David Ulansey

In The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics, and Psyche in the World, edited by Thomas Singer (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) pp. 213-31.



"Let us suppose that in modern Europe the faithful had deserted the Christian churches to worship Allah or Brahma, to follow the precepts of Confucius or Buddha, or to adopt the maxims of the Shinto; let us imagine a great confusion of all the races of the world in which Arabian mullahs, Chinese scholars, Japanese bonzes, Tibetan lamas and Hindu pundits would be preaching fatalism and predestination... a confusion in which all those priests would erect temples of exotic architecture in our cities and celebrate their disparate rites therein. Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize, would offer a pretty accurate picture of the religious chaos in which the ancient world was struggling before the reign of Constantine." [1]

Franz Cumont, 1906

"Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize...." As I sit in front of my computer at the turn of the millennium, aware that in any large American or European city I can expect to find a Tibetan Buddhist temple, a Sufi retreat center, a Zen meditation hall, the office of a Chinese acupuncturist, a communal home of Hari Krishna devotees, and a store selling the visionary art of tribal shamans, it is surprising to realize that as recently as 1906 the great Belgian classicist Franz Cumont could only "dream" of such a future. More significant, though, is the fact that most of Cumont's contemporaries would not have been able even to dream of such a future. For Cumont was able to imagine the possibility of the global culture of our own time only because he was knowledgeable about a previous epoch when a remarkably similar situation existed.

The epoch to which I refer is that which is usually called the "Hellenistic" age: the time period that began with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century B.C.E. While the Hellenistic age as a strictly chronological division is often understood as coming to an end with the emergence of the Roman empire toward the end of the first century B.C.E., historians also recognize that the culture of the Roman empire was in many ways merely a continuation of Hellenistic cultural patterns. Thus the expression "Hellenistic Culture" is often used to name the large cultural system encompassing the Mediterranean and Near East from the time of Alexander the Great until the Roman empire's conversion to Christianity: as it is often put, "from Alexander to Constantine."

The defining quality of Hellenistic culture was the unification and intermingling of previously separate and autonomous political and cultural entities-- city-states, nations, tribes-- in a single new imperial system. This unification was the result of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the outcome of which was that what had formerly been a vast collection of diverse societies in the Mediterranean and Near East were absorbed into a single Greek (and subsequently Roman) imperial order.

Living now in our own time of cultural unification and intermingling-- this time on a planetary scale-- it is extremely valuable to possess in Hellenistic culture a case study of a previous period in which a similar process took place; for in the Hellenistic age we are able to discern a variety of effects of cultural unification which seem to be emerging once again in our own world. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say "re-emerging," since of course the history of Hellenistic culture is not simply an isolated case study in cultural dynamics, but simultaneously an investigation of the very roots of our own modern society and world-view. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the fact that the most enduring product of the Hellenistic age was the new religion of Christianity, a system of belief, symbol, and ritual that still today occupies a central role in our cultural life and psychological circumstances.

One of the most powerful effects of the Hellenistic cultural unification was the fundamental shift that it produced in people's sense of personal identity. Up until the Hellenistic period, the structure of one's identity was centered in the group-- tribe, polis, nation-- of which one was a member. This does not mean, of course, that people were entirely unaware of their own individuality, but it is the case that the sense of belonging to a group was decisively more in the foreground of consciousness than it is today.

One of the clearest examples of the pre-Hellenistic sense of group-identity can be found among the ancient Israelites. At the center of Israelite mythology was the story of the patriarch Jacob and his twelve sons. According to this myth, each of Jacob's sons was the original ancestor of one of the twelve tribes that made up the nation of Israel, and thus every Israelite was ultimately descended from a single person, Jacob. In fact, the book of Genesis contains a story in which Jacob receives a second name: after battling all night with an angel Jacob is victorious, and in recognition of this is given the new name Israel ("he contended with God"). The nation of Israel itself, therefore, is named after its father Jacob/Israel-- the ancestor of all Israelites-- and the Hebrew Bible subsequently is permeated with instances in which Jacob comes to be a symbolic figure representing the entire nation.

The process in which Jacob is symbolically transformed into the nation of Israel is described in Genesis 46, where we find the following passage:

God spoke to Israel [Jacob] in a vision at night. "Jacob, Jacob," he said. "I am here," he replied. "I am God, the god of your father," he continued. "Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there." [2]

Here we see the core image of a metamorphosis in which Jacob becomes transformed, in the alchemical crucible of Egypt, into the nation of Israel.

This belief that the nation of Israel was in some mysterious sense a single person pervaded the life of the Israelites. One central manifestation of this was in the relationship between the Israelites and their god Yahweh. This relationship was always understood as existing fundamentally between Yahweh and the nation as a whole, rather than between Yahweh and individual Israelites. The great covenants that Yahweh decreed took the form of requirements that the entire nation had to obey, in return for which Yahweh would guarantee that the nation as a whole would flourish. Thus, for example, it was forbidden for individuals to erect sacrifical altars for Yahweh-- rather, Yahweh commanded that sacrifices could only be made in one central place (the temple in Jerusalem) under the control of the priesthood representing the nation as a whole. Thus each Israelite understood that his or her connection with Yahweh was not an individual one, but that this connection existed only through the intermediation of the collective.

