Scholars, analysts, and strategists should be looking into this better than they have for understanding Al Qaeda and its ilk, and for anticipating some possible effects of the current worldwide economic downturn. But before turning to that in a future post, I want to briefly make another interesting point about chiliasm: It was not just an idea about destruction; it was also an idea about “progress.”
Perhaps I should have tacked this point onto the end of the preceding post. But here it is, on its own, instead. Once again, I’m drawing on draft writings that have been sitting on my computer for too many years — which means I’m pleased to put them somewhere new, but also that my readings and other knowledge may be a bit dated by now.
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The modern idea of progress as secularized chiliasm
The space-time-action reorientations that molded the chiliastic mindset were not simply psychological or pathological in nature. They reflected broader social and cultural changes then taking place in Europe in people’s understanding of how the world worked and should work.
In particular, the wild, violent spasms of chiliasm that afflicted medieval and post-Reformation Europe emerged just prior to the liberal idea of “progress.” And while the Enlightenment of the 18th century is usually credited as the source of this modern idea, it can also be seen as the tamed secular counterpart of chiliasm. Both concepts — chiliasm and progress — stemmed from the fact that people were forming fundamentally new ways of thinking about social space, time, and action at that stage of European civilization. [In addition to Barkun, Cohn, and Mannheim, I’ve looked at J. B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress (1932), Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1965), Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints (1965), Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1994) and Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History (1997).]
In spatial terms, this long-ago phase in European civilization was characterized by a new attribution of value to the earthly secular order (apart from the sacred order of divine providence), by the expansion of the sociopolitical field to include masses as well as elites, by an increasing belief in the importance and equality of individuals, and by an increasing freedom of movement. These developments reshaped people’s perceptions of where they belonged and what they could do. Chiliasm helped put these ideas into motion by bringing millennialism down to earth and identifying it with the demands of the oppressed, poor strata of society. Other-worldly objectives were given a mundane complexion, and said to be realizable in the here and now, if only the holy band succeeded in exploding its identity throughout the larger political space.
The classical notion of time — that an eternally recurrent cycle ruled human affairs — gave way to the Christian conception of time, as expounded by St. Augustine. He broke with the closed-circle idea to propose that time consisted of unrepeated moments that extended along a line allowing for progressive development. In the Augustinian view, past, present, and future became different realms, and man's view of his condition could vary and change. This reconception meant that man was not locked into an eternal natural distinction between rich and poor, and that the future could be a realm of hope, opportunity, and innovation where an individual might overcome his past to create a new history.
The chiliasts deepened the break with cyclical time conceptions — and added a millennialist thrust. They envisioned that a golden millennium was at hand. As exemplified by Joachim de Fiore’s thinking in particular, its realization required only the apocalyptic destruction of the present order. Though destructive, this notion of a bright new future contrasted with a more prevalent, older notion that the passage of time led inevitably to decay. As Mannheim (1936) points out,
The only true, perhaps the only direct, identifying characteristic of the Chiliastic experience is absolute presentness. We always occupy some here now on the temporal stage but, from the point of view of the real Chiliast, the present becomes the breach through which what was previously inward bursts out suddenly, takes hold of the world and transforms it. (p. 215)These reconceptions of political time and space combined with a new action orientation: a new belief that people could master their own affairs and shape their own destiny. The classical idea was relinquished that man must submit to a fate preordained by heavenly powers. The chiliasts’ version of this idea was that man could realize the millennium through special, violent deeds. For them, the critical agent was the small band of holy fanatics led by a chosen prophet — a contrast to the emphasis on masses, organizations, and institutions that dominated subsequent mainstream theories of progress and revolution.
Without these conceptual shifts in space-time-action orientations, my readings tell me that modern Western ideas of politics, progress, and revolution would be inconceivable. Medieval chiliasm may, at first glance, seem at variance with modern ideas. But as Mannheim shows, the chiliasm of the Anabaptists, the Hussites, Thomas Müntzer, and others represented an early form of the modern utopian mentality. The chiliasts’ spiritualization of politics pioneered a breakthrough; at last, spiritual ideals were fused with mundane demands of the lower social strata and said to be realizable in the here and now:
It is at this point that politics in the modern sense of the term begins, if we here understand by politics a more or less conscious participation of all strata of society in the achievement of some mundane purpose, as contrasted with the fatalistic acceptance of events as they are, or of control from 'above’. (Mannheim, 1936, p. 212)Jewish and Christian millennialism was thus tamed, secularized, and transmuted into the modern liberal concept of progress, with its faith in the advance of knowledge, science and technology. England’s Puritan Revolution provided a key turning point. As Robert Nisbet elaborates in his History of the Idea of Progress (1994),
there is the very closest of intellectual relationships between Puritan millenarianism in the seventeenth century and the efflorescence in the next century of the “Modern” secular idea of progress. (p. 126)For some Puritans, notably the Fifth Monarchy sect, violent unrest was required to achieve society’s final stages — along the lines of a Joachimite prophecy of apocalypse. But for most Puritan scientists and theologians, progress to the new millennium could be accomplished through evolution, not revolution. Later, the American and French Revolutions would assure the triumph of the liberal idea of progress — but of course its absorption of millennialism’s visionary tenets has not brought an end to outbreaks of radical, apocalyptic millenarianism.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .