There is an increasingly frequently told tale of the vicissitudes in the development of human consciousness over historic times, of the loss and reconnection with an understanding of who we are and our place in the scheme of things, of the golden thread that runs through history, of the recovery of balance in the human psyche, of the various periods of renaissance of the highest spirit of humanity…
Gary Lachman is an able storyteller. In his book The Secret Teachers of the Western World he tells this tale, giving pictures of the significance of many key actors along the way – the secret teachers. To my mind this story of the polarity of movement of humanity between the extremes of darkness and renaissance is of utmost significance, particularly given the dark times that threaten.
We’ve travelled around Europe a fair amount over the years and it is clear from the evidence of art and architecture that something special happened around the 12th/13th centuries and again the 15th/16th centuries. The Romanesque and Gothic architectures, the paintings and sculptures of Tuscany, the establishment of universities, printing, the beginnings of great literature,…
What was it that led to this original Renaissance? What special combination of circumstances caused that great explosion of the human spirit? Philosopher Jean Gebser had an answer in his book The Ever Present Origin (1949), and it goes back to the basic nature of our own consciousness.
Humanity has gone through four basic ‘structures of consciousness’: the ‘archaic’, the ‘magical’, the ‘mythic’ and the ‘mental-rational’. He dates the period when the transition began from ‘mythic’ to ‘mental-rational’ at around 1225. This was the period when left brain consciousness began to assert itself against the submersion into a right-brain dominated world. For a period the two were in some sort of state of balance which led to the creative explosion of those periods of Renaissance.
Then as time progressed the dominance of left brain was gradually asserted (see The Master and His Emissary), interconnectedness was reduced and the emphasis moved to individuality and competition. Of course, this has been creative in its own way, see the explosion of science and technology, but it has been at a cost of the basic connection with life itself. Hence increasing problems of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, species extinction, mega-wars, terrorism,…
Gebser postulated that we are on the threshold of a fifth structure of consciousness – the ‘integral’ – which would begin to redress the balance that has gone too far one way. Such a new consciousness would re-establish that creative balance between the two halves of the brain, but at a higher level – leading to a New Renaissance.
Many thinkers have since then built on Gebser’s ideas, including Ken Wilber and Iain McGilchrist.
I am indebted to Gary Lachman’s book The Secret Teachers of the Western World for inspiring this post.
Featured image of Botticelli Venus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When he was (then) my age (now) my dad used to say that, over his working life of fifty years for the same firm, there was one constant. The company was in the process of either centralising or decentralising, and it swung between one and the other. I suspect he was observing a dialectical process.
The dialectic method dates back to ancient Greece and Socrates. Its modern formulation is attributed to Hegel, via the philosophical historian Chalybäus, although the concept has suffered to some degree by its relationship with the thinking of Marx and Engels.
The philosophical dialectic is summarised in the formula ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’, the synthesis representing some accomodation and transcending of the polarity between the thesis and antithesis. You might take as an example the Northern Ireland agreement where there is an accomodation between the concepts of United Ireland and Union of the north with Britain.
Evolutionary philosophers such as Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh see the dialectic as a model of the evolutionary process itself – how life evolves. In the evolution of thesis to antithesis to synthesis, life moves on to higher forms that accomodate and incorporate earlier forms. Each synthesis is the start of a new turn of this spiral, and gradually more complex forms emerge.
Read some of their work if you want to know more about this, eg Evolution’s Purpose by Steve McIntosh.
Featured image is part of a tapestry ‘Dialectic’ by Brussels Manufactory
(Workshop of Jan Leyniers) 1660, via Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons
In the 1970s E.F.Schumacher was one of the voices crying in the wilderness for humanity to change direction. He diagnosed the basic philosophical problem underlying the ‘Western’ world view, suggesting that the mind/body split attributed to Descartes represented a break with the traditional wisdom of earlier societies, and its essential truth that there are different Levels of Being. These Levels are represented in the physical world by the essentially different natures of mineral, vegetable, animal and human – and by the corresponding mysteries of matter, life, consciousness and self awareness. And the wisdom tradition indicates that there are also higher levels of soul and spirit that we humans can aspire to.
This seems fundamental. If we do not recognise the possibility of higher Levels of Being then we voluntarily impoverish ourselves. Schumacher makes it clear: “The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith… his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions.” It seems clear that the materialists had thrown out the baby of human potential with the bath water of the religious faiths whose dominance they were trying to break away from.
