The Ascent of Humanity
Chapter 8: Self and Cosmos
I have portrayed separation, from ourselves, from nature, and from each other, as an engine of suffering and the cause of the multiple crises facing the planet. Because of this, and because separation has grown throughout history, and because it is in many important respects an illusion, many have conceived of it as an error, a blunder, or a sin, even the sin. Hence the age-old thread of returning to an earlier time, casting off the illusions of separateness to return to the original unity.
Yet elsewhere in this book I have hinted of the inevitability of the age-old course of separation, the ways in which it builds upon itself, its inevitable progression implicit in prehuman and even pre-biotic conditions. And intuitively, looking out on the fantastically complex structures of our society, one would like to ascribe to them a purpose, a cosmic reason more than that it was a mistake that should be erased. Yes, the ascent of our self-definition as discrete and separate beings has brought endless destruction, atrocities, and alienation, but it has also brought us to unsuspected points of view, modes of creative expression, and forms of beauty. The wasteland of modern society, its endless strip malls and ravaged ecosystems and dying languages and suicidal youth and empty consumption and lonely people. . . is it all for nought?
If separation is the root of all evil, then to ask the purpose of separation brings us to the old theological conundrum of the purpose of evil. Why, the theologians ask, did God allow suffering into the world? True, it was Adam and Eve who chose separation from God through eating the fruit of (the knowledge of) good and evil, but it was God who presented them with that choice in the first place, and who must have foreseen what that choice would be. Why, for that matter, did God create the Devil? Why did God create anything at all, why not remain the All and Everything? We can pose the same question in other religions. In Taoism: why did the undifferentiated hundun, the original formlessness, differentiate into Yin and Yang, and then the “ten thousand things”? In Buddhism: Why did the non-dualistic Original Mind partition itself to create the illusion of self and other?
Through a mythological investigation of these questions, perhaps we can also answer the question in its modern form: what is the ultimate purpose of the descent of humanity “from a place of enchantment, understanding and wholeness” to the separation, alienation, and ruin of the present day?
In the theistic religions the archetypal story of Separation, prior even to the Garden of Eden, is the myth of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven. This was the original separation, the template and the essence of all the separation that was to come. The Devil is normally viewed as the epitome of all evil, an identity that makes sense when we understand separation—the illusion of the discrete and separate self—as the source of our present crisis.
Significantly, the Devil as Lucifer is associated with light; that is, with fire, and therefore with the original technology that defined the “circle of domesticity” I described in an earlier chapter. The same function appears in Greek mythology in the figure of Prometheus, whom the gods punished for giving humans the power to be like them, to become, through the technologies of fire, the “lords and possessors of nature”, usurping what was once a divine function. The foresight of the Greek mythmakers was truly amazing. How could they have known how close we would come to achieving for ourselves the Olympian powers of flight, rulership over natural processes, maybe even eternal youth and immortality? Just as in Judeo-Christian tradition the role of fire-bringer is combined with that of God’s Enemy, the Greeks too understood the doom implicit in the power of fire, the doom that we are experiencing today: “Prometheus, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire … but I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.” That evil thing was Pandora’s box, appearing—like a drug, like a technological fix—so desirable but filled with the strife, disease, and ruin that we have known since the first technology.
Lucifer’s Fall represents the very beginnings of separation from God, just as the technology of fire was humanity’s first abrogation and arrogation of nature’s cycle of energy flow, marking the beginning of our separation from nature. Then in the figure of Satan, we have the further legend of the Devil at war with Heaven, or trying to set himself above God, a theme echoed in the Babel story, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and countless other myths. This represents our campaign to becomes the lords and masters of nature; it is the domestication of the wild, the Technological Program, the world under control. And just as in myth, the war against Heaven is ultimately doomed, and the pain endured in this losing campaign is proportional to the intensity with which it is waged. The failure of the technological fix, the failure of the program to bring all the world under control, we address by intensifying the effort to control, sacrificing more and more of Life to War. And so, in the modern era, we have sold away our very lives to the enslavement of time and money.
However, we may take solace in the further observation that the War Against Heaven is itself not outside the divine plan, but part of it. In parallel, the ascent of humanity, the ascent of technology and separation, is not a wrong turn or a blunder but a necessary part of a process. In fact, to believe it a purposeless wrong turn is to reinforce the very assumptions that give it rise. It is to believe ourselves an exception to the rule of Nature described in Chapter Six: no trait evolves accidentally but only in fulfillment of an environmental purpose. Our separation from nature, our war against nature, our ambition to transcend nature forever is actually in accord with nature’s purposes, an evolutionary step not just of the human species, but of the planet as a whole. Our apparent separation is actually a step toward wholeness at a higher level of complexity, a stage in the extension of nature to a new realm.
