11th Grade: St. Francis and 60’s Counter-Culture


This week we wrapped up our unit on Vietnam, and shifted our focus to the domestic scene and the rise of the “Hippie” counter-cultural movement.

The hippies were hardly America’s first prominent counter-cultural movement, but its visibility and impact may have been greater than others of its kind.  Some point to the baby-boom population reaching the teen years as the main reason for the disruption in the 60’s, but surely this can only form part of the cause.

To the older generation it seemed like the hippies rejected the America their parents handed them.  Their parents lived through the Depression, won W.W. II, and yet they seemingly despised their inheritance.  One must sympathize with the feelings of confusion and rejection those “over 30” must have felt.

But we should also ask what that inheritance might have looked like to many by 1967.

  • The growth of TV dramatized the Civil Rights struggle and exposed contradictions between our words and reality.
  • America had always thought of itself as a plucky underdog, but now we used all our technological advances to bomb a peasant nation thousands of miles away, as discussed last week.
  • Had the American dream been reduced to materialism?  That is, did they see their role in life to do well in school, to get a good job, to get a comfortable life, end of story?  What did America really stand for?  Could America not just give you a good job, but also feed the soul?

I shared with students a theory cobbled together from a few sources (only a theory, I stress).  Though it works better visually, I will try and explain:

  • Imagine a civilization as a series of concentric circles with a core, or nucleus.  This core represents the spiritual foundation of our law, customs, and so on.
  • From the core the circles radiate out.  Culture would closest to the center, as that involves a collective and creative process.  As you radiate out, the values of the core are less immediately obvious, but still influential.  So you might have politics next, then economics.  One of the furthest out might be the military (for the sake of argument).
  • Also, the further you get from the core, the easier that aspect travels.  You can’t, for example, get people to suddenly be jazz musicians, but you can send your military wherever you want.

What happens when the core begins to lose its strength?

When a middle-aged man sits up and wonders what it all means and then decides to buy a sports car and get a trophy wife we do not call that a sign of health.  We might call it overcompensating for a failure to deal with life’s realities.  Territorial expansion can mask uncertainty or weakness at the core, and gives the illusion of health.  For the circles to all hang together, weakness in one area must be made up in another.

This time of expansion makes a civilization vulnerable.  Since we no longer draw from a healthy core, we become imbalanced and materialistic.  “It is the bored civilization,” wrote Oswald Spengler, “that thinks only of economics.”  This lack of balance needs addressed, and herein lies both opportunity and danger.

Sometimes one has to leave home to truly discover it anew, and herein lies the opportunity with this process.  A civilization searches the world for a home only to discover that they like the one they left (the basic plot of Chesterton’s Manalive for those that might have interest).  Think of someone who grew up in the Church, left it to “find themselves” in their early college years, and then return after seeing the bankruptcy of the world.  Upon their return they have renewed dedication to home.

But. . .

That usually does not happen, because it was the core’s weakness that led to the expansion in the first place.  Usually the civilization gets enchanted with the “other” now that their standard fare no longer satisfies. At this point, the civilization begins to fill in the core’s gaps with elements from different civilizations.  Witness what happened to Rome after their expansion throughout the Mediterranean, and how they began to borrow from Greek civilization various religious and cultural ideals.  Various Roman emperors adopted a Greek fashions.  Marcus Aurelius posed as a Greek philosopher, while his son Commodus took it even further and dressed as Hercules.

Before we blame the seekers, we need to wonder what led them to seek elsewhere for answers.  I cannot claim to have a good handle on the state of the American Church in the post-W.W. II era, but I can say that if the Church identified too closely with “America,” their disenchantment with the country would impact their identification with the Church.  In the case of Rome,  many have documented how prior to their significant expansion after the 2nd Punic War, Rome politically had gone from a mostly admirable democracy to a less praiseworthy oligarchy.  Maybe many of the hippies meant well, and maybe they were right that America had a spiritual problem that went far beyond politics.