The same pattern held true throughout the ancient world. In Greece, for example, the center of one's identity was lodged in the polis of which one was a citizen. As in Israel, the patron gods of a polis were linked with the polis as a whole rather than with individuals. Sacrifices, festivals, and other forms of connection with these gods were almost always communal rather than individual affairs. As the great historian of Greek religion Martin Nilsson says,

Greek religion was indissolubly connected with the community and its component parts, State, clan, and family.... We may speak of a collective piety.... The individual counted simply as a link in the chain of the clan, as one citizen of a state; to be cast out from the clan and the State was, next to death, the heaviest punishment which could be inflicted on anyone.... The gods who protected the clan and the state protected also their members and showed kindness to them. Everyone was responsible for paying them reverence and must fulfill their demands, for an offense against them was avenged not only on the criminal but on his clan and state.... The individual might find satisfaction and be filled with piety toward the gods, so long as he recognized that he was a link in the chain of the clan and a citizen of his State. He found his satisfaction in the collective piety, within the circle of clansmen and of fellow citizens of the community, and knew that his peace was securely made with the gods. [3]

A crucial effect of this sense of corporate identity was in the realm of people's orientation towards death. When the center of identity lay in the group rather than in the individual, there was less motivation for attention to be focused on the question of life after death. As long as identity was lodged in the collective, the fact that the collective would continue after one's personal death was experienced unconsciously as reducing the stress that the knowledge of human mortality might otherwise produce. As Nilsson says, early antiquity was a time

... when conscious individualism was unknown and when the individual was only a link in the chain of the generations. Such an age had no need of a belief in the immortality of the individual, but it believed in the eternity of life in the sense that life flows through the generations which spring from each other. [4]

Thus, for example, there is almost no concern expressed in the Hebrew Bible for the question of what happens after death. Certainly death was feared and struggled against, but speculations about how personal immortality might be achieved are almost completely absent. We do find in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh what might seem at first to be an exception to this rule, for in the story king Gilgamesh does indeed engage in a quest for personal immortality. However, by the time the tale ends it has become a cautionary lesson whose message is precisely that immortality is impossible to attain, and the most one can hope for is to live on in the memory of the collective.

As a consequence of this lack of concern for personal immortality resulting from a sense of corporate identity, among the Israelites, Greeks, and Mesopotamians what happens after death was only rarely described, and when it was it was almost always pictured as a descent to a dark and lifeless underworld, the inhabitants of which, as M.L. West says in his recent comparative study of Greek and Near Eastern mythology,

... are feeble phantoms, sometimes referred to by the phrase "the strengthless heads of the dead." They have lost the power of human speech... Instead they go about twittering like disturbed bats in a cave; in the mass, their noise is like the screaming of birds.... The house of the dead was not a desirable residence. It was notably dark and sunless. It is a commonplace of Greek poetry that those who die must leave the light of the sun.... The usual Babylonian conception is similar.... Job too has been quoted in part: "before I go, not to return, to the land of dark and blackness, the land of caliginous gloom and chaos, that shines (only) gloomily...." The underworld was also a place of accumulated filth and decay, like the tomb. Homer applies to the house of Hades the formulaic epithet euroeis, an adjective denoting the presence of physical corruptions such as mould or rust.... The house of Ereshkigal [the Mesopotamian goddess of the underworld], as described in a formulaic passage that recurs in several poems, is a place "where dust is their food, their bread clay... Over the door and the bolt is a layer of dust...." In the Old Testament we meet phrases such as "those who have gone down to the dust," "dwellers in the dust," "those who sleep in the dusty earth." [5]

Such imagery is, of course, not a picture of immortality, but exactly the opposite: a terrifying symbolic respresentation of the very absence of life. As such, the effect of this imagery was unconsciously to discourage any attempt to ponder the question of what happens to the individual after death, and thus to redirect people's orientation to death back into the matrix of collective identity.

The prevalence of the kind of corporate identity that I have been describing here depended, of course, on the strength and cohesion of the local group of which one was a member. But it was precisely the strength and cohesion of local societies that were challenged by the coming of the Hellenistic imperial order after Alexander's conquests. As smaller societies became absorbed in the larger Hellenistic empire they lost a significant degree of autonomy, and consequently were unable to provide a sense of collective identity for their members. A universal Hellenistic culture rapidly began to emerge as cities modelled on the Greek polis were established throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, and these cities quickly became centers for the dissemination of Greek language, customs, and ways of thinking. The result of this cultural imperialism was that local societies increasingly lost their sense of self-determination. In this weakened state the local cultures could no longer maintain their powerful hold on the psychologies of their inhabitants, and the pattern of group identity that had previously held sway began to dissolve, leaving individuals suddenly thrown back on themselves. As W.W. Tarn says in his classic work Hellenistic Civilization, "With Alexander begins man as an individual." [6]

This trend toward the dissolution of the bond between the group and the individual was also strongly intensified by the dramatic improvements in communication and transportation that accompanied the emergence of the new imperial order. A decisive leap occurred in the ability of individuals to leave the localities where they were born and move elsewhere in the empire, or at least to become aware (both consciously and unconsciously) of the possibility of doing so. Thus people became increasingly "detachable" from their local societies, and their sense of identity began to shift from being centered in the collective to being centered in their own individuality.

