Making Gods, Making Individuals

I’ve been reading about bicameralism and the Axial Age. It is all very fascinating.

It’s strange to look back at that era of transformation. The modern sense of self-conscious, introspective, autonomous individuality (as moral agent and rational actor) was just emerging after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. What came before that is almost incomprehensible to us.

One interesting factor is that civilization didn’t create organized religion, but the other way around. Or so it seems, according to the archaeological evidence. When humans were still wandering hunter-gatherers, they began building structures for worship. It was only later that people started settled down around these worship centers. So, humans built permanent houses for the gods before they built permanent houses for themselves.

These God Houses often originated as tombs and burial mounds of revered leaders. The first deities seem to have been god-kings. The leader was considered a god while alive or spoke for god. In either case, death made concrete the deification of the former leader. In doing so, the corpse or some part of it such as the skull would become the worshipped idol. Later on it became more common to carve a statue that allowed for a more long-lasting god who was less prone to decay.

God(s) didn’t make humans. Rather, humans in a very literal sense made god(s). They made the form of the god or used the already available form of a corpse or skull. It was sort of like trapping the dead king’s soul and forcing it to play the role of god.

These bicameral people didn’t make the distinctions we make. There was no clear separation between the divine and the human, between the individual and the group. It was all a singular pre-individuated experience. These ancient humans heard voices, but they had no internal space for their own voice. The voices were heard in the world all around them. The king was or spoke for the high god, and that voice continued speaking even after the king died. We moderns would call that a hallucination, but to them it was just their daily reality.

With the breakdown of the bicameral mind, there was a crisis of community and identity. The entire social order broke down, because of large-scale environmental catastrophes that killed or made into refugees most of the human population back then. In a short period of time, nearly all the great civilizations collapsed in close succession, the collapse of each civilization sending refugees outward in waves of chaos and destruction. Nothing like it was seen before or since in recorded history.

People were desperate to make sense of what happened. But the voices of the gods had grown distant or were silenced. The temples were destroyed, the idols gone, traditions lost, and communities splintered. The bicameral societies had been extremely stable and were utterly dependent on that stability. They couldn’t deal with change at that level. The bicameral mind itself could no longer function. These societies never recovered from this mass tragedy.

An innovation that became useful in this era was improved forms of writing. Using alphabets and scrolls, the ancient oral traditions were written down and altered in the process. Also, new literary traditions increasingly took hold. Epics and canons were formed to bring new order. What formed from this was a sense of the past as different from the present. There was some basic understanding that humanity had changed and that the world used to be different.

A corrolary innovation was that, instead of idol worship, people began to worship these new texts, first as scrolls and then later as books. They found a more portable way of trapping a god. But the loss of the more concrete forms of worship led to the gods becoming more distant. People less often heard the voices of the gods for themselves and instead turned to the texts where it was written the cultural memory of the last people who heard the divine speaking (e.g., Moses) or even the last person who spoke as the divine (e.g., Jesus Christ).

The divine was increasingly brought down to the human level and yet at the same time increasingly made more separate from daily experience. It wasn’t just that the voices of the gods went silent. Rather, the voices that used to be heard externally were being internalized. What once was recognized as divine and as other became the groundwork upon which the individuated self was built. God became a still, small voice and slowly loss its divine quality altogether. People stopped hearing voices of non-human entities. Instead, they developed a thinking mind. The gods became trapped in the human skull and you could say that they forgot they were gods.

The process of making gods eventually transitioned into the process of making individuals. We revere individuality as strongly as people once revered the divine. That is an odd thing.

8 thoughts on “Making Gods, Making Individuals

    • It seems to me that a lot is up in the air. Once it all comes back down, it could land in many different ways. I see it as simply hard to predict.

      The trends that have been continuing for a while could all of a sudden lead to major disprutions, which might lead into entirely new direcctions. Whatever will become, the present social order might not be sustainable for much longer, at least in a historical framework.

      I suspect we are overdue for dramatic change, but its mostly must my personal sense of things. What I most fear is that somehow our society could end up muddling along for who knows how long, while the problems get worse and worse, until collapse becomes inevitable.

    • The rant was enjoyable. There is a lot of truth to it. Many in the older generations don’t realize how easy of a life they had with more assistance, resources, and opportunities given to them than given to later generations. Because of this, as a generation, it is hard for them to appreciate how much has worsened and how much they are responsible for the problems.

      Still, the article could use some qualifications.

