By David Gosselin
As previously explored, rhetoric, propaganda, and the “magical” qualities of language have been used to shape mass opinion for thousands of years. Plato in his time observed this phenomenon throughout the socio-politico-cultural matrix of Ancient Athens. Book X of The Republic paid particularly close attention to the role of dramatic and epic poets, the chief “image makers” of Ancient Greece.
Notably, Plato pointed to the poet’s ability to induce catharsis in mass audiences using intensely gripping images and scenes that captured the imagination. In modern behavioral science and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) terms, these wordsmiths created psychological “anchors” i.e., images that anchored the mind to specific states of affection, in turn associating them with a particular idea or “felt-thought.” These said “anchors” could then be recalled by simply invoking earlier passages, images, or related “cues,” therefore eliciting the original emotional state or memory under new conditions. Retrieving these memories in future times could then be used to color an audience’s future impressions and behaviors by recalling past positive or negative affectations and linking them with new ones. In a word: individuals unfamiliar with navigating the waters of their own inner psyches could have their perceptions of reality altered by the artful sequencing of past and present experiences, thereby artificially linking various images and ideas, regardless of whether they bore any semblance to truth.
Thus, Plato observed that while Athenians and other Greeks in his time were regularly in the habit of citing various passages of Classical Greek poetry that had been anchored into their memories from past performances on the dramatic stage, these representations of compelling human action or experience, however rousing, did not in and of themselves constitute a genuine standard for Beauty, Truth and Goodness. As explored throughout The Republic, these artificial associations could even be subversive and entail the very opposite of what they appeared. The more artful and successful the representations of human life and action were, the more subversive and powerful these “imitations” could be in their ability to divert people from “the real thing.”
The crux of Plato’s Republic centered on the question of whether a citizenry could distinguish “the real thing” from artful imitations of “the real thing.” As Plato demonstrated throughout his dialogues and letters, the long-term fate of any republic or civilization depends on it.
Public Opinion Revisited, Once More
In the early twentieth century, books like Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion, Freud’s Mass Psychology, and later works like The Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing—How Evangelists, Psychiatrists, Politicians, and Medicine Men Can Change Your Beliefs and Behavior and The Structure of Magic I & II explored the various relationships between thought, language, and imagery, and the many “magical” ways in which these mediums could be used to shape the beliefs and behaviors of a group or mass of individuals.
For example, in Lippman’s Public Opinion, the authorexamined the control of mass populations through the manipulation of the “pictures inside the heads of human beings”:
“The pictures inside the heads of human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs and purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion, with capital letters.”
Walter Lippman—Public Opinion (1923)
As seen in previous installments, rather than being some novel conceit, these “pictures” described by Lippman, and others harkened back to a very old tradition of social engineering practiced by oligarchies and their priesthoods since the time of Ancient Rome, Greece, and Babylon. So, Aristotle famously dedicated an entire book to cataloguing how various emotional states could be elicited in individuals or groups using a variety of rhetorical techniques. This “art” of rhetoric would allow the reigning power structures to influence what feelings a population associated with various “images” or policies. The result was what we in modern times would term “social engineering” or mind control.
Take, for instance, Aristotle’s example of how a rhetorician or politician could most effectively induce “pity” in his audience:
“We will now state what things and persons excite pity, and the state of mind of those who feel it. Let pity then be a kind of pain excited by the sight of evil, deadly or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it; an evil which one might expect to come upon himself or one of his friends, and when it seems near.”
The Rhetoric, Book II, Part VIII—Aristotle
Imagine an entire book dedicated to articulating how skilled speakers might artfully induce various states of affection in audiences to modify how they felt towards different ideas or policies, and consequently, how they thought about them. Imagine an entire world in which the majority of people have their understanding of reality shaped not by genuine discoveries of principle and intimate knowledge of the world as it truly is, but by the images and states of affectation they associate with their impressions of reality. These images and their related “felt thoughts” Aristotle termed the “phantasma” of the mind, that is, the “apparitions” inside the heads of human beings.
