Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ancient and Modern Enlightenment: from Noosphere to Technosphere

Hope you all had a happy new year.

I have an article up on Scott Bakker's blog, on the difference between ancient and modern enlightenment. Here are the first few paragraphs:


Enlightenment is elite cognition, the seeing past collective error and illusion to a hidden reality. But the ancient idea of enlightenment differs greatly from the modern one and there may be a further shift in the postmodern era. I’ll try to shed some light on enlightenment, by pursuing these comparisons.

Ancient Enlightenment: Monism and Personification

Enlightenment in the ancient world was made possible by a falling away from our mythopoeic, nomadic prehistory. In that Paleolithic period, symbolized by the wild Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and by the biblical Adam in Eden, there was no enlightenment since everything was thoroughly personified and so nothing could have been perceived as unfamiliar or alien to the masses. The world was experienced as a noosphere, filled with mentality. Only after the rise of sedentary civilization in the Neolithic Era, when farming replaced nomadic hunting in 10,000 BCE, which allowed for much larger populations, was there a loss of that enchanted mode of experience which actually depended on a sort of blissful collective ignorance. As a population increases, the so-called Law of Oligarchy takes hold, which means that social power must be concentrated to avoid civilizational collapse. Dominance hierarchies are established and those in the lower classes become envious of the stronger and more privileged members who are sure to display their greater wealth and access to women with symbols of their higher status. By doing so, each social class learns its boundaries so that the social structure won’t be overridden, which would invite anarchy.

As Rousseau argued, civilization was the precondition of what we might call the sin of egoism. Contrary to Rousseau, prehistoric life wasn’t utopian; at least, objectively, human life in the Paleolithic Era was likely quite savage. But the ancients seemed to have an easier time perceiving the world in magical terms, judging from the evidence of their religions and extrapolating from what we know of children’s experience, given their similar dearth of content to occupy their collective memory. Thus, even as they killed each other over trifles, the prehistoric people would have interpreted such horror as profoundly meaningful. In any case, I think Rousseau is right that civilization made possible a falling away from a kind of intrinsic innocence. Specifically, the increased social specialization led to an epistemic inequality. As food was stored and more and more people lived together, there was greater need for practical knowledge in such areas as architecture, medicine, sanitation, and warfare. The elites became decadent and alienated from nature, since they found themselves free to indulge their appetites with artificial diversions, as specialists took care of the necessities of survival such as the harvesting of food or the defense of the borders. These elites codified the myths that expressed the population’s mores, but while the uneducated majority clung to their na├»ve, anthropocentric traditions, the cynical and self-absorbed elites more likely regarded the folk tales as superstitions.


  1. Interesting, Benjamin.

    There are people in this world today, anarcho-primitives, who believe we need to return to the paleolithic era, that the great sin WAS agriculture.

  2. Yeah, there are romantics, neo-luddites, anarchists, and what Terence McKenna called archaic revivalists. Here, I mean to describe some historical transitions, without judging whether they were good or bad. I'm planning a follow-up article comparing the mythopoeic worldview with postmodern consumerism, and there I'll inevitably condemn the latter. I suppose I see the technosphere as just another Nietzschean challenge, as a temptation and a separator of the enlightened elite from the deluded and exploited rabble. We have to adapt to our environment, but there are better and worse ways of doing so, aesthetically speaking.