Alternate Perceptions Magazine, October 2020
Apocalypse and Renaissance: The Collapse and Renewal of Civilization in the Cycles of Consciousness and Time
by: Jason Jarrell
--Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
By conservative estimates, the European Renaissance spans the historical period of the 15th and the 16th centuries, an era when artists produced many of greatest masterworks ever created, Columbus landed in the New World, the Protestant Reformation was launched, and the Scientific Revolution was initiated. A bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern World, the Renaissance was the result of a completely new perspective—a completely new paradigm—of what it meant to be human. As elaborated by the modern philosopher Richard Tarnas (2010:240):
“Man was now capable of penetrating and reflecting nature’s secrets, in art as well as science, with unparalleled mathematical sophistication, empirical precision, and numinous aesthetic power. He had immensely expanded the known world, discovered new continents, and rounded the globe. He could defy traditional authorities and assert a truth based on his own judgment. He could appreciate the riches of classical culture and yet also feel himself breaking beyond the ancient boundaries to reveal entirely new realms…Individual genius and independence were widely in evidence. No domain of knowledge, creativity, or exploration seemed beyond man’s reach.”
During the Middle Ages, the individual was considered virtually inconsequential, a mere shadow at the feet of political and religious institutions. But for the new man of the Renaissance, “human life in this world seemed to hold an immediate inherent value, an excitement and existential significance” (Tarnas 2010:240). Every society has as its foundation a particular worldview—a collection of beliefs and ideas that determine how groups of human beings perceive and experience all things. As explained by professor Keiron Le Grice (2011:3), “With regard to entire civilizations, a collective world view, at its deepest level, determines the prevailing understanding of the nature of reality itself.”
What then was the genesis of the worldview of the Renaissance? How did the conception of a human existence with meaningful potential and the idea that the secrets of nature were worth exploring penetrate the collective consciousness after the long slumber of the Dark Ages? In this article we will explore the theory that historical ages like the Renaissance represent a type of emergent phenomenon resulting from a confluence of temporal world events and simultaneous developments deep within the collective psyche of Western man.
The Apocalypse of the Fourteenth Century
Over the course of the Fourteenth Century, a series of disasters struck Europe that completely disintegrated the world of the Middle Ages. During the Great Famine of 1315-1322, crop failures and mass die offs of cattle and sheep propelled society into a barbaric era of starvation, disease, cannibalism, and infanticide. Epidemics of crime—especially rape and murder—ran rampant. The crises were compounded in October of 1347, when a group of ships harbored at Messina in Italy, bringing with them the scourge of the Black Plague. The Italian Poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote in The Decameron that while some people “formed themselves into groups and lived in isolation from everyone else” to avoid the plague, there were also those who “maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merry-making, gratify all of one’s cravings and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.” The Plague peaked in Europe by 1351, and by some estimates killed well over half the regional population. Among the English royal family, the average life expectancy dropped to the age of 29 during the Famine, and to the age of 17 with the arrival of the Plague. In his Cronaca Senese (1348), the Italian chronicler Agnolo di Tura recorded the terrifying reality of the Black Plague:
“Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands…there was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”
During this chaotic period, many believed that the unstoppable scourge was punishment from God or even the end of the world—an apocalyptic view that spread quickly and inspired all manner of fanaticism. But there was also a growing sentiment that the Plague seriously undermined the legitimacy of the authority assumed by the institutionalized Church—as moral corruption within its own ranks also grew increasingly apparent. From out of this climate there arose movements that questioned the soundness of Catholic dogmas, hierarchy, and the Papacy itself. The Plague also unfolded against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), as the long-standing tensions between the English and French crowns erupted into the longest armed conflict in European history, further contributing to the devastation: the cost is estimated to have been between 2.3 and 3.3 million human lives.
The crises of the Late Middle Ages also set many transformations in motion. Land and food costs plummeted, leading to the eventual destabilization of feudalism. There was also a new focus on the physical life of man and medical research, as well as a new demand for religious art and iconography. By the mid-Fifteenth Century, Europe had the first operational printing presses, which, as explained by Tarnas (2010:242), enabled “rapid dissemination of new and often revolutionary ideas throughout Europe”, and “helped free the individual from traditional ways of thinking, and from collective control of thinking”. Complementing this intellectual boon in every way was the new availability of gunpowder, which served to further erode the absolute power of the old feudalist system and the Catholic Church.
