An antipathy to the material world and to the world of government, order discipline, and force went beyond a form of heresy. It is a constant theme in most religions. Think of Saint Francis, the son of a prosperous merchant, who divested himself of all material things and treated all that lived; birds, beasts and insects, as aspects of god. He pursued poverty like a lover and preferred the broken, the tormented, the simple and the foolish. He and his followers battened on the conscience of the material world that they despised, taking the food, the alms, the shelter, as the hippies did in Haight Ashbury. In the West, religion that is intense, personal and deeply felt has always been at odds with the world it has to live in.
Yet no matter how closely one compares the secular heresy of the Woodstock nation, with its total rejection of the principles and morality of the middle class establishment, to he religious heresies and movements of the past, or indeed sees it as part of the cycle of rejection of the materialism that has been a constant factor in Western life and thought, there remained very important differences. The hippie world, and part of Woodstock nation was compounded not only of social heresy, but of acid. This was a principal differentiation with the past.
Artists, particularly from the nineteenth century onward, sought powerful hallucinations through drugs. Opium, hashish, laudanum etc. became popular in bohemian and artistic circles in the 1800′s, a process that may have peaked with Rimbaud. But the experimentation was a means to art; an attempt to heighten consciousness for art’s sake and not a way of life. For the hippies, it appears, God scarcely existed, having been replaced by a vague sense of the oneness of humanity that was insufficient to create the heightened consciousness needed for hallucinations or ecstatic experience.
The death of the American dream and the increasing feebleness and implausibility of a tenacious myth may have been one reason. Especially if myths can only be sustained and given meaning by the needs of society. That aspect of American society, half-dream and half reality, had lost its social dynamic. Pioneer America became meaningless not only to hippies, but to the nation at large. Disneyfication and commercialization had monetized the spirit and paralyzed its expression. Escape became easier within oneself. Indeed, there may have been nowhere else to go. At the same time, there was the beginning of the contraction of opportunity for the middle class, the same conditions that earlier led to the formation of medieval heretic and Quakers.
The acceptance of failure and the withdrawal from society were satisfying solution to this anxiety, especially if there is the safety net of middle class parents. Counterculture was part lifestyle and hobby; a place to park your identity until greener pastures or a more stable direction arose. Religious heresy was rare among the abject poor who seemed to show a preference for saints and miracles. And hippies were not common in the African American ghettos. The counter was largely the waste products of extensive univesity education systems, often dropouts who were creatively or intellectually unsuited to the intense competitive system of a Horatio Alger America, a society of perpetual upward mobility and relative ease of rags to respectability.