THE ORACLES AND THEIR CESSATION
A Tribute to Julian Jaynes - By D. C. Stove
In the fifth century BC in Greece, and again in Europe in the eighteenth century AD, there was a period of what historians call Enlightenment. They mean by this that religion then lost the undisputed sway which it normally exercises over human life. Such periods are rare, but when they do come, they come with a strange easiness. People like Voltaire or Euripides are no one's idea of profound thinkers, and yet, in scarcely more than a generation, the immortal gods succumb to their attacks as meekly as dew to the sun.
Partly for this reason it is a great mystery, to the people of the Enlightenment, how it was that religion had acquired its hold over human life in the first place. How did an incubus so easily dislodged ever get into the driver's seat, and occupy it unchallenged for so long? A question to be asked, indeed.
For Enlightenment critics, there are only two answers to it (broadly speaking) that anyone has ever been able to think of. One is the imposition theory: that religion is a racket. The other is the madness theory: that religion is a form of insanity. Of course there have been many variants of each of these two broad theories. The nineteenth century, for example, furnished a Marxist variant of the imposition theory, and the twentieth a Freudian variant of the madness theory.
Unfortunately, all of the known variants of either theory are nearly worthless. The two theories are genuinely at odds with one another: a madman can hardly be a successful racketeer; or even a source of profit to racketeers. The trouble is that each theory is also at odds with most of the facts. In the history of Christianity, say, or of Islam, there is not much more madness than there is in the history of everything else. In fact a religion, once it has gained wide currency, usually acts as a support of sanity: religious people are actually less likely to be mad, or at least to go mad, than people of the Enlightenment. Likewise there is little, if any, more racketeering in the history of religion than there is in the history of everything else; and a religious person is distinctly less likely to be a racketeer than an Enlightened person is.
The result is that to heirs of the Enlightenment such as myself, the reasons for the very existence of religion have remained an absolute mystery. Nor is this a minor matter: not to understand religion is, quite simply, not to understand nine-tenths of human history. There is no mystery about why there is farming or industry, why there is instruction of the young, why there is architecture, medicine, or law. But the most salient fact of all human history is this: that all those things, and many others, have almost always been suffused through-and-through with religion, and subordinated to it. All right; but why does religion exist?
This is the question of questions concerning Homo sapiens. And I want to commend - and argue with - a book published some dozen years ago which to my mind comes closer to answering that question than everything else I have read about the matter put together. Its author is Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton University. The book is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 1976; Allen Lane, 1979). The weight of original thought in it is so great that it makes me uneasy for the author's well-being: the human mind is not built to support such a burden. I would not be Julian Jaynes if they paid me a thousand dollars an hour.
Religion is not at all the only thing which Jaynes's book is intended to throw light on; though it is, I think, where he is most successful. Among the other subjects of the book are poetry, song, music, "possession", hypnotism, and schizophrenia. Above all his theory is, as the title of the book implies, a theory of the origin of consciousness. Jaynes has the extraordinary idea that consciousness - by which he does not mean intelligence, or learning-capacity, or anything like that, but self-scanning, inner life, self-consciousness - is new. Biologically new, in that it is no older than Homo sapiens; and even historically new, in that it began only at some time in the second millennium BC.
Until that time, Jaynes thinks, we were what he calls "bicameral": meaning by this that the right hemisphere of our brains had a certain function - a function of supreme importance which it does not now have. Namely, it was the source of the voices of dead rulers, hallucinated by the living. The architecture of early civilised man, Jaynes argues, and above all their burial-practices, can be understood on only one supposition: that the voice of a recently dead ruler was still heard, and still carried authority.
These hallucinated voices were the germs, Jaynes thinks, of both religion and civilisation. They furnished our first ideas of gods, and they also made possible, for the first time, social control out of earshot, and hence large, organised social groups. We all knew, in those days, what to do, because at every turn a god told us what to do. Indeed, it seemed to us that it was really the god who did it; just as, in The Iliad, whatever is done is done not by Achilles (say) or Agamemnon, but by some god. In bicameral men, Jaynes says, this authoritative voice "was volition". We were mere intelligent automata: simply some two-legged livestock which the gods happened to own. We were all permanently hypnotised; or, more accurately, schizophrenic.
This state of mind was brought to an end, in the second millennium BC, by some catastrophe: Jaynes hints at a catastrophe of extraterrestrial origin, but he is exceedingly vague about the whole matter. Anyway, as a result of this event, whatever it was, the hallucinated voices grew fainter; or multiple and therefore confusing; or audible only after elaborate induction-procedures (of prayer, purification, etc.); or audible only to persons of a specialised caste (priests, prophets, etc.); or audible only at special places favoured by gods (temples, oracles, etc.); and they finally fell silent altogether. This is "the breakdown of the bicameral mind".
Inner life begins. The world of The Iliad gives way to the world of The Odyssey. We think of the world of The Iliad as a cruel world, but even a little reflection suffices to show that that is not really right: while there is much slaughter in The Iliad, there is very little cruelty. The real foreignness of that world consists, rather, in this: that it has absolutely nothing in it, except a plentiful supply of gods, plus assorted hardware - boats, armour, weapons - and men who have little more inner life than their helmets do. Odysseus, on the other hand, is just like you and me: ducking and diving, doing the best he can. He is always inwardly scanning alternative possibilities, both of action and belief, and he has to settle on just one of them for himself without authority. He has to, because natural authority, internalised authority, has now vanished from human life. For the first time, the possibility of duplicity has come into the world, with the mountain of consequences - psychological, moral, and political - which that entails. The priceless gift, and crushing burden, of consciousness has arrived.
