The Meaning of It All

This is taken from Edward Carpenter's Pagan and Christian Creeds.]

Since the dawn of humanity on the earth—many hundreds of thousands or perhaps a million years ago—there has been a slow psychological evolution, a gradual development or refinement of Consciousness, which at a certain stage has spontaneously given birth in the human race to the phenomena of religious belief and religious ritual—these phenomena (whether in the race at large or in any branch of it) always following, step by step, a certain order depending on the degrees of psychological evolution concerned; and that it is this general fact which accounts for the strange similarities of belief and ritual which have been observed all over the world and in places far remote from each other, and which have been briefly noted in the preceding chapters.

And the main stages of this psychological evolution—those at any rate with which we are here concerned—are Three: the stage of Simple Consciousness, the stage of Self-consciousness, and a third Stage which for want of a better word we may term the stage of Universal Consciousness.  Of course these three stages may at some future time be analyzed into lesser degrees, with useful result— but at present I only desire to draw attention to them in the rough, so to speak, to show that it is from them and from their passage one into another that there has flowed by a perfectly natural logic and concatenation the strange panorama of humanity’s religious evolution—its superstitions and magic and sacrifices and dancings and ritual generally, and later its incantations and prophecies, and services of speech and verse, and paintings and forms of art and figures of the gods. A wonderful Panorama indeed, or poem of the Centuries, or, if you like, World-symphony with three great leading motives!

And first we have the stage of Simple Consciousness. For hundreds of centuries (we cannot doubt) Man possessed a degree of consciousness not radically different from that of the higher Animals, though probably more quick and varied. He saw, he heard, he felt, he noted. He acted or reacted, quickly or slowly, in response to these impressions.  But the consciousness of himSELF, as a being separate from his impressions, as separate from his surroundings, had not yet arisen or taken hold on him. He was an instinctive part, of Nature. And in this respect he was very near to the Animals. Self-consciousness in the animals, in a germinal form is there, no doubt, but EMBEDDED, so to speak, in the general world consciousness. It is on this account that the animals have such a marvelously acute perception and instinct, being embedded in Nature. And primitive Man had the same. Also we must, as I have said before, allow that man in that stage must have had the same sort of grace and perfection of form and movement as we admire in the (wild) animals now. It would be quite unreasonable to suppose that he, the crown in the same sense of creation, was from the beginning a lame and ill-made abortion. For a long period the tribes of men, like the tribes of the higher animals, must have been (on the whole, and allowing for occasional privations and sufferings and conflicts) well adapted to their surroundings and harmonious with the earth and with each other. There must have been a period resembling a Golden Age—some condition at any rate which, compared with subsequent miseries, merited the epithet ‘golden.’

It was during this period apparently that the system of Totems arose. The tribes felt their relationship to their winged and four-footed mates (including also other objects of nature) so deeply and intensely that they adopted the latter as their emblems. The pre-civilization Man fairly worshipped, the animals and was proud to be called after them. Of course we moderns find this strange. We, whose conceptions of these beautiful creatures are mostly derived from a broken-down cab-horse, or a melancholy milk-rummaged cow in a sooty field, or a diseased and despondent lion or eagle at the Zoo, have never even seen or loved them and have only wondered with our true commercial instinct what profit we could extract from them.  But they, the primitives, loved and admired the animals; they domesticated many of them by the force of a natural friendship, and accorded them a kind of divinity. This was the age of tribal solidarity and of a latent sense of solidarity with Nature. And the point of it all is (with regard to the subject we have in hand) that this was also the age from which by a natural evolution the sense of Religion came to mankind. If Religion in man is the sense of ties binding his inner self to the powers of the universe around him, then it is evident I think that primitive man as I have described him possessed the REALITY of this sense --though so far buried and subconscious that he was hardly aware of it. It was only later, and with the coming of the Second Stage, that this sense began to rise distinctly into consciousness.

