Millennialism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Millennialism constitutes the belief that at some point in the future the social world will be transformed into a utopian world of peace, justice, prosperity, and fellowship. The revolutionary quality of the idea derives from the focus on this "worldly" transformation (as opposed to the "other-worldly" promises of spiritual salvation after death) and its ultimately optimistic vision of a humanity that is redeemable "in the flesh." The vision takes both religious forms, such as Christianity's "thousand year reign of the saints," and secular forms, such as utopianism, communism, and Nazism. Both because it has always proved wrong (that millennium has still not arrived) and because of its radical and often violent forms, millennialism has provoked the hostility of many people, especially writers who view it retrospectively. As a result, millennialism has left only a vestigial trace in the documentary record, and it seems to have played a significantly larger role in the oral discourse and actions of the time, especially during periods before the expectations proved false. Historical writing was a hostile medium for the recording of millennial passions, and retrospective accounts often strip millennial commitments from major figures such as Charlemagne and Isaac Newton. Historians have just begun to reconsider this body of documentation and assess its larger role.
Millennialism is, at base, a profoundly optimistic view of a perfectible future. It takes a wide variety of forms, from a hierarchical vision of imperial perfection imposing order and harmony from above, to a demotic world of "holy anarchy" where there is no state and self-regulating saints live in perfect equality. Moreover, the anticipated apocalyptic transformation that moves humankind from its current "fallen" condition perfection can range from a cataclysmic one of immense destruction that leaves only a tiny remnant of saved "saints," to a vast, pacific, and voluntary transformational one that embraces "all the nations of the world" which no longer "lift up sword against [other] nation[s], nor study war any more" (Isa. 2:2; Mic. 4:1). Finally millennialism can endorse various combinations of a passive stance, in which, for example, God will act and humans should wait in penitence, or an active stance, in which chosen agents fulfill God's apocalyptic vision. Depending on how peaceful or violent the apocalyptic scenario, active behaviors can range from revivalism and proselytizing (e.g., Peace of God in France, 980s030s; Year of the Great Allelulia in Northern Italy, 1233; the Great Awakenings in America, 1730s740s and 1820s840s) to holy war and genocidal slaughters of the enemies of good (e.g., the Crusades of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries; the Jihads of the seventh century onward; totalitarian purges of the twentieth century).
Although in contemporary usage the term millennialism refers to any form of this-worldly collective salvation, its original meaning, from the Latin mille (one thousand) and anni (years), came from the marriage of messianic expectations and apocalyptic "world-ending" beliefs in the crucible of postexilic Judaism under the rule of first Persian, then Greek, then Roman imperial authorities. Here the Babylonian notion of a "great cycle" of seven (planetary) thousand-year ages joined with the biblical notion of a seven-day creation to produce a vision of the fate of the physical universe (creation) from genesis to consummation, passing through six thousand-year days/ages of travail, and climaxing at the completion of 6,000 years with the advent of the sabbatical millennium, the thousand years where the "saints" would reign.
Millennialism and chronology
This marriage of millennialism with chronology became especially strong in early Christian circles, and contributed significantly to the immense interest of Western Christian chronographers in precisely calculating both the history of the world and the patterns of yearly and liturgical cycles (computus), with which the larger cycles were expected to harmonize (which they do not). For the first thousand years of Christian history, the sabbatical millennium served primarily to delay apocalyptic expectations of an imminent end by using chronologies that pushed the apocalyptic year off by centuries.
Problems arose when the several-century long buffer of the anti-apocalyptic early adopters of the era mundi (the age of the world) approached its end, leaving those who inherited these increasingly apocalyptic chronographies in their sixtieth century. Although scholars have not yet been able to get a sense of the process in any detail, the long-term record over the course of the first Christian millennium (first to eleventh centuries) indicates clearly that at the approach of the millennial date, chronographers chose to "correct" their calculations, consistently adopting new systems that "put off" the end yet another several centuries. Thus, around 200 C.E., chronographers adopted an era mundi that located the present in 5,700 and the year-6,000 in 500 C.E. At the approach of that date in the fifth century, chronographers adopted a second era mundi that pushed the year-6,000 off until 801 C.E. At the approach of this second millennial date in the eighth century, chronographers adopted the anno Domini system, putting off the end the current millennium (and, by implication, the sixth and last "age") another two to three centuries to the year 1000 or 1033. These crises, inspired both by approaching apocalyptic dates and by the intractably asymmetric nature of planetary movement, had the unintended but significant consequence of intensifying Western European abilities to measure time, the only science to progress in the early middle ages.
