Notebooks

Millenarianism

15 Dec 2011 09:46

Still waiting

The name is from the 20th chapter of the Book of Revelations. Christ has just defeated the Beast, and cast him and his false prophet into a "lake of fire burning with brimstone". Christ has also slaughtered the army of the beast, including the kings of the earth, slaying them with a sword which "proceeded out of his mouth". (A conservation-minded angel had earlier called together the birds of the air, that they might "eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great".)

And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and that that he must be loosed a little season. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshiped the beast, neither his image, neither had they received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

Hence the millennium: the thousand-year reign of Christ and his saints upon the earth, after they defeat the forces of evil. Millenarianism, originally, was the belief, among Christians, that this epoch was coming very soon, and that they, the righteous witnesses (martyrs) of Christ, would be part of it. Arguably, all Christians were originally millenarians in something like this sense. (Historically, it seems that the Beast was the Emperor Nero, whose reign the author of Revelations was enduring.) In a larger sense, though, millenarianism has come to be the label for any movement or ideology which is similar to this --- the belief that, very shortly, the struggle between the forces of good and evil will come to a climax, and the good will triumph and institute the reign of righteousness, when historical wrongs will be rectified, and injustice and oppression will cease, and those who profit from injustice and oppression will get what's coming to them. The righteous believers will play a crucial role in this drama, either by helping to defeat the forces of evil, or by sharing in the millennial reign, or both.

The appeal of such a belief to those who feel themselves the victims of injustice and oppression is manifest, and, as a matter of historical fact, most people have been victims of injustice and oppression. Even beyond that, it can speak, very powerfully, to longings for a decisively better order of things, one without the all-too-evident imperfections of the present, one, moreover, untainted by connection with the present order. While there is, of course, no reason to believe in millenarian ideas, wishful thinking is a powerful and ubiquitous force in human affairs (I certainly am often in its power). Why then have most people not been millenarians? There are, it seems to me, a number of causes at work here.

First, many people were simply never exposed to millenarian ideas, and it's not such a simple and obvious set of concepts that one should expect it to be independently invented multiple times. One needs, at the very least, the idea of a final conflict between the forces of good and evil, which itself is not something that reappears frequently. Indeed, some would argue that it was invented exactly once, by Zarathustra, or at least by the tradition associated with that name, whence it spread to Judaism, and so to Christianity and Islam. (See, for an argument along these lines, Norman Cohn's Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come.) Be that as it may, it's certainly true that many populations have had little or no exposure to millenarian ideas until relatively recently.

Second, even if some version of the idea is socially available, it may be more or less neutralized. All Christians (pretty much) accept Revelations, and so believe in the millennium in some sense, but the human capacity for re-interpretation is marvelous. The passage I've just quoted implies certain things to someone who believes that it literally describes events which will come to pass within a few years. It means something very different to those who put it off to the remote future, or who believe that it's to be taken figuratively. (It is really easy to come up with figurative readings of such texts, and in some ways their sheer weirdness encourages this. I mean, come on: a sword coming out of Christ's mouth, slaying the heathen? Doesn't that make a lot more sense as a way of saying they'll be won over by the holy scripture than as a battle report? [This is not meant as serious exegesis, just an illustration.]) Even matters of emphasis can be important here; imagine a preacher saying "These things are mysteries. Yes, of course God will bring them all to pass, but when, and in what way, He alone knows; the Kingdom will come like a thief in the night. In the meanwhile what matters is that there are those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are thirsty and have nothing to drink, those who are naked and are not clothed. Let's do something about them, and trust in God to deal with the beast." So, even in a population where millenarian texts (i.e., ones which can be interpreted in a millenarian manner) are endemic, there will generally be other interpretations of them, and it's by no means automatic that the millenarian ones will be more popular, or even very wide-spread at all. Indeed, since acting on millenarian ideas will generally be upsetting to the local powers that be, they will often encourage neutralizing interpretations, and suppress activist ones, an activity at which they are often successful. Qua wishful thinking and mental comfort, an imminent millennium is often no better than receiving your reward in an other-worldly afterlife, immediately after this one, or outside time altogether; and it implies much less upset to this world. To succeed in a population where ideas incompatible with millenarianism are endemic, millenarian movements must develop persuasive ways of neutralizing those ideas in their turn; this problem of credible rhetoric can be very difficult.