In the midst of this incredible moment of transition, the small independent city-states of Italy became the center of coalescence for the forces that gave birth to the Renaissance. Here a culture of scholarship, artistic endeavors, loyalty to family, commercial activities, and the contemplation of eternal truths emerged to follow after the tempests of the Fourteenth Century .The world of the Middle Ages was well and truly dead.
The Seeds of Intellectual Rebirth
Thus far, we have only considered the worldly events that preceded the Renaissance in time and conditioned Europe for its reception. This narrative is only one half of the equation however, for the great works of art, the uncompromising individualism, the scholastic and scientific genius, and even the great commercial endeavors were manifestations of a new worldview, which championed individual potential, diverse interests, creativity, and progress. And the seed of this worldview was the re-introduction of ancient Greek philosophy into Western consciousness. As explained by Richard Tarnas (2010:247), “implicit in all these activities was the half-inarticulate notion of a distant mythical golden age when all things had been known—the Garden of Eden, ancient classical times, a past era of great sages…just as in classical Athens the religion, art, and myth of the ancient Greeks met and interacted with the new and equally Greek spirit of rationalism and science”.
The seeds of the restoration of ancient wisdom were actually planted in the Fourteenth Century when Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374)—better known as Petrarch—recovered the letters of Cicero and invigorated a great movement to translate the philosophical texts of antiquity, which was enhanced by an influx of scholars and manuscripts from the collapsing Byzantine Empire in the East. Eventually, major philosophical works—including those of Plato and Plotinus—were in circulation among intellectual circles in Italy. During the Fifteenth Century, the wisdom of the old world would be synthesized with Western thought and religion by a philosopher whose work could be said to embody the very essence of the Renaissance: Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499).
Although Ficino became a Catholic priest in 1473, his incredible range of interests included medicine, Platonic and Hermetic philosophy, and astrology. Ficino was adopted into the household of Cosimo de Medici as a youth, and it was partly due to Cosimo’s patronage that he was able to make several vital contributions to the history of Western thought, including a Latin translation of the dialogues of Plato from Greek manuscripts published in 1484. Cosimo himself was also immersed in philosophy, and the idealism of the age prompted him to found the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy, which was lead by Ficino and included a range of Renaissance poets, philosophers, and scholars, such as Cristofero Landino, Gentile de Becci, and Pico della Mirandola. Other than his translations of Plato, Ficino produced his own body of influential philosophical works, including Theologia Platonica (Platonic Theology) and De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life). Angela Voss (2006:5) explains the appeal of Platonic philosophy for Renaissance thinkers like Ficino:
“Plato was revered because he upheld the divinity and immortality of the soul—a soul which was free-ranging and self-willed, able to traverse all dimensions of existence...the human soul could dwell with the beasts or with the angels; it could live a life limited by the senses, or, through the cultivation of philosophy, liberate itself through self-knowledge. It could penetrate deeply into the true nature of things, or remain bound to a short-sighted vision of human affairs.”
Plato had discussed altered states of consciousness in his writings as the divine manias or frenzies. For Ficino, such states represented “the phenomenon of internal experience or internal ‘consciousness’…a heightened state of mind, experienced independently of and even in opposition to all outward events” (Kristeller 1943:206). Ficino associated these states with awakening to greater realities, as poetically described in Book 14 of Platonic Theology: “usually those are less deceived who at some time, as happens occasionally during sleep, become suspicious and say to themselves: ‘Perhaps those things are not true which now appear to us; perhaps we are now dreaming.’” As explained by esoteric scholar Wouter Hanegraaff (2015:197-198), Ficino’s philosophy sought a “superior knowledge” which “required an unusual, ecstatic or trance-like state.”
By the time of the Neoplatonic philosophers, the cosmos was conceived as a layering of multiple realms descending from Above to Below. All things proceed from the One—the Pythagorean Monad—as the highest source of all existence. Next in the dimensional hierarchy comes the intelligible realm of the Platonic ideas or archetypes, and then the intermediary realm of the fixed stars and planets, which exert influence over the lower elemental realm and serve as symbols for the qualities of moments of time. The invisible energies that shape the world descend from the highest intelligible realm to the material realm of earth below, passing through the domain and influence of the celestials. This was a living cosmos—an ongoing process of creation intended by the Creator to operate in complete harmony. Central to this cosmic scheme was the idea that man is a microcosm, containing within himself an interior reality reflecting all of the components of the “outer” cosmos. Man could therefore “know” or experience creation by turning inward.
These conceptions of the cosmos and man greatly inspired Renaissance philosophy, and informed the emerging concepts of human dignity and potential. Thinkers like Marsilio Ficino sought to overcome the false binary choice between philosophy and religion, studying the ancient writers while also practicing the Christian faith in the belief that man could enhance his vision of reality by drinking from both wells.
