Return to EarthLight Home Page

E S S A Y S ,   A R T I C L E S   A N D   R E V I E W S

The Gaian Politics of Lindisfarne’s
William Irwin Thompson

A Lifetime Achievement Review by Ralph Peters

EarthLight Magazine #47, Fall/Winter 2002/03

Nearly thirty years ago when he was a young professor of the humanities at York University in Canada, California-bred and Cornell-educated William Irwin Thompson suddenly erupted into public awareness as the author of the provocative National Book Award nominee, At the Edge of History. Thompson’s critically acclaimed book became an unexpected bestseller and shortly thereafter his dazzling ideas became the subject of a lavish three-page interview published in the August 21, 1972 issue of Time. Such notable achievements before the age of 35 would seem to be the irresistible prelude to a long and distinguished career in academia but in good Irish fashion, just at the moment of his greatest worldly triumph, Thompson began to hear what at first seemed to be quite dissonant music from other times and places. Taking a cue from the Celtic animism of his ancestors, he discovered in due time that he was listening to the "voice of the earth" singing underneath the din of industrial materialism. Thompson’s subsequent destiny, like the wandering Irish monks long before him, was to follow his questing Celtic spirit on a twenty-five year search for nature-friendly, mind-enriching and spiritually-enlivening cultural alternatives outside the ivory towers of the academy and apart from the military-industrial juggernaut that in his view American society had so pervasively and ominously become.

By 1974 Thompson had taken a bold leap of faith beyond the edge of Watergate-mired American culture and became the founding director of the Lindisfarne Association, an intentional community and educational center in Southampton, New York. The name "Lindisfarne" was in honor of the seventh century Celtic monastery off the east coast of Scotland that produced Saints Aidan and Cuthbert as well as the Lindisfarne gospels. This era was the golden age of Celtic Christianity and so Lindisfarne was at once a religious base for the conversion of the British Isles to Christianity, an educational center for preserving and transmitting the best of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions through the liberal arts and an artistic studio for the creation of beautifully illuminated manuscripts. This original Lindisfarne served as a point of spiritual light during the European Dark Ages and, like the earlier school of Pythagoras at Crotona or the later academy of Ficino in Renaissance Italy, housed a small creative minority that would one day have an impressively large cultural effect on the majority. Referring back to such models as his inspiration, Thompson hoped that his postmodern Lindisfarne would be both a unique source of culturally-transforming education and part of a universal network for the fostering of what he called the "new planetary culture".

Thompson claimed that this so-called planetary culture was energetically emerging in numerous marginal places in our midst in salient contrast to the powerful-appearing but actually declining urban-industrial civilization of militarized nation-states. What he and his Lindisfarne associates wished to do was to provide a setting (in 1976 they moved from Long Island to Manhattan) and the intellectual impetus to retrieve classical Western science from its dominant contemporary tendencies toward narrow reductionism and military applications, reenchant and resacrilize art in contradistinction to its current narcissistic tendency to nihilistically indulge or financially invest in art for art’s sake and recall religion to reembody its grandest universal visions and deepest esoteric practices rather than merely criticize its twin tendencies to slide toward reactionary fundamentalisms or dispirited liberalisms. Each cultural pursuit for a variety of reasons had become increasingly dissociated from the other two during the course of the twentieth century to the detriment of each and all. The end result was a set of separate and highly specialized subcultures, each with their own discipline—specific jargon that did not and could not serve as a vehicle of wider communication, let alone communion. In conjunction with the critical projects of multicultural, class and gender deconstruction and an increasing concern with pragmatic careerism, what used to be thought of as the shared "sacred" heritage of Western high culture began to experience a widespread meltdown in the very institutions of higher education that once endeavored to preserve, protect and promote it. Consequently, the only common culture left was popular and our pop culture had a disturbing tendency to maintain its shock value and stimulation intensity over time by moving cumulatively downward toward the lowest common denominator of base impulses. In the face of all that, the dream behind Lindisfarne’s strategy for cultural regeneration was to one day bring to multifarious expression a sensually beautiful and spiritually compelling "Planetary Renaissance" which would be nourished by a revitalized science, art and religion cross-fertilizing each other in a mutually enhancing dynamic of "triple circularity".

