In the pre-Enlightenment Middle Ages, there was really a sense that you had a devil on one shoulder giving you bad advice and an angel on the other giving you good advice. Their location may not be literal, but the world back then was thought to be enchanted. There were ghosts and tree spirits everywhere. You see a living example of this kind of thinking in modern Islam. You’ll notice when Muslims bow in prayer a moment when they look over one shoulder and then over the other. That is literally an acknowledgement of the angel on one side keeping track of their good deeds and the angel on the other side keeping track of their bad deeds.
But for most post-Enlightenment thinkers, there’s no one on either side. Mostly. But we do still think in the same dualistic way. There are good forces and bad both working on us, we feel, but the good force we dub a “conscience” or “superego,” and we attribute it to socialization and genetic impulses. Nonetheless, we personify it and call it a “nagging” conscience. On the bad side we have a subconscious, or things like “anger issues,” which again we say is nothing more than a mix of biological impulses and a family hangover.
What’s interesting to me is that the results of both worldviews are the same. The modern mind feels itself tugged upon by two riders steering it in different directions as much as the Medieval mind did. We still have something “outside” of ourselves to blame, in the sense that it’s “my conscience” or “my issues” to blame, somehow not just “me.”
So what I’ve been wondering is what’s the gain from the demythologized forces at work on us? Are we better off without anthropomorphic spirits and instead just chemicals bubbling around in our brains? Or were the Medievals wiser, with clear spiritual forces at work, and consequently better prayer lives and a more humble faith?
Don’t worry, if you decide to walk around talking to them, people will just think you’re using bluetooth.