Modern Historical Consciousness: Its Cause and Cure

Part 1 The Great Chain

Part 1 The Great Chain

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa endeavours to help devotees understand a certain mentality which he calls 'modern historical consciousness, often encountered when dealing with modern intellectuals and academics. He shows how this consciousness arose out of the breakdown of the worldview that dominated Europe from the second until the eighteenth centuries. That worldview had striking similarities to the Vedic world picture that ISKCON devotees have learned from the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition. Ravindra Svarupa Dasa suggests that in preaching Krsna consciousness we are not introducing something new in Western thought; rather we are bringing back to Western thought something it has lost.

The mentality I call 'historical consciousness' stands as one of the pillars of the modern outlook. Historical consciousness is the disposition to perceive every human and natural phenomenon as something given birth and form by the actions of historical forces; indeed such phenomenon are viewed as essentially temporal, constituted by a process that is articulated in developmental and evolutionary terms.

This sort of thinking is second nature to modern people. They seek to understand things in the world by delving into their pasts, by learning how they got that way over the course of time, how they grew and developed historically. The systematic application of such historical consciousness is the common ground of three great patriarchs of the modern world, Darwin, Marx and Freud, who propounded theories of historical development to explain the natural world, human society and individual human psyche respectively. While people may disagree about one such theory or another, they do not question the historical outlook itself and are apt to assume that it is the natural and self-evident way of looking humankind and the world. Yet, as will become apparent, historical consciousness has emerged fairly recently in European history. In other words, historical consciousness is itself an historical phenomenon.

'Cause' implies that it has an origin, and whatever has a beginning will also have an end; indeed the word 'cure' suggests that it should end. In some respects, therefore, this is an historical account of historical consciousness itself, and it may be that I will participate quite lavishly in it even as I advocate its demise. However true this is, I do not believe this makes it contradictory or hypocritical.

As a modern thinker, my mind has been thoroughly steeped - even pickled - in 'modern historical consciousness', although I recognise this inherited mentality as 'non-Vedic'. Having now engaged myself in the practices of Krsna consciousness, I could simply wait for it to go away along with other forms of material conditioning. However, one discovers that when modern historical consciousness comes under the sustained scrutiny of its own gaze - when historical consciousness is examined historically - things are uncovered that help free oneself from its grasp. Srila Prabhupada compares such a procedure to felling a tree with an axe whose handle is fashioned from the tree's own limb. It is therefore important to recognise that this particular way of viewing the world does have a history. It started to develop in Europe during the latter half of the eighteenth century, reached full flower in the nineteenth and, of course, continues largely unabated today. Yet modern thinkers who see the historicity of everything, tend to overlook the historicity of their own historical consciousness. They fail to recognise it as contingent, peculiar and subject to destruction - even self-destruction - in the course of time.

Modern historical consciousness arose as the chief expression of a vast shift of consciousness that took place in Europe in the eighteenth century. To understand the particular form it took, we have to first look at the standard worldview that had dominated Europe from Christian times up to that date. The general conception of that worldview is summarised in the expression 'the great chain of being'. The history of this important idea was investigated by Arthur O. Lovejoy, an American philosopher, Arthur O. Lovejoy. He published his work under the title The Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of an Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1936; paperback reprint, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960). This book originated as a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1993. Lovejoy's impressive study established him as pioneer in the field of 'history of ideas' and at the same time established the history of ideas as a recognised academic discipline, an event that in itself was a benchmark in the advancement of modern historical consciousness.

Lovejoy traces the idea of the great chain of being back into its entrance into Western culture through Plato (especially the famous fifth and sixth books of Plato's epic work, The Republic). The idea of the chain of being is ultimately connected with the concept of what we will call here the Absolute Truth: that is, the self-existent ultimate source of all there is. This concept is clearly articulated in Plato's dialogue on cosmology, the Tamaeus.

Although Plato suggests that direct spiritual experience lies at the foundation of his doctrine of the Absolute Truth, philosophically he arrives at this concept through a sustained process of abstraction; gradually rising from the concrete individuals of sense experience, through the realm of the 'forms' or 'ideas', to the Absolute Truth itself.