Along with this growing sense of individual independence from the collective went a concomitant experience of a loss of contact with the traditional gods. These gods were, as we have seen, fundamentally related to the group rather than to the individual, and as local societies lost their clear boundaries in the face of the growing influence of the new imperial culture, so the local gods lost their ability to capture the allegiance of individuals increasingly freed from embeddedness in the collective. The result was a growing feeling of disconnection from the old gods, a feeling that the gods were losing their power and their ability to provide an experience of security and meaning. The gods were felt to be withdrawing, becoming more and more distant and difficult to contact.

This loss of connection with the realm of the divine set in motion a pattern of religious questing, as individuals began to search for new sources of ultimate meaning: new gods better able to supply the missing sense of contact with the foundations of life. One obvious requirement of such new forms of divinity was that they no longer be tied to a particular locality, and so we find during the Hellenistic age the emergence of new trans-imperial symbolic systems that could be transported and established anywhere in the empire. One of the most successful of such systems was that of "astral religion," in which the divine forces came to be seen as residing in the realm of the stars. Since the heavens look the same wherever one travels, the stars provided ideal raw material for a portable religious sensibility no longer grounded in a local community. Another common response to the weakening of the old local gods was the phenomenon of "syncretism," which refers to the process of creating composite divinities out of many local gods; where syncretism took place, each local god came to be seen as merely one manifestation of a much larger divine force whose true dominion embraced the entire empire. Such, for example, was the nature of the great Hellenistic goddess Isis who, originally from Egypt, came to be worshipped throughout the empire, and was explicitly understood as unifying all of the local goddesses of the smaller societies that had become absorbed in the larger imperial structure.

Of course, the loss of the old group identity also had a profound impact on people's relationship to the problem of death. As we have seen, before the Hellenistic age anxiety about death was dealt with through identification with the community which would live on after one's death. However, when this sense of corporate identity succumbed to the new individualism of the Hellenistic era, the problem of death moved quickly into the foreground of consciousness. The result was that the search for new ways of coming to terms with one's mortality became intertwined with the search for new symbolic systems that could help achieve an understanding of the divine realm but that were no longer tied to particular localities. This linking of a new religious concern for the problem of mortality with the emergence of new, non-local symbolic systems is strikingly illustrated in the spread throughout the empire of the Christian movement, in which the central image was that of an overcoming of the power of death.

In addition, the intertwined issues of individual identity, personal mortality, and the need for non-local images of the divine became connected with another factor: namely, a longing for experiences of transformation. For Hellenistic culture was a culture in the process of rapid metamorphosis, and one effect of this was the catalyzing of a desire for personal metamorphosis. A tendency emerged for individuals unconsciously to seek experiences of transformation in order to fit into a culture in transformation. It is in this context that we can understand the flourishing in Hellenistic culture of the so-called "mystery religions," which were characterized by the requirement that their members undergo a process of initiation aimed at producing a direct experience of personal transformation. Often the mystery religions invoked a symbolism involving the image of death and rebirth, an age-old representation of the process of transformation. The Christian movement as well incorporated this element into its structure in the symbolism of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the transformative initiatory ritual of baptism that was required for membership.

The form which such experiences of transformation could take varied from tradition to tradition, but the general trend of a widespread search for the new and unusual-- contact with which would create a sense that a personal transformation had indeed taken place-- is clear. As the New Testament scholar Dieter Georgi says,

If I were asked to describe the main characteristic of Hellenistic culture between Alexander and Constantine, I would answer that it was committed to experiment with transcendence, literally as well as metaphorically. It represented a multifarious exploration of the limits and possibilities of humanity. It was a laboratory of the extraordinary. [7]

Perhaps the most extreme response to the emergence of the new Hellenistic culture is to be found among the Jewish people. We saw earlier the extent to which the ancient Israelites lived with a sense of the corporate identity of the nation of Israel. The Jewish commitment to the survival of their national identity was so strong that the dissolving force of the Hellenistic empire came to be understood as constituting a cosmic enemy poisoning reality itself. The result of this was the emergence of the radical idea that the only way to overcome this enemy was through a transformation of the entire cosmos, and the concept arose that time itself was coming to an end-- the so called "apocalyptic" worldview ("apocalyse" means "revelation," and in this context it refers to the revelation that the world was ending). The old world of small, autonomous societies was indeed ending, but the Jews projected their own national anxieties onto the universe as a whole, and produced in their apocalyptic literature an astonishing array of cosmological symbolism and visionary predictions. One can also see in Jewish apocalyptic an unconscious reflection of the search for transformation that we discussed above, only here the transformation was sought not in the realm of personal experience (since the Jews clung to a collective rather than individual structure of identity) but in a universal cataclysm and metamorphosis. It was, of course, out of this Jewish apocalyptic milieu that the Christian movement was born, for both John the Baptist and his disciple Jesus seem to have presented themselves as apocalyptic prophets, and early Christian texts such as the Gospels and the letters of Paul are saturated with apocalyptic ideas and imagery.

