Past Masters

Raymond Williams

  • Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the 19th Century by Marjorie Reeves and Warwick Gould
    Oxford, 365 pp, £35.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 826672 3
  • Beauty and Belief: Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature by Hilary Fraser
    Cambridge, 287 pp, £25.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 521 30767 8
  • The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton edited by John Bradley and Ian Ousby
    Cambridge, 537 pp, £45.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 521 32091 7

What can we possibly say of the claim that ‘the first great revolutionary movements in Europe’ were all ‘more or less imbued with the ideas of Joachim of Fiore’? Or, if ‘more or less’ offers an escape clause, what can we say of another claim: that ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’? Or that ‘it is hardly too much to claim that the vague and powerful assumptions we all make about historical transition have their roots in Joachism’?

‘Aggregate of symbols’, ‘vague and powerful assumptions’, ‘more or less imbued’: whatever the actual history, these phrases bear the mark of very recent times; all were written, in fact, within the last twenty years. The tide of metaphysical and idealist speculation in the humanities is not yet at flood. Within a period of persistent political reaction, and of more specific kinds of political resignation, even the jetsam has its fascination: yet there is also a more serious problem, which the new study by Reeves and Gould directly addresses. By what actual processes are ideas preserved, circulated and developed? ‘Can the ideas of one person or group lurk around in the atmosphere, having, as it were, a continuing life of their own, so that they can be plucked out of the air by a later generation? Or is it the case that certain modes of thought or certain symbols can be generated spontaneously and afresh from archetypal sources working in repeatable types of human experience?’ This formulation of alternatives is, to be sure, itself inadequate. Both ‘lurking around in the atmosphere’ and ‘generated spontaneously ... from archetypal sources’ have built-in idealist assumptions. In the great majority of cases of the persistence and revival of ideas, more practical means are quite evident: notably the continuity and relative dominance of certain kinds of institution, which literally teach and reproduce.

Yet there are indeed cases, like this revival of Joachim, where there are enough discontinuities to make normal explanations doubtful. Once it is started, of course, the process feeds on itself. It becomes a matter of anxiety not to know Joachim, or a matter of fashion to know at least the name. Yet there are enough cases of the apparent persistence of some heterodox or underground tradition, specifically not taught in the dominant reproductive institutions, to return us to the more general problems of persistence and revival. Reeves and Gould, reaching beyond their title to our own century, offer an interesting analytic example.

The claims for Joachim (c. 1135-1202) are based on his application of the Christian Trinity to history. Full divine revelation in the world has three stages, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the ‘Third Age’ of the Holy Spirit, in concordance with the two previous ages, will come, or is about to come. A development of this scheme by one of his successors, Gerard, made the authority of the two previous ages, and the Old and New Testaments which correspond to them, obsolete: their place would be taken by the Eternal Evangel, the everlasting gospel of the Apocalypse. Joachim, it appears, did not believe in this sharp and (it might be said) revolutionary break, but his name was associated with it and the ideas were denounced as heretical.

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