staging a world conflagration? Is he conscious of the path he is treading?”
This depth of things is what fires culture wars. There’s much at stake. I suggest that next time you hear a public intellectual telling a Big Story, you listen to the background noise. Worry, when you detect the rasping sound of branches and sawing.