Let us pass then to the Second Stage. There is a moment in the evolution of a child—somewhere perhaps about the age of three--when the simple almost animal-like consciousness of the babe is troubled by a new element—SELF-consciousness. The change is so marked, so definite, that (in the depth of the infant’s eyes) you can almost SEE it take place. So in the evolution of the human race there has been a period—also marked and definite, though extending intermittent over a vast interval of time—when on men in general there dawned the consciousness of THEMSELVES, of their own thoughts and actions. The old simple acceptance of sensations and experiences gave place to REFLECTION.  The question arose: “How do these sensations and experiences affect ME? What can I do to modify them, to encourage the pleasurable, to avoid or inhibit the painful, and so on?” From that moment a new motive was added to life. The mind revolved round a new centre. It began to spin like a little eddy round its own axis. It studied ITSELF first and became deeply concerned about its own pleasures and pains, losing touch the while with the larger life which once dominated it—the life of Nature, the life of the Tribe. The old unity of the spirit, the old solidarity, were broken up.

I have touched on this subject before, but it is so important that the reader must excuse repetition. There came an inevitable severance, an inevitable period of strife. The magic mirror of the soul, reflecting nature as heretofore in calm and simple grace, was suddenly cracked across.  The new self-conscious man (not all at once but gradually) became alienated from his tribe. He lapsed into strife with his fellows. Ambition, vanity, greed, the love of domination, the desire for property and possessions, set in.  The influences of fellowship and solidarity grew feebler.  He became alienated from his great Mother. His instincts were less and less sure—and that in proportion as brain-activity and self-regarding calculation took their place.  Love and mutual help were less compelling in proportion as the demands of self-interest grew louder and more insistent.  Ultimately the crisis came. Cain murdered his brother and became an outcast. The Garden of Eden and the Golden Age closed their gates behind him. He entered upon a period of suffering—a period of labor and toil and sorrow such as he had never before known, and such as the animals certainly have never known. And in that distressful state, in that doleful valley of his long pilgrimage, he still remains to-day.

Thus has the canker of self-consciousness done its work.  It would be foolish and useless to rail against the process, or to blame any one for it. It had to be. Through this dismal vale of self-seeking mankind had to pass—if only in order at last to find the True Self which was (and still remains) its goal. The pilgrimage will not last for ever.  Indeed there are signs that the recent Great War and the following Events mark the lowest point of descent and the beginning of the human soul’s return to sanity and ascent towards the heavenly Kingdom. No doubt Man will arrive again SOME day at the grace, composure and leisurely beauty of life which the animals realized long ago, though he seems a precious long time about it; and when all this nightmare of Greed and Vanity and Self-conceit and Cruelty and Lust of oppression and domination, which marks the present period, is past—and it WILL pass—then Humanity will come again to its Golden Age and to that Paradise of redemption and peace which has for so long been prophesied.

But we are dealing with the origins of Religion; and what I want the reader to see is that it was just this breaking up of the old psychological unity and continuity of man with his surroundings which led to the whole panorama of the rituals and creeds. Man, centering round himself, necessarily became an exile from the great Whole. He committed the sin (if it was a sin) of Separation. Anyhow Nemesis was swift. The sense of loneliness and the sense of guilt came on him. The realization of himself as a separate conscious being necessarily led to his attributing a similar consciousness of some kind to the great Life around him. Action and reaction are equal and opposite. Whatever he may have felt before, it became clear to him now that beings more or less like himself—though doubtless vaster and more powerful—moved behind the veil of the visible world.  From that moment the belief in Magic and Demons and Gods arose or slowly developed itself; and in the midst of this turmoil of perilous and conflicting powers, he perceived himself an alien and an exile, stricken with Fear, stricken with the sense of Sin. If before, he had experienced fear—in the kind of automatic way of self-preservation in which the animals feel it—he now, with fevered self-regard and excited imagination, experienced it in double or treble degree. And if, before, he had been aware that fortune and chance were not always friendly and propitious to his designs, he now perceived or thought he perceived in every adverse happening the deliberate persecution of the powers, and an accusation of guilt directed against him for some neglect or deficiency in his relation to them. 

