In last week’s post, I analysed Shakespeare’s Hamlet as being the tragedy of the archetypal Orphan who fails to make the transition into adulthood. Thinking about it a little bit more afterwards, I realised that all of Shakespeare’s major tragedies can be analysed in the same way. Of course, the other tragedies don’t necessarily feature Orphans, but they do feature characters who fail a different archetypal mission.
Psychologists have been focused on childhood as the age at which arrested development can occur leading to various neuroses and psychoses. The point I made last week in relation to Hamlet is that, from adolescence onwards, purely psychological explanations do not work since the problem has at least as much to do with our interactions with society. A child’s world is psychological to a large extent. An adult’s world is economic, political and even spiritual.
Some theories recognise this and change the locus from the psychological to the sociological and political. Usually, this just extends the same powerless, infantile assumption of parental power onto society in general. We go from being the hapless victims of our parents to the hapless victims of tyrants or abstract social forces.
None of this for Shakespeare. For Shakespeare, we are the authors of our own problems. The huge advantage of literature over theory is that it can highlight the role that flaws in character play in the problems of the world.
But what Shakespeare also shows us, I think, is that arrested development occurs at all phases of life and one way to demonstrate that is via the archetypes. That’s what we’ll look at in this post.
Here is the table I used last week to map each archetype to its prototypical manifestation on each level of being:
Economic, political, spiritual, sexual
Old Age (menopause)
Mentor, Elder, (Retired)
In this post, we’re going to be concerned with the Esoteric column.
The first thing to clarify is that the faculty listed in the Esoteric column is the faculty that needs to be developed during that archetypal phase of life. It might be objected that we have all the faculties throughout our whole life. For example, even young children are capable of exercising their will; usually while walking through the confectionary aisle at the supermarket. Furthermore, children often come out with surprising insights that indicate the activation of the faculty of intellect.
This may be true. But what the table represents is the Esoteric faculty which dominates each phase of life and which should dominate it since it is the natural progression.
The dominance of imagination during childhood should be the least controversial of the faculties listed in the table. Any school teacher or parent knows that trying to teach children to exercise their intellect usually results in the child turning the task into a game. Children turn most things into games, which is the faculty of Imagination in action. This kind of play is perfectly natural in children. In fact, we worry if we don’t see children using their imagination in such a fashion.
There is both an extroverted and an introverted form of imagination. Children’s play, when it involves other children, is extroverted imagination. Any group of children thrown together will naturally begin to use extroverted Imagination.
We might give the name of fantasy to introverted imagination. There is nothing with this in children but it becomes pathological in adults. Carl Jung used the concept of puer aeternus, or the eternal child, to talk of a particular pathology involving an older person who is stuck at the Child level of development. Imagination then turns into dissociation.
Anything goes in Imagination and play and this gives childhood it’s wonderful aspect of infinite possibility. This might be ok for children and for gods, but humans live in a finite world where not everything is possible. The transition from the Child archetype to the Orphan archetype involves the trauma of giving up infinite possibility. It’s because this transition really is traumatic that some individuals seek to avoid it and get stuck in puer aeternus.
At the Esoteric level of being, the transition from Child to Orphan sees the receding of the Imagination and the ascension of the Intellect as the dominant faculty. Back in medieval times, this was called the age of reason and was said to begin around the age of 12.
Just like the Imagination can be introverted or extroverted, so too can the Intellect. Socrates arguing in the marketplace is an example of extroverted Intellect. Because it can make other people look silly, extroverted Intellect comes with social and political dangers. Introverted Intellect is the kind we are more familiar with since reading is a classic example; including reading blog posts!
We can make a general observation about modern society which is that we have seen a big shift towards both introverted Imagination and introverted Intellect and this shift has only become more pronounced in the last several decades. Children are now far less likely to play with other children in their own neighbourhood and far more likely to be looking into a television or computer screen. We have substituted extroverted Imagination for introverted Imagination.
Similarly, the way Intellect is trained in schools is introverted. Children are expected to work on problems by themselves, including at home. To compare notes or try and learn from others is prohibited. Essays and exams are to be done alone. The occasional group assignment is the exception that proves the rule.
We might make another generalisation. If you engage in extroverted Intellect with a person with far more experienced than you, let’s say Socrates, he’s going to make you look like a fool. If you happen to be a young upstart who thinks you’re God’s gift to philosophy, this might be exactly what you need to check your ego.
Conversely, what happens if the same young upstart engages in introverted Intellect especially in scenarios where he or she is rewarded for finding the answer to a problem as quickly as possible? They might start to think they really are God’s gift to the Intellect. It may be this which leads to a phenomenon which does seem to be very modern: the know-it-all teenager.
But this also points to a larger problem with Intellect in the hands of archetypal Orphans. As Intellectual capacity and skill increases, the Orphan may apply Intellect to all areas of life. One outcome is the over-critical attitude which we also see in teenagers. They conclude that the world is completely illogical – like, totally insane.
The flip side of this is the worship of theory which leads to blind idealism. Blind idealism is the same problem as the puer aeternus only the individual is now trapped in introverted Intellect instead of introverted Imagination. The latter is arrested development at the level of the Child and the former is arrested development at the level of the Orphan.
There’s yet another pitfall with Intellect, however, and this brings us back to Hamlet. Hamlet is the Orphan who is failing to make the transition to the Adult archetype. Using our table from above, we can translate this to say that Hamlet has become stuck in introverted Intellect by failing to develop his Will, since Will is the dominant Esoteric faculty of the Adult.
This leads to a more general observation about archetypal development. We can say that the failure to progress from one archetype to the next is the failure to develop the Esoteric faculty of the new archetype. This failure manifests as the corruption of the existing Esoteric faculty. Thus, introverted Imagination indicates the failure to develop the Intellect and introverted Intellect indicates the failure to develop the Will.
