the spirit of things
Millennial Dreams #3
You don't have to be Christian, or even religious, to generate a full-blown apocalyptic movement that looks forward to a heaven-on-earth existence. Both Islam and the secular faith of Socialism can claim millennial expectations.
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According to Abbas Amanat of Yale University, Islam is the quintessential apocalyptic tradition. David Cook, of the University of Chicago, counts upwards of 5000 messiahs, or mahdis, in Islam.
The messiah is a Jewish concept, but the emergence of Christianity with its insistence on Jesus as the one true messiah, made messianic movements somewhat unpopular among Jews. But there were exceptions, as Moshe Idel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem points out.
And with the advent of science and socialism, millennial hopes turned to the secular realm. David Nash of Oxford Brookes University explains why.
Readings include excerpts from the Koran, Surahs 18 & 25, and from William Lane's 1892 novel, The Workingman's Paradise.
They are read by Arthur Dignam.
The box set of the series is available on four audio cassettes for $80(individual programs are $25). Contact ABC Radio Tape Sales in your capital city.
A full transcript of the program follows
Hello, and welcome to Alternative Apocalypses, Part III of Millennial Dreams on The Spirit of Things. I'm Rachael Kohn.
You don't have to be Christian or even religious to generate a full-blown apocalyptic movement that looks forward to a heaven on earth existence.
The quintessential apocalyptic tradition, according to Abbas Amanat of Yale University, is Islam. Not only did it inherit it from the Bible, but also from the more ancient Zoroastrianism. In fact, when it comes to messiahs, or mahdis, David Cook of the University of Chicago, counts upwards of 5,000 of them in Muslim history.
Now the Messiah is a Jewish concept, but the emergence of Christianity, with its insistence on Jesus as the one true Messiah, would make messianic movements somewhat unpopular among Jews. But there were exceptions. Moshe Idel of Hebrew University looks at some of the more popular ones.
With the advent of science and technology, the world looked like it was on the brink of social perfection, without the need of religion. David Nash of Oxford Brookes University looks at secular millennial dreams later in the program.
On that Day We will have Gog and Magog trampling in waves upon each other. The trumpet will be sounded, and We will gather them in one throng. And on that Day We will set Jahannam in place in full view for the unbelievers - those whose eyes were veiled from any remembrance of my Lord and who were incapable of hearing. Do those who do not believe reckon that they can take servants of Mine as protectors - Me apart? Jahannam have we made ready for the reception of the unbelievers.
Surah 18: 102
Rachael Kohn: Now you might have thought that was from the Book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, but that was just one of the many apocalyptic visions in the Koran, that one from Surah 18.
Muhammad, who was born in the year 570, came into contact with the Bible in the busy town of Mecca, where Jews and Christians passed through en route to the East. But apocalyptic notions of renewal and salvation would depend on the messianic figure, called the Mahdi.
Abbas Amanat is Professor of History and Chair of the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale University, where he holds a weekly Millennial Seminar.
Abbas Amanat: As a matter of fact one should consider Islam perhaps as the quintessential tradition, religious tradition in terms of millennialism and of course its other components, that is messianism or apocalypticism, mainly because it inherited not only part of the Judo-Christian tradition but also the Zoroastrian, ancient religion of Persia which also is extremely fertile with apocalyptic notions and messianic notions. Some people would actually suggest that that was the original ground for the development of these ideas. And Islam incorporated and absorbed many of these elements into it in its classical period, in its formative age. And particularly in Shi'i Islam we would see a greater abundance of such ideas as opposed to Sunni mainstream religion.
Rachael Kohn: But Muhammad for example, is always called a prophet. Is he ever regarded as a messianic figure, as a Messiah?
Abbas Amanat: Very interesting question. As a matter of fact, if you look back at the origins of Islam at least as far as the Scripture of Islam, the Koran would tell us, some of the early verses of the Koran, those that were revealed to the prophet and Mecca, known as the Meccan or early Meccan Surahs are permeated with apocalyptic notions. The end of time, the earthquake, the concepts that the heavens would fall, and notions that are very familiar of course to Judeo-Christian students of apocalyptism. Muhammad himself never considered his mission at least explicitly, as being one of messianic, though ever element of it did exist there. He considered himself as a matter of fact, as the seal of the prophets, which later on came to mean that it's the end of the prophecy altogether and there would be no other prophets after him. That's at least the orthodox view, and that indeed became one of the major obstacles or stumbling blocks for the emergence of a Messiah in future.
