Unalienable Rights and Universal ConsciousnessCory Panshin on February 20, 2010
Although I’ve been working at understanding the visions for many years, I’ve always tended to focus on the obvious stuff — the fully developed visions that define a culture’s institutions and self-image. This series of entries marks the first time I’ve looked really closely at emergent and proto-emergent visions, and the journey has been full of surprises.
For one thing, I keep discovering that tracing the visions back in time is a lot like falling down Alice’s rabbit-hole. You take a tumble into the abyss and then fall seemingly forever — only to land with a gentle bump at the bottom and find yourself confronted with even greater mysteries.
As I was finishing up the previous entry, for example, I realized that Lewis Carroll was not the only one wrestling with the concept of personhood around 1865-70. He may have taken the philosophical implications to a level of absurdity that no one else would have dared to contemplate, but he was far from alone on the quest.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery, was passed in 1865. The Fourteenth, adopted in 1868, provided that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” And the Fifteenth, ratified in 1870, guaranteed the voting rights of all citizens.
These amendments, which laid down the legal basis for personhood in the United States, would seem on the surface to have more to do with the emerging democracy vision than with chaos. And yet personhood itself is not a social construct. It can neither be granted by society nor taken away by society. If anything, the concept of personhood appears to underlie democracy rather than the other way round.
To understand the true relationship between personhood and democracy, we need to look back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence — which is one of the founding documents of the democracy vision, not just for the United States but for the world.
The Declaration begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those fundamental “truths” are almost always accepted without question — as being just as “self-evident” as the Declaration states. But the more closely that notion is examined, the stranger it appears, especially in the context of its time. Why in the world would someone who had grown up in an era of kings and nobles think that universal equality was a fact so obvious and undeniable that it needed no proof?
One possible answer is that Thomas Jefferson was engaging in creative hand-waving. The idea of self-evident truths comes from geometry, where it is used to refer to certain concepts so basic and intuitive that you can’t actually prove them, so you just have to accept them as given and go on from there.
But even if Jefferson did hold his belief in absolute equality only as an unprovable gut feeling, he must have gotten that belief from somewhere. But from where?
It certainly didn’t come out of traditional religion. Despite the Declaration’s reference to a “Creator,” Jefferson could not have been inspired by the Bible, which is chock-full of excuses for inequality. God tells Eve that because of that business with the apple, “You shall be eager for your husband, and he shall be your master.” And Noah curses his own youngest son for accidentally seeing him drunk and naked, saying, “Cursed be Canaan, slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers” — a verse that was used in the 19th century to justify the enslavement of black Africans.
And despite what they taught us in school, Jefferson’s idealism doesn’t line up very closely with 18th century social contract theory, which envisioned the original human condition as a brutish “state of nature,” where the strong bullied the weak, and which governments were instituted to override.
The closest parallel to Jefferson’s view of human nature may lie in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the early 1760’s, Rousseau had written, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” and had also condemned social institutions “that best know how to denature man, to take his absolute existence from him in order to give him a relative one.”
Those are criticisms of society but they are also expressions of a “modern” understanding of human nature, which was beginning to make the artificiality and injustice of existing social relationships appear intolerable. For that reason, I previously identified them as early intimations of the chaos vision, and I see no reason to alter that assessment.
In fact, Rousseau’s distinction between absolute existence and relative existence seems to be precisely equivalent to the contrast in Through the Looking-Glass between Alice’s authenticity in the Wood Where Things Have No Names and her uneasy situation as Queen Alice in a realm based on formal etiquette and status.
Strange as it may seem, then, it appears that as the democracy vision was taking shape in the 1760’s and 1770’s, it was crucially dependent for that shaping on the first stirrings of the even newer and more tenuous chaos vision.
This kind of back-to-front causality, with the newer vision being essential to the emergence of the older one, may seem like looking-glass logic — but it would explain a number of things that have previously been unclear to me or outright unsatisfactory.
For example, I suggested some while ago that chaos must have spent its early phases as a pure perception of inner experience, unaffected by any other vision. Not until the 1930’s, I thought, did it take on greater specificity by allying with scientific materialism, and it was only in the 1960’s that it rejected science and aligned with holism instead.
Following the same pattern, I assumed that democracy would have begun purely as a vision of a more perfect society, only eventually taking on philosophical justification from the reason vision in the 1870’s and then from chaos starting in the 1910’s.
But if democracy had a touch of chaos at its heart as early as the 1760’s, this simple scheme must be flat wrong. It seems instead that chaos has always served as the lodestar of democracy — although it fell away from that beacon to a degree when it came under the influence of the reason-and-science partnership in the late 1800’s, and then again when it engaged with science to form the science-and-democracy partnership.
And if that is true of the democracy vision, then the chaos vision must similarly have had a touch of holism at its heart going back to the time of its emergence in the 1860’s. That would explain why there seem to be aspects of both chaos and early holism in so many of the the creative figures of the 1920’s and 30’s, from Rube Goldberg to M.C. Escher to Dr. Seuss.
Chaos, I believe, is the source of Carroll’s wacky and nonsensical side, which appears most fully in Alice in Wonderland. That side is all ego and fragmentation and ceaseless flux. But the still center of Through the Looking-Glass, which appears most clearly in the Wood Where Things Have No Names, comes out of the first stirrings of holism
There are two fundamental ideas in holism that are already intimated in the image of Alice and the Fawn. One is that all living things are ultimately one. The other is that consciousness is the force which pervades all of life and is the source of that oneness.
This dawning perception of universal consciousness was what made it possible for Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum to imagine sentient soup-ladles and scarecrows. It also suggests that chaos-touched-by-holism must be rooted in a sense of universal personhood which is far broader and more generous than the relatively ego-oriented sense of individual personhood that underlies democracy-touched-by chaos.
But that’s not all. If this back-to-front way of viewing emergent visions is correct, it implies that the newest visions always have the greatest creative power, even when they still amount to nothing more than vague intimations.
To use an old-fashioned way of speaking, it seems as if visions must have the greatest “spiritual” power when they first come into being. Or newborn visions might be compared metaphorically to mini-black holes, each one serving in the moment of its birth as a pin-prick opening into a higher realm of being that briefly allows a blinding flash of creative energy to break through and illuminate everything in its path.
Whatever metaphors are used, it’s apparent that as a vision matures and takes on intellectual coherence and then cultural dominance, it gradually exchanges its “spiritual” power for mere worldly influence. And by the time it gets to the point where science was in the 1960’s, or democracy now, it has amassed an overwhelming degree of worldly power but has no spiritual potency at all.
At that moment, its former lodestar abandons it, as democracy abandoned science and as chaos is now about to abandon democracy. And with that it collapses, leaving only a junk heap of once-good ideas to be picked over by later visions for any fragments of value that still remain.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
A simple list of all the visions can be found here.Read the Previous Entry: “Alice–Mutton. Mutton–Alice.”
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