This is a review by John Reilly, one of the smartest and most astute (as well as unconventional) non-academic, metahistorical thinkers I know, an active and early member of the CMS. His website (one of the earlier of the phenomenon) is here, and the review here.
Heaven on Earth
The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
By Richard Landes
Oxford University Press, 2011
499 Pages, $35.00
For more than 1500 years, a conspiracy of clerics and historiographers has worked, with great success, to hide one of the principal features of cultural and political evolution. Now in these latter days it is more important than ever that the truth be revealed, since the failure to take this hidden factor into consideration threatens the survival of civilization, and maybe of the human race itself.
Perhaps this summary slightly overstates the thesis of this book by Richard Landes, professor of medieval history at Boston University. (He was also the principal organizer just before the year 2000 of the Center for Millennial Studies, of which your reviewer was a member.) The book attempts a typology of millennial movements and apocalyptic thinking, illuminated by often fascinating cross-cultural and historical case studies. At the same time, the book argues that historiography and anthropology often do not categorize these things correctly when they appear, and even tend to expunge the millennial elements from the textual record. Unlike most conspiracy theories, this one has the advantage of being true in large part. Neither is the evidence far to seek: the book’s subtitle is a play on the title of the famous study by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work which somehow manages not to treat endtime excitement, though that is very often a conspicuous feature of religious revivals and personal conversions.
“Millennialism” may be taken to be the image of a future state of the world in which there will be peace and prosperity and societal justice, with the sorrowful aspects of the human condition overcome. The term comes from the “millennium,” the thousand-year reign of the saints mentioned in the Book of Revelation, though similar notions occur in other religious traditions. In fact, any model of history that forecasts a happy ending can usefully be treated as “millennial,” at least for some purposes. “Apocalyptic” can mean the sudden transition from ordinary history to the millennial condition. In some models, this transition can be effected solely through divine intervention, in which case the human role is likely to be rather passive. To the extent that “history” is a deep cause for the change, the human role is more active. The extreme case in the activist direction is pure social revolution.
All these possibilities are eschatological, in the sense that they treat of the eschaton (“end”), but they are not the only possible eschatologies. Indeed, as we are repeatedly reminded in this book, the orthodox eschatology for most of Latin Christendom has almost invariably some variation on that of St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 430). Augustine discouraged, to put it mildly, the unique identification of any historical period or political regime with the fulfillment of eschatological hope. The end, the Second Coming, would not be the product of historical evolution, and it would end history rather than inaugurate a new historical era, however blissful.
Augustine, we may note, had a hard job: he spent a large part of his career arguing that “Now is not the time to panic” during an era when a reasonable man might respond, “If not now, when?” Be that as it may, in the typology of this book, he is an “owl,” indeed the Great Horned Owl of Western historiography. Owls are a perennial class of commentators who argue, not always persuasively, that current disasters do not mean the world is about to end. They do not argue that an end will not come, or even necessarily that there will be no millennium; they are at their most owlish when they quibble about the date of the endtime. Most annoyingly, from the author’s point of view, owls in the aftermath of a millennial moment will retrospectively conclude that there was nothing much to it (the world did not end, did it?) and insist that they themselves were not taken in, not at all. Confusing documents suggesting otherwise tend to go missing.
The opposite perennial figure is the “rooster,” who crows that the night is nearly over, the time is now, and everyone must cast aside caution in the impending dawn. Roosters often get a hearing. Even casual students of history will have run across episodes like the Great Disappointment of the 1840s, or Savonarola’s Florence. On rarer occasions, they take over the barnyard, for a while. Among the case studies in this book are the Taiping Rebellion in China (the biggest war in the 19th century, remember) and the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions. (The author leans toward the view that the Nazis were working from a largely theosophical model of history.) Millennial movements can follow more than one pattern, but the one that interests the author shares the morphology of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
In this view, the millennial moment starts with the appearance of roosters who announce that some marvelous change is about to occur. They gain so large a following that the skeptical owls are drowned out or silenced, or even converted. Then more and more resources are invested in the change occurring; people who see no evidence of this are forced to silence by social pressure. Finally, some event or counter-propaganda makes it obvious that the roosters were wrong and that it is safe to say so.
