As most of you know, I’m working on a book about the place of ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in post-religious / secular / rationalist society.

My broad thesis is that (1) western culture pathologised and marginalized ecstatic experiences from around the 17th century on but (2) humans kept on seeking ecstatic experiences through new and non-orthodox routes – new religious movements like Methodism and Pentecostalism; Romantic poetry and music; and then, from the 1960s on, sex, psychedelic drugs, rock and roll, and Eastern and new age spirituality.

Today I want to talk briefly about perhaps the most unlikely form of ecstasy in our post-religious society – ecstasy through business.

I know, weird right? What could be less likely!

The sociologist Max Weber said that business was part of the iron cage of rationalist bureaucracy in which we’re imprisoned. Europe is disenchanted, the spirit has evaporated, and we’re stuck in our little cubicles of Protestant work ethics, trying to earn the approval of a God we no longer believe in.

I think of the financial publishing company where I began my career, and I can’t think of anywhere less ecstatic – it felt emotionally inhibited, paranoid, meaningless, atomized and amoral. This is one of the reasons I love Fight Club and its ecstatic hatred of the emotional flatness and moral emptiness of corporate – consumer culture. Burn it all down!

And yet….

At some point in the 20th century, for some people, business itself became a means to ecstatic experience.

I think it began in the US, where the line between revivalist preacher and business motivational speaker became blurred. So you find someone like Dale Carnegie preaching in YMCAs about how to be the best salesman, with a strange mixture of Protestant work-ethic and Protestant ecstasy. You get someone like Zig Ziglar, one of the most successful business coaches of the last 50 yars, whose seminars were a mixture of self-help advice and southern Baptist ecstasy – listen to the trembling cadre of his voice, and how it reminds one of the greatest Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King.

Things got weirder in the 1970s, as baby-boomers like Steve Jobs joined the work-force, and brought with them their appetite for mind-altering drugs and altered states of consciousness, for eastern and new age spirituality, for authenticity and expressive individuality.

The baby-boomer ethos blossomed in the Human Potential Movement, inspired by figures like Abraham Maslow and Aldous Huxley, who believed ecstatic experiences needed to be re-integrated into western culture. That idea got mass produced through Large Group Awareness Training programmes like erhard seminars training (est) and Landmark Education. Organizations like est would run ‘mass marathon’ coaching sessions over a weekend, where 100 people would be encouraged to share, open up, break down, and allow themselves to be remade. Watch this clip from Adam Curtis’ century of the Self, 30 minutes in, with some amazing footage from an est seminar.

These sessions were secular versions of 18th or 19th century revival meetings, where people would experience highly emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. But where in the past converts would surrender to Jesus, at est or Landmark today they surrender to the Leader and to the group, and accept the Landmark dogma that they can do and be anything they want.

0ea590148e19feb31e7d0c10024d93d8The cannier coaches – like Anthony Robbins – soon realized that their customers were seeking a sort of religious substitute, and they thought about how to bring in music, dancing, and rites of passage to symbolize the death of the old self and the birth of the new liberated and authentic Power-Self. Robbins’ seminars, for example, became famous for incorporating fire-walking, which originated as a religious ritual in the Meditarranean. Testimonials are also a powerful ritual for people to share their storis with the group and affirm their incredible breakthroughs – both in church, and in the business coaching seminar.

Then, in the 90s, with the rise of Silicon Valley, things got really weird. Start-up culture embraced the baby-boomer ethos of authenticity and expressive individualism (and a willingness to do ayahuasca every now and then to improve executive insight), and combined it with a techno-evangelical faith that we can change the world. Our app / social network / software design is going to liberate humanity and perhaps help us transcend to the next level of consciousness. Woo hoo!

The long hours, intense corporate loyalty and cult of the leader at tech firms like Microsoft or Google led to weird scenes like the famous clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going ape at a Microsoft employee conference: ‘Give it up for meeeeeee!’ Check out that corporate ego unleashed.

Even the CEO of a shoe company, Zappos, started to get something of a Messiah complex – Tony Hsieh wrote his own comic book to tell the story of his journey and how he helped all his employees find meaning, happiness and transcendence working for his online shoe company. Yeah! You’re amazing Tony! You’re some kind of SUPERMAN!

No he didn’t. He was hired to be CEO at someone else’s company.

Today it’s very common to use the language of spiritual ecstasy when talking about your career – people speak of ‘vocation’, ‘mission’, ‘revolution’, ‘business heretics’, ‘free spirits’, ‘passion projects’, ‘epiphanies’, ‘breakthroughs’ and so on.