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The Rebirth of the Old in the New
The world of the Renaissance then was a rebirth of the ancient in the modern, a moment when the intellectual heritage of the West was retrieved from the past and incorporated into a world inching back from the brink. After the long dissolution of the Fourteenth and early Fifteenth centuries, the wisdom that formed the very foundation of Western Civilization returned to re-invigorate the human spirit and re-enchant the cosmos. The connection between the Renaissance and the drive to recover the lost knowledge of antiquity finds an analogy in Carl Jung’s theory that the themes and ideas of historical ages or epochs are cyclical—revolving in a type of psychological eternal recurrence in and out of collective consciousness. Jung discusses this concept in poetic fashion in The Red Book (2009:311):
“The task is to give birth to the old in a new time. The soul of humanity is like the great wheel of the zodiac that rolls along the way: Everything that comes up in a constant movement from below to the heights was already there. There is no part of the wheel that does not come around again. Hence everything that has been streams upward there, and what has been will be again. For these are all things which are the inborn properties of human nature. It belongs to the essence of forward movement that what was returns.”
Interestingly, Marsilio Ficino seems to have also entertained a similar idea, and to have even realized his own part in the historic process. According to Angela Voss (2006:3): “We know that he regarded himself as the spokesman for a Providential renewal of intellectual life; this was based on an understanding that history was divided into periods of religious wisdom, when philosophy and religion held hands, and periods of secularisation when they were sundered and religion declined into superstition.”
The Apocalypse Archetype
If the cycles of ideas and history are interconnected, then we may search for an archetypal pattern that reflects the process of large-scale societal transformation that unfolds when one age gives way to another. Carl Jung defined an archetype as an “unconscious, pre-existent form that seems to be part of the inherited structure of the psyche” (CW 10 par. 847). The archetypes are inherent to the psychic makeup of every human being, and throughout history, they have been projected as the motifs, images, and characters of legends, mythologies, and fairy tales the world over. The ego—the part of the psyche which refers to itself as “I”—experiences the archetypes as “other” than itself when they enter the domain of conscious awareness, which triggers something of the numinous in archetypal encounters. For this reason, archetypes have always been projected onto the palettes of myth and legend.
Archetypes are most notably encountered in dreams and fantasies, where they fulfill a natural role in the process of individuation—a type of internal psychological development through which unconscious dimensions of the psyche are brought into conscious awareness so that the individual approaches greater wholeness and realizes a greater share of their own unique identity. As defined by Jung (CW 7 para. 266), “Individuation means becoming an ‘in-dividual,’ and, in so far as ‘individuality’ embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as ‘coming to selfhood’ or ‘self-realization.’” As mentioned, the goal of individuation is greater realization of what Jung referred to as the Self. The Self is representative of the central organizing factor of the psyche, as well as the totality of all conscious and unconscious factors:
“The symbols of the process of individuation that appear in dreams are images of an archetypal nature which depict the centralizing process or the production of a new centre of personality…I call this centre the “self,” which should be understood as the totality of the psyche. The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.” (Jung, CW 12, para. 44).
Importantly, Jung understood individuation or self-realization to be a principle relevant to individuals as well as entire social groups: “So too the self is our life’s goal, for it is the completest expression of that fateful combination we call individuality, the full flowering not only of the single individual, but of the group, in which each adds his portion to the whole” (Jung, CW 7 para. 404). From this statement one can naturally draw the conclusion that Self-realization in individuals is necessary for a truly healthy society—which is the principle at work in the universal development of rites of passage in more highly developed cultures.
In a series of lectures published in book form, the late American Jungian psychologist Edward Edinger (2002) explored the concept of the Apocalypse as an archetypal pattern that could be activated within the collective psyche of a society. Edinger (2002:5) explained that while an archetype is “a primordial psychic pattern of the collective unconscious”, it is also “a dynamic agency with intentionality.” In the sense that it is a dynamic agency, an archetype works towards a purpose, as it “takes on autonomy and tends to direct whatever is of a psychic nature in its vicinity to line up with its own lines of force” (Edinger 2002:2). There are numerous ways in which archetypes can be activated to exert a potent influence on the behavior of individuals, societal units, and entire nations—an aspect of depth psychology that advertising and politics have exploited for many decades. As explained by Edinger (2002:5): “When it constellates, it generates itself and manifests itself in the individual psyche and the collective psyche of the group it happens to touch.”
