“We wake up within the story of our civilization, which in turn emerges from the story of the earth, as the earth itself emerges from the unfolding universe.”
How did we get to where we are in “civilization?” And how civilized are we actually? Where do we go from here? These are the enormous questions Louis G. Herman has spent a lifetime asking and many years in developing his thorough response, which is gifted to us as Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward. I will take the liberty of a longish article to attempt justice to what moved me in this monumental work.
Herman suggests we derive wisdom from our past, and starting within, expand our perspective to include the entire world, even the universe – that we integrate a shared narrative of meaning, our true human mythologies, by experiencing our emotionally resonant answers to the fundamental questions of: Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our allegiance? What do we seek?
Future Primal is a profound work of political, philosophical, economical, psychological, mythological and spiritual synthesis in which we find ourselves as cosmological beings whose struggles are those same ongoing struggles of life itself giving birth to new forms of beauty.
The evolving universe itself is a story “telling us into existence,” and as all past cultures and civilizations have done, we must maintain our intuitive senses of ourselves within the larger process of the most profound and sacred mystery of origin and unfolding. -Instead of the radically constricted view of humanity in relationship to the cosmos in place now, to use our primordial experience of the mystery of our earthly origins as a moral force in our lives, and thus experience the greatest beauty of existence.
By accepting the inevitability of our own shadow, we recognize that we are also “what we are not.” This humbling recognition restrains us from the madness of trying to eliminate those we fear and hate in the world. Self-mastery, wisdom and maturity are defined by our ability to hold the tension between opposites, and when we seek out and integrate opposites we get a bigger, truer picture of the human condition.
Our U.S. political culture emerged from visions of the truth quest, from a reflective, passionate concern with the good of the whole. But the Liberal values of personal freedom, private property and competitive individualism were presented in Cartesian fashion as absolutes, abstracted from the whole without a dynamic connection to their opposites: generosity, altruism, service to and responsibility for others, and love of community. As a result, the less tangible, hard to measure, supreme values of truth, love, and beauty were increasingly ignored.
“Ultimately, the constitution of the United States incorporated key structural features of the Iroquois confederacy, yet they omitted the spiritual law on which all other principles and practices rested: the notion of the sacredness of the natural world and all its creatures…including humans.” The Iroquois nation presents an example of an attempt to institutionalize something like the platonic ideal; that kings and chiefs should be lovers of truth and righteousness rather than wealth and power.
Instead, however, the “European founding fathers inserted Adam Smith’s pseudo-scientific law of the invisible hand of the free market,” a well-intentioned rationalization that encouraged individuals to focus exclusively on immediate self-interest. They assumed the truth of Smith’s simple reasoning that a natural law of the market would automatically convert self-interest into public benefit. “The irony of Smith’s genius is that he provided a philosophical and moral justification for the free market that inadvertently resulted in the elimination of philosophical and moral reasoning from economic structures.”
The combined ideas and mechanisms of the Cartesian Liberal model release the citizen in principle from the struggle of soul searching and considering the big picture. They make selfishness and a lack of introspection into virtues. Both the good and the truth of the whole are sacrificed, while greed eclipses a humble opening to the mystery of the human condition. Without openness and humility, deep learning and moral growth are not possible. Truth becomes whatever makes you rich and powerful, and thus dictates that the rich have the truth and should rule.
Plato and Socrates made clear that “any value pursued in isolation as a supreme good inevitably becomes a supreme evil. Any political order that forgets this and assumes certainty becomes deformed and ultimately deadly.”
Additionally, the “Dominant political and economic institutions of our modern world were created from radically different assumptions about our origins...They believed that the natural world existed as raw material for the central human project of productive labor – converting wilderness into wealth.” Science offered a profoundly materialistic definition of truth, based on measurement and control of the natural world in the service of the production of material wealth. This separation of value and fact is at the heart of Liberalism’s abandonment of the truth quest.
What followed was a world defined by the division of labor, fragmentation and hyper specialization implicit in Descartes’ method – a life chained to the clockwork routine of the production line - The soulless product of a materialistic, mass society in which “an individual has lost the capacity to be the moral authority of his own life,” was a reduction of morality to obeying orders.
