What is Vital?

In the previous post, we touched on the “three discoveries”, at least in recorded history, that have moved heaven and earth — the discovery of the soul, the discovery of the mind, and the discovery of the unconscious.

Before this, there was probably also a “discovery of the will” that informed the magical structure of consciousness, although we have only tales and legends about this by which to go. These discoveries seem to correspond to the emergence of four kinds of “religion”, we might say — animism, vitalism, psychism, and mentalism, each of which represents a “revaluation of values”, and a correlation between these and Gebser’s identification of “four structures of consciousness” that have marked different Ages of Man — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational. There is, correspondingly, a relation of this to Walter Wiora’s discovery of “The Four Ages of Music“.

Now this really does reveal a recurrent pattern. The four heaven and earth-moving discoveries (we will include the “discovery of the will” in this), are also four Ages, described as the Yugas and the four-age Yuga cycle in Eastern philosophy. The ancient Greeks, correspondingly, knew “four Ages of Man” that they associated with the metals — gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and Blake, too, seems to want to associate these metals-as-ages with each of his “four Zoas” of “Albion divided fourfold”. “Albion divided fourfold”, we have noted earlier, is also the “fourfold Atman” or “fourfold Self” of the Upanishads. The current hegemony of Blake’s fallen and deranged Zoa called “Urizen” and his Book of Iron Laws is a description of the Kaliyuga — the spiritual Dark Age which Blake also calls “Ulro”, the shadowland.

Now, there is a strange affinity between this pattern and the Holling Adaptive Cycle which purports to describe and map the flow of energy through an ecosystem, as we see from this diagramme.

Holling’s Adaptive Cycle

This “cycle” happens to correspond to the pattern of the seasons, which Oswald Spengler used as a paradigm to describe the rise and fall of civilisations. In fact, wherever we look up and down the scale — across Ages and across cultures — this fourfold or quadrilateral pattern repeats itself continuously and recurrently, without nary a soul having noticed it until lately. More recently, too, even in physics we have the four fundamental cosmic forces and their as yet unknown relation to what is called “the Anthropic Principle”, not to leave unmentioned a newly conceived four-dimensional structure to the universe. And in a seeming related development, there is Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s articulation of a “quadrilateral logic” and his “cross of reality” and his philosophy of a “metanoia” (or “New Mind”) which is also fourfold in structure.

Rosenstock-Huessy’s new grammatical paradigm

In conjunction with this, there is Lewis Mumford’s “four stages of realisation” and lately Iain McGilchrist’s “four paths of knowledge”.

Mumford’s, Rosenstock-Huessy’s, McGilchrist’s four phases of realisation and their uncanny resemblance to the Holling Adaptive Cycle and the Yuga cycle can’t be just coincidence, for they also map pretty well to the Buddhist mandala structure and to the Sacred Hoop (or “Medicine Wheel”) and the Sacred Hoop teachings of the North American indigenous tribes

Sacred Hoop/Medicine Wheel

This pattern points to the incipient manifestation of Gebser’s “integral consciousness” or Jung’s corresponding idea of the “integral Self” as also a fourfold structure of the thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting (or willing) functions of consciousness. In fact, Jung’s own illustrations of the psychological functions and the integral Self completely resemble both Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” and the indigenous “Sacred Hoop” symbolism

Jung’s mandala of the Integral Self

Now, this same pattern recurs in Aurobindo’s great book The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, (which you can download as a free e-book) where Aurobindo also represents his “Supermind” or “supramental consciousness” as a fourfold structure which Jean Gebser acknowledged as being the same as his idea of “integral consciousness” described in his history of the consciousness structures, The Ever-Present Origin. Here, again, although we have referred to this many times in past posts, for the sake of being thorough here I’ll also include Blake’s own illustration of his “fourfold vision” and the structure of reality as represented by the German Heremticist Jacob Boehme.

William Blake — the Fourfold Vision or the quadrilateral
Jacob Boehme

Keeping track of these developments, and the shift from the threefold to the fourfold can get a bit overwhelming now, but there is clearly a new pattern or Gestalt emerging in all this which lately, following Aurobindo, I’ve been taken to refer to as the self-disclosure or self-revelation of the “Mind behind the mind” which Aurobindo calls “Supramental Consciousness” or which Gebser calls “the Itself” or “the diaphainon“, which is the crucial or vital centre of the integral consciousness structure, which is clearly the shape of the Tetramorph. The Tetramorph is identical with the meaning of “the fourfold Atman”

None of this can be coincidental (in the sense of accidental). It is the revelation of a new structure to reality and a new logic of the mind or “metanoia“. Of course, this is quite a disruptive process.

