Tag: Abraham Maslow

Superhuman, Transhuman, or Fully Human: Whose Future Is It?

This is the text to the talk I gave at the Deus ex Machina conference sponsored by Masaryk University, Brno,Czech Republic on 26/2/21. The conference was fascinating, with many excellent presentations, covering wide areas of contact between traditional notions of the occult and the technological developments that seem to parallel many aspects of the esoteric. I hope you get something out of it.

Superhuman, Transhuman, Fully Human: Whose Future is It?

A Talk for the Deus Ex Machina Conference 26/2/21

         Let me begin by saying thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference. I was happy to accept the invitation because after looking at some of the themes that were going to be addressed, they all struck me as in some way related to a question that I believe will become more and more dominant as the century goes on. This is the question of what it means to be human. We are already well on our way to eroding the meaning of “man” and “woman,” a concern C. S. Lewis addressed long ago in his little book The Abolition of Man, which is well worth reading. I recently read somewhere that in Canada, I believe, in order to differentiate between the sexes, science professors are no longer allowed to use the terms “man” and “woman,” or even male or female, but must refer instead to “egg producing” and “testosterone producing” humans, I guess. It may be the case that in a few years that term “human” too will be jettisoned.

Not long ago at a symposium at the Esalen Institute in California, I had one very earnest academic tell me that he had a “real problem with the term human.” Personally I don’t – which isn’t to say that I am entirely happy with the species to which it refers. In fact, a certain dissatisfaction with the “only human” will inform what I am going to say today.

As my title suggests, I’ll be looking at three different ways of understanding what it means to be human. Or perhaps I should say that I will be looking at what some ideas of “transcending” the human, going beyond our apparent limitations, suggest about what we used to call “human potential,” our untapped resources, the possibilities latent within us. I am of a generation that believed in and experienced some of these possibilities – I still do – and which remain fundamentally potentialities of consciousness, the actualising of which informs the process of becoming what the psychologist Abraham Maslow – incidentally one of the most important figures from the early days at Esalen – called “fully human.” I am borrowing the term from Maslow here, as I have done in some of my books, as a general notion of a state of being more fully “ourselves” than the one which we usually unquestioningly accept as given. That doubt about the term “human” should arise at the Esalen Institute, which began in the 1960s, and which is dedicated to the discovery and actualisation of human potential, seems to suggest that confusion about what it means to be human has spread rather far.

I should point out that technically, the attempt to arrive at a metaphysical or ontological answer to the question “what does it mean to be human,” or, as it used to be asked, “What is man?”, rather than a biological or political or social one, was the province of a school of thought from the last century known as philosophical anthropology. In the early twentieth century, among others, Ernst Cassirer, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Berdyaev were some of the major names associated with philosophical anthropology, and I write about their work in my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. This is where I take my own shot at an answer to the question of the purpose of humanity, the part we play in the grand cosmic process.

Maslow’s “fully human,” the self-actualised human being, who has made real his or her potential, is a goal, an ideal. No one is ever completely self-actualised, just as in the Jungian school no one is ever completely individuated. But we can be more actualised or less, and in this sense Maslow remarked that it seems that some people are “more human” than others, in the sense that they have “made real” more of themselves than others have. After all, to “actualise” something is to make it “actual,” that is, to make it real. So to actualise yourself means to make yourself real.

If being “fully human” is the goal, the starting point is what we can call the “only human,” or the “good enough human,” as it were; presumably below this would be a realm of the “almost human,” but that doesn’t concern us.  The “only human,” of whom we can expect only so much, is the standard, commonly accepted view of ourselves as perhaps well-meaning, but deeply muddled, severely limited creatures, devoid of free will and entirely dependent on the environment for our behaviour, a kind of walking stimulus/response machine. We are reminded of this assessment in a variety of ways by science and culture, and I trust I need offer no examples. We are flawed, inconstant individuals, and the best we can hope for is to declare our inadequacies outright – indeed little else is popular in “serious” culture and self-help chat shows these days – and huddle together to share some human warmth.

Perhaps the noblest expression of this highly restricted perception of mankind is the existentialist, that sees humans as “authentic” when we stoically endure the meaninglessness of life and the universe and our inability to make sense of either. The more common expression is the average person, who works to achieve the satisfaction of what Maslow calls our “deficiency needs”, what we lack – food, shelter, sex, and self-esteem – and is happy if he does.  He feels no strong urge to go “beyond” himself. This urge to go beyond, Maslow tells us, is a “creative” or “being” need, not one of deficiency, an expression of the hunger to self-actualise, for which mere happiness is irrelevant. In fact, it can often be a hurdle.

Superheroes as models for self-actualisation

Now, what does all this have to do with comic book superheroes? Well, were I asked to say when my interest in consciousness, the occult, the esoteric, the mystical, philosophy, psychology, literature and everything else I have devoted quite some time and energy to studying and writing about began, I would have to say it started when I was around five years old and that the source was comic books. That was the revelatory moment. I know I was that age because I have a very vivid memory of one day asking my grandmother for 10c to buy a comic–  it was The Flash and when I got to the candy store, the owner told me they had gone up in price to 12c. I had a considerable time getting the other 2c from my grandmother, so the event stayed in my memory. I must have been reading comics before this, because the hike in price was a shock. The price increase happened in late 1961, in the midst of what is known as the Silver Age of comics, before my sixth birthday, so I must have been a devotee from fairly early on.

         Another vivid, even earlier memory associated with comics involves the meaning of the word “cosmic.” I started out, as many other young boys did (comics really were a “boy thing” then) as a reader of DC comics, with Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and so on. It would be a few years before I discovered Marvel. My favourite comic at the time was the Justice League of America – the nationalist tag was later dropped – because in it you got six heroes for the price of one. Another team effort was the Legion of Superheroes, superpowered teen agers from other planets, one of whose members was Superboy; they appeared in Adventure Comics.

One member of the legion was a character called Cosmic Boy. He wasn’t a favourite but I was curious about his name. His superpower was magnetism – rather like Marvel’s supervillain Magneto – and I wondered why he wasn’t called Magnetic Boy. I asked my sister, who was a few years older than me, what “cosmic” meant. She couldn’t tell me, so I asked my mother, who didn’t know either. So in one sense you could say that I’ve been trying to find out ever since.

         This is merely to say that like many other young boys at the time, comic books introduced me to a world rather different than the one I knew around me, a much wider, deeper, more interesting world, in which anything was possible. The everyday world of parents, siblings, school, friends and relatives was implacably there and would become more so as time went on. As Wordsworth says, “the shades of the prison house” close in as we move from the paradise of childhood into the dreary world of adults. But there was an escape, a portal into another world, in which one could travel in space and time, to other planets, and meet remarkable people and have amazing adventures, and in which one felt more at home than at the dinner table or in the classroom.

And just as the superheroes who took you on these adventures kept their secret identities hidden, you too felt that you were two people: one who had to get the homework done and listen to boring lessons, and another who travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy or into the depths of the earth or into the past or future, with, if I am allowed the metaphor, a comic book as the flying carpet to take you there.


In other words, comic books were my earliest introduction to romanticism, not as a school of literature and thought – that wouldn’t be for another few years – but as a hunger for something more than what I later learned the philosopher Heidegger called “the triviality of everydayness.” My refusal to accept the world on its own terms started at a young age. I can remember some adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Before I could say anything my sister intervened and said “And you can’t say a superhero. They’re not real.” I think I left the question hanging but I can honestly say that I never entertained any idea of occupying some serious, normal position in life. For some reason still unknown to me, I have always thought that I would be a poet, or artist, or writer or something along stereotypically romantic lines. I might add that the one time that I did contemplate admitting defeat and accepting that I would have to find a place for myself in the “real” world – rather than forge one of my own – proved utterly disastrous, although it was the kind of disaster that led to better things.

Evolutionary appetites

This hunger for something more than everyday life, which is the essence of romanticism, is also the essence of what I call the “evolutionary appetite.” This is our inbuilt urge to transcend ourselves, to self-actualise; in other words, to grow and to develop our powers and abilities in order to master life and explore our own being. At this stage we can say that the “only human” are those who, once entered into adulthood, jettison the interest in “other worlds” and reluctantly or otherwise, accept the “triviality of everydayness” as unavoidably inevitable. These seem to make up the majority of people and whatever loss they feel in “putting aside childish things” they seem to make up for in satisfying their deficiency needs: earning a good living, having a home, a family and the good opinion of their peers. There is nothing wrong with this and in many cases it warrants respect. It is difficult enough to achieve any success in life, which is a pretty grim business.

Some individuals reach the furthest limits of these lower needs and achieve the esteem of thousands of people; these are celebrities. Maslow posited a level of actualisation beyond this, a creative level free of the need for immediate gratification – that is, of the good opinion of others – that could sustain itself through its own activity, what Nietzsche called becoming a “self-revolving wheel.” These are the self-actualisers. They are motivated by something coming from within, not by the pursuit of external rewards.

         Romantics who are unable to make the transition to the real world, but who lack the vitality, talent, and sheer stubbornness to force the world to take them at their own valuation, usually have a difficult time of it, and their appetite for other worlds generally takes on a different character, their magic carpets often coming in the form of alcohol, drugs, or some other means of escape. We can say that in a sense the superhero is the romantic who is not defeated by life, who maintains his inner vision in spite of it. The romantic who is defeated, sinks into a fantasy world as a compensation. The romantic who isn’t defeated, in some way is able to transform life, to re-create it, to, in a sense, make the fantasy real. That is, to actualise it.

Adam Strange

It was while writing The Caretakers of the Cosmos that I realised that one comic book hero, who was a favourite of mine, embodied the essence of romanticism. I don’t know if Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and Mike Sekowsky, who developed the character, realised it, but in Adam Strange – who appeared in Mystery in Space – they had hit on the perfect metaphor for the romantic consciousness, which is, in essence, as mentioned earlier, the sense than man is a creature of two worlds.

         In the Adam Strange stories, this notion was taken literally. The hero is an archaeologist and on a trip to the Andes something remarkable happens: he is hit by a weird ray of light coming from outer space – he later learns it is called the “zeta beam” – and finds himself transported to the planet Rann, an earth-like world, orbiting Alpha Centauri, some 25 trillion miles away. There he meets a beautiful woman, has adventures, saves the planet, and becomes a hero, while all the while sporting a nifty rocket pack and ray gun. (It is, of course, a variation on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels.)

But then the effect of the zeta beam wears off and he finds himself back on earth. He discovers that he can calculate where and when the zeta beam will again appear, and for the rest of the series he is off, heading into the jungle or up a mountain, to intercept the zeta beam and return to Rann, only to be sent back to earth once again. But he is determined to become a citizen of this new world and to find a way to remain on Rann forever…

This is, of course, the romantic’s dream. It is also the neurotic’s fantasy and the creative individual’s model for how the world should be. Not that he would wish an exact copy of Rann – that would be too much to hope for; it is quite a fantastic place – but he can wish that life on earth should be as exciting and interesting as it is on Rann. And that, Maslow would say, is within the realm of possibility.

So here we have comic book superheroes as gateways as it were to the romantic side of the human psyche and also to our inherent, latent evolutionary possibilities. The two, indeed, are practically synonymous, with one suggesting the other.

Teenage mutants on the rise!

It was while writing my first book, Turn Off Your Mind, about the “occult revival” of the 1960s, that I noticed that this notion of some coming evolutionary change in humans, that would produce a new race of supermen, was at the centre of the popular culture of that decade. It was also at the heart of the burgeoning youth movement. The book that kickstarted the 60s occult revival, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, spoke a great deal about mutants and a coming mutation affecting the human race.  I saw a correspondence of this idea with several other products of sixties pop culture, specifically the film Village of the Damned, which came out in 1960 – the same year as The Morning of the Magicians – and which was based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957, and the Marvel comic The X-Men, which started in 1963, the year in which I discovered Marvel and switched my allegiances from DC. I also suggested that this idea of a breed of children possessing strange powers who threaten the older generation with extinction was also hitting the streets in Haight-Ashbury. By 1966, in the San Francisco Oracle,the hippies were declaring themselves “mutants” and were encouraging others like them to join them in order to “be free.”

