The Archaic One and Individuation
Reflecting further on Albert Schweitzer’s ethos of “reverence for life” has led me round to the contemplation of Jean Gebser’s “archaic consciousness structure” as the “ever-present origin” — the archaic One or Wholeness, which may also be named “the Primal One”. It is appropriate to visual the archaic One in terms of Nicholas of Cusa’s famous description of God as “a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”, a root principle of the Hermetic Philosophy and which is basically an attempt to give a sense of form or structure to the Infinite and the Eternal (or the spaceless and timeless Presence), for such is the nature of the archaic One as “ever-present origin”, which has never ceased to be presence.
And it is, furthermore, appropriate to reflect on the archaic One as the singular Origin (or Ursprung) which is ever-present as also being identical with Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience of “the Life Force Power of the Universe”, which she tried to describe in her very moving TED talk on her “Stroke of Insight”. This “Life Force Power of the Universe”, which Schweitzer also senses as underlying his own “reverence for life” ethos, and which Nietzsche sensed as the “Dionysian” power of his own “Life Philosophy”, is the same “archaic structure of consciousness” addressed by Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin. The expansive “oceanic feeling” that psychologists often attribute to the infant or the mystic is an intimation of Origin and the archaic One.
For William Blake, it was the time when “the Soul slept in beams of light” — a coincidentia oppositorum, therefore, of Light and Dark. It’s a state of non-dualism or non-differentiation, which only begins to emerge with the process of individuation or the incipience of the ego-consciousness. The “discovery of the soul”, which is a very odd phrase, is really a discovery of ego-consciousness, or Selfhood — and the mortal self as “I am” — as something grown distinct from, and emergent from, soul or the life-force. Blake seems to think of Primal One as a “Golden Age”, and the onset of Selfhood, which he calls “Satan”, as the Fall from Grace — the Fall into Time, death, and dualism. Blake’s complex mythology of the “four Zoas” traces the process of individuation of consciousness, much as the Greek “four ages of man” describe a descending arc, as it were, leading from Golden Age, to Silver Age, to Bronze Age, to Iron Age. These evidently correspond to the Yugas, or World Ages, of Oriental philosophy: The Satya Yuga, The Treta Yuga, The Dwapara Yuga, and the present Kali Yuga.
Jean Gebser’s four historically realised “structures of consciousness” as “civilisational types” follow this pattern: archaic structure, magical structure, mythical structure, and mental-rational structure. Gebser is loath to use the term “progression” to describe these various transforms of consciousness structure proceeding or emerging from the Archaic One, since “progression” for Gebser is also “distantiation” (or alienation) from Origin, Source or “vital centre” — that is to say, a “progressive” self-alienation from the same “Life Force Power of the Universe” in Bolte-Taylor’s terms.
For some, therefore, the principio individuationis — the principle or process of individuation — is considered synonymous with this distantiation or alienation, however vaguely understood that might be. Gebser already sees that the process of individuation or intensification of the ego-consciousness has over-reached a limit and has become fragmentation and atomisation. Yeats’ ominous poem “The Second Coming” opens with what is also an objection to “progressive” individuation where it is instead seen as a disintegrative and destructive centrifugal force leading away further and further from the vital centre. The relationship between the Falcon and the Falconer, and their dissociation, corresponds to Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamics of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In Yeats’ poem, the Falconer is the “Master” (or “vital centre”) and the Falcon is the “Emissary”, or ego-consciousness now become estranged, alienated, rootless, or dissociated from its own life principle or source.
This estrangement of the ego-consciousness from its roots, Origin, “vital centre”, or the Life Force is the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Anyone who is baffled by what is called “religion” or why religion emerged, especially in the Axial Age, need only understand the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son as this process of estrangement or alienation of the ego-consciousness from its own roots, which is, essentially, the archaic One. There is great irony in the fact that, despite partisan and ideological divides, the conservative Emile Durkheim described this estrangement and alienation as “anomie“, the liberal Max Weber diagnosed it as “disenchantment” and “the iron cage”, and the socialist Karl Marx called it simply “alienation”. “Anomie“, “disenchantment of the world”, or “alienation” are altogether represented as Charles Taylor’s “malaise of modernity“. This malaise is not confined to the contemporary “West” either, as this article on the “malaise of Islam” by Nabil Echchaibi attests, or Ziaddun Sardar’s wonderfully engaging book Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim.