When properly considered, one begins to get a clearer picture of why Plato so emphatically stressed the role of art, culture, and poetry in a genuinely sovereign republic, including whether said art could lead people to “the real thing” or simply artful imitations. Ultimately, Plato surmised that the survival of any republic depended on whether individuals could distinguish the real thing from imitations of the real thing.
The opposite of a society that investigates the underlying axioms of their worldviews is a socially engineered society. It is a society in which people’s imaginations are shaped and colored not by their genuine exploration and knowledge of reality, their deeper selves, and the many real characters found in the great drama of human existence—as Shakespeare and Plato so masterfully demonstrated in their dialogues and dramas—but by the various states of affectation associated with their impressions of reality, regardless of whether the phantasma derived from these experiences contained any genuine truth. Plato called individuals who largely operated at this epistemological level the “Democratic” souls of the world. Rather than its more modern usage, those representing the “demos” were individuals whose worldviews were one of opinion, largely determined by tribal affinity (in-group and out-group), positive or negative affection, and artificial narratives.
Alas, while most academics treat Plato’s famous paradox of “should we allow the poets into our Republic?” as the ravings of a would-be Kim Jon Un intent on banning anyone who doesn’t toe the state’s line, Plato’s thought experiment identified precisely the problem of “Public Opinion.” He recognized that the poets, storytellers and “myth-makers” of his time were those with the power and creative acumen to shape the “pictures inside the heads of human beings.” What we know as the sophists (“experts”) and rhetoricians of Plato’s day—or today—were simply cheap “imitations” of the “real thing.”
However, to fully appreciate how Western civilization and its classical wisdom have been perverted by the “magicians” of language and persuasion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we must venture beyond the realm of politics and rhetoric into the much broader realm of culture. Rather than being a purely aesthetic question of “art for art’s sake,” or some modern political aphorism, even in his time Plato recognized that politics really was downstream from culture.
Breaking the Trance
The case of psychosurgery evangelist, Dr. William Sargant, is perhaps one of the most useful and interesting examples of how approaches to mass psychological control embodied in the practices of ancient civilizations were re-imagined in the post-war period, with the many “rules of thumb” of earlier psychological control distilled down to a would-be “science.”
Originally a psychiatrist at the Tavistock-related British military Maudsley Hospital, Sargant explored how various “altered-states” of emotion could be induced in patients using drugs, alcohol, torcher, or even simply language and carefully framed imagery. Insights into the latter would be fully formalized in The Structure of Magic by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the former being a student of anthropologist and sociologist of CIA MK-Ultra notoriety, Gregory Bateson.
A friend and correspondent of Aldous Huxley, Dr. Sargant travelled the world profiling various tribes and cultures to understand the seemingly “magical” transformations individuals experienced at the hands of “shamans,” priests, and “faith healers.” From Hatian voodoo rituals in which individuals found themselves “possessed” by spirits to fundamentalist Christian preachers invoking visceral images of hellfire to instill in their flocks a healthy “fear of God,” Sargant observed that heightened emotional states could be used to artificially induce radical changes in belief and behavior, causing an individual’s focus to shrink down to a single point. This could be done by creating emotionally heightened conditions whereby the physiological states necessary to create a new cathexis between images and ideas were brought to a sufficient level.
These types of experiences fell under what modern hypnotists would class under the general category of “altered-states.” Interestingly, Sargant observed individuals in states of religious or spiritual trance across the world, reporting on his findings in one of his books:
“From the Stone Age to Hitler, the Beatles and the modern ‘pop culture,’ the brain of man has been constantly swayed by the same physiological techniques. Reason is dethroned, the normal brain computer is temporarily put out of action, and new ideas and beliefs are uncritically accepted. The mechanism is so powerful that while conducting this research into possession, trance and faith-healing in various parts of the world, I myself was sometimes affected by the techniques I was observing, even though I was on my guard against them. A knowledge of the mechanisms at work may be no safeguard once emotion is aroused and the brain begins to function abnormally.”