I might mention that Jeffrey Kripal, whose Mutants and Mystics looks at the connection between superheroes, mysticism and the paranormal in fascinating and exciting detail, tips his hat to me in the book, remarking that Turn Off Your Mind had pointed him in that direction.

John Wyndham, overlooked evolutionary novelist

The hippies are long gone but the X-Men have become a highly successful film franchise. In some ways, it pays to be a mutant. However it strikes me that John Wyndham’s work has not been mined for its evolutionary themes as much as it should be, and I’d like to take advantage of this talk to mention this. The Day of the Triffids is known, mostly through the film and television versions. But novels like The Chrysalids, Plan for Chaos, The Kraken Wakes all deal with the idea of another race taking over from humanity. A reader of George Bernard Shaw who also read Wyndham would recognise that he engages with the same evolutionary questions that Shaw did. Man and Superman, which adds a Nietzschean spice to the Don Juan story, is the best known of Shaw’s works of “creative evolution.” The notion of a creative evolution, rather than the mindless Darwinian variety, goes back to Henri Bergson, and is at the foundation of any notion of “human potential.” But Back to Methuselah, Shaw’s “metabiological Pentateuch,” was also familiar to Wyndham, who treated the question of longevity – a central concern of transhumanism –  in Trouble with Lichen. Incidentally, someone should tell the feminists about this book. In it, it’s women who receive the gift of life-extension and upon whom the next step in human evolution depends.

Although Marvel cornered the mutant superhero market – and had other evolutionary themed characters, such as the Inhumans (Fantastic Four) and the New Men (Thor) – science fiction had got there before them. Bookshelves in most hippie households held copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” was about “ancient aliens” tampering with human evolution.)These works, and others, approached the mutant theme with more seriousness than the comic version. (Readers of today’s comics must shake their heads at the lack of sophistication in the comics I was reading; but comics were for kids then, and were not considered “serious” material, and I must admit that I’m not entirely sold on their own mutation into the “graphic novel.”) But one work of science fiction dealing with the idea of a sudden change coming over the human race rarely gets mentioned. It was not a hippie “must read,” and was written decades before they appeared. And the change coming over humanity was not one the hippies would have welcomed.

H.G. Wells and Star Begotten

Star Begotten is a late novel by H.G. Wells; it was published in 1937, well after the early science fiction that made him famous. In it the protagonist, a historian, begins to feel that some strange change is coming over the people around him. The normal, ordinary world he is used to seems somehow – wrong. People close to him now seem distant, and his own work strikes him as insipid. When he overhears a conversation about how cosmic rays may be increasing human intelligence, he begins to wonder if someone is doing this purposefully…

He suspects that the Martians are using the cosmic rays to turn human beings into – well, better people, actually. The powers the cosmic rays are imbuing humanity with include a new seriousness about life, a disinclination to waste time on trivialities, a rejection of old, inefficient behaviours, and above all a desire to apply their energies to some worthwhile purpose beyond themselves, not to the pursuit of riches, power, or fame, the means of shelter, sex, and self-esteem, the lower rungs on Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

In fact, the Martians are making people more the way Wells himself wanted to be, as he makes clear in his Experiment in Autobiography, published in 1934. “I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business.” What was his proper business? To do “originative intellectual work.” “The originative intellectual worker is not a normal human being and does not lead nor desire to lead a normal human life. He wants to lead a supernormal life.”

We can say he wants to lead a self-actualised life. And what difference is there between the supernormal and the superhuman?

Wells hit on a suggestive metaphor to describe people like himself – creative workers – and the people like those in Star Begotten who have been affected by the Martians’ cosmic rays. He says they are like “early amphibians… struggling out of the waters into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted necessities…But the new land has not yet definitively emerged from the waters and we swim distressfully in an element we wish to abandon.”

This is a corollary to Wells’ assertion that just as birds are creatures of the air and fish creatures of the sea, human beings are creatures of the mind. Or at least we should be. We are not there yet, but it is our evolutionary destiny. Most of us still need to be subsidized by large helpings of approval from others to top up our self-esteem, and after a few hours of intellectual work, are happy to sink back into stupid living. But in people like himself and other creative workers, Wells saw the beginning of a race that would be able to maintain itself purely through mental activity, without the props and supports that come from outside. In other words, he had a sense of a generation of Maslow’s self-actualisers on the rise.

And if being able to stay on land without having to return to the water is Wells’ definition of a human doing his proper work – if I can stay with his amphibian metaphor – we can say then that there is no sense in talking about transhumanism, when most of us aren’t fully human yet.

Attack of the Mind Parasites

One writer of science fiction who took Wells at his word was the British existentialist Colin Wilson. I said that my interest in the sort of thing I write about began with comic books when I was five years old. Another major event in this line of development happened some fourteen years later, in 1975, when I was living on the Bowery in New York and making a precarious living playing in a rock band. It was in that milieu that I came upon a copy of Wilson’s book The Occult, published in 1971. Until then I had no interest in the occult and what gripped me about Wilson’s work – and literally changed my life – was that he approached the occult from the perspective of existential philosophy – phenomenology, in fact – and that it interested him because in it he saw evidence for potentialities of human consciousness far beyond those allowed by official accounts. In fact, early UK paperback editions called The Occult “the ultimate book for those who would walk with the gods,” which is, one must admit, quite pitch.

I can’t go into detail about Wilson’s attempt to create a new “positive existentialism,” to avoid the dead end reached by Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – I do so in Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson – but I can mention here that in it he drew on Maslow, particularly his notion of the “peak experience,” the sudden bursts of “newness,” bringing vitality and joy – mini mystical experiences – that Maslow believed were experienced by all healthy people.

Another thinker bubbling in Wilson’s evolutionary brew was Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, which is essentially the study of the structures of consciousness. Again, time forbids any detail. Those unfamiliar with Wilson’s work will have to take my word for it that for our purposes here the place where these two thinkers come together most effectively in Wilson’s oeuvre is in his Lovecraftian novel The Mind Parasites, written at the behest of August Derleth for his Arkham House press, and published in 1967.

Wilson too believed that a change had come over humanity. He placed the start of it in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of romanticism, which in essence was informed with a sudden sense of man as something godlike, and which we can find  in Beethoven’s symphonies, Blake’s visionary epics, Hegel’s vast metaphysical system, and other, similar titanic works. Yet so many of the later romantics died young or went insane. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, asked why they did. In The Mind Parasites he arrived at an phenomenological answer to that question, in the form of a kind of psychic vampire, that has been sucking away at human vitality and creativity and killing off its visionaries for the past two centuries. The hero of the novel discovers their existence, but he also discovers the means of expelling them: intentionality, which is the central point of Husserl’s philosophy. We can say the parasites are defeated by phenomenology – a first, I think, in science fiction, or any genre.

Cracking the Black Room

Husserl’s central insight is that perception is intentional. We have a “will to perceive” as well as perceptions. Consciousness is not a passive reflection of the world, as Descartes believed, but an active reaching out and “grabbing” it. We “intend” the world, but are unaware that we do. Wilson’s protagonist is able to reach into himself, to the source of intentionality, with the result that he is able to throw off attacks by the parasites – coming in the form of existential despair, madness, bleak depression and thoughts of suicide – by inducing Maslow’s “peaks.” But he discovers that intentionality can also have an effect on the physical world. He and his colleagues develop enormous psychokinetic powers which eventually defeat the parasites by pushing the moon, where their base is, out of earth’s orbit and further into space. (Readers familiar with the Gurdjieff’s cosmology will note the allusion.)

We can say that the protagonists of The Mind Parasites develop what we would call superpowers, solely through understanding their own consciousness. That is, by becoming “fully human.” Through the discipline of phenomenology, Wilson’s “evolutionary existentialism” reveals powers latent in the human mind that we call psychic, or occult, but which are exactly like those attributed to superheroes. (There in nuce is the theme of Mutants and Mystics.)

I might mention that in another novel, The Black Room, a spy story, the hero attains a similar power over his mind while trying to crack the challenge of a sensory deprivation chamber, designed to break his will. I said earlier that the official view of humankind is that we are entirely dependent on stimuli coming from the environment to motivate us. This view has been at the centre of western ideas about human psychology since John Locke first argued that there is “nothing in the mind that wasn’t first in the senses.” This means that we are tabula rasa , blank slates, until impressions from the outer world “write” something on our minds. This suggests that our minds are like empty flats, and that we have to go to the equivalent of Ikea to fill them up with stuff. 

Wilson rejects this, and in The Black Room, the hero manages to make contact with the wellsprings of intentionality and so is able to remain in the chamber indefinitely, when others had gone mad. He is no longer dependent on outside stimuli because he has got in touch with an inner purpose. We are at our best, Wilson noted, when faced with a challenge. This is why his “outsiders” throw themselves into “living dangerously.”  But when the challenge recedes, we slip back down to our “only human” selves, just as Adam Strange found himself sent back to earth. If we are ever to become “self -revolving wheels” as Nietzsche says, we need to find a way to draw on the vitality we tap when faced with a challenge, without the challenge. Without, that is, the need for anything outside to stimulate us. Oddly enough, this is something many of us have had to face in some form during the Covid 19 crisis.

When we are able to do this, we would then be on our way to being fully human.

We’re only transhuman, aren’t we?

Now, what does this have to do with transhumanism? It strikes me that transhumanism is a kind of literalising of the powers associated with superheroes, a way of “actualising” them in a very literal way through technology. In some ways I would say that transhumanism is similar to the ideas that the gods were “ancient aliens,” that magic and the supernatural are expressions of an extra-terrestrial  “super science,” turned into myth by our overawed ancestors. But my main question about transhumanism is: Is it really transhuman at all? That is to say, does it aim for something that truly transcends the human in the way that Maslow’s “fully human” transcends the “only human,”  or is it really interested in only an extension of what humans already do – which in essence is what technology can achieve, and what thrilled adolescents like me when reading about our favourite superheroes?

We can put it this way: which Superman does transhumanism aim at? Nietzsche’s or Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s? (I should say I’m a fan of both.) We know the comic book Superman is “faster than a speeding bullet” and “has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.” Without going into detail – the literature is there if you want to check– we know that much of the transhuman agenda involves the kind of invulnerability, super strength, speed, flight and so on that Superman possesses, provided not by our yellow sun and earth’s low gravity (compared to Krypton), but by technology and science. Superman was known as the “man of steel” and the “man of tomorrow,” and that’s whom the transhumanists have on their agenda.

Nietzsche’s Superman possesses no powers, unless you want to call his ability to say “Yes!” to life and to will its eternal return a power. He is able to do this because he has tapped the inner springs of power and health – psychological health – the Dionysian “yea-saying”. He cannot fly or see through walls, but no technology can induce sense of “zest and well-being” that comes to those who become “self-revolving wheels, “ or who can endure the challenge of the black room without sinking into insanity. The heroes of The Mind Parasites achieve extraordinary power over the outer world, of a kind that a “super science” could conceivably match. But can technology produce the ability to perceive a meaning independent of the senses, a certainty of inner purpose that defeats the black room? This seems to be achieved, if it is, solely through our own efforts at understanding the mental actions involved in intentionality, which is essentially the process of becoming aware of the active character of consciousness. It is something that depends on us, not that happens to us.

Transhuman, all too transhuman

Nietzsche, I think, would regard the techno-superman as “transhuman, all-too-transhuman,” meaning that his aims and purposes remain on the level of the “only human,” indeed perhaps even of Zarathustra’s “last men,” and are not “transcendent” at all. They strike me as the dreams of clever school boys who are determined to really fly, or whatever, in a very literal sense, rather than discover how to take the interior journey that the hero of the black room does.