Maybe this seems weird to you. I find it a bit weird too. But here’s the thing: people want it. People crave it. People yearn for authenticity, emotional expressiveness, deep sharing and bonding, meaning, and – yes – ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. And most people these days aren’t religious, so some end up getting these things through business and personal development courses both within their companies and outside of them.

And people might be surprised by themselves – they may go in to these sorts of sessions with all their Enlightenment skepticism and emotional inhbition intact, and suddenly find themselves letting go and letting it all hang out…

Some people find real breakthroughs via business coaching or personal development courses. But there are risks too.

Any ecstatic experience can be dangerous, because it involves a move beyond one’s usual ego-constructions to a new form of being. This can involve some form of temporary regression to a childhood state, and it can involve trauma coming up from one’s past – abuse, rape, or just parents who didn’t love us enough. If people already have unstable egos, a challenge to one’s ego might lead to temporary psychosis, like a bad trip. At the least, it involves people suspending their critical faculties and their emotional reserve and moving into a hypnotic state where they’re highly suggestible (and exploitable).

Corporate culture or business-coaching culture is not always a safe vessel for this type of intense experience. Within businesses, it can lead to a cultish absorption in The Company and devotion to the Leader. People within the Company lose critical distance, lose the ability to say ‘this isn’t right’. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street, for example – the charismatic leader inspired his employees, but also led them (and their customers) off an ethical cliff.

Within business coaching seminars, the organization – Landmark or whoever – might not have the training or the willingness to cope with the emotional trauma that might come up in participants. I wrote about this in Philosophy for Life, telling the story of a friend, Adam, who had a psychotic episode during a Landmark course, and didn’t feel he was given any sort of proper care.

People can also get caught up in the emotional contagion of the group dynamic. Within a church context, that might mean they suddenly find themselves converting to Christianity. Wthin a business-coaching context, it might mean they suddenly find themselves quitting their job. Both might not be fully conscious decisions (Christians might say ‘so what, any route to Jesus is good’).

I think the biggest risk is that, in the words of the Vatican, places like Landmark ‘marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed’. I would like to believe that God doesn’t need me to be a material success, and the proof of His love for me is not in my earnings. I would like to believe He lets me be broken and lost, while business ecstasy sometimes requires me to be superpowered and superoptimistic. I’d like to believe I can part of His family for free – I don’t need to pay for membership like I would at Landmark.

And can you imagine having an ecstatic experience – a movement beyond your ego – and all you end up reaching is Microsoft? That’s not transcending very far.

Then again, organized religion is not always the safest vessel for ecstatic experience either, and it can be just as corporate and money-grubbing. Think of the massive global popularity of Pentecostalism, with its Gospel of Prosperity and its tele-evangelists with their pay-per-prayer business model. Organized religion can be just as exploitative, just as damaging, just as unregulated, just as willing to promise Incredible Benefits to the faithful. And God doesn’t always seem to be there, while career achievement is more…er….tangible.


John Carter - Oxford University v Cambridge UniversityJohn-Henry Carter is the most successful captain of Oxford rugby team ever, the only captain to lead the team to three successive victories in the Varsity match. The former flanker attributes that success not to his speed or his 6ft 3 frame, but to his training in psychodynamic therapy and existentialist philosophy.

After graduating, John played professional rugby at Sale Sharks in 2004, but his brief career was plagued with injury and he had to retire in 2007, after five operations. He was physically battered, but also morally disillusioned by ‘the primitive belief that meaning and consequence transpired through a scoreline’. He hadn’t found what he was looking for in professional sports.

He went to Oxford University to do a MSt in psychodynamic psychotherapy. While there, he got drawn back into rugby, and was invited to become manager of the team in 2011, at the age of 30. He became captain as well. At that point, although Oxford were winning games, the culture was “full of a misconceived idea of masculinity – sexism, homophobia.” He took on the challenge of leading the team because he thought he could change the culture and find that enigmatic thing he’d been looking for – spirit, being, soul.

At the same time, he worked on his PhD, about the mental struggles faced by professional rugby players when they retire. Based on in-depth interviews with six players, five of them internationals, it’s a fascinating insight into male identity and how it can find and lose itself in sports.

John uses the story of Peter Pan as an organizing myth for some of his insights in the PhD. He talks about how players live in ‘Neverland’ – a sort of dream-world of fantasy. The players he interviewed spoke of ‘living the dream’, ‘having to pinch myself’, ‘feeling high’, ‘like I’m on drugs’ when they’re playing at big matches. It sounds like ecstasy – or a sort of trance state. And in this dream-land, they will never lose, never get hurt, never got old.

