Book Note: The Politics of Ecstasy

This post is a continuation of our look at influential counter-culture figures that seem to have followed their own liberal paths of religious inspiration, this time examining a second book by Timothy Leary. The Politics of Ecstasy is a collection of various lectures (sermons?), articles, interviews, and poems from Leary’s output in the mid-1960s, almost all after his expulsion from Harvard and before his incarceration. Part do-it-yourself manual (“Start Your Own Religion”), part psychedelic history lesson (“The Magical Mystery Trip”), part manifesto (“The Molecular Revolution”), the book’s over-riding themes are the right of the individual to ingest any and all substances, the holiness of the drug experience, and the urgent necessity of altering one’s consciousness in response to such modern problems as the atomic bomb, political assassinations, and the loss of civil liberties.

Although he has often been portrayed as a simple hedonist and sensualist, Leary’s quest does seem to be fundamentally religious in nature. His personal faith lies in the inherent divinity of the universe and one’s mind, with the body serving as the holy temple wherein communion is made. Psychedelics such as mushrooms and LSD become his sacraments, with experienced guides taking the traditional place of gurus or priests. The stated goal is to discover the wisdom and divinity that exist within the human organism, operating on a conscious, sensory, somatic, cellular, and atomic level. Based on repeated LSD experiences, the practitioner of Leary’s upstart religion is expected to explore questions of power, identity, consciousness, and ontology. There is no concern with morality, no notion of sin or pollution, no divinity ultimately divorced from the seeker, and very little clear concept of the afterlife. While the seeker is urged to plumb his or her own consciousness for all the answers, Leary recommends that the pursuit be undertaken in relationship with small family-clans of supportive co-religionists sharing space, finances, and an extremely localized cult. His attitude is one of unstinting, and sometimes seemingly unwarranted, optimism–though his methods are unorthodox and his conclusions often highly speculative, he is nothing if not a true believer in the power and sacredness of his holy psychotropics.

One of the distinctive features of New Age movements seems to be their eager enthusiasm to appropriate elements of other religions without any feelings of guilt or concern over distortion of the intent of the original, to say nothing of the issues of orientalism or neo-colonialism. Leary gets his start a bit before the real New Age is inaugurated but still displays this attitude in his willingness to use a wide range of (refashioned) traditional material to support his views: he retells the Buddhist origin story so that Buddha becomes a “drop-out,” stages a showing of the Passion of Christ where Jesus comes down off the cross to get high, calls himself a Hindu and a scientific pagan, and marshals everything from Sufism to Hasidic Judaism to Aztec religion to buttress his claims that all religions are originally based on psychedelic consciousness. He does so without concern for the actual attitudes and doctrines of devoted followers of these religions, such as the strict Buddhist opposition to intoxicants or mind-altering substances proclaimed in the Fifth Great Precept of basic Buddhist morality. He feels that the symbols and motifs of many (perhaps all) religions originate in the psychedelic experience, and that since he is in touch with the primal source of these derivations via his mystic experiences, he therefore has authority to co-opt, adapt, and discard ideas and rituals from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and a range of indigenous polytheisms at will.

While perhaps noble in sentiment, there is something troubling about the way in which Leary consistently downplays his obvious enfranchisement as an educated, middle-class, middle-aged, straight white male in the 1960s. He presumes not only to be an ally of the young, the impoverished, the politically marginalized, blacks, homosexuals, the Vietnamese, Indians, and Native Americans, but also to actually speak for them in many cases. His psychedelic experiences have broken down his attachment to his individual ego (but seem not to have reduced his egoism!) and expanded his sense of kinship with other people, but by the late 1960s don’t appear to have resulted in an in-depth examination of the political realties of how his own privileges operate. The people he repeatedly, if often good-naturedly, rails against look (not uncoincidentally?) precisely like what he sees each day in the mirror, yet he makes no acknowledgement of this. He clearly expects to get away with everything, an attitude that must be based in his life experiences of continued privilege even during and after overt persecutions; if he had been black, one assumes he quite possibly would’ve ended up dead or in jail far sooner than he did.

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9 Comments

Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

9 responses to “Book Note: The Politics of Ecstasy

  1. Having grown up in a Liberal Church in the 60’s, I’d argue it was Leary who destroyed Liberal religion.

    I have pretty vivid recollections of adult Church leaders unable to comprehend the wave of drug use… among other things they couldn’t comprehend or worse enticements of the 60’s they self-destructively partook of too.

    The minister’s son got badly involved with drugs and committed sucide at home in a bloody way… my buddy and his dad from our Church youth group volunteered to clean the house.

    They were lousy times the 60’s… Leary guilty of much… there was nothing Liberal about it.. the times ate people alive.

  2. Jeff

    Bill, I understand why you might not like Leary. I can’t say I find him particularly appealing either. But when you say “there was nothing Liberal about it” you aren’t advancing much of an argument. The last couple of posts give specific reasons why Leary could be seen as a liberal based on particular criteria for defining liberal religion, criteria that Leary seems to meet. Your distaste for Leary or feeling that he harmed liberalism aren’t enough to actually place him outside of liberalism. We could argue that plenty of acknowledged liberal religionists have in fact harmed their own causes, unwittingly or otherwise, and perhaps there are UUs today who are doing so. So please try and clarify precisely why Leary isn’t a religious liberal, other than because you don’t like him (I won’t try to argue you into liking him, that’s a position I don’t hold myself) or because you don’t like what you think the effects of his particular liberal approach were.

