The Four Ages of the Spirit
“No fundamental form of culture is infinite in its creative possibilities, but is limited. Otherwise it would be not one of several forms but an absolute, embracing all of them. When their creative forces are exhausted, and all their limited potentialities are realized, the respective culture and society either become petrified and uncreative (if they retain their already exhausted form) or else shift to a new form which opens new creative possibilities and new values. All the great cultures, indeed, that remained creative underwent just such shifts. On the other hand, the cultures and societies that became stagnant, petrified, and uncreative were precisely the cultures and societies that did not change their form and could not find new wine and new vessels for it. Sterility and an uncreative, vegetative existence have been the nemesis of such societies and cultures.” — Pitrim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age.
The classical Greeks held that Man had fallen from a higher to a lower and degraded state through four successive stages or ages of degeneration. From a Golden Age there followed a Silver Age, then a Bronze Age, and then an Iron Age.
This view of the descent, decay, and decline of the human spirit is echoed in many contemporary writings, most notably that of Rene Guenon. In his book The Reign of Quantity and other works, Guenon documents how man has fallen from “quality” into a condition of mere quantification, from a whole into a mere totality or sum — from a state of grace into a disgraceful condition.
Although Jean Gebser, in his wonderful tome The Ever-Present Origin, also finds this fourfold pattern explicit in human history, his is not a narrative of continuous linear descent and decay. In his historical survey of civilisational types he discovers four fundamental “structures of consciousness” that he calls the archaic, the magical, the mythological, and the mental-rational. These are, for him, various articulations of a singular consciousness, like the petals of a flower, rather than progressively ascendent or descendent types or “stages of development”. In Gebser’s view, it is simply nonsense to talk of historical “stages” to describe this articulation in progressive or regressive terms. They are equally valid in their own terms, each having had their own “efficient” and “deficient” development and expression and are, moreover, part of our own psychic inheritance and structure.
And, of course, we can’t omit to mention William Blake’s own fourfold vision, and his elaborate mythology of the four Zoas — Urthona, Urizen, Tharmas, and Luvah — and the four “states of the imagination” or soul that he called Ulro, Generation, Beulah, and Eden. These also correspond to the Four Ages of the Spirit.
The modern narrative of evolution — one might even say prejudice — is that life has “ascended” to its present zenith from a “lower” and simpler state to a “higher” and more complex state. This evolutionary “ascendency” in physical and biological terms stands in stark contrast to the narrative of “descendency” or decline that is the common theme of the religious narrative, in which Man presently is now at the nadir or lowest station of spiritual realisation.
Paradoxically and ironically, both are correct. It is not a matter of being compelled to choose between two seemingly mutually contradictory narratives. They are the two sides of one coin.
Therefore, I am sorry to inform all the fans of Ayn Rand that she is entirely and completely wrong. And not just wrong, but utterly deluded.
The Four Ages of the Spirit, as described by the ancient Greeks, are not exactly a one-time historical unfolding of events, per se. They are the pattern of the rise and fall of any civilisational or human type. Every civilisation passes through these stages, which is the theme of the quote from the sociologist Pitrim Sorokin that introduces this posting.
We are accustomed to thinking of the Modern Era as having been a decisive break with the superstitions of the past. We are even proud of being “modern”. We like to think of ourselves as “developed” in distinction with the men of the past and as having overcome all “limit” and limitation on our action. We believe we have overcome the consequences hybris and transgression. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. From the spiritual perspective, we have fallen deeply and blindly into a new Dark Age.
We live at the terminus of the Christian Era — the last 2,000 years or so — and can be rightly described as being “post-Christian” and therefore, in one sense, leaden and soulless beings. Our favourite monsters are zombies and vampires for a good reason. We are in that stage that the ancient Greeks called “Iron Age”.
The transitions from the Christian “Golden Age” to the present post-Christian “Iron Age” are interesting to observe, for they trace the course from inspiration to expiration and the descent from quality into quantification or materialism. The fourfold transitions that the Greeks observed about themselves and their own civilisation, we have also followed in ours. We can follow this through tracing the meaning, over time, of the “Logos” — the “Word”.
The “Word” is the Gospel — the “good news”. Originally, this was the spoken word. It was the speech of the man Jesus that penetrated the souls of men and women like lightning, illuminating the dark recesses of the soul and inspiring them to act in superhuman ways, even to undertake perilous journeys and to sacrifice themselves. This may be called the Christian “Golden Age”.
The “Silver Age” of Christianity occurs when the narrative of the life and work of Jesus becomes mythology. This is already one step removed from the original inspiration. Cathedrals are built as symbolic “Bibles in stone”, and the spirit is rendered as the letter. The gospel is fixed as “the cannon”. The cannon is based upon the testimonies of the four evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The third stage is theology. This is the “Bronze Age” of the spirit. Confusion about the cannon and the mythology leads to the attempts to rationalise and coordinate the gospels and arrange the contradictory mythological components of the Christian narrative systematically and according to logic. Thus “the Logos” has become the logical. Theology and scholasticism, based on the methods of Aristotle, thus paves the way for the fourth movement.
The fourth movement of the spirit is ideology. The failure of the Church to reconcile the contradictory elements of the four gospels results in schism and sectarianism. The sectarianism of the Protestant Reformation arises when different groups claim justification and authority for themselves from one of the four gospels. All the contemporary secular political ideologies of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and anarchism have their origins in sectarian and theological controversies arising in the Reformation. The four revolutions that established the modern era — the Lutheran or German Revolution, the English “Glorious Revolution”, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution — these all resulted from the theological controversies of the Reformation and the conviction that the path forward toward establishing the promised “Kingdom of God on Earth” required this action. This is the “Iron Age” of the Word.
So, we see from this how the “Logos” underwent four deformations: from original inspiration, to mythology, to theology, to ideology — the attempt to translate spirit into matter which is the process of secularisation. And it might have actually succeeded if people had known what they were really doing.
Ideology, however, is not consciousness. It is merely self-image. And the political partisan is, by definition, not the whole man or woman but only a partial realisation of the whole man or woman.
And ideology is really the lowest form of realisation of the spirit.