Given his background as a cultural historian, student of Kriya yoga and professor of the humanities, Thompson pointed to such cultural figures of the 1970s as the Californian poet Gary Snyder, the architect Paolo Soleri from Arizona, the British author Doris Lessing and the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as artistic harbingers of this new planetary sensibility. Having recently resigned from that citadel of militaristic and managerial science, MIT, Thompson had not yet found the scientists he felt would openly embrace and deeply comprehend the contemplatively-grounded and cosmologically-oriented tradition of authentic Western science which stemmed from the mystically inclined and musically adept Pythagoras. What he did find at MIT were computer savvy social scientists who were willing and able to project and predict future planetary disasters based on just five factors. Organizations such as the Club of Rome would then utilize such global modeling as a rationale for top-down management of these presumably forthcoming catastrophes. In sharp contrast, Thompson advocated a bottom-up approach that would give credence to those ultimately mysterious upwellings of human cultural creativity that so often, as with Jesus, Blake or Einstein, begin as "heresy" but end up as heritage.

Meanwhile, what the planetary artists had in common was either deriving considerable inspiration from the twentieth century seers who first discerned the evolutionary shift toward supramental mystical consciousness and the planetization of human culture, namely Sri Aurobindo from the East and Teilhard de Chardin from the West, or devotion to a spiritual practice rooted in one of the great contemplative traditions, such as Zen Buddhism or Sufism. Such panoramic visions could be breathtaking, but how did they intersect with the everyday world of rough-and-tumble politics? At that point in time, as exemplified by the arguments in his 1976 book, Evil and World Order, Thompson envisioned Lindisfarne to be an almost apolitical, back-to-nature center for spiritual self-realization. Politics in the context of a nature-exploiting corporate economy without the sincere and intentional pursuit of self-realization would more or less inevitably become an exercise in ethical futility. Self-realization meant, contrary to the culture of narcissism, the tough-minded cultivation of the ability to see through and dispense with one’s illusions so that open-hearted compassion for and love of others as they really are can begin to be a possibility. No genuine common good will result without the deepest experience of our individual humanness which, at this bedrock level, becomes the passageway to understanding and empathizing with a common humanity. Neurotic selves, lacking integration within themselves and projecting their own alienated shadows onto others, simply produce distorted forms of consciousness which necessarily and ultimately lead to meretricious politics.

So anything that resembles the Vietnam and Watergate-generating politics-as-usual should be put on hold until we all learn to meditate in the spirit of The Tibetan Book of the Dead before engaging in the dangerous and sordid world of politics, according to the Thompson of the mid-seventies. Politics is, as he described it in his 1978 book Darkness and Scattered Light, the last and least significant stage of the four stages that mark the contemporary unfolding of planetary culture. First the mystics see visions and utter prophecies, then the artists evoke poetry, construct experimental settlements, write novels and compose music which give greater concrete cultural specificity to the spiritual shift intuited by the mystics, then the scientists begin to model and measure planetary dynamics with computers and charts and graphs and then lastly politicians such as Jerry Brown and Pierre Trudeau begin to man the political caboose on the cultural train that is leaving industrial civilization behind. Lindisfarne and its sister centers in places like Findhorn, Scotland and Auroville, India would create and subsequently radiate a new planetary culture based on novel developments taking place in the realms of religion, art and science and following that the politicians and the masses would gradually, but hopefully not too slowly, absorb and enact this dawning planetary mythos before some sort of apocalypse ensues.

In an ironic twist that is consonant with Thompson’s own frequent invocation of enantiodromia (an ancient Greek term that refers to the tendency of many phenomena to turn into an opposite condition or flip-flop over time), by the early 1980s the conductor of Lindisfarne was beginning to change the downbeat of his organization in three fundamental ways, moving from an emphasis on the humanities to a focus on science, from a preoccupation with the posthistoric future to a growing concern with prehistorical perspectives and an unprecedented engagement of Thompson’s fertile imagination with contemporary politics. The primary catalyst for these sweeping changes was a 1981 Lindisfarne Fellows meeting that included the atmospheric chemist James Lovelock and the microbiologist Lynn Margulis, the co-formulators of the Gaia hypothesis. Gaia, named after the ancient Greek goddess, refers to what is now a reasonably respected scientific theory which hypothesizes that the organic and inorganic systems of the entire earth work together to enable the planet to function as a self-regulating entity and thereby maintain conditions more or less optimal for most of the life that inhabits the planet. So oxygen, for example, is chemically an unstable element but largely through the work of microorganisms, has remained a relatively stable component of the atmosphere over millions of years at roughly a 21% level. A few percentage point variations in either direction would create planetary havoc with vertebrate forms of life. Other important sources of stimulation to Thompson at this time were the late Paris-based Chilean proponent of cognitive biology, Francisco Varela and the California-based chaos mathematician, Ralph Abraham. Abraham’s work on the evolution of mathematical mentalities in particular ignited Thompson’s reimagination of history in terms suitable for a "Gaian politics" of the 1990s.