As to the significance of the Apocalypse archetype specifically, Edinger (2002:7) states that when the related symbolism emerges from the psyche, it “can be immediately recognized as part of the phenomenology of the individuation process: representing in an individual the emergence of the Self into conscious realization.” In relation to this theory, Edinger (2002:7) identified four consistent aspects of apocalyptic literature that directly correspond to the process of Self-realization in individuals: Revelation, Judgment, Destruction (or Punishment), and the New World. Revelation is the emergence of “shattering new insight”, which is accompanied by “the flow of transpersonal images” (archetypes). Judgment is the experience of “an abrupt profound awareness of the shadow”, as the individual is “confronted with his dark and dubious nature…as living concrete reality”. Destruction/Punishment is the anxiety and pain experienced as the transformational ordeal unfolds. The New World represents the final phase, “as there begins to appear the possibility of a conscious relation to the Self and its wholeness.” Again, this apocalypse archetype—which essentially represents the destruction of outmoded boundaries in order to stimulate the growth of something new—may manifest in individuals as well as entire societies:
“‘Apocalypse’ means the momentous event of the coming of the Self into conscious realization. Of course, it manifests itself and is experienced in quite different ways if occurring in the individual psyche or in the collective life of a group; but in either case, it is a momentous event—literally World-shattering. This is what the content of the Apocalypse archetype presents: the shattering of the world as it has been, followed by reconstitution” (Edinger 2002:5).
There is an ancient precedent for world-renewal as psychological evolution in the writings of some of the most ancient Greek philosophers, where we encounter the theme that the cosmos undergoes periodic cycles of destruction and recreation. In the Fifth Century BC, Empedocles composed his poem On Nature, in which the cosmos is constituted of the four classical elements, and passes through alternating phases of philia (love) and neikos (strife). During the philia stage, the elements are united together and form a great homogenous sphere with no differentiation. Then during the neikos stage, the sphere is fragmented and splits up into separate entities—this is how the physical world with all of its multiplicity comes into being. Empedocles therefore associates the emergence of the sensible world with the affects of chaos or strife—it is the very breaking apart that causes all things to come into being. Eventually, the elements collapse back into the primordial state of philia, and the entire cycle then repeats itself.
Like the apocalypse archetype, the cosmic cycle of Empedocles has also been considered as a reflection of the process of individuation that unfolds in the human psyche over the course of a lifetime. As observed by Edinger (1999:48), the neikos stage represents “the development of the individual ego as it emerges during the fragmentation of the original state of unconscious wholeness.” The ensuing philia stage—during which the cosmos collapses back in upon itself—actually represents the goal of Self-realization (Edinger 1999:48): “when that multitudinous ego has reached a certain stage of development, individuation proper starts to operate. If this proceeds, it achieves a renewal of the original state of spherical wholeness, but on another level of consciousness.”
From the Ashes
The perspectives of history and consciousness described in this article present us with a broad view—one that encompasses entire ages rather than mere seconds on a clock. From this vantage point, cultures and civilizations can be seen to emerge and vanish in a continuous cycle of dissolution and renewal. For those living in the eras of dissolution—when failed and outmoded social systems collapse, often beneath the weight of multiple crises—it can seem like the end of the world. In fact, such moments are the end of the world, as it existed up to the crisis point. But of far greater importance is the realization that on the other side of the dissolution, another world—perhaps even a better world—awaits future humanity.
Such a cycle of dissolution and reconstitution has been represented on both the individual and the collective levels for millennia by archetypal patterns from deep within the human psyche—patterns that reflect the end of one state of being and the emergence of a new conception of the Self. This principle was at work in Fourteenth Century Europe, when the inhabitants of an entire civilization beset with seemingly endless famine, plague, and war believed that they were living through the Apocalypse. And yet in the end, Europe would be transformed rather than destroyed, as a new conception of man—of the very Self of humanity—was born into the collective psyche as the archetype of the Renaissance.
The crises of the early 21st Century have demonstrated that the socio-economic and political institutions of the West are once more failing to serve the needs of humanity. World events suggest that a new cycle of dissolution may have begun, similar to that which ended the Middle Ages, and despite all of the attempts to repackage the major ideals of the past several centuries—including Communism and Neoliberal Capitalism—they continue to fail, serving only as outmoded barriers to truly creative ideas and solutions. Perhaps there are those already living among us today who—like Petrarch and Marsilio Ficino—will turn to the ancient origins of Western civilization and consult the wisdom of the ancestors as they prepare the foundations of the society of the future. Perhaps the present chaos is but a prelude to another Renaissance.
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