December 24, 2009
Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality
By Morris Berman
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000
In four years of research, I’ve rarely come across a book with a thesis so similar to my theory of the “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (pfc)” than Morris Berman’s Wandering God. So why did I find the book so difficult to read at times? Maybe it’s because I’m in such strong agreement with much of what Berman writes that the disagreements become all the more painful.
Let me begin with the points of agreement. Berman’s main thesis is that in our transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and beyond, humanity has entered into a mode of thinking that he calls the “sacred authority complex” (SAC). This mode emphasizes transcendence – rising above the here-and-now to a realm of spiritual heights, immortality, wealth and authority – and in doing so, it leaves behind the quality of existing fully in the present, material world. This matches closely with my own view of the pfc’s rise to power in our consciousness manifested in the agricultural-based values which then developed into Platonic dualism.
When Berman contrasts the hunter-gatherer (HG) mode of consciousness favorably with our SAC mode, it sounds a lot like the “democracy of consciousness” that I believe we need to move towards, as in the following:
HG life was more congruent with the multiple aspects of human Being – spiritual, political, somatic, environmental, and sexual (and perhaps even intellectual) – than the civilized form of life that followed it. The irony of civilization is that the SAC promises a better life yet delivers one that is probably worse.
Much of Berman’s book is spent tracing the steps in which the SAC took over from HG consciousness, and again I find myself in agreement with many of his interpretations. He emphasizes, for example, that it was the shift from nomadic to sedentary hunter-gatherer culture that was the most significant step, even more than the shift to agriculture. That’s because, once you’re sedentary, you begin to accumulate possessions, stake out land, and initiate the cycle of ownership, desire and power that leads inevitably to the SAC culture.
Berman shows how early civilizations merged notions of power, fertility and agriculture into a gigantic thought constellation, quoting powerfully from the Mesopotamian poem, The Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi, where the bride, Inanna astonishingly asks:
As for me, my vulva, … Me – the maid, who will plow it for me? My vulva, the watered ground – for me, Me the Queen, who will station the ox there?
Also, I’m in complete agreement with Berman when he sees Zoroaster as an important source in the universalization of concepts of good and evil, describing how “the moral dualism of the Gathas is in fact the universalization of a concrete political and social situation… The entire cosmos is now seen as defined by the conflict between the True and the False.”
I part company with Berman in a couple of interpretive areas, such as his attacks on Mircea Eliade (see my recent review of Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return) and on the “Kurgan hypothesis” for the source of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. But my problem with Berman in these areas is not just a difference in interpretation, but rather the vehemence with which he goes after his prey, calling Eliade’s methodology “flawed to the core.” Here’s another example:
To my mind, writers such as Jung, Campbell, and Eliade are themselves exemplars of Neolithic distortion, in which what is simply naturalistic and secular has to be inflated with vertical sacrality so that they can feel life is meaningful. That life might be meaningful without all of this symbolic hoopla appears to have escaped their understanding.
I think that Berman, in his sarcasm, rides roughshod over a subtle, but important, point. I’m sure it’s true that early humans felt life was meaningful without making a fuss about it. I’m certain that no early tribesman said to himself “It’s time to act out the myth of the eternal return now.” But we modern humans no longer have access to that way of thinking, and at times it may take some “symbolic hoopla” to try to re-conceive in modern language what an early human perceived without a moment’s self-consciousness. Even though Berman may be correct in pointing out some factual errors in Eliade’s scholarship, that doesn’t invalidate the attempts by him and his co-thinkers to try to recreate some of the underlying constructs of thought in bygone cultures.
Similarly, on the controversial issue of the source of PIE language, I think Berman does a disservice to the subject by claiming that the “Kurgan hypothesis”, with which he disagrees, “has fallen apart under closer scrutiny”, and calling the respected PIE scholar J.P. Mallory a “disciple” of Marija Gimbutas. Personally, I support the “Kurgan hypothesis” (see my review of Mallory’s book), but the point is, well-respected scholars support both viewpoints, both of which have difficulties, but neither of which has been invalidated. It wouldn’t hurt Berman’s arguments to allow some respect to his opponents’ positions.
These are, for the most part, technical or tonal issues. But I have a much bigger problem with Berman’s position when he comes out swinging against the modern systems approach to science:
That branch of holistic thinking known as systems theory … is really an attempt to dress up what Aldous Huxley called the ‘perennial philosophy’ in a kind of scientific garb, to sneak religion (or self-transcendence) in through the back door, as it were, which is why its proponents are typically zealots and why the theory … is heavily caught up in a game of smoke and mirrors.