Sources of Error
This is, as far as I know, that rarest of things: an absolutely original idea. It is also an idea of most various and far-reaching consequences. Kepler, looking back at what he had done in astronomy, once said: "I have touched mountains: it is amazing, what they give forth". Jaynes must have felt something like that, as his theory unfolded its consequences before his mind; and I think he was entitled to do so.
He touches, at greater or less length, on a staggering number and variety of subjects, concerning which his theory has implications or suggestions that are not obvious at once. For example, the sound of ancient Greek poetry; the rhythm of speaking in tongues; the tirelessness of schizophrenics; the origin of moral evil; the "invisible playmates" of childhood; aristocratic ethics; and hundreds more. There must be others which he does not touch on at all: for example, his theory clearly ought to deliver something about that great weapon of Enlightenment, and peculiarity of conscious life, humour. Whatever topic he does touch, Jaynes almost always leaves on me the impression of someone who has got hold of a powerful new insight into human life and history. Several contemporary reviewers of the book compared Jaynes's theory with Freudianism; but, although this is saying very little, it is certainly a great deal better than that.
At the same time it will be obvious, even from the lightning-sketch which I have given of it, that his theory labours from the start under heavy objections. For one thing, it offends our ideas of evolutionary continuity by requiring us to suppose that consciousness suddenly appeared in Homo sapiens, without being foreshadowed by anything at all in our pre-human ancestors. There are, of course, variants of current evolutionary theory which postulate a certain amount of "jumpiness" in evolution; but (as the man said about the shaggy dog) not that damned jumpy.
To this objection, Jaynes replies indirectly but well (especially on pp. 379-403). Suppose, he says, that consciousness were not, as he thinks it is, a recent, superficial, and learnt capacity: suppose it were ancient, organic, anchored in our pre-human forebears. In that case, it could not possibly be turned off, with ridiculous ease, by an authoritative voice whose instructions are then obeyed with a docility and completeness to which conscious life affords no parallel. Yet exactly that is what happens in hypnotism a thousand times a day.
This reply quite turns the tables, it seems to me, on the objection from continuity. In fact the whole of Jaynes's chapter on hypnotism is extremely important. But there is an even more serious, and even more obvious, objection to his theory.
The human brain is the most complicated bit of matter known to exist; yet Jaynes asks us to believe that some particular external event, which could hardly affect directly either our brains or our genes, brought about, in a few generations, a major change in our brain-functions. Now that is logically possible, of course, but it sounds, at least, like magic, or a miracle. What causes are there, what mechanisms, by which such a cause could possibly bring about such an effect?
Jaynes' reply to this fundamental objection, or the closest he comes to replying to it, is on page 122-25. He appeals to the immense surplus-capacity of the human brain, and to its extreme "plasticity": that is, the ease with which, in certain circumstances, a function located in one hemisphere of the brain can be transferred to the other, if its normal locus is damaged or diseased or surgically removed.
This reply seems to me not only inadequate, but hardly even relevant. What was questioned was not the likelihood of one brain-function, x, being transferred from one hemisphere to the other. It was the likelihood of one brain-function, x, being extinguished, and a new one, y, being created (in whatever location), in a short time, by some external and non-recurring cause. That is the fundamental and glaring offence which Jaynes's theory gives to our ideas of what is biologically likely. And he can do nothing, apparently, or at least he has done nothing in this book, to palliate it. Nothing, except to show that, if such a thing had happened, an astounding number of otherwise mysterious facts would receive an explanation!
I have already compared Jaynes with Kepler, whom we remember with honour for his three laws of planetary motion, and for almost nothing else. But in Kepler's own eyes those laws were propositions of very subordinate importance. What he chiefly valued himself on was, rather, his marginally-sane speculations of a theologico-geometrical character: how God had spaced the planetary orbits so as to accommodate the five regular solids, etc. But it was perfectly easy to separate the three planetary laws from this context in which Kepler had embedded them, and to "throw away the wrapper", so to speak. And that is exactly what, in the Enlightenment, Kepler's editors did; and, surely, rightly did.
It is what I would like to do in Jaynes's case: to separate what is of permanent value in his theory (especially the part which relates to religion) from the context (which seems to me incredible) in which he embeds it. But while in Kepler's case it was easy to throw away the wrapper, I cannot see how to do it in Jaynes's case. In fact, I do not think anyone could do it. His theory fits together too well, despite the extreme heterogeneity of its materials: neuro-physiological, archaeological, etymological, etc., etc.
But although I cannot see how to pare down or water down Jaynes's theory, I am certain that such a process is necessary. His theory is just too catastrophist, too external, too sharply dichotomous; he himself indirectly acknowledges this by various qualifications which he makes to it - not always consistently. I will give my reasons for saying this.
First, as I have said, I simply cannot see how micro-surgery could be performed on the human brain, in a short time, by some stray cosmic or geological blunt instrument (a Velikovskian comet, or whatever).
Then, as to the speed and the extent of the alleged change from bicamerality to consciousness, Jaynes wavers hopelessly. Bicamerality broke down in the second millennium BC, he says, and yet he also says that conscious Spaniards met bicameral Aztecs in Mexico in 1519 AD. We ourselves are said to contain, and to be surrounded by, what he keeps calling "vestiges" of the bicameral mind; but these "vestiges" are, by Jaynes' account, so massive and ubiquitous that it is simply absurd to call them vestiges. Sometimes he even suggests that no one is yet more than half-way through the transition from bicamerality to consciousness. It is impossible to reconcile these various suggestions.
There are instances in which, obviously enough, Jaynes has been tripped up by his preference for brightly-coloured and sharp-edged formulations. Another and a signal instance of the same fault is what he says about the absolute authoritativeness of the bicameral voices: for example (p. 202) that they "were man's volition". It is simply impossible to understand such a statement, taken literally.