  3. The Eclectic Cleric

    Here’s a link to a sermon/obituary I delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Portland Oregon shortly after Leary’s death. Afterwords, one of the parishioners said to me (as I was shaking hands at the door of the sanctuary), “That was so inspiring; I think I’ll drop some acid.” He was just kidding, of course. I think….

    “The Most Dangerous Man in America.”

  4. Liberalism’s concerned with human autonomy. It’s concerned with human freedom. Expanding it, and exercising it; about making choices.

    Leary was about Turn on, Tune in, Drop out and as Leary explained that lead to Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.

    It may have sounded sort of liberal to Leary when he wrote it, and it may have sounded liberal to those reading it (keep in mind both author and reader could be perfectly stoned getting to the conclusion too) but the reality was abandonment of all constructive activity –at best!

    Nothing Liberal about it at all.

  5. Jeff

    Bill, you’re still not engaging with the actual issues here. Whether you like what people did or didn’t do with his ideas, that has nothing to do with whether Leary’s thought can be accurately characterized as liberal. Back in their day many Unitarians were upset with Emerson and Parker and the actions that they saw flowing from them, but that didn’t make these gentlemen non-liberals, after all.

    Here are the actual words of Leary from the very link that you pointed to:

    “‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you–externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. Drop out suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.'”

    So, straight from the horse’s mouth:

    Turn on= expand your mind and increase your self-awareness.

    Tune in= inner and outer harmony and individual freedom

    Drop out= self-reliance, the value of the individual, and action to change society for the better

    So, how exactly are these not liberal religious values? That is not a rhetorical question. If these are not part of a liberal program, what viable alternate definition of liberal religion do you offer that excludes these ideas but includes the many thinkers and movements widely understood as liberal (Unitarians, Universalists, Transcedentalists, Humanists, Congregationalists, Reform Jews, etc)? Again, not a rhetorical question.

    I whole-heartedly agree that getting stoned and abandoning all constructive activity is not a liberal religious value. But since Leary directly states that this was not his program, we cannot use the later actions of people whom he says don’t represent him as somehow representative of his thought.

    Obligatory note of obviousness: I am not here arguing for or against the use of psychedelics in religion. I myself have never so much as smoked a cigarette. The point here is to determine whether Leary was a liberal religious thinker who should be taken seriously as a historical figure by scholars of American liberal religion. To do so we need to examine the aspects of his thought, the definitions we use to determine what is liberal, and draw dispassionate conclusions unaffected by our love or hate of the man himself, his followers, or drugs. So, again, how EXACTLY is Leary himself not a religious liberal?

  6. So, how exactly are these not liberal religious values? That is not a rhetorical question. If these are not part of a liberal program, what viable alternate definition of liberal religion do you offer that excludes these ideas but includes the many thinkers and movements widely understood as liberal (Unitarians, Universalists, Transcedentalists, Humanists, Congregationalists, Reform Jews, etc)? Again, not a rhetorical question.

    My UU Church was militantly Temprance until not so many years ago. Many Liberals were although after the 1960’s that seems hard to believe.

    Fogging the mind with booze or drugs interfered with the liberal’s hallmark principle of perfecting of character.

    Read the bios of some of the key players and you’ll find them teetotalers. The folks who gave us prohibition which was the liberals attempt to perfect everyone’s character.

  7. Jeff

    Bill, you’re still avoiding the direct question that I have posed to you a bunch of times at this point. How are the ideas that Leary’s espouses not liberal ideas: specifically, he acknowledges the fact of change in religion, rejects literalism in the interpretation of texts, acknowledges the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints on religion and seeks religious inspiration from multiple sources, affirms the ability and legitimacy of individuals to make up their own minds about religion, he valorizes the natural world, he is optimistic, holds a high opinion of human nature and its potential perfectibility, and believes in harmonizing science and religion. These aren’t incidental to his thought, they are core values.

    Is all of this negated because he, like many Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian-Universalists, also took intoxicants? That seems hard to believe. After all, there were also Unitarians and Universalists who opposed Prohibition or simply flouted it in their personal behavior. And where you see fogging of the mind, Leary sees mind expansion that is precisely intended to perfect one’s character. It simply isn’t convincing that because you disagree with Leary’s assessment of the spiritual potential of certain substances, that therefore none of the rest of what he taught matters and he is not a liberal religionist. You need to offer something more persuasive than your personal dislike of LSD. After all, William James, who is widely accepted as “one of us,” actively and publicly experimented with mind-altering drugs in a fashion similar to Leary, and nowadays I think I must be one of the few adult UUs who has truly never had any drug experiences of any type (well, maybe they’re not so rare in my generation, but certainly in your generation they seem to be).

  8. Jeff, I think Bill has given you his answer. You write about Leary

    [H]e acknowledges the fact of change in religion, rejects literalism in the interpretation of texts, acknowledges the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints on religion and seeks religious inspiration from multiple sources, affirms the ability and legitimacy of individuals to make up their own minds about religion, he valorizes the natural world

    Well and good; Leary’s personal creed is liberal. But we are a faith of deeds not creeds. Bill points out that the fruits of much of Leary’s work were quite illiberal. He espoused activities that undercut the basis of liberal religion—at last as it is understood by some of us—character, good works. Bill judges Leary based on what he did and the actions he urged others to take; Bill counts Leary as illiberal. You, instead, measure Leary by his personal creed, and see a strong family resemblance.

  9. Jeff

    Red Sphynx, we’ll obviously have to let Bill speak for himself (Bill, is he on the right track?), but I think you’re probably on to something here. There are of course many ways to slice the liberal pie, thought vs. action being one of them.

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