Some physicists today have even come round to the conviction that consciousness is the way that the cosmos comes to awareness of itself. This is not very far from Gebser’s own cultural history of the structures of consciousness, for in effect different Ages of Consciousness have been the self-revelation of the Itself to Itself — of developing and exploring to the limit its own potentialities and potential states. So the four Ages, and the four “discoveries” of will, soul, mind, and “the unconscious” have been essentially phases of self-manifestation or self-revelation of the Itself to Itself, emergent from the “archaic” that Blake described very aptly as a time “when the soul slept in beams of light”.

You might say then (and this might be more than metaphor) that each of the different consciousness structures was an awakening and an atunement to a certain spectrum of that light (Ken Wilber uses this metaphor, although not always appropriately it seems to me). That’s something seemingly emphasised also in the Sacred Hoop/Medicine Wheel.

It would seem that, our having completed the Yuga cycle, and having now apparently articulated and explored its potential states to their limits, this “Itself” is now preparing to “get it all together” as it were, and to integrate what it has learned about itself through all four Ages, and in terms of what we call animism, vitalism, psychism, and mentalism in and through a fifth structure — the “supramental” or “spiritual”.

Rosenstock-Huessy’s attempt at a “universal history” seems to be a reflection of that, which is definitely a belated development on what Blake anticipated and called “the Universal Humanity”.

Our Age seems especially to have lost sight of the vital (for Rosenstock-Huessy, this “vital” is also the “crucial” related to “crux” or “cross”), which is certainly evidence of a mode of life that has become “deficient” in Gebser’s terms (ie, exhausted of any further potentiality for development and has already exceeded its shelf-life and sell-by date, as it were). The mental-rational consciousness structure is grown paradoxically very weak and withered in the very midst of its great power.

That is something that Nietzsche and the existentialist school reacted very strongly against as a symptom of the abstract mind’s deep nihilism — the eclipse of the sense of vitality that informs Nietzsche’s chief question: “what is its value for life?” The fact that we even need to ask that question reveals how far we have drifted away from what Gebser calls “the vital centre” and have now found ourselves in a very strange place indeed.

Not so?

So, the point of this post, and the question it puts “What is Vitality?” is this: that the “vital”, and the feeling for life, is also the “crucial”. This has to be insisted upon, and the crucial is fourfold, for it is a cross.

I’m always somewhat bemused by Nietzsche’s penetrating insight that “Since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X” for this “X” is, ironically, a cross with a clear centre — already represented in the indigenous Sacred Hoop, in Blake’s “fourfold vision”, the Buddhist mandala, the Christian crucifix, or Rosenstock-Huessy’s cross of reality.


14 responses to “What is Vital?”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    To draw on a metaphor from information theory, there is in our chaotic times indeed “signal in the noise”.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Pride meets Proud and a tussle ensues. Good heavens, what is going on? It’s like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum in Wonderland. The Hall of Mirrors.

    Maybe what we actually need is less Pride and Proud and more unassuming modesty and humility?

    • Scott Preston says :

      What could be more indicative of the “death of God” than this contest over pride? Everyone forgets, or stops believing, that “pride goeth before a fall”, or simply ignores what that might mean.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    “The Return of Kings”. This is truly bizarre, but a lot of today’s despots are conjuring up new forms of “Divine Right” or divine appointment, including the belief that whatever they say must be the truth, or must become the truth.

    Kit Harrington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) also compared Trump to the sadistic boy king Joffrey in the show, particularly one scene where Queen Cersei tells her son Joffrey that as king now, anything he says — even his lies — becomes the new truth.

    What this is, though, is a form of magic or spell-casting (for there is a close connection between the words “magic” and “majesty”).

    • Scott Preston says :

      But you do see this among Putin’s followers as well as Trump’s (and it is common among dictators) that their followers defer or surrender their own personal will and judgement to that of their leader, who can, by virtue of his divine appointment, do no wrong.

      This is the point of comparison, not always clearly articulated, that some critics make between Putin or Trump and a Hitler or a Mussolini.

  4. Benjamin David Steele says :

    The four discoveries is what interests me the most. Have you written a post where you went into greater detail about that topic?

    I’m thinking of a historical survey of what these specific discoveries have meant for particular societies and for broad cultural shifts. And how they have built up over time to shape the present world, in terms of popular culture, politics, etc.

    Or have you written more focused posts such as exploring the work of someone like Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind?