Again, the theory is too dichotomous. It asks us to think of consciousness and hallucinated authoritative voices as two mutually-exclusive "control-systems". Yet Jaynes is constantly obliged to acknowledge that the two systems can be mixed in various degrees in different individuals, and can alternate in the same individual. As to their alternating, I would offer the case of Socrates as decisive. He was usually conscious, I suppose, if ever a man was. Yet in addition to his occasional trances (one of which kept him standing motionless in the open air for twenty hours) he had his inner voice or daimon (his "divine sign", he called it), which on various occasions told him not to do something he had been about to do. Assuming that this "voice" was actually hallucinated by him, and was not a mere "as-it-were" voice, such a case seems sufficient on its own to show that Jaynes's favourite categories are too sharp-edged.
Or take the matter of duplicity. This is quite central for Jaynes: he regards the capacity for deceit, along with the capacities for disguise and for suicide, as a distinctive mark of conscious man. Yet he informs us that a female chimpanzee will sometimes pretend to be interested in sex with a male when her sole real interest is in stealing the banana he is carrying. Now, a Darwin, or even a Lorenz, might be able to point out some important difference between such cases and human duplicity. But Jaynes's attempt to distinguish between them (pp. 219-20) is weak.
These are some of the reasons why I cannot swallow Jaynes's theory whole: they could be summed up in the words "too much drama". Yet his theory is so persuasive, at least as far as religion is concerned, that - as I have indicated - I hanker after a less lurid version of it, a "sub-theory" of his theory. Such a sub-theory might still have consciousness being as recent and superficial as Jaynes thinks it is, and might still have consciousness coming in because social control by hallucinated divine voices was going out. But I cannot actually carve out such a sub-theory from Jaynes's theory: there are just too many connecting fibres in it, running in every direction, for me to be able to see where the surgery could begin with any hope of success.
I should add, however, that even if we had such a sub-theory, there would be a good reason for being very suspicious of it. For any recognisable sub-theory of Jaynes's would still have, like its parent, the suspicious feature that it invites us to do something we are only too prone to do - I mean, to deny or doubt or minimise the inner life of others.
That dogs can even feel pain, let alone have beliefs and the like, was denied by Descartes and his followers. That women have souls was denied (or so at least I have often read) by certain Muslim philosophers. Mao's China, whatever we may have consciously thought of it, really seemed to be a society of human ants, did it not? During World War II we were encouraged, and needed extremely little encouragement, to believe that Japanese soldiers and airmen were intelligent automata. (The Japanese are a hard case even now for some of us, apparently including Jaynes: on p. 159 he actually hints that the Emperor Hirohito was bicameral.) In many cases, as children turn into adolescents, their parents seem to them to turn into mere livestock. If we come across an adult fellow-citizen who cannot read silently, we get a sudden twinge of doubt as to whether he has an inner life at all; and this despite the fact that reading silently is an accomplishment so recent, and so inessential to conscious life, that it was entirely unknown throughout classical antiquity.
Now, I ask you: when we know we are so prone to this mistake, even where we are in a position to avoid it, how can we trust ourselves to conclude, with the confidence that Jaynes does, that Hammurabi and Achilles had little or no inner life? How much do we know about Hammurabi or Achilles? It is true (and it is Jaynes's starting-point) that they make on us an impression of almost inexpressible foreignness. It is further true, and it is part of Jaynes's achievement to have shown, that their foreignness is in many respects uncannily like the foreignness of the schizophrenic or of the deeply-hypnotised. But it is impossible for us, situated as we are, to be rationally confident that we have here knowledge of the absence of inner life, and not just another humdrum case of the absence of knowledge of inner life.
It is an old observation (at least as old as Descartes) that if you look down from a tall building at people in the street, you get an illusion of looking at automata. No doubt this is connected with the unique importance of the face (cf. Jaynes's pp. 120-22). But distance in time, assisted as it nearly always is by ignorance, also tends to produce the same illusion. Everyone who has read a lot of history must have noticed this fact, and since Jaynes's theory must receive illicit help from this familiar source of error, he ought to have done a good deal to "discount" for it. But he does nothing at all.
Voices of the Dead
Jaynes's book - although I can neither accept his overall theory, nor separate out of it, as a sub-theory, his treatment of religion - throws more light on religion that everything else I have read on that subject. My position is therefore an unsatisfactory one, to put it mildly. Since I cannot see how to get out of it, I will try instead to draw others into it. That is, I will try to convey something of the extraordinary power of Jaynes's treatment of religion. He sees the problem, in all its scope and strangeness, and he never loses sight of it. Why should almost all human history be a tale of "the slow withdrawing tide of divine voices and presences", and of ever-renewed attempts, through prophets or poetry or peyote or whatever, to establish contact with "a lost ocean of authority" (p. 320)? This is the question of questions concerning our species.
Does it seem only a slight merit, to see this problem and never lose sight of it? It should not, because in fact it is an enormous merit, which scarcely anyone ever achieves. Of course it is only Enlightenment people who can see the problem of religion at all. But most of us, though we can see it, cannot keep it before our minds for more than a few minutes together, however hard we try. The fact of religion is so gigantic, and at the same time so incomprehensible, that it utterly daunts and depresses the Enlightenment mind. So we put it out of our thought.
If we are going to think at all, it will be about some smaller and less intractable mystery: of philosophy, or physics, or whatever it might be. So strong is the temptation to put religion out of our minds that no one can be blamed for surrendering to it. And yet to put aside religion is to put aside nine-tenths of human history. Jaynes is the only person I know of who, while not believing one word of religion - or one syllable, or letter - sees it in its true proportions, and steadily.