In Shi'i Islam that remained a doctrinal obstacle; in Sunni Islam therefore, we would have a Mahdi, which is the term for the Messiah, or the guided one, to be very precise, which tend to become more of a figure that comes at a certain regularity usually, at the end of the century, as a kind of centennial figure, that comes to renovate and reaffirm the orthodox religion. That's the Sunni view of the Mahdi.
Rachael Kohn: Well the idea of a centennial figure for example reoccurring, is almost a cyclical notion. Are we talking about a cyclical view of time versus a linear view?
Abbas Amanat: Wonderful. I think so. Cyclical ideas, cyclical notions of time were known to the Muslims ever since the very inception of Islam, most of it coming through presumably the Zoroastrian influence which was deeply immersed into this notion of the cycles of time, cosmological cycles, might have had some Greek origins as well. Whatever it was, within the body of Shi'i Islam these ideas received tremendous attention, particularly in what is
known as Isma'elism.
Rachael Kohn: Well in the Christian world, and occasionally in the Jewish world, apocalyptic hopes have resulted in disaster or attempts at revolution, a kind of forcing of the end, a radical cataclysm. Have there been those sorts of movements associated with Shi'ism, particularly in connection with an apocalyptic hope?
Abbas Amanat: Again, a very interesting question. One should bear it in mind that that very concrete notion of apocalyptic as being the end of the time, and the annihilation of the material world as it appears in the Biblical, or at least interpretations of the Biblical apocalypse, does not occur in Islam with the same force or with the same concreteness. Indeed there is no concrete body of literature known as apocalyptic in Islam, but it's all kinds of traditions, sayings, attributed to the prophet.
Rachael Kohn: The hadith?
Abbas Amanat: The hadith, yes. Some of the hadith is considered as apocalyptic. And verses from the Koran or some other literature that generally were considered as apocalyptic. This material, although it speaks about the end of the time and also speaks about this final battle between the good and the evil, and ultimately the triumph of the evil, the day after judgement and the coming of the paradise, and the assignment of the good to the heavens and the evildoers to hell, all of that does exist and indeed Islam, even in the Koran provides some passages that gives that image. But it never really provided that kind of a scenario for annihilation of the material world. What appeared mostly is that the cyclical notion, that resurrection which is indeed the moment of the apocalypse, comes about as the end of one cycle, and indeed it initiates the world, it renovates the world. Perhaps the best example of that one might say, is the Babi movement, the origins of what later on came to be Baha'i religion.
Initially as a messianic millennial movement, that interprets as a matter of fact this apocalyptic tradition in Islam, that there will be a prophetic figure that re-initiates a new revelation, and therefore the theory of progressive revelation becomes a very important part of Babi and then later on, Baha'i doctrine, that religions would move forward with the movement of time, with the passage of time.
Rachael Kohn: In contrast to the evolution of the faith in Baha'i, a sectarian offshoot of Islam, some contemporary Islamic movements have their eyes trained sharply on the past to re-create the present.
Abbas Amanat: The movements that have been referred to as 'fundamentalist' or this resurgence of Islam, tends to ignore at least consciously, the time of the apocalypse, notions of resurrection at the end basically pushed to the background. For a very basic reason, that what matters now is this world and the making of Islam in this world for us, and the great reward for the future comes if we would be able to make our Islamic life or religious life in this world, put it into order.
Rachael Kohn: Are they linked though?
Abbas Amanat: Yes, a very good example of that of course are the Muslim
Brothersand their offshoots in all other countries of the Arab world and non-Arab world, and in the writings of Hasan al-Banna the founder in the 1920s. You would see this disengagement from the other world, hereafter, in order to establish a apocalyptic if you like community in this world. The term that he uses for that regard is one of denunciation, meaning the denunciation of this world.
And departure, or immigration, the Hijrah, the term which in Islam has a particular connotation. And in a sense departure from the world of ignorance, as they would call it, the Age of Ignorance, which is usually referred to as the pre-Islamic period, before the time of the prophet. So in a sense, they are going back to that old image, as I pointed out, this Hijrah in order to be able to create this. This is a very powerful image.
If you look at the example of the offshoot of the Muslim Brothers who were
responsible for the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, the term that they used in order to define their own offshoot movement, was also exactly the same term, denunciation and departure.
