My take on some historical religious/social/political movements:

  • Jesus taught a radical and highly impractical doctrine of love and disregard for one's own welfare. Paul took control of much of the church that Jesus' charisma had built, and reworked this into something that could function in a real community, re-emphasizing the social mores and connections that Jesus had spent so much effort denigrating, and converting Jesus' emphasis on radical social action into an emphasis on theology and salvation.
  • Marx taught a radical and highly impractical theory of how workers could take over the means of production and create a state-free Utopia. Lenin and Stalin took control of the organizations built around those theories, and reworked them into a strong, centrally-controlled state.
  • Che Guevara (I'm ignorant here and relying on Wikipedia; forgive me) joined Castro's rebel group early on, rose to the position of second in command, was largely responsible for the military success of the revolution, and had great motivating influence due to his charisma and his unyielding, idealistic, impractical ideas. It turned out his idealism prevented him from effectively running government institutions, so he had to go looking for other revolutions to fight in while Castro ran Cuba.

The best strategy for complex social movements is not honest rationality, because rational, practical approaches don't generate enthusiasm. A radical social movement needs one charismatic radical who enunciates appealing, impractical ideas, and another figure who can appropriate all of the energy and devotion generated by the first figure's idealism, yet not be held to their impractical ideals. It's a two-step process that is almost necessary, to protect the pretty ideals that generate popular enthusiasm from the grit and grease of institution and government. Someone needs to do a bait-and-switch. Either the original vision must be appropriated and bent to a different purpose by someone practical, or the original visionary must be dishonest or self-deceiving.

There are exceptions to this pattern that, I think, prove the rule when you look at them more closely:

  • Hitler was simultaneously an idealist and a highly-pragmatic Machiavellian. His plan, spelled out in Mein Kampf, was to use hatred of the Jews to tap the energy of the German people, implement the reforms he desired, and stamp out the Jews before people had time to start feeling sorry for them and questioning themselves. It is a little more complicated since he really did hate Jews (I think), and the reforms he desired were related to his views on Jewish vs. German nature. I don't think it's a good example, since Hitler might well have had to have been replaced for the Nazi state to have held onto power if it had won the war.
  • Mormonism and Scientology were each also founded largely by a single person who had, let us say, an idealistic exterior and a pragmatic, manipulative interior, combining the two roles in one person.
  • MIRI's conception of Friendly AI is benevolent and idealistic, but implementing its program would require a worldwide permanent police state (in order to prevent anyone else anywhere in the world from ever constructing an AI). The free access we have now to computing power and scientific literature would need to be forbidden.

And then there are just exceptions:

  • The American Revolution had a charismatic military figure in George Washington, but he wasn't very political. He was idealistic, but not impractical or messianic. AFAIK, the Revolution didn't promulgate any ideals that it failed to deliver on.
  • I'm unclear on whether the French Revolution and Rousseau / Robespierre fit this pattern. I think we would need to distinguish between conscious and effective idealism: Robespierre believed in high ideals, which he used to rationalize his pragmatic, Stalinist actions. Also, Rousseau was pragmatically-minded, but had no practical experience with power.
  • Anti-slavery, abolitionism, women's suffrage: Their objectives were so simple and clear that there was no way to obliterate the original message.
  • Objectivism and LessWrong: Similar cases which need more analysis of what motivate their members. There's something meta here; when rationality itself is the totem, perhaps rational programs can tap idealistic energy directly. But there is an undercurrent in both movements of "Enderism" (from Ender's Game), a combination of resentment and conviction of one's own vast intellectual superiority, which may function as a secret shared "idealism".

One interesting aspect of the pattern is its hysteresis. Once idealism has been successfully co-opted, the resulting organization can continue to siphon that credibility indefinitely, while dismissing its more radical demands.

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I'm afraid it all sounds too pat, and the historic analysis is poor and superficial. I really don't relish being so blunt but I don't see how to avoid it while saying what seems true to me.

Mormonism and Scientology were each also founded largely by a single person who had, let us say, an idealistic exterior and a pragmatic, manipulative interior, combining the two roles in one person.

Mormonism would be perfect for this thesis if only the writer knew something about it. It was founded by Joseph Smith, who conveyed the ideological vision (and presumably forged the Book of Mormom). Smith was lynched long before the Mormons got to Utah, and the movement came into the hands of a brilliant institution builder named Brigham Young, who really built the Mormon establishment of Utah (before it became a state).

Marx taught a radical and highly impractical theory of how workers could take over the means of production and create a state-free Utopia. Lenin and Stalin took control of the organizations built around those theories, and reworked them into a strong, centrally-controlled state.