Systems theory is a very big field, spanning decades of research and thousands of books. To dismiss it in this way is especially unfortunate since I believe, if Berman were to open up to some of the best writers in this area, he might find that his own views are well represented. For example, I think he’s utterly wrong to link systems theory with self-transcendence. I do agree with him that Huxley’s “perennial philosophy” is all about self-transcendence, but I believe that systems theory leads one inexorably to a realization of immanence rather than transcendence.
Berman comes close to this place himself when he offers the metaphor of the rhizome for “nomadic thinking”, contrasting it with the SAC “oak tree” metaphor:
The oak tree, of course, conjures up grand images; it is heroic. Rhizomes, with their lateral and circular taproot systems, are a lot less romantic: potatoes, weeds, crabgrass. But their power lies precisely in being anti-Platonic, anti-Jungian, nontranscendent, for the heart of rhizomatic patterning is immediate interconnection and heterogeneity… And whereas the tree, which has dominated Western thought, is about transcendence, the rhizome, the steppe, is about immanence.
Just like the rhizome metaphor, systems theory at its best offers a worldview composed of patterns, interconnections and dynamic relationships, eschewing the hierarchical, dualistic approaches provided by traditional Western thought.
Assuming you follow Berman’s arguments to the very end, I’m afraid he leaves you hanging there. Yes, I agree that the HG, nomadic thought pattern was desirable in many ways. But we’re not hunter-gatherers, and we can’t simply shed our SAC thought constructs and become nomadic thinkers again.
There are, however, paths we can follow to undo what I call the “tyranny” that the pfc-mediated thought traditions have imposed on our consciousness. In my view, the traditions of Taoism and Buddhism offer us productive avenues, which naturally link up with some of the thought patterns arising from the systems theories that Berman dismisses. Berman is rightly suspicious of faddish “Big Ideas” to fix the problems of our civilization, writing:
As long as political hierarchy or ‘religious’ tendencies are present… we move within the orbit of power, and this will perpetuate the same mindset and structures of agricultural civilization. There also has to be an avoidance of large-scale organization, the sort of bureaucratization that encourages vertical outlooks.
I agree with him entirely, but so do many other people who have chosen, for example, to explore Buddhist practices in response to the hierarchies of consciousness that are instilled into our Western minds. Berman does offer a partial solution to our current mindset, writing:
On the individual level, there are two things that strike me as integral to HG civilization that we moderns can adopt, though the process of making these things a part of our lives would be a slow and difficult one. The first is the cultivation of silent spaces; the second, the radical acceptance of death.
He then describes a beautiful epiphany he experienced while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. But how many of us in the modern world have the luxury to spend more than a moment in that place, even if we’re lucky enough ever to get there?
On the other hand, meditation practices offer anyone the opportunity to cultivate the most important silent space that exists: the one that’s within you. Which is why, I guess, I found Berman’s book so difficult to read at times, even while I profoundly agree with so much of it. I felt that it arrives at a dead end, leaving the reader with an unnecessarily negative outlook on our modern predicament.
Berman has spent decades offering unique and radical insights into our Western ways of thinking, and has clearly explored many different paths to arrive at his own assessment of our human condition. His book ends with a challenge: “Somebody has to live the message; maybe – you?” Perhaps Berman believes the only valid way for someone to reach the “nomadic” mindset is to arrive there yourself, rather than being told how to get there. And perhaps he’s right. But I do think there are thought traditions available to us that can make these explorations easier, and I guess that’s what I found missing from Berman’s otherwise brilliant book.
 For an excellent exploration of some of the philosophical implications of systems theory, see Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.
December 16, 2009
By J. P. Mallory
London: Thames and Hudson 1989
Have you ever noticed how the English word “right” holds a strange combination of meanings? Its opposite can be either “left” or “wrong.” The source – and underlying significance – of this confluence of meaning is one of the many insights you can gain from an understanding of our cultural ancestors, the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
Back in 1786, Sir William Jones, a linguist who’d spent three years as judge on the Supreme Court of Bengal, kicked off over two hundred years of rich controversy when he announced to the Asiatic Society of Bengal that he had noticed “a stronger affinity” between Greek and Sanskrit “than could possibly have been produced by accident.” This, he said, led him to believe that both languages have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”
Sir William had stumbled upon the notion of what’s now known as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) hypothesis: the theory that at some time in the distant past a language existed that was the ultimate source of a vast array of languages now spoken by the majority of the world’s inhabitants, including Russian, Hindi, Persian and virtually every modern European language. After two hundred painstaking years, linguists have reconstructed enough of this original language that there are even PIE dictionaries, even though the language itself has long ceased to exist and is only known by its relics surviving in dozens of more recent languages.