Jaynes is also completely devoid of Enlightenment superciliousness. Cicero says that, even in his time, it was impossible for two augurs to meet without smiling; yet Jaynes expounds even augury from the entrails of animals so seriously and sympathetically that both our ridicule and our disgust fade away. Jokes or sneers at the expense of religion were the stock-in-trade, in different degrees, of Bayle, Diderot, Voltaire, Hume, and even Kant; still less can ordinary Enlightened people resist them. But Jaynes is as free from levity as he is from credulity. This is an inestimable merit. If it were objected that religion is ridiculous and disgusting, Jaynes's reply would be, I suppose, that schizophrenics are too; but that jokes and sneers are not a way to understanding, or a sign of understanding, in the one case any more than in the other.
Jaynes is more immune than any other thinker I know of to the great temptation which besets the Enlightened when they study religion. This is to let our disbelief and distaste affect the very data of our study, so that we translate a certain crucial word, or describe a certain religious practice or artefact, in some way which subtly "rationalises" religion: makes it appear less foreign to our own minds than it really is.
He mentions many cases in which this has in fact happened, especially in the translation of early writings. I will mention only one of these examples, and even that one in a hypothetical case. Suppose that we are studying a long-vanished society, and that our excavations have turned up a large statue, and also thousands of clay figurines of the same shape as the statue. We cannot believe that this statue is the god So-and-So, and therefore cannot imagine anyone else believing it either. Still less can we believe, or even believe that these ancient people believed, that each of the thousand figurines is also the god So-and-So. As a result, although it may be quite clear from all the evidence that the statue, and also each of the figurines, was the god So-and-So, we are almost certain to describe them as a statue and figurines of the god. In this way; by one tiny word, we launch an enormous error; and one which will only carry us further astray, the further we carry our researches. Yet we went wrong precisely because we were rational.
This ironic and even tragic propensity of the Enlightenment, to distort the very data of the history of religion, is so deep-rooted that there are limits to what anyone can do to guard against it. Between the religious frame of mind and the Enlightened one, there is a difference, which nothing can overcome, of perspective or dimension: like that between a boy of six and a man of sixty, or between beings of three spatial dimensions (like ourselves), and beings (supposing there were any) of two dimensions. Still, in many particular cases, something can be done to prevent this impassable gulf from being papered over by the rationalising tendency: Jaynes has shown by example that it can. Most of the Enlightened, by contrast, are not even aware that the gulf exists; and they rationalise religion, and tend to rationalise everything else in human life too, by a kind of fatal instinct. This is probably the reason for the general disorientation of the extremely Enlightened: the fact that a Bertrand Russell or an H. G. Wells, say, never understands anything of the life going on around him, or at any rate precious little compared with other people who have far less intelligence and information, but more religion.
More than anyone else I have read, Jaynes has the ability to bring the religion-saturated past to life. No doubt this ability owes something to his freedom from superciliousness, and his immunity to rationalising; but I cannot fully explain how he does it. It is certainly not by any marked literary gifts: as a writer, Jaynes is nothing special (though he obviously sometimes thinks he is).
The opposite defects in most Enlightened writers on religion, are obvious: they are unhistorical, abstract, monotonous. They must be so, because they bring to the study of religion only a very few categories, and those categories severely intellectual ones: theism-atheism, for example, or polytheism-monotheism. If that kind of thing is the only equipment you have, then almost all of the historical actualities of religion are bound to slip through your net and out of your sight.
But Jaynes loses sight of none of the actualities. I know of nowhere but in this book that you can meet, for example, not only with gods who are statues, or divination by sortilege, but with oracles, sibyls, and muses, all brought to startling life - yes, even muses... Here are the very distortions of face and limbs which the priestess of the oracle undergoes, as she pronounces the god's response. Jaynes, like a new Pygmalion, breathes life into religion, whereas the glare of the ordinary Enlightenment mind bleaches all life and sense out of it.
As to how he does it, I can say this much: it is partly by reminding us that religion formerly suffused everything. Take poetry, for example. We flee from it now, as from some dull and distressful relative. An announcement that a poetry-reading is about to take place will empty a room quicker than a water-cannon. Support for poets is a minor responsibility of the Minister for the Arts. Yet the professional reciters of the Homeric poems were, to their contemporaries, precious vessels, in whom was preserved ancient knowledge of divine things. And Jaynes's theory has the beauty of implying that, in a sense, they really were so! So, in reading Jaynes, we undergo a Gestalt-switch, and suddenly see once more, at least for a while, that poetry might matter.
The book, however, is the very reverse of a junk-yard of religious actualities. It is systematic, and every historical exhibit is put in its proper historical place. Take demons, for example. Ignorant people of the Enlightenment often imagine that belief in demons is virtually coextensive with religion. The facts are that this belief was utterly unknown in early times, and that it reached its highest point only in the ripe civilisation of the first two centuries AD - in the world of Lucian, Seneca, Petronius, and Apuleius. Jaynes's theory offers an explanation of both these facts.
Or take the matter of prayer. We usually think of prayer as an inseparable part of religion. Jaynes argues very persuasively that it is, on the contrary, a late development: a result of receding gods, and dawning consciousness. The earliest accounts we can glean of the relation of men to gods seem positively to exclude the attitude - both the physical and the mental attitude - of prayer. And prayer is, after all, an attempt to elicit a response from gods who are silent and withdrawn, "in heaven". But the first gods, if Jaynes is right, were precisely not in heaven but with us; and always on the job, too. Hypnotised people do not pester the hypnotist with petitions, or with any expressions of their will.
Jaynes has made a definite suggestion, where no one else had a single thing to offer. To explain what I mean, I quote some lines which I wrote a year before coming across his book.