Transformative apocalyptic beliefs and the "making" of the millennium
The apocalyptic scenarios accompanying the sabbatical millennium tended, as do most Christian and Jewish scenarios, to emphasize passive, cataclysmic apocalyptic expectation, since both the date and the actions were in God's hands. But already by the second year-6,000 (801 C.E., the year following Charlemagne's imperial coronation), there emerged a new and unusual form of active, transformational millennialism that channeled the disappointment of failed expectations into projects aimed at transforming the world. Some of the Carolingian theologians, normally known for their lack of originality, demonstrate an innovation that treats the "mechanical arts" as a form of redemptive knowledge and activity. This attitude reverses a classical disdain in Greco-Roman high culture for manual labor, and reflects a biblical respect for manual labor that was part monastic, part millennial ("swords into plowshares ).
At the turn of the millennium, demotic active millennialism had an extraordinary period of some fifty years (980s to 1030s) in France, during which large crowds gathered in open fields and the weapons-bearing elite took public oaths to exempt the unarmed (peasants and clerics) from their violence and rapine. This wave of popular millennialism, unusually affirmed and encouraged by the ecclesiastical and lay ruling groups (bishops, abbots, dukes, counts, kings), produced the largest active, transformational, demotic millennial movement in recorded history and seems to have aroused a great deal of energy among the commoner class, both in terms of their passion for Christianity and in their economic and social initiatives over the next three centuries.
The rise and spread of radically egalitarian (often heretical) apostolic movements that engaged in technology-based work (e.g., weaving) characterizes the centuries after 1000 C.E., a period of widespread and vigorous social, technological, and economic revolutions in Western Europe that transformed both urban and rural regions over the course of the next three centuries. In this period, especially with the "renaissance of the twelfth century," ecclesiastical writers invoked technology as a salvific and growing body of knowledge, and utopian fantasies appear in which automatons animated with magical arts play prominent roles.
By the late twelfth century, the visionary exegete Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202) had brought a revival of millennial thinking and action back to the most elite ecclesiastical circles with his notion of the dawning of the third age of "spiritual men." The power of this way of reading history as a process of (three) stages, with the present poised on the transition to the final, perfected age, to be brought about by active individuals (spiritual men), has proved one of the most potent in Western history (consider, for example, Karl Marx's historical dialectic). Such a system has remarkable resilience in dealing with disappointment: Every failure could take refuge in a renewal and reformulation of the preparatory project of spreading the working of the spirit. And in each new formulation, the role for human action increased and the role for a God, who did not deliver on the promises that prophets repeatedly made in his name, decreased. This drove European Christians on a steady path from a passive scenario, in which God created the millennium (premillennialism), toward an increasingly active, humanly driven one (postmillennialism).
And the most effective scenariosffective not in actually bringing about the millennium, but, in their unintended and long-lasting consequencesnvolved technology. The millennial origins of the West's peculiar passion for technology seem to derive from a notion that if humankind could regain the knowledge it had before the Fall, it could recreate Eden. While there are multiple traces of this belief in the Middle Ages, its conflict with Augustine of Hippo's (35430) doctrine of original sin kept it at the margins of official culture. But this desire to regain pre-lapsarian knowledge gained great force in the latter half of the fifteenth century with the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, a Gnostic text from the first century C.E. attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The self-styled magus, who turned to this text to gain the original knowledge (prisca theologica) of humankind, believed that at last the time had come to create and transform nature.
