The Flight from Reason/2011/01/02/the-flight-from-reason-2/

The Flight from Reason

I thought I would scan the intro to Webb’s book
tor a discussion of the Enlightenment and the occult renaissance.
Here, to start is the scanned material.

The Flight From Reason
Introduction to James Webb’s
The Occult Underground

After the Age of Reason
came the Age of the Irrational. It has yet to be trapped, dis-
sected, and pronounced upon. The fact that it is with us

here and now is daily announced by the pundits; but no one
has bothered to anatomize the beast historically. The label,
like all historical labels-and all tags hung round the necks
of apocalyptic Beasts-has only a limited use. If it serves to
indicate that the period has been in certain aspects one of
reaction against the logical consequences of too much logic,
it serves its purpose well. It is of as much use as the Age of
Reason which went before it; and subject to the same
qualifications. For the century of Enlightenment was also
the century of shadows. In the time of the encyclopaedists
there flourished alchemists and disciples of Jacob Boehme,
whilst the belief of astrologers in lunar influence has sur-
vived the physical presence of man on the moon. Indeed
there is no good reason why it should not.
The abandonment of Reason has been an irregular
process. Sections of the populations of Europe and America
have been afflicted by various forms of anxiety at different
times. However, it is not arbitrary to define a period of .
great uncertainty extending roughly from the downfall of
Napoleon to the outbreak of the First .World War. Men’s
responses have been multiform. The response of those
whose chief education had been found in the pages of the
family Bible was different from that of the sophisticated up-
per classes of European capitals; and London differed from
Paris as London has always differed from Paris. There is,
nevertheless, evidence that Western man as a whole was
undergoing a severe trial of his capacity to adapt to an en-
vironment which for the first time seemed beyond his
powers to order. This is ironic, as it is common knowledge
that the achievements of the Industrial Revolution and the
development of scientific methods of enquiry had at last
begun to put mankind in some sort of a commanding posi-
tion over the physical world. But as man advanced to
greater mastery of the physical, so his always precarious
hold began to slip upon the more intangible aspects of his
relationship with the universe. His society, his awareness,
his methods of thought, and most importantly the con-
clusions he reached, were all changing round him. What is
more, they could be seen to be changing; and this was
frightening. .
The chief agents of the metamorphosis have all been

described as “revolutions.” The development of an in-
dustrial technology; the application of analytical method
to the natural world; the threatened changes in forms of
government and the rising clamor of the poor; even the
self-dramatizing attitude known as Romanticism; can all
be seen as revolutionary changes. Add to these factors the
increasing contact of Europeans with the peoples of Asia,
and it is clear that Western man’s estimation of himself and
his place in the world required some drastic revision. The
Industrial Revolution reconstructed the European econo-
my. Man’s relations with man were altered; the distribution
of population changed; communications improved so that
news became not merely of parochial interest; and the very
geographical barriers to speedy travel began to disappear.
The scientific method resulted in Darwin’s theory of evolu-
tion and the application of critical standards to accepted
notions of history and religion, by people like Ernest Renan
and David Strauss. Ever since 1789 the threat of social
revolution had terrified the guiltier consciences of Europe.
In the short but significant upheavals of 1848 over fifty
violent attempts took place to topple established
governments. The Romantic ‘attitude placed a weight of
significance on the individual which not everyone was
prepared to accept. What was happening was the final
collapse of the old world-order which had first been
rudely assaulted during the Renaissance and the Reforma-
tion.

In the earlier period ideas of duty to God and King had
given way to a recognition of secular standards and the pur-
suit of profit. During the 18th century there gradually
developed an attitude of mind which enabled man to pur-
sue with more success his worldly activities. In its extreme
form this became Rationalism, and the Age of Reason was
characterized if not by a devotion to the things of this
world, at any rate by a neglect of things belonging to
another. The Industrial, Social, Scientific and Romantic
revolutions were all, in one way or another, the outcome of
this concentration. But just when the Age of Reason seemed
to be bearing fruit in the 19th century, there was an unex-
pected reaction against the very method which had brought
success, a wild return to archaic forms of belief, and among
the intelligentsia a sinister concentration on superstitions
which had been thought buried. So it might have appeared
to a disheartened Rationalist.
If it is true that to write a history proves that the subject
of discussion has become pretty lifeless, Reason died
sometime before 1865. In that year William Lecky publish-
ed his History of Rationalism, a compendium of enlight-
ened Victoriana concerned largely with the elimination of
“superstition” and the growth of humanitarian ideals.
Witches are no longer burned, the slaves are emancipated,
rejoices Lecky, and invites his readers to join him in
celebrating the” progress” of the Western world. Although
rationalism had led to other things than the victory of
humanitarian principles, to a certain extent Lecky was able
to distinguish a mode of thinking fOL what it was. This
argues a clear perception of what went before; but also a
recognition of the dangers of the present. Lecky knew all
too well the difficulties of persuading others to accept the
truths of sweet reason.