There is no doubt that Hamlet knows how to use his Intellect. He is, in fact, one of Shakespeare’s most philosophical characters. But there’s the rub, because Hamlet is also a procrastinator. The tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who cannot summon up the Will to do what needs to be done. In archetypal terms, he is the Orphan failing to become an Adult.
As Shakespeare often does, he has his hero describe his own failings. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is an exercise in introverted Intellect. Hamlet is all alone pondering the meaning of life when he should be justly avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet, the man incapable of making a decision, is meditating upon the difficulty of making decisions. Should one kill oneself or not? Hamlet concludes that the reason we don’t is not because of a fear of death itself but of the unknown which death entails.
What faculty gives us the courage to step into the unknown? The Will.
Hamlet says so himself:
“The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.” [emphases mine]
Paraphrasing into the terminology we have been using, the introverted Intellect throws the pale cast of thought on the enterprises of the Will. It turns people into cowards. Hamlet tells us this and then shows us the consequences. Had he killed Claudius when he should have, his own destruction and the destruction of the Hamlet court would never have happened. Instead of using his willpower to act, Hamlet was sitting around philosophising.
If the exercise of Will gives the courage to step into the unknown, it follows almost by default that the exercise of Will is an offense to the Intellect. The Intellect wants to formulate a perfect plan that is logical and rational while the Will to step into the unknown is the Will to act “illogically” and “irrationally”.
Since the consequences of any action of significance can never be known in advance, acting wilfully seems irrational. That is why the intellectual sees irrationality everywhere in the world, because in the real world things must be done and not just thought about.
The use of the Will invites the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But to be brought down by such slings and arrows is not failure since no action is without risk. The failure of Will is the failure not to act. One way to do that is to escape into introverted Intellect as does Hamlet.
Just as there are decadent forms of Imagination and Intellect, there are decadent forms of Will. Shakespeare provides us with numerous examples: Claudius, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Othello, Edmund, King Lear.
These characters have all transcended the Orphan archetype. They are not just Adults but highly accomplished Adults. Their transgression of Will is not the failure to use it but the misuse of it. Each is brought down by the fixation of the Will on what it should not want.
In all these cases, however, the failure of the Will is indicative of a broader failure of archetypal progression. Will rightly belongs to the Adult archetype, but these characters need to transcend from Adult to Elder. They need to allow the Soul to become dominant over Will.
Carl Jung believed that it is in the second half of life that we come to face our Soul. In men, this is the anima and in women the animus. If Will is about ego, Soul is about Self i.e. the larger integrated psyche.
It is perfectly written by Shakespeare that he has Regan say of King Lear “he hath ever but slenderly known himself”. Know thyself is about Soul. Lear’s rash actions imply a man who has learned to wield his Will but never to temper it with Soul. The same is true of Macbeth, Othello, Iago and others.
Since a man’s soul is represented by the feminine anima, it’s fitting that King Lear has no wife, Othello and Iago kill their wives, and Macbeth is led astray by his wife. All this symbolises men who have failed to come to terms with their Soul. Correspondingly, they fail to transcend from Adult to Elder since the Elder’s archetypal mission is to confront the Soul (I use the word confront here deliberately since each progression from one archetype to another is difficult and painful).
The progression from Adult to Elder requires the tempering of the Will by Soul. That is what is missing from the character of Lear, Iago, Othello and Macbeth. Let’s take Macbeth as an example.
Although there is no specific indication of his age, we can surmise that Macbeth is in his 40s or 50s. He is an accomplished general having just won a great battle for his king. Duncan duly rewards him with a thaneship.
This is the highest position to which Macbeth can legally hope to attain. He has Willed his way to the top. The catch is that once Macbeth accepts the position, there is nothing more to Will for since he is already at the pinnacle. He needs to temper his Will and accept that he has gone as far as he can in worldly affairs. He needs to discover Soul.
Since a man’s soul is represented by the feminine anima, it is no coincidence that the characters who lead Macbeth astray are female. The three witches sow cryptic messages in Macbeth’s mind that tell him he shall be king. These serve to activate Macbeth’s Will only now it is Will in introverted and decadent form.
Just like there is extroverted and introverted Imagination and Intellect, so there is extroverted and introverted Will. The former is what can be Willed for in the light of day in front of your countrymen. It is what is just and right. Winning a great battle and being awarded a thaneship is something that can be justly Willed for. Introverted Will, however, is what can only be deviously dreamed up and carried out under the cover of night; things like murdering the king and taking his throne.
Lady Macbeth as the other representative of Macbeth’s anima goes a step further than the witches and actively goads her husband into the evil deed and then covers up for him afterwards. The feminine has turned on Macbeth and this is indicative of his failure to meet his Soul directly and take on the challenge of the Elder.
Just as the failure to activate Intellect leads to the puer aeternus of dissociation from reality and the failure to activate Will leads to procrastination and blind idealism, the failure to activate the Soul leads to the decadent, introverted Will which aims at evil instead of good.
Macbeth’s failure to meet his Soul leads him to destruction the same way that Hamlet’s failure to engage his Will brings him undone. Hamlet is the failed Orphan, Macbeth the failed Adult. In both cases, it’s the failure to transcend to the next archetype in the progression.
Each transcendence to a new archetype is painful. There is a need to give up what one already has and to step forward into the unknown. Failure leads to madness (we would say mental illness, these days). King Lear, Othello, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are all half mad due to their failure to let go of the Will and transcend into the Elder archetype.
Part of the tragedy in each case is that the Exoteric role is already there for each of them. All they have to do is accept it. Macbeth needs to step back from the role of Warrior and accept the role of Thane. Othello also needs step back from the Warrior role and accept the role of husband. Lear needs to accept his retirement. Hamlet needs to stop philosophising, kill Claudius and become king.
This touches on the key point which separates Shakespeare so clearly from the older tragedians and which is also a key belief that emerged during the Renaissance.
