Cosmos, Chaos and the Word to Come by Norman Cohn: the cosmic carrot on the stick

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic FaithCosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A dense, authoritative survey of the development of the myth of the millennium and a future paradise. Awaiters of the Rapture take note.

I have long been fascinated by millenarianism, and have felt inspired to build stories around this idea. The notion of a profound revolution resulting in a permanent utopia is hypnotically seductive to many of us. When I learned back in 1986 that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a millenarian cult of this kind, I was actually attracted to their organization. In Switzerland a young JW pressed a little book into my hand: Survival into a New Earth, published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, and I read it while making a train journey to visit CERN, the nuclear research facility outside Geneva. According to the book’s copyright page, its first edition ran to 4 million copies, and I bet they were all put into somebody’s hands. I really enjoyed the book. If you accept its premises of the reality of Jehovah as God and the infallibility of the Bible, then the book makes a strong case. We are at the threshold of a massive revolution in Earthly life that will culminate in a paradisiacal existence for a blessed and immortal elite—an elite that anyone can join by professing this faith.

The book was logical and well written, but what made it seductive was that it addresses itself forthrightly to the most important questions, and answers them confidently and authoritatively. We all want to be happy, and we all fear death. We also want to understand a confusing world, and to lead a good life within it. We want to feel that our life has meaning, and that living it has been worthwhile. This book addresses all of these things head on. If I accept the book’s teaching, then I will have all the things I seek: happiness, freedom from death, a good and meaningful life. I will enjoy peace and love permanently, and I will do that very soon, for the upheavals that are to bring these things about are imminent. Indeed, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the change will happen before the generation that was alive in 1914 has passed away—and the number of people over 104 years old is dwindling fast.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are just one flavor of millenarian cult; there have been countless others. And a respected longtime student of that field was Norman Cohn (he died in 2007). His book Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages appeared for years in the bibliography of any book that made mention of millenarianism. I remember getting his book out of the Vancouver Public Library when I was in my 20s, and starting to read it, but I never got through. I think it was, in part, because I found his writing style dry.

I’m afraid I still think that. Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come is an excellent and authoritative book, but the author’s prose style, while perfectly serviceable and readable, is calmly factual rather than exciting or interesting. It was this fact that caused me to leave off reading the book when I first picked it up in 2007 (gosh, I realize that Mr. Cohn was still alive when I started reading his book). Now, 11 years later, I had reason to dive back in, my researches having returned me to this fascinating topic of millenarianism, and the book too being a key reference for Harold Bloom’s intriguing Omens of the Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams & Resurrection. The fact that a scholar of Bloom’s standing regarded Cohn as such an authority boosted Cohn’s stock in my eyes. In fact, I thought, “I must get that book,” and came to my computer to buy it, but something niggled at the back of my mind. I made a scan of my shelves and found that I already had it. Whew!

Cohn’s book is not long, but he covers a tremendous amount of ground. This, to me, is a sign of the depth of his knowledge. The book’s title is a summary of how he develops the topic, for the author starts out by showing how ancient civilizations, beginning with Egypt, conceived of the world as an orderly place, a cosmos, made that way by powerful gods who then had the task of preserving that order against forces that would disrupt it—the forces of chaos. He goes on to show how similar ideas were developed in ancient Mesopotamia and Vedic India. In doing this he demonstrates great knowledge of these disparate ancient cultures, but presents and emphasizes only what is germane to his theme.

A turning point came with the rise of the sage Zoroaster and the revolution he brought to Iranian religion. For he was apparently the first to see the world in terms of an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, a struggle not just between gods but one involving every living thing, and most especially every human being, regardless of nationality, gender, or station. He prophesied that good would eventually triumph, and that the world would be transformed into a wonderful, bounteous, and peaceful place, where the victors over evil would enjoy endless happiness. This beatific future paradise is the world to come; it’s the future we can look forward to if we sign up with the prophet’s program.

Cohn shows how this idea percolated out to suffuse Canaanite, Jewish, and finally Christian thinking. Indeed it goes beyond that, underlying any kind of future-oriented utopian program, such as that of Marxism. Whoever envisions a bright, utopian future, especially one that comes about through an abrupt cataclysm, and most especially one that is reserved for the good and the pious, is living out this ancient Zoroastrian myth. It’s a vision that offers solace and inspiration to the persecuted and the martyred.

I found that this book kept getting better as it progressed and as the author’s grand scheme came more clearly into view. He offers a clear and penetrating story of how this fascinating and seductive idea made its way into the spiritual tradition of the West, where it has formed such an important component of the way we look at the world.

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