Dr. William Sargant — The Mind Possessed: A Physiology of Possession, Mysticism and Faith Healing (1971)
Parallels between ancient religious rituals, artistic festivals, and spiritual practices handed down from generations could be observed in modern culture, albeit under ostensibly different circumstances. Sargant observed parallels between ancient rituals and, say, the mass hysteria and euphoria of a Beatles concert, Woodstock festivals, and other forms of mass culture typified by “pop groups.”
“Many of the other dancers approached very near trance and showed states of increased suggestibility at the end of a long and intensive period of repetitive and monotonous dancing. They looked very much like fans of the Beatles or other ‘pop groups’ after a long session of dancing.”
Dr. William Sargant (p. 118) — The Mind Possessed: A Physiology of Possession, Mysticism and Faith Healing (1971)
The likes of Sargant and Huxley drew direct parallels between “rock” festivals and the kinds of orgiastic dancing and frantic emotional states typical among participants at alcohol and orgy-fueled festivals for the God Dionysus. As Huxley observed in one of his lectures, individuals participating in ancient Dionysian rites and the kinds of practices studied by Sargant could live very wretched lives, spending most of their weeks in some kind of slave-like bondage, but then find a release or “catharsis” in ritualistic and frenzied festivals that allowed for a significant emotional release. This occurred through intense, albeit momentary transformations in affect and disposition, largely augmented by sex and drugs, with the added elements of spectacle to give these experiences their particular “magic.”
With this background in mind, as recently demonstrated in a study of World War I & II “shellshock” and neurosis research, the traumatic political situations and tumultuous economic times of the early twentieth century created conditions in which a deep desire to escape the crippling spiritual effects of the early 1960s made the emergence of “pop culture” the perfect manifestation of what some theorists have called “Chaos Theory.” For, here was a means for the Baby Boomer generation to escape precisely the traumas and chaos of wars based on lies, political assassinations, and new forms of twentieth century imperialism. And it could all be done by, in the words of LSD prophet Dr. Timonthy Leary, “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.”
So, we find that the 1960s saw a new kind of artistic and musical scene in which “tuning in and dropping out” became the norm. One could attend a Woodstock festival, among many others, where they would hear, say, Jimi Hendrix jiving on his guitar, playing “Purple Haze” and singing lyrics like:
“Purple haze all in my brain
Lately things don’t seem the same
Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”
Or they could listen to the Beatles singing a number of psychedelic trip-inspired songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever”:
“No one I think is in my tree
I mean, it must be high or low
That is, you can’t, you know, tune in but it’s all right
That is, I think it’s not too bad.
“Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to strawberry fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry fields forever.”
Of course, the truth is that these “strawberry fields” were not forever. They never could be. They were very short-lived experiences that made returning to a non-strawberry field world much more difficult, to say nothing of the greater challenge of imagining how this non-strawberry field world might be genuinely changed. And here is where coming face to face with the truth of things and taking heart in our own deepest desires to call things by their true name, as a Confucius or a Plato would, or as a Prometheus and Christ would, comes into play.
Interestingly, one American poet, Daniel Leach, tellingly captured the deeper implications of this “new paradigm” in a rather nimble narrative poem entitled “The Devil at Woodstock.” The poet describes his journey to Woodstock where “a great spectacle was to occur—an earth-shaking event where all the stars that lit a generation’s sky would be together, like an astronomical alignment.” After all, this was the coming of the “Age of Aquarius,” a momentous occasion that was to herald “A spirit free of all the bitter strife our parents’ lives had known, and free of all the forms of tyranny; the little rows of doll-houses in suburbs, where the chains of smug conformity, in silence grow.”