The presence of cosmological imagery in Jewish apocalyptic brings us to another crucial component of the Hellenistic revolution. For the cosmic symbolism in Jewish apocalyptic was merely one manifestation of a decisive shift in the understanding of the nature and structure of the universe that took place in the Hellenistic age, side by side with the cultural shift that we have been discussing.

Beginning with the pre-Socratic philosophers but clarified and publicized for the first time in Plato's dialogues, a radically new vision of the organization of the cosmos began to achieve popular currency in the Hellenistic age (Plato was still alive when Alexander was born, and it is in the Hellenistic age that Plato's ideas became common knowledge). In the old cosmology, which was more or less the same throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, the earth was usually imagined as being a flat disc, with the sky forming a fixed dome above it, and the underworld lying beneath. Often a great mountain marked the center of the earth (e.g., mount Olympus or mount Zion), and was believed to be the dwelling place of the gods. This universe was small, contained, and rather comforting in its effect on the imagination.

However, in Plato's dialogues we find publicized for the first time a radically new world-picture. In this new cosmology, the earth is no longer conceived of as a flat disc, but is rather envisioned as being a globe; and the heavens are no longer a fixed dome, but rather constitute an enormous sphere with the stars attached to it, rotating around the earth (located at the sphere's center) once a day.This new cosmology was destined to become Western culture's universally accepted picture of the structure of the universe for almost 2000 years, from the time of Plato to the time of Copernicus.

The fact that this new cosmology arose simultaneously with the cultural transformation of the Hellenistic age created a synergism in which the questing spirits of the Hellenistic world-- those who, in Dieter Georgi's words, were living in a "laboratory of the extraordinary"-- could create remarkable new symbolic systems merging cosmological speculations with ideas, intuitions, and images arising from the experience of dwelling in a culture undergoing a tremendous and rapid metamorphosis.

For example, as we mentioned earlier, the old cosmology often located the home of the gods on the top of a great mountain at the center of the earth. But in the new cosmology, in which the earth was understood as a globe dwarfed in magnitude by the great sphere of the heavens, the great mountain of the gods suddenly became merely a microscopic bump on the surface of the earth-- no longer a proper habitation for the divine forces who were in control of the universe. As a result, during the Hellenistic age we find the emergence of imagery in which the gods come to seen as dwelling in the realm of the stars, no longer nearby and accessible but now reachable only through extraordinary means.

The most common manifestation of this migration of the gods into the heavens was the production of narratives, within many different religious contexts, telling of miraculous journeys to the heavens to experience contact with the divine. For example, many of the Jewish apocalyptic texts announcing the end of the world took the form of tales about ascending to the heavenly realm, where the author would receive a revelation of divine secrets about cosmic history.

But it is crucial to notice that this new understanding of where the gods had gone and how they might be contacted meshed perfectly with the developments that we discussed earlier that arose out of the social transformation of the Hellenistic world. For as we saw, the breakdown of the old, local forms of religion created a situation in which the old gods were experienced as withdrawing, their power becoming more and more indistinct and a sense of connection with them becoming more and more difficult to achieve. Here the new cosmology was perfectly situated to play a decisive role: for it provided a compelling response to the unconscious sense of loss of connection with the gods by offering an answer to the question of where the divine powers had gone and how they might once again be contacted.

Similarly, another new concept first publicized by Plato and then rapidly adopted during the Hellenistic period was the idea that the human soul (psyche in Greek) is actually immortal, and after death ascends to the heavens. Indeed, for Plato the soul and the heavens were intricately bound together, for he argues that human souls were created from the same substance as the soul of the entire cosmos itself, and that the number of human souls is equal to the number of stars. This new concept of the soul and its grounding in cosmic reality provided a remarkable basis for responding to one of the most pressing unconscious anxieties brought on by the Hellenistic social transformation: namely, how the suddenly increased individualism fostered by that transformation was going to deal with the concomitantly increased anxiety over the problem of death. Acceptance of the old picture of a dark and terrifying underworld had been possible when people's fundamental sense of identity was lodged in the eternal collective, but now that people had become separable from the collective and thrown back on their individual identity some way of imagining a positive individual afterlife became necessary. Plato's concept of the immortal soul and its inherent connection with the divine heavens of the new cosmology provided a tremendously appealing answer to the problem of death, and during the Hellenistic age it quickly became the dominant conception of what happens to the individual after death.

