Religion, voluntary poverty, and cultural survival in an age of collapse

Or actually, what I present here are quotes of the day, plural. Both are from John Michael Greer, he of the liquid prose and fearsome erudition, and one of the most important writers about the civilizational trajectory we’re pursuing right now.

[Toynbee’s insight] that religion very often serves as the conduit by which the cultural treasures of one civilization reach the waiting hands of the next. . . is true much more often than not. It’s easy enough to see why this should be so. In a time of social disintegration, when institutions collapse and long-accepted values lose their meaning, only the most powerful human motives can ensure that the economically unproductive activities needed to maintain cultural heritage will be carried out in the teeth of the difficulties. Religion is the only cultural force that consistently provides motivation strong enough for the job; the same sense of transcendent value that leads martyrs to sing hymns as they are burnt alive can just as easily inspire scholars and scribes to preserve and transmit knowledge to a future they will never see.

— “Religion and the Survival of Culture” (2008)

The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages were not staffed by people trying to preserve some semblance of a middle-class Roman lifestyle while the world fell apart around them. Quite the opposite — the monks and nuns who copied old texts, taught at abbey schools, and kept the lamps of Western civilization burning, voluntarily embraced a lifestyle even more impoverished and restricted than that of the peasants among whom they lived. The same point is equally true of the Buddhist and Taoist monastics who accomplished the same vital task in other places and times. Arguably, it’s precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty that frees up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.

The Long Descent (2008)

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on June 17, 2009, in Economy, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “Arguably, it’s precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty that frees up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.”

    Which is why public school teachers will be the next saviors of civilization. ::spoken with wry irony:::

  2. Cindy — Sorry for taking so long to reply! Especially since I appreciate your wry irony here — even though the irony may be a kind of reversal on a reversal, in order to hide the fact that you’re deadly serious. Yes? 😉

  3. Benjamin Steele

    Have you read about the idea of the Axial Age? It’s supposedly the time when a world-wide shift happened in all cultures leading to all of the religions we now have. One thing that arose at that time was an ascetic class of people who lived in monasteries gathering knowledge and travelling around to spread that knowledge. The first ascetic philosophizers in the West were the Stoics, Essenes, and Gnostics. Some of the first monasteries were started by Gnostics which is probably where the Christians got them from.

    Of course, religion and science were directly connected in the minds of people back then… and they still are for many people even now. The study of science was the study of the divine. I know that some Gnostics and Greeks used science as a way of giving context to metaphysical speculations. The biblical scholar April Deconick has a good blog post about how the early Gnostics used scientific knowledge in their scriptures.

    http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2008/07/accommodation-to-society-in-gnosticism.html

  4. This is only nominally connected with that train of thought, but I have often noticed that, in many ways, the more possessions a person has, the more that person is possessed. If you have a car, you have to keep it in working order; if you own a house, you have to make sure that it stays livable; if you own a business, you must make sure that you have paid your employees properly and try to keep the business above water. It’s like a possession always comes with invisible strings that attach you to it and restrict you.

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