Saturday, March 04, 2006

Is Anything Really Evolving Except Our Own Cosmic Narcissism?

Reader Hoarhey asked a most provocative question yesterday. I read it right before going to bed, and it was so multi-faceted and full of possibilities that it kept me up. Well, not really. Nothing interferes with my sleep. However, I was thinking about it as I fell asleep, I woke up with thoughts about it running through my mind, and I even dreamt about it. Why was I standing on the clothes dryer? What was that brown recluse spider doing in the rafters? Why was my little son down below, trying to reach up? Why the brass column? (Now, now, keep it clean.)

Back to Hoarhey's question. He asked, "Perhaps you could flesh out your theory of evolutionary consciousness with some examples of people currently who have evolved beyond those who have come before. I myself am having a hard time locating any. I would be hard pressed to compare any of the many historical Spiritualists which you list daily in your blog with someone like Deeprock Chakra and see anything but de-volution. Or lets take politicians of say 2 or 3 hundred years ago who in my opinion, had a pretty good grasp on the shortcomings of human nature and cosmic cause and effect and compare them with the likes of a Hillary Clinton or a Chuck Schumer. Am I incorrect that we seem to be currently stuck in a narcissistic backwater?"

I believe that in previous posts over the past five months I have addressed these issues in various ways, but I will attempt a recap here.

Addressing that last question first, yes, in many ways we are stuck in a world-historical narcissistic eddy. It is one of the things we will have to overcome if evolution is to continue. A few months back I wrote a piece entitled The Luxury of Narcissism, in which I attempted to address this issue from the widest possible world-historical angle. You should probably go back and read the whole thing. One of my main conclusions was that the reason people appear to be so much more narcissistic today may simply be because they can be. Human beings have always had narcissistic strivings, but only with our previously undreamt of levels of widespread leisure, comfort and affluence are these strivings able to be indulged in a way that would have been unavailable even to kings and princes in the past:

"In other words, before 100 years ago (and even 60 or 70 years ago), people were too busy working, subsisting, and dealing with pain, illness and early death to be particularly self-absorbed. Perhaps there was so much more awareness of the frailty of life that it didn’t occur to most people to exalt something as ephemeral as the individual self. In a way, the transcendence of religion came naturally, as there was no reason to elevate our brief sojourn in this vale of tears to the ultimate experience. Until the early 20th century, the average person could expect to be in intense and excruciating pain at some point in his life, and perhaps often in life, because there were no powerful analgesics that were widely available. Very few diseases could actually be cured well into the 20th century."

"By the 'roaring twenties,' all of the important countercultural [read: narcissistic] ideas and values that would later dominate the post 1960’s world were in play among the well-to-do. However, their inevitable spread through the rest of the population was delayed, first by the Great Depression of the 1930’s, then by World War II and the Korean War. Therefore, until the mid 1950’s, people of necessity had to 'concentrate more on economic survival and domesticity than on self-expression and self-gratification, which most, in any event, could not afford.'"

Now, back to Hoarhey's question. First of all, we cannot look at the problem in terms of years or decades. Rather, the minimum unit of measurement of the type of spiritual and psychological progress I am talking about would have to be centuries. As I have mentioned before, we cannot even really view it from within history, but instead have to take a sort of "martian's eye view" of world history, which chronicles the catastrophic and unexpected emergence of human self-consciousness: of troublesome thoughts and what to do about them. Really, we have to look at the whole 40,000 year chunk of history + prehistory, which is what I attempted to do in my book. Furthermore, we have to realize that this evolution will be a saw-toothed function, as we push forward and slide backward.

For example, The Old Testament candidly documents just how difficult it was for the ancient Hebrews to spiritually progress from polytheistic barbarism into the higher Truth of monotheism. Here we were dealing with what was then clearly the leading edge of spiritual evolution--the Jewish people--and yet, they had to do battle with their own atavistic tendencies to make sacrifices to Moloch, to a false god. Nothing has changed since then with regard to the basic dynamic. It's just that we are all chosen and Moloch goes by different names.

If there was one part of my book I wish I could have expanded, it would have been the too brief survey of history entitled Adapting to History: Why the Past is So Tense. But in order to do justice to the topic it would have taken a complete book--or many complete books, actually. Obviously I had to speak in generalizations and regard large swaths of history as cognitive "fly-over country," so to speak. But the main point I wanted the reader to come away with is that collective psycho-spiritual evolution has clearly been occurring if only you look at human beings from a wide enough angle. There was a time when all peoples practiced human sacrifice. There was a time that slavery was universal. There was a time when animals and children--not to mention women--were not treated with dignity or empathy. Etc. Truly, history was in a world-historical eddy until just three or four hundred years ago, going virtually nowhere until the emergence of free markets, science, democracy, and individualism.