Many people are vaguely acquainted with the Platonic idea of an unchanging realm of 'ideas' or ideal 'forms' - the Greek word for 'idea' or 'form' being eidon. When 'Platonic form' is mentioned to an ISKCON devotee, he or she usually thinks of rupa, believing the 'realm of ideal forms' to be similar to Goloka Vrndavana, with all its different spiritual forms or bodies. This comparison is quite erroneous, however, as in Plato's realm of 'forms' there are no individuals but rather a collection of abstract essences, each of which corresponds to a class name. For example, there are no cows or humans in the physical sense but there is a single 'form' for 'cow' and one for 'human'. In other words, when you have the word 'cow', there's some objective essence of 'cowness' that corresponds to that word. Therefore, all the individual entities denoted by the word 'cow' must share a common essence.

According to Plato, this essence has an eternal existence independent from all particular cows. Cows may come and go but go-tva, the 'form' of cow, remains and is found with other such abstract essences in a higher realm of 'ideas'. Incidentally, the philosophical doctrine that the essences or referents of class names objectively exist outside the mind in some way or other, is called 'realism', the opposite doctrine being 'nominalism'.

There is some truth to Plato's realism. Although the transcendental realm of Vaikuntha (vadam padam) scarcely resembles Plato's realm of ideas, the realm of forms does seem to closely correspond to what the Vedic traditions regard as existent - the Vedas themselves.

It is said the Vedas are eternal, while the material world is temporary. It may be asked how this is possible when the Vedas contain the names of temporary entities -'Indra', 'Candra' and so on - all of whom are destroyed during the dissolution. The answer is that the names of the demigods, as well as other names like 'tree', 'cow' etc., are names of types - or rather archetypes - which are instantiated in concrete particulars whenever there is a creation.

The Vedas therefore contain the blueprints and assembly instructions for all creation in the material world. Brahma, the created creator, becomes impregnated with the Vedas (veda-garbha ) and thus inspired, brings into manifestation the material world. Interestingly, the Timaeus of Plato also posits a creator god - known as demiurgos in Greek - who has a vision of the Absolute Truth and of the form, and is able to insubstantiate those forms in pre-existing matter, thus imposing order on chaos. According to the Bhagavatam, Lord Brahma ( the Vedic creator deity) has a similar direct vision of Vaikuntha and Goloka Vrndavan (as recorded in the Brahma-samhita), but Plato gives no indication of any knowledge of a realm of transcendental variegatedness; the Absolute Truth is described in impersonal terms The Platonic realm of ideal forms, which is subordinate to that Truth, does not therefore (as some devotees have claimed) correspond to the spiritual world (although it seems to closely parallel the Vedas). It is also possible to find a correspondence between the Platonic forms and the creative potentiality latent in the brahmajyoti . We know from the Vedas that the brahmajyoti contains the bija (seeds) for all the species in the world, and that Brahma creates by making the various seeds manifest. The biya seems to be like a Platonic form, at least as these forms are understood in later Neoplatonism (where they are thought to possess a creative potency).

By a process of abstraction, Plato arrives at the idea of a realm containing a multiplicity of ideal forms or separated, abstract essences. He carries this speculative ascent still further and concludes that all these forms must have a single, ultimate source, which is the Form of the forms themselves. For example, each individual cow is a cow by virtue of its participating in the form of 'cow'. In the same way, each form is a form by virtue of its participating in the Form of forms. The process of abstraction is thus carried one final step further to the Form of all forms, the essence of all essences. Plato called this 'the Form of the Good'. In fact, three different names are given to this ultimate source - the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

This triple characterisation corresponds fairly closely to the Vedic characterisation of Brahman as sat (the Good), cit (the True) and ananda (the Beautiful). The Form of the Good is thus extremely abstract; the source of everything it can be defined only by negation - it is completely ineffable, or inexpressible, in words. At the apex of Plato's ontology - and at the root of much of subsequent European theological thought - is a fairly standard version of the well-known impersonal Absolute. The Form of the Good is perfect, self-sufficient, self-contained and needs nothing other than itself. Yet it boils over, as it were, effervesces, and out of the immutable One devolves the world of changing things. Here's a single entity without name, form, diversity, multiplicity of any sort, and then out of it wells, in a falling away from perfection, a multiplicity - initially of abstract essences, the realm of the forms. Those forms then engender a further multiplicity and instantiate themselves into a gross material world of concrete individuals.

Lovejoy points out that two contrary tendencies are fused in the Platonic idea of the Absolute. On the one side, there is an 'other-worldliness' which produces the idea of a remote, detached, self-contained, self-sufficient Absolute in no need of any other creature, any other thing, or, indeed, of any world at all. On the other side, there is the idea of an Absolute that needs to create, to express itself, to bubble over with joy or zest, to become many.