My reading suggests Marx taught a theory of how history works, and in terms of what to do, made predictions about the kind of moment in which revolution would succeed; he also taught that a certain class, the proletariat, should act in its own best interests and feel no compunction about crushing the previously dominant class, the Bourgeoisie, and his style of debate, completely embraced by Lenin, taught that vitriol, ridicule, and implicit preaching of hate were the weapons of choice in phases leading up to violent struggle, and strongly influenced the tone of political struggle after the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" is established. And then neither Lenin nor Stalin established anything like the end state of affairs imagined by Marx.

In Paul's day, my impression is that Jesus was a set of stories and writings, not all that consistent, but which had started a movement in the Jewish world that was starting to make some headway outside that world. Paul and his successors determined who the Jesus we would remember was.

The French Revolutions illustrates how our recollection of history gets reduced to a few icons with slightly more solidity than "the thrifty Scotsman" -- just sort of canonical images people have in their heads. The French Revolution was a chaotic extremely hard to follow sequence of events. Robespierre dominated events for only a few months of it, ending in the most bloody and out of control phase (the tribunal Robespierre created condemned him in the end), and made people ready for some sort of more orderly autocratic government.

In the American Revolution, many theorists wrote important contributions before Thomas Paine appeared on the scene, and in 1776, I've read from at least one historian that many people were depressed over having lost the "spirit of '75". Paine did much to bring public opinion around to the idea of independence, but independence is just one of many parts of the ideology of the American Revolution. Jefferson with editing help or interference of a committee wrote the Declaration of Independence which distilled and channelled the thought of writers of the previous century reflecting both the general European enlightenment, the British and Scottish branches of the enlightenment and vigorous public discussion that ran from about 1640 to the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, and continued political expressions that were much freer in Britain than anywhere else at the time.

George Washington played a significant role, but no more so than possibly more people than you can count on both hands -- or at least one. He had a very solid character and was a wartime leader spanning a time when things looked hopeless to the victory at Yorktown. After four years of retirement, he lead his prestige to the Constitutional Convention, and out of that he became president. But the cast of the founding of the United States was very much of an ensemble case. Maybe Washington's symbolism helped make that possible by keeping more creative and charismatic people from taking center stage.

Re Che Guevara, it seems to me he was charismatic and wrote some inspiring things, and had movie star good looks which made him a great "poster boy" for people who have almost no idea what it was all about, but he didn't start the Cuban Revolution, but was recruited by Castro. Maybe his influence helped sway Castro to side with the USSR. Che was then able to distance himself from the more sordid reputation of the Cuban government as it ground on, and became accidentally identified with the hope of Communism against itself.

BTW I'm sure I've proposed general principals based on things of which I have a tenuous knowledge, but I'd rather somebody tell me how I've gone too far out on a limb than be in some space where everybody nods along -- that tends to be boring.

Sure. I disagree with your assessment, but appreciate your intent. Well, some of it, anyway.

Mormonism would be perfect for this thesis if only the writer knew something about it. It was founded by Joseph Smith, who conveyed the ideological vision (and presumably forged the Book of Mormom). Smith was lynched long before the Mormons got to Utah, and the movement came into the hands of a brilliant institution builder named Brigham Young, who really built the Mormon establishment of Utah (before it became a state).

Yes, I know that. But Smith, I believe, knew it was baloney while he was making it, and that's the important part for this pattern. Brigham Young didn't, AFAIK, significantly change Mormon doctrine, so he doesn't fit this pattern.

And then neither Lenin nor Stalin established anything like the end state of affairs imagined by Marx.

That's the point. I get the feeling you missed the main point of my post, which is that a movement needs the energy generated by impractical idealism, but can never deliver on the promise. Somewhere along the way, someone needs to do a bait-and-switch. (I'm adding that phrase to the post now.)

In Paul's day, my impression is that Jesus was a set of stories and writings, not all that consistent, but which had started a movement in the Jewish world that was starting to make some headway outside that world. Paul and his successors determined who the Jesus we would remember was.

I don't have impressions, I have knowledge from many years of close study of the New Testament. Jesus is described in the four Gospels, which Paul never touched. I consider the first 3 Gospels "reliable", meaning they probably contain things Jesus really did, while John seems more made-up. Paul didn't change who Jesus was or what he said; he reinterpreted it, and focused attention on the culture, institution, and theology of the Church rather than on radical, immediate action.

In the American Revolution, many theorists wrote important contributions before Thomas Paine appeared on the scene,

The American Revolution doesn't fit the pattern unless you can point to claims that were made before the revolution that were discarded after the revolution.

Re Che Guevara, it seems to me he was charismatic and wrote some inspiring things, and had movie star good looks which made him a great "poster boy" for people who have almost no idea what it was all about, but he didn't start the Cuban Revolution, but was recruited by Castro.