It is interesting that the term “transhumanism” was coined by the biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, in the early 1950s. Huxley’s picture of man as “the managing director of evolution” has much more in common with Wells’ “Martians” or Maslow’s self-actualisers, than it does with the transhumanism of today, which acknowledges Huxley’s coinage, but is quite clear about its own agenda. More than half a century ago, Huxley recognised that humanity had reached a unique position, both in its own development and in that of the planet. We had reached the point where we could determine what direction human evolution would take, rather than remaining the passive recipients of environmental forces and the chance helpful mutation. Huxley saw that the way to our evolutionary future lay in “exploring human nature” in order to “find out what are the possibilities open to it.” He saw those possibilities in art, culture, spiritual achievement, social improvements, science – but he said little about technology. Indeed, if anything, like many at the time, Huxley was concerned about technology’s increasing dominance and its effect on society, just as his brother was. One wonders what he would have said about the usurpation of his belief in a “transhuman” future by the very technology that worried him? He might agree too that it was sadly, “transhuman, all too transhuman.”

One point I wanted to make but did not allow time for, is that the transhuman ethos has much in common with the sorts of occultism that we find all over the internet today, and in which the net itself serves the purpose of the old school “astral light,” akashic record, or some such medium through which occult forces work. I would say that just as the internet has in many ways “literalised” these ideas, so too transhumanism has literalised a variety of occult powers: immortality, clairvoyance, astral travel – or, I should say, it would like to. If there isn’t one already, a book about how the transhuman agenda is a techno re-tread of ancient Hermetic ideas – along the lines of Erik Davis’ Techgnosis – is waiting to be written.

I would suggest that unless what goes by the name of transhumanism today is willing to forget its emphasis on technology and embrace something along the lines of the “fully humanism” I’ve tried to present here, it should really change its name. I would suggest “non-humanism” or “unhumanism”, since the future it envisions seems, to my mind at least, aimed at doing away with the human altogether, and replacing it with some technological version of the hermaphrodite, part human, part machine, which is, I guess, what we know as Star Trek’s Borg. And we know how that worked out, don’t we?

Thank you.

Taking Care of the Cosmos: A Talk for the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, Melbourne, August 4 2019

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, in Melbourne, during my recent lecture tour down under. It’s based on my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos.

Taking Care of the Cosmos

A Talk for Warranwood Steiner Centre, Melbourne, August 4, 2019

I’ve been asked to give a talk about my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. Let me say that I am quite pleased about this for a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason that neither I nor my publisher can fathom, it is one of my books that hasn’t received as much attention as some of my others – and let me assure you that the amount of attention the others have received is by no means enormous. Still, this book seems not to have generated as much discussion as some of my other books have, however modest that may be. The other reason I am happy to have a chance to talk about it, is that it is something of a more personal work of mine. Of course, every piece of writing a writer produces is in some way personal. He or she is behind it, however detached or objective their stance toward their subject may be. That they choose to write about that subject in that way tells us something about them, if only a little. But this book is more directly personal than that. It is a kind of personal statement, a declaration of how I see things, although, to be sure, I draw on a considerable array of thinkers, writers, and sages – as I do in all my books – in order to make my point and support my argument.

As I say in the book, the title, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, is rather bold and, as some friends pointed out while I was writing it, not exactly clear. Some thought it made the book sound like a work of science fiction. And for some readers, not partial to the message of the book, fiction is perhaps the  most accurate description of its contents. But the title came to me while I was working on an earlier book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. This was a history of the influence on western consciousness of the mythological founder of magic, philosophy, and the Hermetic tradition, thrice greatest Hermes. Although for centuries, Hermes Trismegistus was thought to be a real person, who had lived before the Flood, and whose philosophy had influenced as prestigious individuals as Moses, Plato, and even Jesus Christ, modern scholarship accepts that he was a product of the syncretism associated with the Alexandrian Age, an amalgam of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes circa AD 200, and who served as figure of veneration and authority for the anonymous authors of the mystical and magical texts that have come down to us as the Corpus Hermeticum.

The Corpus Hermeticum had an enormous influence on western thought, and perhaps its most powerful impact was on the Renaissance. We can even say that in many ways it was responsible for the Renaissance itself. A story that the historian Frances Yates tells gives us an idea of just how important a figure Hermes Trismegistus was considered at the time. In 1463, Cosimo de’ Medici, the great Florentine power broker, asked his scribe, Marsilio Ficino, whom Cosimo had just made head of the newly revived Platonic Academy, to translate some texts by Plato from Greek to Latin that had recently come into his possession. But just as Marsilio was about to get to work, Cosimo told him to wait. Some other texts had come into his hand, and Plato would have to be put on the back burner. What was important enough to shove Plato into the backseat? The Corpus Hermeticum. So you can see that Hermes was important indeed, if the father of western philosophy had to be put on hold in deference to him.

In the Asclepius, one of the books making up the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes tells his student Asclepius that man is a creature of two natures. I should point out that by “man” Hermes meant “human being” – there was much less confusion about the use of the word “man,” which did not mean “male,” back then. We are creatures of the natural world, Hermes tells Asclepius, of the body and the senses, and as such are subject to all the laws and limitations that come with “living in the material world,” as the title of an old song has it. But we are also inhabitants of another world, that of the mind, the spirit, the soul, or, as we would say today – or at least I do – consciousness. And this world, in essence, is free of the limitations of our other nature. As bodies we occupy a particular space and time. But as the poet William Blake, himself a student of the Hermetic tradition, tells us, “one thought fills immensity.”

The Hermetic creation myth explains how this came about. Briefly, after creating the universe, Nous, or the Universal Mind, decided to create a being like himself so that he could share his creation with him. So he created humanity. I should mention that the idea that we are created in the image of the Universal Mind suggested to many churchmen during the Renaissance that the Hermetic teachings presaged and paralleled the teachings of Christianity, as in that tradition, human beings are also made in the image of their creator. There are other parallels and similarities between Hermeticism and Christianity, and because of this during the Renaissance many enlightened figures within the church argued that the Hermetic teachings should be made part of Christian doctrine. Sadly, they weren’t, and one can only wonder what the history of the church would have been like if they had been.

What happened when man beheld the world that Nous had made? He feel in love with it. And, enamoured of its beauty, he reached down from the heavenly heights in order to embrace it. But his love proved too powerful, as did that of the world for Man – in the Hermetic myth as in many others, the world, Earth, nature, is a woman – and when the two embraced, man lost his awareness of his spiritual origin, or at least his fascination with the world eclipsed this for a while. But just as man took on aspects of the earthly, so too did the world take on aspects of the spiritual. As in all true relationships, they shared parts of themselves with each other. The earth and the whole cosmos absorbed some of man’s celestial nature – we remember he was made in the image of the Universal Mind, his creator – while man absorbed some of the earth’s natural character. The two have been mixed up like this ever since.

Now, like all myths, there is no way to prove that anything like this happened, and of course modern science and our rational minds tell us it is just a story. But the work of myths isn’t to prove something, but to come up with what Plato called a “likely story” to account for things. And what this particular myth accounts for is the fact that, however it came about and whatever the truth about it may be, we nevertheless experience ourselves as creatures of two natures, whether we immediately recognize that we do or not. We are without doubt natural creatures, of flesh and blood, who exist within time and space and who are subject to the same limitations and appetites of other animals. There’s little doubt about that and, as I will show further on, we’ve had more than a few centuries during which some of the best minds of the west have been hammering this message home to us. But we are also creatures of a different sort. However much contemporary science denies it, we have an immaterial, non-physical nature, that is not subject to time and space in the same way as our bodies are. Evidence for this is the consciousness that each of us is engaged with now, listening to this talk – unless, as is often the case, my words are tedious enough to send you to sleep – it’s been known to happen. Each one of us participates in the Universal Mind and so we each are the kind of “dual natured” creature that Hermes Trismegistus tells us we are.

Now, of course, Hermeticism isn’t the only tradition making this claim. We can find it in other spiritual traditions, and I draw on some of them in the book. But it does have an interesting answer to the question why we have two natures. The Gnostics, a sect of early Christians who were contemporaries of the Hermetics, also believed that humanity had “fallen” from a spiritual state and had become “trapped” in the material world. Their response to this was that we needed to escape from this false world and return to the true one. And I might point out that in many ways our time is a very Gnostic one, with our fascination with conspiracy theories and with phenomena such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” creating a sense that reality isn’t as reliable as it used to be. As I write in a book about the postmodern politics of our time, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, it is up for grabs. As the Hermetics did, the Gnostics believed we all still retained a spark of our divine origin, and they sought to awaken this, through inducing ecstatic states in order to achieve what they called gnosis and what the Hermetics, who engaged in similar practices, saw as a kind of “cosmic consciousness.”

But while the Gnostics wanted to escape from the world, the Hermetics sought something different. They wanted to remember their purpose, their mission on the earth. When Asclepius asks Hermes why humans have two natures, Hermes explains that we do so that we can “raise our sight to heaven while we take care of the earth,” and so that we can “love those things that are below us” while we are “beloved by the things above.” Humans, it seems, are a kind of meeting ground of two worlds, something that the seventeenth century mathematician and religious thinker Blaise Pascal remarked on when he said that mankind existed in between the infinitely small and the infinitely large, between the microscopic world of the atoms, and the colossal expanse of the galaxies. But there is more to us that this. We have a body, Hermes tells Asclepius, so that we can “take care of creation.” We have a “corporeal dwelling place” and our two natures are mixed into one, so that we can “wonder at and adore the celestial, while taking care of and managing the things on earth.”

What this suggests is that we find ourselves here, not because of a “fall” from grace, as in the Judeo-Christian religion, or because of the machinations of an evil idiot god, as in the Gnostic tradition, but because we have a particular mission to accomplish, a responsibility to fulfil. In other words, we are here for a reason. We struggle against the limitations of the body and the material world, not in order to escape them, or as punishment for some “original sin,” but in order to embrace the obligations that come with being “caretakers of the cosmos.”


Now, needless to say, this is a far cry from how we see ourselves and have been taught to see ourselves by modern science and much of modern culture. We can say that the process through which human beings lost any sense of themselves as having a reason for existing, let alone a particular responsibility in doing so, goes back a few centuries, although, to be sure, throughout history there have always been voices announcing the futility of existence, and of our own in particular. All is vanity, Ecclesiastes tells us, and Sophocles, the great Greek dramatist, tells us it is best to die young or not to be born at all. We can say  our current assessment of ourselves as not particularly significant inhabitants of a not particularly significant world began when Copernicus announced that the sun did not revolve around the earth. We were not, it turned out, at the centre of things. Oddly enough, Copernicus himself was a student of the Hermetic philosophy, as were other makers of the modern scientific worldview, such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, something I can only mention here. (Newton wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity, and gravity itself is an “occult,” that is, unseen power.) This particular ball continued to roll and by the nineteenth century it had picked up considerable speed and was pretty much unstoppable. Darwin showed us that we were no different from the other animals. Marx showed us that the real motor of human history was economics, that is, our earthly, material reality. Nietzsche showed that power was behind human motivation, although he did have an idea of human greatness in his notion of the “superman,” again, something I can only mention. Freud said sex was behind everything, and thoroughly rejected any higher appetites.

And while this was going on, in a variety of ways, modern science was busy at work reducing human beings to machines, stimulus response robots, devoid of free will and pushed and pulled solely by influences coming from the environment. Any notion of a nature other than our physical, material one was by this time utterly abandoned, cast into the rubbish bin of ideas, along with everything else having to do with religion, spirit, or mind.

This view of our existence was summed up with scientific rigour by the French scientist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod who argued that chance and chance alone produced not only humanity but the world it finds itself in. There is no reason behind anything. As Stephen Hawking said in a very popular book a few years ago, the universe “just happened,” and there was no need for any God or Universal Mind to bring it or us about. As another physicist, Steve Weinberg, remarked, the more we understand the universe, the more it seems pointless. And although existentialism and astrophysics are, no pun intended, worlds apart, they seem to share a common theme. As Jean Paul Sartre, the most famous existential philosopher, remarked, it is “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die.”  Monod, Hawking, and Weinberg say essentially the same thing.