With the election of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980, the ensuing TV success of Dallas and Dynasty and the rise of Michael Jackson and Madonna as the top pop musical artists of the decade, it appeared that the "wealth generation and sexual stimulation" direction of American culture would be as incompatible with Lindisfarne’s aspirations as possible. Even though the energy crisis of the ‘70s impacted Lindisfarne’s ability to become economically self-sufficient, at least the cultural atmosphere made the spiritual quest of Lindisfarne plausible, if not respectable in at least some circles. The Lindisfarne of the ‘70s received its climactic recognition when Thompson was featured on the March 26, 1979 edition of Bill Moyers’ Journal and when Maurice Strong, the Canadian businessman who played a vital organizing role in both the 1972 and 1992 U.N. conferences on the environment, helped to arrange the geographical transfer of Lindisfarne central from what is now Limelight in Manhattan to Crestone, Colorado. The early phase of Lindisfarne received its intellectual consummation in what is perhaps Thompson’s most elegant book, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, a study of the primary role of the feminine in prehistory, her displacement during the course of Western civilization and her current return to cultural equality.

But after a few years of male-dominated work on the Lindisfarne Chapel and the "metaindustrial/solar village" in Crestone, the internal contradictions of being part of a New Age movement increasingly beholden to rigid and regressive "old age" mentalities and group-destructive behavior would compel Thompson to reconsider the whole Lindisfarne enterprise up until that point. It appeared that no humanities-oriented, meditation-centered organization was going to survive in the science-driven, wealth-acquiring world of the 1980s without being reimagined and then reinvented. In this potentially lethal cultural environment, Thompson, newly remarried, spent part of the 1980s living in Switzerland, all the while recreating his own role by assimilating various paradigm-shifting developments in science, writing a novel about the legendary Atlantis and award-winning poetry about ancient Mexico. By the mid-1980s, Thompson had succeeded in redefining Lindisfarne as an association of fellows in periodic intellectual exchange rather than an intentional community living and working together at the same geographical location.

By 1982 Thompson had worked out a sketch of "four cultural ecologies" which would become the basis for his Gaian work for the remainder of the decade. Intrigued by the possibilities for remythologizing Planet Earth as "Planet Water" based on the NASA image of the predominantly water-blue earth as photographed by "mythical" Apollo spaceships from on high, Thompson would recast the conventional political, economic, military and territorial dominated narratives of "Western civilization" as a series of water-related cultural ecologies. So ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, dependent as they were on the Nile and the Tigris/Euphrates rivers respectively, become "Riverine" cultural ecologies. Similarly, classical Greco-Roman civilization now becomes a "Mediterranean" cultural ecology. England and America, the initial great developers of industrial civilization become an "Atlantic" cultural ecology. The information culture of the last two decades, driven by California’s Silicon Valley and in the 1980s by Japan as well, becomes a "Pacific" cultural ecology. Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, we have for the first time in human history a shared nascent awareness among virtually all the major politicians of the world of a biospheric or planetary cultural ecology. But Thompson does not just outline the structure of the different cultural ecologies, he brilliantly fills in the content too. In what is without a doubt his best essay, "The Four Cultural Ecologies of the West" which constitutes chapter 3 from his 1985 book, Pacific Shift, Thompson insightfully demonstrates how the arithmetic-geometric-dynamic-chaotic mathematical mentalities correspond to each of the shifts in cultural ecologies. He goes on to show how literature, religion, economics, pollution, communications and polities are all describable and classifiable in terms of the four cultural ecologies. The centrality of this essay for Thompson’s later thought is suggested by the fact that it appears once again as chapter 1 in his most recent book published last year, Transforming History.

The subtitle of the 1987 volume edited by Thompson, Gaia: A Way of Knowing, is the "Political Implications of the New Biology". It announced an explicit political emphasis coming to the fore in Thompson’s work. In that volume Thompson follows up on the last chapter of Pacific Shift entitled "Gaia Politique" with both a recapitulation of the general principles characteristic of a Gaian polity and some specific policy recommendations. Let us look at some highlights of the general principles.