They’re not just living out their own childhood dreams – they’re acting out the dreams of all the millions of spectators watching them too. The media like to say ‘the fans were in dreamland’. Well, that’s exactly right – fans use sport to enter trance-states, to regress to the fairy tale fantasies of childhood as they watch the game. The media feeds this fantasy, with language like ‘fairy tale’, ‘magic’, legend’, ‘talisman’, with every over-the-top slow-motion Wagnerian montage, and every ridiculously puffed-up publicity poster.




Bring on the World

The spectators like to fetishize their sports’ heroes inner lives. ‘How are you feeling? This must be the best moment of your life, is it?’ The same thing happens when an actor wins an Oscar, and they go into dreamland – that ultimate valorisation of their external self. And the truth is, they might not know how they’re feeling. Winning – for all that we fetishize it as the ultimate goal in life – is more emotionally complex than we realize. Many Olympic gold-medallists, for example, speak of their ‘depression, mourning, emptiness’ after they win.

As in Hollywood, the immersion in dreamland leads to a sort of ego-splitting – on the one hand you have the external self, the persona, a fantasy-self of power, heroism and invincibility. But behind that, hidden from everyone else, is the shadow self, which is weak, afraid, hurt and confused. But that self can’t be shown, can’t even be admitted to oneself, amid a culture (John writes) ‘defined by positive thinking and positive action through omnipotent dreamlike beliefs and tag-lines such as ‘Just Do It’’.

One reason many men love team sports is for the male bonding it allows – it enables them to be with each other and express love and physical intimacy, whether you’re a player or a fan. But men are often terrible at expressing that, and at being vulnerable and authentic with each other. So the vulnerability gets hidden behind a mask of machismo, sexism, homophobia, binge-drinking, ‘banter’ and the autistic exchange of sport stats and punditry. And beneath it all is a terror of losing intimacy and being on one’s own.

How did John do it differently at Oxford? Firstly, he redefined what it meant to win. Victory was not primarily about the scoreline, he insisted. It was ‘a commitment to the potential experience of being’. He says: ‘This commitment to ‘being’ felt like a spiritual alchemy – We embarked upon a voyage to simultaneously create and discover our ‘spirit’.’ The team embraced honesty, authenticity, trust, relatedness, creativity and play – the conditions to allow this ‘spirit’ to emerge.

In practical terms, this meant being ‘player-led’ rather than led by top-down diktat. It also meant John spent a lot of time talking to the players one-on-one, and in group conversations, in which all 30 of the team would take part and learn to be open, trusting and vulnerable with each other. ‘The consequence of it was much greater than I could have ever imagined. It was a really ethereal sense of being. I got to taste that sense of being.’

Again, this may sound unlikely, but it’s exactly what I do with Saracens, where it’s incredibly refreshing to hear players express their fear of failure, or death, and to be able also to express their feelings of joy, hope and love. It’s a mature model of male identity, of male strength and courage. John says: ‘It takes more courage than anything I’ve experienced to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to see and to let other people see your vulnerability. That’s ultimate courage.’

The Saracens philosophy club (I'm the slightly smaller one in the middle)

The Saracens philosophy club (I’m the slightly smaller one in the middle)

I imagine some of you might be groaning and thinking this is the ultimate triumph of the therapised, feminised male – but John’s leadership made the team stronger, not weaker. If you think it made them weak, watch the highlights of their routs of Cambridge.

John’s now retired from rugby, for the second time. It is not easy to retire from rugby, because you’re losing your surrogate family. He describes retired players as ‘lost boys’. Of the six players he interviewed for his PhD, all of them said they felt depressed after retiring, and a third of them felt suicidal. Team sports allow men to recreate the small tribe in which humans have existed for most of their existence. And then, at retirement, suddenly you are in the lonely atomised world of modern neoliberalism.

But, after a period of grief and mourning, John’s enjoying his new life as a psychodynamic therapist, working both with sports teams, and with schools and individuals. What I personally admire in his work is his ability to describe and live a better sort of male identity than we sometimes fall for – more complex, more open to love and to suffering. Imagine if sportsmen went from being poster-boys for infantile fantasies of invincibility, to becoming ambassadors for the messy and sometimes wonderful experience of being human.

If you enjoyed this, read this piece on my first visit to Saracens, and this Telegraph article about my work with them. And here is a great journal article John wrote about his work.


In other news:

Here is the brief radio 4 thing I did on Aristotle and the politics of flourishing. And here is something I wrote on Neo-Aristotelianism in politics for the New Statesman, complete with an embedded animation about Aristotle made by the BBC and narrated by Stephen Fry!

It’s election season in the UK, and many politicians are making the right noises about mental health. But where’s the action, asks psychiatrist Simon Wessely.