This story is well known and of course there have been many who have rejected it and argued against it. I draw on quite a few of them in my book. But what is new and what prompted me to write my book, is that this tradition of encouraging what the British writer and philosopher Colin Wilson called the “fallacy of insignificance” regarding human existence has in recent times found a very vocal if paradoxical fellow traveller.


One of the curious ironies of the rise of modern science and technology is that while it argues that human life and the universe itself is insignificant, purposeless, and meaningless, it has also placed into this insignificant creature’s hands an enormous power. The science that tells us that we are meaningless accidents in an accidental universe has also made us masters of the world. By treating nature as mere stuff that we can control – voiding it of any spiritual character – we have gained a fantastic power over it. And it is precisely this power, and our evident abuse of it, that has triggered a response that in a different way, seeks to minimise the importance of human beings, albeit for well-meaning if, from my perspective, muddle-headed reasons.

Many people concerned about the environment and wanting to “save the planet” argue that in order to do this, human beings must be made to see that they are no more important than any other life form. Our “anthropocentric” view has led to the despoiling of the earth and the extinction of other creatures, who have as much right – even more, some would say – to exist as we do. We are, they say, no more significant or “special” than slime moulds or giraffes or the animalcules in a puddle of rain water. Even more, we are much more dangerous than they or other organisms because of our mistaken idea of ourselves as somehow unique and significant. It is this that has led to the environmental crises that threaten the future of not only mankind but the earth itself. Climate change is only the most recent expression of this and the Extinction Rebellion movement only the most recent response to it.

This assessment of human importance is behind the kind of “enlightened misanthropy,” as we might call it, that is voiced by groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, Earth First! and other similar “biocentric” organisations, biocentric meaning “life centred” as opposed to human centred. (We could say that they prefer a “biosophy” rather than an anthroposophy.) According to Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, we are all animals, and “an individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear.” Foreman goes on to add that he and many others would actually argue that the Grizzly Bear has more claim to any kind of importance than we do. How Foreman or anyone else could argue this isn’t exactly clear, given their premise that all life is of equal significance, but let’s leave that for now.

We may think that extreme remarks from radical activists can have little effect on the general consciousness of society. They are ranting from the side lines. But much of the rhetoric they employ is echoed by more respected thinkers. One such is the social philosopher John Gray, who in a series of popular and highly respected books has presented a misanthropy that, to my mind, frequently borders on the fanatical. Although couched in “environment friendly” language, his books really express little more than Gray’s profound dislike for human beings. For Gray, from the perspective of Gaia, the earth, “human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould.” But while this can be seen as expressing solidarity with other biocentrists, Gray goes further. We are not homo sapiens, as we narcissistically believe ourselves to be, but homo rapiens. We may agree that, yes, we have abused our power and laid waste to much of the earth, but is there nothing redeeming about us? For Gray, the answer is “No.” “A glance at any human,” he tells us “should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being.” We are simply a species that is highly successful at ravaging others. We need to jettison all pretence to being anything other than this – that is, to any “higher” notions of our humanity. It is, in fact, precisely this that has allowed us to rampage as we have. It is time, Gray says, to see ourselves as we truly are.

Now Gray is as entitled to his opinion about humanity as anyone else is entitled to theirs. But in our time, faced as it is with enormous challenges, of which our environmental crises make up a large portion, it seems more responsible, honest, and serious to agree with him, at least to the popular mind. The spirit of the time seems to compel us to embrace a collective mea culpa and to own up to our crimes. To not do this, and to argue that, even with all the damage we have done, there is still something different about human existence and our role here, that sets us apart, seems somehow aberrant. As a case in point let me mention that when, a few months ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames, I posted some remarks on social media expressing my sadness at the tragedy. While many shared my feeling, more than a few people wrote to say that fires destroy forests every day and that they are more of a loss than a church. Why was everyone so concerned about some cathedral? I certainly agree that a burnt forest is a loss, but while there are many trees there is only one Notre Dame. But the people making these remarks remained adamantly pro-forest and anti-cathedral and nothing I could say seemed to shake that opinion.

Now, while I in no way am suggesting that we shouldn’t face the crises that our own success as a species has created, I am also wary of the kind of indulgence in guilt and the peculiar self-satisfaction that it can bring. It strikes me that we live in a time when, because of our feelings of guilt, someone like Gray can be seen as an important, profound thinker, precisely because he makes us feel so guilty. We live in a “confessional” time, as any viewer of television talk shows knows. People today love to admit to their mistakes, their sins, their transgressions, and to do so in front of as large as audience as possible. But while they seem to be admitting their failures, it strikes me that there is a certain pride in doing so. Paradoxically, admitting your sins can be just another way of announcing your importance. And admitting your helplessness can be a way of avoiding your responsibilities and letting yourself off the hook. As the eighteenth century mystical philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin said, such humility may be admirable, but it may also be an excuse to accept the laziness and cowardice that allows one to avoid the responsibilities that come with being “the highest in the universe,” and a way of shirking the effort and suffering that taking on those responsibilities entails.


I mentioned that in my book I draw on other spiritual traditions along with the Hermetic, in order to express my sense of ourselves as cosmic caretakers. One such tradition is the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism. In the tradition of the sixteenth century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, human beings have a profound responsibility: we are a kind of cosmic repairman. In Luria’s creation myth, when God created the universe, he really made a mess of things. The sephiroth or vessels of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, that were supposed to contain the divine energies, were either not strong enough to contain them or too shallow to hold them. So what happened was not a big bang but a big spill, with the divine energies overflowing and getting mixed up with each other and with lower forces and energies, what we call matter. The result is the world we live in, with sparks of the divine trapped in the dense unwieldy world of matter – the similarity to the Hermetic account can be seen. In this world, “nothing is where it should be,” everything is jumbled up, and because of this we experience pain and suffering, and the divine energies, which are really one, are fragmented into opposites, at war with each other: good and evil, male and female, light and dark, and so on. Our job is to unite the fragments, reconcile the opposites, and put the cosmic Humpty Dumpty back together again.

How did we get landed with this responsibility? When he saw the mess He had made, God realized he needed help in sorting things out and so he created a helper, that is, us, humanity. We are here to perform what is called tikkun, which means “repair.” Our job is to release the divine spark trapped in the shards of matter, freeing them from the negative energies, known as klipoth. We find the sparks everywhere; in nature, in others, and in ourselves. As we perform tikkun through acts of awareness, kindness, and love – what the eighteenth century scientist and religious thinker Emmanuel Swedenborg called “doing the good that you know” – we clean up the mess God made and return the world to the state it was supposed to be in before He made a wreck of things.

Failure to perform tikkun means that we fail at our task as humans. And it is only by performing tikkun that we can be “fully human.” This idea of being “fully human” is not one that we easily embrace. It places a great burden and responsibility on us. After all, it is no small matter to be responsible for cleaning up after God and repairing the universe. It is no wonder then that many of us, if not most, shy away from this obligation. Faced with the great task placed before us, we say “What can I do? I am only human”


Recognizing the difference between being “fully human” and “only human” wasn’t limited to sixteenth century Kabbalists. In fact it formed the central idea of one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century. Abraham Maslow, the father of humanist psychology, started out as a Freudian but he soon became disenchanted with Freud’s approach. One reason he did was that the only people he met in his practice were sick ones. He grew tired of this as it understandably made him depressed. Maslow then hit upon what at the time seemed a radical idea. He decided that he wanted to study healthy people instead, to develop a psychology based on health, not illness. He did and he came up with some remarkable results. One was that all the healthy people he studied seemed to have what he came to call “peak experiences,” sudden moments of joy, happiness, fulfilment, that seemed to come for no reason at all, spontaneously, out of the blue. These were not “mystical” experiences per se, although they could lead to something like that. They were simply sudden realizations that life was good, that we all have an enormous amount to be grateful for, simply because we are alive. They were a kind of sudden, vivid remembering of the good we already have, a waking up to it. These peaks brought great self-confidence, a sense of strength and a deep feeling of purpose, something very different from the depression, anxiety and feelings of meaninglessness that Maslow had come to discover in the sick people he had studied. The “peak experience” gave Maslow a standard by which to gauge psychic health. They also provided a way of recognizing what being “fully human” would be like.

Maslow recognized that, psychologically, human beings seem to climb what he called a “ladder of needs.” Our first needs are the basic ones for food and drink. Then with these met, we need shelter, a home of some kind. Then we have a need for love, companionship, a relationship to others. When this is satisfied our need to be recognized and respected, for self-esteem, to be thought well of, becomes active. All of these needs are what Maslow called “deficiency needs,” because they are concerned with something we lack. I need food, a home, love, and self-esteem and feel their lack if they are missing. But Maslow found that in some people – not all,  but many – there are other, higher needs, what he called “meta-needs.” These are needs not based on a “lack” of something, but on the need to use our powers and abilities in some creative way. They are needs based on what we have, not on what we are missing. They are creative needs. They express the need to “self-actualize,” as Maslow put it, to become fully ourselves. In other words, to become “fully human.”

Although Maslow did not speak of tikkun, the way in which he describes a “self-actualized” person seems in many ways to parallel what a person who performed tikkun would be like. Self-actualized people are, paradoxically, not obsessed with themselves; they have a profound interest in the objective world and do not like being trapped in their personality. They are not in competition with others. Although they generally strive to be the best they can be at their work, whatever it is, it is not in order to be “No. 1,” but for the sake of the work itself; doing it well is its own reward. They are not interested in material gain or power or dominance, and in general are less concerned with their ego and have a sense of humour about themselves. They are more concerned with what is going on inside themselves than in what is happening outside and are content with simple pleasures and are tolerant of others. Although they are always striving to be more – they are what the philosopher Nietzsche called “self-overcomers” – they are happy with who they are. They accept themselves but paradoxically are not complacent.

Self-actualisers are also very disciplined and self-motivating and are generally good workers. They are not lazy and are not afraid of challenges. In fact they thrive on them. Maslow believed that we all have the potential to actualise ourselves, to be “all that we can be” and to become fully human. He also argued that if we fail to do this, the consequences can be dire. He famously said that if we deliberately plan on being less than we are capable of being, we will be unhappy for the rest of our life. Maslow’s vision was the furthest from the Freudian one of sick people that he started out from, but he was dismayed late in his life to discover that many people, it seemed, did fail to self-actualise, and did so, it seemed, on purpose. He once asked the students of one of his classes how many of them expected to become outstanding in their fields, to go on to do great work, to be creative successes? When hardly anyone raised their hand, he asked “Well, if not you, then who? Someone will. Why not you?” They had no answer to that. Indeed, we always think that someone else will be great, creative, successful, but not ourselves. Why?

Why do most of believe that we will not be great, or if we do think so, shy from admitting it? Peer pressure, of course. But this only begs the question of why our peers assume they will be mediocrities and chide those who think otherwise. But if Maslow is correct, we will be mediocrities because we decide to be. We choose to be less than we are capable of being on purpose. Why? Because we are afraid of the responsibilities and obligations being all we can be entail. Maslow christened this propensity in many of us to avoid actualizing ourselves “the Jonah Complex,” based on the Biblical story of Jonah, who tried to avoid the destiny God had in store for him. As we know, Jonah tried his best to avoid his destiny as a prophet, but in the end he had to accept it. He might have saved himself and God a lot of trouble if had done so from the start.


