Prophetic Charisma: A Psychological Explanation for the 'Castaneda Phenomenon'
Introduction by Corey Donovan
The best single book Iíve yet encountered on the whole topic of narcissism, gurus and cults is Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (1997) by Len Oakes, an Australian psychologist.
Dr. Oakes was himself a member of a communal cult for three years in the early 70s, and returned at the invitation of that groupís charismatic leader to study the group at close hand over a period of years. He later studied a number of other charismatic religious and spiritual leaders in Australia and New Zealand, together with their followers, and his inquiry included administering short, standardized psychological tests to both leaders and followers. He has also read extensively about other historical charismatic figures worldwide. His insights based on this experiential and analytical work are, for me, quite powerful, and have helped me to come to a new understanding of what I experienced with Castaneda over the past several years.
One of those insights is the "missing link" Iíve been searching for in the dozens of books on narcissism Iíve looked at. I have felt there were elements in what I observed of Castanedaís personality (and have had confirmed by other witnesses) that were well described by the material on narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). I also think that material pretty well "explains" the behavior of "Carol Tiggs" and "Nury Alexander" that I saw and/or have since learned about. In Castanedaís case, however, it seemed there was something extra, something almost "supernatural" about the way he related to people and caused many of us to "shut off judgment" that was not fully explained by NPD theory. Dr. Oakes argues that charismatic "prophetic" figures are different, in a couple of key ways, from most people, and suggests ways in which their narcissism develops differently from that of the average narcissist.
Another insight from the book that Iíve found missing from most other treatments of the subject is the potential benefits to individuals that become involved with these charismatic figures. The one he suggests that has registered most deeply with me is the potential license followers are often given to experience their own "forgotten" narcissism.
One "problem" with Dr. Oakesís book is that it is so full of insights, from a remarkably holistic and non-condemning perspective, and so intricately articulated, that I have found no way to effectively summarize or briefly excerpt it for this site. The following excerpt, however, taken from Chapter 2, explains the nature of charisma, describes shamans as charismatic figures, and introduces theories on the development of narcissism:
Charisma, the magnetic ability of some people to inspire and lead others, is an enigma that most of us have experienced yet find hard to explain. The concept seems inherently mysterious and indefinable, but the power of a Churchill or a Hitler to dominate others is obvious. What is this thing called charisma?
[T]he idea of a divinely inspired power or talent is as old as mankind. The oldest surviving work of fiction, the Epic of Gilgamesh, tells of a warrior-king, part god and part man, who quests for the secret of eternal life. He has many adventures in the lands of the gods, and even attains that which he seeks, only to have it torn from his grasp at the last moment. He returns home convinced of the futility of his quest and knowing that "the central fact of my life is my death" (Kopp 1972, 31; Heidel 1968).
The word "charisma" comes from the name of the Greek goddess Charis, who personified grace, beauty, purity, and altruism. Possession of these faculties came to be known as charisma. [Footnote: The Greek word is charizesthai, and it means favor or gift of divine origin. The Greeks do not seem to have associated this with the kind of demagogic and irrational leadership of which Plato wrote in his Gorgias, although they were well aware of the rhapsodic "Dionysian" aspect of life; Plato was a member of the Elysian mystery cult. For Aristotle the megalopsychos was the great man who dares to live alone in secret worship of his own soul. The Romans called the heroís charismatic power facilitas and believed it was derived from the gods.] Later usages derive from St. Paul, who saw it as a gift of grace from God: "To one there is given through the spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy" (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
The most primitive form of charisma occurs in shamanism. This is the religion of the small tribal unit and the witch doctor. The shaman-- "one who is excited, moved, raised" (Lindholm 1990, 158)--becomes master of the "techniques of ecstasy" (Eliade 1964). Typically he (or she, for among the !Kung fully 1 0 percent of women become shamans; Lindholm 1990, 163) is identified early as one with a "shadowed heart." The shaman is not psychotic but is disturbed in some way--the "disease of God," as the Koreans put it (La Barre 1980, 58)--showing peculiar behaviors from birth and experiencing spirit possession, trance, and epileptic seizures while a youth. Such a youth is apprenticed to a senior shaman, who trains him in occult practices. After hearing a call from a god or a spirit, the trainee withdraws into the desert or the woods to meditate in solitude, often undergoing some kind of spiritual test, such as a journey to the underworld. This culminates in a spiritual rebirth from which the shaman emerges with an inner strength and an uncanny sensitivity, emotional intensity, and detachment. Transformed, the graduate shaman returns to the tribe to claim his place as tribal witch doctor (Kopp 1972, 31-32).