In the Platonic scheme, the impersonal Absolute cannot, of course, make a free decision to create; rather, the world flows from it out of its own necessity.

Lovejoy clearly detects a contradiction in Plato's articulation of the impersonal Absolute. In all consistency, there should be no creation at all. Emanation entails a personal Absolute, a being which completes itself, attains self-fulfilment, in relationship with others. Therefore, the linking of a world, or creation, with an impersonal absolute is not acceptable, as Sankaracarya later realised.

Sankara is more single-minded and consistent than Plato in analysing the implications of the 'other worldliness' that produces the conception of the impersonal Absolute. He believes that Brahman does not produce a world, being devoid of energies, one without a second. The world is false, therefore, an illusory superimposition on the Absolute and not an emanation from it - but that's another story!

An influential Neoplatonic school of thought arose during the Hellenistic period which resulted in the platonic concept of the Absolute and its emanations undergoing further development and dissemination. From there it decisively entered into mainstream Christian thought through two theologians: St. Augustine (who prior to his conversion was greatly influenced by the writings of Plotinus, a pagan Neoplatonist) and a mystical theologian who wrote under the name of Dionysius of Areopagite. This latter name originally appears in the Acts of the Apostle as that of the convert made by St. Paul while the latter was preaching at the Hills of Mars in Athens (Areopagus). The writings of Dionysius - four treatises of mystical theology, deeply Neoplatonic in nature - originally surfaced in Europe around AD sixth century. Christian authorities accepted them as the works of a direct disciple of St. Paul and therefore considered them highly authoritative. It was not until the seventeenth century that scholars looked more critically at these writings, concluding that the ideas they contained indicated a much later date of origin. The author is now thought to be a fifth century Syrian monk, referred to as 'pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite'.

The writings of 'psuedo Dionysius' are notable for a radical theology of negation and the elaborate articulation of the idea of 'hierarchy' (derived from the Greek hieros [holy] and arche [order], and meaning 'sacred' or holy 'order'). According to the hierarchical theory, the structure of being is a divine order with God as its origin and cause. From the Absolute the rest of reality proceeds in the form of ordered, graded steps, each step further from the origin bringing a unit decrease in being or power. At the top of the hierarchy is the One, the ultimate perfection; at the bottom is chaos. A good theologian will conclude that the span from the lowest level to the beginning of the hierarchy is infinite.

According to The Heavenly Hierarchy of Dionysius, God is followed by the Angelic hierarchies which consist of nine tiers in descending rank: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels,and Angels. Medieval Christians took angels very seriously with each rank thought to be responsible for running a corresponding level of the material cosmos, which was also hierarchical in structure and consisted of a descending level of spheres centred on the fixed earth. The outer edge was, according to Aristotle, the primum mobile, which imparted motion to the spheres below. The primum mobile was followed by the fixed stars then Saturn Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon.

Dionysius also found a correspondence between the angelic and celestial hierarchies, and the ecclesiastical hierarchies here on earth. In this way, everything has its proper place within the whole. Those entities higher up the ladder, closer to God, partake more of the divine nature - have greater perfection - than those below, yet everything is perfect in its own place.

During the middle ages and beyond, European thinkers continuously thought about the implications of the idea of the great chain of being. One of the consequences of this is the notion that there could be no gaps, no missing forms, in the hierarchical ladder of creation. This 'principle of plenitude' was inspired by the idea that the production of the world out of the Absolute proceeds by necessity and not by arbitrary, capricious decree. If that is so, what particular forms does it produce? There can only be one answer: all possible forms. If some forms were absent, creation would have been an arbitrary, irrational act; however the Absolute is, above all, logical and rational, hence the principle of plenitude.

Creation therefore exhibits a lavish profusion of forms organised unto a unified, rational order of being - a single overarching hierarchy. The hierarchical order of the whole is in turn mirrored within each of its sub-divisions. Each category of beings neatly reflects the order of the whole - hierarchies nested within hierarchies. As God is supreme among all beings, so the king is supreme among men, the lion among animals, the eagle among birds, the dolphin among aquatics, gold among minerals, ether among elements. Thus the magnificent and awesome order of creation, in which the same clear stamps of the divine exhibits itself everywhere, opens itself to the contemplative mind which in turn receives a great deal of satisfaction in meditating on its fullness, rationality and sublime harmony.