People who are subject to the Jonah Complex do not wish to be “fully human” and try to be satisfied with being “only human.” They try to avoid the destiny that their nature compels them to fulfil. In fact, they can be quite militant about this, accusing those who do want to actualize their potentials of being elitist, of thinking of themselves as somehow “special,” somehow “better” than others. This disparaging of those who try to be “fully human” by those content to be “only human,” is an expression of what the twentieth century German philosopher Max Scheler called resentment, an attempt by the “have nots” to make the “haves” feel guilty about themselves – the “haves” in this sense not people of material but of inner wealth. Towards the end of his life – he died in 1970 – Maslow was concerned that in the near future there would be a kind of “uprising” of non-self-actualisers against the self-actualisers, fuelled by a kind of “actualisation envy.” And it strikes me that in many ways, something like this informs a great deal of our postmodern culture. Many years ago, the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine wrote an essay called “The Use of the Beautiful,” in which she lamented the loss of the beautiful in modern culture, and suggested that this was in part motivated by a resentment against the high standard that beauty sets, and which we find difficult to meet. Instead of striving to approximate it as best we can, we instead dismiss it as oppressive, unrealistic, stuffy, old fashioned or what have you, and are happy instead with “what we like.” Much of modern art, beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal and including Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, can be seen as an attack on the idea of the beautiful, and on the idea of art itself. In the nineteenth century, the idea behind mass education was that it would help raise the average person up to a higher level. What seems to have happened is the opposite, with the higher being brought down to the lower. In many, if not most universities these days, the idea of the “great books” as agents of self-improvement is laughed at when it is not militantly attacked, and PhDs and other high degrees are offered in “popular culture.” I know this because I have spoken at more than one academic conference about this. My usual remark about this development is that back in the day, we made popular culture, we didn’t study it.

This desire to remain average and to be “just like everybody else” also informs the “good enough” ethos that makes up a large part of our contemporary sense of identity. We no longer strive to be good but to be “good enough,” a “good enough” parent, or a “good enough” husband or wife. In one sense, this is a reaction against the pressures placed on us to be “perfect,” the “perfect” mother or father or husband or wife. But there is a difference between being “perfect” and being “perfectly”, that is “fully” ourselves. “Perfect” is an abstract standard, an outside criterion we are asked to meet. Being fully yourself isn’t. That standard comes from within. It is the same challenge that the psychologist Jung called “individuating,” “becoming who you are,” with the emphasis on “you.” We decide what standards we will set for ourselves and which we will meet. What Maslow and Jung discovered is that for many of us, while we recognise what we could be, we nevertheless settle for something less, for being “good enough” versions of ourselves. And what is true of us as individuals is also true for the culture and society at large. Nietzsche saw this in his bible of self-overcoming, Thus Spake Zarathustra, when he spoke of the “last men.” This was a society and culture of the future, that embraced the “fallacy of insignificance” happily,  rejected all heroism and greatness, and was content with mediocrity, “good enoughness,” “only humanness”, creature comforts and an easy life. It was in many ways a society and culture not vastly different from our own. Today, the most popular thing on television are “reality TV” shows, in which people “just like us” are the stars. There are even television shows about people watching television shows that are about people “just like” those watching them. In Orwell’s 1984 the government kept the populace under constant surveillance. Now we do it ourselves and even jokingly call the most famous reality TV show Big Brother.


One sign that suggests we are living in something like the society that Nietzsche envisioned is the emphasis today placed on groups, on communities, and the suspicion that the individual who falls outside these groups is somehow not quite right. Self-actualisers, “individuaters,” those who are striving to become who they are, and not as the group is, are seen as selfish, as “lone nutters”, as somehow aberrant, and more and more the message is that we all need to belong to one group or another. If we don’t, there must be something wrong with us. But while self-actualisers are not misanthropes – quite the contrary – they are not particularly gregarious. Contrary to the old song, people who need people are not the luckiest people in the world. They often have nothing going on in their lives, and need other people to fill them up. What many people talk about most of the time is other people. Without them, they’d have little to say. Not self-actualisers. Often self-actualisers meet the psychological profile of the individuals Colin Wilson calls “Outsiders,” people whose need for meaning and purpose – “meta-needs,” according to Maslow – can’t be met by belonging or identifying with some group or other, but by a profound acceptance of a kind of solitariness, the solitude needed for creative work. Becoming yourself is lonely work, Jung tells us. It is the hardest thing we can do and no one can do it for us. Those who try to become themselves are often afflicted with a sense of guilt, with pangs of what Nietzsche called the “herd instinct.” Without doubt we are social animals. But those who are trying to become “fully human” often must give up the warmth and comfort of the herd and strike out on their own. And the price they pay for doing so is often guilt, isolation, and loneliness.

I should say that at the same time as there is an anti-individual sentiment today, there is also a kind of celebration of the average person, the common man or woman, exactly as he or she is, with no need to be any better. We all want respect. We all demand it and get angry if it is not immediately forthcoming. We are all special, notwithstanding that in such an arrangement no one is special, as being special, by definition, means standing out from the average. We all want to be applauded, not for any particular accomplishment or achievement, but simply for being us, as we are, run of the mill and rank and file, with no particular claim to any exceptional gift. In the words of another old song, these days, everybody is a star. Popular culture endorses this view. One sign of this is that more times than not, people of exceptional intellectual accomplishment are portrayed in films and television as somehow deeply flawed. So the contemporary Sherlock Holmes – portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch – is shown as practically autistic. There is something wrong with him, unlike the Everyman Watson, who is “just like us.” This is a far cry from Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character.

At the same time, the widespread addiction to social media, in which people post practically everything about themselves for all to see, is a sign, I think, that western society has reached Maslow’s self-esteem level on the ladder of needs. We are all pretty fascinating individuals, just as we are, and we want everyone to know this and to agree. And while this may suggest a kind of collective narcissism, it may also suggest that there are some of us out there who are moving into the level of the meta-needs, the need to self-actualise. That is my hope. These are the people I call the “creative minority.” But unlike those still obsessed with self-esteem, they do not broadcast their activities, mostly because they are too busy being active with them. They do not draw attention to themselves nor do they demand that everyone respect them. They are not particularly interested in what other people think about them, and they do not think very much about other people. They do not attend rallies or demonstrations or shout for this cause or another. They do not occupy Wall Street. Instead, they occupy their minds.


And here we come round to the question of exactly how we can take care of the cosmos. The subtitle of my book is “Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World.” One reader, a friend and fellow writer, was a bit put off by this, thinking that it suggested that the book was yet another call for ecological and environmental responsibility. I in no way suggest, in the book or anywhere else, that the more immediate ways of taking care of our particular patch of the cosmos, our earth, should be ignored, and I endorse them wholeheartedly. But while a great deal has been said and needs to be said about taking care of our physical environment, there is another environment which, it seems to me, doesn’t receive the attention that it should. I mean our inner environment, our inner world, that other nature that the Universal Mind in its wisdom has saddled us with. It is in relation to this that I speak of our other environment, our outer world, the physical one, as unfinished. To make clear what I mean by this will require some explanation. Let me see if in the time remaining to me I may be able to make a start on this.

One of the central tenets – if not the central one – of the Hermetic teaching, and of the other philosophies and teachings making up what is known as the Western “inner” or “esoteric” tradition, and which I have written about in several books, is that in it mind, spirit, or, as we would say today, consciousness is paramount. What does this mean? It means that unlike our contemporary scientific accounts which put the physical, material world in first place, and strive to derive our inner, metaphysical or spiritual world from it, the situation is actually reversed. For these traditions, mind, spirit, consciousness occupies first place and in some way that we do not fully understand, the physical, external world is derived from it. As the philosopher of language, friend of C. S. Lewis, and interpreter of Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield succinctly put it, “Interior is anterior,” that is, it is earlier than the exterior, it comes before it. Although there have always been those who took the materialist stance as the correct one – our idea of the atom goes back to the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus – it has really only been since the seventeenth century that mind has lost the prestige it used to have, and has been seen as something that needs to be “explained” in terms of material processes. A book of mine, A Secret History of Consciousness, is devoted to taking this view to task. This development is itself part of a long process, an evolution of consciousness, that I have written about in this book and some others and forms, as it were, the common thread among all my books. What this suggests is that the materialist view, which has been dominant for the last few centuries, is not the final view or verdict on the nature of reality. It has been arrived at historically and is itself subject to change. And I would say that in recent times it has shown signs that it is past its “sell by” date, and that it’s shelf life is running out, if it isn’t already past due. Developments like deconstructionism, postmodernism and other, earlier changes in our worldview brought about by quantum physics, suggest as much. What will arise to take its place remains to be seen. We may be experiencing the first stages of the breakdown of the materialist, rationalist paradigm – this is what the philosopher Jean Gebser, whom I have written about in some of my books, argues – but it is not clear what it is making way for. That may not be clear for some time. But there may be some indications available to us now.


I haven’t mentioned Rudolf Steiner in this talk, except for name-dropping him a moment ago. But one of the strangest things Steiner said – and, depending upon your perspective, he said a number of strange things – was that the future physical condition of the planet will depend on the thoughts that people have now. So, according to Steiner, what we are thinking now will in some way influence the physical character of the earth in the future. Indeed, as Steiner said this a century ago, according to him, the thoughts of the people he said it to have presumably had something to do with the world as it is today. Whatever we may think of this, we must admit, somewhat radical remark, its essence is that the mind, our minds, affect reality. This is certainly a way of expressing Owen Barfield’s dictum that “interior is anterior.” We can say then, as I have in some interviews, that according to this view, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the mind doesn’t stay there. It reaches out into the world and changes it.

Now this is as radically other than what our accepted scientific tradition tells us as we can get. Since the philosopher John Locke stated it in the seventeen century, our mainstream intellectual tradition has accepted that “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” According to this view we are born, as Locke says, as tabula rasas, “blank slates,” empty until experience writes upon us. We are like unfurnished flats until we go out to Ikea to buy stuff to and fill them with. But what Steiner and the tradition he belongs to, which includes people like Plato, Goethe, Jung and many others, says is the opposite. We do not come into the world with empty heads. The world that we mistakenly believe writes upon us is itself blank, empty, until our minds give it form. Whether it is the Platonic Forms or Jung’s archetypes or the categories of Immanuel Kant, for this tradition, something in our minds reaches out and gives shape and contour to the raw material of experience. The world that Locke believed writes upon our minds is itself written upon by them. This is what Steiner meant when he said that we are “not only here in order to form for ourselves a picture of the finished world.” No. We “cooperate in bringing the world into existence.” And as he added: “The content of reality is only the reflection of the content of our minds.” In other words, no mind, no world.

The Corpus Hermeticum tells us exactly the same thing. As the Universal Mind tells Hermes Trismegistus, “within God everything lies in the imagination.” For the Hermetics, the imagination was everything. It was capable of remarkable feats; it’s abilities transcended the limits of our earthly nature easily. “Command your soul to go anywhere,” Hermes is told, “and it will be there quicker than your command. Bid it to go to the ocean and again it is there at once… Order it to fly up to heaven and it will need no wings.” “If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand him. Sense as one within yourself the entire creation… then you can understand God.”

This recognition of the tremendous power of mind or the imagination is at the heart of what, in another book, I call “the lost knowledge of the imagination.” This knowledge was lost to the mainstream western intellectual tradition round about the time that Locke’s “blank slate” version of the mind came into prominence. But some never lost sight of it. So for the poet William Blake, “The world of Imagination is the world of Eternity.” It is an Infinite and Eternal world where exist “the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in the Vegetable Glass of Nature.” (And here we see Blake contradict Locke outright.) “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination,” Blake insists, echoing the Universal Mind. “In your Bosom you bear your Heaven and Earth and all you behold; tho’ it appears Without, it is Within, in your imagination…”

I don’t know if Rudolf Steiner ever mentioned William Blake in any of his lectures, but it is clear that they were both speaking about the same thing. But Steiner did not have to know of Blake, as both were speaking out of the same tradition, the one that, as Owen Barfield, who did know both visionaries, said has consciousness or mind taking precedence over matter, that has the “interior” as “anterior.” All three wanted to awaken their readers to the insight that the world we see around us is rooted in some profound yet mysterious way in our interior worlds. Although the world we see when we open our eyes “appears without,” it is really “within.” And again, in some mysterious way, this inner world is projected out of our consciousness and, as Steiner says, co-operates in bringing the world into existence.