      This extended Silent Generation as defined in this article (born 1916-1948) would include quite a diversity of people. Besides those mentioned by Rowe, there would also be people such as Martin Luther King jr, Malcolm X, Timothy Leary, Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Nanton Romney), Hunter S. Thompson, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Angela Davis, Wendell Berry, etc. To these, one could add many or maybe even most of major whistleblowers in America over the past century. While we are at it, some great scientists and spokespersons for secular thought came out of that time period, even if their influence wasn’t as great as that of the religious right.

      This extended Silent Generation wasn’t just about the people who created and shaped the presentday conservative movement, what might be called the New Right. Out of that generation also formed the New Left. Many of the leftist activists and leaders were Silents durinng the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, and following that into the Culture Wars.

      We should acknowledge the many radical left-wingers and stalwart liberals born during that time. These people paved the way for where we are now. They fought the good fight, even when this meant taking on major corporations and the US government (or else taking on local power and bigotry). Being an activist was a difficult task during the conservative-minded and fear-mongering Cold War era, in many ways a far more oppressive time for Americans than is the present War on Terror. Yet some of those people are still around fighting the good fight, as best they can.

      None of that takes away from the scathing criticisms of the failures of that generation as a whole. There wasn’t enough powerful voices that came out of that period, and those that were powerful were imprisoned or assassinated. Those remaining too often were cowed into silence or turned to the dark side, but not all of them did so.

      I wanted to make another point.

      I was glad to see Rowe mention generational theory of Strauss and Howe, but he missed an important part of the theory. The previous generation acts as the leaders for the following generations.

      As I said, Silents led and guided the Boomers during the activism of the 1960s onward. The Silents were on the frontlines of the New Left, trying to formulate a way forward under nearly impossible conditions and they often failed or were annihalated by overpowering forces (e.g., COINTELPRO), but they also had some major successes as well.

      If you go back to the prior generations, you see the same pattern. The Lost Generation was the generation that sacrificed everything to make possible what was achieved with the GI Generation. The Lost Generation didn’t want anyone to have the hard lives, especially childhoods, that they experienced. They sacrificed much, but never benefitted from most of the improvements they helped make happen.

      In that generational theory, the equivalent to the Lost Generation is that of Generation X. Like the Losts, GenXers had neglected childhoods. All of the major problems we see now began during the childhoods and young adulthoods of the GenXers. The GenX rates of child poverty hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression (something Strauss and Howe write about). Wages started stagnating in 1974 and the youngest generation was hit hardest by this, as the job market became tougher (good benefits, high pay, and job security all disappeared; and the labor unions mostly defended the older established workers).

      I was born in 1975 and so, like most GenXers, this is the entire world I’ve known. My generation was the first to be majorly hit by the attack on the social safety net and the War on Drugs. My generation also grew up in the divisive culture wars, during which the Silents and Boomers shifted all of politics to the right, including in the Democratic Party.

      It’s just now that my generation is beginning to enter positions of leadership and authority, as the Silents and Boomers increasingly retire and die. At the same time, the Millennials are more fully entering the job market and are becoming eligible for running for many political positions. According to this generational theory, GenXers will act in the role of leaders to the Millennials as once did the Lost Generation for the GI Generation. If change is to happen, it will require GenXers and Millennials to work together. These are the first two internet generations and together they are starting to dominate the media landscape.

      Another important angle is that GenXers and Millennials are extremely multicultural. They are the most diverse generations since the Lost Generation, the last time immigration rates were at a high point. GenXers were a small generation in terms of Americans born during into that cohort, but now GenXers are as large as other generations because in the latter 20th century immigration rates went up. GenXers consist of more foreign-borns than any other generation. As for Millennials, they have higher rates of multi-racial identities and interracial dating.

      The mid-20th century had the lowest rates of immigration in all of US history. It was part of the Cold War oppressiveness and fear of all that was different. This is why the older generations feel so shocked and overwhelmed by the emerging minority-majority, for it is the complete opposite of the world they grew up in. It must be kept in mind that the conditions of childhood are what a generation will consider to be the social norm, whether good or bad.

      Changing conditions have created different experiences; hence, different understandings and expectations. The generations coming to power will, accordingly, demand a different society with new social and political institutions.

  1. I suspect that Generation X and perhaps Generation Y as well will end up being another “Lost Generation”.

    There are a lot of problems that society faces – and it’s likely that most will have to sacrifice once more. It seems like society is going in cycles – I suspect there will be yet another set of SIlent/Boomers that will repeat this cycle, unless something more fundamental changes.

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