Gnostic theories

I’m often suspicious of theories and models of the world that are Gnostic in the sense that they posit an original state or baseline of corruption, which must be overcome to achieve harmony, liberation, a good time, etc. Even accepting that a good bit of legwork is necessary in life, I’ve usually had sympathy with theories of people like Wilhelm Reich, where the “core” of life is believed to be naturally healthy and self-correcting, merely distorted by layers of negative conditioning.

It’s an attractive, reassuring view, and I’m not really here now to debate its pros and cons. I’m just noting the fact that in my web reading today I’ve happened upon pages about two people who’ve influenced my thinking—Terence McKenna and Pierre Clastres—that made me realise that there’s a resonance between their models and this broad kind of Gnosticism, one I hadn’t really seen before. Again, I’ve not much to say past that; file this under “notes” rather than “opinions”.

Being currently interested to find out if anyone has followed up McKenna’s theories about mushrooms and human evolution since his death, I happened across this useful (though slightly dated) collection of links on the “stoned ape” theory. In a quote from an interview here we find McKenna summing up his model of psilocybin’s impact on human history:

The primate tendency to form dominance hierarchies was temporarily interrupted for about 100,000 years by the psilocybin in the paleolithic diet. This behavioral style of male dominance was chemically interrupted by psilocybin in the diet, so it allowed the style of social organization called partnership to emerge, and that that occurred during the period when language, altruism, planning, moral values, aesthetics, music and so forth—everything associated with humanness—emerged during that period. About 12,000 years ago, the mushrooms left the human diet because they were no longer available, due to climatological change and the previous tendency to form dominance hierarchies re-emerged.

It’s kind of contrary to the Reichian view, but equally simplistic and attractive. He’s basically saying that our genetic line naturally tends towards male dominance and aggression, and that only mushrooms can mellow us out significantly.

Compare Wikipedia’s entry on Clastres’ work:

[Clastres] criticizes both the evolutionist notion that the state would be the ultimate destiny of all societies, and the Rousseauian notion of man’s natural state of innocence (the myth of the noble savage). Knowledge of power is innate in any society, thus the natural state for humans wanting to preserve autonomy is a society structured by a complex set of customs which actively avert the rise of despotic power. The state is seen as but a specific constellation of hierarchical power peculiar only to societies who have failed to maintain these mechanisms which prevent separation from happening.

Both kind of suggest that the Genesis story should be rewritten to find the Garden of Eden as a rather brutish place that Adam and Eve managed to learn how to subdue, how to weed it effectively and actively encourage the right plants (notably, McKenna would say, magic mushrooms). They weren’t expelled; they had to leave when it became too overgrown after they’d lazily stopped tending to it.

Obviously neither theorist aligns with the simplistic conclusion that nature itself is wholly brutish and without harmonising tendencies. But both are often seen as subscribing to the “noble savage” myth, the idea that we just need to cast off civilisation and things will sort themselves out. Plainly this isn’t the case. The message is: we have to work at it, all the time. Or, as we know usually know the sentiment: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.