“Harmony and understanding. Sympathy and thrust abounding. No more falsehoods or derisions. Golden living dreams of visions. Mystical crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation.” These fuzzy utopian words are an excerpt of the song “The Age of Aquarius” from the 1969 musical Hair.
For Dutch people my age this song brings back memories of the 300 beats per minute version that a bunch of boys called The Party Animals brought to us in 1996:
As a teenager who tried hard to be an existentialist (one of my less successful enterprises), I was abhorred by the song that I regarded as the work of primitive buffoons. Now I look back to it with the sweet reminiscence which can be so typical when looking back at a time that passed away so quickly. But now is not the time to get sentimental, we have to go back to our song.
Imagine how surprising it was to meet this song in Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s tour de force called A History of Christianity. In this book, MacCulloch states that the anthem is a “last echo of a twelfth-century Cistercian abbot whose vision was of the dawning of a new age.”1 A case that in my view deserves some explanation.
Trinity and history
The name of the abbot that MacCulloch is talking about is Joachim of Fiore. His biographical data are a bit shaky because after his death loads of legends gathered round his name. But it is known for certain that he was born about the year 1135 in Calabria and died in 1202.2 He became abbot of a Cistercian monastery but his restless mind, which was always venturing into new mystical paths of thought, brought him into conflict with the strict order of the Cistercians. Eventually Joachim founded his own community. There he was free to expound his metaphysical ideas.
Joachim scrutinized the Bible and linked its verses to contemporary political events. When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry the Sixth claimed the kingdom of South Italy in 1191, Joachim, basing himself on some verses in the book of Ezekiel, proclaimed him to be a modern king Nebuchadnezzar. Henry accepted the title eventually and supported the abbot.3
The most ambitious project that Joachim embarked upon was to apply the Bible to describe the pattern of world history. He stated that this pattern is bearing the mark of the Holy Trinity. Consequently history is divided into three stages, each associated with one of the persons of the Trinity. In this view the age of the Father (the Old Testament) and the Son (the New Testament) would be followed up by an age of the Holy Spirit. This age would be preceded by the rise of a new order of holy men that would preach the true religion to the entire world population. Once arrived, the earth would elevate to a new spiritual level.4
This is just a short summary. Joachim expounded his ideas in three rather voluminous works written in ardent Latin. Since we have a long way ahead of us before reaching 1996, it is best we leave those compendia to the scholars interested in ardent Latin.
Prophet, true or false
The Church authorities’ stance towards Joachim’s ideas has always been ambivalent. He was regarded a prophet, but whether he was a true or a false one was open to discussion. Dante Allighieri positions Joachim in the paradise section of his Divine Comedy, but Joachim also appears in official catalogues that are describing heresies.5
Despite this Joachim was never really forgotten as his story turned out to be very applicable. Throughout the centuries religiously inspired people talking about the coming of a new age and mentioning the work of Joachim are recurrent. But his works were tough to get by and it seems that his name was added gratuitously to their own ideas. Christopher Columbus for example mentions Joachim in his Book of Prophesies which he wrote between 1501 and 1505. In this book the man who discovered the continent later called America tells us that the climax of history will be reached when, among other things, Christianity is spread throughout the entire world and the Garden of Eden is rediscovered. Whilst explaining this wild ideas Columbus cites a broad arrangement of prophets, Joachim being one of them.6 Does that mean he read the work? Not likely. His name was added for some extra credential.
Joachim’s ideas did also prove to be more inspiring to scholars. They went to great lengths to point out an influence of Joachim’s ideas in the most unlikely places. It was stated that the Nazi preoccupation with a Third Reich and Marxist historical materialism was inspired by the visions of the abbot.7And that was just before they realised that stating that Hitler and Marx were inspired by the Holy Spirit is just absurd. When we have to look for people who were really influenced by Joachim, we must not look at politics but redirect our gaze to poetry.
Joachim was rediscovered in France during the heyday of romanticism. Romantics admired medieval heretics as the precursors to modern visionaries.8 The influential novelist and scholar Ernest Renan strongly believed in a progressive course of history and got inspired by Joachim’s vision. In 1866 Renan wrote a pioneering essay that would also find its way to the British Isles.9 There the poet William Butler Yeats was trying to get to terms with his faith. He got familiar with Renan’s work whilst studying at the Dublin art school. In 1896 Yeats published the story “The table of the Law”. Its hero is the priest Owen Aherne, explicitly described as being a Joachite, who is guarding a secret book containing “the conversations Joachim of Flora held in his monastery.”10 James Joyce mentioned Joachim in his first version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1902, and poet and schoolteacher D.H Lawrence gave an exaggerated account of Joachim’s ideas in his schoolbook Patterns of European Thought that appeared in 1921.11 Joachim proved to be an inspiration to people who were struggling to combine old religious ideas with the modern world. And it would seem that the man who professed the coming of a New Age would of course be an appropriate extra when in the twentieth century a movement called “New Age” came to prominence.
Spiritual fulfilment and wild ideas
But things are more difficult than that. From the 1960’s onward an abundance of theories about cosmic cycles and ages of the world were thrown into the world. One cannot identify them as one movement, but despite all their differences, most new age theories have one thing in common: all firmly believe in the coming of a new era in which all problems of mankind will disappear. It is rather surprising though that most of the theories that were and are being developed are not inspired by eastern spirituality but by Western Christianity.12 But obedience to the Catholic or Protestant churches was a step too far for people seeking spiritual fulfilment. They started looking for an alternative Jesus and found him in “hidden esoteric” histories of Christ that were partially provided by historical personae previously branded as heretics.13
Meanwhile astrologers started stating that the world was going to enter a third age. The age of the sign of the Pisces, which was dominated by institutionalized Christianity, was going to be replaced by the Age of Aquarius, which would be an age of the Spirit.14
Alternative Christianity and an age of the spirit: Joachim of Fiore was back. I wonder if singers who have a role in the musical Hair are aware of that.
And of course I wonder if the Party Animals had any sense of Joachim in 1996. The thought is tempting to me: New Age was going through a short revival then. The little village where I grew up even had a shop with all kinds of esoteric merchandise. But the Party Animals were just some guys following instructions from their producer. And in the nineties it was quite effective to create a hit by just putting some house-beats underneath a song that had already been a hit thirty years earlier. So in the end, you have to realize that stating that the Party Animals were inspired by the Holy Spirit is just absurd.
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D. MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London 2009) 411 ↩
M. Reeves and W. Gould, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford 1987) 7 ↩
M.Reeves, The influence of prophecy in the late Middle Ages: a study in Joachimism, 11 ↩
M. Reeves and W. Gould, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel, 8 ↩
M. Reeves and W. Gould, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford 1987) 15 ↩
M. Reeves and W.Gould, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel, 3 ↩
Ibidem, 206 ↩
Ibidem, 133-291 ↩
W.J. Hanegraaff, New Age and Western Culture. Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (New York 1988) 303 ↩
P.Clarke, Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements (London 2006) no page index provided in this book ↩