So one can see that this notion is so much embedded into the very idea of fundamentalism.
Rachael Kohn: Professor Amanat's view that Islam is the quintessential millennial tradition finds support in the research of David Cook, of the University of Chicago. Predicting and imagining the apocalyptic end time scenario would preoccupy many ardent Muslims, and would also reflect Islam's incorporation of some Christian beliefs.
David Cook: There was an attempt to, numerous attempts I should say, to constantly predict the end, to try and find out the signs that were attached to the appearance of either Jesus or the Messiah, and there were also attempts to give exact dates to these events.
Rachael Kohn: Were those activities prohibited or welcomed by the religious leaders of the time?
David Cook: It depends on whether you're talking about before the events or after them. According to the Koranic text, calculations of this nature are forbidden. In several different verses, as a matter of fact. However it is a fact that all the calculations that we have, the Muslim calculations, are all from religious leaders. So they were actually both aware of the Koranic prohibition and at the same time going against it.
Rachael Kohn: And what was their explanation for engaging in this kind of calculation?
David Cook: First of all, they did not see it as going against actually the prohibition, they were merely interpreting events that were unfolding before them. It was simply that they felt that they were in such an apocalyptically charged atmosphere that the events were simply unfolding naturally, and that the end was so close that it was possible to calculate it.
Rachael Kohn: Were there ever any reflections on this practice and its effect on the people at large?
David Cook: Yes. There were attempts to try and of course justify it in face of the obvious chronic difficulties. There were also more private attempts to explain the methodology behind it, trying to create a sense of hope among the people.
Rachael Kohn: Now with all these calculations, numbers seem to have some importance. What was the first or the most important year that was fixed upon by Muslim leaders?
David Cook: The first major year that we talk about as being apocalyptically charged was probably the year 100 in the Hijrah calendar, which corresponds to the Christian year, 718. Their god simply had no need of anyone who was going to come after that, that the generation which was living during the year 100 would be the one who would actually would see the end of the world. There was a tremendous conquest pushed during those years, the self-same years that Muslims in fact made the push into France and towards Constantinople. And to a number of other different areas. They were probably trying to conquer the entire world before the year 100.
Rachael Kohn: Is it the attraction of the two zeroes that this is a sort of complete number, a full number?
David Cook: Yes, it's a complete number, a full number; there are numerous numbers that attract the imagination of an apocalyptist; the number of 7, the number 4 and it's variants, the number 100, the numbers derived from 12, for example, 12, 24, and 120, all these numbers crop up incessantly, inside this sort of literature, in addition to 70 and 40, and 400 and so forth.
Rachael Kohn: David, do we have any knowledge of how mystical movements within Islam approached this question of the end? Did Sufis, for example, incorporate any of this visionary tradition into their practices?
David Cook: Yes. The basic Sufi vision of what's known as the perfect man, is essentially a type of the Messiah, and definitely Sufis used both the apocalyptic, the messianic imagery of early Christianity. Of course Sufi is a development which happened a good deal later than the beginning of the apocalyptic heritage of Islam, so it was able to incorporate these themes into its beliefs. And in later Islam, definitely during the middle ages, you find that many apocalyptic movements, messianic movements, are led by Sufis, and using these sort of imageries and proclaiming themselves to be the
Mahdi, or a guide to other things.
Rachael Kohn: That's interesting. I would have thought that the Sufis were more quietistic but when you say they led movements, where they activist movements?
David Cook: Yes, although it's true that within the Sufi heritage there is a quietistic element, it's certainly not true that all Sufis are like that. There's definitely been very violent, very radical Sufi sects, and many Sufi sects have started out as being extremely dedicated brotherhoods which have involved themselves involved themselves in Jihad, which have messianically inspired.
Rachael Kohn: Has Islam then experienced false messiahs proclaiming themselves as the Mahdi?
David Cook: Yes. No-one knows to what degrees, or how many Mahdis there have been. My own calculations would indicate that there have probably been upwards of 4,000, 5,000 Mahdis. Of those, probably nor more than maybe 50% have actually entered into the historical material, but there is no lack of false Mahdis, there is really no lack of them. For myself, I've managed to collect at least 800 of them. I'm sure that that's just a drop in the bucket.
Rachael Kohn: Now finally David, is Islam looking forward to a date at this time?
