Monday, April 28th, 2014

Spandrell talks a bit about craziness — starting with Randall Collins’ thoughts on how Jesus “threw out the demons” possessing the mentally ill:

Part of most critiques of modernity is the idea that modern people are especially dysfunctional, that modern life is unnatural and dehumanizing, and that people today are full of mental issues which were unknown to our more wholesome ancestors.

Well what if that’s completely wrong? I have relatives not very far removed from a medieval peasant lifestyle, and while they are free of many of the psychological ills of modern people (they don’t get depressed, they are not lazy nor obsessed about minutiae, and gender roles are crystal clear), but I wouldn’t say they are all models or psychological wholesomeness. They drink copiously, are often irritable, non cooperative, and act in their own selfish interest without the slightest sign of introspection.

Then there are the crackpot-ish yet infinitely interesting theories of psychohistory and the bicameral mind. Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind hypothesis said that ancients before the Bronze Age collapse had underdeveloped language skills which made their executive function manifest itself as external voices which commanded to do things, so strictly speaking the ancients weren’t conscious, i.e. self-aware. No internal dialogue in the old books.

Psychohistory is the theory of Lloyd deMause, who noted that many ancient civilizations, if not all of them at some point, practiced ritual child sacrifice, and even after that stopped, infanticide was common until not that long ago. Well imagine being a kid in those circumstances. Seeing your little friends being killed in scary altars, and your parents referring to you as a burden, with dad and mom often fighting over whether they should just throw you into the river once and for all, that’s likely to mess you up in the head. Even if they don’t end up killing you to save some shekels, you’ve either been a candidate for an early death, or seen your friends killed. And those traumatized children eventually grow up to become the adults. Chechar has great stuff on how that applied to the Aztecs, which were big on killing children on stone pyramids.

For better or worse though, Julian Jaynes’ theories on the origin of language were disproved. And a casual reading of deMause tells you the guy is full of shit, and quite disturbed himself. Yet you don’t need a new encompassing theory of history to feel that maybe our ancestors weren’t as well adjusted as we may think. Going back to Jesus, Randal Collins seems to have read Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, which basically explains the growth of Christianity because urban life in the Roman Empire sucked so incredibly bad that the little niceties that Christians did for each other (giving water to sick people) produced such a difference on fertility and mortality rates that starting with 12 dudes, after 300 years they outgrew everyone else.

Certainly the Palestine of the days of Jesus wasn’t a very rational place. Lots of prophets in the streets, predicating their crap, some better than others. And people actually stopped and listened to them! Collins makes a convincing case for Jesus being an unprecedented charismatic genius, but there were many other preachers in Rome at the time, presumably not as good as Jesus, but still managed to get following.

And don’t go that far. Stay in 19th century America. Certainly there was something wrong in the head with the people that followed Joseph Smith? Or all those who joined the wacky communes mushrooming all over New England? What about the huge followings people like Marx or Freud got? Freud was kinda like the original Yudkowsky. Making people mad while claiming to fix madness, running a cult about not running a cult. One day they’ll call them the Ironic Intellectuals.


  1. Aretae says:

    “Freud was kinda like the original Yudkowsky.” — Wow.

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