In fact, there was a time--not too long ago--when one simply did not live long enough to evolve in the way I am talking about. You were born, you started performing backbreaking, menial work as soon as you were able, you suffered through a lot of pain, famine, disease, and loss, and then you croaked when you were 30, 40, or 50 if you were lucky. You were also likely illiterate, with no real ability to think abstractly. In order to experience some of the harsh and cruel conditions of the past, we needn't travel backward in time. For example, as I have discussed before, the "war on terror" is, in the final analysis, a war between psychoclasses--between our own psychological past and present.

There is so much more to say about the issues raised by Hoarhey. One critical point is the presumptive narcissism of saying that we are "better" or "higher" than our forebears--or our contemporaries, for that matter. This would appear to be a clear invitation to narcissism, and in many ways it is. This is what fuels both the fantasies of the new age movement, but also, sadly, the highly atavistic form of conventional "churchianity" that dominates most people's spiritual understanding.

In my book I proposed a method to determine the level of psychological evolution of any given culture or individual. It is quite simple, really, but I think you will find that it has universal applicability and that it has a built-in means of overriding the ubiquitous narcissistic impulse. It steers a middle course between conservatives or traditionalists who believe in an invariant human nature that has not changed since mankind first appeared, and the leftist tendency to "immamentize" the spiritual and to measure progress in wholly material terms.

Specifically, I said that the two key measurements of psycho-spiritual evolution were integration and actualization. The former may be thought of as a horizontal function, the latter a vertical one. Integration has to do with psychological "wholeness," that is, how well we are able to integrate split-off aspects of the psyche, or what I have called "mind parasites." Clearly, for example, the Arab middle east is a place where we see a transparent lack of psychological integration. Instead, we see unconscious acting out everywhere we look--rampant paranoia, systematic abuse of women and children, confusion of fantasy and reality, untamed envy, dysregulated shame, etc. You don't have to go too far back in history before you see that this lack of psychological integration was the norm. It was not pleasant living in the middle ages, much less ancient Greece or Rome. (And please, we're talking about the average mentality, not individual exceptions; in all places and times, there have been individuals who obviously achieved the highest levels of aesthetic, spiritual and metaphysical insight.)

The second measure of evolution is actualization. Here again, this could be an invitation to narcissism, but not if you look at it in the way I intended. That is, traditional metaphysics maintains that human beings have a threefold nature that includes body, mind (or soul) and spirit. Our modern understanding has unfortunately conflated soul and spirit, but the one is personal and horizontal, the other more universal and vertical. The latter is our objective self that is capable of objective knowledge. It is the intellect properly understood, not in its debased current form; the contemporary "intellectual" is generally anything but. I am talking about the part of us that grows with spiritual development, called the nous by the ancient Christian fathers, the "psychic being" in Sri Aurobindo's yoga. All traditions recognize it; it is our "spiritual blueprint," to be distinguished from our lower self, or ego, which is largely a result of genetics, culture and family. It is the part of us that can know the truth, the truth that can set us free and save us. If it is not distinguished from the lower self, then that is where much trouble arises: "clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right," as the song goes.

This post has probably already gone on too long. I will have to continue it tomorrow. If anyone’s interested.


ZenGolfer said...

Great post today... I do have one question that came to mind...

Why do you suppose that as we've acheived the "freedom" to explore the vertical nature of the universe due to the achievements of our modern society, we see so many "intellectual" people that aren't taking advantage of that freedom???

It seems to me that there must be an inverse connection between the two conditions, freedom and intellect, that causes one to lose the desire to improve their intellect as one achieves a higher level or degree of freedom to do just that...

In other words, without the "need" to improve one's intellect due to conditions of oppression, one tends not to do so...

I find myself with clear feelings that there is so much "more" to life that what I've experienced so far, even though I've lived nearly 50 years, but due to the degree of leisure our society has achieved, I find it difficult to see any progress being made by any society I happen look at...

Is "spiritual progress" only something that can be achieved by an individual???

Gagdad Bob said...


"Why do you suppose that as we've acheived the "freedom" to explore the vertical nature of the universe due to the achievements of our modern society, we see so many "intellectual" people that aren't taking advantage of that freedom???"