Eurostat publishes new figures on European happiness – the Scandinavians are still the happiest!

Is studying philosophy a good protection against religious extremism? Interesting case-study of two brothers from Tunisia in the New York Times.

Wired magazine reports on Panoply, a new social network to improve mental health.

And here’s an article on a new headband you can buy for $300, that monitors your brain waves during meditation.

Julian Baggini has a new book out on free will, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.

Something called ‘the Society for Atheistic Spirituality‘ has a $500 million donation to build a cenotaph for Newton. Hang on – was he an atheist?? Oh well.

Here’s a talk by my friend the psychologist Oliver Robinson, on why science and spirituality are friends, not enemies.

Finally, it’s Easter, a festival devoted to the idea that death is not the end for humans – an idea I happen to believe. Here’s a long and good article on the science of near-death experiences from the Atlantic magazine. Why, it asks, if NDEs are ‘just’ chemical, do they so often follow ancient mythical narrative structures of darkness and rebirth?

See you next week,



Extase_Iconographie-e1369328952903One of the things I want to argue in my next book is that ecstatic experiences have been pathologised in the secular west, to our detriment. People still experience ecstasy – by which I mean moments where we go beyond the self and feel connected to something bigger than us, usually a spirit but also sometimes another individual or group – but we lack the framework to make sense of such experiences. And, as Aldous Huxley said, ‘if you have these experiences, you keep your mouth shut for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’ – or, in our day, a psychiatrist.

The medicalisation and pathologisation of ecstasy happened slowly over the last four centuries – it is a key shift in the emergence of secular society. Before the 17th century, if you had an ecstatic experience, you might either be canonized or demonized. Either way your experience was carefully defined and controlled by the Church, which has always been wary of unbridled ecstasy, particularly in women (see Monsignor Ronald Knox’s misogynistic Enthusiasm (1950) for a recent example – Knox writes ‘the history of enthusiasm is largely the history of female emancipation…and it is not a reassuring one’).

Then, from the 17th century on, cases of both ecstasy and possession were viewed not as spiritual encounters but as disorders of our mechanical body, the product of diseased nerves, or an over-heated brain, or ‘animal spirits’, or ‘the vapours’. In the 19th century, unstable women were increasingly diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, a disease which Egyptians suggested, back in 1900 BC, was caused by a ‘wandering womb’ (supposedly the womb could be lured back to its proper position by holding scented objects near the affected woman’s vagina).

220px-Jean-Martin_CharcotThe understanding of hysteria didn’t advance much in the 4000 years to 1856, when Charcot was made head of the Salpetriere hospital in Paris. Salpetriere was the biggest hospital for women in Europe, and a ‘grand asylum of human misery’, as Charcot put it. He and his team carried out ground-breaking research into several neurological conditions – Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s syndrome – but it was his work on hysteria that made Charcot globally famous.

Hysteria was a notoriously loose and imprecise diagnosis, so Charcot attempted to classify it, and discover the physical cause of it. He insisted that hysterical fits followed four clearly-defined stages – 1) epileptoid fits, 2) ‘the period of contortions and grand movements’, 3) ‘passionate attitudes’, and 4) final delirium.

He claimed that, although hysteria was a physical disease caused by a lesion on the brain, one could artificially induce these four stages through hypnosis. To prove this, he used photography to capture the four stages of hysteria, and circulated the evidence through the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere. Photography was still a new, somewhat magical science – rather like neuro-imaging today – and these photos ‘did much to fix the image of hysteria in the public mind’, according to the medical historian Andrew Scull.

Augustine vogue-ing in the Iconographie

Augustine vogue-ing in the Iconographie

Charcot also put on public displays, every Thursday, where he hypnotized female patients and provoked hysterical fits for the fascinated male public, which included everyone from Sigmund Freud to Emile Durkheim. Both in the photographs and in the public displays, Charcot had ‘star patients’ who were particularly good at performing the four stages of hysteria, including a pretty teenager called Augustine, and a devout woman called Genevieve.


These ladies expertly performed religious poses which Charcot’s team defined as ‘ecstasy’. And the team insisted that their work proved that all the religious ecstatics and demoniacs of yesteryear were suffering from hysteria. Joan of Arc, St Theresa, St Paul, Jesus himself were all evidently hysterics. By a happy coincidence, Genevieve – who suffered from particularly violent fits – came from Loudun, the scene of a mass demonic possession of nuns in the 17th century. Charcot had an extensive gallery of religious art, and displayed the drawings and photos of his hysterics next to this art – were they not one and the same condition?

