There’s two sorts of people. The optimists who periodically get enthusiastic about something and feel how everything is going to turn out great, and they’re gonna be part of it personally. Then there are the adults who come by and tell you to calm down. It’s not gonna turn out great and you aren’t gonna be part of it anyway.
The Internet has brought the inner optimist in a lot of people. Bitcoin is a recent example most will know about. But there’s also the more general principle, that the Internet has dramatically lowered the ease of access to publishing. Anyone can run a website or a blog, and tell truths that the establishment doesn’t want in the official media. So the truth will be published, so that everyone can read it, and so the truth will prevail, and the people set free!
Instead we see the people organizing online campaigns to get Brendan Eich fired. Actually this is a pretty old threat in the blogosphere. Is the Internet a good thing? Will it help dissenters get together, to spread and refine their views? Or will the Cathedral simply colonize the Internet and use its technology to run a massive surveillance and brainwashing operation, also making it easy to subvert foreign countries? Well it probably has done both. But it’s also obvious which has more important consequences.
Yet… that doesn’t mean the Internet is bad. Far from it. For one, it has given us great websites such as Real History. And now seriously, every now and then one finds a mindblowing piece of scholarship in the web that makes you glad you like reading. It certainly makes me glad of having learned to read English.
Randall Collins’ blog is a great example of that. It’s just great. Amazingly insightful writing. I found it thanks to a link at Isegoria. Isegoria himself wrote once that Moldbug had hacked his brain. Well I kinda feel that Mr. Collins has hacked mine.
Be sure to check out the whole thing, at the very least his posts during 2014. They’re all great, but his last on Jesus as the epitome of charisma is amazing. Part of it is that I love this sort of alternate views of history. But Collins is good. Very good. I’d link to the best parts but Isegoria has done that already.
I’d like to point out the part where he analyzes Jesus’s alleged miracles:
Here we can apply modern sociology of mental illness, and of physical sickness. As Talcott Parsons pointed out, there is a sick role that patients are expected to play; it is one’s duty to submit oneself to treatment, to put up with hospitals, follow the authority of medical personnel, all premised on a social compact that this is done to make one well. But ancient society had no such sick role; it was a passive and largely hopeless position. Goffman, by doing fieldwork inside a mental hospital, concluded that the authoritarian and dehumanizing aspects of this total institution destroys what sense of personal autonomy the mental patient has left. Hence acting out– shouting, defecating in the wrong places, showing no modesty with one’s clothes, breaking the taboos of ordinary social life– are ways of rebelling against the system. They are so deprived of normal social respect that the only things they can do to command attention are acts that degrade them still further. Demon-possessed persons in the Bible act like Goffman’s mental patients, shouting or staying mute, and disrupting normal social scenes.*
* This research was in the 1950s and 1960s, before mental patients were controlled by mood-altering drugs. The further back we go in the history of mental illness, the more treatments resemble ancient practices of chaining, jailing or expelling persons who break taboos.
One gets the impression of a remarkable number of such demon-possessed– i.e. acting-out persons– in ancient Palestine. ** They are found in almost every village and social gathering. Many of them are curable, by someone with Jesus’ charismatic techniques of interaction. He pays attention to them, focusing on them wholly and steadily until they change their behavior and come back into normal human interaction; in every case that is described, Jesus is the first person in normal society with whom the bond is established. Each acknowledges him as their savior and want to stay with him; but Jesus almost always sends them back, presumably into the community of Christian followers who will now take such cured persons as emblems of the miracles performed.
** A psychiatric survey of people living in New York City in the 1950s found that over 20% of the population had severe mental illness. (Srole 1962) It is likely that in ancient times, when stresses were greater, rates were even higher.
This is an idea I’ve long toyed with, even though it’s quite counterintuitive from a reactionary point of view. Part of most critiques of modernity is the idea that modern people are especially dysfunctional, that modern life is unnatural and dehumanizing, and that people today are full of mental issues which were unknown to our more wholesome ancestors.
Well what if that’s completely wrong? I have relatives not very far removed from a medieval peasant lifestyle, and while they are free of many of the psychological ills of modern people (they don’t get depressed, they are not lazy nor obsessed about minutiae, and gender roles are crystal clear), but I wouldn’t say they are all models or psychological wholesomeness. They drink copiously, are often irritable, non cooperative, and act in their own selfish interest without the slightest sign of introspection.
Then there are the crackpot-ish yet infinitely interesting theories of psychohistory and the bicameral mind. Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind hypothesis said that ancients before the Bronze Age collapse had underdeveloped language skills which made their executive function manifest itself as external voices which commanded to do things, so strictly speaking the ancients weren’t conscious, i.e. self-aware. No internal dialogue in the old books.
Psychohistory is the theory of Lloyd deMause, who noted that many ancient civilizations, if not all of them at some point, practiced ritual child sacrifice, and even after that stopped, infanticide was common until not that long ago. Well imagine being a kid in those circumstances. Seeing your little friends being killed in scary altars, and your parents referring to you as a burden, with dad and mom often fighting over whether they should just throw you into the river once and for all, that’s likely to mess you up in the head. Even if they don’t end up killing you to save some shekels, you’ve either been a candidate for an early death, or seen your friends killed. And those traumatized children eventually grow up to become the adults. Chechar has great stuff on how that applied to the Aztecs, which were big on killing children on stone pyramids.
For better or worse though, Julian Jaynes’ theories on the origin of language were disproved. And a casual reading of deMause tells you the guy is full of shit. Yet you don’t need a new encompassing theory of history to feel that maybe our ancestors weren’t as well adjusted as we may think. Going back to Jesus, Randal Collins seems to have read Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, which basically explains the growth of Christianity because urban life in the Roman Empire sucked so incredibly bad that the little niceties that Christians did for each other (giving water to sick people) produced such a difference on fertility and mortality rates that starting with 12 dudes, after 300 years they outgrew everyone else.
Certainly the Palestine of the days of Jesus wasn’t a very rational place. Lots of prophets in the streets, predicating their crap, some better than others. And people actually stopped and listened to them! Collins makes a convincing case for Jesus being an unprecedented charismatic genius, but there were many other preachers in Rome at the time, presumably not as good as Jesus, but still managed to get following.
And don’t go that far. Stay in 19th century America. Certainly there was something wrong in the head with the people that followed Joseph Smith? Or all those who joined the wacky communes mushrooming all over New England? What about the huge followings people like Marx or Freud got? Freud was kinda like the original Yudkowsky. Making people mad while claiming to fix madness, running a cult about not running a cult. One day they’ll call them the Ironic Intellectuals.
None of this is an apology for modernity, or self-congratulation on how far we’ve come and how much better we have it. I’d rather have neighbors join Joseph Smith cult, rather than my kids forced to attend a gender-neutral school, or being forced to refer to a dude who has a fetish for injecting himself with estrogen as a woman. All the bullshit of the prophets of antiquity would feel quite at home with our Global Warming advocates.
The problem is we don’t have good data on the past. Fish don’t know what is water, most people back then probably didn’t feel anything notorious about there being a bunch of witches and crazy dudes in every town block. We on the other hand are too self-aware, and obsessed about psychology.