In Shakespeare, every character is personally responsible for their own downfall. In the stories we have been looking at, the Exoteric path is laid out for the hero. All they need to do is accept it. Their failure is in the Esoteric realm and therefore specific to each of them: Lear’s juvenile wilfulness, Macbeth and Claudius’ blind ambition, Othello’s credulity and jealousy, Iago’s hatred.
This same principle was there also in the Protestant movement. For Catholics, everybody is a sinner from the most powerful king down to the lowliest village idiot. Everybody is born into sin. There was nothing personal about it. The Protestants replaced that with a personal salvation. God rewarded some and sent the rest to hell. This is in line with the Shakespearean maxim that our faults are not in our stars, they are in our selves.
Long-term readers would know that I’m currently in the process of writing my next book whose working title is the Age of the Orphan. The book combines a number of ideas I’ve been developing on this blog over the past couple of years including a long series I did on the Orphan archetype.
As part of writing the book, I came to realise that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an archetypal Orphan Story containing all the elements I outlined in a post on the subject. But whereas a typical Orphan Story has a happy ending wherein the Orphan becomes an Adult, Hamlet is an Orphan Story where the hero fails to achieve their archetypal mission. That’s why it’s a tragedy.
Since we are now living in what I am calling the Age of the Orphan where the failure to transcend the Orphan archetype has become the norm and we are collectively trapped in the clutches of the Devouring Mother, the story of Hamlet has never been more relevant. Let’s break it down using the archetypal lens.
We’ll start with an ultra-brief outline of the basic concepts I’ve been using in my analysis.
We define four archetypes: the Child, the Orphan, the Adult and the Elder.
These archetypes map onto the stages of development that each of us will go through in life. The archetypes include the psychological perspective but I am using the concept in a much broader fashion than psychologists do and it will become clear throughout the post why I believe that is necessary. In my analysis, an archetype denotes a pattern that resonates across multiple levels of being at the same time: the Physical, the Exoteric and the Esoteric.
For our purposes, the Physical level of being refers to biology. Depending on your views, either conception or birth (or somewhere in between) marks the beginning of our life at the Physical level of being. That is when we begin to manifest the Child archetype.
Puberty marks the biological transition to the Orphan archetype while menopause marks the transition to the Elder archetype, at least in women. (We could argue that the fall in testosterone which begins in middle age is the male equivalent to menopause and represents the biological shift from Adult to Elder for men).
The Exoteric level of being refers to the social, cultural and political world. From the Exoteric point of view, you become a full adult in modern Western society when you have reached the voting age, the age of consent, the drinking and driving age. These are the Exoteric markers society confers on you to say you are now an Adult.
The modern West is highly unusual anthropologically-speaking in that we have removed almost all Exoteric rites of passage that most cultures use to mark the transition between the archetypes. The marriage ceremony is perhaps the last one that remains for us and even that is under threat. Consider the seriousness with which most people take the marriage ceremony and you have some idea how most cultures have treated the rites of passage that mark the transitions between the archetypes, including the Orphan.
Finally, there is the Esoteric level of being which refers to emotional, psychological and spiritual states and includes the concepts of mind, psyche, soul and spirit and the faculties of will, imagination and intellect. The Esoteric is everything internal to us. It also includes collective psychology and spirituality. Civilisations, societies and pretty much any group of people are also minds, psyches and souls. They are the macrocosm to our microcosm and they also exist on the Esoteric level of being.
The key point to understand about the archetypes is that they resonate across all levels of being. Puberty is not merely a biological metamorphosis. As anybody who has been through it knows, puberty manifests just as much at the Esoteric level of being via the emotional rollercoaster of mood swings. There is also an Exoteric dimension which the anthropologist, van Gennep, called social puberty. You start being treated differently by society once you hit puberty. In this way, the Orphan archetype manifests on all levels of being.
We can represent these considerations in tabular form as follows:-
Plumber (economic), citizen of Australia (political), Catholic (spiritual), married (sexual)
Old Age (menopause)
In addition to these general patterns, there are specific correspondences across the levels of being for key events that pertain to each archetype. For the Orphan, Exoteric events like your first job interview or your first kiss will resonate Esoterically as nervous excitement and Physically with a raised pulse and heartbeat.
In this post, we are concerned with the Orphan archetype. The Orphan relates to the transition between childhood and adulthood. This transition occurs over the course of many years. The primary mission of the Orphan is to find their place in the wider world. To do that, they must gradually leave the family home and attain independence from their parents by joining the Exoteric institutions of society. When this process fails, for whatever reason, problems begin.
This brings us to Freud and Jung. Both men were mostly concerned with pathological states pertaining to the psychology of childhood. Childhood is unique in that a child has almost no Exoteric or Physical existence independent of their parents. Thus, childhood can be analysed as an almost purely psychological (Esoteric) phase with no consideration for the other levels of being.
It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Freud and Jung both saw puberty as synonymous with adulthood. From a psychological point of view, they did not recognise the Orphan archetype as a distinct phase of psychic development. This led to what I believe is a big weakness in their analysis when it comes to the Orphan archetype.
The key reason why we need to incorporate the other levels of being into our analysis of the Orphan is because the Orphan’s main task is to find a place in society and that implies the Exoteric. When the Orphan fails to fulfill this mission, they are thrown back into introversion. The psychological (Esoteric) problems of Orphanhood are the symptoms of a failure at the Exoteric.
It is no coincidence that the main demographic that Freud and Jung treated were young, upper-class women of the Victorian era. They diagnosed those women as having psychological illnesses. However, the root problem was not psychological but sociological (arguably it was really a spiritual battle but let’s leave out theology for now).
European culture has always been anthropologically unusual for the late average age of marriage relative to other cultures. Some historians have speculated that this was the reason why capitalism arose in northern Europe.