David Cook: There have been definite calculations that would lead to some sort of tribulations happening before the year 1500 which would correspond to the Christian date of 2076. This is definitely the paradigm under which modern Muslim apocalyptists are working, in which case certain tribulations should be occurring, even as we speak. There have been definite calculations that the Anti-Christ was supposed to appear during the past decades, and there will probably be much more.
On that day, the heaven with the clouds will be sundered, and the angels will be sent down in splendid array and to the all-merciful, the sovereignty, the true sovereignty will belong that day. It will be a grim day for the unbelievers, the day when the wrongdoer will gnaw his hands and say, 'Would I had taken the way with the apostle, woe is me, would I had not taken such and such for a friend; he led me astray and from the remembrance of God after it had come to me, Satan, the inveterate traitor to man.
Rachael Kohn: From the Koran, Sura 25, and before that, David Cook, Islamic scholar from the University of Chicago.
Now the Sufi tradition which he was talking about, is thought by some historians to be one of the influences on a certain Messianic pretender in Jewish history of the 17th century, Sabbatai Zevi, who was born in Salonica, and ended his messianic saga by converting to Islam. Here's an account by his prophet, Nathan of Gaza.
Scripture says concerning him, 'And the spirit of God moved upon the waters', and the rabbis explained 'This is the spirit of the Messiah. The numerical value of "God moved" is equal to that of his name, Sabbatai Zevi, for his soul was in the depth of the great abyss. Darkness, clouds and thick darkness were round about him, and when he issued as if out of the womb, thick darkness was a swaddling band for him. And if you inquire why the abyss exists in this world, the reason is that every time God works a great miracle, he extracts the precious elements from the mystery. The Messiah too, has extracted from it many sparks of holiness, so that Scripture shall be fulfilled.
Rachael Kohn: That, from Gershom Scholem's study of Sabbatai Zevi, is just one of the messianic incidents in Jewish history. Today's leading expert in this field is Moshe Idel of Hebrew University, who has just been awarded the prestigious Israel Prize.
He spoke to me from Jerusalem, beginning with the persistence of messianic hopes and the equally persistent suspicion of them by the rabbis.
Moshe Idel: That's true that all the messiahs, medieval messiahs and even later, even today, encounter always a clash between present Messiah and any Jewish establishment. However we may speak about what I call a secondary elite: people having a certain education and attempting to impose their personality, aspirations on larger Jewish life. For example, in the second part of the 13th century, a cabbalist named Abraham who died apparently around 1291 was an ecstatic mystic and proclaimed himself to be a mystical Messiah, which means that he believed that he could impart to Jews and non-Jews some recipes or techniques for self-redemption. For him, messianists for example was not exactly a movement from one place to another, from Spain or Italy to the land of Israel, but a certain spiritual salvation and he was able to convince some few people, not the movement, a school, who believed in his messianic claims.
There was a personality around whom expectations were gravitating, and that is in my opinion the pattern. They are not great movements like in Christian millennialism where thousands or even tens of thousands of followers who were living and moving, growing, that's the movement, in a certain direction.
In the case of the Jews, at least since the 13th century on, the idea of movement, meaning people who break with their past and their ordinary life, under the impact of their messianic beliefs this form of movement is very, very rare. That should be emphasised.
Rachael Kohn: But of course when Sabbatai Zevi arose in the 17th century, those individual messianic claimants would pale by comparison. He clearly had a much broader impact. How did this man from Salonika have such an impact on the Jews throughout Europe?
Moshe Idel: There is no doubt that in the case of the Sabbatai Zevi, active in the middle and second part of the 17th century, we can speak about a much more widespread influence where people were much more ready to realise their mission is on the historical or political plane, there is no doubt. But even here, the structure is much more a matter of belief that he is the Messiah, that we are already living in the time of the Messiah, and people were ready to sell their assets in Amsterdam, but didn't leave Amsterdam. And here I'd like to make a distinction. Sure, it's much more intense, much more widespread, with more consequences than earlier. However we are not aware of hundreds of thousands of peoples moving from one place to another, but for sure, there was an upheaval in Jewish life overall, there's no doubt.
Rachael Kohn: Well let's look at the sources of this messianic thinking. We have the Book of Daniel, but in the medieval period, the Kabbala playsquite an important role. Can you describe what kind of messianic ideas exist in cabbalistic writings? What are the main themes?
