Jean-Jacques Rousseau got it backwards when he said ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ On the contrary, men and women are born in a state of radical un-freedom. We come into the world attached by the umbilical cord to mother, family, and tribe — and only after a great struggle can we dream of any kind of relative freedom. Freedom could only exist in a web of responsibility, contingency, and interdependence.
When John Lennon wrote the song Imagine he was similarly off the mark. Imagine is the ultimate hymn to romanticism: that is its anthemic power but also its tragic insufficiency. Do we really want to imagine the world that Lennon sings about, with ‘no hell below us and above us only sky’? Is that not a world without depth, and ironically, without imagination?
Perhaps there is a more existential realism — and imagination, for that matter — in his song ‘I am the Walrus’! This is a song that celebrates transformation, surrealism, pathos — it harkens back to our shamanistic roots. The Walrus is a powerful totem — the song has a feel of ritual transformation. Its wild poetry is far more radical (and fun) than the more idealistic and therefore manipulative sentiment of the song Imagine.
Romantic and revolutionary movements have their place: they rip out the dead roots of traditions when such traditions have become empty and formal — they regenerate the culture. And yet today revolutions become the uroboros: a snake eating its own tale. Today it seems obvious that the romantic counter-culture (which is now the mainstream culture) is this serpent eating itself — it has become its own oppressor.
Recently, a cringeworthy version of Imagine was performed by a bunch of movie stars in an online zoom conference from their luxury Hollywood mansions. How could they have possibly sung the words: ‘imagine no possessions’ without irony or manic laughter? When the revolutionary anthem becomes the sentimental activism of Hollywood stars, then we can safely say that the revolution is dead.
Some people are more equal than others
Revolutions have proved again and again that ‘some people are still more equal than others’, as George Orwell once joked. The result of revolutions has been that the king is usurped by an uber-administrator — the new Czar is named Joseph Stalin and he sits on a mountain of corpses. When the spring of giddy political freedom is over, the revolutionary workers will invariably clamor for a new, more repressive, monster. Revolutions, in almost every case, have not overturned but only expanded the power of the tyrant. Today the Russian president is richer and more inaccessible than any medieval Tsar had ever been, for instance.
So what to do?
I’ve come to the conclusion that what we need is a renaissance, not a revolution. The only way forward is the way back as TS Eliot put it. That means to integrate and renew traditions — too reinvent rather than smash the culture. Let us go deep into our origins, study the great traditions as deeply as we can.
The age of 19th Century ideology is over — even if the ghost of Maoist child armies are alive and well in ‘cancel culture’. And even if these angry children still hold massive sway over the mob, the good news is that they are committing suicide with increasing violence and speed, through their own absurdity.
In the past we needed walled cities to keep out plagues and strangers — strict hierarchies to regulate relationships — degree was embedded into every individual, family, and institution. In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare wrote: ‘Oh when degree is shaken, which is the ladder to all high designs, the enterprise is sick.’ ‘Take degree away, untune that string, And, hard, what discord follows’[i].
When degree is shaken. In other words, when people lose their place there is sure to be chaos. In the past peace depended — not on equality, an idea that had no meaning whatsoever — but on status, rank, and station. In face we could say that inequality was a positive notion. It situated you in a universe where there was always something above and below you, therefore you knew where you stood.
Certainly, few would want to return to such a fixed cosmos. Most of us would agree that human rights, access to a justice system, basic education and health care — all of these are desirable. Furthermore, we believe we should be judged on our skills and talents rather than our social position or gender. These are some of the foundational principles of the modern secular world, and they seem to be pretty solid.
Still, it is interesting to consider that these truths have not always been ‘self-evident’. Equal opportunity is not the same thing as equal outcome, which we conflate today. To illustrate the danger of equality outcome, René Girard has used the example of twins. Historically, twins were once universally feared, they were often abandoned or killed as scapegoats. They represented an uncanny replication, a ‘double’ that inspired genuine horror. Why? Girard suggests that if there was too much sameness (or equality), there was potential for rivalry and contagious violence. [i]
In the past sameness was anathema — our distinctive place in the cosmic order was not the least bit arbitrary, and maintaining roles kept society from collapsing.The point is: equality is an abstraction and sameness is dangerous. We don’t want everybody to be equal — we want them to flourish — in the modern world we tend to conflate those two things.
That is not to suggest that we return to some primitive or golden age, but studying the past can show us why our emancipatory impulses are often counterproductive. Biology is deep, hierarchies are older than lobsters to quote the infamous example of Jordan Peterson, and the badass lobster always wins. Of course, human beings are more sophisticated and subtle in their forms of tyranny than lobsters, but no less beastly, especially when they are under duress. A situation of relative abundance keeps people co-operating, but take that security away and the war of all against all begins.