The late age of marriage was mostly among the working class. Young men and women almost always worked for several years before getting married in order to save enough money for a stable life. Young aristocratic men also married relatively late since they were expected to establish themselves with education and usually some military training before taking a place in society. Young aristocratic women were different, however. For them, early marriage was still the norm since aristocratic marriage was mostly an economic and political transaction.
By the Victorian era, that had changed. But it had only changed for aristocratic women. The other demographics continued on much as they always had. Working-class men and women still worked before getting married. Young, aristocratic men still had a well-worn pathway into society through school and university/military.
Aristocratic women, on the other hand, no longer married young. That wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem except that there was no meaningful pathway for them to join the Exoteric institutions of society outside of marriage. As a result, they ended up hanging around in their parents’ houses for years waiting to be married off.
Without any path to integrate into the Exoteric, these women were forced back into introversion and the psychological problems that come with it. Using the terms of our analysis, the Victorian era aristocratic women were stuck in the Orphan archetype with no meaningful way to make progress towards adulthood. Unable to extrovert themselves into society, they introverted themselves back into infantile and pathological psychological patterns which is where Freud and Jung found them.
This brings us to the story of Hamlet.
Freud analysed Hamlet as an example of neurosis caused by excessive attachment to the parents. But, again, this puts the cart before the horse. Why is Hamlet excessively attached to his parents? For the exact same reason aristocratic women in Victorian Europe were. Hamlet is a young man in the Orphan phase of life who is failing to extrovert himself and find a place in society. He is stuck at home.
Since Hamlet is a prince, we all know what his life path should be. He is destined to become a king. His political, economic and religious identity is already determined. In addition, he will have to marry a queen and he will be expected to produce the next generation of royalty. That is his sexual identity. His life course is fixed.
Yet, at beginning of the play, we find Hamlet brooding at end of the table dissociated from the discussions about affairs of state that are taking place around him. He is brooding, of course, because his uncle has stolen his Exoteric role. Hamlet is old enough to be king. He should have succeeded his father to the throne. Instead, Claudius has usurped the position and taken Hamlet’s mother as his bride into the bargain. We later find that Claudius did not just usurp the role but murdered Hamlet’s father in order to get it.
Hamlet is being blocked from achieving his archetypal mission by Claudius who is preventing his ascension to the throne and therefore his rightful Exoteric role in life. In addition, Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is thwarted by her father, Polonius, who forbids her to speak to Hamlet. Finally, even the opportunity to at least escape the parental house is stifled at the beginning of the play when Claudius stops Hamlet from returning to university. Hamlet is trapped at home, lost in his introversion which threatens to become madness.
The same is true for Ophelia. In fact, she is an early exemplar of exactly the kind of women that Freud and Jung would later treat in the Victorian age. Polonius sends his young son, Laertes, off to France with the famous dictum “to thine own self be true”. Laertes, the son of the family, is given a structured transition through his Orphan phase. Ophelia is locked up at home and denied access to her suitor and her chance to become queen (let alone to fall in love).
Both Ophelia and Hamlet are archetypal Orphans whose parents are subverting their archetypal mission. Claudius and Polonius are the Tyrannical Fathers. Gertrude is the Devouring Mother.
What Hamlet and Ophelia need to do is to escape. This could have been done by eloping, a very common theme in Renaissance literature. Hamlet is offered one last chance at escape when Claudius tries to send him to England. But even this fails and Hamlet returns to Denmark for the final showdown which takes place, not coincidentally, in the family home.
That final showdown ends in destruction for all. Ophelia, like many a Victorian lady, has already gone mad and ended her life. With Claudius’ treachery finally revealed and Gertrude dead, Hamlet enacts the final act of revenge that also brings destruction on himself.
The brilliance of Shakespeare’s play is that not only does the failure of the Orphan transition bring destruction on the Hamlet family, it brings destruction on the entire nation. The microcosm matches to the macrocosm.
At the end of the play, the Norwegian, Fortinbras, takes over. Fortinbras was also the prince to a dead father but one who has clearly gone on to complete his Orphan’s journey. He is the Orphan who became an Adult and now king. He is what Hamlet should have been. Shakespeare drives home the point by having Fortinbras speak the closing lines of the play. About Hamlet, he says: “He was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal.” In other words, “he would have made a good king”.
Since Denmark is now conquered, the implication is that a society which cannot initiate its Orphans is doomed to fail. The fault lies as much in the macrocosm as the microcosm. That is exactly true. The failure of the Orphan transition in Hamlet is not primarily a psychological one. It’s a socio-cultural one. It occurs on the Exoteric level of being. The society which cannot find a place for its Orphans will drive them to madness and destroy the continuity of the culture.
The Freudian analysis of Hamlet therefore misses the main point of the story. Freud’s mistake was to focus on the psychological to exclusion of all else. This raises a more general problem with psychoanalysis.
Hamlet and Ophelia’s problems are not some fundamental property of their own minds. The cause of their illness is not primarily to be found in the mechanisms of the psyche. It is the result of being trapped in an environment where they are unable to take the necessary steps into adulthood. When the Orphan cannot extrovert into the world, they introvert into themselves. There were plenty of people in the Victorian-era stuck in that exact trap who sought help from wherever they could, including psychoanalysis.
The twist in the story is that the psychoanalysts, including Freud, ended up becoming Elders to the trapped Orphans they defined as patients with an illness that needed to be cured. In the Orphan Story, I identified the archetype of the Elder whose job it is to guide the Orphan through their transition into adulthood.
The anthropological literature shows us that Elders are not just fictional, they have a real role in society. Their job is to initiate Orphans. A classic example is ancient Sparta where, at 12 years of age, a young Spartan male is connected with a warrior from the community who will be their mentor guiding them through the process into adulthood.