Since lower Levels of Being are not aware of higher Levels, or of their significance, this has encouraged the majority of people to stumble along in a materialistic trance, lemmings approaching the cliff edge of the end of the world. And all in accord with a simplistic and restricted materialistic faith, known as scientism, that does not recognise our true potential.
In the world of my upbringing the word ‘faith’ was always coupled with the word ‘irrational’, conveniently ignoring the faith that underlies the materialistic view itself. An optimistic faith based on the premise of the existence of higher Levels of Being, for which there is so much testimony from our forebears and contemporaries, seems the rational response to the situation we find ourselves in. Higher Levels of Being generally correspond with a more inclusive and less selfish approach to the world (for example in my earlier heroes, M.K.Gandhi and Martin Luther King).
If we do not choose to follow the quest for those higher Levels we will certainly never achieve them, instead continuing along our present destructive path.
Accepting the concept of Levels of Being, we can see religions as being potentially in the role of providing alternative paths towards those higher spiritual Levels (see eg The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Ken Wilber). There is a strong attraction to the idea that there is this common core at the heart of all the world’s religions, as confirmed, for example, by Huston Smith’s extensive research (Forgotten Truth, Huston Smith). Religions become different paths towards a common aim, which is to connect with that which is highest in humanity. Each religion provides its own approach for following the path to this common spirituality, like a crutch which can be discarded when we are able to stand on our own spiritual feet.
Schumacher’s thinking here comes from his posthumous philosophical work A Guide for the Perplexed.
“The true, the beautiful, the good: through all the ages of man’s conscious evolution these words have expressed three great ideals: ideals which have instinctively been recognized as representing the sublime nature and lofty goal of all human endeavour.”
When I first came across Plato’s ‘big 3’ I knew this expressed an essential truth. I wrote this original article in 2010 for the magazine of the Astrological Psychology Association, but I think it bears repeating here in edited form for a different audience.
It was in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato that the beautiful, the true and the good were first identified as primary intrinsic qualities, from which all other values are derived. Over the many centuries since, many philosophers have continued to regard these qualities as of prime importance; for example they formed the subject matter of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s three major treatises The Critique of Pure Reason (truth), The Critique of Practical Reason (goodness) and The Critique of Judgement (beauty). Mystics and spiritual teachers have also championed these three essential ‘windows on the divine’, for example they correspond to Sri Aurobindo’s ‘three dynamic images’.
It is not surprising, therefore, to see beauty, truth and goodness identified as primary considerations in the ‘integral philosophy’ pioneered by American philosopher Ken Wilber. One of the building blocks of Wilber’s comprehensive philosophy is his model of the Four Quadrants. On the left we have the subjective ‘I’, and on the right the objective ‘You’. At the bottom the field of the ‘Collective’ and at the top the ‘Individual’. The words in the quadrants indicate the sort of field of human experience that relates to that particular quadrant. In this diagram Wilber can situate all fields of human endeavour. (See e.g. A Theory of Everything, or his magnum opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.)
It will not help us enormously to attempt to define beauty, truth and goodness in great detail; we all have a good idea of what they mean. Goodness is basically about how I, the subject, relate to the collective – Wilber’s bottom left ‘cultural’ quadrant. Truth is about how we relate to the world in an objective sense, and hence particularly relates to the second and third ‘objective’ quadrants – ‘social’ and ‘behavioural’. Beauty is the term we apply to the most exquisite features of the external world, and of our internal world, so essentially belongs to the field of the personal subjective – Wilber’s fourth ‘intentional’ quadrant. This mapping of the ‘big three’ onto the quadrants is given by Wilber himself.
Bruno & Louise Huber
Of course, the quadrants are not unique to Wilber. A similar model is found in the astrological birth chart, which is particularly related to the human psyche in the astrological psychology pioneered by Bruno & Louise Huber. The quadrants are related to the four elements Fire, Earth, Air and Water.
The Hubers discovered a relationship between the four quadrants and the stages of a human life, in a technique called ‘Age Progression’. At birth, we begin at the ‘I’point and move through the quadrants in a counter-clockwise direction, as follows. There is an interesting relationship with the ‘big three’ qualities.
Age 0-18. Life in the first ‘Impulse’ quadrant is about establishing and preserving the self in a formative environment, and adapting to this environment. How often do we hear the injunction ‘be good’ addressed to children? Goodness is about how we relate to others, and in those early years we learn what goodness is about, particularly relative to the demands of society. It is well understood that where this early conditioning is not available or unsuccessful there is a much higher chance of criminality in later life.
