In the second post of this series, I laid out the main attributes of The Orphan archetype with a focus on how it relates to the personal psychology of The Orphan. Given that the point of this series is to draw a parallel between the individual psychology and the social psychology of current Western society, this left an explanatory gap which I had been pondering how to resolve. Fortunately, a commenter in the last post (many thanks to Austin) put me on to Rene Guenon, a French intellectual who wrote on similar themes about a hundred years ago. While I was looking over Guenon’s Wikipedia page I saw he had written a book on initiation among numerous other writings on metaphysics and esoterism. I haven’t had a chance to read the book but the summary has given me the answer that I needed: initiation. Initiation is the bridge between individuation at the personal level and the larger social milieu.
In modern western society, the coming of age aspect to The Orphan story and the individuation or coming to selfhood aspect are separate. We all come to adulthood based on the arbitrary numerical value of being 18 years old which is nothing more than a bureaucratic convenience. Many religions at least mark the occasion with a coming of age ceremony. But in The Orphan story, the coming of age is neither an arbitrary bureaucratic rule nor a ceremony but a process and that process is initiation.
Consider the movie The Matrix. Morpheus offers Neo an initiation. He is going to show him “the real world”. This is an explicitly metaphysical proposition. As it happens, the metaphysics in question is the exact metaphysics of the Christian church which was inspired in large part by Plato. It says that the apparent world is not the real world. The real world is made up of perfect forms which sit behind the apparent world. In the movie, the apparent world is the Matrix and Morpheus is offering to show Neo the real one. It’s no coincidence that Neo is the saviour in the story. He is Jesus to Morpheus’ St Paul (the basic plot of The Matrix is just the story of Christianity repackaged in techno-gothic garb; although obviously the gratuitous violence is very un-Christ like).
Luke Skywalker receives similar training in the Star Wars movies, although the metaphysics of the Jedi is cheesy and underdeveloped. Ged’s magical training in A Wizard of Earthsea fulfils the same function. The key distinction here is the one that Guenon uses. It’s the difference between exoteric and esoteric. Exoteric relates to the outward symbols of meaning or metaphysics that are in use in the broader society. Esoteric relates to the active spiritual experience of meaning and metaphysics. Initiation is the process of learning the symbols of metaphysics; one might say of learning the true meaning behind them.
The Matrix provides a very useful example of this. When Neo is being trained (going through initiation), Morpheus is with him inside the computer simulation. He tells Neo the rules of the simulation and that these are just arbitrary rules; not reality. That’s the exoteric part. That’s the part anybody can nod along to without really understanding. It’s the part we can mimic an understanding of by parroting the right words. Throughout the ages, most critiques of religion have been that the followers were not practising what they preached. They knew the right words but they hadn’t grasped the meaning. They hadn’t been initiated properly.
In The Matrix, we see Neo go through the process of initiation which is learning the metaphysics. He fails at the start (fails to beat Morpheus in fighting, fails the jump program) but gradually improves until he is master at the end of the movie. This is the esoteric component of metaphysical teaching and it is also what I have been calling individuation up until now. Individuation is the learning of the metaphysics of the culture in which you are initiated. It’s the personal inward experience of the initiation. Initiation differs from modern education precisely in the fact that the latter offers entirely exoteric teaching while the former offers esoteric. The entire problem of our modern education system is that it has no esoteric component. But that problem was already well established before the state took over and implemented universal education. The church had already lost its esoteric component centuries before modern education came along, especially among protestants.
With the exoteric-esoteric distinction, we combine The Orphan’s esoteric journey with the larger social context which is exoteric. Interestingly, the different Orphan stories we have already examined portray the exoteric component in ways that map exactly onto Spengler’s theory of history. A Wizard of Earthsea, for example, takes place in a world that is almost identical to the Mediterranean around the time Jesus was born. There are small communities everywhere interspersed by larger cities. There are also many different groups practising their own spirituality including Ged’s teacher who is a wandering mage. These groups could properly be called cults. The word cult is related to the word culture and had the meaning in the original Latin of “care”, “labour”, “cultivation”, “worship” and “reverence”. Part of the cult’s job is to cultivate new members which is to bring them onto the path of worship and reverence. This is the process of initiation. We see the same process in hunter gatherer tribes.
In Spenglerian terms, the socio-cultural milieu of A Wizard of Earthsea is a pre-culture. There are diverse groups each pursuing their own metaphysic and culture. The esoteric is foregrounded while the exoteric is an incredibly diverse manifold lacking structure and order.
Structure and order belong to the concept of civilisation. The word civilisation arose, not by coincidence, during The Enlightenment. It’s related to the Latin for “city” and the city is its locus; the place where everything can be maximally ordered and structured. The Matrix provides possibly the ultimate metaphor of Spenglerian civilisation. The general public have no spiritual existence, no culture. They are just resources and pawns in the machine. There is no esoteric activity whatsoever. Everything is exoteric, robotic, machine-like.
Star Wars provides a middle ground. Like Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Luke Skywalker is a farm boy. The forces of The Empire are at work trying to weed out all that pesky culture and turn it into civilisation. The Matrix shows us the endpoint of that process. Neo, aka Mr Anderson, is an office drone working for the corporation. In his world, there are no more farms or even any agri-culture. All contact with the land is gone. The only culture that remains takes place in dark nightclubs with shadowy characters (shadowy also in the Jungian sense).