The immense majority either never examine the opinions they
have inherited, or examine them so completely under the
dominating influence of the principle of education that
whatever may have been the doctrines they have been taught,
they conclude that they are so unquestionably true, that
nothing but a judicial blindness can cause their rejection. Of
the few who have obtained a glimpse of higher things, a large
proportion cannot endure a conflict to which old associations
and, above all, the old doctrine of the guilt of error, lend such a
peculiar bitterness; they stifle the voice of reason, they turn
away from the path of knowledge, they purchase peace at the
expense of truth. This’ is, indeed, in our day the most fatal of
obstacles to enquiry. I

This stifling of the voice of reason could lead to a
straightforward return to old ways of thought and old
methods of doing things. But such escapism became in-
creasingly difficult. In 1859 Darwin’s Origin of Species was
published, and the great battle broke out between the
evolutionists and those who still asserted the literal truth of
the account of Creation given in Genesis. Meanwhile, the
historians were doing their best to destroy the notion of the
New Testament as unchallengeable narrative. Henan’s Life
of Jesus appeared two years before Lecky’s History.
Nothing previously held as sacred and immune from
tampering could escape the criticism of the scientific
method. Thus, for the more thoughtful a simple return to
the comforts of Christianity was unsatisfactory-although
such a return was widespread. For religion saw the new
science as an enemy. It was.” To Christianity as understood
in the early 19th century the new theories about man and
the universe spelled total disaster if not contained within set
limits. To some doubters such conflict brought a dark night
of the soul in which the freedom of man from divine order-
ing seemed a true and very terrible thing.
It is often stated that the influence of Darwin and the
new scientists had little effect on the faith of ordinary peo-
ple. In time, however, the new ideas were assimilated and
diffused. Anyway it has been observed that all the elements
necessary to the evolutionary theory were present before
Darwin’s flash of intuition that placed each component in
the right slot. The Origin of Species was a codification and
the focus of dispute, but “many had obscurely felt” what
Darwin stated openly.” And it was not only the efforts of
Darwin and a few intellectuals that threatened to take away
from man his few illusions of security. Much more potent,
because practically observable, were the effects of the In-
dustrial Revolution and social agitation. If the findings of
the scientists meant for the thinking classes the destruction
of intellectual securities, alterations in the means of produc-
tion and consumption were establishing a new form of
society altogether, one in which the bases of wealth and
security were not known from experience and which was
therefore threatening. Among the classes deprived of the
means of politically regulating their own destiny, the cam-
paign for a say in the government of their countries
gathered momentum with the demand from the worst-off
for a more just distribution of the world’s goods. Security,
mental, physical, financial, and spiritual, seemed menaced
on every side. In order to live a tolerable life, some form of
mental adjustment had to be made. This book is often con-
cerned with those who failed to make the transition. But it
is as well to note that the forces of social” progress” were by
no means immune from the widespread anxiety about the
future of man.

The condition was aggravated-particularly for the ar-
tistic and literary worlds-by the attitudes instilled by
Romanticism. The word “Romantic” has been so defined
and redefined that I do not propose to enter into the game.
But two characteristics of Romanticism are important from
the point of view of this book; one a popular, the other a
scholarly definition. “Romantic” in everyday speech means
something unreal, pleasant, and dramatic. One charac-
teristic of the movement known by academics as Roman-
ticism is concentration on the self. The popular idea of
something Romantic as a pleasurable form of escapism
results from this concentration on the self. By and large the
opinion of the Age of Reason was that the universe revolved
round man. At any rate man was the perceptible center of
things, and an extremely important part of creation.
Therefore, all his acts, his passions, his minutest doings
must be invested with an awesome significance, as the
dramatic activities of the lord of the world. This reasoning
was all very well, but it placed on the individual an enor-
mous burden in exchange for his privileged position at the
center of things. Man was left to himself. He had only his
own kind to turn to. From this “homocentric” vision of the
universe resulted the idea of the Romantic as a dreamer, an
unrealist. The overloaded personality might break down
under the strain of its own existence; pure escapism might
be the result, at best a heightened and hysterical insistence
on the overwhelming importance of one’s every action.

