February 5, 2009

YOU'RE A KOOK, I JUST HAPPEN TO LIVE IN THE SINGULARITY:

The book that changed my life: John Gray chooses The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn (John Gray, 2/05/09, New Statesman)

It is more than 40 years since I first read Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. Published in 1957, the book deals with millenarian religious movements in late medieval and early modern Europe, but as Cohn makes clear, the millenarian mentality did not end with the waning of religion - 20th-century secular totalitarian movements exhibited similar patterns of thinking.

Communists and Nazis alike anticipated a historic cataclysm, a rupture in history in which human life would be utterly transformed. Both were implacably hostile to conventional religion. And yet, as Cohn shows, they replicated an apocalyptic conception of collective salvation that was structurally identical to that of powerful strands in medieval Christianity. It was no longer God that would bring about the salvation of the world. "Humanity" - or a privileged section of it, thought to be especially progressive or racially superior - would initiate the miraculous transformation. While the content of belief had been modified with secularisation, the structure of thought had not changed. History was still seen in apocalyptic terms as a struggle between good and evil, which would end - though only after the most violent conflicts - with the victory of good.

Reading Cohn's masterpiece left me with a suspicion of world-transforming political projects that has remained with me ever since.


John Gray is almost unique among serious philosophers/political scientists in seemingly forgetting everything he once knew from one book to the next, so perhaps he can be forgiven the hilarity he provokes here given that his own book, Straw Dogs is a ludicrously millenarian screed.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 5, 2009 12:31 PM
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