Third, and speaking of the powers that be, while most people have been victims of injustice and oppression, many of them have not felt they were such, at least not the extent they should have. Most societies are not embroiled in revolutionary uprisings and mass disobedience most of the time, which is to say that most of the time most people have accepted their situation in life as, if not exactly as it should be, then close enough, and not beyond mundane remedies. Two barriers to millenarian movements are then deference and acceptance one's condition, and the belief that it can be remedied through ordinary, mundane actions. (Whether the second belief is justified is not, as such, relevant.)

Fourth, millenarian ideas have qualities which makes them tend to form the nuclei of narrative communities. The believers in the millenarian story have a role to play in the story, and so to accept the story is to feel that one is, or should be, part of the community of believers. Non-believers are not part of the community. But, in such situations, there is a natural tendency to think that everyone who is not part of the community is an enemy of the community, and since the real enemy is the Adversary, they are (at least) the Adversary's tools. It is hard enough to live peacefully with one's mundane enemies; but who could be asked to live peacefully with representatives of cosmic evil, especially when the final conflict is approaching rapidly? Accepting a millenarian story, then, entails joining a certain narrative community, and often thus cutting oneself off from other communities. This carries very high costs, both emotionally and socially. This discourages people from joining, partly because they're risk averse, and partly because most people don't like thinking of their friends and family as minions of Satan. (On the other hand, if you do join, that last effect gives you a very strong incentive to get them to join too.)

Fifth, there is an element of positive feedback at work. If there is only one person in the village who thinks the millennium is at hand, they are a crank in the eyes of their neighbors, and who wants to join a crank? (Besides, they're probably subversive in the eyes of the authorities.) On the other hand, the one person in the village who doesn't believe the millennium is at hand is going to be subject to intense pressure to see the light (or leave). For that matter, when you're surrounded by people who all believe something, you are much more likely to come to believe that yourself, regardless of social pressure. (This is often a good strategy, but it's prone to failures in the form of what are called "information cascades".) This ties back to the previous paragraph: all else being equal, the costs of leaving old social networks and communities to join the movement is lower if the movement is larger.

Sixth, millenarian movements are not sustainable, for the simple reason that the millennium is not now at hand, and never has been. When this becomes apparent --- and the human capacity for wishful thinking is not so great that it won't, eventually, become apparent --- something has to give. Either the movement ceases to be millenarian, or it collapses qua movement, leaving behind, perhaps, a few die-hard followers who keep finding reasons why the glorious day should be just a little more remote than they thought.... (Logically speaking, the failure of all previous millenarian expectations doesn't mean that they will necessarily be disappointed in the future. By definition, however, at most one of them could succeed.) The first five considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to many other kinds of movement, like novel political ideologies; this one does not.

Taking these things together, we reach the conclusion that, in order to become large, a millenarian movement must grow very rapidly, if it is not to be killed off by disillusionment, but that this is hard, because many mechanisms work against rapid growth, particularly the rapid growth of a small movement. But under what circumstances will those inhibitory mechanisms not apply?

Well, they will not apply in populations which (1) are exposed to millenarian ideas, but (2) rival, non-millenarian ideas lack legitimacy and acceptance and (3) many people believe they are oppressed, and have no hope for mundane remedies. These are going to be populations which are not just under considerable stress, but stress which their traditional institutions are unable to deal with.