The author expresses surprise that this pattern repeats again and again, often in the same region, despite the fact that every millennial movement ends in the disappointment of the little boy pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. To that might say that it is not at all clear that disappointment is always absolute. As the books notes in passing, the Eastern Zhou period of Chinese history was characterized by what in effect was an elite millennial movement directed at imperial unification; when unification occurred in 221 BC, the relevant story for the imperial ideologues may have been not so much “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Less speculatively, we may note that the author suggests that a millennial moment happens when “private transcripts,” views that are often common knowledge but rejected by the elite, became “public transcripts” that can be openly discussed. The more oppressive the public regime is, the more vengeful the private transcripts are likely to be. (Fans of Dune may recall Lady Jessica’s horror when she learns the particular version of the messiah archetype common on Arrakis: “They have that story here? This must be a terrible place!”) At least in the Latin West, however, what may sometimes happen is that perfectly acceptable ideas just shift from type to prophecy. Augustine, after all, did not really dispense with prophecy, but rather turned it into a system of types. These are actually quite useful. Even the most hootfully skeptical owl can still call an oppressive emperor “an antichrist” if not “the Antichrist,” for instance, and there are always slacking congregations that can be tarred with the same brush as Revelation’s Church of Laodicea. Such uses keep millennial ideas in circulation, no matter how many times they are misused.
In any case, the author is particularly interested in two aspects of the Emperor’s New Clothes scenario.
The first is the tendency of millennial proponents to bet more resources on a prophecy being true as evidence of its disconfirmation accumulates. The point is made with sad clarity in the study of the Xhosa Cattle-Slayings of the 1850s. A prophetess in southern Africa (millennialism is a notably girly phenomenon the world over) predicted that the English would disappear and the Xhosa ancestors would return if the Xhosa slew all their cattle. Not all did, but enough did to cause distress. As the situation worsened, the failure of the ancestors to return was answered by the prophetic insistence that not enough cattle had been slain. This created a famine that resulted in the collapse of Xhosa society.
The phenomenon of millennial improvidence is not unfamiliar; the Millerites in America in the 1840s were equally willing to bet their livelihoods on the Parousia, even if they not quite so wholesale about mere destruction. The author argues, however, that a similar pattern characterizes millennial tyrannies when it becomes clear that their political ambitions may have limits. Certainly the famous Anabaptist Munster Commune of the 1530s and the Taiping rebellion became most radical and paranoid as their strategic situation deteriorated. (We may also note that it was only in the closing weeks of the Third Reich that Joseph Goebbels felt liberated enough to implement the Leftist economic policy that has always been dear to his heart.) The issue fades into the book’s other principal interest in the evolution of millennial movements: how do societies handle millennial disappointment.
Not all of them do this badly. Tom Holland’s popular history of the origins of Western civilization, The Forge of Christendom, is based largely on Professor Landes’s assessment of the state of millennial enthusiasm around the year 1000. That book concludes that the major political institutions of Christendom arose in large part as preparation for the impending final struggle against Antichrist. The solid institution-building survived the millennial excitement (much of the direct evidence for which, to Professor Landes’s continuing frustration, has been lost or glossed by pestilential owls). [NB: nicely put, but I call them “bats” – RL.] On the other hand, it is also possible for a millennial regime, if it survives, to simply refuse to acknowledge that it is not Heaven on Earth, and to use extreme measures to ensure that all of its subjects not just say so but think so; this is totalitarian option, which we are given to understand is a system that tries to replace all private transcripts with the Party Line. There is also the possibility of mere nihilism, of a regime that, like Denethor, will have naught if it cannot get what it wants. In this the Taiping and the Nazis may not have been of dissimilar mind.