While discussing Plato's new concept of the immortality of the soul, we should note that for Plato the soul was immortal because it was non-material and separate from the body, and thus would not die when the body died. Indeed, Plato taught a doctrine of the reincarnation of the soul, according to which the soul after death would eventually find itself attached to a new body. Plato's concept of the soul had a profound appeal in the Hellenistic period, since it provided strong support for the movement away from collective and toward individual identity. For if the soul was immortal and separate from the body, then it had no inherent connection with the social group into which one was born-- one's body might have been born in Athens, but one's soul had lived before in other bodies and in other places, and would do so again after death.

Finally, as we saw earlier, the transformation of the world during the Hellenistic age sparked a growing desire on the part of individuals for experiences of personal transformation, and here too the implications of the social shift became bound up with the new cosmology, for the imagery of the journey to the heavens inspired by the new cosmology almost always presented the heavens as a place where a personal transformation took place. Plato himself had already expressed this idea when he told a myth in his Phaedrus about souls rising up to the ultimate boundary of the cosmos, and then described the crossing of that boundary into the realms beyond the universe using imagery directly invoking the supreme moment of initiation in the Eleusinian mysteries: a moment when the initiates experienced a profound sense of individual transformation that permanently changed their relationship with the divine powers of the universe. [9] This linking of the cosmic journey of the soul with the experience of personal transformation found its way into many of the new Hellenistic religious systems, from Jewish apocalyptic to the mystery cults of Mithras and Isis and the esoteric teachings of Gnosticism and Hermeticism.

In ways such as these the new culture and the new cosmology of the Hellenistic age intertwined with and reinforced each other, producing a sudden and simultaneous shift in both life-experience and world-view: a synthesis whose power was far greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the many-faceted socio-cosmic metamorphosis of the Hellenistic age constitutes one of the great revolutions in the history of human culture.

In the end, the most successful product of this revolution, of course, was the religion of Christianity, which in its early stages is often referred to by scholars as the "Christ cult." [10] The Christ cult was perfectly suited to offer an attractive response to the conditions of the Hellenistic age-- indeed, the evolution of its symbolism, ideology, and structure was in many ways conditioned precisely by its need to appeal to people whose consciousness had been shaped by Hellenistic culture.

For example, the Christ cult obviously offered a direct response to the question of death and personal immortality. For it provided to its members a guarantee of a positive afterlife through the claim that its savior figure had permanently conquered death, and that cult adherents could participate in this conquest by undergoing initiation into the movement through the ritual of baptism.

In addition, the Christ cult presented itself as a symbolic community-- the "New Israel"-- of which people could become citizens without needing to be tied to a particular locality. It thus served as a portable homeland, offering a symbolic substitute for the lost sense of collective identity that had died with the dissolution of the old local groups. Indeed, just as the ancient Israelites had understood themselves as part of the corporate being of "father Jacob," so the members of the Christ cult were taught that they had become part of "the body of Christ."

Further, along with giving its members citizenship in a symbolic homeland, the Christ cult offered to its adherents an almost infinitely intricate symbolic personal genealogy: upon joining this group, one immediately became an heir to the extraordinarily complex and elaborate universe of history, myth, and symbol embodied in the texts of the cult-- what we now call the Bible. Here was provided-- now on a symbolic level-- the same rich sense of embeddedness that used to be furnished by one's growing up within the traditions of a local society. In other words, the Christ cult offered a convincing sense of identity to people for whom the old structure of local group identity was no longer available.

Additionally, at the core of the Christ cult was a myth of death and rebirth, an almost universal symbolic representation of the experience of transformation, the longing for which was a central component of Hellenistic psychology. And like the Hellenistic Jewish tradition out of which it arose, the Christ cult projected this imagery of transformation onto the cosmos itself by perpetuating and elaborating the apocalyptic vision of the end of the world that had been the Jewish response to the Hellenistic revolution.

The new cosmology of the Hellenistic age also found expression in the Christ cult, for example in the story of Jesus' ascension to the heavens after his resurrection; in the belief in the "second coming," according to which Jesus would descend again from the heavens in the same way he had ascended; in the image of the descent of the spirit-dove through the opened heavens at Jesus' baptism; and in Paul's description of his own journey to the heavens in II Corinthians. [11] In all of these images, and many more that could be mentioned, the need to feel connected to the new cosmic home of the divine manifests itself in the Christ cult just as it does in other religious movements of the Hellenistic period.

