Tuesday 9 August 2022

When, in the past, would you like to have lived? (Being who you now are)... Understanding the evolutionary-development of Mankind

I expect that we have all day-dreamed about living in the past - and when the present is acutely miserable, or when we cannot seriously imagine a good future; then such dreams are more insistent.  

If you are like me; then these pleasant day-dreams are almost like 'snapshots' - holiday photos in reverse - whereby some particularly appealing scene is conjured and entered-into. 

For example, just before I went to sleep at night, I would sometimes imagine myself on a sultry summer's afternoon beside the Concord River or Walden Pond in the 'transcendentalist' era of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I could feel - physically - an idealized sense of repose against an implicit background of close-knit friends and associates, who shared an opening-out of ideas and possibilities.   

After becoming a Christian; I had a mental picture of Constantinople under a crystalline-blue sky; the city and its streets gleaming white, and with bright and rich colour; the music, painting, statuary, mosaics; and dignified ritual of divine liturgy under the vast dome of Hagia Sophia. 

Behind such pictures lay an imagined sense of what it was like to live, immersively, in a society where Christianity permeated the whole of life - a medium into which one was born, and through which one swam. 

This idea of 'immersion' in life; of life as unselfconscious - of living in the world as given and joyfully embraced - was at the back of most of these pleasant, yearning, day-dreams. 

This bears a more-than-coincidental relationship to similar day-dreams of early childhood; where I can remember some of what it was like to be a happy child in a happy family, in the years before I was five. For instance; Christmas day aged three or four was a total and immersive experience of being swept along in colour, warmth, joy and unfolding excitement. My life in early childhood - when it was good - was good without comparison; it was living in the best possible world. 

When, from the late 1990s, I began to read accounts of the life of 'simple', nomadic, foraging, hunter-gatherer societies; it was impossible to miss the similarity with childhood - which was indeed often pointed-out by anthropologists (before the cancer of leftism utterly destroyed their capacity to experience and think). 

Yet, although there was intense nostalgia for states of being; I could seldom whole-heartedly take the inward step of wanting actually to live in any previous state of society - in the sense that I could not imagine me-as-I-am-now, finding life better in any past society as-it-was-then. 

For the daydream to work properly, I would have to be a different person from the modern Man I had become

The problem was 'consciousness' - the problem was my modern self-awareness, my modern knowledge of possibilities and comparisons - and of what happened next. For any fantasy of the imagined past to "work" - I would need to leave-behind a lot of myself-in-the-present. 

This leads onto the next question concerning what I would need to leave-behind. Some of the 'modern' stuff about 'the way I think' that would need to be left-behind is evil - and I would be much better rid of it... not just in order to live in the past, but anyway. I have been corrupted by the evils of modernity - and, like any evil, this needs to be recognized and repented.

But... even when I could imagine being cleansed of characteristically modern corruptions of consciousness; there was a residue of 'me-here-now' compared with people of the past that was different in nature - but not evil; and this made it difficult to want to live in the past except by wanting to be a different person: a fundamentally different person. 

To live 'idyllically' as a simple hunter-gatherer in my fantasy past - or even in Byzantium, or in New England circa 1835 - I had to imagine myself as somebody-else; which really does not make sense, if you think about it...

Indeed; this wishing has the same incoherence as transhumanism - which aims to cure the ills consequent on being a human by abolishing humans!

Or, it resembles the Western oneness spiritualities - which offer a cure of the ills of Modern self-consciousness in the abolition of consciousness of the self.  

Or, it resembles the 'spiritual' strategy of intoxication - whereby consciousness is (pathologically) obliterated by (usually temporary) self-poisoning. A person escapes the miseries of self-consciousness by deliberately causing cerebral dysfunction; such that (e.g.) alertness, self-awareness and memory are rendered physically inoperative. When a drug has euphoriant properties, there may also be a state of pleasure or at least painlessness. 