    • Scott Preston says :

      No, a history of the discoveries is beyond my ken. Rosenstock-Huessy began something of that with his “universal history” and Aurobindo has written a great deal about that which was somewhat distilled into *The Human Cycle* and there’s quite an impressive breadth and scope to Aurobindo’s histories of the Ages which is quite extensive.

      Snell does touch upon some of the precusors to the mind, although briefly. But of course, ,those precursors were “discoveries” in their own times.

      • Benjamin David Steele says :

        By way of integral discussions, I’m somewhat familiar with Aurobindo, but not to a great degree. And I don’t know anything about Rosenstock-Huessy beyond what you’ve written.

        I was just curious what might be your take on the four discoveries. If not a history, then some other deeper explication in relation to your own ideas.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Well, as I wrote here, I see a connection between these an Mumford’s “four stages of realisation”, only here over long ages in which certain potentialities of consciousness had to be explored to the limits of their possibilities before moving on to the next potentiality. And so we see that out of the soil of the archaic (or sensuous), we have these branches growing — the magical (and will or intentionality),, the mythical (and feeling or eros), the mental-rational (and thinking or intellect) and now to the integral.

          Although these aren’t necessarily to be thought of in terms of “stages” of development, siince all these in the global era do co-exist in different cultural milieus. We can say that (paradoxically) they are simultaneous (or exist in the same space) but are not contemporaries with one another because of their different constitutions of Gestalts of time.

          Now what Gebser calls “the Itself” (interestingly, he doesn’t use gender pronouns for this, which might make todays “pronoun wars” kind of significant) is the same as the ‘ever-present origin’. It is the abiding nature of the archaic (which mystics call “oneness”), but it spins out of itself this different worlds of the body nature, as the vital nature, of the psychic nature, of the mental nature. And the awakening to itself in this fourfold relation is the integral conciousness of supermental consciousness of “spiritual nature”.

          This is fully equivalent to Blake’s four Zoas and their integration in and through “Albion” or “the Universal Humanity” which is also Divine Imagination in Blake’s worldview.

          As Jung has also shown in his analytical psychology, all these “structures” are copresent in the so-called “collective unconscious” of the species in various degrees of latency or manifestation, dormancy or activity. Gebser simply believes that they are all now “irrupting” into manifestation and trying to co-exist or become co-present, even though they are contradictory or paradoxical in many respects. That’s quite accurate historically, too. The mythical was antagonistic to the magical, and the mental-rational was antagonistic to the mythical, and the mythical also antagonistic to the mental. And it’s also the nature of Blake’s Zoas to contend with one another.

          It’s the quintessence — Albion — who makes the lion and the lamb lie down together, as it were.

          The trigger for the development of any new potentiality, or the discovery of a new dimension to reality, is the “deficency” of the old structure — it exhausts all potentiality for any further creative articulation of itself which we call “decadence” or “fall”. We seem to have clearly entered this condition at the 19th c fin de siecle, as I’ve commented on in past posts.

          I’ll be posting more about this on occasion, though.

          • Benjamin David Steele says :

            Thanks for the in-depth response. That is what I needed to help dig into these ideas. You bring up so many references and I’m still trying to fit the pieces together in my mind. You keep returning to quaternities, but the connections between them all aren’t always obvious to me, in my limited knowledge. From a Jungian perspective, rather than the specifics of any given cultural form, the archetype of quaternity itself is what seems key.

            Anyway, here is one thing I always wonder about. Are these ‘discoveries’ really discoveries? Or are they social constructs? I know from reading anthropological accounts that societies can be far different from our own (for example, I don’t know that the Piraha have ever shown any concern with or interest about quanternities). Maybe there are entirely other ways of being that could be and maybe have been discovered, and hence different pathways of development that would be entirely alien to our way of thinking. But in the mass destruction of traditional cultures, we may never know what has been lost.

            If so, there is nothing inevitable or permanent about these discoveries. As society changes, maybe after some major collapse in the future, discoveries could be forgotten and other discoveries replace them. As such, there might’ve been other discoveries available to past civilizations that we have since lost. The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations, for example, wiped out immense knowledge and destroyed entire cultures. Only a small fraction of what came out of the Bronze Age was carried forward into the Axial Age.

            I’m attracted to the non-linearity of development with multiple potential directions. Yet once on a particular path of development, it is hard to see or imagine any other. This is how discoveries become ideological realism and reality tunnel. Discoveries are memes that can become prisons of the mind. I’m always wary about such things, in that I can’t help thinking about how little we know and for the most part we don’t know what we don’t know.

