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Episode 61: Psychological Disruptions and the Reformation and Alexander the Great

Show notes here.

First Segment: The Rise of Gnosticism

Did you know all reformers were born after the year 1480?

I'm talking about the Reformation of 1517, when Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, challenging the Catholic Church's abuse of indulgences. It was the birth of Protestantism. Within five years, the floodgates had opened and there were a lot of reformers: men who were breaking off from the Catholic Church, forming their own religions.

But all those men were relatively young. Under age 40.

No one knows why but a common explanation is 1492. Columbus. The new world. Now, people weren't shocked that the world wasn't flat. That's a myth propagated by Catholic haters in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who never lost an opportunity, no matter how bogus, to discredit the Catholic Church, like Washington Irving. If you're interested in this, get Jeffrey Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth. I've never read it, but I've read large swaths from Russell's four volume history of the devil and will vouch for his work in general.

But they were shocked to learn that there was a whole other mass of earth, one wholly detached from that bundle: Europe, Asia, Africa.

It disrupted a worldview that had been in place for 1300 years. The psychological shock can't be measured, especially on a boy whose mind was still growing. Implanted in his mind was the fact: authority was 100% wrong a huge issue. What else might authority be wrong about? Can authority ever be trusted? What is the biggest authority in my world? Ah, the Catholic Church . . .

Now, no one claims this was an explicit thought process. It might have been. Who knows? But the discovery of the new world definitely must've shifted the mental furniture a lot, especially in young minds that are so malleable, and it's believable–I think highly likely–that it directly led to the Reformation. Even if there's no conscious trace of it, we know though modern psychology that unconscious forces play enormously into our thought processes and, therefore, into world history.

A similar thing happened about 1,800 years earlier. Worlds collided.

Alexander the Great. He established an empire that stretched from Europe to India. It's hard to imagine what more he would've accomplished if a hangover hadn't killed him at age 33 in 323 BC.

After him, his generals had a civil war and then divided the empire among themselves and continued the Greek hegemony that Alexander had started. The Diadochian empires.

They eventually fell to the Roman Empire and Parthian Empire and the new Persian Empire.

Oh, and speaking of the new Persian Empire, there was the old Persian Empire. It had conquered about as much land as Alexander.

This era, from about 500 BC when the old Persian Empire was dominant to the rise of the Roman Empire and Parthian Empire, have been called “the age of ecumenical empires.”

These huge movements disrupted local life. City states collapsed. No longer was your world just your city and agricultural land surrounding it your world. Your world was now, well, the whole world.

And the world came to your doorstep . . . or you were taken to its doorstep. Huge enslavements. Huge population shifts. Cultures collided, either through migrations or through trade. There was a loss of intellectual cohesion.

There was a general loss of meaning as institutions, civilizations, and ethnic identity were broken down.

And there was a general attempt to regain the meaning of human existence in the new world.

Stoicism was one of the biggest responses to this crisis of meaning. It's a philosophical doctrine that still carries cogency for us today, as evidence by the success of Ryan Holiday's The Daily Stoic. So were mystery cults. Pythagoras in earliest years, almost a forerunner, a proto-mystery religion. The Orphic cults. Various apocalyptic movements within Judaism. Manichaeism.

Into this milieu also stepped Christianity. “In the fullness of time,” St. Paul would say. The shake up of the ecumenic empire age, and the resulting day-to-day stability of the Pax Romana, made the time ripe for the Incarnation.

But another powerful movement came in, right with Christianity, almost like an evil twin: born with it, raised with it, antagonistic to it: Gnosticism.

For the Christian, creation was good because it was created by God and God thought highly enough of it to give Himself flesh in the form of Christ.

For the Gnostic, creation was a prison. All the disorder: It sucks. It needs to be escaped. Gnosis, knowledge, offered a way of escaping it.

So right off the bat, Gnosticism was at a cross-roads with Christianity: It rejected the sacramental view of existence: body and spirit, world and heaven, immanence and transcendence: together. The Gnostic relentlessly denied impugned one half of it: derided it, hated it, denied it existed, sought to escape it . . . whatever.

In particular, the ancient Gnostic impugned the material half: body, world, immanence. It sought to escape it so it could just have spirit, heaven, transcendence.

And right off the bat, it was at war with Christianity.

It's a war that is with us today.

Lightning Segments: Secondhand (14:35)

Third Segment: The Virtue of Prudence (24:32)

Lonely old people use the secondhand market as a form of social interaction. This is sad. They bring in one small item of insignificant value to Goodwill, just so they can donate it and, in the process, get some small talk out of it.

The guest on the show didn't say this, but I think the point was, “These people are a drain on the Goodwill store's labor resources.” Which is again sad. Also sad: The whole show was about “secondhand” things. Do these old people feel like secondhand things?

The whole thing about older people using commerce as a form of social interaction is very real to me. Abe Lincoln once said time is a lawyer's stock in trade. It's the only thing we have to make money with. We combine our time, experience, and knowledge to provide a service clients pay for. We bill, literally, in six-minute increments. Clients pay by the minute. There's no other profession like it. Accountants come closest. If we aren't billing, we are, literally, losing money. For a busy lawyer who bills at $250 an hour and can't get all his work done, five minutes of small talk is, literally, $20 out of his pocket. It's a phenomenon that non-lawyers can't even begin to comprehend, honestly, and it makes us something of freaks. It's also unfortunate and jammed with spiritual and emotional problems, but I'm not here to whine.

So now juxtapose the Christian lawyer with the lonely widow who just wants someone to talk with and whose legal consultation is lasting far longer than it should? Where does he draw the line? When does the billing clock stop ticking and the charitable clock start tocking? There is no answer, but it highlights something that everyone needs to know:

That kind of thing–two goods (here, providing for your family and spending time with a lonely person) competing–present themselves every day. In big things and small. It's why prudence is a cardinal virtue. This is exactly what prudence is: weighing circumstances and choosing the correct course among two or more good courses. This isn't choosing between being faithful to your wife and banging the prostitute. We're talking two or more good, legitimate things, but you can't do both. You have to choose: Prudence.

Now just think about how hard it is to exercise prudence when you don't even know what are goods. That's where modern society has dumped many people. No standards. All is relative. I fear the average person doesn't even get to the point of prudence. He's stuck on “bang prostitute or not?”