In a sense; such intoxication - with its obliteration of that which causes and enables angst - implicitly aims at a simulation of earlier (or child-like) consciousness in terms of the experience of here-and-now immersion in the here-and-now. Insofar as it can be achieved, such simulation of unselfconscious immersion is necessarily achieved at the cost of significant dysfunction

It was such insights that prepared my mind for understanding the insights of Owen Barfield concerning what he terms 'the evolution of consciousness' - evolution being used in a pre-natural-selection sense of purposive change; much like the psychological aspects of development of a human from baby, through childhood and adolescence to sexual maturity (the purpose ultimately coming from God).  

To regard human history as including a change in the nature of Man's thinking, and relationship with the world - a change analogous to (and sharing similar purposes with)  that of the development of a single Man - is to find meaning in the mental differences between myself and the hunter-gatherer or resident of Constantinople in the middle hundreds AD. 

It is to recognize that for me to live in the past in the same spirit as people did then, would require fundamental changes in my consciousness; but to regard at least some of these changes as on the one hand impossible - in the same sense that an adult cannot really, in essence, become a child again; and also undesirable - in the sense that development is not meant to be reversed. 

This is to assume that when a person develops through adolescence to sexual maturity; this is what God wants - and the 'job' of the adult is to deal with the situation - not to try and reverse it. This is our divinely-appointed task - it is our destiny. 

Likewise; when God has enabled his creation of Mankind to develop from hunter gatherer, through agrarian societies into the industrial revolution - in some broad yet essential sense this is what God wants; and our job is to deal with it - starting from where we are; and not trying to reverse the fundamentals of the later situation in search of recreating the earlier situation. 

Of Course we Modern Men must recognize and repent sin; and insofar (and it is very far) that Modern Man is corrupt, and Modern society not only encourages but increasingly enforces such corruption, we are right to desire that this be changed. 

But the consciousness of Modern Man is unprecedented - and cannot lead-to, nor function-in, any previous type of society

Just as the adolescent's consciousness is unprecedented in his own experience - and the only way out is forward; no matter how corrupt an individual he has become, the same applies to Modern Society: that the only way out is forward. 

The only way out is forward; because we cannot find solutions to our unprecedented situation in our past. 

Part of this is due to an increase in sin; but part of it is also due to a change in the nature of Men through time - so that even if past social forms could be re-created, Modern men would not function in them, and they could not be sustained in the same way as they once were - they would be unsustainable, and they would not lead to Good. 

We cannot become unselfconsciously immersed in society again; and even if we could, it would be in defiance of God's expressed creative will - and would therefore lead to demonic outcomes. 

Thus, an understanding and acceptance of the development of human consciousness can make a fundamental difference in how we intend and hope to deal with the evils of modern society. 

These evils are seen, to a significant and crucial degree, as due to a failure to deal-with the development of Man's consciousness

An analogy might be when the (common) corruptions of adolescence are seen as a failure to deal with the unfolding inner changes in consciousness. That unfolding was itself a necessary, and a good (God-given) thing. 

But development leads to unavoidable challenges and choices - and if the challenges are avoided and the choices are wrong - then there is a turn towards evil that needs repentance.  

We, here, now are living at the end of innumerable failures to acknowledge challenges, and innumerable bad choices by vast numbers of people - an accumulated legacy of evil which is unrecognized and unrepented.   

But behind all this was a development of consciousness, a growing-up of Mankind, which was divinely-intended; and is irreversible. 

Therefore, although we are not supposed to leave history behind (just as we ought to remember, honour and cherish all which was good in our childhoods); nonetheless, but we ought not to seek to recreate our childhood, nor seek childrens' solutions to adolescent problems: they will not work, and they will do harm - even when well-intended. 

Instead; we must seek solutions appropriate to where we are and what we have become; and the right answers will be unprecedented in fundamental ways.

This quest will almost certainly entail trials and errors; so we need both faith and hope, together with a willingness to discern and repent when things do not work-out. 

But we each have divine guidance (of several kinds) to lead us through the maze of options and alternatives, successes and failures. 

That is the nature of our task.   


Poppop said...

In the years of my own childhood. Only now am I beginning to understand what was going on then, internally and externally.

Francis Berger said...

You have outlined the evolution of consciousness in a very clear and comprehensible way here, but I still don't get what you mean by the "evolution of consciousness".


