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Friday, April 4, 2008

Religion and the Origins of Civilization

Christopher Dawson's Progress and Religion is a remarkable book. Written in 1929 when Dawson was not yet 40 it is, in effect, Dawson's attempt at an overall theory of history. While in many ways it addresses scholarship that is now dated, especially with regard to theories of the "origin of religion," it also has much in common with the later work of Mircea Eliade--in fact, in some respects Dawson goes beyond Eliade (whom Dawson preceded by several decades) by more explicitly relating archaic culture to later developments of large civilizations, world religions, and Christianity. (Eliade does seek to draw parallels between archaic thought and modern “existentialist” thought, but fails to fully consider much in between.) Nevertheless, because Dawson lacked an understanding of the archaic ontology of archetypes which Eliade elaborated, he was unable to fully exploit his unquestionably valuable insights. In what follows we will therefore attempt to evaluate Dawson's insights in light of Eliade's understanding of archaic man's ontology of archetypes and repetition.

In Chapter IV, “The Comparative Study of Religion,” Dawson set forth his views on archaic culture. In doing so he was at pains to oppose the materialist views of human culture that were current at the time. Then, in Chapter V, “Religion and the Origins of Civilization,” Dawson addresses the transition from “primitive” societies to the earliest civilizations.


Dawson regards the transition from shamanism to an organized priesthood as crucial to understanding the transition from "primitive" society and the development of more sophisticated larger scale civilizational societies. The shaman, according to Dawson, is the most important man in "primitive society"--more important than the warrior, for the shaman is "the man who is supposed to be in touch with this otherworld [i.e., the spiritual world] and to possess supernatural powers." As we shall see, Dawson's analysis of societal structures, while yielding valuable insights, fails to get at the the nub of the matter. Nevertheless, Dawson's analysis is a natural fit with Eliade's understanding of archaic ontology and when analyzed in that context helps to fill out Eliade's theory of archaic ontology.

Dawson sees the shaman's activities as tied up with man's search for "help" in this world--help that he knows he cannot discover within this world. In this Dawson is at one with Eliade's emphasis on the uncertainty of human existence. However, from Eliade's standpoint, this position begs the fundamental question: why is it, after all, that man believes that there is a "supernatural" realm, a realm that is in a position to give man help and is willing to respond to man's appeal? Is "religion," man's interpretation of reality, a pure invention, a device manufactured by will and fantasy, or does it express legitimate insights into the nature and structure of being?

Dawson addresses these fundamental questions briefly in “The Comparative Study of Religion” but fails to develop his analysis in a way that would form a basis for a far reaching theory of man. In this respect Dawson's analysis remains reactive with regard to theories of the origin of "religion" that rely upon concepts such as shamanism and totemism. But these questions regarding archaic man's views on the structure of reality are at the heart of Eliade's theory of man. Eliade's response is that archaic man's ontology, expressed in myth and ritual, sees the changing reality of our experience as derivative, as dependent on a “higher” reality for its being. As dependent, then, the “world” or “cosmos” is real in so far as it participates in the divine archetypes from which it derives its being; these archetypes are the true and eternal realities. From the standpoint of this archaic ontology (which, in its basic structure, achieves striking expression in the philosophy of Plato) there is an underlying intelligibility to all that exists. In so far as everything in our world of experience is connected to and caused in some way by its relationship to the world of the archetypes or exemplars, it is intelligible and in some measure explicable (in theory--but absent this relationship of archetype to this world, our world would be utterly unintelligible). Archaic man's efforts to establish communication with the world of archetypes rests on the implicit belief that intelligibility must be the product in some way of mind, and therefore of person: thus, the gods. Without this (at least) implicit understanding of reality, religion would make no sense at all. (We hasten to add that we do not imply that archaic man's worldview was "scientific," nor that he was embarked on a theoretical undertaking in the strict sense, but that his worldview--properly developed--contained the germ of such development.)