“Yet we know that neither human beings nor the universe operates like clockwork, and we are also painfully aware of the failings of the eighteenth-century clockwork thinking as a basis for politics and society…Wealth is inexorably concentrated in the hands of the few, who then use part of it to perpetuate the status quo by propagating an ideology of self-interest…dogma eclipsing wisdom at even the highest levels of government.”
Essentially our institutions are driving our earth to devastation because they are based on incomplete perceptions of truth. “Simple-minded elimination of ethical thinking in business has helped create a political climate where many leaders in finance and politics no longer seem capable of distinguishing between greed, reasonable self-interest, and the common good.”
Perhaps the most damaging and least understood consequence of the Liberal paradigm was the definitive elimination of a culture based on the love of wisdom – the truth quest. In the absence of both this individual and collective effort, “The culture fragments and society lurches between a cynical, pragmatic materialism and a close-minded fundamentalism. People lose faith in each other and cling tightly to their own beliefs.”
Another ironic and demoralizing result of the Cartesian-based revolution of classical Liberalism in the US is the persistence of scientific illiteracy. It is startling to realize that since the dominant political and economic institutions of our modern world were created from radically different assumptions about our origins than what science concludes today, “one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth, and almost one in two dispute biological evolution, believing instead that God created human beings in their present form within the past ten thousand years.”
Since our attempts to control the world and perpetuate excessive materialism have been at the expense of destroying the pristine beauty of the natural world, we must ask how to go forward in harmony. Instead of wishfully assuming, against all the evidence, that selfishness will automatically be converted by the market into the good of the whole, we need to address the heart of the matter – the values, awareness, and motivation of the human individual.
At the center of a “revolution in political culture and consciousness must be the moral, intellectual and spiritual regeneration of the individual – what Plato called a periagoge – an opening to the mystery of self-awareness and the possibility of living in the light of greater consciousness, a turning around of the soul toward a love of truth, beauty, and the good,” Herman suggests. He offers us a paradigm shift in thinking that isn’t new, but redirects us toward the wisdom of our early ancestors. Ninety percent of human history has been spent as hunter-gatherers centered around shamanic oriented culture.
These shamanic structures are more ancient than our written philosophical and religious traditions, and the great variety of these traditions historically share a common foundation through which the ego is overcome, opening awareness to a larger, transpersonal field of information in the service of visioning and healing. Through various processes participants can peer “through the veil of everyday life into an underlying, normally hidden order of immense complexity and beauty…exquisite, pre-linguistic knowledge from the body and the earth.”
Louis Herman’s opportunity to live among the remaining few hunter-gatherer San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, one of our closest relatives to the original human population from which we all descended, informed the convictions he offers in Future Primal. He shares that “what politics needs, is direct experience of how the human being is ultimately connected to the natural world of creation as a whole…helping restore the balance between opposites; experience and language, body and mind, wilderness and civilization.”
Through the practice of boundary crossing we can gain the wise capacity of holding opposites. Herman suggests we learn from and teach each other in face-to-face dialogue, cultivating the practice of continuously integrating world views through dialectic instead of oppositional, dualistic reality, using syllogistic logic, which requires deriving meaning from connections. For example, the meaning of yin is in relationship to its opposite, yang.
Teilhard de Chardin recognized the value of self-reflective consciousness as truly a facet of matter - two faces of a single reality, as opposed to Cartesian thinking of inner and outer as separated. From where I sit, a rich life is developed by one who is willing to experience the full amplitude of being an archetypical human, built on self-knowledge shaped by our strongest emotions and deepest experiences, the great passions and dichotomies of life within the context of the larger community. Sounds like the dance of Argentine tango.
While the solutions to our monumental problems exist on a grand scale, we can each contribute to the evolution of the whole through our own deep work, and through sharing our insights while learning from others. We can gain optimism from awareness of some wonderful examples of conscious transformations in business. For example, in 1996 Ray Anderson, the CEO of one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturing corporations, Interface, became Forbes magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year due to a complete “mid-course correction,” after realizing that for every ton of finished product his company was responsible for thirty tons of waste. He introduced an environmental plan representing an inverted market principle, making a concern for the good of the whole a condition for pursuing profit: triple bottom line; people, planet, profit, marking the honoring of the new era of which we are all a part.