The speaker in the poem elaborates on the deeper spiritual and philosophical undercurrents of this new paradigm, the many hopes and fears expressed by this new disenchanted generation:
“For we were a new generation born
Not for the narrow realm of ordered thought,
The world of soulless men and cold machines,
And empty phrases that no one believed,
But piously repeated, just the same;
Of gods who punished or rewarded men
As they obeyed like herded sheep, or not—
No! We were born to be the golden ones,
Free from all law save what was in our hearts,
And free from Time, but what each moment gave
To pleasure mind and body without guilt–
That greatest of the chains of tyranny.
And so we came to the appointed place
And joined the thousands, walking on the roads
Like pilgrims to some mystic, holy shrine,”
Alas, the narrator describes the “many things bizarre and new” he found there, with “people dancing mid the Summer corn/to waves of mystical, hypnotic tones” all around. However, rather than being something original, this “new” phenomenon represented the revival of a very old tradition.
And this is where our story takes a turn.
From Trance to Transcendence
Whereas timeless art takes the form of some intense challenge or wrestling with our own deeper nature as a creative species—described by the poet P. B. Shelley as “intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature”—the world of pop culture has largely the effect of numbing or flattening individuality by saturating it with cheaper, albeit artful imitations of profound human experience. Rather than transcending the limitations of the immediate world and taking the longer epistemological journey that allows us to get acquainted with the deeper nature of the divine spark found within ourselves, and others, pop culture has time and time again served as the perfect escape from such investigations. Moreover, instead of changing the reality we all inhabit, modern pop culture became a breeding ground for new ways of dropping out of reality, or simply creating countless new “realities.” This included mass recreational drug use, a constant stream of new forms of “entertainment,” and countless other novel varieties of distraction that allowed populations to “magically” altertheir affect or dispositions.
While undoubtedly created by talented individuals in some cases, more often-than-not, pop culture has served not to inspire what the poet Shelley described as the “desire of the moth for the star,” but rather the desire of the moth for the bug trap. Rather than reaching for something eternally beyond the reach of our immediate mortal grasp, pop culture presented the all too immediate prospect of instant highs, and instant lows. This was not the ecstasy of, say, a St. Theresa of Avila and her degrees of prayer, the quality of experience found in the creative epiphanies of a Beethoven, the intense dialogue among the many voices in a Bach composition or Platonic dialogue.
Characterized by a repetition of forms and tones adapted from the greatest traditions of classical art and poetry, pop culture takes the form of distilled and artificially formalized creations which have the effect of altering our surface experience of reality i.e., our affect and impressions. However, by its artificial nature it can do little to touch the deeper soul of humankind—the province of truly timeless art. The difference in the two modes is that the former involves the genuine thematic development of a musical idea or poetical thought, leading to some new epiphany, while the latter is a distillation of the former’s formal elements run in loops, but divorced from development.
Whether through some euphoric spurt of emotional stimulus in the form of a pop song or frenzied dance party, what we know as pop culture offers a brief trance-like succession of highs. While they may often feel novel and intense, their “magic” is defined by a very definite set of “formulas,” fashioned according to formal elements that can be easily found in the classical choruses and lyrical rhyming of the greatest classical odes and lyric poetry across the ages. Said otherwise, modelled after the elements of genuinely profound works of timeless art, including rhyme, rhythm, and form, pop music mimics the outward spiritual and transformative effects of true works of timeless art, only without the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey that makes possible the attainment of genuine Beauty, Truth, and Goodness i.e., “the real thing.”
