No Purpose Without Initiation


Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. 

CS Lewis, Abolition of Man

A person’s purpose was clearer in antiquity than it was today.

Who you were was, to a greater degree, determined by birth. Aristocratic patricians must attain political offices. Wealthy equestrians must spend their time in business or, ideally, politics. Both sought to attain honor for themselves and their family. Lower classes may not have possessed the luxury of a shot at political power, but could still pursue glory in war and continue their family line.

Each of these purposes was reinforced through religious and social rituals. One was initiated into one’s life.

Today, most people in the developed world are privileged enough to choose their telos. But many are not initiated into it.

Initiation is a rite of passage, an event that demarcates distinct phases in life. Christian baptism is a paradigmatic initiation. Through baptism one is reborn. The Christian is, in some sense, a fundamentally different person from their non-Christian self. After initiation, the purpose of life is clear. The rite isn’t just a personal affair, it’s public. By becoming baptized, the convert is bound to a new life and held accountable by the witnesses.

Modern life has more opportunity for telos, but less ananke.

Initiation in Antiquity

Christianity emerged as a popular candidate for initiation in antiquity but wasn’t the dominant one.

One can divide up the domains into three: education, family, and religion.

Those lucky enough to be educated in antiquity are prepared for a specific life, typically the statesman and warrior.

Education initiated students into social roles. Educators bring secrets, knowledge whose possession differentiates the initiated from the uninitiated.

Consider the words of Socrates from the Theaetetus:

Take a look round, then, and see that none of the uninitiated are listening. Now by the uninitiated I mean: the people who believe in nothing but what they can grasp in their hands, and who will not allow that action or generation or anything invisible can have real existence.

The civilized and intellectual, the philosophers, know that more exists than what can be seen, and are better for it. Later Socrates distinguishes the philosopher from the king: the king can survey his land, but the philosopher can survey the whole earth. 

One traveled to philosophers to become reborn in antiquity. Other examples of education are less aristocratic – consider society-wide Spartan agoge. The typical form education took would be in families, as sons are exposed to the work of their fathers and daughters are shown the duties of their mothers. Over time, the son became fit to lead the household, and the daughter fit for marriage. 

The identity of an ancient Greek and Roman was defined by their family to a greater degree than we are today. Who someone was and was seen as was constituted by their family. Thus, families contained many crucial initiation procedures. Indeed, life began and ended with ritual.

Fustel de Coulanges wrote that the earliest residents of modern-day Greece and Rome determined their life as members of a family unit linked together by common worship. Families contained their own Gods and worshiped their ancestors as gods:

The members of the ancient family were united by something more powerful than birth, affection, or physical strength; this was the religion of the sacred fire, and of dead ancestors. This caused the family to form a single body both in this life and in the next.

A man’s purpose in life was to honor his ancestors and continue the family line. Religion began as a domestic affair and transformed into a civic one. Speaking of the ancient Greeks, Fustel de Coulanges writes:

First, the child is admitted into the family by the religious ceremony, which takes place six days after his birth. Some years later he enters the phratry by a new ceremony…. Finally, at the age of sixteen or eighteen, he is presented for admission into the city. On that day, in the presence of an altar, and before the smoking flesh of a victim, he pronounces an oath by which he binds himself, among other things, always to respect the religion of the city.

Through these rituals, a child entered the family and the city. Similar rituals surrounded other crucial life events, such as adoption and marriage.

Regardless of whether one believes Coulanges’s picture of expanding religious and civic life, the central place of initiation in domestic and civic life is clear. Rites were the doors through which one walked through to attain new roles and responsibilities in the family and city.

The final domain of initiation is religion, like the mystery cults. The most famous of these was the Eleusinian mysteries. Many notables were initiated via the rites, including Roman emperors like Augustus, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. The cult was bound by secrecy. To this day, we don’t know what occurred at the final stage of the rites.

The rituals took their inspiration from the place where Persephone was captured by Hades. A site where one moved from life to death. Where Demeter came to mourn for her lost daughter. Persephone returned to the earth. But as the queen of the underworld.