Hence by a perfectly logical and natural sequence there arose the belief in other-world or supernatural powers, whether purely fortuitous and magical or more distinctly rational and personal; there arose the sense of Sin, or of offence against these powers; there arose a complex ritual of Expiation—whether by personal sacrifice and suffering or by the sacrifice of victims. There arose too a whole catalogue of ceremonies—ceremonies of Initiation, by which the novice should learn to keep within the good grace of the Powers, and under the blessing of his Tribe and the protection of its Totem; ceremonies of Eucharistic meals which should restore the lost sanctity of the common life and remove the sense of guilt and isolation; ceremonies of Marriage and rules and rites of sex-connection, fitted to curb the terrific and demonic violence of passions which else indeed might easily rend the community asunder.  And so on. It is easy to see that granted an early stage of simple unreflecting nature-consciousness, and granting this broken into and, after a time, shattered by the arrival of SELF-consciousness there would necessarily follow in spontaneous yet logical order a whole series of religious institutions and beliefs, which phantasmal and unreal as they may appear to us, were by no means unreal to our ancestors. It is easy also to see that as the psychological process was necessarily of similar general character in every branch of the human race and all over the world, so the religious evolutions—the creeds and rituals—took on much the same complexion everywhere; and, though they differed in details according to climate and other influences, ran on such remarkably parallel lines as we have noted.

Finally, to make the whole matter clear, let me repeat that this event, the inbreak of Self-consciousness, took place, or BEGAN to take place, an enormous time ago, perhaps in the beginning of the Neolithic Age. I dwell on the word “began” because I think it is probable that in its beginnings, and for a long period after, this newborn consciousness had an infantile and very innocent character, quite different from its later and more aggressive forms—just as we see self-consciousness in a little child has a charm and a grace which it loses later in a boastful or grasping boyhood and manhood. So we may understand that though self-consciousness may have begun to appear in the human race at this very early time (and more or less contemporaneously with the invention of very rude tools and unformed language), there probably did elapse a very long period— perhaps the whole of the Neolithic Age—before the evils of this second stage of human evolution came to a head.  Max Muller has pointed out that among the words which are common to the various branches of Aryan language, and which therefore belong to the very early period before the separation of these branches, there are not found the words denoting war and conflict and the weapons and instruments of strife—a fact which suggests a long continuance of peaceful habit among mankind AFTER the first formation and use of language.

That the birth of language and the birth of self-consciousness were APPROXIMATELY simultaneous is a probable theory, and one favored by many thinkers; but the slow beginnings of both must have been so very protracted that it is perhaps useless to attempt any very exact determination. Late researches seem to show that language began in what might be called TRIBAL expressions of mood and feeling (holophrases like “go-hunting-kill-bear”) without reference to individual personalities and relationships; and that it was only at a later stage that words like “I” and “Thou” came into use, and the holophrases broke up into “parts of speech” and took on a definite grammatical structure. If true, these facts point clearly to a long foreground of rude communal language, something like though greatly superior to that of the animals, preceding or preparing the evolution of Self-consciousness proper, in the forms of “I” and “Thou” and the grammar of personal actions and relations. “They show that the plural and all other forms of number in grammar arise not by multiplication of an original ‘I,’ but by selection and gradual EXCLUSION from an original collective ‘we.’ “According to this view the birth of self-consciousness in the human family, or in any particular race or section of the human family, must have been equally slow and hesitating; and it would be easy to imagine, as just said, that there may have been a very long and ‘golden’ period at its beginning, before the new consciousness took on its maturer and harsher forms.