In the middle of the 19th century it happened that the
consciousness of changes in society combined with intellec-
tual and artistic positions to produce a widespread flight
from reason, whose findings appeared intolerable to the
dignity of man, and insupportable to his knowledge of
himself. This I have called the “crisis of consciousness.”
The motive was not petulance with humanity’s perhaps in-
significant place in the cosmos, but simple fear. A sense of
insecurity was made worse by the need to accept personal
responsibility in the society which was evolving. Under
God, or in a hierarchically-structured society, the individual
had been spared the necessity of making decisions in the
frightening knowledge of the limitless degree of freedom
which he possessed. Of course, there were always practical
restrictions on what could and what could not be done. But
the knowledge that one is the arbiter of one’s own destiny is
always a frightening discovery; and during the 19th century
whole peoples began to realize the extent of that fear. Erich
Fromm has described some of the symptoms of such a
withdrawal from the prospect of freedom,” but it seems as
though historians have neglected the theories of the psy-
chologists as being ‘outside their province.

In circumstances of anxiety and uncertainty, superstition
is likely to make a prominent showing. This is seen as
perhaps a regression to infantile attitudes, or to beliefs ac-
quired early in life and afterwards suppressed; or perhaps as
a means of obtaining some sort of illusory control over a
frightening situation.’ During the 19th-century crisis of
consciousness this sort of situation was the order of the day;
and superstition flourished. The most interesting facet of
the flight from reason is the revival of the occult. Under this
widely misunderstood heading are grouped an astonishing
collection of subjects: hypnotism, magic, astrology, water-
divining, “secret” societies, and a multitude of similar
topics of doubtful intellectual respectability. The discovery
of the real nature of the occult makes possible a view of
history and society which I believe is new. But this book is
neither a complete history of the occult revival nor an
attempt to compile an intellectual history of the last century
and a half. Both would be superhuman tasks. It is rather an
attempt to show how the occult revival can be used as a key
to a crisis which we still have not resolved, and how the oc-
cult relates to the better-lit regions of society.
To understand this, one thing should be noted about the
expression of ideas. In terms of man’s vision of himself and
his place in the world, a real free-thinker is always a very
rare bird. In the mid-19th century one was for Revolution
or Reaction, Progress or Order. Likewise, there was an over-
limited conceptual vocabulary to allow of great sophistica-
tion in most people’s way of looking at the world. The terms
with which man was most familiar-and probably the terms
with which he is still most at home-to describe his
thoughts about his relationship with the universe were
religious or directly anti-religious. Thus it should not be
surprising to hear the prophet of a socialist paradise ex-
press himself in nearly religious fashion; particularly if the
boiling of social discontents is borne in mind as a constant
background to the crisis and its development. On the one
hand, the furnace of the revolution; on the other, the
blackness of the void. God was dying, but Nietzsche had
not yet officially erected his tombstone. 1848 was the year
of revolutions in Europe; it also represents the beginning of
Spiritualism in America. We shall find that the religious
and the political, the occult and the revolutionary, run in
the same paths, employ each other’s language. Western
society was disoriented and dismayed in the midst of its
riches. Corporately it behaved rather like the irresolute
Rationalist described in Lecky’s fulsome prose:

There is a period in the history of the enquirer when old
opinions have been shaken or destroyed, and new opinions
have not yet been formed, a period of doubt, of terror, and of
darkness, when the voice of the dogmatist has not lost its
power, and the phantoms of the past still hover over the mind,
a period when every landmark is lost to sight, and every star is
veiled, and the soul seems drifting helpless and rudderless
before the destroying blast. It is in this season of transition that
the temptations to stifle reason possess a fearful power.”
1. W.E.H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the
Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (London, 1870), vol. II, 4th edi-
tion, pp. 94-5.
2. Despite the assertions to the contrary of so many clerics.

For a good example of the believed dichotomy see Andrew D.
White, A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in
Christendom (London, 1875, reprinted 1955). Time and com-
promise have proved that there is perhaps nothing inherently in-
compatible in Christianity and, say, evolutionary theory; and it is
also true that not every observer in the 19th century saw the op-
position of the new science and the old religion in terms of black
and white-see C. C. Gillispie, Genesis and Geology (Cambridge,
Mass., 1951)-but it cannot be disputed that the challenge posed
by empirical investigation to revealed truth maintained in
dogmatic form was of the severest kind.
3. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian
Revolution, (London, 1959), p. 377; cf. also Herbert Butterfield,
Origins of Modern Science (London, 1957), p. 233.
4. Erich Fromm, Fear of Freedom (London, paperback
reprint, 1960, of original 1942 edition).
5. Gustav Jahoda, The Psychology of Superstition (Lon-
don, 1969), p. 146.
6. Lecky, Rationalism, vol. II, pp. 95-6.

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