The most important general principle of a Gaian polity is to begin to think in terms of an ecology of consciousness rather than one-sided ideologies. In an ideological political culture, it is generally assumed by the majority that the Truth can be known completely and absolutely, wholly contained in a single system of ideas and ideals. Either capitalism or communism, Christianity or Islam is right but not elements of both or both in their entirety. The good then consists of an elite knowing the Truth accurately and thoroughly and keeping it "pure" as it is administered to the less enlightened masses, no matter how much violence, subtle or blatant, this process of transmission may entail. In a Gaian political culture characterized by ecological thinking, it is assumed that the Truth can only be expressed in the context of relationships of interacting opposites and therefore the Truth overlights those conflicts and is not necessarily wholly reducible to one pole of a conflict or the other; a corollary is that every ideological truth is partial at best and is at its most incomplete when stated in its purest and most extreme form. As Jesus or the Bhagavad-Gita teaches, you need your "enemy" for a more adequate revelation of the fullness of Truth.

Somewhat related is the principle of enantiodromia, well illustrated by the outcomes of so many modern revolutions, whether democratic or Marxist in their intentions: the optimistic romanticism of Rousseau which helped provoke the French revolution rather quickly turns into the dark terrorism of Robespierre; Stalin, the successor to Lenin in the Russian revolution, behaves much worse than the inhumane Czar he and Lenin struggled so much to replace; Chairman Mao is as brutal a ruler as any ruthless Chinese emperor that preceded him and so on. There are many examples from the last fifty years of American culture as well. Martin Luther King, Jr. led and expanded the civil rights movement through the discipline of nonviolence but Stokely Carmichael helped to shrink and destroy the movement as key elements of it flipped over into "black power". LBJ took us a long way down the road towards a "Great Society" of equality and compassion, but then "crashed and burned" politically speaking by escalating the Vietnam War. Dick Nixon promised to bring us together in response but instead severely divided the country over Watergate and eventually resigned. Bill Clinton aspired to be like Kennedy, perhaps succeeded too well and almost ended up like Nixon.

Thompson’s conclusion: "good" conscious intentions are no longer adequate motivational bases to guide revolutionary movements or political programs. If we are to reduce the relentless frequency and powerful aftermaths of these enantiodromias in the future, then we must be able to discern and integrate what is underneath conscious motivation and that is the full spectrum of unconscious motivations. We must now begin to take into account not just the historical unconscious of Hegel, the socioeconomic unconscious of Marx, the biological unconscious of Freud, the mythic unconscious of Jung and the political unconscious of Foucault but also the ecological unconscious of Gregory Bateson which became transmuted into Gaia in the 1980s. The disowned waste generated and accumulated by our civilization along all these dimensions is an informational signal and a type of self-communication that we are ready to evolve from one cultural ecology to the next. Yet in the final analysis Thompson affirms the wisdom of the mystic that we cannot in principle know everything and even trying to reduce all unconscious information to conscious systems notation is a sure formula for an even bigger unconsciously generated disaster.

Thirdly, the atmosphere should supersede the territorial nation-state in our political thinking and become the new global commons. The atmosphere freely moves across political boundaries even as land and to some extent water remains defined and confined by those same boundaries. No one owns it in the way we claim to own the land and the earth’s waters. The oxygen in the atmosphere that we are so immediately dependent on is derived from our inherent interdependence on other life forms. Every breath we take is therefore a gift from fellow inhabitants of our planet. It can be easily figured out that it is in the interest of all humans and many other species to protect the quality and maintain the current composition of the atmosphere. And if we don’t and do sufficient damage, then we all suffer a common catastrophe. Either way, positively or negatively, it appears that our relationship with Gaia’s atmosphere is bound to bring us together sooner or later.