We are, on the whole, united in the tragi-comedy of our malaise, in our anomie, our disenchantment, our alienation. And if it were not so, someone like Albert Schweitzer would never have found it necessary to articulate an ethic of reverence for life, which would have, under other circumstances, have been proverbial “carrying coals to Newcastle”. But it’s hugely ironic that the conservative, the liberal, and the socialist, in our contemporary terms, and whether as “anomie”, “disenchantment of the world”, or “alienation”, these are all simply variations on the theme and parable of the Prodigal Son.
Does that not also bring to mind the parable of the five blind men and the elephant? (And just to clarify, the five blind men or scholars are the five senses, and the elephant is what ecologist Timothy Morton refers to as a “hyperobjects“).
But what do we make of the process of “individuation” or the principio individuationis? Well, it really describes the journey from the One to the Many — the individuation of the archaic One or “structure of consciousness” or, if you prefer, the individuation of the Life Force Power of the Universe we call “pluralism”. This diversification of the One not only facilitated physical survival, but greatly expanded the potentialities of consciousness and the varieties and richness of experience. Individuation of the One isn’t the problem. It is, in some ways, the very purpose of life. The problem is our forgetfulness. The price for the failure of re-membrance is dis-memberment, which is but another term for “dis-integration” or loss of integrity. Anomie, disenchantment, alienation, malaise, or Gebser’s “atomisation” are just so many terms for dis-memberment, which is now the post-modern condition. The hyper-partisan is also a symptom of dis-memberment.
This is what Schweitzer addresses and attempts to overcome with his teaching of the reverence for life — re-member-ance.
The universal will-to-live experiences itself in my personal will-to-live otherwise than it does in other phenomena. For here it enters on an individualization, which, so far as I am able to gather in trying to view it from the outside, struggles only to live itself out, and not at all to become one with will-to-live external to itself. The world is indeed the grisly drama of will-to-live at variance with itself. One existence survives at the expense of another of which it yet knows nothing. But in me the will-to-live has become cognizant of the existence of other will-to-live. There is in it a yearning for unity with itself, a longing to become universal. (“The Ethic of Reverence for Life“)
That “longing to become universal” is a reference to Gebser’s archaic, the Primordial One or ever-present origin. What Schweitzer is attempting here is a reconciliation of the old paradox of the One and the Many, which expresses itself, in consciousness terms, as the archaic One and the process of individuation of that One. This is, in fact, what lies behind the Zen koan “show me your face before you were born”. The real individual, which is so because truly indivisible, is the archaic One which is Bolte-Taylor’s “Life Force Power of the Universe”, and which Gebser calls “the Itself”. And while individuation is and has been, quite evidently, a process in time, Origin is not a process in time and it is for that reason that Origin is not the same as “beginning” but is the ever-present.
It’s pretty clear that Schweitzer’s ethics is wrestling with the paradox of the One and the Many, and in that sense also with Nicholas of Cusa’s description of “God” as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. That is also a characterisation of the paradox of the One and the Many, or of the paradox of the Tao and the “Ten Thousand Things” (Myriad or Legion), as Taoism puts it. This isn’t idle musing, either. It’s essential to our perfection of democracy that we wrestle with, and come to terms with, the paradox of the One and the Many, and with the all-important fact for our time of the attempt to include Nature — or even animal life – into the meaning of “democracy” — the idea that living Nature, or the biosphere, also has “rights”.
It’s not so much about the “rewilding” of society — which could only result in barbarism — as it is about the democratisation of the life world by the extension of “rights” to Nature and to animals. The precedent for that, though, was St. Francis. And I have to add, that there’s quite a bit of St. Francis in Nietzsche too, which is almost always overlooked.