Now, we might say that Blake, Steiner, and Barfield were poets and visionaries and so might be expected to grant the imagination more power and importance than it might warrant. Yet in recent times, something as rigorous and unpoetical as neuroscience seems to confirm what they are saying. In his important book The Master and His Emissary, the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist reboots the right brain/left brain discussion that had petered out, after an initial excitement, some time in the 1990s. What McGilchrist did was to show that what was important about the differences between our two cerebral hemispheres was not so much in what they do, as had initially been suggested, but in how they do it. Put briefly, our right cerebral hemisphere, which is the older of the two and the one McGilchrist calls “the Master,” presents a global, holistic, but vague, fuzzy “big” picture of reality, one geared toward overall meaning and connectedness. The left brain, or “Emissary’s” job is to unpack this global picture, to finetune it, to subject the whole to an analysis that distinguishes its parts. So we can say that while the right brain sees the forest, the left sees the individual trees, and also the individual leaves on one tree, and even the veins running through each leaf.

But what links McGilchrist’s work to what we are talking about here, is his suggestion that in conveying the “big”, global picture of reality, the right brain helps “bring it into being,” performing the task that Steiner places on each of us. He also suggests that while the left brain, because of its analytical mode, is geared toward controlling reality, “mastering” it – and the left brain, let me say, is the cerebral hemisphere responsible for the scientific and technological wonders that have made us the dominant species on the planet, thereby creating the crises that face us today – the right brain is more concerned with caring about and for reality. As McGilchrist says, if one brain is responsible for our “exploitation” of the world – the sort of behaviour that a misanthrope like John Gray takes argument with – the other is more of a “guardian” of reality. As I say in my book, a guardian, a repairman, and a caretaker all seem to share some similar functions. So it would seem that according to McGilchrist, at least in this regard, contemporary neuroscience and Hermeticism and Kabbalah have much in common.

Given this, a word of caution does not seem out of place. If the world outside us depends in some mysterious way on the one inside us, we would be wise to aware of what is going on inside our heads, because, as Steiner, Blake, Barfield and split-brain psychology seem to tells us, sooner or later we will run into it in the outer world. That we create our own reality is, of course, a commonplace of much New Age thought. It has by this time become something of a cliché. But clichés become clichés precisely because they have a basis in truth. Blake’s one time teacher, Swedenborg, taught him and the rest of us that heaven and hell are not places we will go to after our death, but are within us now. We create them with our own attitudes and inhabit them long before our body dies. Jean Paul Sartre may have believed that hell is “other people,” but Swedenborg knew better. Hell, he knew, as well as heaven, is ourselves. While much of the attraction to the idea that we “create our own reality” is motivated by using the imagination to acquire health, wealth and power, the deeper appreciation of this insight is geared toward understanding how we are responsible for the reality that already surrounds us, how we unconsciously project our fears and desires out into the world, and mistakenly blame others or a cruel fate for what is really our own handiwork. Poets, who are always more aware of the power of the imagination than the rest of us, have always known of this and have spoken words of warning. Goethe tells us to beware of what we wish for in youth, for we will get it in middle age. And W. B. Yeats, who took the imagination seriously enough to discipline his own through his serious study of the western inner tradition, tells us that “whatever we build in the imagination will accomplish itself in the circumstances of our lives.”

If remarks like these, urbane and dramatic as they are, were solely rooted in a poet’s fancy, we could accept or reject them as we wished. But when we are told that the magnificent organ lodged within our skulls – to date, the most complex thing in the known universe –  is somehow responsible for bringing the world we see each day into being, we may be excused for giving such pronouncements more consideration. And when to this is added the wisdom of a long tradition which places our consciousness, our minds and imagination, at the fount of creation, then the idea that, in ways we do not fully understand, we are indeed caretakers of the cosmos, guardians of the world, or repairmen of the universe, we may be forgiven if we begin to take the idea seriously. This is not to celebrate our importance, or to applaud our significance, to pat our mutual backs in smug self-satisfaction. Far from it. It is to recognise that we each have a responsibility, an obligation, to actualise within ourselves the power that can help move the universe along, and that by becoming fully human, we can do our part to make the world a better place for our being in it.






Madame Blavatsky, P.D. Ouspensky, and Magical Politics

I’ve posted some video recordings of some recent talks on You Tube. I tweet about them when I post, but I’m not sure if everyone here sees this, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to put the links together in one place. So, in chronological order:

Madame Blavatsky, The Mother of Modern Spirituality, Thomas Carlyle House.

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book.)

In Search of P.D. Ouspensky, Kensington Central Library.

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book.)

Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, Conway Hall

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book)

An interview with me about Dark Star Rising for Rebel Wisdom.

For those in the London area, I’ll be talking about Jung, Maslow, and Colin Wilson in the context of Individuation, Self-Actualization, and getting “beyond the robot” at the Day on Meaning at Birkbeck College, University of London, this July 29th. Some tickets are still available.

My talk on Aleister Crowley for the Century Club 18 July is sold out. An encore is scheduled for September.

I’ll be giving the closing talk for the Decadence, Magic (K) and the Occult conference at Goldsmith’s College 20 July. My topic is “Occultism in the World Today” and will focus on all the strange occult politics I’ve been writing about of late.

On 9 August I’ll be giving a free talk at Watkins Bookshop on Dark Star Rising. I’ll post details when they’re available.

Saving the Universe: An Excerpt from The Caretakers of the Cosmos

The following is the introduction to my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, which is available now in the UK and will be released in the US in November. (It is available for pre-order on amazon.com.) It presents, I think, a rather different view of humanity than how we usually see ourselves these days.

This book has a bold title, and it may be a good idea to begin by trying to explain it. While working on an earlier book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus (2011), about the influence of Hermeticism and its mythical founder, the ‘thrice greatest Hermes’, on western consciousness, I touched on the idea of human beings as ‘cosmic caretakers,’ as individuals given the responsibility of ‘taking care of the cosmos’ – no mean task, as I’m sure readers will agree. Although for centuries Hermes Trismegistus was believed to have been a real person who lived at ‘the dawn of time’, and who received a primordial ‘divine revelation’ – the ‘perennial philosophy’ that is at the heart of much of western spiritual thought – he is now thought to have been a fictional figure, devised by the authors of the Hermetic writings, who lived in Alexandria in Egypt in the first few centuries after Christ. In the Asclepius, one of the books making up what is known as the Corpus Hermeticum, the body of mystical writings on which Hermeticism is based, Hermes Trismegistus tells his student Asclepius that man is a creature of two natures, of, indeed, two worlds. Man is, according to Hermes, a creature of the natural world, of the body and the senses, and as such is subject to all the laws and limitations that come with ‘living in the material world’. But he is also an inhabitant of another world, that of mind, spirit, the soul, consciousness, which, in essence, is free from the limitations of his other nature.

How this came about is told in the Hermetic creation myth. In the Poimandres, perhaps the best known of the Hermetic books, Nous, or the Universal Mind, explains that after the creation of the world, he thought it good to create a being like himself who could enjoy his work. So he created man. For a long time, the idea that Hermetic man was created in the image of his creator suggested that the Hermetic books borrowed elements from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In that tradition, too, man is created in the image of God. Recent scholarship, however, argues that the author of the Poimandres, who remains unknown, came to the idea independently. Whatever the case, in two powerful spiritual traditions that have had an enormous influence on western consciousness, the same idea, that man is made in the image of the divine plays a central role.

Unlike in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but similar to the Platonic and Gnostic creation accounts, in the Hermetic account the actual work of making the cosmos was undertaken by a ‘second Nous’, a demiurge or ‘craftsman’, created by the first Nous to carry out the job. When man saw what the craftsman had forged, he marvelled at its beauty, and quite understandably, wanted to be a creator himself. Nous, his Father, loving man, agreed. The craftsman did as well, and happy to share in his work, he gave man some of his power. He gave him a share of the ‘seven spheres’ which encircle the earth, the seven spheres being the orbits of the seven ancient planets, Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These seven spheres govern what takes place on earth; in Hermeticism, as in astrology, they are the source of our ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’. Readers familiar with the history of astronomy will know that they are the seven planetary spheres that pre-Copernican astronomers believed encircled our earth, and they will also know that the ancient astronomers believed that the earth itself was at the centre of the cosmos.

Now, in the Hermetic creation myth, the cosmos and the earth were originally formed through the action of the creative Word, the logos or Mind. But by the time that man is created, the Word has left the earth and returned to its source in Nous, leaving behind a world of mere matter. It is explained in the creation account that the material which the craftsman uses to create the cosmos is a kind of ‘grim darkness’ that originates in the chaos which precedes creation. When the logos leaves it, it returns to its original state. To readers of contemporary cosmology, ‘grim darkness’ sounds rather like the ‘dark matter’ of which we are told most of the universe is made. It is still a beautiful world, and through the turning of the seven spheres, living things have emerged from the earth’s waters. Man, curious about what the creator has been up to, desires to see the earth. He pierces the seven spheres and looks down upon the beautiful world, marvelling at the craftman’s handiwork. The earth, however – we can also say Nature – sees man too, and recognizing the Nous within him, desires him – apparently the earth is a woman – wanting to partake again of the divine Word. Man, too, sees his reflection – and hence that of Nous – on earth’s waters, and becomes enchanted with it, much as the youth Narcissus does in the Greek myth. No sooner does man wish to be with the earth then he drops from his heavenly perch through the seven spheres and enters into a form without the Word, that is, a body; in other words, matter. (Up until then he has been in a solely spiritual immaterial form.) It is through this descent from beyond the seven spheres to the earth that man becomes a creature of two worlds. Passing through the seven spheres, he absorbs their character and becomes subject to their laws. Wrapped in the arms of the earth, he is subject to all its limitations, to the constraints of mindless, spiritless matter, and the necessities inflicted on him by the dictates of ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’. But within him still glows a spark of his origin, his birthright from the world beyond, and it is this connection with his source, with its freedom and power that will save him.

 The Gnostics

In many ways this myth is very similar to the account of man’s place in the cosmos given by the Gnostics, who were contemporaries of the ancient Hermeticists. The Gnostics were early Christians who embraced an interpretation of Christ’s teaching very different from what became the official church. As in the Hermetic myth, for the Gnostics, creation is the work of a second Nous or God, but in their case it is an entirely disastrous affair. This second God, whom they call the demiurge, or ‘half god’, is something of an idiot; at least he is so inflated with his sense of power and importance that he comes to consider himself the true God. For the Gnostics, this demiurge is Jehovah, the God of the Bible – William Blake called him ‘Old Nobodaddy’ – and the world he has created is a kind of trap, an evil realm of falsity and oppression. Yet like the Hermeticists, the Gnostics, too, believed that a spark of the true God – the God beyond the world – was hidden within them. The aim of their spiritual practices and beliefs was to awaken this spark and release it, so that they could return to their source, beyond creation.

This notion of the world being a trap, and its creator a kind of demon, has had a powerful influence on western consciousness. Although for many centuries, the only source of information about the Gnostics were hostile accounts written about them by church fathers, who saw them as heretics – indeed the church was particularly successful in wiping them out – in the last century or so, the work of many different scholars has provided a different, broader view of these early Christians and their ideas. Gnostic themes and what we can call a Gnostic sensibility have become a part of the modern mind. They can be found in the work of the psychologist C. G. Jung. The idea of life as a kind of ‘prison’ which we must ‘escape’ is at the heart of the ‘Fourth Way’ of the enigmatic esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. Gnostic ideas can be found in the work of novelists like Hermann Hesse and Thomas Pynchon, in the philosopher Martin Heidegger, for whom man is ‘thrown’ into the world, and in less high-brow sources, such as the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the films in The Matrix (1999-2003) series, and Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show (1998), about a man who discovers that his entire life has actually been a television program. Another film, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998), though less well known, is the most Hermetic of the lot, with its hero discovering that, not only is the world he lives in false, he himself is a kind of god.