In cultures which still have rites of passage, the Elder is the one leading the rite. For example, the Christian rite of Communion is the Orphan transition into full adult membership of the church. The priest plays the role of Elder who initiates the Orphan. Modern Western society has almost completely gotten rid of rites of passage and, by extension, we have gotten rid of Elders too.
What Freud and Jung did was to the fill the Elder role for their patients. Consider Freud’s most famous case study, the patient he called “Dora”. Her real name was Ida Bauer. Ida was 18 years old when she saw Freud. Archetypally, she was an Orphan. Her father was cheating on her mother. Meanwhile, Ida had slapped an older man, who was a friend of her father’s, when he made sexual advances toward her. These days, we would cheer her on. But in that time this was grounds for a trip to the psychiatrist.
Ida’s story is practically identical to Hamlet and Ophelia. She is a young woman trapped at home with her parents and their creepy friends rather than out in the world forging her own identity. She is an archetypal Orphan who needs to leave the family home and join the Exoteric institutions of society.
Freud becomes her Elder; a respectable, professional scientist who can be trusted to be impartial. Freud did what no other adult in her life would do, he actually listened to her without passing judgement. He treated her as an Adult. How much of the success of psychoanalysis was the simple fact of removing Orphans from stifling familial settings, treating their problems as real and addressing them as adults?
Still, psychoanalysis ended up becoming a quasi-religion. It appears at about the same place in the civilisational cycle as Christianity. The Roman empire was struggling to initiate its own Orphans at the time as evidenced by the many social programs Octavian brought in to stop the malaise. Our society has the same problem. That’s why I call it the Age of the Orphan. It’s the time in the civilisational cycle where Orphans get stuck, unable to fulfill archetypal mission.
Of course, modern psychology has now become just another part of the medical-industrial complex. It makes its money treating the symptoms, not the disease. At the societal level, it has joined the side of the Devouring Mother who keeps her Orphans at “home” and under close supervision.
One of the things I like most about the internet is that it often acts as a randomness generator when you stumble upon something you weren’t looking for which sends you off on a path you weren’t intending to go down. This happened to me recently when I came across a snippet of video from an old TV show here in Australia called the D-Generation. The show itself was a bit before my time, so I never saw it when it was on TV. But I knew its name due to the fact that the members of the show have gone on to become well-known fixtures in the Australian entertainment industry.
To understand the sketch, you have to know that Australia took in many immigrants from Italy and Greece in the decades after WW2. There was a lot of racism in those years due to the fact that Australia still retained, although was fast losing, a strong cultural attachment to Britain. By the 80s, the overt racism was mostly gone, but its memory was not.
The part of the sketch that caught my attention played to this background of racism. Two of the show’s stars, Jane Kennedy and Santo Cilauro, are visiting Santo’s uncle, Alberto. As the names might suggest, Santo was born to Italian immigrants and his uncle was presumably also an immigrant. Jane and Santo are touring Uncle Alberto’s house and Jane notices that Alberto has concreted over the front yard of his suburban house something she says is common for Italians to do. She asks why he did it and Alberto responds that it makes it easier to maintain.
In this very short exchange lies a whole wealth of cultural information. We’ve covered the connotation of racism, which was almost certainly intentional. But the exchange is primarily about the banal subject of front yards. In Australian suburbia in the post-war years, the front yard had to have a lawn. The reason Uncle Alberto’s front yard caught Jane Kennedy’s attention was because he didn’t have one.
The Italian and Greek immigrants in the post-war years didn’t understand the rules about front yards and they broke them in two main ways. One was to concrete over the whole thing. The other was to grow vegetables in it. I have a friend who is the son of Italian immigrant parents and they still grow vegetables in their front yard to this day. The Greeks and Italians retained the old-fashioned idea that, if you had decent soil, you should use it for something productive. They didn’t understand that the whole point of the front lawn was that it was conspicuously non-productive.
Of course, when you have a front garden, including a lawn, you need to mow the lawn and weed the garden to keep in presentable. That work has to be done by someone and it’s very likely that person considers it a chore. That was Uncle Alberto’s point. Why do a chore when you don’t have to?
There’s two personal reasons why all this resonated with me. Firstly, I have lived in inner city apartments most of my adult life but, some years ago, I moved to suburbia here in Melbourne and I did so for the express purpose of growing a garden. I now have backyard chickens, grow a lot of fruit and vegetables and have recently tried to beautify the garden a little with flowering perennials. This was a deliberate lifestyle choice on my part and so I don’t resent the relatively small investment of time and energy it requires.
There are, however, many people who do resent the work of maintaining a suburban garden. One such person is a friend of mine who is always complaining about it. A couple of years ago, sick of his whining, I brusquely suggested that he should just concrete over the front yard so he didn’t have to maintain it anymore. I’d had the same idea as Uncle Alberto.
My friend looked at me like I had two heads. For him, a suburban house had to have a lawn in the front yard. It’s just the way it was. And, of course, all the houses in his area (and mine) do have front lawns.
The question is: why?
We take our surroundings for granted. Seemingly trivial matters like having a front lawn are just part of the world we grow up in and we never question them. But front lawns, and suburbia in general, didn’t just come out of nowhere. They exist for a reason. So, the real question is: what were the reasons for the rise of suburbia?
To answer that we have to go back to the 19th century. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution kicked into gear big time. It brought with it factories. The factories were concentrated in the inner cities alongside high density housing for the workers. They were dirty and dangerous and emitted pollution directly into the local environment.
Meanwhile, the aristocracy was living the good life out in the countryside. They had large estates and a team of gardeners whose job was the grow food for the household.
But the aristocracy also competed with each other to see who could have the most magnificent landscape gardens. This led to various fashions and styles of garden. The best gardeners became celebrities. All this was very similar to the way aristocrats supported the arts back in Renaissance Italy. Vanity through ostentatious display of wealth has been one of the main sources of funding for the arts since time immemorial. In Britain, gardening had become an art form.