All estimates of the Time involved in these evolutions of early man are notoriously most divergent and most difficult to be sure of; but if we take 500,000 years ago for the first appearance of veritable Man (homo primigenius), and (following Professor W. J. Sollas) 30,000 or 40,000 years ago for the first tool-using men (homo sapiens) of the Chellean Age (palaeolithic), 15,000 for the rock-paintings and inscriptions of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian peoples, and 5,000 years ago for the first actual historical records that have come down to us, we may perhaps get something like a proportion between the different periods. That is to say, half a million years for the purely animal man in his different forms and grades of evolution. Then somewhere towards the end of Paleolithic or commencement of Neolithic times Self-consciousness dimly beginning and, after some 10,000 years of slow germination and pre-historic culture, culminating in the actual historic period and the dawn of civilization 40 or 50 centuries ago, and to-day (we hope), reaching the climax which precedes or foretells its abatement and transformation.

No doubt many geologists and anthropologists would favor periods greatly LONGER than those here mentioned; but possibly there would be some agreement as to the RATIO to each other of the times concerned: that is, the said authorities would probably allow for a VERY long animal-man-period corresponding to the first stage; for a much shorter aggressively ‘self conscious’ period, corresponding to the Second Stage—perhaps lasting only one thirtieth or fiftieth of the time of the first period; and then—if they looked forward at all to a third stage—would be inclined for obvious reasons to attribute to that again a very extended duration.

However, all this is very speculative. To return to the difficulty about Language and the consideration of those early times when words adequate to the expression of religious or magical ideas simply did not exist, it is clear that the only available, or at any rate the CHIEF means of expression, in those times, must have consisted in gestures, in attitudes, in ceremonial ACTIONS—in a more or less elaborate ritual, in fact. Such ideas as Adoration, Thanksgiving, confession of Guilt, placation of Wrath, Expiation, Sacrifice, Celebration of Community, sacramental Atonement, and a score of others could at that time be expressed by appropriate rites—and as a matter of fact are often so expressed even now—MORE readily and directly than by language.  ‘Dancing’—when that word came to be invented—did not mean a mere flinging about of the limbs in recreation, but any expressive movements of the body which might be used to convey the feelings of the dancer or of the audience whom he represented. And so the ‘religious dance’ became a most important part of ritual.

So much for the second stage of Consciousness. Let us now pass on to the Third Stage. It is evident that the process of disruption and dissolution—disruption both of the human mind, and of society round about it, due to the action of the Second Stage—could not go on indefinitely.  There are hundreds of thousands of people at the present moment who are dying of mental or bodily disease—their nervous systems broken down by troubles connected with excessive self-consciousness—selfish fears and worries and restlessness. Society at large is perishing both in industry and in warfare through the domination in its organism of the self-motives of greed and vanity and ambition. This cannot go on for ever. Things must either continue in the same strain, in which case it is evident that we are approaching a crisis of utter dissolution, OR a new element must enter in, a new inspiration of life, and we (as individuals) and the society of which we form a part, must make a fresh start. What is that new and necessary element of regeneration?

It is evident that it must be a new birth—the entry into a further stage of consciousness which must supersede the present one. Through some such crisis as we have spoken of, through the extreme of suffering, the mind of Man, AS AT PRESENT CONSTITUTED, has to die. Self-consciousness has to die, and be buried, and rise again in a new form.  Probably nothing but the extreme of suffering can bring this about. And what is this new form in which consciousness has to rearise? Obviously, since the miseries of the world during countless centuries have dated from that fatal attempt to make the little personal SELF the centre of effort and activity, and since that attempt has inevitably led to disunity and discord and death, both within the mind itself and within the body of society, there is nothing left but the return to a Consciousness which shall have Unity as its foundation-principle, and which shall proceed from the direct SENSE AND PERCEPTION of such an unity throughout creation. The simple mind of Early Man and the Animals was of that character—a consciousness, so to speak, continuous through nature, and though running to points of illumination and foci of special activity in individuals, yet at no point essentially broken or imprisoned in separate compartments. (And it is this CONTINUITY of the primitive mind which enables us, as I have already explained, to understand the mysterious workings of instinct and intuition.) To some such unity-consciousness we have to return; but clearly it will be—it is not—of the simple inchoate character of the First Stage, for it has been enriched, deepened, and greatly extended by the experience of the Second Stage. It is in fact, a new order of mentality—the consciousness of the Third Stage.