Hegel held that animals have no religion, but as against that, Darwin (and others before him) said that, to a dog, its master is a god. If this is true, it is to the credit of canine intelligence, since the evidence for this theism is obvious and overwhelming. But where is the evidence for our belief that we are somebody's cattle? What is there, that could even have rationally first suggested the belief to our minds? Of course we might be somebody's cattle and have no evidence that we are; but that is only a trivial truth of logic. The question is, what on earth, or in the sky, or in the sea, could have given the cleverest species of animals on earth reason to believe that it is not the cleverest? That it ranks only third, or tenth (or whatever subordinate degree your religion assigns us to), in the order of intelligent beings. I have never met with a satisfactory answer to this question, or even with a promising answer. In that sense, religious belief is unintelligible to me. 
Hallucinated authoritative voices are at least an answer to the question I asked; whereas my previous reading and reflection had left me unable to suggest any answer whatever. Of course, I had been looking in all the wrong places - "on earth, or in the sky, or in the sea". It never occurred to me to look inwards, so to speak. Still, I do not now feel that I ought to have thought of Jayne's answer myself. When Huxley first read The Origin of Species he exclaimed, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"; and there was a good deal of justice in this self-reproach. But Jaynes's theory, though it may not be as good as Darwin's, is about ten times more original than Darwin's was.
Jaynes has not only an answer, but a promising answer, to the question why there is a religion. For a start: hallucinated authoritative voices are at least a vera causa. Does this seem not much? Yet is it not enough on its own to put such voices miles ahead of most of the other candidates: gods themselves, visitors from outer space, "astral bodies", ghosts, Freudian god-knows-whats and Jungian not-even-god-knows-whats? We know that such voices exist, and that they can control behaviour. We also know that they sometimes have momentous consequences, both for the hearer of them and for those who are only told of them by the hearer: as for example in the case of Joan of Arc.
The burial-practices of early civilised men do seem to compel the conclusion that a lately-dead king was still heard, and heard as king. Nor were those practices confined to burials of rulers: they sometimes extended to other social superiors, and even to ordinary parents. All of these are people who, if they "spoke" at all after death, would speak with authority.
Moreover, there would be a kind of rationality in obeying such voices. Is there anything inherently irrational in carrying out the instructions of some one you know is dead? Not at all, unless our whole practice of making and respecting a "last will and testament" is irrational - a conclusion which some of the hardier spirits of the Enlightenment did not shrink from drawing. But even if they were right, it would seem to be still more irrational to disregard the instructions of an acknowledged authority, if you are in fact still "hearing" those instructions. Border collies make wonderfully clever sheep-dogs; but one which would obey all voice-instructions for a week, through (say) a tape-recorder fitted to his head, while the shepherd relaxed in town - would not this dog be a pearl beyond price, a Border collie far more rational than even the average of his breed?
Jaynes's theory of religion is already, I trust, appearing in the light of a promising one. But easily the most important point in its favour (though one not made by Jaynes) is this: that hallucinated sound is a cause of the very kind which is needed to explain religion. For consider: religious beliefs are not arrived at by any complex intellectual process, or by anything which would ordinarily be recognised as reasoning. (If religion did require reasoning, most people would never arrive at it at all.) Quite the contrary: religious beliefs spring up spontaneously, and with irresistible force, almost everywhere in the soil of humanity. And yet, for the Enlightened, they are all false. What is required, then, in order to explain religion, is something which, first, is delusive, and second, has an immediate sensory quality, available and familiar to all.
Now, that is a very improbable combination. Immediate sensory experience, in any species, is for the most part not delusive. (The evolutionary reason is obvious: a species would have a poor chance of surviving if its sensory data were as likely as not to be delusive.) It is the improbability of this combination which makes it so very hard to think of any rational explanation of religion. But one thing which does exemplify the required combination of delusiveness with sensory immediacy is hallucinated sound.
Surely this is a very striking circumstance? Of course, it would not count for much if we could easily think of half-a-dozen other things which combine immediacy with delusiveness, and which might have served to suggest our first idea of gods. But can we? I have not been able to think of even one other. If other people cannot think of any either, and if it is agreed that an immediate sensory base is required to explain religion, then Jaynes's theory is running in a one-horse race.
Even if Jaynes is altogether wrong about the voices of the dead, he seems to me to have picked out the right sense-modality for religion: hearing. Contact by touch with gods has hardly ever been so much as thought of. Visual contact with gods is seldom ever claimed, at any time, and even when such claims are made, nothing in religion, or at any rate curiously little, ever seems to depend on them. But any auditory contact with a god would be likely to be a very serious matter indeed. One reason for this is pointed out by Jaynes: that hearing is peculiarly "mandatory". You can do extremely little in the way of escaping or reducing sound, and certainly nothing which corresponds to turning your head away, or closing your eyes, in the case of vision. And hallucinated sound, of course, is mandatory absolutely: you cannot even turn the volume down. That is why such sound, even in the form of mere "ringing" and the like, constitutes a terrible affliction when it is loud and constant.
But there is an even more important reason, not adverted to by Jaynes, why auditory contact with a god would be likely to be momentous: namely, that such contact would furnish the only opportunity to learn what the god commands. Authority is (as Jaynes insists) of the essence of religion, yet, until the invention of writing, it is hearing alone which can receive imperative messages, or any normative message at all. If you want to inform someone of something, you can do it either through his vision or his hearing: show your guest where the toilet is, or tell him where it is. But if you want to get someone to do something, you must go through his sense of hearing. Imagine the command-system in an army where all the soldiers were deaf, or all the officers were dumb. Before the invention of writing, any scene, any visual display, is normatively impotent: it cannot tell you what is to be done, or even that anything at all is to be done. You simply cannot convey to the eye the idea of "to be done". Any picture of a man doing something might mean "Do as the man in this picture does", or "If you do as this man does I will kill you", or "Don't you think this would make a nice wallpaper pattern?", or any one of a million things.