A mythological narrative can help illustrate this process. Once upon a time there was unity: God but no creation; in Taoism the undifferentiated hundun, the original formlessness; in Buddhism the non-dualistic original mind. Then after an eternal interval, this unity decided to experience separation from itself. In other words, God split Godself into trillions of little pieces, which gradually forgot who they were. The reason was to experience what that is like, and eventually to come back together again at a higher level of consciousness. We could even see Lucifer as the first heroic volunteer. “Who shall go?” a voice thundered to itself, and finally part of that voice split off, separated, and therefore descended into Hell, presaging the deepening hell that we find ourselves in when we maintain and widen our separation from nature, other people, and the divine. The mounting crises of today’s world are none other than this.
Perhaps separation is not an evil, but rather an adventure of self-discovery. Perhaps technology is an exploration of the illusion of separateness, that the Whole may come to better know itself, achieving Reunion, yes, but at a higher level than before. In other words, there is a purpose to the Fall and thus a purpose to the whole course of Separation that is reaching its apogee at the present time. For this purpose to be fulfilled, it is necessary that Separation run its full course, to the very extreme we are experiencing today.
For what is the ultimate degree of separation except to have forgotten one’s divine nature so completely as to disbelieve in divinity itself; that is to disbelieve in any order, purpose, or destiny other than that which we impose upon reality? The clockwork universe that underlies our present world view represents the furthest reaches of separation. It is a world in which there is not, and could not logically be, any meaning, purpose, or divinity. Today we are exploring these far reaches of Hell, a situation that Rudolph Steiner foresaw as “the war of all against all.” How like the Neodarwinian “selfish gene” theory of life that is!
The present-era exploration of the furthest reaches of separation is therefore a cosmic necessity that must and will play out to its final resolution. Despite the near-unanimous recognition by scientists that we are rapidly destroying the basis of human life on earth, the destruction proceeds apace, as if we were helpless to stop it. And helpless we are. Certainly there are isolated victories, roads halted, incinerators closed, forests saved, dams removed, but the overall trend is towards worsening degradation of “the environment”. The same applies to various social, political, and medical trends. It is as if some collective will were pushing us toward the full experience of Hell. It is as if we must, like the drug addict, “hit bottom” and render transparently hopeless the campaign to manage life, to control reality. Only then will we surrender to the “higher power” which is nothing other than Nature herself, the uncontrolled, the Wild, and the war against Heaven will be over. No longer holding ourselves away from Heaven, we will be drawn back into it with hardly an effort.
The necessity of exploring the furthest reaches of separation means that none of the long history of separation was an error. Even the Scientific Revolution of Galileo, Newton, Descartes and the rest, which launched the current, most extreme alienation of ourselves from the universe, was a necessity. We had to go through it; it was implicit in everything that came before it. The only error would be to fail to learn from that experience.
On an individual level too, each breakthrough in our spiritual evolution is preceded by a separation, a dark night of the soul, which can be so thorough as to parallel the Newtonian World-machine in denying not only the existence but the very relevance and possibility of God. When we come back to our true selves, back into Union, it is with greater experience and wisdom. It is almost inevitable that most of us will experience in this lifetime a crisis of faith, which may or may not be explicitly religious in character. It makes little difference what religion we are brought up in, because the crisis will find and obliterate whatever order, purpose, or meaning we assign to the universe, so that we may be reborn into a new understanding of purpose that contains and supersedes the old. Even if we return to the religion of our childhood, it is at a wholly new level of understanding.
So successful are we at holding the crisis of faith in abeyance that it often doesn’t strike until old age, when death’s imminence renders long-held delusions transparent. Those who have grown up in a religion, or non-religion, and never fully questioned its deepest foundations have as little reason for complacency as a pre-industrial society that has yet to experience industrialism’s dislocations, not because they have been transcended but simply because they have not yet arrived. The experience has a developmental necessity; again, the only mistake is not to learn from it, not to integrate it, but to hold to the attitudes and beliefs that generated it in the first place. Whether to cooperate with our birthing into a new concept of who we are, or to fight this process to the last extreme, is up to each of us.
Let us hope we do not wait until the last extreme, the utter ruin of life and world. Let ugliness and wrongness become intolerable before then. Anything you do to spread the knowledge that life is meant to be beautiful and meaningful, anything you do to convince people not to settle for less, will lower our tolerance for ruination and raise the “bottom” from which our addicted society will renew.
I think the best way to spread this message is for us not to settle for less ourselves. I have often been inspired by those who, as Gandhi enjoined, “refuse to participate in anything humiliating,” or who dedicate their lives to creating beautiful things, or who are deeply attuned to plants and animals, or who live free of the mentality of what they can afford to do, or who bring people together through the force of their love, who are generous without effort or stint, who see right through me and love me anyway, knowing I am good. These people show us our birthright, what life is meant to be. Seeing their joy, passion, love, generosity, and creativity, we no longer will tolerate a system and an ideology that creates the opposite. Life can be better than this!
 Spoken by Zeus in Hesiod, Works and Days 55