In order to understand the operation and qualities of this Third Consciousness, it may be of assistance just now to consider in what more or less rudimentary way or ways it figured in the pagan rituals and in Christianity. We have seen the rude Siberyaks in North-Eastern Asia or the ‘Grizzly’ tribes of North American Indians in the neighborhood of Mount Shasta paying their respects and adoration to a captive bear—at once the food-animal, and the divinity of the Tribe. A tribesman had slain a bear—and, be it said, had slain it not in a public hunt with all due ceremonies observed, but privately for his own satisfaction. He had committed, therefore, a sin theoretically unpardonable; for had he not—to gratify his personal desire for food—leveled a blow at the guardian spirit of the Tribe? Had he not alienated himself from his fellows by destroying its very symbol? There was only one way by which he could regain the fellowship of his companions. He must make amends by some public sacrifice, and instead of retaining the flesh of the animal for himself he must share it with the whole tribe (or clan) in a common feast, while at the same time, tensest prayers and thanks are offered to the animal for the gift of his body for food. The Magic formula demanded nothing less than this—else dread disaster would fall upon the man who sinned, and upon the whole brotherhood. Here, and in a hundred similar rites, we see the three phases of tribal psychology— the first, in which the individual member simply remains within the compass of the tribal mind, and only acts in harmony with it; the second, in which the individual steps outside and to gratify his personal SELF performs an action which alienates him from his fellows; and the third, in which, to make amends and to prove his sincerity, he submits to some sacrifice, and by a common feast or some such ceremony is received back again into the unity of the fellowship. The body of the animal-divinity is consumed, and the latter becomes, both in the spirit and in the flesh, the Savior of the tribe.

In course of time, when the Totem or Guardian-spirit is no longer merely an Animal, or animal-headed Genius, but a quite human-formed Divinity, still the same general outline of ideas is preserved—only with gathered intensity owing to the specially human interest of the drama. The Divinity who gives his life for his flock is no longer just an ordinary Bull or Lamb, but Adonis or Osiris or Dionysus or Jesus. He is betrayed by one of his own followers, and suffers death, but rises again redeeming all with himself in the one fellowship; and the corn and the wine and the wild flesh which were his body, and which he gave for the sustenance of mankind, are consumed in a holy supper of reconciliation. It is always the return to unity which is the ritual of Salvation, and of which the symbol is the Eucharist—the second birth, the formation of “a new creature when old things are passed away.” For “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God”; and “the first man is of the earth, earthly, but the second man is the Lord from heaven.” Like a strange refrain, and from centuries before our era, comes down this belief in a god who is imprisoned in each man, and whose liberation is a new birth and the beginning of a new creature:

“Rejoice, ye initiates in the mystery of the liberated god” --rejoice in the thought of the hero who died as a mortal in the coffin, but rises again as Lord of all!

Who then was this “Christos” for whom the world was waiting three centuries before our era (and indeed centuries before that)? Who was this “thrice Savior” whom the Greek Gnostics acclaimed? What was the meaning of that “coming of the Son of Man” whom Daniel beheld in vision among the clouds of heaven? or of the “perfect man” who, Paul declared, should deliver us from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God? What was this salvation which time after time and times again the pagan deities promised to their devotees, and which the Eleusinian and other Mysteries represented in their religious dramas with such convincing enthusiasm that even Pindar could say “Happy is he who has seen them (the Mysteries) before he goes beneath the hollow earth: that man knows the true end of life and its source divine”; and concerning which Sophocles and Aeschylus were equally enthusiastic?