The same can be said with regard to Dawson's remarks regarding Sir James Frazer's views on magic. Dawson maintains that "Frazer is completely justified in regarding magic as the first approach towards a systematic study of the external world, and the source of the earliest conception of an order of nature and of the existence of the law of causality." Dawson's position is correct as far as it goes, but it is Eliade's explication of the archaic ontology that demonstrates the basis for magic in the first place: if it were not for the relationship between divine archetypes and earthly realities--itself based upon insight into the intelligibility and order of the cosmos--there would be no plausible reason for attempting to influence reality through magic. It is 1) the insight that the observable order and intelligibility of earthly realities are derived from eternal/heavenly archetypes and that 2) there remains a relation between earthly and heavenly realities, that gives the impetus toward magical attempts at the manipulation of reality. But there must first be some basis for this insight. The "ecstasy of the shaman" would have no possibility of a meaning without the previous insight. (Interestingly, in briefly alluding to the origins of Islam, Dawson at least hints at the idea that Mohammed's "religious experience" may be related to the role of the shaman in archaic culture. The ability of shamans to explosively transform their societies is well documented, but Dawson's insight gains greatly by placing it within the context of Eliade's analysis of archaic ontology.)

Dawson also speculates, in discussing the transition from "primitive" to civilizational societies, that the development of agriculture may be connected to magical or totemic practices, citing examples of Australian aboriginal ceremonials such as blowing grass seeds to the four winds. Again, it is reasonable to connect this ceremony with archaic man's view that everything that occurs in this world is governed by heavenly archetypes. Thus, Dawson goes on to cite the example of the agricultural Pueblo Indians, whose entire social life is governed by elaborate rituals connected with the cultivation of maize. The entire Pueblo community is organized around the production of maize and elaborate rituals that are intended to assure the success of the harvest, by humanly and sympathetically cooperating with the cosmic cycles that provide the harvest. The remarkably sophisticated calendrical observations that arose in connection with these practices both among the Pueblos as well as in other cultures (Dawson cites the Mayas in this regard) are not mere "dating devices." Rather, the rites and their attendant calendrical observations originated as the means for bringing the entire order of society into harmony with the cosmic order through the order of the seasons and years under the influence of the heavens. All these are expressions of the divine archetypal order that governs the universe. Also connected to these rites is the idea that misfortune (e.g., a failed harvest) is to be explained in terms of the failure of man to maintain harmony with the cosmic order--thus the imperative importance of the correct performance of the rites. While from one standpoint we can see in this the early idea of a natural law, the concern for proper performance of the rites also developed in some cultures into forms of magic, whereby the rites themselves are thought to be efficacious. In the most extreme form we are aware of--in India--the sacrificial rites came to be seen as efficient causes even of the existence of the world.

Dawson closes the chapter by showing that the foregoing analysis applies as well to the early civilizations of China, India, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Each of these civilizations were what Dawson describes as "ritual civilizations." In China, for example, the Emperor was viewed as the lord of the calendar, the purpose of which was to coordinate the entire social order with the cosmic order. The influence of the archaic ontology of archetypes is apparent. In India, on the other hand, where the sacrificial rites themselves were viewed as expressions of the cosmic order, a complex ideology of the sacrifice was developed (referred to in the preceding paragraph). In ancient Sumeria the territory of the state was the territory of the gods, and the social order, again, was brought into harmony with the cosmic order by the activities of the priests. This was also true, of course, for ancient Egypt. Each of these civilizations--and the examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely--viewed their order as embodying the divine archetypes or exemplars, the forms or ideas of Platonic thought. The entire social order of each civilization was organized so as to ensure that the society remained in continuing harmony with the cosmic order of the archetypes. These civilizations differ, therefore, more in degree than in kind from less organized societies of archaic man. In the next chapter, “The Rise of the World Religions”, Dawson will discuss what he sees as a radical break in history.

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