One of the ostentatious markers of wealth for the aristocracy of Britain was the extensive use of lawns in their landscape gardens. Small-holding peasants throughout history would never have grown lawns since it would be a waste of fertile soil that could be used to grow crops. Thus, an estate with extensive lawns communicated to the observer “look at me, I’m so rich I can afford to waste all this land on useless grass.”
Thus, in the 19th century you had two different lifestyle paradigms. On the one hand, the inner cities were high-density, heavily-polluted incubators for disease with a side helping of crime, squalor and filth. That’s where the workers lived. On the other hand, the aristocracy were using the proceeds of empire to live lives of ostentatious luxury signified partly by the cultivation of huge gardens with extensive lawns.
A third demographic then arrived on the scene: the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of industrialisation. They were office workers, engineers and small business owners. This nouveau riche demographic wanted to escape the squalor of the inner city but didn’t have access to ancestral land like the aristocracy. What to do?
The answer was: suburbia.
Suburbia was modelled on the estates of the aristocracy and sold to the emerging bourgeoisie as a way to escape the city and “get back to nature”. The ubiquitous “nature strip” in front of suburban houses was placed there for this purpose. In Australia, the quarter acre block eventually became the default size of a suburban allocation. In the early days, this was enough to grow a fairly substantial amount of food on, which many people did. Once again, this was an imitation of the aristocracy who also grew food on their land; albeit with a team of servants to do it for them.
In short, suburbia arose as a miniature form of the lifestyle of the English aristocracy of the 19th century. That’s also why the suburbs invariably had lawns. The aristocrats had extensive lawns on their estates. So, too, would the bourgeoisie. The front lawn became your own little marker of ostentatious wealth. “Look at me, I’m so rich I can waste this perfectly good soil on useless grass”.
Now that we have this cultural background in place, we can better understand what was behind the comedy sketch mentioned at the beginning of the post. The Italian and Greek immigrants arrived in Australia and moved into the suburbs. What they saw was perfectly good soil that could be used to grow food and that’s what many of them did. In doing so, they transgressed the whole point of the front lawn. It was there as a marker of wealth. To grow vegetables on it was the signal that you were poor and thereby to bring down the whole neighbourhood. On the other hand, to do what Santo Cilauro’s uncle did and pour concrete over it was also against the rules.
Of course, by the time the D-Generation was made in the late 80s, nobody remembered what the original point of these rules was. The front lawn was ubiquitous but had lost its meaning. For the people who had grown up in the suburbs, the lawn no longer represented a display of wealth but a tiresome chore. Nobody grew their own food anymore. And nobody saw the old British aristocracy as anything other than an anachronism.
It’s no coincidence that it was exactly at this time that a new aristocracy arrived on the scene (in truth, it had been forming for decades beforehand). The 80s was the age of the Wall St shark. Once again, the common person took their lead from the aristocracy only now the aristocracy was not a landed gentleman with top hat and monocle but a besuited banking bro with a cocaine addiction and penchant for high-price call girls.
(In fairness, many an English “gentleman” had similar tastes although, in accordance with the fashions of the time, it was less coke and hookers and more opium and hookers).
Taking the lead from our banking overlords, what has happened from the 90s onward has been rampant speculation in Australian real estate. One of the ways this has occurred is through subdivision. The middle class found themselves sitting on quarter acre blocks that had lost their purpose. They proceeded to subdivide in order to build units or townhouses which could be sold for a tidy profit. The same mentality extended into investment properties. At time of writing, the MPs that sit in the Australian parliament own 1.34 investment properties on average. For Australians on a similar salary, the number is slightly higher at 1.4. 15% of Australians now own at least one investment property.
There’s a particularly surreal example of the subdivision trend right at the end of the street where I live. The block was the old-fashioned quarter acre and, as was common back in the day, had a number of fruit trees in the backyard including a beautiful big peach tree whose branches reached over the fence and onto the footpath. I used to take the opportunity to pick a peach or two when I walked past and I can testify that they were very tasty.
A few years ago the block was subdivided and a new house built on the 1/8 acre that used to be the backyard. The fruit trees were ripped up and a new weatherboard house put down. All things considered, it’s an attractive house but it takes up pretty much the entire block.
The front yard in particular caught my attention. The block is now very narrow and so the driveway and garage take up about half the width. The other half is perhaps 4 metres wide by 3 metres deep. Technically, this is the front yard, although it’s too small to be called that. What did the designers of the house decide to with this “front yard”? They put down a lawn. But it’s not a real lawn. It’s made of artificial grass.
It struck me that the house is a simulacrum. It’s a simulacrum of suburbia which is itself a simulacrum of the English aristocratic estates of the 19th century. Still, since the grass is artificial, at least the new residents won’t have to do much work to maintain it.
This little story is the microcosm to the macrocosm that has been Western civilisation over the last few decades. The ascent of the bankers has created a simulacrum of a civilisation. Again, it’s seems far too coincidental that the internet should appear at exactly the same time. Social media, in particular, is a simulacrum of reality. Images and videos flick past at such a rapid pace that the human mind cannot make sense of them.
This world created by the bankers looks to be falling apart in real time, although with the simulacrum in place it’s very hard to know what is actually going on. Nevertheless, the raw economics may finally win out. People are waking up to the fact that all we got from the last few decades was asset bubbles; good for bankers; not so good for anybody else. Increasingly, the system looks set to implode from its own momentum.
There’s much that could and has been said about this but one aspect I don’t see talked about much is the one we’ve seen a couple of times in this post. Although it’s impolite to say it these days with our egalitarian ethic, human societies run on mimicry. The masses copy the behaviour they see from the “elites”. That was what led to the creation of suburbia in the first place. It was the mimicry of the English aristocracy. It’s what is currently causing the dismantling of suburbia: the mimicry of bankers.