An illustration of a fit of Genevieve's (right) next to an illustration by Rubens

An illustration of a fit of Genevieve’s (right) next to an illustration by Rubens

This equation of ecstasy with degenerative hysteria served a political purpose. Charcot and his disciples (particularly his main disciple, Desire-Magloire Bourneville) were closely affiliated with the Third Republic, which was virulently anti-monarchist and anti-clerical. Charcot and Bourneville were involved in the campaign to secularize medicine, and to replace nun-nurses with secular nurses. Each proof of the hysterical pathology of religious ecstasy was a broadside in this wider war.

Yet the irony, as several historians of hysteria have noted, is that in many ways the secular diagnosis of hysteria recalled the medieval Inquisition. Of course, none of the hysterics were burned – although they could be subject to physical punishments including mustard baths and ‘ovarian compression’. But they were made to follow and perform a cultural script defined and directed by a male power system, for the prurient consumption of a fascinated male public.

Again and again, the women would be made to perform hysteria, just as the poor nuns of Loudun were wheeled out, over and over, to go through their demonic antics. They would literally be fixed into poses, like ‘automatons’ or ‘statues’ as Charcot’s disciples put it, and then the poses were used as evidence for the pathology of ecstasy. This script advanced the career ambitions and political agenda of the men in charge, as it did in the Inquisition.

As with the Inquisition, it sounds like a form of pornographic cabaret masquerading as a public service. The Iconographie looks like a porn catalogue, with the photos of the sexy teenager Augustine interspersed with accounts of her sexual reveries. And the Thursday shows sound like something from the Moulin Rouge – the women are hypnotized by a gong or a tom-tom drum, the approach of the hysterical fit announced by the shaking of the feathers in their hats, before they fall to the floor clutching their vaginas as the male audience applaud.

Jane_Avril_by_Toulouse-LautrecIndeed, one of the star-hysterics of the Salpetriere went on to become Jane Avril, a lead-dancer at the Moulin Rouge who was painted by Toulouse-Latrec. She claimed she was cured when she learned to dance, which goes back to the ancient Greek idea that the best cure for anxiety and phobia, particularly in women, is the ‘Dionysiac cure’ of dancing. Augustine, meanwhile, finally escaped from Salpetriere, dressed as a man, while Genevieve was offended one day by Charcot and refused to be hypnotized anymore.

Was this the diagnosis of hysteria or, as Charcot’s critics insisted, its cultivation? Was this merely an ‘absurd farce’? It didn’t help that something like 500 hypnosis vaudeville shows sprang up around Paris in the 1880s, some featuring women fresh from their debut at the Salpetriere.

Charcot’s search for a materialist cause for hysteria ultimately failed, and the consensus grew that his fantastic shows were merely the result of suggestion. But a few in the audience – including Sigmund Freud and Frederick Myers – still thought he had hit on something important.

If nothing else, Charcot’s use of hypnosis showed the profound connection between mind and body – his hypnotized patients felt no pain, and their physical symptoms could sometimes be cured by hypnosis and suggestion. His work suggested the existence of what Myers called a ‘subliminal self’, which could be brought to the surface under hypnosis. And it suggested a connection between spirituality, sexuality and subliminal or hypnotic states.

However, Charcot – and, later, Freud – defined hysteria purely as a symptom of female sexual disorder, when it could be argued it was just as much a product of male sexual disorder. Many of the hysterics had been raped as children or teenagers, and were struggling in a society dominated by men with few opportunities for female liberty. Performing sexual hysteria for a titillated male public was one opportunity for approval, expression and a sort of fame.

Frederick Myers, founder of the Society of Psychical Research and gifted writer on psychology (alas all his works are now out-of-print)

Frederick Myers, founder of the Society of Psychical Research and gifted writer on psychology (alas all his works are now out-of-print)

Frederick Myers and William James, meanwhile, accepted the idea that spirituality might be connected to sexuality, to hypnotic or subliminal states, and to nervous instability. But they insisted it wasn’t necessarily pathological or degenerative – many of the geniuses of human culture were ecstatics, much of our culture is the product of ecstasy. Perhaps, wrote Myers, ‘ecstasy is to hysteria somewhat as genius is to insanity’.

In fact, as Asti Hustvedt argues in her excellent Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th Century Paris, in seeking to pathologize ecstasy, Charcot ended up spiritualizing medicine. He used the language of religion – ecstasy, stigmata, possession – and also some of the ritual and performance of religion. He and his disciples explored how hypnotized women seemed to exhibit miraculous powers of telepathy (a word Myers later coined).

