Transhumanism and Social Futurism are concerned with the deep future, which is to say the fate of humanity, rather than just the next few decades. When politicians and social commentators talk about the future, the end of this Century is the furthest reach of their vision (which is actually a long time, relative to the myopic quarterly range of financial prognosticators and major corporations), and human nature is considered to have some kind of permanently fixed nature. If humanity survives this Century, it has a potentially vast and incredible future to look forward to, and the nature of humanity itself will inevitably be transformed beyond all recognition over the course of that journey.
Ironically, when we are attempting to make any sense of such a grand vision of the human future, we are forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to draw upon concepts from the distant past. Contemporary concepts are often simply too parochial for our impending needs, whereas ancient mythological ideas embrace a vast canvas much more fitting for the new world of technological possibility we are now entering. The first two concepts I briefly outline below are (1) the idea of fate or destiny, or a path that humanity is following into the unknown future, and (2) some new notion of community which can unite, support, protect and develop the nascent Transhumanity as it takes its first steps into that future. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised to find such big ideas most often in the grand mythological narratives of the past, but all the same it is interesting that it is in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons that we find some of the most elegant words for these things. I then (3) conclude with a brief examination of a third concept, the “Rebis”, which comes from Alchemy and offers an interesting unifying perspective for Transhumanists to consider.
1. WYRD: The Unfolding of Destiny
“Wyrd” (the word which eventually became “Weird”) literally meant To Become, and was used by the Anglo-Saxons to denote fate, chance, fortune, or destiny. The connotation of “strangeness” was a much later development related to Germanic myth. This truly ancient word has been in our language(s) since the days of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, whose (reconstructed) language used *wert- to mean “to turn, or to wind”, (that P.I.E. word also being the source of the German werden, and the Old English weorðan, both of which mean “to become”). This is the idea of World-As-Process, of Schopenhauer*’s World-Knot, the Ouroboros whose churning generates Providence, Manifest Destiny, or Historical Inevitability (see de Chardin & Tipler for particularly Futurist variants). As such, it is a handy non-theological, Tao-like replacement for the concept of a monotheist God, standing above and at the centre of all human affairs. We Transhumanists may adopt whatever personal metaphysics we prefer, but collectively we are all well served by the simple idea of an impersonal Force which unites us as the agents of History. The ancient Anglo-Saxons already knew that Force as Wyrd, and organized their entire worldview around it.
2. FYRD: You and Whose Army?
Putting aside the unifying mythos of Wyrd, the Anglo-Saxons also understood the power of drawing upon the tribe for communal protection. When the local lord needed an army, he could draw upon the “Fyrd” (pronounced ‘Feared’, but having no relationship to that word I’m aware of); which is to say an army of community members organised around a core cadre of professional soldiers. In other words, this concept sharply contrasts the notion of destiny with a very pragmatic sense that without solid community organization you have no future at all. This is not idealism at the expense of practicality, or vice versa, but two complementary forces or outlooks which together give a community power and purpose.
I have elsewhere discussed the need for a future-community-ideal which I call the Ajati, and which I believe is a natural fit with the concept of Fyrd. In essence, I believe that rather than defining ourselves in terms of what has come before, we should collectively work toward a glorious future as a new kind of human community which will reach heights never before dreamt of. The Ajati is the idea of a people defined in terms of the future-ideal, while the complementary Fyrd is of the community as an efficient activist organization capable of defending and developing its interests.
3. REBIS: JK Rowling didn’t invent the Philosopher’s Stone!
Another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of ancient European mythological thinking comes from medieval & Renaissance Alchemy, which seems to have been some combination of mysticism and proto-Chemistry whose practitioners sought to understand, control and refine not only material substances but also their own bodies and souls. We’ll discuss Alchemy’s role as a clear precursor to Transhumanist thinking another day, and focus for now on the alchemical concept of the “Rebis”.
‘Rebis’ was a contraction/corruption of the Latin “Res Bina”, meaning “two matters”, or “two substances”. The core logic and method of Alchemy was solve et coagula, “dissolve and coagulate”, which is to say refinement by a process of separation-and-recombination of chemical (or personality) elements. At the most abstract, two elements were represented as “male” and “female” (much as in the image of the Taijitu or ‘Yin-Yang symbol’, representing the Tao as union-of-opposites). Within Alchemy, the ‘Rebis’ was a metaphorical androgyne figure, a person combining the characteristics of both sexes, who stood as a symbol of the ultimate ideal of Alchemy; Completion of the Magnum Opus (Great Work), and creation of the immortality-bestowing Philosopher’s Stone.
The superficial trappings of the Rebis image are unimportant. The point here is of two complementary principles united, as a single dynamic process. Any and all complementary concepts (up/down, left/right, light/dark, good/bad etc) could just as easily be combined in one symbol in this way, but for our current purposes the most important thing is to think of the ‘Rebis’ – the Res Bina – as being one term for the dual concepts of Wyrd and Fyrd, simultaneously. A functional and inspiring union of the destiny-ideal and a pragmatic community-attitude, together propelling us into a transcendent Transhumanist future.