For this reason, I think that Jaynes must be right, at least in thinking that social control originally depended on the sense of hearing. That religion is the medium of social control among early civilised men is certain. Together, these two facts give us a strong connection between religion and hearing. And then, out of earshot, social control via the sense of hearing could only be hallucinatory, unless or until it was exercised through moral beliefs and a sense of responsibility: two telltale marks, Jaynes would say, of conscious life.
Religion springs up spontaneously almost everywhere: not everywhere. Whether a society of atheists could subsist was a question debated often and urgently during the Enlightenment. By about 1880, it had been decided in the affirmative by the "anthropologists" (as they were then beginning to be called). But the question had also by then lost the political urgency which it had had for Europe in the eighteenth century; for it had turned out that religionless societies, though they exist all right, are all extremely primitive. Whether a civilisation can subsist without religion would have been a better question; and it was, presumably, the one which was often really intended.
To this question, all the evidence points to a negative answer, and always has pointed that way. That a civilisation has never originated, at least, without a religion, has long been known. That civilisations decay with the decay of religion, though not so certain, is well-confirmed. All this was acknowledged even by the Enlightenment's bitterest and deepest critic of religion, David Hume, who wrote: "Look for a people entirely devoid of religion. If you find them at all, be assured that they are but a few degrees removed from brutes."  This is true, but it comes very oddly from Hume. In particular, it ought to have moderated the satisfaction with which he looked forward to what he called "the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition".  (But then Hume died in 1776, thirteen years before the balloon went up.) Anyway, if it is a fact that civilisation arises, flourishes, and decays with religion, it is a fact for which Hume did not have the faintest glimmer of an explanation. But Jaynes does have an explanation: that hallucinated authoritative voices are the germ both of religion and of cities.
The Special Place
On religion, then, Jaynes's merits, all of them rare and some of them unique, are these. 1. He sees the problem and never loses sight of it. 2. He is entirely free from Enlightenment-superciliousness. 3. He is immune to the temptation to rationalise religion. 4. He brings the religious past to life. 5. He has a definite theory of the origin of religion. 6. His theory has much in its favour, and most importantly the fact that it postulates an immediate sensory origin for religion: a respect in which it seems to have no rival-theory. But the power of Jaynes's treatment of religion will, perhaps, be brought out better by the following two examples than by any list of its general merits.
Jonathan Sumption, in his valuable book Pilgrimage (1975), mentions that in the Middle Ages, pilgrimage sometimes became so popular, and hence so profitable to the favoured places, that competition arose among the shrines - and, as a natural consequence, advertising. It had to be given out that your shrine delivered more or bigger miracles than its main competitor, even if both of them should be, for example (a thing which could easily happen), shrines of Our Lady. A certain French monk who was attached to Coutances Cathedral published a book to prove that the Blessed Mary of Coutances was indeed superior to the Blessed Mary of Bayeux, and that to doubt this was not only weak-minded but dangerous:
He points, for example, to the fate of Vitalis, a Norman who had come to the "insipid conclusion" that "the Blessed Mary of Bayeux and the Blessed Mary of Coutances were one and the same person, that is, the mother of God; and that consequently the Virgin of Coutances could not possibly be more merciful or more powerful than the Virgin of Bayeux". Vitalis accordingly refused to accompany his fellow-villagers on a mass pilgrimage to Coutances, for which the Virgin severely chastised him.
This is very good Enlightenment history, beautifully and amusingly done. But the aftertaste of it is extremely unpleasant, because it makes us despair more than ever of humankind. Vitalis, who was a monk of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, had reasoned, for perhaps once in his life, like a rational being, and for this atrocious offence, the Virgin herself condescended to punish him! How can any Christian believe that the Blessed Mary of Coutances is superior to the Blessed Mary of Bayeux? But then, of course, this same mystery about identity runs through almost all religion. How can each of a thousand figurines be the god So-and-So? How can the Son and the Holy Ghost be distinct from one another, yet each identical with the Father? It is enough to make anyone despair; or else smile wearily and put the whole impossible business out of his mind.
But now see how one tiny touch of Jaynes loosens the logjam. Schizophrenics, it has been found (pp. 390-91), have an odd kind of tolerance, in that they do not object to their own identity being (so to speak) scattered. For example, one of them may be convinced, say, that he is Napoleon; but if he is introduced to another who is convinced that he is Napoleon, what happens is - complete agreement! Each of the two stands by his own identity-claim; but each also acknowledges, with perfect equanimity, that the other person is Napoleon.
Even so amazing a fact as this does not, of course, explain how a Christian can believe that Our Lady of Coutances is superior to Our Lady of Bayeux. Indeed, it does not explain anything. But it at least irresistibly suggests that there is a fault which is common to the religious and the schizophrenic, and where this fault lies. It seems to lie in their logical faculty, and more specifically in the logic-of-identity department.
There are various logical laws of identity. One of them is the symmetry law: that if x is identical with y, then y is identical with x. Another is the transitivity law: that if x is identical with y, and y is identical with z, then x is identical with z. A third law, which follows from those two, has no standard name, but might be called the no-scatter law: if x is identical with y, and z is identical with y, then x is identical with z. It is this law which seems peculiarly likely to fall into abeyance among both the religious and the schizophrenic. Could there be a particular cerebral locus on which compliance with this law depends, so that it is impaired if that part of the brain is imperfect, diseased, or damaged? The idea naturally suggests itself; although it does not sit very easily with the fact that any logical law must be something which is called into play everywhere, and all the time. 
