Transition from Mythical to Mental Consciousness

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Jennifer Gidley:

As individual egos began to break through and awaken, in parallel with the next movement of consciousness, the ancient wisdom that had lingered in the mythic imagination began to grow dim.In myth the picture was experienced in such a way that one felt it to be in the external world as a reality. One experienced this reality at the same time, and one was united with it. With thought . . . [we] felt [ourselves] separated from nature. (Steiner, 1914/1973c, p.16)In addition, what was held in balance to a degree within the mythic sense of polarity became torn apart with mental dualism: Duality is the mental splitting and tearing apart of polarity, and, from the correspondences of polarity, duality abstracts and quantifies the oppositions of antitheses. (Gebser,1949/1985, p. 86)There may be a need to clarify a potentially confusing, apparent timing contradiction with regard to the transition in northern Europe from mythical to intellectual-mental-rational consciousness — and subsequently to the beginnings of integral-planetary consciousness. According to Gebser, these two transitions occurred within a few centuries of each other (13th to16th centuries). I will use Gebser’s clarification of these issues as my guide. This is because hehas provided extensive phenomenological detail on these periods in relation to his structures of consciousness, which I have foregrounded in my analysis. Steiner’s view of these.

Wilber’s view is somewhat more contradictory and will be discussed in more detail below.

In order to bring clarity, I will explicate three transitional situations discussed in the narratives. The descriptions that follow are not intended to present these transitions as if they were immutable fixed structures that were compelled to occur at these times. Rather my purposeis to tease out a rather complex series of steps in the narratives.

1. In addition to claims in this narrative there is a general consensus in the history of Western ideas that a major transition began around 500-800 BCE from mythical consciousness to intellectual-mental-rational consciousness — primarily in Greece and later in ancient Rome (Gangadean, 2006a; Habermas, 1979; Jaynes, 1976; Tarnas, 1991, 2006). The present narratives point to prior influences from surrounding regions such as Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Gebser notes: This new conscious structure began to be evident when the consolidation of myth reached its height in the eighth century [BCE] the definite and full awareness of the new mutation expressed in the consciousness structure then new was fully effected in Plato. The two millennia, which followed, were devoted to consolidating the new consciousness, a process completed by 1480-1500 [CE, with] Leonardo’s perfection of perspective. (p. 303)While Steiner and Gebser are in agreement on this, there is contradictory material in Wilber’s writings. In Up from Eden,

Wilber refers to the latter phase of the myth-membership as ending around 1,500 BCE, and in addition he refers to the egoic-stage as having three sub-stages:

  • “the low: 2500-500 [BCE];
  • middle: 500-1500 [BCE]; high: 1500 [CE] –
  • present” (Wilber, 1996c, p.188).

Wilber’s evidence for this is that Joseph Campbell claims that the Hero myths emerged approximately 2,500 BCE — the beginning of Wilber’s low egoic period. However, in Wilber’s second edition of SES , (Wilber, 2000d), he agrees with Gebser (and Habermas) that the egoic-rational emerged “in the middle of the first millennium BCE, but it reaches its fruition with the rise of the modern state, roughly the sixteenth century in Europe” (p. 184).

2. The second transition — still within the mythic-to-mental transition itself—concerns the belated development of mental-rational consciousness in northern Europe—compared with Greece and Rome. Gebser claimed that the mythic consciousness had continued to operate inmost of northern Europe for a much longer period of time than in southern Europe. Gebser(1949/1985) describes this situation as follows: We must also remember a fundamental fact, namely, that the events of 500 [BCE] in Greece had to be repeated around 1250 [CE] by European [humans]; and [their] basis was considerably broadened because of three major achievements, all containing an element of incipient perspectivality: the Greek theory of knowledge, the Hebrew doctrine of salvation, and Roman legal and political theory. . . . This European perspectival-rational world represents, in this sense, only the deficient and most likely untimely phase of the exclusive validity of the mental-rational structure. (p. 74)In Gebser’s view, the apparent increasing intellectualism in Europe after this time, particularly throughout the European Enlightenment and beyond, was an overextension of the deficient rational, which in turn—Gebser (1949/1985) posits—is leading to its own demise. Inone of the most polemical statements that I have seen in Gebser’s writing, he speaks of the dangers of the overextension of deficient forms of rationality. The suicide of Western civilization . . . the consequence of the destruction of man’s inner being by the self-destruction of the divine in man, and by his rational denial of all their rational and pre-rational aspects, by which he dispossessed himself of his own foundations (p. 357).Wilber appears to be in agreement with this position, characterizing the European Enlightenment as being the peak of the development of rationality, and noting that in spite of its great contributions, this period also marked the beginning of its decline (Wilber, 2000d).

3. The third European transition — from Gebser’s mental-rational to his integral-aperspectival consciousness, beginning in the 15th century BCE — will be discussed at the end of the next major section of the narrative."