Alas, like the clever tricks of ancient rhetoricians asking audiences to imagine tragic images or frightening futures to elicit emotional states that made new “suggestions” appear obvious and necessary, pop culture models the outward forms of “the real thing,” eliciting various states of affectation, but ultimately substitutes true transcendence with momentary “altered-states.” Using definite formal structures and formulas, pop songs by design place listeners into various states of “feeling good” or “cathartic” releases, but they require no work on the part of the audience. That is their appeal. As a result, people become accustomed to a life of eternally drifting in and out of trance, breaking from one illusion only to stumble into the next, all without ever awakening. Individuals who become accustomed to relying on such formulas to automatically alter their states and emotions—like a drug—inevitably find themselves epistemologically, spiritually, and philosophically unequipped to manually navigate the higher off-road terrains of the soul and deeper consciousness, which are places in which no formula or rule book can ever really take us, and which ultimately always require some leap of faith into the unknown.
Despite being consistently obscured by modern theories of “art for art’s sake”—as though a work of art were nothing but the completely independent act of an individual artist acting in a vacuum—the elusive relationship between what modern psychologists refer to as “Mass Culture” and “Mass Psychology” has been well-known since Plato’s time. That there have been well-established relationships between the world of arts and letters, the National Security Cinema, and the intelligence community is also a well-established fact, but seldom discussed or appreciated.
From the rise of “pop culture,” the silver screen, and Hollywood movies, new powerful vehicles for “capturing” the imagination of generations emerged at a critical point in the history of humankind. Lurking above the seemingly free “liberal order,” social engineers, psychologists, and oligarchs within the City of London and its vast Spider’s Web observed these phenomena and their useful applications for shaping “Public Opinion” and “Mass Culture.” So, Bertrand Russell—a descendent of one of Britain’s oldest hereditary “blue bloods”—wrote in 1951:
“I think the subject which will be of most importance politically is mass psychology. Mass psychology is, scientifically speaking, not a very advanced study, and so far, its professors have not been in universities: they have been advertisers, politicians, and, above all, dictators. This study is immensely useful to practical men, whether they wish to become rich or to acquire the government. It is, of course, as a science, founded upon individual psychology, but hitherto it has employed rule-of-thumb methods which were based upon a kind of intuitive common sense. Its importance has been enormously increased by the growth of modem methods of propaganda. Of these the most influential is what is called “education.” Religion plays a part, though a diminishing one; the press, the cinema, and the radio play an increasing part.”
Bertrand Russell—The Impact of Science on Society (1951)
The phenomenon of these new kinds of “screens” and “images” presented modern social engineers and their oligarchical rulers with an opportunity to formalize a multitude of effects that had been instinctively used by dramatists, rhetoricians, and sophists to manipulate the “phantasma” of the mind for millennia.
A significant portion of our lives is spent in various states of trance or altered-states. We walk daily without thinking about 99% of the steps we take. Often daydreaming or letting our automatic systems do the work, we cover significant portions of ground before realizing we’ve gone from point A to point B. From breathing without paying attention to how long or deep our breaths are, to getting swept away by a song or memory in the middle of the day, a significant portion of our lives is spent in some form of natural trance.
Then there are those higher forms of trance associated with intense creative work, as seen in the products Beethoven’s compositional life or, say, the poetry of a Keatsian ode—none of whom needed drugs to increase their “flow states.” By learning to listen to their muses, these artists allowed everything else to fade into the background, especially their own biases and preconceptions. Having dedicated countless hours to honing their craft such that they would have all the tools and compositional insights necessary to give their musical or poetical concepts some lasting form and treatment, these artists became humble enough to allow the real thing to find them—ratherthan chasing after their own preconceived notions of what that might be. Alas, the greatest wisdom is rarely what we set out to find, but almost always what ends up finding us.
The same thing can also be found in moments of deep prayer or meditation when one finds themselves in communion with their own inner voice— itself ultimately an intimation of the One eternal Being uniquely expressed in each sovereign individual. This one sacred inner voice— as opposed to artificially imposed outer voices—usually arrives in “flashes” of insight or a sudden “light turning on.” It happens when we humbly allow our inner voice—called the voice or “light” of God by many—to enter into a dialogue with our own deeper selves. This awareness has been described as a deep transcendent silence, a “night of the soul,” or a “sacred darkness” by philosopher, cardinal, and theologian Nicholas of Cusa. Rather than being diverted by the glittering illusions and spectacles of the magicians, this deeper awareness about our own nature as sacred beings naturally leads to a greater awareness of how the same thing might be awakened and cultivated in others.