It is a welcome sign that Gnostic ideas have made their way into the cultural mainstream. They lead us to question the status quo and seek the truth. But there is another side to this development. This idea of the world as false, as a kind of prison, has, I believe, led to, or at least certainly added to, our sense of uncertainty and insecurity, to our anxiety and paranoia. The kind of ‘conspiracy consciousness’ that permeates much of our postmodern life is a kind of Gnosticism; at least it shares in the sense that, in the words of a Bob Dylan song, something is happening but we don’t know what it is. Powers greater than ourselves – the government, big business, aliens, the unconscious, or the ‘cultural forces’ invoked by much postmodern thought – control our lives, and this feeling of being manipulated adds to the general sense of helplessness which is a strong current in contemporary life. This sense of helplessness can lead to some undesirable effects, such as random violence against the ‘system’ or a general ‘retreat from life’. It can lead to cynicism and a kind of generic nihilism that accepts that ‘nothing is true’, with the corollary that, ‘everything’, then, ‘is permitted’. It also encourages the kind of ironic world-weariness associated with some forms of postmodernism, the ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ sensibility that informs much of our jaded tastes. As Colin Wilson pointed out decades ago, modern man suffers from what he calls ‘the fallacy of insignificance’, the sense that nothing we do really matters, that life is meaningless, and that, in the long run, ‘you can’t win’. This is an extremely unhealthy state of mind, and if this book has a central aim, it is to show that it is wrong.

The Leap

It is true that the Hermetic philosophy shares some elements with the Gnostics.  We know that both groups knew of each other, as the famous ‘Gnostic gospels’ found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, included some Hermetic texts.  But there is one central sense in which they are radically different. The Hermeticists believed, as did the Gnostics, that they had ‘fallen’ from a free, limitless spiritual world into this severely limited world of necessity and constraint. But unlike the Gnostics, they did not believe that this world was a trap or that they were prisoners in it. As we have seen, for the Hermeticists, man’s descent from the higher spiritual world into this world of space and time, of constraints and limitations, was not the work of an evil or idiotic demiurge, but came about through man’s love of the earth, and the earth’s love of man. There is even a sense in which this descent wasn’t a ‘fall’, as it is considered in the Gnostic and Judeo-Christian traditions. Rather it was a jump, or, to take a leaf from the Danish religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a leap, of faith perhaps. Although some of the thinkers and philosophers I will look at in this book do consider that man’s ‘fall’ was the result of some cosmic catastrophe or crime, there is a sense, I think, in which we can see it as a freely chosen act, a willing embrace of a tremendous responsibility and obligation.

The Hermetic philosophy sees it as such. When Asclepius asks Hermes Trismegistus why man has a dual nature – one of matter and one of spirit – Hermes explains that it is so he can ‘raise his sight to heaven while he takes care of the earth,’ and so he can ‘love those things that are below him’ while he is ‘beloved by the things above.’ Asclepius himself, when asked about man’s need for a body, explains that it is necessary so that we can take care of creation. Asclepius tells his listeners that Nous gave man a ‘corporeal dwelling place’ and ‘mixed and blended our two natures into one’, doing justice to our twofold origin, so that we can ‘wonder at and adore the celestial, while caring for and managing the things on earth.’ For the Hermeticists, man finds himself on earth not as the result of some cosmic catastrophe or a ‘fall from grace’ or because he is trapped on it through the machinations of an evil idiot god, but because he has a particular mission to accomplish here. He – we – are here for a reason. As the Gnostics did, Hermetic man struggled against the constraints of the world, the snares of matter and the body, the limitations of the flesh, the prison house of the cosmos, the ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’ of the seven spheres. But this was not in order to escape from creation, but in order to take our rightful place within it: to embrace the obligations and responsibilities that come with being ‘caretakers’ of the cosmos.

In the Cosmos but Not of It

But if we cannot take care of the earth or the cosmos if we escape from it, neither can we take care of it if we are only a part of it, like everything else, subject to its laws, limitations, and constraints. Caretaking seems to imply some position outside or above what you are taking care of, whether it is children, a pet, or someone’s flat. If I am taking care of my children, I cannot act like a child myself. Or I can only briefly, in play, and only on the condition that, when necessary, I assume full responsibility as an adult. There is a Sufi saying, which is also in the Bible, that tells us that we should be ‘in the world, but not of it.’ This tells us that although we cannot avoid pain, suffering, triviality, falsehood, inequity and the other evils in the world we do not have to submit to them, as difficult as that may be. In a sense we can say that in order to take care of it, we need to be in the cosmos – which we clearly are, at least physically – but not of it. The Hermetic account of man and the world seems to agree. Man is made of the stuff of the world, the ‘grim darkness’ that preceded creation. But he is also made of ‘higher’ stuff, the mind. So, at least according to Hermes Trismegistus, while we are in the world, we are not completely of it.

This idea, that we are in the cosmos but not necessarily of it, may seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the Hermetic tradition. Nevertheless it was, in different ways, shared by some important thinkers who were, more or less, within the western intellectual mainstream. In the early part of the last century, philosophers as different as the phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928), the cultural philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), and the Christian existentialist Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), all came to a similar conclusion, although by very different paths. Each contributed to a movement in twentieth century philosophy known as ‘philosophical anthropology’, an attempt at arriving at a metaphysical account of man, broader and more holistic than the reigning reductive, materialist ones. In different ways Scheler, Cassirer, and Berdyaev, arrived at the same conclusion: that it is impossible to ‘explain’ man adequately in terms of his place in society, his animal origins, his physical constitution, or the deterministic laws it is subject to. Each argued that man’s essence is creative, that human consciousness brings a new dimension, a new world, into being, and that any attempt to reduce this to the ‘laws’ that govern the physical world is not only doomed to failure, it results in a world empty of all meaning and value.

Cosmic Amnesia

For the Gnostics, then, we are spiritual beings, trapped in an evil physical cosmos, and our only salvation lies in escape. For the Hermeticists, we can say that we are spiritual beings with a mission, but we have forgotten it and our salvation lies in remembering it. And, if the idea that we are caretakers of the earth and cosmos is correct, then it is not only our own salvation, but that of creation itself, which is at stake. Wrapped in the arms of Nature, we have fallen asleep and we dream that the limited, constrained world of time and space and matter, the everyday world we know so well, is the only reality. As long as we remain sunk in this dream world, this is true: it is the only reality. And as we are, by most official accounts – which emerge within the dream – only insignificant transitory specks in a vast, non-human universe, which has existed, we are told, for billions of years, the idea that we are in some way responsible for it, is laughable. Yet there are moments when we wake, briefly, from the dream, when some vague memory of another life, and another world, flits across our consciousness, when we somehow remember who we are and why we are here, and when the sense of some enormous mystery comes over us and disturbs our slumber. For most of us, these moments are little more than a brief, strange feeling, which, if we notice it at all, we chalk up to being ‘weird’ and soon forget about. Some of us, however, are troubled by them, and by the feeling of unreality they cast upon the solid, unavoidable world we bump up against each day, and by the nagging sense of having forgotten something that they seem to produce.

As a teenager in New Jersey in the 1970s I read a novel by Doris Lessing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), which had a powerful effect on me. In it a man is found wandering around the Thames Embankment, suffering from amnesia, and raving about fantastic adventures in other worlds. He is taken to a mental ward where the doctors, trying to ‘cure’ him, subject him to a battery of drugs and electro-shock therapy. Throughout the book there is the sense that, although from our common sense everyday point of view – the view of the doctors – he is quite clearly mad, from another perspective it is unclear if his remarks are simply ravings or real memories of some other existence. There is some mission he is trying to remember, some important purpose that he has forgotten, and which the doctors, with their drugs and electro-shock, only make more difficult to recall. As an angst ridden teenager it was easy to identify with the hero and to see the doctors as agents of the ‘establishment’, trying to force him to accept the reality of a world he has seen through. It was only years later that I discovered that the book is considered a work of Gnostic fiction. I can also remember a science fiction story in a comic book when I was younger, about a man investigating possible aliens, living in disguise on Earth. All his leads turn out to be false except for one, and when he tracks this one down he discovers that the alien is himself. I didn’t know at the time that I was reading a version of the Hermetic account of man, but as I later discovered – and wrote a book about – popular culture is often a source for disseminating ideas that mainstream ‘high’ culture considers nonsense.

Repairing the Universe

It was while writing about this human role as a cosmic caretaker that I recalled similar themes from other spiritual traditions. Some emphasize different aspects of the caretaker role, and some push that role into more active, creative areas. In these man is seen as not only a caretaker, in the passive sense of having something already complete, finished, entrusted to his care, as a custodian or curator of a museum is. He is regarded as a co-creator of the cosmos itself, an idea I explored in other books, specifically in the context of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. And in some versions he is even seen as someone responsible for correcting the mistakes God – or whoever – made when creating the universe.

In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, for example, there is the idea of tikkun, which is generally translated as ‘repair’. In the Judaic tradition, as in the Christian, God is usually seen as perfect, omnipotent, and infallible, but in the tradition of Lurianic Kabbalah, stemming from the teachings of the great sixteenth century Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), this isn’t the case. According to Luria, when God created the world, something went wrong, and He created man in order to correct his mistakes, to repair the damage caused by his blunder. This surely gives man an exalted position, but some Kabbalistic interpretations go even further, and suggest that God made his cosmic mistakes on purpose, but unconsciously, so that he would have to create man in order to complete the work of creation. In this sense, God suffered from a kind of Freudian slip, rather like when we leave our umbrella at a house we would like to visit again, but aren’t consciously aware that we do. In this interpretation, God has a ‘dark side’, unknown to himself, and the fractures and cracks that run through creation were planned by his unconscious, so that He would have to call in man to do the repairs. The inference is that the work of creation cannot be completed without our contribution, and some thinkers consider this to be so essential that, in the words of the Cretan writer and poet Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), through it we become the ‘saviours of God’.

This idea of man as a ‘repairer’ is also at the heart of the work of the French eighteenth century mystical philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), who during his life was known as the ‘Unknown Philosopher’, a pseudonym he used for his writings. For Saint-Martin, ‘The function of man differs from that of other physical beings, for it is the reparation of the disorders in the universe’. Saint-Martin’s vision is within the context of Christian mysticism, but he shares with the tradition of tikkun and Hermeticism the idea that man has a crucial role to play in the work of creation. Indeed, for Saint-Martin, man is, in a very real sense, the entire purpose of the universe, the answer to its mystery, the key to its existence. In some ways Saint-Martin, and other mystical thinkers with similar views, like the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), seem to anticipate some contemporary scientific ideas, which argue that the universe itself is designed in order to produce intelligent life like ourselves, what is known as the ‘anthropic cosmological principle’.

The Fallacy of Insignificance

Yet, even during his time, more than two centuries ago, Saint-Martin recognized that man suffered from a sense of insignificance. In fact, I first came across Saint-Martin’s ideas in the book by Colin Wilson in which he analyzes ‘the fallacy of insignificance,’ The Stature of Man (1959), a study of the ‘loss of the hero’ in modern literature. At the beginning of the book, Wilson quotes Saint-Martin. Men, Saint-Martin writes,

…have believed themselves to be obeying the dictates of humility when they have denied that the earth and all that the universe contains exists only on man’s account, on the ground that the admission of such an idea would be only conceit. But they have not been afraid of the laziness and cowardice which are the inevitable results of this affected modesty. The present-day avoidance of the belief that we are the highest in the universe is the reason that we have not the courage to work in order to justify that title, that the duties springing from it seem too laborious, and that we would rather abdicate our position and our rights than realize them in all their consequences.