By the end of his career, Charcot, like William James, came to recognize that religious ritual could be powerfully healing, even if the mechanism that healed was really ‘just’ suggestion. His last work, an article on ‘the faith cure’, suggests the miracle cures at Lourdes and elsewhere are real, but simply the result of suggestion. James and Myers went further, speculating that the hypnotized self might also be more open to spiritual forces.

We still don’t know. Hustvedt notes that, while ‘the hysterics of yesteryear’ have disappeared, a new batch of poorly-understood and possibly psychosomatic illnesses have proliferated – chronic fatigue syndrome, ME, post-viral fatigue, cutting, anorexia, conversion disorder, depression, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, mass psychogenic illness – the prevalence of which is higher, sometimes much higher, in women than in men.

Are these real or invented? Physical or mental? Pathological or spiritual or both? We still don’t know. We don’t yet understand the relationship between mind and body, between mind and gender, between your mind and my mind, and between our minds and nature / God / Super-consciousness.

One last item in this bizarre and fascinating history: the vibrator was invented in the late 19th century as a result of the ancient theory that female orgasm (or ‘paroxysms’) helped to cure hysteria. Doctors would bring patients to paroxysm by manipulation, but complained their hands got cramp, so one bright spark invented an electric dildo. Meanwhile the first electrically-vibrating bed was actually developed as part of an 18th-century sexual-religious-health show called the Temple of Health and Hymen – where the star-performer was the delectable Emma Hamilton.

Don’t you think this would all make a brilliant musical?

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The physicist Lawrence Krauss recently argued that education should teach all children the central tenet of science – ‘nothing is sacred’. Not God, not human rights, not democracy, not the environment. Nothing.

Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, would disagree. Durkheim argued in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) that, though no one should dispute ‘the authority of science’, we still need religion to bind us together and to renew our moral and social consciousness through what he called ‘collective effervescence’.

fritz-goro-australian-aborigines-filled-with-the-spirit-of-the-kangaroo-dancing-to-honor-the-sacred-marsupialHe used Aboriginal society as an example of religion in its purest and earliest form. Aboriginals would periodically gather together for festivals, and a sort of electricity arises between them. They eat together, dance together, cry, chant, intoxicate, perhaps even swap wives, and whip themselves into such a state of delirium that they are transported beyond their individual selves, and feel filled with the spirit of the tribe. The rituals and totemic symbols of their tribe reminds them of this exalted state of collective consciousness, and connects them back to it in the calmer periods in between the festivals.

We might call this state of consciousness ecstasy, but that has supernatural connotations. Durkheim is at pains to show that this ‘collective effervescence’ (or group fizz, if you prefer) is actually perfectly rational, natural, and necessary to tribal functioning. What is really happening in such rituals is that man is transported from the individual into the social and tribal. Religions celebrate and perpetuate society – ‘the idea of society is the soul of religion’.

We may have lost touch with Jehovah, but we still need these periodic orgies of collective effervescence to rejuvenate our collective moral and tribal consciousness. Durkheim was a lapsed Jew and a devout citizen of France, and thought the French Revolution was a great example of secular effervescence. He wrote:

Society’s capacity to set itself up as a god, or to create gods, was nowhere more visible than in the first years of the Revolution. In the general enthusiasm of that period, things that were purely secular were transformed by public opinion into sacred things: homeland, liberty, and reason.

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution

The Elementary Forms was published a few years after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and the two books approach religious ecstasy from opposite poles. For James, religious experience is the individual soul in commune with the divine – he has no interest in collective ecstasy. For Durkheim, religious experience is always social and tribal – he has no interest in individual ecstasy. The truth must be somewhere in between.

But both share the idea that in ecstatic moments, we somehow transcend ordinary reality and access what Durkheim calls the Ideal, from which we draw power and inspiration down into material reality. So ecstasy is a bridge between two worlds – the material-empirical, and the ideal or spiritual.

James is prepared to suggest that this ‘other world’ of the spiritual genuinely exists. Durkheim is more wary – he puts forward a sort of emergence theory of collective consciousness.

Every other species, he says, are biologically determined, and confined to the material realm. Only humans have the capacity to transcend this realm and to access the Ideal. We have this capacity through the chemical fusion of ‘collective effervescence – all our consciousnesses come together and create such an electrical charge, such a fizz of effervescent bubbles, that we can leap into the Ideal, and bring back ideas and symbols from there which become actualized in the material world. This is all entirely natural and human – gods are just ideas, as real as any other idea, as long as we believe in them.

This is an interesting idea, and could be compatible with Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of consciousness. But humans aren’t the only animals to gather together – why don’t bees or wildebeest also achieve transcendent consciousness when gathered together? Why do most great religious visions or scientific discoveries happen to individuals when they’re on their own? And why does collective effervescence sometimes lead not to moral advance but moral regression?