Age 18-36. Life in the second ‘Instinct’ quadrant is about establishing a position in the collective society as the unconscious social self. We learn to adapt to the You. We soon discover that ‘be truthful’ is the necessary condition to earn the trust of others, both in personal relationship and interacting with groups. So in this context truth is again about how we relate to others, but now these truths relate to objective things, such as laws and behaviours, contrasting with the more subjective codes of morality and goodness.
Age 36-54. In the third ‘Thinking’ quadrant we establish ourselves as conscious and autonomous contributors to society. We begin to realise our true conscious self and understand our own life philosophy. We come to understand what it means to be ‘true to ourselves’. So this truth is about our inner life and what we are really about – if you like, our ‘soul’s purpose’ and any ‘life vocation’.
Age 54-72. Finally, in the fourth ‘being’ quadrant the full fruits of life are experienced, first out in the world and then as inner spiritual beings. Beauty is perhaps the quality that is closest to our inner spirituality. It is ‘peak experiences’ of transcending beauty that often signal events of spiritual significance. We recognise the beauteous radiance of sages such as the older Krishnamurti, the outer beauty a reflection of an inner spiritual beauty. It is pleasing to consider the prospect that such beauty might be a fruit of the later years of life after all those busy years of contributing to our society.
After age 72 we move on again into the first quadrant, but that is another story.
As shown by the quote at the beginning of this article, the fundamental importance of our ‘big three’ qualities was recognised in the late 19th/early 20th centuries by Rudolph Steiner, polymath and founder of anthroposophy. Steiner gave a more spiritual perspective on truth, beauty and goodness.
He suggests that a feeling for truth is connected with our consciousness of the physical body, and that living in truth helps to retain the sense of the connection between this physical body and pre-earthly existence. The physical body is clearly that part of our existence that most corresponds with the objective right hand ‘truth’ quadrants of the Huber and Wilber diagrams.
Steiner relates beauty to the etheric body – the formative forces that lie behind the physical body and provide the link with previous spiritual existence. He suggests that a highly developed sense of beauty gives us a right relation to the etheric body. Now the etheric body is the ‘inner’ corresponding with the ‘outer’ of the individual physical body and thus corresponds fairly naturally with the fourth quadrant.
Steiner goes on to relate goodness to the astral body. Through goodness a person can develop the actual power that will lead him directly into the spiritual world – a goodness that flows to other human beings and is not confined to self-interest. Again, the astral body is an ‘inner’ body, this time related to the collective and other people, which naturally corresponds with the first quadrant.
Thus Rudolph Steiner’s analysis from a completely different perspective is consistent with the Wilber and Huber models.
This exploration of truth, beauty and goodness has taken us from Plato’s philosophy via Ken Wilber’s modern integral philosophy to Bruno Huber’s astrological pychology and Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy. In the process, we can see that these high-minded philosophical ideals do have a very practical relevance to our lives and our life journey.
We might speculate on the Life Clock of the Western societies on some almost unimaginable timeframe and wonder if we are not in the period of adolescence towards the end of the first quadrant, where our concept of goodness is being thoroughly tested in the the current economic crisis [written in 2010]. It is clearly unthinking greed in the financial community that has led to the current crisis – ultimately a problem of lack of ‘goodness’, grasping for ‘me’ while letting ‘you’ go hang. Global warming presents another example – we collectively must have our creature comforts and travel, to the detriment of the third world, the environment and future generations.
And yet the encounter with ‘truth’ from the second quadrant increasingly comes to meet us – the truths of what is really happening in the financial world, to populations denied justice, to the environment – truths that cannot be avoided by denial such as has been evident for a generation.
When we can learn to face this truth with goodness, creating a just and more equitable global society that can sustain the global environment, we will be collectively metaphorically entering the second quadrant and approaching adulthood.
It is salutary, but perhaps also exciting, to realise that there is a long way for the our societies to go before they even get to the 3rd quadrant and start to become truly conscious and will-driven, learning to live out humanity’s true destiny.
What a prospect, to reach the fourth quadrant and for a society that lives in true inner spiritual beauty, which will of course be reflected in a world of outer beauty. No longer will the blight of ugly functional human construction mar the beauty of the creation; it will be enhanced and glorified…
Integral Consciousness, Steve MacIntosh A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, Ken Wilber LifeClock, Bruno & Louise Huber The True, the Beautiful, the Good, lecture by Rudolf Steiner, January 19, 1923
Featured image shows a sunset at Santa Monica, California