“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” Stanford University geneticist Dr. Gerald Crabtree has claimed. “Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago.”
While Dr. Crabtree emphasizes genetics (not a subject that really interests me) I would argue that the decline of intelligence is largely due the transformation of the nature of society and the nature of its education, especially in regard to authentic initiation.
In regard to the latter especially, what happened?
If we take Dr. Crabtree’s own example of memory, we note that ancient tribes passed on their knowledge and understanding through “oral traditions,” since they had not — until a certain point in time — discovered writing. Even after they had, memorization remained important. Even today, in the religion of Islam, for example, memorizing the entire Qur’an is still considered a great achievement, and someone who manages this is given the honorific Hafiz (male) or Hafiza (female), meaning “one who memorizes” or “guardian.”
Likewise, secret initiatory schools in the West sometimes continued to pass on their knowledge orally. Notably, according to myth, Odin discovered the runes (which served as both letters and occult symbols) after sacrificing an eye to the well of Mimir (“The Rememberer”).
Orators in the ancient world would mentally construct a “memory theater” to help them recall their speeches. The device remained substantially in use until at least the seventeenth century. The technique was to construct a building in the imagination, placing in it various objects that reminded the orator of certain things he wanted to recall. Then, when giving his speech, he would imagine walking through the building, to be prompted by the imaginary objects.
Somewhat similar to the memory theater, the esoteric society of Freemasonry, which emerged from the stonemasons’ guild in London in 1717, adopted the symbolism of architecture and spatial arrangements (among other things) for its ritual, giving, for example, the East, Northeast corner, etc., symbolic meanings related to the ontology of Masonic initiation and proceedings.
Even today, memorization remains important to the fraternity, playing a role in even the most basic procedures of the Lodge. New initiates are sometimes required to answer questions about Freemasonry, repeating specific answers from memory. And, more advanced, one lecture given during the second degree ritual — the “Middle Chamber” lecture — lasts about eight minutes, and is — or at least should be — recited from memory. (Notably, the lecture includes references to architecture, as well as to the seven liberal arts, which long formed the basis of education in the West.)
Let’s briefly touch on Dr. Crabtree’s other remarks. He believes that if a man or woman from the ancient past — from Europe, Africa, Asia, India, or the Americas — were to suddenly appear among us, he or she would be among the most “intellectually alive,” possessing “a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” and would be more “emotionally stable” than most of our friends.
None of these qualities are likely in a society where politics is increasingly dominant, community increasingly abstract (often being composed of those that share some trait but may never have actually met, rather than neighbors), and people increasingly atomized and alone.
Though the terms are increasingly meaningless, the “Left” and “Right” demand — like Victorian old ladies — ideological purity, denouncing anyone who thinks outside the box or remains outside the fold.
Thinking immediately meets an enormous obstacle in such a society, since — although you need them if you want to solve problems — truth and facts are not what counts. Indeed, saying the truth or providing facts may count against you. For the politically-minded of the Left and Right truth is synonymous with either hate or treachery.
But the political hysteria and will to conformism is a symptom, not a cause, of the decline in intelligence.
The problem is simply that there is little authentic initiation in modernity. What there is exists piecemeal and — to gain a true sense of initiation — must be supplemented by other things — learning meditation with a particular group, learning a skill at a college, learning a martial art at a martial arts school, studying ancient texts alone, and perhaps adopting a code of ethics or morals in relation to a religion or voluntary association, etc.
Initiation and tribal rituals served several purposes (including those mentioned above, which we will look at in the future in greater depth), but it brought things together. It formed a kind of cultural nucleus. It was often linked to a particular function in society — metallurgy, hunting, warfare, or priestcraft — but it required memorization, understanding the tribe’s metaphysics, revering the tribes ancestors, and so on. Often there were also physical tests, such as being forced to survive in the wild for a few days or more, some kind of tattooing or marking of the body, or some kind of combat.
Much of what seems primitive to us today turns out to have important benefits for both body and mind:
Tattooing boosts the immune system.
Practiced ritualistically by probably every tribe and ancient people — and still continuing to some degree in some forms of neo-paganism, Freemasonry, and Confucianism, among others — thinking about our ancestors has been shown to boost our intelligence.
Yet, modern man — who is embarrassed by, and denounces his ancestors, the past, history, etc., and who is ignorant of most of the art and culture of his own civilization — willingly makes himself less intelligent.
Unlike the initiates of the past, who had to memorize myths, history, lineages, etc., he willingly forgets. He forces cultural, historical, and familial amnesia on himself. No matter even if he has joined some highly secretive occult society with the most elaborate degree system imaginable, he is the opposite of the initiate.
Related to this is our attitude toward the body. We hate our bodies because we hate our ancestors, and vice versa. In the modern world, mind and body are totally split, and are often at odds with each other, especially on a societal level, where intellectuals and artists are likely to hate sports, the army, and so on, and where the athletic and physically strong are likely to dismiss art, literature, and so on. This, too — in either case — is counter-initiatic.
Lastly, we should note that although modernity hates the brutality of nature, Dr. Gerald Crabtree claims that we were more intelligent when “every individual was exposed to nature’s raw selective mechanisms on a daily basis.” When faced with natural obstacles, hostile tribes or natural environments, individuals and tribes had to be creative and inventive.
Notably, pagan deities were often presented as inventing writing or crafts, stealing or possessing certain powers (such as the gift of poetry and inspiration) and were associated with certain tools, such as the blacksmith hammer, the sword, and the spinning wheel.
But the god of war is the god of poetry. His body and mind are unified and in harmony. The echoes of ancient peoples — that still reverberates through their myths, writing, art, artifacts, and ruins of temples, etc. — tell us that this is the basis of initiation, successful cultures, and real intelligence.