Durkheim thought Europe in 1912 was in a state of ‘moral mediocrity’ – ‘the ancient gods grow old or die, and others are not yet born’, he wrote, sounding like JRR Tolkien. But ‘a day will come when our societies will once again experience times of creative effervescence and new ideas will surge up’, new festivals, new symbols, new gods.

Be careful what you wish for. He noted in passing that effervescence can lead to barbarism, bloodshed and attacks on ‘scapegoats’, as in the Crusades, and this is just what happened a few decades later with the Nazis, an ecstatic new cult of the state, led by a man who was the embodiment of Durkheim’s description of the demagogue: ‘He is no longer a simple individual speaking, he is a group incarnate and personified’.


Since then, western thinkers have been understandably wary of looking for ways to ferment ‘collective effervescence’ for political means. But there has been a return to Durkheim’s ideas in the last few years, notably in philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Simon Critchley, and the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose TED talk on ‘ecstasy and the hive-mind’ is a contemporary riff on Durkheim.

Durkheim’s ideas are a useful way of understanding some contemporary political problems. You can see the Charlie Hebdo attack as a clash of sacred narratives, for example. Muslim radicals see the cartoons of the Prophet as taboo, and therefore punishable, and they think the democratic state is a false god. For French Republicans, the Republic is sacred, and any attack on free speech is taboo.

Durkheim’s work also helps us understand the United States’ continued inability to control gun sales. The Constitution is sacred, the United States is sacred, its origins in private armed militia are sacred – therefore any pragmatic attempt to control arms sales in order to save lives is taboo.

More positively, Durkheim recognized that ‘games and major art forms have emerged from religion and long preserved a religious character’. Certainly, football is a collective ritual – the fans join together, chant the same songs, tattoo the sacred signs of the collective onto their bodies, applaud the players when they kiss the badge, and even, in some inarticulate way, see the team as transcending death. Individuals rise and fall, but as part of Liverpool FC, you’ll never walk alone.

Rock and roll is another modern ritual, a modern means to collective effervescence which arose from religious roots, and ‘every festival, even ones that are purely secular in origin, have certain features of the religious ceremony…Man is transported outside of himself.’ Rock n’ roll is a much less toxic form of collective effervescence than, say, fascism.

I’d suggest that the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony brought together all these modern rituals – the celebration of the state, the sacredness of the NHS and the monarchy, the sacredness of sport, and the sacredness of British rock and roll, all orchstrated with rare skill by Danny Boyle and Underworld. But the 2012 Olympics was a one-off for England. A genuine ‘new ritual’ needs to be repeated every few years. Is that possible, in a multicultural megapolis like London or the UK? Have we become too skeptical and rational to let ourselves be carried away en masse? And should politicians be dabbling in the Dionysiac, or is that playing with fire?

More broadly, is society sufficiently transcendent to satisfy our longing for transcendence? I’m not sure it is. I think human consciousness longs for something bigger than just the tribe, and I find Durkheim’s political conception of religion claustrophobic and potentially toxic.

When we immanentize our longing for expanded consciousness, project it onto the state, and yearn for a revolution to heal our pain and boredom, we risk making a false idol of the state. We then make blood-sacrifices to that false god, to try and perpetuate our state of ecstasy. That’s what the Crusades did, it’s what the Nazis did, and it’s what radical Muslims are doing with Islamic State. I’m all for fizz and effervescence, but that moonshine will kill you.


In other news:

Here’s an interview I did with Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, about the politics of well-being.

Erik Davis, psychedelic journalist, considers ‘psychedelic culture at the crossroads’ – is there a renaissance of psychedelics, or something more complex?

Another trial of a resilience-programme in schools – this one in Holland. No real results, alas.

The Department of Health has launched a new plan for children’s mental health. Doesn’t look like it has any significant new policy proposals to me, I might be wrong.  Meanwhile, education secretary Nicky Morgan seems to be taking Personal, Social and Health Education more seriously than Michael Gove, at least.

Here’s a good debate on ‘teaching character’ in schools, featuring Anthony Seldon versus Toby Young.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas considers the extraordinary work of Jean Vanier, the philosopher and lover of humanity.

Great Martha Nussbaum essay on her hero Bernard Williams.

Ernest Shackleton’s experience of the ‘fourth man’, and the science of ‘felt presences’.

OK, that’s all, have a wonderful weekend, hope England win the rugby!


1  Comment

goodshepardI’ve spent a pleasant couple of days reading Carl Jung, looking particularly at his ideas on the shadow and how symbols can act as mediators between the unconscious and conscious. The reading is in preparation for a Radio 4 thing I’m doing tomorrow, part of its History of Ideas series. The theme for the next show is ‘who am I?’, with various people exploring various angles (Locke, Sartre, Descartes, and me on depth psychology).