The eventual collapse of the great chain of being - which Frederick Nietzsche later described as the 'murder of God' - was an immense and revolutionary change in consciousness, which was so profound that modern Westerners now have to approach their not-so-distant past as something completely foreign and strange. It is also interesting to note that the worldview of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, recently exported from India into the West, should so profoundly resemble that of the great chain of being which dominated the West for so long.

One of the most elegant and concise descriptions of the great chain of being was expressed by Alexander Pope in a poem composed at the end of the eighteenth century:

Vast chain of being!

Which from God began,

nature's ethereal, human, angel, man,

beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see,

no glass can reach, from Infinite to thee,

from thee to nothing

In the modern era of rapid turnover in ideas and ideologies, the sheer persistence of the idea of the great chain over the centuries may seem astonishing. For example, early in the fifth century Macrobius presented this condensed version of Plotinus's doctrines:

Since, from the Supreme God Mind arises and from Mind, Soul, and since this in turn creates all subsequent things and fills them all with life, and since the single radiance illuminates all and is reflected in each as a single face might be reflected in many mirrors placed in a series; and since all things follow in continuous succession, degenerating in sequence to the very bottom of the series, the attentive observer will discover a connection of parts from the Supreme God down to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without a break. And this is Homer's golden chain (from Jupiter) which God, he says, bade down from heaven to earth.

Naturally the theory of the great chain underwent a great deal of development and modification over the years. For example, an attempt to cement the Christian revelation of a personal creator onto the Neoplatonic concept of impersonal emanation met with limited success. In orthodox Christian thought, creation has to be an act of free will, yet whenever theologians tried to think about creation, the idea that it was an emanation born out of necessity arose.

There is one aspect of the chain that has not been considered by philosophers such as Lovejoy. It is intrinsic within the Platonic and Neoplatonic concept that not only is the chain a structure descending from God but it also serves as a ladder of ascent for the soul going back to God. In the Christian context, this path of ascent could only be followed in contemplation, as the mind rose step by step to the summit. In the original Platonic and Neoplatonic context, however, the chain was not only a path for contemplation but also for the ascent of the soul through the process of transmigration.

Christian philosophers retained the idea of the chain as a path leading up to God but the Church rejected the allied doctrine of transmigration of the soul. One of the consequences of this was eventually an increasing sense of stasis, of frustration. The possibility of evolving up the chain through one's improved karma is absent - you are stuck where you are. The hierarchies of human society are seamlessly part of the cosmic universal hierarchy, and gradually the whole system began to seem enormously oppressive to many people.

The idea of transmigration having been rejected, individual progress within the world system was also ruled out. The concept of the great chain naturally supported an ongoing social and political conservatism; the perfection for each person consisted of conforming to the requirements of his own place and not striving to rise to another (an idea also found in the Bhagavad-gita). However, people still need some sort of prospect for progress. The loss of the notion of transmigration, once an integral part of the idea of the chain, turned the social conservatism of the hierarchy into oppression; when in frustration common people sought to overthrow kings and nobles for self-advancement, they brought down with them the whole cosmos, and the chain collapsed.

This event was part and parcel of the disappearance of the Absolute Truth, the God of Parminides Plato and Plotinus, the root of existence as a coherent, divinely ordered structure. On their deepest level, Shakespeare's great tragedies, Hamlet and Othello, chronicle this collapse; their protagonists face the most dire consequences when they transgress the proper actions of their ordained place in the divine scheme. This is why Othello says of his chaste wife: 'When I love thee not, chaos is come again' and the villain Iago expresses explicit disbelief in the idea that any of us have ordained natures or essences, proclaiming that it is only in our wills that we are what we are. Edmund, the Bastard, the villain in King Lear, has a new vision of nature - one not of order and harmony but of strife and struggle, a nature whose gods will 'now stand up for bastards!' Shakespeare's villains all speak modern philosophy: the foundations were shaking even in his time and he felt it deeply. His heroes peered into the abyss.

Lovejoy has an interesting observation to make about the collapse of the chain; because it had structure, it did not simply plunge the world into chaos. If the chain can be imagined as a rigid ladder, when it lost its transcendental mooring in the divine it did not crumble into a disordered heap but rather fell over onto its side. Retaining its sequential hierarchical structure, the chain became temporalised; its axis was no longer the vertical, ontological axis from chaos to God but a horizontal axis from the primitive chaos of the past to present human development and the future progression towards greater and greater perfection. This transposition of the axis of the chain of being is the origin of modern historical consciousness.