--That's a very complicated question that I would probably have to devote a whole post to. A few things jump to mind. The conventional intellect bears no relationship to emotional health, so it is easily hijacked by unconscious forces, as we see in left wing wackademia. Remember, freedom also gives people many more ways to be neurotic that were denied them in the past. They can compulsively pursue every manner of intellectual, sexual, artistic, or spiritual perversion and call it "freedom."

--Secondly, religion has lost touch with its sapiental tradition, which involves the opening of the higher intellect. Unfortunately, it is a rather sharp plummet from Orthodoxy, to Catholicism, to Protestantism in this regard. Not to knock the latter two, but clearly, when the Western church cast aside the East, it lost a vital part of its soul, only to experience the rebound effect of Protestantism, which went in search of a more immediate personal experience of God that was always emphasized to begin with in Orthodoxy.

Obviously, Protestantism and Catholicism are still vehicles of grace, but for many people, they simply do not speak to the whole person because of this missing sapiental emphasis. It's there, but you have to search for it.

"It seems to me that there must be an inverse connection between the two conditions, freedom and intellect, that causes one to lose the desire to improve their intellect as one achieves a higher level or degree of freedom to do just that..."

--In a word, yes. Again, mere cerebral intelligence becomes entangled in all sorts of lower motivations. Because it is ultimately a closed system--closed off from the vertical--it tends to go around in circles, always mixing truth and untruth, light and dark. It is not oriented toward any higher truth or finality, so it just grinds away, glimpsing only the shadows.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Yes, modern life creates leisure time which permits one to cultivate one's mind and spirit and being, or not. As a young man Augustine's mind and spirit were exploring all that is, yet as a young adult he had a choice to make, labor like the rest of mankind, or do what was common in his day, marry rich. This he did and this allowed his exploration to continue, and so too with most of the 'great minds' of history, their circumstance allowed them the 'leisure time' to use their noggin, instead of their muscles. I think we are witness to a bit of an evolutionary leap, countless minds now have a bit of leisure to use their noggins and what is the ongoing 'leap' is that we are now, via the Internet, a global mind at once processing countless thoughts. Something that has never happened since the dawn of history, minds receiving continual feedback. Yes, a million farmers plowing a million fields were all thinking a billion thoughts, yet each of these million minds were isolated and fed upon themselves. Today these million minds are connected and feeding upon each other, mushrooming the activity in each individual mind, and by the connection with all the other minds, unimaginable stuff is happening this very minute, just visit a middle school to see what is brewing.

Gagdad Bob said...


"Have leisure and know that I am God."

"The purpose of temporal tranquility, which well-ordered policies establish and maintain, is to give opportunites for contemplating truth." --Aquinas

I posted on the topic of leisure back when I first started the blog:

Hoarhey said...

Bob wrote:
" Clearly, for example, the Arab middle east is a place where we see a transparent lack of psychological integration. Instead, we see unconscious acting out everywhere we look--rampant paranoia, systematic abuse of women and children, confusion of fantasy and reality, untamed envy, dysregulated shame, etc.

then Hoarhey wrote:
Or closer to home one can get all that and more just growing up with a raging alcoholic as a parent.

Which leads me to a question for Bob. I've had this thought pop up several times in the last few weeks while reading the blog so I'll ask it now.
I've often thought that a peoples revolutionary war could never be waged successfully for them, that they themselves had to want and then take their own freedom. But at the same time, I see no way to put an end to the constant nickle and dimeing of islamofacsist terrorist attacks through the years without a change in the psychological culture of the Middle East. Thus the U.S. fighting Iraqs revolution for them, at least in the beginning stages.
In your opinion, is the psychological culture in Iraq mature enough or can it evolve fast enough or be led from it's darkness quickly enough by a few enlightened citizens for Iraqis to live as Freemen before the left convinces America to cut its losses and leave?

Bro. Bartleby said...

Just a random thought, perhaps a fine line exists between narcissism and feedback. In the past one would journal or write hidden thoughts into a diary, but with public journaling (blogging) one has the new found opportunity to 'float' ideas, to think outloud, to refine ones thinking with the help of other curious souls that are not afraid to have their thoughts and ideas challenged, even welcome it. This I think is when a blog steps away from becoming simply another avenue for narcissism to thrive and wallow.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Bro. Bob,

A gift:

Bro. Bartleby

LiquidLifeHacker said...

There's more to This than just what I can SEE