This leads to another question: when the next GFC hits and, assuming the bankers don’t get bailed out this time, who will emerge as the new leadership class of Western civilisation?
One of the more well-worn books on my bookshelf is Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity. As the subtitle of the book suggests, it’s an attempt to unify two domains which we normally think of as separate, sometimes called the mind-body problem.
Part of the appeal of Bateson’s book is that, while it’s full of great insights, it doesn’t really come to an overall point. This leaves the reader to wonder whether they didn’t get it. I imagine some people put the book down in frustration as a result. For others, such as myself, it sends you back to the beginning hoping to crack the code the second time around.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I’ve recently ended up writing my own work of unification as my book project tentatively titled The Age of the Orphan has ended up becoming an integrative theory not dissimilar to Bateson’s. It’s an attempt to account for what seems to me the underlying patterns that unify several domains usually thought to be discrete such as psychology and comparative history.
Thus, when I was leafing through my copy of Mind and Nature about a week ago, I had a new appreciation for the challenges involved in such a work and why Bateson struggled to bring it to a concise logical conclusion. I also saw some correlations with the theory I have been developing. To take one example, Bateson notes in his book that humans think in stories. The underlying structure of a story – the Hero’s Journey – is one of the key elements in my work.
If Bateson is right and mental and evolutionary (natural) processes are identical or derive from the same source, it follows that stories are not just entertaining diversions from “reality”, they tell us something about the nature of reality. That has been the assumption of my work which is that the underlying cyclical structure of Hero’s Journeys is identical with myths, rites of passage, individual lifecycles and the grand arcs of history. We should not think of these as separate but as having an underlying unity. I think Bateson would agree and would also want to include the evolutionary processes of natural history into the theory.
What would such a theory look like? Let’s take an everyday example that is easy to understand to try and elucidate it: the game of tennis.
A tennis match can be thought of as a collection of cycles within cycles i.e. a fractal cyclical pattern. A match is made up of sets which are made up of games which are made up of points. Each of these has a beginning, middle and end. Thus, cycles within cycles. We can represent the cycle as follows:
When you get to the end of the cycle, you start again from the beginning. For that reason, we can call each trip around the cycle an iteration. The word iteration comes from the Latin iterare meaning to repeat, to do again. In tennis, there are iterations of points, games, sets and matches.
Repetition is the key to learning and therefore to individual and collective development. Iterations are key to the learning process. But when you iterate on something, you don’t just go round in circles doing the same thing over and over again. Adaptation and learning occurs. Even without any coaching, if you play tennis with some level of enthusiasm, you will get better. You will learn.
We can represent the learning that occurs via iterations using a spiral:-
The spiral is a series of iterations “on top of” each other. The learning that happens over a set of iterations can be thought of as transcendence. The vertical axis captures this notion of learning as you improve and increase your skill level.
The concept of transcendence was also present in Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero ventures into the Unconscious, retrieves something and brings it back consciousness. Something has been gained at the end of the process. The same is true of van Gennep’s rites of passage. In our banal example, the tennis player learns something about the game with each iteration.
Gregory Bateson noted that what we learn changes over time. As we go through many iterations of tennis matches, Hero’s Journeys and rites of passage, we become experienced and our perception of the world deepens and broadens. We can capture the changing nature of our learning using a diagram of Bateson’s that I have modified as follows:-
At the bottom level, we have a single iteration of a game of tennis. Many points are played leading to an outcome. Somebody wins. Somebody loses. For the beginner, simply trying to win points by keeping the ball going over the net is enough of a challenge. If you keep iterating by playing games of tennis, that challenge will be overcome and will be replaced by something new. You will start to learn at a higher level of abstraction.
Under the heading of “categories of matches” we include external variables such as the court surface, the weather and your opponents as well as internal variables such as your physical fitness, your technique and your mindset. Over time, you start to pick up patterns. You learn that you play better on hardcourt than on grass. You learn that your backhand is weak and your serve unreliable. You learn that you have a tendency to lose focus in the second set. These lessons are of a different logical type than the simple act of winning or losing individual points, games, sets and matches. We can call this the intermediate level.
If you play iterations of iterations, you might get to expert level. At this point you are able to think about the relationships between categories of matches and categories of outcomes. For example, you are going to play a well-known opponent who always beats you on clay courts. To try and win, you have to come up with a strategy tailored to this opponent on this court surface.
You notice that your opponent has recently been having problems with fitness and so you make a concerted effort to get him running around more than normal by hitting lots of drop shots. You hope this will tire him out and give you the edge in the match. This high level exercise is called strategy.
Although we didn’t represent it in our diagram, there is another level beyond strategy which we might call evolution. If you keep pursuing your strategy of making your opponent run, over time his body will adapt. He will become fitter. Now your strategy of hitting lots of drop shots won’t work anymore because he can run them down. You need to learn to recognise that and modify your strategy as necessary. That is called adaptation.
Over time, you might learn to adapt by hiding your strategy by only using it on important points. Now your strategy includes the concept of adaptation itself. You make an effort not to allow your opponent to adapt to your strategy.
Bateson’s point was that each of these levels of learning is of a different logical type. Over time, our learning itself evolves and adapts towards the higher logical types. Note that the higher levels are predicated on mastery of the lower ones. There’s no point pursuing a strategy of making your opponent play lots of drop shots if you haven’t mastered the technique of hitting a drop shot.
Let’s take this concept of learning at different levels and add another concept I have been using extensively over the last couple of years: the levels of being.
The Physical level of being refers to the material and biological world (note that biology also covers the instinctual and Unconscious aspects of our psychic life). The Exoteric relates to the institutions of human society. The Esoteric relates to the metaphysics of your culture, what is sometimes called the sacred.
We can represent these on our diagram as follows:-
What we are trying to show here is that learning can be thought of as taking place at different logical levels within each level of being.