Jokes aside, I suspect the conventional Christian rejection of the evolution of consciousness may stem from a deeply-seeded (and denied) resentment against consciousness as the cause for "liberalism" and the decline of Christendom.

If consciousness development brought us to this, conventional Christians think, then what good is consciousness development? It is nothing but a breeding ground for "liberalism", suicidal individualism, sin, lies, pride, selfishness, etc. Better to be rid of it and return to a time before the liberal consciousness took over, ruined everything, and pulled man away from churches and God.

I suppose the biggest problem with this attitude is that it isn't completely wrong. However, that doesn't immediately make it right. By focusing exclusively on negative developments, conventional Christians willfully ignore the positive developments inherent within "liberalism" and the push toward modernity, positive developments in freedom, agency, and autonomy that should have inspired us to approach God in deeper and meaningful ways. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, but this doesn't imply that it can't, shouldn't, or won't.

I can't imagine that God yearns for us to return to some sort of medieval/traditional framework. On the contrary, I sense that would only widen the chasm between God and man rather than close it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Another factor that needs to be considered is the nature of people being incarnated at different times (and places). And I also assume that each incarnating soul is unique.

Given that it is God who decides where to 'place' incarnating souls, it seems likely that God chooses to incarnate a person in the time (and place) where he is most likely to attain salvation and learn the spiritual lessons of life that are most necessary to the incarnating soul.

From such considerations, I believe that - however strange it seems - nowadays in The West is *overall* a good place (maybe the best place) for the kind of souls incarnated here and now to attain salvation and achieve theosis. I therefore think most people alive today are such as to require *this kind* of spiritual treatment as their best chance.

Bruce Charlton said...

The Anti-Gnostic has left a comment:

"I'd be happy just continuing to live in 1980s America.... Nobody alive today who was not alive then can imagine the magnitude of the change."

Evan Pangburn said...

If I could choose an era to live in, as I am now, I believe I would have been happiest in 19th century (probably late 19th century) Britain.

G. said...

I've been pondering Christ's injunction to become as a little child and how this is different from being a little child (or, for an adult, returning to being a little child). Thanks, Bruce, this essay of yours resonated a lot with me.

G. said...

One difficulty of returning to a past era is that you would know the disasters that are to come. You would either have to become some kind of prophet trying to warn people about the changes of course needed, or else you would have to artificially wall that off from your mind and experience the past as a kind of tourist.

In other words, it is a very pleasant daydream, one that I share. But if it actually happened, it would carry with it an enormous load of responsibility.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - "become as a little child"

It seems that a lot hangs upon that "as" - it makes all the difference.

G. said...

Yes, appeal of barfield's notions for me is that it gives a sense of what becoming as a little child instead of just remaining a little child might mean

Ranger said...

In a way, that was the sin that led the elves to fall for Sauron's trap of forging the Rings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ranger - Very good point - that is a closely similar situation.

No Longer Reading said...

The two things I would most be concerned about with regards to living in the past are various diseases and injuries without treatments as well as being in evil situations that you are supposed to take part in. An example of the second is that at one point Hernan Cortez and his men were given a meal by the Aztecs sprinkled with human blood. (The description didn't say what they did in response).

But, provided that I was in a culture that didn't expect the second, then there's a lot of times and places I could imagine myself living in. It's true that there would be many things I couldn't speak about and to a large extent it would involve submitting to the social order. But (at least for those who weren't slaves), things weren't micro-controlled back then.

For instance, you often read about how the parents of a genius or someone otherwise creative had their own hobbies or forms of creativity but were never able to pursue them as much as they would have liked for a variety of reasons. So they had something they weren't able to fully express and that was just part of their life. That would be somewhat analogous to someone with modern consciousness living in the past.

No Longer Reading said...

As far as specific times and places, the 19th century in Europe or the US, Ireland in the age of the monks (from say 500 - 1000), the end of the Ice Age as a hunter gatherer are some that I can think of off the top of my head.

G. said...

Where I've daydreamed about--which is different than consciously thinking about what time/place I would mot like to live--is colonial America and being a hanger-on with the Inklings.

@Ranger, excellent.