Moshe Idel: The cabbalistic writings adopt almost all the range of messianic aspirations found in late Biblical literature and the Rabbinic late antiquity literature. The cabbala is conservative to a great extent, and among them, they believe that certain personality, a man, will come at the end of time, and change the political, the religious, even the economic situation, by the restoration of the old commonwealth, the Jewish State in modern parlance, and create again a temple and restore perfect way of religious behaviour, at least for the Jews. So that is what can be called the apocalyptic Messiah, a person having extraordinary powers, able as a warrior, as a politician, as a religious leader, to inflame people and to conquer and bring back the Jews to their homeland.
However, what happened in the middle ages is that in addition to this apocalyptic Messiah, cabbalists cultivated also other forms of messianists, which are more personal. Meaning that according to the cabbalists, in order to become a Messiah you must redeem yourself, be able to become a perfect religious being, and only then you can become also a leader that will redeem the others on the historical plane. So here I see what is new in cabbalistic literature. To explain how someone becomes a Messiah. What happens in his inner life that prepares him to become a Messiah.
Rachael Kohn: Now in terms of calculating the end, the Rabbis warned against doing so, but clearly cabbalists or mystics were much more inclined to actually pinpoint a date. Can you talk about some of those dates, and what happened when the Messiah didn't come, say in 1290, for example?
Moshe Idel: In Rabbinic literature, there is very clear opposition to any form of calculating the end. Nevertheless in early middle ages, we have many examples of Jewish masters, including Rabbis, who attempted to find out when the Messiah will come. Among them we can speak about very learned Rabbis.
Meaning that we have a reticence on one side, and nevertheless this attraction to see the historical scheme on the other. As we know, all the dates failed to materialise and there was a process of adjustment, causing them to claim that the calculation was mistaken or it was not exactly the right verse that was used, or the calculation was right but the generation, meaning the spiritual status of the Jews, didn't allow redemption.
Rachael Kohn: Just back on Sabbatai Zevi for a moment: one of the dates associated with him is 1666. Now did that have any resonance in the Christian world with the term '666'.
Moshe Idel: Sure. There is no doubt in my opinion that there is a certain affinity between the Christian expectations, which were very, very high in this period, especially among the Protestant Christians, and the Jewish effervescence. So this movement, and Sabbatai Zevi's biography, is well documented in part because Christian missionaries were fascinated by this messianic phenomenon which fitted their own interests, so they started to write down details, and it shows that there was a certain resonance, if not consonance between happened in the Christian camp and among the Jews in 1666.
On the following Monday, there was great rejoicing as the Scroll of the Law was taken from the Ark, and he sang all kinds of songs. Also Christian songs in the vernacular, saying that there was a cabbalistic mystery hidden in these impure songs. He also declared 'This day is my Sabbath day.' At night he held a banquet, and the people went to kiss his feet. To all of them, he distributed money and candies, and he forced all, Jews and Gentiles alike, to utter the ineffable name.
One Gentile admitted to me that at Sabbatai's importunate demand, he had three times uttered the ineffable name. Even the Turks were talking about the affair, though no miracle was ever seen, not even a natural sign. But many unlettered men and women experienced all manner of convulsion and prophesied, (though not one of their prophecies ever came true) and exclaimed, 'Sabbatai Zevi is the King of Israel' and the like.
Rachael Kohn: Well certainly as that example of Sabbatai Zevi has shown, and previous ones perhaps not in such a great proportion, messianism has been a fairly disastrous path for Judaism. And Gershorn Scholmes, your predecessor in these studies, squarely saw it as a dangerous path. In fact he compared a contemporary religious political movement in Israel to the followers of Sabbatai Zevi. Would you be inclined to make any such contemporary comparisons?
Moshe Idel: We can divide between two major dimensions of the messianic phenomenon. One is the belief that miraculously, history is going to change. Or we can induce radical break in history by religious magical acts. If we are speaking about such a vision of history, my opinion is that Gershorn
Scholmes was right. From this point of view, some political factions in Israel are cultivating a certain form of political aspiration which are dangerous. However, if we understand that part of messianists is also a certain search for inner perfection. We can speak about self-education, individual perfection, even the vision of helping others to become better. And in the long-range, a better society will occur. The messianic ideas can have also some more positive contribution.
Rachael Kohn: Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of Messianic Mystics, published 1998.