Having gained a sense of the overall contours of the Hellenistic age, we may now turn our attention to the nature and significance of the parallels between that age and our own moment in history that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Such parallels have, of course, often been noted before. Tarn, for example, says in Hellenistic Civilization, "The resemblance of this world to our own is at first sight startling," [12] and in the most recent full-scale treatment of the Hellenistic age, Peter Green's From Alexander to Actium, Green says,

As my work proceeded, it acquired an unexpected and in ways alarming dimension. I could not help being struck, again and again, by an overpowering sense of déjà vu.... What this parallelism signifies I do not pretend to know, and think it wiser not to speculate; but it does suggest, forcefully, that there may indeed be something more in the Hellenistic age for concerned modern readers than mere antiquarian interest. [13]

What are these parallels? First and foremost, we are currently living through an enormous and extremely rapid process of cultural unification resembling that set in motion by Alexander's conquests, but this time on a much larger-- indeed, planetary-- scale. This planetary cultural unification has been well underway since at least the early part of the twentieth century, and can be instantly discerned in our amused reaction today to the quaint statement from Franz Cumont with which I began this discussion. However, now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this tremendous process of cultural unification is suddenly undergoing an additional quantum leap in speed and intensity as a result of the emergence of the global information system of the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the anticipation of even more potent developments in planetary networking that lie in the immediate future.

As we have seen, the most significant effect of the cultural unification that characterized the Hellenistic revolution was a decisive shift in the locus of human identity from the collective to the individual, with the subsequent emergence of new symbolic systems that offered responses of various kinds to this shift. Likewise, in our own time a change in the structure of human identity seems to be accompanying the process of planetary cultural unification (at least in the industrial cultures of the West that are at the forefront of this process).

The nature of the alteration in the structure of human identity that is now taking place is most often described as consisting in a "fragmentation" of the self. The sense of a unified center of identity within the individual that has been dominant in Western culture since the Hellenistic age is seen by many contemporary historians, philosophers, and cultural critics as currently undergoing a radical dissolution. Kenneth Gergen, for example, in his book The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, notes that the older views of a unified, individual self,

...are falling into disuse, and the social arrangements that they support are eroding. This is largely a result of the forces of social saturation. Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind-- both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self. For everything we "know to be true" about ourselves, other voices within respond with doubt and even derision. This fragmentation of self-conceptions corresponds to a multiplicity of incoherent and disconnected relationships. These relationships pull us in myriad directions, inviting us to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an "authentic self" with knowable characteristics recedes from view. The fully saturated self becomes no self at all. [14]

And in his book The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, Robert Jay Lifton says:

We are becoming fluid and many-sided. Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of the past.... I have named it the "protean self" after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms. The protean self emerges from confusion, from the widespead feeling that we are losing our psychological moorings. We feel ourselves buffeted about by unmanageable historical forces and social uncertainties.... We are beset by a contradiction: schooled in the virtues of constancy and stability-- whether as individuals, groups, or nations-- our world and our lives seem inconstant and utterly unpredictable. [15]

The fragmentation of identity described by Gergen and Lifton has also, of course, become a central axiom of "postmodern" philosophy, psychology, and cultural theory as embodied in the work of such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. One can hardly read a page of the writings of such authors without coming across a reference to a "fragmented identity" or a "decentered self."

Along with this shift in the structure of personal identity, our own time-- like the Hellenistic age-- is simultaneously experiencing the sudden emergence of a radically new cosmological vision. To take just one example, it is only since the discoveries of Edwin Hubble in the early 1920's that we have known that galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way-- in other words, about 80 years ago the universe as we know it expanded overnight by a factor of 100 billion.

As a result of this and countless other cosmological reorientations, our current vision of the nature of the universe has become that of a reality without a center or boundaries, within which our own existence is entirely without meaning or context. And now, as in the Hellenistic age, a new cosmology and the effects of a dramatic process of cultural unification are interacting with each other-- the fragmentation of identity that seems to be resulting from our contemporary cultural transformation is precisely mirrored in the decentered cosmology within which all of us now dwell, leading to a doubly reinforced sense of a loss of contact with the grounding forces of reality.

Indeed, just as the Hellenistic Jews responded to the socio-cosmic transformation of their own time with their vision of ultimate catastrophe and apocalypse, so in our own time apocalyptic ideation permeates our worldview. Whether it be nuclear war or environmental collapse, our culture has been living for a number of decades with the feeling that some sort of cataclysmic event is quickly approaching. Of course, the Jewish apocalyptic vision of the end of the world was in retrospect a fantasy, while nuclear annihilation and the collapse of the biosphere are possibilities that are all too real. However, the difference may in fact lie only in that we are living out our projection of a radical metamorphosis, while the apocalyptic Jews simply experienced their projection symbolically-- although it must be emphasized that the world of the Hellenistic Jews of Palestine did indeed end when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 C.E.

The inner structure of the new world within which we find ourselves today as a consequence of our current "neo-Hellenistic" cultural metamorphosis is now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, being clarified in a remarkable way by the emergence of a new global system of communication and interrelationship: the Internet or "cyberspace." This spectacular new development, although almost entirely unpredicted a few years ago, can in retrospect be seen as an absolutely natural outgrowth of the dramatic planetary unification characteristic of the modern world in general. It parallels in many ways the sudden appearance in the Hellenistic world, in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great, of a new trans-imperial matrix of cross-cultural intercommunication.