Can we doubt, in the light of all that we have already said, what the answer to these questions is? As with the first blossoming of self-consciousness in the human mind came the dawn of an immense cycle of experience— a cycle indeed of exile from Eden, of suffering and toil and blind wanderings in the wilderness, yet a cycle absolutely necessary and unavoidable—so now the redemption, the return, the restoration has to come through another forward step, in the same domain. Abandoning the quest and the glorification of the separate isolated self we have to return to the cosmic universal life. It is the blossoming indeed of this ‘new’ life in the deeps of our minds which is salvation, and which all the expressions which I have just cited have indicated. It is this presence which all down the ages has been hailed as Savior and Liberator: the daybreak of a consciousness so much vaster, so much more glorious, than all that has gone before that the little candle of the local self is swallowed up in its rays. It is the return home, the return into direct touch with Nature and Man—the liberation from the long exile of separation, from the painful sense of isolation and the odious nightmare of guilt and ‘sin.’ Can we doubt that this new birth—this third stage of consciousness, if we like to call it so—has to come, that it is indeed not merely a pious hope or a tentative theory, but a FACT testified to already by a cloud of witnesses in the past— witnesses shining in their own easily recognizable and authentic light, yet for the most part isolated from each other among the arid and unfruitful wastes of Civilization, like glow-worms in the dry grass of a summer night?

Since the first dim evolution of human self-consciousness an immense period, as we have said—perhaps 30,000 years, perhaps even more—has elapsed. Now, in the present day this period is reaching its culmination, and though it will not terminate immediately, its end is, so to speak, in sight. Meanwhile, during all the historical age behind us—say for the last 4,000 or 5,000 years—evidence has been coming in (partly in the religious rites recorded, partly in oracles, poems and prophetic literature) of the onset of this further illumination—“the light which never was on sea or land”—and the cloud of witnesses, scattered at first, has in these later centuries become so evident and so notable that we are tempted to believe in or to anticipate a great and general new birth, as now not so very far off. [We should, however, do well to remember, in this connection, that many a time already in the history the Millennium has been prophesied, and yet not arrived punctual to date, and to take to ourselves the words of ‘Peter,’ who somewhat grievously disappointed at the long-delayed second coming of the Lord Jesus in the clouds of heaven, wrote in his second Epistle: “There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.”]

I say that all through the historical age behind us there has been evidence—even though scattered—of salvation and the return of the Cosmic life. Man has never been so completely submerged in the bitter sea of self-centeredness but what he has occasionally been able to dash the spray from his eyes and glimpse the sun and the glorious light of heaven. From how far back we cannot say, but from an immense antiquity come the beautiful myths which indicate this.

Cinderella, the cinder-maiden, sits unbeknown in her earthly hutch;
Gibed and jeered at she bewails her lonely fate;
Nevertheless youngest-born she surpasses her sisters and endues
a garment of the sun and stars;
From a tiny spark she ascends and irradiates the universe,
and is wedded to the prince of heaven.

How lovely this vision of the little maiden sitting unbeknown close to the Hearth-fire of the universe—herself indeed just a little spark from it; despised and rejected; rejected by the world, despised by her two elder sisters (the body and the intellect); yet she, the soul, though latest-born, by far the most beautiful of the three. And of the Prince of Love who redeems and sets her free; and of her wedding garment the glory and beauty of all nature and of the heavens! The parables of Jesus are charming in their way, but they hardly reach this height of inspiration.

Or the world-old myth of Eros and Psyche. How strange that here again there are three sisters (the three stages of human evolution), and the latest-born the most beautiful of the three, and the jealousies and persecutions heaped on the youngest by the others, and especially by Aphrodite the goddess of mere sensual charm. And again the coming of the unknown, the unseen Lover, on whom it is not permitted for mortals to look; and the long, long tests and sufferings and trials which Psyche has to undergo before Eros may really take her to his arms and translate her to the heights of heaven. Can we not imagine how when these things were represented in the Mysteries the world flocked to see them, and the poets indeed said, “Happy are they that see and seeing can understand?” Can we not understand how it was that the Amphictyonic decree of the second century B.C. spoke of these same Mysteries as enforcing the lesson that “the greatest of human blessings is fellowship and mutual trust”?





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