            I can’t say what good is accomplished with this radical skepticism. It’s simply something that gnaws at the edge of my thoughts. I can’t shake it, this sense of being lost in collective ignorance. But I haven’t a clue how any of this might or might not relate to your own thinking. We are slowly gaining some understanding of the mind as we know it, in how it is shaped in our society. As for the mind behind mind or whatever else along those lines, that is a whole other matter. I haven’t yet come to terms with the quaternity, even as I understand its significance.

            Just some thoughts to throw out there.

        • Scott Preston says :

          To ancient Egyptians, the heart was the seat of emotion, thought, will and intention, evidenced by the many expressions in the Egyptian language which incorporate the word jb. Unlike in English, when ancient Egyptians referenced the jb they generally meant the physical heart as opposed to a metaphorical heart. However, ancient Egyptians usually made no distinction between the mind and the heart with regard to emotion or thought. The two were synonymous.

          This is quite an important point. This is from the Wikipedia article on the Ancient Egyptian conception of the soul, but I have read this many times in other places. As you can see, consciousness was not considered to reside in the head or brain, but the heart. That is to say, when the Greeks credited the Egyptians with the discovery of the soul, it was because there had not yet been a “discovery of the mind” as we think of this. “Mind” was what was latent, but not yet known as such.

          This article mentions that the Egyptians had 5 parts to the soul, while others mention only three. That 5 is rather significant in terms of our discussion here. The “3 parts” seem to be a misunderstanding, because the Egyptians included the body as an aspect of the soul and the heart.

          That may seem unusual by our mental standards, but Blake says no less. The soul and the body are not separate, but the body is an image of the soul as it conceives itself in physical reality. This also the Egyptians seem to hold, so the body was an aspect of the soul and consciousness resided in the heart. .

          Also an important point to observe about the precedence of magic in Egyptian culture and origination mythology. Quite interesting


          • Benjamin David Steele says :

            That is the kind of thing that has long interested me. I enjoyed Eric G. Wilson’s discussion of Egyptian thought in his book The Melancholy Android, but it’s been a long while since I read that book.

            On a slightly different note, Julian Jaynes noted that in the ancient world voices didn’t only originate in the head as inner thoughts. They could also be heard in other body parts or elsewhere in the world around the body, maybe related to how some hunter-gatherers have a sense of identity that extends into the immediate environment.

            The mind in the head, as you say, was a later cultural invention.


            • Scott Preston says :

              In some respects its a misnomer to write about the “Egyptian conception of the soul”, since concepts are associated with mind and mentalism, and this had yet to be discovered by the Egyptians. It was a realm of percepts more than concepts, perhaps.

              For that reason, we have also great difficulty in understanding how consciousness and identity (or what we call the “seat of the soul”) was found in the heart, not the head or brain. It’s not impossible, though. To access that worldview means drawing upon legacy structures of myth and magic that are “ever-present” in Gebser’s terms, but latent or relatively dormant in the psyche.

              Jeremy Naydler’s *The Future of the Ancient World* is connected with this “return of the repressed” as well, and is evidently a confirmation of Gebser’s view that these ancient structures are becoming active again within us, which will (properly organised) facilitate our understanding of the ancient world. “To know the thing you must become the thing you want to know” is a basic epistemological rule of the Hermetic Philosophy and is, of course, the secret of the polymorph and the shape-shifter.

              I’ve referred to this a few times in the past, and perhaps should write something up about it in more detail. But it is true that (even as we see in Egyptian terms) consciousness was more fluid and flexible than today, and shape-shifting or the polymorph more natural. This is actually what is reflected in the “5 parts of the Egyptian soul” They aren’t “parts” really. They are aspects. That’s an important distinction, but the “mind” seems to think of “parts” when what is meant is “aspects”. The latter, you see, belong to time, and the former to space. We don’t normally speak of “parts of time” but we could say “aspects of time”.

              In Gebser’s terms, nothing is actually ever “lost” as such, except to immediate consciousness. Because origin is ever-present, there is only latency or manifest aspects of origin. The Hindus have a similar idea in the Akasha or the akashic library — everything humans have ever experienced is recorded and remains in the akashic record, and this can be accessed.

              Blake had a very similar idea, but he called ‘Akasha” and the Akashic library and record “Hell”. in *The Marriage of Heaven and Hell*. But Blake’s lively and mythopoeic imagination clothed it in delightful fantastic beasts and creatures often associated with alchemy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: