Book review: Religion and the Rebel

Religion and the Rebel
by Colin Wilson, 1957

I came across this book in the library accidentally shortly after two Orthosphere writers I respect greatly had independently mentioned it, so I decided it must be divine providence.

Wilson’s interest, as in his previous book The Outsider (which I have not read), is the perspective of “outsiders”.  What Wilson means by an “outsider” (and its opposite, and “insider”) is a bit subtle.  As one may guess, outsiders are alienated from their host societies; they can’t or won’t adopt the shared perspective of their neighbors.  However, Wilsons’ outsiders nurse a particular sort of dissatisfaction.  It has an ugly, misanthropic side that Wilson makes no effort to hide.  The outsider regards his fellow men as stupid and superficial, their ordinary activities and satisfactions as meaningless and spiritually deadening.  His interests are ultimately religious, but he regards himself as part of a spiritual elite with no use for ritual or doctrines of the supernatural.  The insider gets little chance to defend himself; almost all famous thinkers are classified by Wilson as “outsiders”.  (Two famous men he does classify as insiders:  Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley.)  I think the insider’s defense would be that when one man finds something meaningful and another doesn’t, it is more likely the latter who is deficient in sensibility.  Along with this undeniable nastiness is a much more attractive outsider trait.  Although confident of his superiority to the common man, he is convinced that he himself is still living in illusions, is still failing to appreciate evident truths about his consciousness and world.  He makes arduous efforts to deepen his mental perception.

Wilson’s new insight in this book is that outsiders only appear in a civilization in decline, one whose religion has ceased to be compelling to the spiritually ambitious.  This spiritual decline pains the outsider first, but ultimately leads to the stagnation and fall of the entire civilization.  Wilson hopes that outsiders in the contemporary West may constitute a “creative minority” in the sense of Toynbee’s Study of History, a group who can produce a creative solution to our civilization’s current challenge.  This solution, he insists, must be a religious solution.  Writing in the 1950’s, Wilson is clearly caught up in the enthusiasm for existentialism on the European continent.  Indeed, there was a certain openness at that time to religious questions, although not to religious solutions.

The second half of the book is a case study of outsiders who have grappled with religious questions.  These chapters are fun but difficult to summarize.  I will just mention two points that interested me.  Wilson is surprisingly skeptical of Kierkegaard’s claim to have broken off his engagement for quintessentially outsider reasons, something his other biographers have accepted uncritically.  Wilson believes that Kierkegaard was immature and selfish playing with a girl’s feelings, and everything he wrote about it later was just rationalization.  I don’t know if this is true, but I’ll probably never be able to think about this incident in the same way.  Second, Wilson has, I think, a very intelligent reply to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.  It is quite true that many things cannot be said, but that doesn’t mean that one must be silent.  What language cannot say, it can evoke; it can show.  Wittgenstein’s mistake, Wilson says, is that he didn’t give up philosophy after the Tractatus and write poems or a novel.  I would point out that this same consideration can go some way to explaining the value of ritual, showing that it is not just a crutch for insiders who lack the outsider’s spiritual acumen.

3 Responses

  1. Glad to see this reviewed by you, and surprised too.

    Colin Wilson has been a favourite writer of mine for about 40 years, but I only read RatR within the last few years – and I would regard it as one of the very best things he did, perhaps *the* best; because in later work I think he fell back from the level of religious insight he attained here. (The following book ‘Age of Defeat/ Stature of Man was a come-down, something of a potboiler/ attempted-bestseller – but he soon recovered.) From his autobiog it seems that in the years leading up to TatR Wilson was seriously considering becoming a Roman Catholic with the aim of entering a monastery.

  2. Hi Bruce. You were one of the two. Although the outsiders surveyed were sometimes not a likable bunch, I did enjoy the book and the chance to relive the excitement of 1950s existentialism. There were bigger questions and ideas in the air then than there have been since.

  3. I was a big Wilson fan before I returned to the Church. I now find his books to be filled with the sort of “Titanisms” that are all too typical of the modern West. Sorry, Colin, you are not God; you cannot storm heaven.

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