Which I mentioned in my post. We would have to go back and see what Castro promised in the early stages of the revolution, but either (A) Castro made the kind of popular claims Che did, in which case I suspect he was deliberately lying about his plans, and it fits the pattern that way, or (B) Castro didn't make those claims, but Che did, in which case it fits the pattern a different way.

Let's not call Che a poster boy. He was a brilliant general. Castro would've been lost without him.

Jesus is described in the four Gospels, which Paul never touched.

I don't know history. Was Paul involved in selection of which Gospels are correct, and which are not? Because that too is a way to influence an outcome.

(As a wild analogy to evolution, even if mutations are random, if you have selection under control, things can move approximately your way. All you need is at least some mutations giving you the desired outcome.)

I don't know history. Was Paul involved in selection of which Gospels are correct, and which are not? Because that too is a way to influence an outcome.

No. The Gospels were written at about the same time as Paul's letters. The selection we have to day was finalized about 300 years later.

Yes, but my understanding is that they were written following Paul's example.

For instance, I once asked a teacher if the Gospels, written by Jews for a the followers of a Jewish rabbi, were originally written in Aramaic. With the possible exception of Luke, we are pretty certain that the original versions were written in Greek, and not Hebrew or Aramaic, because the Gospel writers were following the convection set by Paul. Christianity did not have any texts (other than the traditional Jewish ones) before Paul, and his actions prompted other people to write down their oral history of Jesus.

The fact fact that Paul chose to write in Greek, is itself interesting, and reflective of the content of his reformed message; that it was one meant for the world, and not just the Jews (which it can certainly be argued was not the case of Jesus's original teachings).

The earliest Gospel (Mark) is thought to have been written about the same time as the last letters of Paul, so this is plausible. But even if they were responding to Paul, they may have been responding against him, not responding to imitate him.

All that is speculation, but we know from reading them that the Gospels have a different focus than the letters.

Luke was traditionally thought to be a Gentile &, if so, wouldn't speak Aramaic. Some of Luke is copied from Matthew, & some from Q, so it's pretty certain it was written in Greek.

I long pondered on the concepts above. I had come up with the conclusion "Every movement needs a poet." In your discussion Jesus was one such poet. Its one thing to issue a command to a man's mind, it is quite another altogether to issue a command to a man's soul.

You used examples of revolutionary America, lets look at the details of that a bit more. We had a combination of excellent leaders leading up to that war all of them experts in the field of politics, including George Washington (whom claimed he didn't want the post of commander of the continental army but showed up to the meetings to pick one in a military uniform). As a violent civil disturbance turned successful the continental congress decided that succession was the best plan and commissioned the writing of the declaration of independence. Instead of a full committee writing the document the preamble in all of its poetic glory was written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had filled the role of the fantastic poet and had collected all of the confused feelings and ideas of the founders into one easy to understand and powerful document. He had addressed those who opposed Britain over the issue of slavery as well as those who opposed Britain's increasing autocratic nature. Most importantly his document created a beacon to command that generation and later generations to live up to a set of ideals as the ultimate goal for our nation. The poet commanded the people to be and now as you argued they needed someone with practical skills to make it happen. Its important to note that with such a beacon men are willing to endure no end of hardship to see it happen.

So I wouldn't disagree that "Every Jesus needs a Paul" but I DO argue that if a great poet rises then so too will the fantastic men needed to make the poet's vision happen. Men grow, create and learn the most when necessity demands that they do so. If there is a poet commanding men to greatness then great men is what we will have. Its important to note that for poet to be successful in this manner they must profess ideals that are "virtuous", the more honorable and virtuous they appear the easier it is to find and create great men as well as avoid resistance.

Lets look at your example of Washington and the continental army: Washington was a gallant figure and dressed as such on purpose to command people emotionally. One of his core strategies was to create an image that his men could look up to. As such he was dutiful and never sought leave of the army so he was always there working to further the cause. He was courageous and brave, showing no personal concern at sitting on a horse in a hail of gunfire as he screamed at his men to stand strong. He was even merciful doing his utmost to see to the needs of the enemy wounded and captured. The combination of virtues and the vast quality of his moral superiority meant that great men flocked to him. The first were Nathaniel Green and Henry Knox. Yet he would soon have much needed support form men like Marquis de Lafayette, a man who served with such distinction that there are towns and cities across the United States that are named after him.

So yes, every Jesus needs a Paul. Yet interestingly possibly because every Jesus needs a Paul, for every great Jesus out there a Paul will surely be "born"

I called it "Every Paul needs a Jesus" rather than "Every Jesus needs a Paul". My thesis is that Jesus had something in mind, and Paul (and some others; when I say "Paul" I'm being ambiguous about whether I mean Paul-the-person or Paul-the-collection-of-authors-who-wrote-the-books-ascribed-to-Paul) came along, took what Jesus had started, and built something else out of it. I don't see Paul as faithfully continuing Jesus' program. He might have meant to, but that wasn't the result. Though the larger deviations from Jesus' message, what we think of today as Christianity's institutionalized hypocrisy (e.g., caring more about homosexuality than poverty or cruelty), came later, after Paul.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

every Jesus needs a Paul

Except Paul corrupted and coopted Jesus' message, radically transforming the Christian faith into something entirely foreign, indeed unrecognizable to Jesus' direct disciples. I'm not sure Jesus would have wanted, much less needed that.