In this way, A Wizard of Earthsea, Star Wars and The Matrix provide us with Orphan stories against the Spenglerian backdrop of pre-culture, culture and civilisation respectively. From the point of view of The Orphan, the story is the same. They are invited to be initiated into a metaphysics. The difference is how the broader society views that metaphysics. In A Wizard of Earthsea, there is no civilisation and everybody is free to pursue their own spiritual journey (if that sounds a lot like the founding principle of the United States of America, it should). In Star Wars and The Matrix, civilisation is at war with culture and there is no tolerance for alternative metaphysics or culture. Some people have noted that Western governments now seem to be at war with their own citizens and this is the same dynamic at play.
As a brief aside, Freud got it all wrong in Civilisation and its Discontents. The problem with civilisation is not that it prevents us manifesting our lowest instincts as if humans were nothing more than zoo animals. Rather, it’s that civilisation prevents us manifesting our higher nature of genuine initiation into a metaphysics of meaning. That is what is implied by the Jungian reading. If I turn this series of posts into a book, I might call it Civilisation and its Jungian Discontents.
The exoteric-esoteric concept also allows us to make sense of another element in The Orphan story which is the extent to which it is a spiritual journey versus a journey into adulthood and becoming a full fledged member of society. Although it goes against all modern democratic, egalitarian sensibility, for most of history it was recognised that humans are born with differing capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. The archetype idea I have been using in these posts implies this. The primary archetypes are The Child (including The Innocent and The Orphan), The Mother (aka Caregiver), The Ruler, The Warrior, The Mage, The Lover and The Fool. Other archetypes have been identified but, in my opinion, they are sub-types of these main categories. Note also that there are shadow types for each archetype that we can identify by a different name (eg. The Devouring Mother). If we acknowledge that The Lover and The Fool are universals, what we are left with is the old distinction between the political class (The Ruler), the military class (The Warrior) and the spiritual class (Mage). The spiritual class also includes intellectuals (even though in the modern West intelligence has been severed from metaphysics).
There is no reason we cannot manifest multiple archetypes. For example, Socrates was a war hero and was widely known by his contemporaries for his astonishing physical endurance. Nevertheless, we would classify him in the Mage category. That was his primary strength. The same goes at the societal level. Sparta was clearly a culture of The Warrior but there were individuals in that society that manifested other archetypes. Our culture has people who manifest the Warrior and the Ruler etc. To say that we are an Orphan culture simply means that this is the predominant archetype in the same way that The Warrior was the predominant archetype for Sparta.
Because we each have different talents captured in the archetypal definitions, it follows that each of us is more or less suited for an esoteric, spiritual journey. This fact is also captured neatly in The Matrix. Neo joins the group who are all on the same path. Nevertheless, each has different esoteric capacities. The assumption is that Neo is the one with the greatest capability and he will be the saviour. The others in the group fulfill other functions eg. Dozer is the Warrior, Mouse is The Fool. There is even the Judas character in Cypher who is going to betray the group (again reiterating that The Matrix story is just the story of Jesus retold).
In a healthy culture, the exoteric structures of the broader society are regenerated with each new generation by assigning people the roles to which they belong. Those who are on the spiritual path are the ones suitable for in-depth esoteric practice and they receive specific training for that purpose. They will dedicate their life to spiritual aims. Their primary role is to safeguard the metaphysical tradition of the culture. This is the role of elders in a well-functioning society. For most of the history of the Christian church, the esoteric dimension was almost non-existent. This is because the Church served an almost entirely exoteric function almost from the start. In Paul’s time and for centuries thereafter, the church was used to prop up the dying days of the Roman empire. Later on in the middle ages, the church regained some form of esoteric practice only to then become stale and hollow again until we arrive at today where the church is nothing more than an empty shell with neither exoteric nor esoteric influence (note: there may be individual churches and individual practitioners where genuine esoteric exercise still takes place but these are the exception to the rule).
It is no surprise that The Matrix has a millenarian vibe to it. It is the story of what happens at the end of the civilisation phase. The same millenarian vibe was there at the time of Jesus. The story of the Saviour had arisen spontaneously all over the place at that time. Jesus, apparently completely by accident (or should we say by synchronicity), lived out a version of that story in real life which was then used by Paul to set up a purely exoteric institution that took hold in the cities (civilisation) while the real esoteric practice of early Christianity was practiced by the smaller groups elsewhere. I think the popularity of The Matrix is evidence of a tacit understanding that we too are in the late stages of a civilisation and there needs to be a new start. Apocalypse means to reveal, to uncover. What is uncovered is that the Emperor has no clothes. The civilisation is devoid of esoteric life. The old epoch is ending and the new one beginning. The Saviour is the one who will crystallise the new metaphysics required to reinvigorate life.
What is particularly interesting about this is that Jesus was a prototypical Innocent. If that’s true and it’s true that we are reverting back to the Innocent archetype as a culture, this would all fit in with Spengler’s idea of a second religiosity (although, of course, we are now manifesting The Innocent not in its proper form of Jesus but in its shadow form). It may be that I have got the name of this series wrong and it should be The Age of The Innocent.
We’ll deal with that question towards the end. In the next post, we’ll apply these concepts to the post war years where I think a solid argument can be made that the baby boomers did follow The Orphan archetype.
All posts in this series: