Jean Gebser and Modernity

When I first started my study of Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin (and, indeed, study is the proper term, as anyone who has read it will attest) I was a little skeptical and suspicious of his motives. His express preference for “the Mediterranean way of life” struck me as quite odd, and perhaps more than a little Euro-centric. Was he including in that “Mediterranean way of life” countries like Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey? More probably, he was referring to the traditionally Catholic countries of Italy, Spain, Greece, and the south of France. So, my first suspicion was that Gebser was only a latter day reactionary agent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, since the Protestant Reformation was predominantly a Northern European thing.

I still struggle at times with the thought that Gebser might be little more than an agent of the Counter-Reformation, and I also struggle with that same suspicion when I read some of Rosenstock-Huessy’s writings. The thought always crosses my mind that Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy might share with Nietzsche a similar detestation of “Modern ideas”. In Nietzsche’s case, it was expressed as a preference for the pre-Socratic philosophers. And when I learned that Gebser had been an eager student of the Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini at the University of Munich, I was even more suspicious of Gebser’s motives. In his book The End of the Modern World, Guardini also expresses antipathy for such “modern ideas”, and Guardini’s influence on Gebser’s thinking is certainly detectable.

It’s not that I entertain much love for the Reformation (or “German Revolution” or “Lutheran Revolution” as it is sometimes called). But I have even less for reactionary thinking and politics. Rosenstock-Huessy described his own politics as being simply “counter-reactionary”, and I’ll take his word for it. One has to accept that “integralism” also means integrating the entirety of our history as our own autobiography, at the same time as we work towards a “universal history” of the full human experience appropriate for the planetary era, and not just the Western or “Modern” experience.

The point is, that Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, Nietzsche, Guardini (and, for that matter, Rene Guenon) have disclosed some of the profound deficiencies and defects in the modern consciousness structure that we will continue to ignore only to our peril. Defects are deficits, so whenever you hear the term “deficit” (or “lack”) — whether economic deficit or “democratic deficit” or “environmental deficit”, and so on — that’s the outward manifestation of that inner deficiency of the consciousness structure. They aren’t separate things.

So, yes… the greatest feat a human being can accomplish right now, in these times, is to accept all of human history as our own autobiography, however distasteful that might be at times. That is the gist of “integral consciousness” in fact. That’s also what we’ve been calling “empathetic epistemics” — to know the thing, you must become the thing you want to know. The various historically realised structures of consciousness described by Gebser — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational — are also chapters of our full human autobiography.

This is the antidote to the hyper-partisan, fractious, and schismatic politics of our own decadent era. The secular order of modernity, expressed as the political, is undergoing the same centrifugal process of disintegration and fracture as did the ecclesiastical and religious order of the Late Middle Ages. Yet, we seem in the main oblivious to the symptoms.

We have to consciously integrate the past precisely in order to transcend the past, and that’s really what Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy are about. Gebser calls it a “plus mutation”. The analogy to that which I have in mind is Jung’s Analytical Psychology. You don’t resolve a “complex” by burying it deeper, but by consciously integrating it into the psychic structure. In effect, the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational are just such “complexes”, and their successful integration is called “the Self”. Just so, these “complexes” are also William Blake’s “four Zoas”, and their successful integration is called “Albion”, which is the fourfold human form.

In the next post, I’ll go into a little more detail than in the previous posts about why the Gorgon is the alter ego of Athena, or, if you prefer the Roman version, why Minerva is inevitably followed by Medusa. They cannot be separated. The Gorgon is the shadow of Athena as much as Medusa is the shadow of Minerva, and this problem of the mental-rational consciousness is recapitulated in the problem of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde once more. History does repeat itself, over and over and over again. It is not owing to any iron “law” of something called “human nature”, but because of ignorance of the law. Understanding and insight freezes action.

It may seem opaque that, eventually, the shadow side called “Medusa” overtakes and eclipses Minerva (or the Gorgon overtakes and eclipses Athena), but it was already implicit in Descartes’ philosophy and method, and how the inversion takes place in which Minerva basically morphs into Medusa, is an interesting example of enantiodromia in action or, if you prefer, the karmic law of action and reaction in one and the same process.

As the sun sets, Luna also rises, and the owl of Minerva, who is both symbol of wisdom but also bird of ill-omen, flies in the night.


3 responses to “Jean Gebser and Modernity”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    Home of christianity is not the issue, the issue is how honest we are exemplifying the words. Detachment from the cultural cave is a must as you said to enter the integral consciousness. it is so clear that the malady of our world is lies and dishonesty, that is why the two pillars of all religions are truth and justice.

  2. Steven Schloeder says :

    I am curious to know if in your study of Gebser, and now Guardini, that you saw any connection between Gebser and the architect Rudolf Schwarz, author of The Church Incarnate (Vom Bau der Kirche), who was another student of Guardini’s? There are strange parallels between Gebser’s models of consciousness and Schwarz’s models of sacred architecture.

    Your thoughts?

    Steven Schloeder

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for you comment. I seem to recall the name “Rudolf Schwarz” from somewhere, but am not familiar with him. I’ll have a look into that and get back to you again.

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