Jaynes's theory (I hope it is unnecessary to say) is a variant of the madness theory of religion. Could it be that nearly every human being ever born has been mad? Some philosophers have, directly or by implication, ridiculed this suggestion, as being logically impossible. I think that it is not only logically possible, but the actual truth; and Jaynes's theory implies no less. Of course, a word as simple and shocking as "madness" inspires all sorts of superficial objections. But once we start to assemble the telling details, such as a fault in identity-logic which is common to the religious and the schizophrenic, we can easily afford to give up that word, while having more reason than ever to think that we had been on the right track with it all along.
My second good example of Jaynes at work is his section (pp. 321-31) on the oracles of ancient Greece. In this case, as in every other case in the history of religion, the hardest thing to do is simply to see the facts steadily, and not be blinded by Enlightenment superciliousness or rationalism. This is especially difficult in the case of the oracles, because here we have 2,000 years of those obstacles to contend with. For the oracles gradually fell silent durmg the last century BC and the first century AD. No one quite knows why, though many theories were canvassed at the time or soon after. (You can find some of these discussed by Plutarch, in his essay on the cessation of the oracles.)
The facts, or at any rate some of them, are these. For most of a thousand years, all Greece believed implicitly in the oracles, and, at least for the most part, accepted what the oracles said. Every question which a government found too hard, or which a group, or a private person, found too hard, was referred to an oracle, whether it was a question of fact or of policy, or a question of what was going to happen. The answer, at least in the period and at the places we know most of, was given at once, by a priest, or more often a priestess, who spoke for the god and was at the time "possessed" by the god: plena deo, "full of the god".
Cases of manipulation were not absolutely unknown, but only the most unteachable rationalist will suppose that they were typical. In the vast majority of cases, as in the very famous one which I shall mention, no one knew what the god was going to say. I cannot emphasise too strongly that all Greece believed in the oracles. Even at the height of the Greek Enlightenment, in the second half of the fifth century BC, the oracles retained their full authority. With Socrates, and his many disciples and companions, the Homeric gods were very largely a joke - and, they considered, a disgraceful joke at that. But their scepticism did not extend to the oracles: quite the reverse. The Socrates who has meant so much to all later generations, and who changed the course of philosophy, was not the youthful Socrates: he was merely a student of mainstream Milesian science physics, astronomy, biology. No, the Socrates who matters is the middle-aged and the old Socrates, who was an entirely different person. This was a man who haunted public places in search of knowledge, letting the air into democratic windbags, religious maniacs from the suburbs, professional immoralists, and the taxpayers generally. He spent his later life, as Sacco and Vanzetti said they spent their earlier life, "talking to scorning men on street corners"; and he met with the same fate as they did.
Now, what was it that transformed Socrates's life? Why, this: a friend of his took it upon himself to ask the Oracle at Delphi whether there was in Greece anyone wiser than Socrates, and received the reply that there was not. News of this hit Socrates like a thunderbolt. He knew himself to be ignorant, but then he also knew that the god could not lie or be mistaken. Therefore there had to be some unobvious sense in which the words of the god were to be understood. And finally, though only after a long and frustrating search, Socrates hit upon his famous and seminal interpretation that many other people thought they knew something, but did not, while he alone knew that he knew nothing. So the god had spoken truly, after all!
These facts are as certain as anything in all antiquity: they are drawn from Socrates's speech when on trial for his life, as recounted by his disciple Plato shortly after the trial took place. Judge from them the depth of Socrates's trust in the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi; and, a fortiori, the authority which the oracles possessed among people who were not, as he was, at the forefront of the Enlightenment. And, from the insuperable difficulty which we have in taking these facts seriously, judge how disabling Enlightenment attitudes are...
In the fifth century, then, the oracles retained the position in Greek life which they had possessed for the two preceding centuries. Their overall history, as Jaynes relates it, was in outline as follows.
At first there is just a certain place, usually distinguished by striking natural features, but with no people at all attached to it. Anyone who goes there can "hear" the god. (One of these "direct" oracles survived to a very late date.) Then there is a stage in which a priest or priestess is always present, but not "possessed" by the god: they are merely people who can "hear" the god when others cannot. Later again come the "classic" priests and priestesses, they of the distorted mouths and limbs, in some mental state characterised by extreme diminution of consciousness, and induced by elaborate preparations. Later still, a second class of persons appears: interpreters, not themselves possessed, but needed in order to explain the increasingly difficult utterances of the possessed. Then the answers gradually become impossible for anyone to make head or tail of; and finally no sound at all can be elicited, and the place becomes deserted.
It is, I think, only the first third of this sequence which might be seriously wrong: the second two-thirds of it seem to be pretty much agreed on by all authorities. Naturally, I do not know whether Jaynes is right about the first third. But if he is right, and even if he is right only about the very first stage - that is, if the oracles were all at first direct ones - then his theory of religion is powerfully confirmed.
For consider. Originally the god can be heard only at special places; then only by special people even there; then by even those people only when they are in a special and induced state; then only with the help of a second class of specialists to interpret what is said; and finally even all these piled-up specialisms are not enough. If this is indeed the history of the oracles, it scarcely admits of any other explanation than Jaynes' one: namely, that earlier still, everyone had been able to hear a divine voice anywhere, and that this capacity became progressively rare, and progressively harder to exercise even by those who still possessed it.
