The New Age in the Modern West

Counterculture, Utopia and Prophecy from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Present Day

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Nicholas Campion
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $112.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472522795.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The 1968 musical Hair famously celebrated the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a New Age when the planets will be “in the correct, auspicious alignment,” fostering an era of “love and peace” (2). But Nicholas Campion argues that the New Age movement is too often trivialized and bound within the confines of the 1960s. Instead he situates the New Age within the foundations of Western philosophy, which one of the primary contributions of The New Age in the Modern West. In addition, it has become commonplace in academic publications to speak of the nebulous and ephemeral qualities of New Age thinking and practices. Nicholas Campion’s rejoinder that there are apparent logics, historical lineages, and intellectual roots to the New Age is an important corrective.

Campion suggests that the New Age can be traced to the Idealism of Platonic thought. In the famed Allegory of the Cave, Plato reveals that the world is inherently imperfect, only shadows of its Ideal original. Campion locates the New Age dissatisfaction with an imperfect world and the desire to return to this Ideal original as integral to its view of history. He traces the intellectual history of New Age thinking beginning with Plato and continuing through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the present day with rich historical detail. His writing moves nimbly from Galileo to Newton, Voltaire, Hegel, Emanuel Swedenborg, Constantin François Volney, Helena Blavatsky, and Alice Bailey and similarly throughout the decades all the way to Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, and José Argüelles.

Such an extensive breadth of intellectual history demands that occasionally Campion’s treatment of particular intellectuals and movements is necessarily truncated. Campion focuses specifically on New Age thinking and practice in the United Kingdom and the United States, and in so doing, bridges two scholastic fields that would benefit from considering these confluences of history. Within the limits of his study, Campion locates a progressivist ideal of history, individualism, freedom, and the ideal that “personal experience becomes the key to all truth” (35) that demonstrates the antiquity and perseverance of Western esotericism that informs New Age thinking.

Campion grounds the New Age in the understanding of history at the intersection of utopianism and millenarianism. Adherents to both ideologies are dissatisfied with prevailing conditions, but while the psychological foundations of utopianism depend on the “universal impulse to become one’s self, to live one’s unrealized potential” (22), the millenarians aspire to create a social order that will ultimately prepare the way for external interventions. He situates both ideologies intellectually among their founders—Hobbes, Montaigne, and Rousseau—but then carries them forward through history to their expressions in contemporary countercultural movements. Throughout he remains particularly cognizant of the dangers of a “utopia of the willing,” which determines that “the unwilling must be coerced” if the intention is to transform all of society (27). He reveals the inherent elitism of utopias, meaning that at their foundation they privilege adherents who oppose others who must be converted, initiating a process that can merge dangerously with totalitarianism and fascism.

In his account of the 1960s, Campion documents the split between the “peace and love” ethic of the hippies, and those political groups that demanded more aggressive forms of revolution. He also recounts the critiques that commodification and consumerism had taken over the New Age to the extent that the “so-called summer of love was largely a media event” (102), and “utopia became a consumer choice” (105). Furthermore, in the psychedelic imagination, the utopianism of the counterculture merged with dystopian visions of nihilism and violence (110). These perceived failures continue to plague New Age cultures today, as Campion explains in his account of 1990s rave culture, free festivals in the UK, Burning Man, and 2012 Mayan calendar millenarianism. New Age cultures coalesce in the ideal that “consciousness is more important than matter and that ideas shape the world on a deep level by directly affecting the environment” (162). This intense focus on consciousness demands personal “spiritual evolution” (163) and turns inward to alter society.

In Campion’s view, the New Age is “both the future spiritual era and the culture which has been promoted by the prophets of the coming era or which has coalesced around their followers; it is both a historical period and a state of mind” (35). This broadening of the category enables Campion to investigate philosophical resonances between disparate intellectuals and cultural leaders. In the most controversial aspect of the book, Campion argues that the proponents of the New Age and neoconservatives are actually two sides of a similar idealistic universalism. Both demand change, and are active in “fighting an establishment which has turned its back on its founding principles” (155). But the New Age finds its utopianism “as a private, rather than collective experience” (155) while neoconservatism “is engaged in a moral crusade, promoting a cultural revolution intended to restore a nostalgic vision of society in which universal order prevailed” (153). He demonstrates that neoconservatives in the United States are actively creating their global utopia through aggressive foreign policies and wars, but he is less clear as to the nature of the unified social and political activism of the contemporary New Age in the US and the UK as it enacts it own idealistic universalism. I would add the caveat that despite the confluence of intent between the New Age and neoconservatism, the impact of their political actions in scale, gravity, and violence are radically opposed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dr. Amanda Lucia is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Campion is Senior Lecturer in the School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. He is director of the University's Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, and programme director of the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology.

Keywords: 

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