I’m focusing on Jung’s idea of the shadow, because I think it’s such a great idea, and because it meant a lot to me when recovering from PTSD. Briefly, Jung though that civilisation and adulthood require us to construct masks to win the approval of others – which he called the persona. To create these masks, we repress and hide all the bits of us we think are shameful or primitive, which become a daemonic part of our psyche called the shadow. However, our psyche resists this dissociation, and the shadow ends up haunting us, tripping us up, and demanding our attention and care. We have to let go of our personae and accept our shadow-selves, if we are to move to maturity.

When I had PTSD, I couldn’t handle being so traumatized, because it was a threat to my persona, so I hid it and hid myself whenever I felt down. When I was at my most dissociated, I had a series of nightmares in which I was pursued by a beggar / tramp / escaped madman. Eventually, I managed to ‘come to terms’ with this madman in my dreams, although it took me a lot longer to come to terms with my shadow-self in reality. In fact, it took a near-fatal accident for that reconciliation to take place.

In the months following that accident, I started to research this figure of the beggar / wildman / shadow, and its appearance as an archetype or ‘transcendent symbol’ in western culture. It’s everywhere, and often appears as a symbol of our exiled or cut-off inner or spiritual life, at moments when culture is becoming obsessed with masks and appearances. Jung thought the psyche is self-regulating – if it becomes too artificial, the unconscious sends out archetypes to call it back into harmony. Something similar happens at the societal level – if civilization becomes too artificial and image-obsessed, nature sends out archetypes to possess artists, to call civilization back into a better spiritual harmony.

OasGYZDCRAiApHS9TTFq_360-trampThe great example of this artist-as-spiritual-thermostat is Sophocles. In his last play, he confronts the optimistic, polite, civilized, rational, extrovert Athenian enlightenment with its shadow – with the terrifying exile figure of Oedipus, who has been cast out from his society and who wanders old and blind in the wilderness. Sophocles made his society see that Oedipus, although the shadow of Athenian civilization, has some moral qualities which Athenian liberal civilization increasingly lacked – integrity, authenticity, respect for the Gods. If we lose touch with these deeper spiritual values, he warns us, we will become empty, morally lost, cut off from the deepest springs of our being. We need to see the good in Oedipus, overcome our fear and revulsion, recognize the shadow, welcome the stranger.

I’m not sure how I’m going to get all that into a ten minute radio discussion, but that’s the broad idea.

Anyway, this morning, I dragged myself to church. It really took an effort. I don’t like church much. I struggle with Christianity in general, the dogma, the certainty. I also struggle with the collectivism of church – who are these people? What do I have in common with them? Why can’t I just meditate at home on my own? Well, I dragged myself along.

The vicar, Dave Tomlinson, gave a sermon that was all about the concept of the shadow in Jungian psychology, and how we need to welcome the stranger within us to become whole. Dave spoke of how the shadow might appear as the primitive, shameful or ‘goat-like’ parts of us, but how our inner goat often also brings great creativity, if we can integrate it without being overwhelmed by it – he illustrated this with the beautiful icon shown above, showing the Good Shepherd embracing the goat!. One of the service readings was a poem by Derek Walcott, about this idea of welcoming the stranger within us (you can read it below).

This sort of coincidence happens quite often. Two weeks ago, in my newsletter, I complained that the BBC never does any programmes on religious ecstasy. Two days later, radio 4 broadcast a great programme all about religious ecstasy.

What do these coincidences mean? Three possible answers. Firstly, and perhaps most probably, they’re just coincidences. I often go to sermons and they’re not about what I happen to be researching. Secondly, less probably, everything that is happening is a dream of mine – hence the strange concordance between my inner concerns and outer reality. You’re all figures in my dream, and for all I know it I’m in a coma.

Thirdly – and this is the theory I’m most convinced by – reality is some sort of collective dream, in which the conscious and the unconscious are related in ways we don’t fully understand. Consciousness, as Jung put it, is a small island on an ocean of unconsciousness, and this ocean of unconsciousness is collective – we are connected together, in ways we don’t understand, though we can sometimes notice connections, coincidences, ‘elective affinities’, between people and places, and also between times – to the unconscious there is no such thing as past and future.

We are connected, our dreams are connected, just as Anna Karenina and her lover, Count Vronsky, happen to dream the same dream in Tolstoy’s novel – their fates are connected. And what was the dream? A terrifying beggar.

Here’s the poem by Derek Walcott. It’s called Love after Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.