Unfortunately, the fact that trance is a natural state of human existence—one usually experienced without our conscious awareness—made it a field of intense interest for twentieth century psychological warfare wizards of the Huxlian variety. That evil doesn’t create anything new or embody any profound sense of insight or wisdom is well-known. Without access to a deeper sense of creative love and humanity within themselves, individuals practicing evil have always relied on their cleverness—as opposed to wisdom—to mimic and model those outward human forms and experiences that help them develop more efficient ways of subverting or controlling “the real thing.”
Unlike Sargant who simply took interest in modelling the physiological dimensions of “altered states,” instead of trance, great art is characterized by transcendence. Take a masterful classical performance by a timeless singer like Maria Callas as she sings to someone found beyond the grave. Note the opening silence preceding the first note until the moment immediately following the singer’s last one—the curtain falls—then rises. The singer seen before and after is not the same person. The spell is broken, the dream is over, but all is not lost. Something is moved within us. We awaken with a little more awareness of the divine musicality within ourselves, and that the same thing lives within others, and can also be awakened and developed in others.
The audience is transported back to ordinary life, but only after experiencing a glimpse of the eternal, of the ethereal beauty which in the words of Edgar Allan Poe:
“It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, —or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods — we find ourselves melted into tears — we weep then — not as the Abbaté Gravina supposes — through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.”
So, Robert Frost appropriately described the effect of great poetry as leaving an “immortal wound,” leaving us marked souls.
Unlike a simplistic or purely behavioral analysis, the “magic” of a true creative moment involves something much more than neurons firing off and some heightened sensory experience. We are afforded an opportunity to partake in the eternal—something is moved within us or moves. While the magicians may model magic and may indeed be wizards capable of creating dazzling illusions that fool large swaths of people, often beguiling the magicians themselves into believing in their “magic,” it’s not Wisdom, it’s not Beauty, and it’s certainly not Truth.
Rather than being a purely aesthetic question, Plato recognized that there was ultimately no way around the deeper question of politics per se, but that said politics involved much more than just rhetoricians and tyrants passing laws, issuing decrees, or warring political tribes trying to advance their own causes. While politics made laws, art shaped the imagination. And the imagination was and remains the source and battleground for all ideas.
The best evil can do is try to mimic these genuine experiences using drugs, spectacles, or manipulating one’s sensorium to alter the “phantasma” of the mind, and consequently, our opinions. However, they achieve all this without ever knowing how to touch “the real thing,” in either themselves or others, only how to impose and overload our psyches with artificial images, leverage past traumatic experiences, or craft new narratives that drown out the deeper inner voice.
By learning to seek to real thing, as in the sublime quality of a Schiller, Shakespeare, or Shelley; in philosophers like Plato and Socrates; in the meditations of saints like Augustine of Hippo, Theresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi; or theologians like Nicholas of Cusa—to say nothing of the Eastern sages like Confucius, Mencius, and Rumi—we remain unfazed by the spectacles of even the most lavish royalty and gilded tongues of smooth talkers. We find ourselves capable of freely navigating even some of the most difficult off-road terrains of the soul. In this way, individuals, societies, and sovereign republics are guaranteed the only true defence against the myriad epistemological and psychological attacks levelled against civilization by the wizards and shamans of psychological warfare. In a word: citizens of all walks of life become capable of distinguishing between “the real thing” and even the cleverest imitations of “the real thing.”
In so doing, the magicians may find that many more people than they ever imagined are suddenly awake.
David Gosselin is a poet, researcher, and editor based in Montreal. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.