‘Where,’ Saint-Martin asks, ‘is the pilot that will guide us between these hidden reefs of conceit and false humility?’ Where indeed? Trying to chart a course between this Scylla and Charybdis is one aim of this book. But if it was true in Saint-Martin’s time that man has avoided the belief that he is ‘the highest in the universe’, it is certainly even more true today. Today any suggestion that we are in any way ‘special’, that we are significant or somehow central to the universe – let alone that it exists on our account – would be met with sarcastic laughter or self-righteous indignation, depending on who you were talking to. Yet it isn’t only obscure mystical philosophers who believe we sell ourselves short. One reader of Wilson’s The Stature of Man was the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), best known for his concept of the ‘peak experience’, sudden moments of almost mystical delight that, Maslow argues, come to most psychologically healthy people. Another of Maslow’s ideas that chimed well with Wilson’s concern over the loss of the hero in modern consciousness, was what he called the ‘Jonah complex’, after the Biblical prophet who tried to avoid the responsibility God placed on him. Maslow asked his students if they expected to do something important, to excel at their work, to make a significant contribution to psychology or society. All were diffident and none raised their hand. Maslow looked at them and said, “Well, if not you, then who?” Maslow saw that we invariably feel that someone else will be successful, creative, outstanding, accomplished, but that to expect that of ourselves is a kind of egotism, or a foolish overestimation of our abilities, certainly in bad taste.

Yet this modesty is of the same false character that Saint-Martin recognized in his contemporaries, and is really a defence against living up to the demands made on us by our higher, better selves. Maslow recognized that although the fear of failure is common and understandable, we also suffer from a ‘fear of success’, a fear of living up to our full potential, of the responsibilities and obligations this entails, as well as of the ostracizing our less exceptional fellows will direct at us. Like Jonah, we want to avoid any responsibility that will set us apart from the average. We reject it, and want to remain an anonymous member of the herd. Yet such sheepishness is just as much a neurosis as any other, and by embracing it we are, according to Maslow, displaying a kind of psychological illness, and blocking our way to ‘self-actualization’, Maslow’s term for the process of becoming what he calls ‘fully human’.

Fully Human or Only Human?

But as Saint-Martin recognized two centuries earlier, being ‘fully human’ is something most of us avoid. In our climate of insignificance, we are more comfortable with the ‘only human’, with associating our humanity with weakness, sickness, mediocrity, and the collection of appetites Maslow calls ‘deficiency needs’, our hunger for the three S’s: security, sex, and self-esteem. Being ‘fully human’ makes demands on us, it is a kind of existential noblesse oblige, which requires that we apply high standards and aims and values to ourselves and our actions. If we are ‘only human’, as many of us prefer, then not much can be expected of us. We are let off the hook, can let it ‘all hang out’, and can get by, as the cliché goes, as a ‘good enough’ human. But good enough for what?  If Maslow and Saint-Martin are right, then certainly not good enough to take on the responsibilities that being fully human demand.

Trying to meet the demands of being ‘fully human’, we encounter difficulties, not only from our own reluctance and fear, but also from the ideological atmosphere in which we live, from the Zeitgeist. For one thing, science tells us that the universe is too large and too old for us to be of any significance in it. The philosophy that emerges from this belief has some interesting adherents, among whom is the horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and the contemporary social philosopher John Gray. Science also tells us that the universe is meaningless, a pointless product of an accidental explosion, and that eventually any life within it will be extinguished and it itself will dissipate into an endless cosmic emptiness. If that isn’t bad enough, science also tells us that we ourselves are the product of an equally meaningless process, and that far from being the answer to the riddle of the universe, there was absolutely no intention in our being here at all.

Slime Moulds and Giraffes

Scientists are not the only ones who reject the idea that humanity is in some way special. In recent years, concerns over our ecological crises, our rampant abuse of natural resources, global warming, and other environmental problems have led some well-meaning people to suggest that rather than a cosmic caretaker, man is really a blight on the planet. To them the Biblical injunction that man has dominion over the earth, has given us carte blanche for the selfish exploitation of nature. Paradoxically, the science that tells us that we are merely meaningless accidents in an accidental universe, has also produced the technology that has allowed us to fulfil that Biblical injunction, and made us masters of the world. Ironically, in our secular age, man is at once reduced to a nullity and made lord of creation. Yet it is this mastery that many nature-orientated people argue is in the process of killing Mother Earth, and has made us the most dangerous animal alive. Quite rightly, they say we must concentrate on saving the planet, and the best way to do this – the only way some insist – is for man to ‘get back to nature’, to recognize that he is no better or more important than a slime mould or a giraffe, and that any idea that he is, is precisely the source of our problems.

While I have nothing against slime moulds and giraffes, this ‘biocentric’ view has its own problems. And if Hermes Trismegistus, Kabbalah, Saint-Martin, and others are right, it is in fact dangerous. According to them, the only way we can save the planet – the cosmos, in fact – is by recognizing that we are something more than nature, something more than animals, and by taking the responsibilities that come with this seriously. (If nothing else, the recognition that no animal wants to save the planet should give us pause for thought.) By abandoning our humanness and embracing our animal roots – which, no matter how hard we try, we can never feel completely comfortable with – we are giving up our one possibility of saving anything. What that ‘something more’ is that sets us apart from the rest of creation, and what its relation to the cosmos may be, is something I hope to discover in this book. And strangely, one of the curious things I discovered while gathering my material, is that in many essentials, science itself shares the Hermetic vision of man as the answer to the riddle of existence, as a co-creator of the cosmos, although this more optimistic vision is usually obscured by the more pessimistic view of ourselves as insignificant creatures in a pointless, purposeless universe.

Whistling in the Dark?

As mentioned, the idea of us having any significance in the universe is bold, perhaps too bold for many of us to swallow. I have to admit that more than once while writing this book I found myself thinking ‘Oh come on, isn’t this a bit too much?’ and wanting to push the whole idea aside. For some readers the idea may seem merely one more expression of our inveterate self-importance, a trumpeting of our dubious standing as the most dominant species on the planet, and a clatter of applause at our triumphs over the rest of creation, if it is not merely a cosmic whistling in the dark. Let me assure readers that nothing could be further from my intention, and that I share with them their disdain for such boorish self-congratulation. Although I do think we suffer from a kind of cosmic low self-esteem, and have a poor self-image, my aim here is not to rack up reasons to feel pleased with ourselves, or to encourage a session of mutual back patting. I certainly am not interested in hoisting banners celebrating our eminence, although I do agree with Maslow, Wilson, and other writers and thinkers I will look at, that we have come to see ourselves in a false light, one which encourages countless mea culpas ( in our idiom, ‘my bad’) and discourages any feeling of self-confidence and assurance. My aim is to try to steer a course between the conceit which is often an excuse for complacency, and the false modesty that Saint-Martin argues is really an avoidance of our obligations. And having found a way through these hidden reefs, on which more than one seafarer has found himself wrecked, I would like to discover what lies ahead.

 Outline of Book

In what follows I will try to understand what is involved in the idea of ourselves as caretakers of the cosmos, what it can mean in our lives and what, if anything, we can do about it. My starting point is the Hermetic vision of ourselves as belonging to two different worlds, of man as a microcosm, or ‘little universe’.  These are longstanding ideas in our esoteric ‘counter tradition’, yet according to recent developments in neuroscience, they may actually be rooted in the very structure of our brains. It may be that the ‘other world’ we have ‘fallen’ from, have brief haunting memories of, and a yearning nostalgia for, is another mode of consciousness that is our birthright, but which, through our evolutionary development, we have come to ignore at, it may be, our peril. From this vantage point I will look at how our caretaking can apply to our personal lives, to our relation to society, and to nature. Given the uncertain times we live in, it is understandable that this aspect of repairing the cosmos may strike most of us as of central importance. Indeed it is. Speculations on our place and significance in the cosmos and other modes of consciousness can be thrilling and highly entertaining, but if they don’t lead to actual changes in how we live, they are merely pleasant daydreams and can even make us less capable of dealing with reality than we already are. To paraphrase Hermes Trismegistus, we can have the stars in our eyes, but we must have our feet on the ground. Swedenborg, one of the most grounded of spiritual thinkers, entreats us in our daily lives to ‘do the good that we know’, and it is from that humble beginning that our cosmic caretaking should begin. Applying Maslow’s ideas about our ‘hierarchy of needs’ to society, I will look at what evidence there is to suggest that we may be moving beyond the need for self-esteem into more creative levels, those of the ‘fully human’, and how this relates to Max Scheler’s ‘hierarchy of values’. And through the ideas of Gustav Fechner, Goethe, and others, I will explore how we can better understanding our relation to a living nature, without losing our independence as creative agents within it.

But while what we might call our ‘hands on’ form of caretaking is crucial, and while we all need to recognize the preciousness of the world which has been entrusted to our care, there is another form of our responsibility of which we also need to be mindful. And being ‘mind full’ of it is indeed its core.

As I do in my book A Secret History of Consciousness (2003), in the later chapters of this book I will explore the ways in which our own minds are involved in actually creating the world we experience and subsequently care for. From a variety of different perspectives – quantum physics, neuroscience, phenomenology, the philosophy of language – it is becoming more and more clear that the universe we live in is a ‘participatory’ one, in which mind and matter, the inner world and the outer one, are not, as our common-sense view suggests, radically different and opposed realities, closed off from each other, but are different aspects of a single shared reality. It seems increasingly clear that the barriers between these two worlds are not as impermeable as we have believed. Our inner worlds, it seems, are not isolated islands of consciousness, floating on the surface of a dead, material world that is oblivious of them, and on which they have no effect. In some strange, still inexplicable way, our inner worlds participate in the world outside us, something less modern, more ‘primitive’ people still experience, but which to us seems fantastic nonsense. Synchronicities, those strange ‘meaningful coincidences’, in which some thought or feeling in our inner world is paralleled by an event in the outer one, and other paranormal experiences, are one way in which this participation manifests, but there are others. One idea that runs throughout this book, as it does in my others, is that at an earlier stage in our evolution, human consciousness was much more ‘embedded’ in nature, as animals are today, and that we did not experience then, as we do now, separate ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ worlds, but a free flowing movement between the two. Indeed, the separation from nature that we experience now can be seen as a result of our ‘fall’, not from a heavenly paradise, but from our evolutionary past. But if this ‘fall’ was really a leap, it is my belief that nature itself pushed us out of her warm embrace, as bird pushes her chicks out of the nest, in order to get them to fly. At some point in our evolutionary past, consciousness became aware of itself and the world as two different things, and we can say that at that point, humanity and the cosmos itself, ‘began’. As Marie-Louise Von Franz, one of Jung’s most important disciples and an original thinker in her own right, suggests, most creation myths are really about the rise of consciousness out of an unconscious, undifferentiated ground. If that is the case, then ‘getting back to nature’ is the most unnatural thing we can do, as it would be moving in the opposite direction from nature’s own intentions.

I believe that nature, the world, the cosmos, separated us off from itself in order for it to become conscious of itself through us. It is in this way, through our own increasing consciousness, that the work of creation is completed, or at least carried on. Drawing on the work of different ‘participatory’ thinkers, it is my belief that our evolutionary task now is to regain an experience of ‘participation’ and all that it entails, without losing our independence as conscious egos, capable of free will and creative action, something our ancestors, more at one with the cosmos, lacked. Our task, then, is to become more conscious, not less, which means facing the sense of separation from the world firmly, and getting through it.

Isolated, alienated, feeling adrift in the cosmos, it is understandable that we would want to return to the nest, to press my mother bird metaphor a bit further. But as pleasant and blissful as this might be – and consciousness has devised many delightful ways in which to free itself of the burden of itself – it would really be a shirking of our business as caretakers. We cannot return to an earlier stage of our evolution, just as we cannot become children again, try as we may. Nor can we stay as we are. In a living universe, which I believe ours is, stagnation is just another word for death. We must press forward into what the poet Walt Whitman called ‘the unknown region’. It is here that our caretaking adopts a more adventurous character, and in the last section of the book I will explore what this might entail. Here we are no longer taking care of a cosmos already made, nor repairing the cracks and fissures left by an inadequate craftsman, but are bringing new worlds into being. In the last chapter I will look at what this might mean, and how the ephemeral flicker of consciousness – at least as seen from the point of view of materialist science – housed in the insignificant creatures of a transitory planet, may actually be the key to saving the cosmos itself from oblivion. A fate that, at least according to the latest scientific accounts, is inevitable.

Save the planet? Yes, assuredly. But why stop there? Why not save the universe while we’re at it?