The Power of Being a Heretic: The Forgotten Visionary Jane Ellen Harrison on Critical Thinking, Emotional Imagination, and How to Rehumanize the World
By Maria Popova
When the Inquisition persecuted Galileo for advancing the rude truth that Earth is not the center of the universe, the charge against him was heresy — the same charge on which Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for her crusade for political reform. We have had many words for heretics over the epochs — rebels, radicals, freethinkers — but they have always been the ones to dislodge humanity from the stagnation of the status quo, to illuminate our blind spots, dismantle our unexamined biases, and jolt us out of our herd mentality. Without those devoted to seeing reality more clearly and possibility more wildly, we would still live in a world haunted by superstition and governed by dogma.
The power and dignity of this most courageous human mindset is what the pioneering classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (September 9, 1850–April 15, 1928), who brought the culture of Ancient Greece to the modern world, explores in her magnificent essay “Heresy and Humanity,” found in Alpha and Omega (public library) — the out-of-print essay collection that gave us Harrison on the art of growing older, published just as humanity was being dehumanized by its first World War.
The word “heretic” has still about it an emotional thrill — a glow reflected, it may be, from the fires at Smithfield, the ardours of those who were burnt at the stake for the love of an idea.
Heresy, the Greek hairesis, was from the outset an eager, living word. The taking of a city, its expugnatio, is a hairesis; the choosing of a lot in life or an opinion, its electio, is a hairesis; always in the word hairesis there is this reaching out to grasp, this studious, zealous pursuit — always something personal, even passionate… To be a heretic today is almost a human obligation.
In a sentiment Bertrand Russell would echo in timeless manifesto for freedom of thought, Harrison adds:
The gist of heresy is free personal choice in act, and specifically in thought — the rejection of traditional faiths and customs.
A century and a half after Emerson inveighed that “masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence,” she considers what makes heresy so difficult yet so necessary to the health of society:
All traditional views are held with such tenacity, such almost ferocity, because they belong to the class of views induced, not by individual experience, still less by reason, but by collective, or, as it is sometimes called “herd,” suggestion. This used to be called “faith.” The belief so held may or may not be true; collective suggestion is not in the least necessarily collective hallucination. Mere collective suggestions — that is the interesting point — have the quality of obviousness; they do not issue from the individual, but seem imposed from outside, and ineluctable; they have all the inevitableness of instinctive opinion… Hence they are held with an intensity of emotion far beyond any reasoned conviction. To doubt them is felt to be at once idiocy and irreverence. Inquiry into their rational bases is naturally, and in a sense rightly, resented, because they are not rationally based, though they may be rationally supported. It is by convictions such as this that a society of the homogenous kind — a society based on and held together by uniformity — lives and thrives. To attack them is to cripple and endanger its inmost life.
Observing that the development of science is what pivoted heresy from damnable to desirable in society, Harrison contrasts sensemaking by empiricism with sensemaking by authority:
Science classifies, draws ever clearer distinctions; herd-suggestion is always in a haze. Herd-suggestion is all for tradition, authority; science has for its very essence the exercise of free thought. So long as we will not take the trouble to know exactly and intimately, we may not — must not — choose… We must follow custom; we must accept the mandates of [those] who enforce tradition.
Science opens wide the doors that turned so slowly on tradition’s hinges, and opens them on clean, quiet places where we breathe larger air… It is well to remember our debt to science — our inward and spiritual as well as material debt.
And yet, Harrison argues, the heretic needs more than science — the heretic needs humanity. She writes:
Science broke the binding spell of herd-suggestion. For that great boon let us now and ever bless and praise her holy name. She cleared the collective haze, she drew sharp distinctions, appealing to individual actual experience, to individual powers of reasoning. But by neither individual sense — perception nor ratiocination alone do we live. Our keenest emotional life is through the herd, and hence it was that, at the close of the last century, the flame of scientific hope, the glory of scientific individualism that had blazed so brightly, somehow died down and left a strange chill. Man rose up from the banquet of reason and law unfed. He hungered half unconsciously for the herd. It seemed an impasse: on the one side orthodoxy, tradition, authority, practical slavery; on the other science, individual freedom, reason, and an aching loneliness.
We live now just at the transition moment; we have broken with the old, we have not quite adjusted ourselves to the new. It is not so much the breaking with the old faiths that makes us restless as the living in a new social structure.
At the root of this new social structure, she observes, is not the old cult of homogeneity but the recognition of individuality, and the diversity of individualities, as the wellspring of vitality and social harmony — “differentiation that would unite, not divide.” With the World War flaming around her, waged on the herd-versus-herd collision of nationalisms and ideologies, she writes:
Only through and by this organic individuality can the real sense and value of Humanity emerge. We are humane so far as we are conscious or sensitive to individual life. Patriotism is collective herd-instinct; it is repressive of individuality. You feel strongly because you feel alike; you are reinforced by the other homogenous unites; you sing the same song and wave the same flag. Humanity is sympathy with infinite differences, with utter individualism, with complete differentiation, and it is only possible through the mystery of organic spiritual union. We have come, most of us, now, to a sort of physical union by sympathy and imagination. To torture even an enemy’s body would be to us physical pain, physical sickness. There will come the day when to hurt mentally and spiritually will be equally impossible, because the spiritual life will by enhanced sympathy be one. But this union is only possible through that organic differentiation that makes us have need one of the other.
A generation before Albert Camus, in the midst of the next World War, called for the superhuman duty to “mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once,” Harrison concludes:
In a word, if we are to be true and worthy heretics, we need not only new heads, but new hearts, and, most of all, that new emotional imagination, joint offspring of head and heart which is begotten of enlarged sympathies and a more sensitive habit of feeling. About the moral problem there is nothing mysterious; it is simply the old, old question of how best to live together. We no longer believe in an unchanging moral law imposed from without. We know that a harder incumbency is upon us; we must work out our law from within.
Noting that we have outgrown the easy shorthand for morality offered by religious dogma, she contours what is asked of us if we are to rehumanize humanity:
We must adventure a harder and higher spiritual task… a steady and even ardent recognition of the individual life, in its infinite variety, with its infinite interactions. We decline to be ourselves part of an undifferentiated mass; we refuse to deal with others in classes and masses… We are dissatisfied now not only with the herd-sanctions of religion, but with many of those later sanctities of law to which some even emancipated thinkers ascribe a sort of divinity. We feel the inherent savagery of law in that it treats individuals as masses… Yet all the time we know that we can, with spiritual safety, rebel only in so far as we are personally sensitive to the claims of other individual lives that touch our own. The old herd-problem remains of how to live together; and as the union grows closer and more intricate the chances of mutual hurt are greater, and the sensitiveness must grow keener. Others are safe from and with us only when their pain is our pain, their joy ours.
Couple with E.E. Cummings on the courage to feel, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel, the radical Russian dissident prince Peter Kropotkin on the spirit of revolt, and the pioneering X-ray crystallographer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale on moral courage and our personal power in world change.
Published July 8, 2023