In the Physical domain, the progression of a tennis player from beginner to expert involves obvious biological adaptations. To become a pro, the player must practice each shot to the point where its execution becomes instinctual. Each sport imposes specific adaptations on the body. For tennis, running and stretching are two of the most important physical attributes needed. At the highest level, strict attention needs to be paid to diet, sleep and rest. Without these, peak performance cannot be maintained. Pizza and beers on a Friday night are a luxury that cannot be afforded.
The development of a player at the Exoteric level of being sees a progression from complete novice at a local club through to local champion, state champion and international superstar. Only about the top hundred players in the world make a living from tennis and so the attainment of the title “tennis professional” is an exclusive club. Meanwhile, the very top players attain a level of fame that is life changing. This implies a significant learning experience since fame and wealth changes your relationship with others and with society in general.
What concepts we include in the category of the Esoteric level of being depends largely on our theological and philosophical assumptions. In the modern West, most people would agree that the Esoteric includes the concept of will (power). In relation to tennis, every now and then a player comes along who has the raw talent and physical capacity to be one of the best but lacks the desire to do so. They lack willpower. Meanwhile, there are other players who don’t have the talent to be the best but manage to keep themselves at the top level through some combination of grit, determination and creativity.
It’s important to realise that, while it makes sense to think of the levels of being as discrete, it’s also true that the overarching process must be synchronous. It’s no use being physically fit enough to compete at the top level of tennis if you don’t also play enough games to qualify for pro tournaments. Similarly, you might have all the (Esoteric) will in the world to be a professional player, but if you’re five foot tall then it’s not going to happen. The laws of physics, the Physical level of being, dictate that.
We have now outlined a model that includes the concepts of logical types of learning arranged vertically across different levels of being shown horizontally. There’s much that could be said about this model but I want to focus on one particular aspect which I think captures something of the difference between the sacred (Esoteric) and the mental (intellect).
Imagine the Wimbledon tennis final. It’s played between two expert-level players. Both players have a coach who is also an expert. The player is an expert experiencing the game from a subjective point of view while the coach is an expert experiencing it objectively.
The match unfolds into a five-set epic. It’s 8-9 and 30-30 in the fifth when Player One misses a crucial backhand down-the-line. The next point he loses the match and the championship.
Let’s say that the coach of Player One has seen his player hit the backhand down-the-line thousands of times and he knows that this particular backhand is one of his player’s weaker shots. Intellectually, the coach might say that this is the decisive moment in the game. He has constructed an explanation for the loss.
Gregory Bateson noted that an explanation consists of a tautology mapped onto a collection of observations. In this case, the observations are all the points of the match. The tautology is: Player One has a weak backhand down the line. Together, these comprise an explanation: Player One lost because of his weak backhand down-the-line.
Note that there an many other plausible explanations. Somebody else might have noticed Player One looked to be getting tired in the fifth set. Their explanation for his loss consists of the tautology – Player One’s fitness level is lacking – onto the events of the match.
Let’s call the construction of such explanations the intellectual-view-of-life.
The player’s perspective on the match comes not from the intellectual realm. A player may go into a match with some kind of plan to play to his opponent’s weaknesses. But by the time you get to the 5th set of a grand slam final, any such plan becomes irrelevant. As Mike Tyson once said, everybody’s got a plan til they get punched in the face. By 8-9 in the 5th set you are just holding on for dear life and relying on instinct and conditioning to get you through the match.
The player’s experience of the match is identical to what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey and what van Gennep called the rite of passage. It is a journey through the Unconscious and the sacred with all the difficulties and dangers that these presuppose. In other words, the player’s subjective experience of the match is best thought of as a confrontation with the sacred or the Unconscious. It is not an intellectual exercise but a question of the ability to find reserves of strength from one’s entire being. Let’s call this the sacred-view-of-life.
If we stick to the subject of tennis, it’s clear that the intellectual realm plays an important role. It seems almost impossible that anybody today could get to the highest level of the game without professional coaching and training most of which is based on an intellectual approach . The best players pay good money to have a coach there to provide this intellectual perspective so they must find benefit in it.
On the other hand, nothing happens without the Esoteric components of will and the other mental qualities needed to get to play at the highest level. It seems that the intellect and the sacred are two sides of the same coin.
Our model presented above is an explanation and therefore a tautology. There is an assumption in that tautology which is counterintuitive. We saw that learning is built on iterations and each iteration has a beginning, middle and end. Nevertheless, we displayed the line of learning as being indefinite. We might summarise this as “life is an open-ended learning process without discernible limit”.
But this seems to contradict the cyclical understanding that our model presupposes. Many theologies take the cyclical understanding and extend it to cover human life in general. Our lives have a beginning, middle and end. If transcendence is a feature of cycles, isn’t it a property of life itself? In that case, death is not the end but a transcendence. This is not superstitious nonsense. It rests on the same tautology as our model of learning i.e. that there are cycles within cycles and that transcendence occurs at the end of a cycle. If this holds for so many other areas of life, why not life itself?
And if it’s true of an individual life, why not extend it a step further and make it apply to all life. That is what many theologies also do and that leads to the idea of apocalypse. The world itself has a beginning, middle and end. The end of the cycle is a transcendence. Some people go to heaven, some go to hell. Again, this is merely following the same tautology that we have used to explain how learning and development seems to occur in real life.
There is an alternative, but not necessarily contradictory idea, that the highest form of the Esoteric is to throw off the idea of cycles altogether and become one with the perpetual flux off reality. This idea also has a correlation in sports. It’s called being in the zone. Being in the zone does seem to require an expert level of attainment whether it be in sports, religious meditation or other domains.
We can reconcile these two ideas by positing that the learning and development path is cyclical and iterative at the lower levels but becomes progressively less so at the higher. In other words, cycles of learning are a necessary part of training but are themselves a phase to be transcended. Above the cycles comes the ability to face the infinite directly. That is the highest form of the Esoteric.