Restoring the Oracles
Jaynes would have the whole of religion hang by the single slender thread of hallucinated voices. I do not believe that it can support so great a weight. The experience of hallucinating a voice seems, somehow, too special; and also too rare, even where, by the theory, it ought to be still rather common. Jaynes acknowledges that even those people who in childhood had an "invisible playmate" did not in general hallucinate the speech of the invisible one. Most people, as far as I know, never in their lives hallucinate a voice; certainly I never have. The nearest I have come to it is that once, for a few days after a beloved dog died, I "heard" around the place the familiar clinking of the metal parts of her collar.
There are whole huge parts or aspects of religion which do not figure at all in Jaynes's theory. One is what I do not shrink from calling the Velikovskian-astronomical part: for I am enough of an admirer of the late Immanuel Velikovsky to agree with him that the best explanation of the belief in planetary "wars in heaven", of the fear of comets, etc., is - wars in heaven. But here, of course, Jaynes would say in his own defence that planetary gods, being in heaven, must be a late religious development. And indeed it must be admitted that to mistake what we call Mars and Venus for gods would seem to presuppose a degree of scientific knowledge, or at least of disinterested curiosity, which is not easily ascribed to a very early stage of human history.
Then, even more importantly, there is nothing at all in Jaynes's theory about the "Anaximandrian" or developmental aspect of religion. I have in mind Anaximander's justly famous observation, that the helplessness of the young is both more extreme and more prolonged in humans than in any other animal: a fact of which the implications are still unexhausted, despite the 2,600 years since it was first pointed out. Surely this fact must have something rather important to do with religion; although, no doubt, not merely infantile life, but intra-uterine life, needs to be taken into account. If we absolutely had to choose between an historical or once-and-for-all explanation of religion, such as Jaynes's, and an explanation of it solely in terms of the biological development of every individual, Jaynes's way would be, in my opinion, the right way to go. But it is obvious enough that we do not have to make such a choice: there is nothing to stop a theory of religion being mainly historical but partly developmental. (In fairness I must add that, somewhere in this book, Jaynes refers to another book which he was then preparing, on the development of consciousness in children; but I do not know whether that book ever appeared.)
Those are two very large gaps in any theory of religion. But I must say that, looking over what I have written here, my strongest impression is, not of how much Jaynes has left out, but of how little I have managed to convey of what he put in. If you think of Bach's St Matthew Passion played on a tin whistle, and then think of it played and sung properly, you will have a fair idea of the difference between my account of Jaynes on religion, and Jaynes on religion.
The trouble is that nothing I could write would ever have more than the ordinary Enlightenment merits of being sane, clear, and consequential. Jaynes, by contrast, though an Enlightenment man, has tapped such deep and long-forgotten sources, and given them such a flood of utterance, that, having done so, he is no longer an ordinary Enlightenment man like the rest of us.
He hardly could be. For he has, in a manner, restored the oracles after their long cessation: a work of Hercules, which could not possibly have been performed by the intellect alone, or be limited in its effects to the intellect alone.
Encounter, April 1989
[start of notes]
In 1976 the American psychologist Julian Jaynes published a striking book titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Both the author and his argument have Wikipedia pages. The book is still in print in May 2011.
In his book Jaynes offered a very original theory of human consciousness: mainly, that it is quite a new thing, which arose only about 3,000 years ago, the human mind prior to that having been "bicameral". From this premise Jaynes developed theories of mind and of the origin of religion.
Though much pooh-poohed at the time, Jaynes's theory has been getting new attention since the "Consciousness Studies" movement got airborne in the mid-1990s. Recent understandings of the speed of recent human evolution have given still more credibility to Jaynes's ideas.
The Australian philosopher David Stove had interesting things to say about Jaynes's book in the following article he wrote for Encounter in April 1989, at - characteristically for Stove - the nadir of interest in Jaynes and his ideas. The book had long since slipped from public attention, the Consciousness Studies people had not yet arrived on the scene.
I have taken Stove's essay from the book Cricket versus Republicanism and other Essays, Ed. James Franklin and R.J. Stove (Quakers Hill Press, Sydney, 1995). I am obliged to Roger Kimball for bringing it to my attention.
[Links to 26 individual scanned pages]
Download all the scanned pages. They're JPG files.
I'll run them through an OCR converter.
Tested page 1 on both. Results better with ocr.space. Used this one for all the other pages.
Corrected text, working in Vim and Notepad++.
Notes on changes:
- logical quotes.
"possession," -> "possession",
- "show your guests" -> "show your guest"
- "than y is identical with x" -> s/than/then
- In the phrases:
-- "why there is a religion"
-- "get someone to do something"
-- "your shrine delivered"
-- "another class of persons"
-- "which we have in taking these facts seriously"
- I found another PDF source (
) in which these words were italicised. I changed the text in this article to match.
[end of notes]
[start of footnotes]
This quotation is from my essay 'Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story', to be published later this year by Bradford Books/MIT Press, in my collection Cole Porter and Karl Popper, and other Reputations Reconsidered. [It was actually published in 1991 by Blackwell, in Stove's collection The Plato Cult. - RJS.]
[return to main text]
The Natural History of Religion, in David Hume, The Philosophical Works (ed. Green and Grose, London, 1882), Vol. 4, p. 362. Hume actually wrote, not "Look for", but "Look out for". But since the latter would now be apt to be misunderstood as "Beware", I have omitted the word "out".
[return to main text]
These words are attributed to Hume by his best friend Adam Smith, in an account which he published of Hume's last days. See Vol. 3, p. 9, of David Hume, The Philosophical Works.
[return to main text]
I cannot forbear mentioning following curious fact. I have elsewhere shown, in something which was written well before I had heard of Jaynes, that this very same law of identity is characteristically in abeyance among another class of persons namely, those philosophers who are, in the technical sense of the word, idealists. Philosophical idealism has always, of course, been an offspring of religion, and has even been generally recognised as such.
[return to main text]
[end of footnotes]