It therefore makes sense that the golden age of millenarian movements were the 19th and 20th centuries. In this period, European (and, later, North American) missionaries carried (potentially) millenarian ideas all over the world, pushing them very hard, often on populations which had never before been exposed to them. Imperialism meant that non-western societies were subjugated by societies with unprecedented levels of power at their disposal, and those societies set about re-molding the rest of the world in their image and to suit their convenience. Old ways of life were destroyed, more or less deliberately, and new ones imposed and sprang into being. It is not obvious that life in a traditional agrarian society involved any less oppression, in any objective sense, than life in a suddenly-capitalist economy increasingly tied to the world market, but it was a noticeably different sort of oppression. Institutions ceased to exist or ceased to be relevant; ideas bound up with those institutions and those patterns of authority and domination also ceased to be credible and relevant. Traditional ideas and ideals made it easier to accept traditional forms of oppression, but not the newer forms, and there was generally no (credible) replacement, no ideological explanation which was not, itself, deeply humiliating. The conditions were set, then, for the success of all manner of millenarian ideas. Sometimes particular stresses triggered them --- natural disasters, famines, wars --- but often they seem, looking back, to have been initiated more or less at random, through some fortuitous concourse of people, ideas and events, like crystals precipitating out of solution: in the Pacific ("cargo cults"), on the North American plains (e.g., the Ghost Dance) and in South America, in Africa (in both Christian and Muslim forms), in the Arctic, in Asia, and so on, literally across the world. (If you want an extensive catalog, read Lanternari.) Some of these were huge; the largest of them was the Taiping movement in 19th century China; the civil war it sparked was responsible for tens of millions of deaths, and set in motion events which would help bring about the Chinese Revolution. This is part of the story of modernity, of the great transformation of world history; also the story of millions of people acting in accordance with passionate convictions which were absurdly, tragically wrong.

If the age of European imperialism was the golden age of millenarian movements, one of the best-studied periods for them is one of Europe's own epochs of intense crisis, namely the late middle ages and early modern periods, up through the Reformation. Here the great name among the historians is Norman Cohn; it was through his classic The Pursuit of the Millennium that I first got interested in this subject. (And I read his book because it had a blurb from Bertrand Russell.) This was a period of new plagues, newly-intensive warfare, serious external threat, the dislocations attendant on the development of a market economy, and a long-running crisis of legitimacy for the Catholic Church, which not only itself under-wrote the existing order, but provided much of its administrative apparatus. There were many millenarian movements, but also many other bizarre manifestations, such as witch hunts (supported by an elaborate demonology). Much of the millenarianism of this period is of the type I've been discussing, i.e., movements of the oppressed, or those who feel oppressed. But there is also a kind of millenarianism which is at home among elites, hosted by people in relatively privileged classes. The appeal here is that power could be used to hasten the arrival of the millennium, or even to help bring it about gradually --- e.g., to help make the world suitable for Christ to reign over (passing over the bits about the fowl). Some historians have claimed, plausibly, that this sort of millenarianism-from-above played a crucial role in leading to the idea of progress, and even to encouraging the scientific revolution. Which goes to show that it's not origins which count...

Questions. Were there millenarian movements in the Americas during the European conquests in the 15th and 16th centuries? To what extent can medieval European millenarianism also be explained as due to contact with a more powerful and advanced civilization, namely Islam? What are the implications of the large number of essentially-millenarian movements now active in the United States, e.g., the various saucer cults? (The obvious answer, while it might make for a good science fiction novel, is not acceptable.)

To what extent are secular nationalism and totalitarianism related to religious millenarian movements? Or environmentalism? --- This question really has two components. One is about the historical evolution of concepts and institutions, e.g., to what extent was, say, Soviet Communism the result of descent-with-modification of millenarian ideas? The other is a question of dynamics, of causal mechanisms: even if the Bolsheviks really owed nothing to religious millenarian traditions, to what extent did the same mechanisms apply in both cases? These are entirely separate questions, logically, though historians seem to confuse them habitually.

Can every millenarian movement be traced back to Zarathustra via one of the monotheisms? How did the White Lotus tradition in China originate? (It's young enough that it could fit that pattern, and it appeared in China within the same epoch as that other western innovation, Buddhism.) Were there no other sources?

Are there characteristics of a millenarian movement, or its environment, which reliably predict whether it will survive as a straight-forward political movement, or religious group, or just die?

In Primitive Rebels, E. J. Hobsbawm has some very astute observations on the explosive growth of social movements, their "periods of abnormally, often fantastically rapid and easy mobilization of hitherto untouched masses. Almost always such expansion takes the form of contagion..." (pp. 105--106, my emphasis). He then goes on to explain why millenarianism is highly suited to spreading ideas in this explosive manner: in short, why it is a sort of reproductive adaptation for memes, including, of course, the millenarian memes themselves. This seems to me indisputably true, but it would be nice to examine detailed cases from this perspective, and I don't think anyone's done so.

See also: Conspiracy Theories; Peasant Revolts (though millenarian movements need not occur among peasants, and peasant revolts need not have any millenarian components); Religion; Revolutions and Revolutionaries; Sociology


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