Thus the shaman is a "wounded healer" who has conquered a sickness and learned to use it as a vehicle for the benefit of others. He or she is able to explore sacred realms and mediate with the spirit world on behalf of the tribe (Ellwood and Partin 1988,12). Allied with this are the skills of psychopharmacology, healing, and the mastery of trance states. The shaman presides over the ceremonies, ritual functions, and crises of the tribe.
The shaman is unpredictable and fearless, holding office by virtue of personal spiritual attainment--his "psychological voltage" (La Barre 1980, 52)--and having mysterious, dangerous, supernatural powers. The shamanís peculiar disturbance and training enable him to "pierce the vanity of the conventional wisdom of the group" (Kopp 1972, 5), to diagnose its ills and prescribe social cures for the members. Anthropologist Weston La Barre described "the eerily supernatural omniscience and compelling power of charisma, streaming from the shaman like irresistible magnetic mana," and said that it comes from an ability to discern his clientsí unconscious wish-fantasies, adding that the shaman "is so unerringly right because he so pinpoints these wishes" (La Barre 1980, 275). It is this power that earns the shaman his place, for he is feared rather than loved.
Modern usage of the term "charisma" derives from Max Weber (1864-1920), one of the founders of sociology. [footnote omitted] Weber used both religious and economic factors to explain society. He saw Western civilization as moving toward greater and greater rationalization of all aspects of life. This, he feared, made modern life an "iron cage," turning daily existence into an alienated, mechanical, meaningless routine. But Weber also believed that ideas--especially religious ideas--can profoundly influence society, and that they cannot simply be dismissed as a function of underlying social processes (Jones and Anservitz 1975, 1098). One source of new ideas is the periodic emergence of charismatic prophets.
Weber defined charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers . . . [that] are regarded as of divine origin." Weber added, however, that the leaderís disciples--those who see him as divine--are as much a source of his power as are his personal talents, for without them he is nothing (Weber 1968a, 241-42).
Describing the varieties of charismatic experience, Weber spoke of a continuum ranging from "pure" to "routinized" charisma. Pure charisma is rare (Weber 1968a, 1002) and is usually found only in the very beginning of a social movement when a "charismatic community" coalesces around a leader. This community is characterized by a belief in the special talents of its leader, an intense emotional bonding of the followers to him, financial support from sympathizers, rejection of normal work activities, and estrangement from the world as a whole (Schweitzer 1984, 18; Weber 1968a, 1121). Pure charisma thus is personal and is based on face-to-face contact and feelings of trust, duty, and love on the part of the followers (Schweitzer 1984, 33). It is creative and revolutionary, for "in its pure form charisma . . . may be said to exist only in the process of originating" (Weber 1964, 364). At the other end of the continuum, routinized charisma describes what happens when a leaderís charisma is thinly dispersed throughout the followers who act in the leaderís name, typically after he has died. It may survive many generations and underlie a stable social order, but it is conservative and is not a force for social change (Miyahara 1983, 370).
Along this continuum lie the variants of magical and prophetic charisma. Magical charisma is attached to the shaman or magician who is "permanently endowed with charisma" (Weber 1968a, 401). Such charisma is basically conservative, supporting the customs of the tribe. Prophetic charisma occurs in more complex societies and adheres to the prophet who proclaims a divine mission or radical political doctrine. This form of charisma leads to revolution and social change. Weber regarded the prophet as the prototype for other kinds of charismatic leaders (Schweitzer 1984, 32).