Francis Yates argues that these men, the hermetic magi, played a central role in the emergence of modern science, not so much by developing rational thought, but by "changing the will," unleashing the passion for the knowledge to transform and perfect nature. Even Francis Bacon (1561626), a vocal opponent of the magi, invoked hopes of pre-lapsarian knowledge through science in his call for the Royal Historical Society, as well as his utopian work The New Atlantis (1626). Utopian thought represented the first stirrings of secular millennialism, and, beginning with Bacon, they increasingly featured technology and scientific research. The rational, demythologized scientific tradition that is identified as beginning in the early modern period (sixteenth century to eighteenth century) appears to have arisen as an unintended consequence of this passion for esoteric knowledge. For almost a thousand years, Augustine had enforced on intellectuals the humility of original sin: "Fallen man" should not seek to change this world. That enforced humility ceded to a wave of active, transformational millennial enthusiasm that remains to the present.
The links between activist millennial hopes for creating a more perfect society on Earth and the advancement of science and technology from the fifteenth century onward are legion. The most striking link concerns Isaac Newton (1642727), a figure who, retrospectively, represents the giant of modern science and rationality. The millennial visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757827) heaped contempt on Newton, describing the constricted view of the world in Newton's cosmogony as "single vision and Newton's sleep." But a closer look at the vast and largely unpublished work into which Newton poured so much energy reveals a man at once magus (alchemical work) and classic biblical millennialist (ancient chronology designed to calculate the advent of the Parousia [the Second Coming of Jesus Christ]). Similar millennial dimensions can be found when one examines closely the careers of other great scientific figures, revealing the role of millennial hopes as a motivator for the scientist, as well as millennial rhetoric as a useful way to attract large sums of funding. Even Roger Bacon (1219294) linked the Antichrist to science as part of an appeal to the pope to fund his projects concerning teaching, learning, and disseminating scientific knowledge.
Modern millennialism and scientific megaprojects
Nor has this millennial dimension waned with time. On the contrary, one of the greatest and most portentous projects in history, the invention of atomic bombs, took place in the framework of a war of democratic Western culture against the aggression of technologically empowered Nazi millennialists (tausendjähriger Reich means "millennial kingdom"). The Manhattan Project, the United States initiative during the early 1940s to produce the first atomic bomb, has served as the standard for all subsequent grand scientific projects (e.g., space exploration) that raise enormous funds and create a cultural faith in the powers of science and technology, new stages in the "religion of technology." As an unintended consequence, the atomic bomb has revivified apocalyptic fears of the cataclysmic end of the world, just when conceptual scientific schemata had robbed earlier apocalyptic scenarios of any credibility.
Millennial dreams continue to breathe their inspirations into the great undertakings of modern humans, from the messianic belief in "modern civil society" spread the world over (the biblical quotation "nation shall not lift up sword against nation" is inscribed on a wall at United Nations Plaza in New York) to the fear of the apocalyptic annihilation of humankind, whether from environmental pollution and global warming, nuclear threats from the cold war, or terrorism. But this millennial thinking continues to inspire new directions in science as well. New fields of research, such as artificial intelligence and artificial life, have secured funding by appealing to the millennial dreams of both scientists and their backers. The pioneers of artificial intelligence speak about downloading the brain from the troublesome mortal coil and into nearly immortal silicon bodies, of launching an evolutionary step that would compare with the creation of the universe and the emergence of life, or more modestly, with the emergence of homo sapiens. Their visionary enthusiasm, simplistic dualism, and boundless megalomania are typical millennial characteristics and make clear how important it is for scientists to better understand their own millennial past. Then scientists and the broader culture might not make naïve and, in this age of immense technological potency, potentially dangerous choices.
But avoiding the dangers of millennial hubris should not lead, as many rationalists argue, to the jettisoning of the millennial vision. On the contrary, the millennial vision serves as one of the great inspirations for scientific and technological development. As Blake commented in Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), "what is now proved was once only imagined." Of course, not all that is now imagined will be proved, just as not every millennial idea leads to science. But the reverseow, how much, and what kind of millennial imagination leads to science?oses interesting questions, well worth trying to answer.
See also ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE; END OF THE WORLD, RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL ASPECTS OF; ESCHATOLOGY
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