Finally, the images and values implicit in the Gaia theory have the potential of turning the cultural effects of Darwinism inside out. Where Darwin and his interpreters viewed nature one-sidedly as an evolving tragedy with only the fittest surviving to the bitter end, Margulis rounds out the picture by seeing cell evolution proceeding in large part through symbiosis. In the evolution revolution of Margulis, the aggressive competition of Darwin’s world is circumscribed and contextualized by the greater forces of cooperation and mutuality. Where Darwin once viewed life as needing to adapt or die in relation to the world as it was, no matter how harsh the preexisting conditions, now Lovelock is revisioning the role of life in evolution, as having the power to co-create or at least fine-tune some of the conditions that it needs for its own perpetuation. These new, post-Darwinian images of evolution could have a dramatically positive and beneficial effect on contemporary culture, once they are disseminated widely enough and comprehended deeply enough. In the same manner that the propaganda effectiveness of old Soviet Union was effectively undermined by the informational flow made possible by electronic technologies, so the old Darwinian ethic of "kill and survive" may rapidly dissolve as an international norm once the "sharing and caring" implications of the new biology are assimilated by a critical mass of humanity. To imagine one concrete example of how different the world could be if revisioned in terms of the new biology in a planetary culture, Jerusalem could become the first planetary city, jointly shared and collectively honored by all humanity as part of our common heritage in regard to the universally recognized value of the prophetic character of the Abrahamic religions. Both the stateless Palestinians and the once stateless Jews already understand, at least negatively, what it is like to have an identity not tied to a particular territory. What they need to do now is convert their negative perception of being rootless and unwanted peoples to a positive perception of being in an historically given position to pioneer what a planetary identity rather than a parochial identity practically means. In any case it may still take a prophet to help us make the transition from the current tragic impasse in the Middle East to the realization of such a planetary vision.

The hope for such rapid and thoroughgoing cultural transformations is now more possible than ever because we presently live in a "noetic polity" based on the continuous exchange of ideas and instantaneous flow of information crisscrossing virtually the entire planet. We must finally bring the freedom of our imagination to bear on what the shape of things to come may yet turn out to be because only the imagination is really big enough and wild enough to entertain the unthinkable possibilities beyond the ideas and information that currently rule and define our world. Who would have thought that the Soviet Union would disappear in 1991 from the perspective of 1981? From the perspective of 1961, who really thought that man would successfully land on the moon by 1969 and, from a more mundane and parochial New York viewpoint, that the underdog Jets and Mets would win sports championships in the very same year? History is full of events that were widely regarded as being not even remotely possible shortly before they actually happened and so we can imagine that the future may hold still more incredible surprises well beyond the horizon of what we now think is reasonably probable.

Now in "retirement" but still actively writing, working with the Ross school as an educational consultant and back in Southampton again where it all began, William Irwin Thompson can look back at his Lindisfarne experiment with the satisfaction that it does make him appear more than ever as a man ahead of his time. Quite a few people, among them the "cultural creatives" as they have been recently been dubbed, have collectively gone a considerable way toward the revisioning of nature, self and society that Thompson called for at the very inception of Lindisfarne. The 1990s did see the revival of Celtic culture move from the margins to the mainstream with, for example, the best-selling status of Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, the Broadway smash Riverdance and the pop culture prominence of Irish bands from U-2 to the Corrs. His early concern about bringing science and religion together on behalf of the global environment was taken up in 1990 by the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders with some 32 leading scientists joining 270 spiritual and religious leaders calling for complementary understandings and joint actions on the environment.

His hope that art becomes more attuned to science and spirituality is fulfilled in the work of Alex Grey, who is an example of a widely recognized artist attempting to combine the science of human anatomy with the spirituality of the "subtle bodies". Clearly the whole alternative or complementary medicine movement went mainstream in the 1990s and has helped to bring our dissociated bodies and minds back together again in the interest of healing and health. Earth was named "Planet of the Year" by Time in 1989. The author of Earth in the Balance, Al Gore, became Vice President for eight years and was nearly elected to be our sitting president. Thompson’s call for a policy to establish "Gaian Colleges" somewhat similar to our program of nineteenth century land grant colleges has been responded to by David Orr at Oberlin. William McDonough is widely known and highly regarded among those who are very much in the mainstream as "green" architects. Many more examples could be cited but these few should make it clear that Thompson’s Celtic-inspired efforts at seeding a life-promoting planetary culture in the 1970s are still in the process of sprouting in many and various ways as we enter the twentieth-first century, in spite of the recent nasty turn in the political weather.

Thank you for visiting the EarthLight Magazine web site. 
Your subscriptions and contributions make this web site
possible.  We invite you to subscribe to EarthLight  and
receive a wide range of these informative and inspiring
articles, reviews and interviews every three months.

EarthLight Magazine  -- Web Site Menu