'Science has promised us truth ... it has never promised us peace and happiness.' So said Gustav Le Bon. But in the 19th century a great many people thought it did, and they were ready to move heaven and earth, if you will, to prove it. Like the British-born socialist reformer, William Lane, who came to Australia, became a staunch unionist, and then went on to establish communist settlements in Paraguay in 1893. This is from his book,
The Workingman's Paradise.
There are Socialists and real Socialists, just as there is Socialism and real Socialism. The ones babble of what they do not feel because it's becoming the thing to babble. The others have a religion, and that religion is real Socialism. How does one know a religion? When one is ready to sacrifice everything for it. When one only desires that the callers may triumph; when one has no care for self and does not fear anything that man can do, and has a faith which nothing can shake, not even one's own weakness.
'Isn't it a pity that we can't co-operate right through in the same way?'
'It's the easiest way to bring socialism about', answered Geisener. 'Many have thought of it, some have tried, but the great difficulty seems to be to get the right conditions, absolute isolation, while the new conditions are being established. Colonists who are rough and ready and accustomed to such work, and at the same time, are thoroughly saturated with socialism. Men accustomed to discuss and argue and at the same time, drilled to obey when necessary, by a majority decision. These are very hard to get. Besides, the attempts at being on small scales, and though some have been fairly successful as far as they went, have not pointed the great lesson: one great success would give men more faith than a whole century of talking and preaching. And it will come, when men are ready for it, when the times are right.'
Rachael Kohn: From William Lane's novel, A Workingman's Paradise.
The utopian experiments of the 19th century are of particular interest to David Nash, of Oxford Brookes University, who regards them as secular millennial movements.
David Nash: Rather than sitting there if you like, waiting for things to happen, it's a way of telling themselves and their adherents to get up and help to make the great change. So in a sense, the great change is not cataclysmic, it can be gradual, it can obviously involve the participation of all humanists and secularists. But there are also some secular traditions where they believe that there are ages that man and humankind go through.
For example, the positivist movement of Comte believed that man was developing through three stages. They called it the theological, the metaphysical and finally the positivist, and the positivist; and the positivist was an age in which science, scientific endeavour, rationality and the whole material approach to life and civilisation would triumph. And what they said was, and this is very millennialist and millenarian, they said that this was not to sweep away religions, but to be the ultimate fulfilment of them.
Rachael Kohn: Ah, they always say that.
David Nash: Well I suppose they do, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, well what are some other examples of secular attempts to recreate, or recreate on earth the fulfilment of mankind?
David Nash: Well some of these go back to medieval traditions. I mean I think of some forms of heresy in medieval England. There was, for example, groups such as the Grindletonians, or the Family of Love for example, who actually believed that heaven was when you were happy and hell was when you were sad, and that was all it really amounted to. And whether it was because they were oppressed by the communities they lived in, or wanted to practice this actively, but what they did was they formed their own communities away from the rest of civilisation.
But coming up to date, there are groups such as the rationalists who were encouraged by the ideas of Robert Owen in the early years of the 19th century. And Owen basically said that if you could shape the environment and he meant all types of environment, physical, educational, moral, then you could improve the moral welfare of man. And he attempted to do this through a whole host of different schemes. He tried co-operative dealing, he tried forms of trade unionism. But I suppose the ultimate fulfilment of this was when he established communities in parts of Britain. I think there were four in Britain, there was one in Ireland, and a significant number in America, in which people lived communally, held properly communal worked communally.
But the trouble with this, and in a sense I suppose this is the trouble with a lot of these secular utopias, is that they still have to deal with the world outside, and the problem with Owen in particular, was that his schemes always ran out of money and had to deal with what he called the 'dreadful old immoral world'.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, well in a secular utopian experiment, there isn't that sense of finality that something is going to happen, it just keeps on going.
So is that actually a more difficult challenge for the members?
David Nash: I think so. I mean in a sense when you say that there is no finality, I'm not sure that's true, because as I said, they generally do have no reference point outside of themselves or their movements. I mean in many respects who created these movements are responsible for all the texts and ideas that they generate. So when they don't work, they very, very clearly do not work, and they run out of steam.