The Eleusinian rites mirrored that story. After being so initiated, one’s life was free to continue. An initiation ritual is a way to pass through one life into another. To be initiated is to change one’s identity most deeply. It is this idea of initiation that was supercharged into the idea of being born again.

The mysteries are distinct from earlier examples of initiation in the family and city. They were more personal matters. They were most popular after the age of the Ancient City, indeed they may have arisen to fill the gap of rituals that had been hollowed of their meaning. The historian Michael Grant writes:

For the solemn, long-drawn process of initiation, with all its attendant purifications, magic rituals and sacramental banquets, purged human unworthiness by Ecstasis (the soul becoming clear of the body), Enthousiasmos (the God entering and dwelling within his worshippers) and suffering. Through the medium of these experiences each Mystery religion gave its initiates comforting promises of immortality.

The World of Rome

Initiation Today

Today, there is even less of a place for initiation in a person’s life.

Pluralism brings an array of values to think through. For the early Greeks and Romans, politics and war were the most honorable professions. Though there were other important roles, such as the artist, priest (usually a role bound up with statesmanship), and merchant, and the value of honor was at times questioned – the mainstream cherished these values and positions above all. The primary point here is that there was no jungle of careers or forking paths of professions to navigate. One’s life was largely set. As Paul Rahe remarked in Republics: Ancient and Modern, “the modern citizen is a bourgeois; his ancient counterpart was a warrior.”

Today, the necessity of warriors has fallen. The force of the family and religion has declined. Individualism has risen. Domestic worship does not exist in the modern city for there is less of a sense of being identified with a family and of caring for and continuing the life of one’s ancestors.

There are exceptions, of course. The Jewish and Amish manage to keep ideas of initiations alive. Military life includes rituals and a well-defined worldview.

Moreover, initiation occasionally enters the modern person’s life through clubs or religion. One may partake in hazing rituals to join a temporary fraternity for example. Of course, one’s membership is largely a temporary matter, and, more importantly, one is not joining communities as deep as the ancient ideas of a family or city. The stakes are lower. Ostracism is less costly for the modern person.

The dominant form of ritual today takes place in education. While in classes, one’s day-to-day is structured by the rules of one’s school. Graduation demarcates phases in life. What school one attends matters for one’s self-image and career prospects.

School, in addition to religious and ethnic edge cases, is one the closest replacements for the initiation rituals of the ancient world. Degrees are public. They can narrow one’s professional prospects, which given values today matter a lot for how satisfied one is with one’s life. Yet education prepares for a career, but not a life. Students are taught and assessed in career-relevant skills. The choice of profession is wide open – at least for those who are any good at school. One can choose from a menu of degrees and for each degree comes a list of diverse jobs. Higher education can focus on vague goals like teaching how to think, along with providing specific credentials. With more freedom and toleration, comes indecision. In a place where one could be anyone, some end up being no one.

It’s easy to forget that only a third of Americans graduate from college. Some people think that number should be higher. High schools are organized around making as many kids college-ready as possible. Finishing school indicates that the student is conscientious, reasonably intelligent, and conformist. Note that these are traits of the student. There’s no idea of students entering as boys and girls and leaving as men and women. There’s little by way of transformation.

Rituals today signal to employers. Rituals of the past bound individuals to a family or city. In C. S. Lewis’s words:

The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds— making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing.

The Abolition of Man

A different reading of schooling is that it plays a cultural role. Through shared experience one becomes a member of the educated. It may be more subtle than a religious rite. But it has real effects. One’s social circle becomes far more diverse from high school to professional life in some respects – it’s not bound by geography. Yet in other respects, it’s much more uniform, typically across economic and educational lines. The universities thus serve as cultural initiators.

There’s something to this story, the signaling story, and even the educator’s favorite skill-building tale. Education serves each purpose. What’s one suspect though, is that there is more conditioning than initiation.

After all, what could one be initiated into today?

By Caleb Ontiveros

Writer, programmer, and founder of Stoa. He focuses on philosophy and is fascinated by stories of the classical world and its gods.

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