Our task should be to make hierarchies more healthy and positive — rather than trying to remove them wholesale. We need an up and a down, a big and a small, a God and an devil — we need vertical depth and responsibility, not just horizontal universal rights, not a flat world of equality. And healthy natural hierarchies actually allow us to express our virtue in relations to others.
Gotta serve somebody
Today we believe we are too enlightened to serve Gods, and yet we serve movie stars and ideologies. We go to stadiums and worship rock stars, and yet we believe ourselves to be beyond religion. We might not ‘believe’ in religion, but we enact it regardless, despite ourselves. In truth, we want godly beings to rule over us — maybe even more than we want ‘equal rights’. We may ‘believe’ in equality, but still we tremble and bow to a person of greater rank — even if that person is a particularly terrible politician whom we loath, like Donald Trump. The mystical aura still hangs over those in power.
We are religious creatures through and through: we cannot ‘imagine’ this away. And even the most empirical scientist is quite religious in his ernest belief in ‘the miracles of nature’ and enacts quasi religious ritual, donning white gowns and repeating the mantras of scientism. And the atheist still retains a salutary fear of God, which he or she just calls ‘the universe’ — as something too big, too powerful, and too grand for him or her to understand.
It is a human need to worship what is beyond us. Some of my students, for example, worship in the church of heavy metal music.They engage in a series of communal exercises (like going to concerts) and contemplations of heavy metal music (listening to songs) — they wear costumes and esoteric signs of membership (tattoos, for instance). And even if they consider themselves to be non-conformists, they conform strictly to the dogmatic rules of the church of heavy metal music, with its temples, or concert halls, and its theological principles. They have a history as well: there is an official hierarchy of great bands, as well as a multitude of heretical subgroups.
As a young songwriter, I tried to emulate Bob Dylan; Bob Dylan, in turn, learned from Woody Guthrie, who also had his traditional sources, before he revolutionized songwriting. I was absorbing the informal lineage of ‘folk’ musicians, which updates itself throughout time. I couldn’t have even begun to write a song before studying that tradition, or copying its norms and assimilating its rules and axioms — which meant listening to records and imitating the masters. Every tradition has its cannon of heroes.
The romantic error I made as a young person, in the revolutionary spirit of Rousseau and Lennon, was to not embrace the tradition but imagine that I was creating something ex nihilo. I might have been a better guitar player if I had had more formal musical training, but I was blinkered by the whole sixties notion of spontaneous freedom, which just leads to a lot of masturbatory guitar solos.
Individual expression doesn’t really exist without lineage, and we cannot create anything without knowing our artistic and spiritual past. That doesn’t mean that the lineage doesn’t need to be overturned at times. However, following the revolutionary logic, the tradition will reinstate itself eventually — which is perhaps why Bob Dylan is singing covers of Frank Sinatra songs these days.
Today tourists wander around medieval cathedrals, bathing in the tradition they falsely believe themselves to be liberated from. Temples are the original institutions for human worship — how ugly our modern cities would be without them. Aren’t these cathedrals proof enough that human beings are made to worship what is great, religious or otherwise. We need to find a way to worship again, and then perhaps build something great again, to quote the most infamous politician of our times.
Today people tear down statues and judge their ancestors, perhaps because of their own mediocrity. If you are mediocre, you create violent revolution, you can only burn and break things. But if you are creative you create a renaissance — you breathe life into tradition.
Recently, I asked a classroom of students if they had any heroes. They seemed almost insulted by the very idea. I’ve noticed that young people these days, who tend to be cynical about tradition, are dismissive of having heroes — but this is a mistake. Kids and adults need their heroes, we need to worship, to bow down to something greater than ourselves. The traditions contain keys to a library that is inexhaustibly rich — we can’t find a voice without them. The narcissist doesn’t acknowledge this. He or she can only see the mirror.
Again, there is wisdom in laying ourselves down at the feet of the gods, whoever they may be. Maybe it is even more important to ‘worship’ than it is to be ‘free’ or ‘equal’ to somebody. In any case, equality is not the whole story — it provides no inspiration for aiming high.
In any case, people are religious, whether they want to be or not! We may never worship the sun god or fear damnation with the same intensity as we did in the past, and yet there are still higher or lower principals to serve.
Bob Dylan put it best in his song ‘Gotta serve somebody’:
Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
[i] Quoted in: Girard, René, and Patrick Gregory. Violence and the sacred. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. p.56
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