"The American Revolution had a charismatic military figure in George Washington, but he wasn't very political. He was idealistic, but not impractical or messianic. AFAIK, the Revolution didn't promulgate any ideals that it failed to deliver on."

George Washington was the general, but Thomas Paine was the popular ideologue.

One interesting aspect of the pattern is its hysteresis. Once idealism has been successfully co-opted, the resulting organization can continue to siphon that credibility indefinitely, while dismissing its more radical demands.

Not entirely. There is a tendency to spin off movements that take the impractical vision seriously and try to implement it, frequently with disastrous results.

Incidentally, the core neo-reactionary claim is that modern liberalism is just such a spin-off of Christianity.

Incidentally, the core neo-reactionary claim is that modern liberalism is just such a spin-off of Christianity.

That's funny, because I'm in the middle of an exchange with a conservative Christian who asked for links to some foundational document of liberal principles, and I linked him to the Gospel of Luke.

These new social movements need to work with family formation and the generational transmission of the movement's mission to sustain themselves. We can see that clearly in Mormonism, for example, which builds on traditional biblical Christianity's pro-natalist beliefs.

By contrast, Ayn Rand's writings show a genuine hostility towards family life and having children. I don't know if we have any social science data about Objectivists, but it wouldn't surprise me if Objectivists tend to display below-average fecundity, which bodes poorly for Objectivism's future as a new folkway. Atlas Shrugged provides two examples of good sibling/bad sibling combinations in two different families, so I have to wonder if Objectivists don't want to have children partly out of fear that some of them might grow up resembling Ayn Rand's villains.

[-][anonymous]8y 2

The American Revolution's charismatic figure was Thomas Payne, not George Washington, and I would say that it met the pattern. It was Thomas Payne who through the crisis papers and probable authorship of the declaration of independence itself convinced the thirteen colonies to change their goal from eventual reconciliation and settlement on good terms to establishing an Enlightenment state based on the protection of life, liberty and the persuit of property, and the elimination of absolutist tyrants. His personality was not fit for actual governance and played little part in post-revolution America. He was invited over to France where he helped instigate the French Revolution and became a member of parliment, although he was powerless to prevent or stop the horror that was unleashed there.

Maybe Napoleon could be viewed as the Paul of the French Revolution, molding the French state into a highly successful military power while still keeping some of the principles like the overthrow of king and church? Rousseau and Robespierre seem to me like they were both charismatic radicals with impractical ideas.

Hitler might well have had to have been replaced for the Nazi state to have held onto power if it had won the war.

Why? I never saw Hitler as particularly idealistic and unsuitable to the reality of a government wielding power and practical politics.

By the end of the war, Hitler was - to put it bluntly - insane, to a large part due to drug abuse. He would have had to be replaced because he was no longer competent to run a state.

There's a longer story here, involving among other things an incompetent doctor. I would not be surprised if the overall course of the war was affected by Hitler's insanity, but I don't know to what degree that's true.

Because the German people would eventually notice that the Jews were gone, and yet they still had all the problems Hitler had blamed on the Jews.

They could still blame the problems on a) imaginary Jews, b) Jews living in other countries, c) other "inferior" humans, d) Germans influenced by Jewish thinking, e) non-Jewish traitors of the new Reich.

(If socialist countries can be used as an analogy, they never had a problem to find some enemy to blame, regardless of how many of those alleged enemies they already killed decades ago.)

If they had really won the war, they wouldn't have had so many problems.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

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A radical social movement needs one charismatic radical who enunciates appealing, impractical ideas, and another figure who can appropriate all of the energy and devotion generated by the first figure's idealism, yet not be held to their impractical ideals. It's a two-step process that is almost necessary, to protect the pretty ideals that generate popular enthusiasm from the grit and grease of institution and government.

Should we add 'followers' to this list? A substantial difference between MLP:FIM and other works of fiction isn't necessarily the lack of an idealist, or the lack of a large company behind that idealist. There are other examples of productions that have both. It's the lack of Bronies. (or using some of the other examples on your list, Christians, Socialists, Nazis, Mormons, Scientologists, Revolutionaries, Objectvists...)

Followers are necessary. I didn't examine them because I assumed all followers are pretty much the same. You might have to look at followers to figure out what's going on with outlier movements, such as LessWrong, that don't appeal to the usual activists.

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