In addition, the emergence in our time of the phenomenon of cyberspace-- and the related technology of "virtual reality"-- parallels in some fascinating respects the new impulses introduced by Plato that immediately became part of the Hellenistic worldview. For example, I mentioned earlier that in Plato's new concept of the soul, the soul was understood as being non-material and separable from the physical body, and I pointed out the extent to which this concept of the division of the soul from the body supported the new emphasis on individual identity characteristic of the Hellenistic age.

Like Plato's vision of the separable soul as an entity more connected with the heavens than with the earth, the phenomena of cyberspace and virtual reality provide an extraordinary experience of the state of being a disembodied entity in a non-material realm. When we navigate through the "information-space" of the Internet ("surf the Web"), we leave our bodies behind while our consciousness seems to explore an entirely separate universe. As Jennifer Cobb says in CyberGrace:

The center of gravity of the Information Age is not matter, but information and knowledge. According to A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, coauthored by Esther Dyston, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler, the "central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter".... We are entering a time when the truths of modernism-- that the world is made up of discrete, material objects that can be physically mapped, described, and, in theory, conrolled-- are being replaced by a new set of understandings based on the primacy of nonmaterial events, or packets of information, that are dynamically linked in a vast, invisible terrain known as cyberspace....

A vast, pulsing, electronic world, cyberspace encircles the globe. When we enter it, we go into a place that feels removed from the physical world. It is a space composed of information, images, and symbols. In many ways, this world of pure images is the crowing achievement of a Western trajectory of thought that began with Plato in his apocryphal cave. Plato argued that we are trapped in the cave of matter and can see the real world of intellectual ideas only as the shadows these ideas cast upon the walls of the cave. Plato's call was for us to emerge from the cave and live fully within the world of ideal forms, the life of the mind. Cyberspace can be interpreted as the Platonic realm incarnate. [16]

Obviously the experience of cyberspace has the effect of loosening our ties to our ordinary identities as defined by our bodily presence in the world, and thus dramatically reinforces the fragmented identity characteristic of modern life experience.

It is not difficult to see a similarity between Alexander's unifying conquests of the ancient world and the appearance in the modern world of cyberspace as a force leading to a radical increase in cultural interconnection (and related shifts in patterns of personal identity). However, to conclude this essay, I would like to suggest that in some ways the emergence of cyberspace can be seen not only as a phenomenon parallel to the process of Hellenistic cultural unification, but also as parallel to the responses to cultural integration that emerged in the Hellenistic world. In particular, I would like to propose that the birth of cyberspace in our time bears an intriguing resemblance to the emergence of the Christ cult in the Hellenistic age.

As we saw earlier, the Christ cult provided a symbolic "homeland" to people who were no longer able to experience in reality the ancient sense of being identified with a local traditional community. I believe it is no exaggeration to see in the Christ cult's "New Israel" a kind of virtual reality, in which a non-material symbolic structure was able to provide a replacement-- and a convincing one, judging by its success-- for what had previously been an actual physical reality.

I mentioned earlier a number of reasons for the appeal of the Christ cult in the Hellenistic world. However, I would suggest that an additional crucial factor in the success of the Christ cult's "virtual reality" was the extraordinary richness and density of its content: namely, the enormous body of myth, history, and symbol contained in the texts of the Bible. Among ancient Western works of mythic imagination, for sheer size and intricacy the Bible was rivalled only by the epics of Homer. However, whereas the tales of Homer concerned the lives of a single generation of heroes, the Bible presented an unparalleled dramatic panorama of the mythic history of an entire civilization. In addition, while Homer had been widely known for centuries, the Bible had been the obscure possession of an ignored people until the members of the Christ cult suddenly and with tremendous energy brought it to public attention . Through the activity of the Christ cult, in the form of the Bible a hitherto unknown imaginal universe of spectacular dimensions burst unexpectedly into the consciousness of the Hellenistic world.

Beyond its sheer magnitude and richness of detail, however, the Bible as presented by the Christ cult possessed one other remarkable characteristic. For in adding their own "New Testament" to the older, massive Hebrew Bible, the members of the Christ cult produced a new, composite document that can only be described as an almost infinitely complex hypertext (i.e., a web-like structure of elements in which each one is linked to numerous others in a non-linear fashion-- something like the "World Wide Web"). I am referring here to the fact that at the core of the ideology of the New Testament (and of all subsequent early Christian literature) was the idea that everything in the Bible was connected to everything else through the phenomena of prophecy and "typology."

To begin with, the events in the life of Jesus, according to early Christian writers, all took place as "fulfilments of prophecy"-- i.e., they could only be understood by tracing the threads of meaning that connected them back to events described in the much older Hebrew Bible. Further, though, a similar but even more far-reaching "hypertext" effect was achieved by the early Christian practice that scholars call "typology." Here the threads of meaning that were seen as linking things together went far beyond the imagined fulfilment of explicit prophetic promises, for typology refers to the early Christian authors' practice of making connections of meaning between phenomena on the basis of almost any sort of resemblance or relationship: for example, Jesus ("King of the Jews") is born in Bethlehem because that is where king David was born, the watery baptism of Jesus is symbolically connected to the watery flood story of Noah through the symbol of the dove, and Jesus' shining "transfiguration" on the top of a hill is connected to the fiery appearance of Yahweh on Mount Sinai by the presence of a vision of Moses. Examples like these could be multiplied endlessly, both within the New Testament itself and even more ubiquitously in the work of the early Christian interpreters of the Bible.