Weber added two crucial components to this. First, charisma is fundamentally a religious concept; although in his usage it need not involve a notion of the divine, nevertheless it remains a form of spiritual energy oriented to otherworldly ideals. Second, the charismatic process is one of intense emotional arousal and great pathos; charismatic belief revolutionizes people from within. In sum, charisma is a revolutionary spiritual power.
The charismatic prophet claims authority by sheer force of personality. He points to some mission outside or beyond his self that he embodies, and his mission involves the radical change of current values. Before receiving his calling, the leader must have some germ of charisma latent in him (Weber 1968a, 400), but later he maintains power solely by proving his strength in life; to be a prophet, he must perform miracles (Weber 1946, 248-49).
Weber wondered whether charisma might arise from some mental illness, but he rejected the notion (Weber 1968a, 499). Instead, he spoke of an "emotional seizure" that originates in the unconscious of the leader and results in three "extraordinary" emotions: ecstasy, euphoria, and political passions. These emotions arouse similar feelings in others, who become followers (Weber 1968b, 273-74); the greater the leaderís emotional depth and belief in his calling, the greater is his appeal and the more intense is his following (Weber 1968a, 539). Weber also associated a particular calling with each extraordinary emotion. The first involves two kinds of leaders--the shaman and the "exemplary" prophet--who use ecstasy as a tool of salvation and self-deification. To produce ecstasy they may use alcohol and other drugs, music and dance, sexuality, or some combination of these; in short, orgies (Weber 1968b, 273). They also may provoke hysterical or epileptoid seizures (Weber 1968b, 273). This may seem like a mental disturbance or possession.
The second calling is what Weber described as the "ethical" prophet. This figure uses milder forms of euphoria, such as dreamlike mystical illumination and religious conversion, to create a realm of blessedness upon the earth, purged of violence and hate, fear and need (Schweitzer 198.4, 35; Weber 1968a, 527; 1968b, 274). Such a prophet has a divine ethical mission, and powerful orgiastic release actually stands in the way of the systematic ethical remodeling of life that he requires (Weber 1968a, 274). For him, the goal of sanctification is ethical conduct oriented to the world beyond, and his aim is not to become like God but to become Godís instrument and to be spiritually suffused by the deity (Weber 1968b, 275).
The third calling is the politician, associated with political passions. Examples include Churchill, Gandhi, and Hitler. A charismatic politician is able to arouse the passions of the followers and to channel them toward good or evil ends.
In using charisma to explain social change and heroic leaders, Weber did not intend merely to invent a dry academic term. Rather, he saw charisma as representing the incarnate life force itself, "the thrust of the sap in the tree and the blood in the veins," an elemental or daemonic power (Dow 1978). By linking charisma to ecstasy, Weber emphasized release from social, psychological, and economic restraint--being beyond reason and self-control. The leader is a model of release and the divine power that makes freedom possible. The followers surrender not to the person of the leader but to the power manifest in him, and they will desert him if his power fails. The followers attain freedom from routine and the commonplace by surrendering to the leader and--through him--to their own emotional depths. This is their Good, not in some ethical or conventional sense but in a primordial or instinctual way. Ecstasy comes from breaking down inhibitions, from the experience of carefree power, and from the abandonment of conventional morality. Charisma is an emotional life force opposed to the law, conformity, repression, and dreariness of an ordered life.
Weber thus comes close to Freudís theory of society (Freud 1930), in which repression is seen as necessary for civilized life. To Freudís basic scheme Weber adds the Dionysian element of charisma, most typically through a leader who calls the followers to a new life, a new vision, and a new freedom when society breaks down or becomes too repressive to bear. This tension between release and restraint, between the call of oneís deeper nature and the demands of oneís social group, is at the center of Weberís theory. Charisma "rejects all external order," "transforms all values," and compels "the surrender of the faithful to the extraordinary and the unheard of, to what is alien to all regulation and tradition, and therefore is viewed as divine" (Weber 1968a, 1115-17). The smoldering passion for freedom, for release from all restraint--including the restraint of oneís own conscience--may lie latent in us all. But Weber did not celebrate charisma as a solution to the emotional emptiness of conformity. He saw its value as a tool for social progress, but he felt that it was too wild, irrational, and dangerous to lead to responsible leadership or a stable social order. Charisma could only be the revolutionary spark--the "process of originating"--and no more. In evaluating charisma he sought some way to combine the grace of charisma with an ethic of responsibility. He ended by inviting his students to test and explore their own ultimate values through engagement with it (Dow 1978).