The PIE language and culture may be long dead, but the controversies it has left in its wake are alive and kicking. Everyone agrees that there was, in fact, a PIE language or language group. The main sources of disagreement are over the timing and – even more vehemently – its location.
Currently, there are two main competing hypotheses: the Anatolia hypothesis, championed by archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew, states that Anatolian farmers initially brought the PIE language with them as they fanned out through Europe and Asia beginning around 7000 BCE, soon after the beginnings of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. The more traditionally accepted Kurgan hypothesis argues that the PIE language was originally spoken by horse-riding pastoralists in the steppes north of the Black Sea, who expanded with their horse-driven wagons south into the Indus Valley and West into Europe in waves between around 4000 and 2000 BCE.
Mallory’s book is a rigorous and learned exposition of the Kurgan view, and he has no compunctions about taking off his gloves in attacking Renfrew’s Anatolia hypothesis. To prove his point, Mallory needs to rely on a subtle intertwining of both archaeological and linguistic evidence, and in doing so, he shows the power of applying interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems.
I find Mallory’s arguments convincing (especially in conjunction with a more recent, complementary study by David Anthony entitled The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.) Mallory creates a picture of a patrilineal culture, valuing property and power, gradually extending their reach into Anatolia, Greece, the Indus Valley and Central Europe. Mallory puts his weight behind the theory (also somewhat controversial) that the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley was probably destroyed by the PIE invaders around 1500 BCE.
He also gives general support to the theories of Marija Gimbutas, who argued in a series of books beginning in the 1970’s that a matriarchal, relatively peaceful society dominated Southeastern Europe from around 4000-2500 BCE, until it was overcome by the PIE advance of what Mallory describes as “the Kurgan warriors whose religious attention was more attracted to warlike sky-gods and sun worship.”
You can begin to put the pieces together to create an image of a happy, peaceful, early agricultural world, from the Indus Valley to Europe, whose harmony gets shattered by the violent incursions of a horse-riding, wagon-driving gang of macho PIE warriors. Of course, this image easily degenerates into a caricature, and Gimbutas’ theories have been severely criticized for just this reason. But underneath the caricature, some elements of truth probably do exist.
The nature and influence of PIE culture is a crucial element of my own research into the source of the “tyranny of the pfc” in our Western consciousness. As I see it, the cultural stew that produced Western monotheistic and scientific thought had three main ingredients: Egyptian, Mesopotamian and PIE traditions. Each of these added their own unique nutrients to the stew. The PIE flavor seems to revolve around a constellation of ideas linking power, morality and right.
Which leads us back to the strange combination of meanings for our English word “right”. This word comes from a PIE root-word *reg-, which is the same root for the Latin rex, or our word “regal”. Here’s how Mallory describes it:
Linguists have argued that the root of the noun is *reg which provides such meanings as stretch, draw out in a straight line, and straighten. Our English word right is a reflex of this root, and the same opposition which we employ between what is straight or right and what is bent or crooked, that is, dishonest or wrong, is encountered throughout the Indo-European languages.
Mallory cites two other PIE scholars on the etymology of this root:
[Jan] Gonda suggested that the word [*reg-] meant one who stretches or reaches out, a metaphor for the formal activities of a king who is often depicted in Indo-European tradition as fulfilling his duties with outstretched arms. [Emile] Benveniste argued that the fundamental meaning [of *reg-] was ‘one who determined what was right.’
So, here you have a profound underlying notion of “might is right.” If you’re king, you’re the one who determines what’s right and what’s wrong. And what’s right is also straight. So, if you don’t fit into our straight lines, you’re bent, crooked and dishonest. It’s notable that, in Latin, the word for “left” is sinister.
This is just one of several central themes that I believe PIE culture added to the foundations of Western thought. I don’t think it’s possible to really understand where our ideas come from without getting a feel for PIE culture, and in my view, Mallory’s book is a great place to begin, with a more recent follow-up in David Anthony’s book (mentioned above) strongly recommended.