But I suppose there's also a great deal of independence of though amongst the adherents, which leads them to move on to other ideas which are often related or in some respects, descendants of the original idea. So in a sense I say there is both, there is that finality, but yes, you're right, there is this emphasis in moving on. And it's interesting to see that some Owenites and people who were associated with the Owenite movement in Britain, move on and become interested in the ideas of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, and what you might describe as the more cultural, spiritual end of socialism.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, and that image is very much a friendly one, it's a passive one it seems. Or perhaps not passive, but not dangerous. However there are other sort of secular experiments that have been quite disastrous. One thinks of the Third Reich for example. I'm wondering whether one of the difficulties of secular millennarianism is that there are no limits. I mean one can keep pushing on without any kind of moral tradition coming in and
setting the boundaries.
David Nash: Right. I think first of all I'd actually disagree with you on two points. First of all, when it's possible to say things like Morrisite arts and crafts socialism wasn't dangerous, I don't think that's true at all. Morris' great utopian work News from Nowhere, actually is a picture of idyllic Home Counties English life, but it's idyllic Home Counties English life after the revolution. The revolution has happened; the parliamentary government has been swept away, and he says in a very throwaway sentence that the Houses of Parliament are now kept as a storehouse for manure.
Morris writing this at a period where there are, don't forget, a number of
ocialist demonstrations in Britain, in which the police handled them badly and people are killed and injured. For him to say things like that, it contains still a whiff of gunpowder.
Rachael Kohn: I see, yes.
David Nash: But I think also when you describe Nazi Germany in a sense, as possibly a secular millennium, I wouldn't say that at all, because when you look at Nazi Germany, it is a society based not on rationality but irrationality. The rejection of forms of knowledge in favour of the belief in the spirit, the belief in the heart, and you know, in fact you do actually have significant numbers of rationalists, people like Karl Popper, who actually have to flee Austria from the Nazis, because their ideology is diametrically opposed to the sorts of beliefs that the Nazis are putting forward.
Rachael Kohn: So are you saying then that a true secular millennarian movement is a rational movement, and that rationality in itself is not dangerous, that it has no dangerous expressions?
David Nash: I wouldn't say it has no dangerous expressions.
Rachael Kohn: Indeed I mean we had the Eugenics movement for example.
David Nash: Well, indeed. But I think rationalists - there are still rationalists about in Britain who believe that science and scientific explanations are the important ones, and the ones that make sense. And these rationalists tend to argue that any other approach is potentially dangerous.
Rachael Kohn: I'm wondering how would you compare Christian apocalyptic movements to secular movements in terms of this rationality? Because it would seem to me that we often look at apocalyptic movements in the Christian world as having very obvious irrational dimensions. Whereas what you seem to be saying is that secular millenarian movements are more rational and don't actually give in to these rather absurd tradeoffs.
David Nash: Yes, I think that's true. I'd certainly think that one of the things they're concerned about is if they embraced true rationality, then this is a way of actually avoiding the apocalypse, this is the way of not having one. I think the ideas of Popper's rationalism were quite interesting, because what he suggested was that you don't actually get to a point in society where you've achieved everything and solved everything. The task is not to get there, it's to travel hopefully, and to continue travelling hopefully. And I think this is what Karl Popper is saying, continually look around your society for problems, and see what you can do to solve them. If you carry on solving them, then you will get closer and closer to a secular millennial utopia, you won't ever get there, he never says you'll get there. You'll get closer and closer, but you must keep addressing these problems.
Rachael Kohn: Yes indeed. I mean science accommodates to the world that works within it, but once you have a utopian movement, you have something altogether different, you have someone positing a world on its own that is able to, in a self-sufficient way, achieve perfection. Isn't this irrationality?
David Nash: Yes indeed, that is irrationality, and in a sense this is one of the paradoxes, that you may be told that you've got to travel hopefully rather than arrive, but you still perhaps have to ask which road you're taking, and whether that's the right one. And I think someone like Popper saw this, that utopia itself is irrational, that it's also authoritarian in all sorts of ways he wouldn't have liked. So I think that is very much a tension that rationalists have to live with, and it makes life very difficult for them.
Rachael Kohn: Oxford Brookes University Professor David Nash on secular millennialism, which brings to a close Alternative Apocalypses.
Next week on Millennial Dreams, Part IV, 'When Prophecies Fail'.
The Spirit of Things is produced by me and Geoff Wood, with Technical
Production this week by Marsail McCuish.
So long from me, Rachael Kohn.
©Copyright 2000, Australian Broadcasting Corporation