In some ways, the most interesting and problematical part of the book is the case study of Akhenaton (1353 – 1336 BC) and the Amarna Period, which the author interprets as a brief and unsuccessful exercise in “iconic millennialism.” Millennialism is usually demotic; it is the contemplation by those below of the humbling of those above, whether to replace them or to create a regime of equality (of which more later). It is not unknown, however, for those who are already high and mighty to embrace the view that their situation is not just a happy accident, but an ontological necessity. Thus, it is not out of place to characterize the founding of the Han Dynasty as the establishment of a “millennial empire.” Some church historians made an at least analogous argument about the Roman Empire after Constantine. (Augustine agreed that the empire was providential, but he said it was not the City of God; he wrote a book about it.) Heaven on Earth would have it that Akhenaton’s solar monotheism was similarly an attempt to bring the divine order permanently to earth, based on a theology too exalted to acknowledge death.
Now it is notoriously the case that Egyptian elites after Akhenaton’s death did their considerable best to expunge his deeds and name from the historical record. They almost succeeded; it was not until Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt that it became possible for archeology to recover Akhenaton, who had been known previously only in an abbreviated and garbled form. If ever there were a golden age of owls, it would have been during the attempted erasure of Akhenaton. Still, that probably is not enough to make the millennialism model fit here. The millennium is a kind of narrative closure. If the Egyptians ever had a story about history that needed such a thing, it has not come to our attention. Not even the largest flock of reactionary owls could have expunged it.
What has come to our attention are the hints that Akhenaton, or rather the garbled popular recollection of him, may have had some influence on the Greek-language Hermetic literature of the first few centuries AD. After a fashion, Akhenaton may be Hermes Trismegistus.
That is a name to conjure with. As the author points out, there is a direct connection between Hermeticism and the Renaissance, and to the more uppity kinds of monarchical absolutism that followed immediately. (“Sun King”? Versailles?! See, it’s all connected!!!) It also, obviously, affected the would-be Hermetic revolutionaries of the stamp of Giordano Bruno of the 16th and 17th centuries. This book does not seem to mention Dame Francis Yates’s The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, which deals with that period, but it does discuss her work about the origins of the idea of technological progress. Unlike Egypt, the West does have a story that invites millennial closure, and into that story the Hermetic material, it seems to this reviewer, fit like a key in a lock. Heaven on Earth suggests that the greatest and chiefest of millennial movements is modernity itself.
How is modernity different from other millennial movements? For one thing, it promotes a species of demotic millennialism that seeks to dissolve what the author calls the “prime divider” between commons and elites. Modern societies tend to favor equality before the law, universal literacy, respect for manual labor, and personal autonomy. The author traces this insistence back to the casteless law codes of the Torah. That is fair enough. We may also note, though, that authors from Tom Holland to Francis Fukuyama say that what really made civil society possible in the West is that the pope and the emperor started arguing in the 11th century about who had the right to appoint the bishops in southern Germany. They are still at it, and so the space between principle and power is still open. That does not mean it will always be, though.
The author notes that there are two important apocalyptic movements in the early 21st century. One is the Global Jihad; the book’s explanation of why 1979 AD (1400 AH) was an important apocalyptic date is as good an explanation as you are likely to find for why millennial studies should play a larger role in political science. The other is Anthropogenic Global Warming, which seems to serve some of its adherents as consolation for the collapse of eschatological Marxism. Many people in the West are very interested in one or the other, but whoever is interested in one is almost invariably dismissive of the other. In both contexts, postmodernism and its condescension to objective truth (note the lack of “scare quotes”) may be to blame, but it is particularly inapposite with regard to the Jihad, since the jihadis are not at all reticent about truth claims.
In any case, the millennial structure persists. It’s not just a mistake, and it’s not something that just applies to other people.