What, then, was the Bible as presented by the Christ cult if not an infinitely dense, complex, hyperlinked virtual reality? And what has been the subsequent history of Christianity if not the story of how the whole of Western civilization, longing for a lost experience of identity and meaningfulness, fell helplessly headlong into that hyperlinked virtual reality and lived within its sparkling matrix for 2000 years?

In his last, great work, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Carl Jung described the way in which periodic experiences of disintegration and reintegration characterize human life, both on the individual and collective levels. When, as a result of changing circumstances, a guiding structure of life-- a "conscious dominant"-- loses its ability to provide a meaningful order, then a process of dissolution ensues, an alchemical melting down of previous forms into a formless state, out of which a new conscious dominant then crystallizes into formation. [17] When the new conscious dominant first emerges, says Jung, it attracts to itself all of the factors of the human psyche through an irresistable power of fascination and numinosity. The Hellenistic age, as we have seen here, was precisely such a time of breakdown and reconfiguration. The old conscious dominant-- the structure of traditional, local corporate identity-- was no longer capable of ordering life in a meaningful way, and a process of dissolution unfolded that led, after an extraordinary period of competing alternatives, to the emergence of the new conscious dominant embodied in the uniquely fertile matrix of the Christian mythos, which magnetically attracted into itself, with all of the fascination of the truly numinous, the collective psyche of the West.

Now again, in our own time, the alchemical process is once again unfolding. The conscious dominant has lost its ability to guide us-- as Yeats put it, "the center cannot hold"-- and the great dissolution is well underway. Is the sudden, mysterious, numinous attraction of cyberspace an indication that therein lies the embryonic form of the new conscious dominant? Or are we seeing here merely the first of many competing reality-structures that will arise to contend for the new allegiance of the human soul? Indeed, will we even survive at all, or will we succumb to an all too literal living out of our own apocalyptic visions? Only time will tell, of course. But my hope is that in recognizing that we are not alone in our bewilderment-- in recognizing that a similar situation was faced by others like us two thousand years ago-- we may gain access to a valuable source of wisdom and courage as we move forward into an uncertain future.




[1] Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (New York: Dover Publications, 1956) pp. 196-7.

[2] The Jerusalem Bible, Readers Edition (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1968) p. 52

[3] Martin Nilsson, Greek Piety (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1969) pp. 7-8.

[4] Martin Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972) p. 60.

[5] M.L. West, The East Face of Helicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) pp. 159-62. It is interesting to note that the Egyptian conception of death differed greatly from that of Greece, Israel, and Mesopotamia. However, the Egyptian conception had almost no influence on other cultures. This is because the Egyptian emphasis on the preservation of the physical body and hence on immortality was the result of the unique geographical circumstances of Egypt: in the earliest phases of Egyptian history, the bodies of the dead were buried directly in the desert sands and as a result were naturally dried-out and preserved, often with skin and hair intact. The sense of preservation after death that this phenomenon engendered was carried on into later Egyptian culture and artificially reproduced, manifesting in the practice of mummification and the beliefs connected with it. But because other cultures did not share Egypt's peculiar geographical circumstances, its burial practices and beliefs about death were not adopted elsewhere. See Stephen Quirke, Ancient Egyptian Religion (London: British Museum Press, 1992) p. 143; A. J. Spencer, Death in Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin Books, 1982) pp. 29-30.

[6] W.W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilization (New York: New American Library, 1974) p. 79.

[7] Dieter Georgi, The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) p. 390.

[8] Plato, Timaeus 41d-e.

[9] For Plato's use of Eleusinian imagery in the Phaedrus, see Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987) pp. 92-93.

[10] For the use of the term "Christ cult," see Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) pp. 100ff. Cf. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951) pp. 123ff.; Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970) pp. 138ff.

[11] II Cor. 12:1-5.

[12] W.W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilization, 2nd ed., (New York: New American Library, 1951), p. 3. I have not been able to consult the first edition of Tarn's work, which was published in 1927. If this statement appears in the first edition, then it would appear that during the 21 years that had elapsed since the very different statement by Franz Cumont in 1906 with which I began this essay-- years that, of course, include World War I-- a crucial shift had taken place in historians' understanding of the significance of the Hellenistic age in the evolution of Western culture.

[13] Peter Green, From Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) p. xxi.

[14] Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991) pp. 6-7.

[15] Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (New York: Basic Books, 1993) p. 1.

[16] Jennifer Cobb, CyberGrace (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1998) pp. 30-31.

[17] Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970) pp. 355ff.


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