Despite Weberís work, charisma remained a mysterious, even mystical, concept until Heinz Kohut and other psychoanalytic theorists began to study it. In a series of articles and books published during the 1970s, described by one writer as "breathtakingly unreadable," [footnote: Malcolm 1980, 136. See Kohut 1959, 1960, 1966, 1971, 1972, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1985. There are, of course, problems with Kohutís theory, especially in the context of this study. For example, he uses the term "true religion," which few theologians would accept and which he does not define. Further, Kohutís metapsychology relies heavily on the reenactment of hypothetical early ego states (Hanty and Masson 1976). However, the actual observations Kohut made are no doubt accurate. Throughout his voluminous writings on narcissism he has described so many behaviors typical of charismatic leadership that the connection is virtually indisputable.] Kohut emerged as a leader of the psychoanalytic avant-garde that reshaped modem psychoanalysis (Sass 1988). His contribution has been said to "represent psychoanalysis catching up with Ďbeing and nothingnessí, with the world of Sartre and Beckett, indeed, with the modern sensibility and the Ďcrisis of authorityí" (Little 1980, 15).
Kohut studied a difficult class of disturbed patients with what is known as narcissistic disorders. As he studied them, he noticed similarities between them and charismatic leaders. Kohut spoke of charismatic personalities rather than leaders because most of his patients were not leaders--indeed, some were barely able to function--but they possessed many of the traits of charismatic leaders.
What was it among his narcissistic patients that made Kohut think of charismatic leaders? He initially noticed that when they presented for therapy, they showed grandiose self-confidence and--unlike most patients--an extraordinary lack of self-doubt. Often they would be quite clear-headed and perceptive; Kohut recounts how one such patient accurately diagnosed his (Kohutís) shortcomings while in therapy. In addition, they could be very persuasive and accusative. These obvious strengths made them quite distinctive as a group; they did not present in the demoralized, anxious manner of most patients.
However, in time this facade of competence became less stable. Their confidence began to give way to vain boasting and a naive sense of invincibility. Unrealistic, grandiose fantasies appeared in their conversations, along with a streak of exhibitionism. So "brittle" did their confidence and self-certainty become that they were sometimes unable to admit to a gap in their knowledge; their need to appear strong was so shallow as to render them unable to ask for information, assistance, or advice. They were reluctant to seek therapy but had been forced to do so because of having been compromised by various fraudulent or sexually perverse behaviors.
As therapy progressed, these patients became increasingly unrealistic, hypochondriacal, and self-pitying. The nearer Kohut approached to the core of their disturbance, the more catastrophic were their reactions. They were also revealed to have little or no conscience or sense of guilt. Their relations with others were characterized by a sense that others were merely extensions of their (the patientsí) own egos. Sometimes these relationships were reduced to dominance of one individual who was all that was left in an otherwise empty reality.
In sum, these patients appeared to be both happy and healthy until one looked a little deeper. Then a profound emptiness was revealed, an emptiness that coexisted quite functionally with their superficial health and wisdom. They appeared to be able to accommodate this paradox--and other contradictions--because of an "all-or-nothing" quality of their personality that was so committed to an appearance of strength as to have split off all awareness of their deeper emptiness. Their extreme self-containment and self-absorption, along with their confident social manner, made them very appealing to others, who seemed to warm to some part of themselves that they recognized in these figures. This "mirroring" process in which a strong figure sees others as parts of his self, while the others see themselves in him, alerted Kohut to a narcissistic explanation of charisma.
Prophetic Charisma excerpt - Part 2