Of course, sometimes this process of shifting core identity brings blessings.  Think of the Roman ethos giving way to the Christian Middle Ages.  Also, all of us are made in God’s image, so every culture will reflect something of God’s truth.  Because of sin no culture will do this perfectly.  In the case of America and Western Civilization, Christianity obviously had a lot to do with its founding.  But even from the beginning, contradictions like slavery embedded itself deep within our identity.  We did not perhaps fully understand what “liberty” was supposed to mean.

I think Donovan’s “Riki-Tiki-Tavi” as illustrative of this principle, from 1965:

Here are the lyrics:

Better get into what you gotta get into
Better get into it now, no slacking please
United Nations ain’t really united
And the organisations ain’t really organised

Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more my love
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone

(Every)body who read the Jungle Book knows that Riki tiki tavi’s a
mongoose who kills snakes
(Well) when I was a young man I was led to believe there were organisations
to kill my snakes for me
i.e. the church, i.e. the government, i.e. the school
(but when I got a little older) I learned I had to kill them myself

(I said) Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more my love
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone

People walk around they don’t know what they’re doing
They bin lost so long they don’t know what they’ve been looking for
Well, I know what I’m a looking for but I just can’t find it
I guess I gotta look inside of myself some more

oh oh oh inside of myself some more
oh oh oh inside of myself some more

Here he expresses something typical about growing up and the need to find one’s own identity.  He needs to “own” his way in the world, as he realizes that what he trusted in his youth isn’t all its cracked up to be.  So far so good. But his solution (“look inside of myself some more”) is very Eastern and bound for disaster.

Herein lies the seeds of the failure of the Hippie movement.  They could point out flaws, but could lay no other positive foundation merely by looking “inside of myself some more.”  It is worth noting that while, say, the Civil Rights Movement had its apex with the March on Washington and the subsequent Civil Rights Act, the Hippie counter-culture peaked with a concert at Woodstock.   Great music, but little actual impact on society.

As a brief aside, one can see some historical parallels in that civilizations which experience a “time of troubles” often develop inward looking philosophies/religions, which tend to have a strong individualistic core.   We can think of the aforementioned stoicism in Rome mentioned already, or the growth of Platonic philosophy after the Peloponnesian War in Athens.  We can add to the list Babylonian obsession with dream interpretation during and after the time of Nebuchadnezzar.  Interestingly, this inward drift happened after victorious expansion in all of these civilizations, just as it happened with us after W.W. II.  If we could call these periods “Times of Troubles” in ancient world, might we say that America is experiencing a similar “Time of Troubles” today?

This sentiment of blurring reality by looking inward gets taken about as far as it can go in the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Here the song urges you not just to refashion reality in your own image, but to escape reality altogether, and many used drugs to do just that.  The song not only has an overt Eastern message, but expresses it partially in an Eastern form.

Many former “hippies” lament the fact that their dream died and turned back into the materialism the movement initially rejected.  Part of this happened, I think, because many of them grew up, got married, had kids, and inherited all the attendant responsibilities that families bring.  But another reason for this I think was the fact that “looking inside ourselves” for answers will not lead to anything very satisfying, and none of us are interesting enough for anyone to enjoy it for very long.  The experiment had a built in short shelf life.  Many of them returned to the only thing they knew, the “materialism” of their parents generation.

Unfortunately they did a great deal of damage, especially in the realm of sexual ethics.  In looking inward, they reduced much of life to self-expression.  Sex too got included in personal self-expression, which meant that not only would sex be divorced from marriage, it could be divorced from the other person entirely.

Historians differ in how they evaluate the movement.  One went so far as to call St. Francis, “the hippie of his day.”  Well . . .St. Francis actually built something enduring based on charity, whereas the Hippie movement had an almost exclusively negative character.  St. Francis sought to transform reality out of love, not escape from it.  First Things has a good rebuke to the “St. Francis as a Rebel Hippie” idea here.  The comment about St. Francis as a Hippie does hint at one truth: both St. Francis and the Hippies gave a spiritual critique of their societies.  But St. Francis looked out at God and the World, not inward, and therein lies a crucial difference.

St. Francis

Many thanks,