If Consciousness Is Evolving, Why Aren’t Things Getting Better?

Printed in the Spring 2017issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: LachmanGary, "If Consciousness Is Evolving, Why Aren’t Things Getting Better?" Quest 105.2 (Spring 2017): pg. 13-17

By Gary Lachman

Theosophical Society - Gary Lachman is the author of several books on the history of the Western esoteric tradition, including Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, and the forthcoming Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump.When people ask me what I write about, I have a few standard replies, but one answer that covers most of my work is “the evolution of consciousness.” Of course in most cases this only leads to more questions, the most common of which are “How can you say that consciousness is evolving?” or “Really? What evidence do you have for its evolution?” Or, as the title of this article has it, “If consciousness is evolving, why aren’t things getting better?”

That things aren’t getting better is taken as obvious, and if serious consideration of the idea of an evolution of consciousness depended on arguing that, to the contrary, they were, then I’d have to agree that any such speculation would be doomed from the start. By things of course we mean the state of the world, civilization, society. In multiple ways the world faces challenges today that, as the cliché goes, are unprecedented. Every day the news media reports a variety of crises. It seems that we are, and have been for some time, experiencing what the historian Arnold Toynbee called a civilization’s “time of troubles.” So it is not surprising that some people are surprised when I speak of an evolution of consciousness.

Fortunately, the evolution of consciousness does not depend on the state of things being better or worse. It does not depend on the state of things at all—quite the contrary. Consciousness, its evolution, and the world in which it finds itself, are of course linked. They are not separate, watertight realities. But I don’t believe we will find evidence for an evolution of consciousness on the news, or in the latest headlines or tweets, or on Facebook or other social media.

I believe that even if all the evidence available announced the imminent collapse of Western civilization, this would not necessarily mean that consciousness doesn’t evolve, merely that we had not grasped the meaning of its evolution. Consciousness can evolve and things can get worse—or better. The one is not a gauge of the other. Changes in consciousness may bring about changes in society that we consider beneficial. Or they can precipitate upheavals that throw everything into chaos. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead remarked that “the major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur” (Whitehead, 88). As Whitehead suggests, what is wreckage for some may be the raw material for new creation for others.

Here I want to distinguish between the evolution of consciousness and what we can call “progress” or “social change” or “world betterment.” This is aimed at making the world a better place, which most intelligent people in some way desire, even if they are often unsure about how to do it. The other is a recognizable change in the shape and character of consciousness itself. As I’ve tried to show in some of my books, this kind of change in consciousness can, I believe, be traced throughout our history. We can say that the latter is about the form or kind of consciousness prevalent at a particular time and the change from this to another dominant kind of consciousness. The other, we can say, is about what the people experiencing this consciousness did with it. The first is the way in which consciousness experiences the world. The second is made up of the ideas, thoughts, concepts, and beliefs held by this consciousness.

The idea of making the world a better place is of relatively recent origin—say from the 1700s on. This makes it a very modern idea, one predicated on the recognition of human agency as a real force at work in the world. Although we now assume this and really question it only when faced with some insurmountable obstacle, it was not always the case. With few exceptions, for centuries men and women simply accepted things-as-they-were with an unquestioning endurance, just as they accepted the weather or as an animal acquiesces in its fate. The idea that human beings were able to take action and change their circumstances rather than merely suffering them is itself, I believe, a product of a change in consciousness that took place around the seventeenth century. This shift endowed humanity with greater freedom and control over its destiny, but, precisely because of this, also confronted it with perhaps its most daunting challenge.

There are many different approaches to the idea of an evolution of consciousness. Even if we start a history of this idea with the beginning of the twentieth century—as I do in my book A Secret History of Consciousness—the number of different versions we get is considerable. I start my history at around 1900 because by this time the idea of evolution itself had taken hold of the Western imagination. (I should point out that the kind of evolution I am speaking about isn’t Darwinian, although Darwin’s version was the best-known.) It was also around this time that people began to use the term consciousness to talk about our inner, subjective worlds. What we call consciousness today would have been called “mind” or “spirit” at an earlier time. And while “mind” and “spirit” are resistant to the kind of scientific study that characterizes our time—and which has often led some scientists to consider them unreal—consciousness, as something more abstract, seems more amenable to it. At least scientists find it less awkward to say they are studying consciousness than to say they are studying spirit.

A quick run-through of some exponents of an idea of an evolution of consciousness gives us quite a few names. Here we find, in no particular order, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy; R.M. Bucke, author of Cosmic Consciousness; the Christian palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo; the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy; the philosopher Henri Bergson; the playwright Bernard Shaw; the biologist Julian Huxley; the Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz; the spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber; the existential philosopher Colin Wilson; Samuel Butler, of Erewhon fame; and the esoteric philosopher P.D. Ouspensky, among many others.

Some of the versions presented by these people are similar to each other, some are complementary, and some are radically different. These figures include scientists, philosophers, esoteric teachers, and writers; some have a religious background, some do not. Thus the idea of an evolution of consciousness is not the property of one or two thinkers, and neither science nor philosophy nor mysticism has any monopoly on it. It appeals to a variety of minds—all of whom, though, appreciate its dynamic character, the emphasis on growth, development, becoming rather than being. Two proponents of an evolution of consciousness whose ideas I have found especially fruitful are the philosopher of language Owen Barfield (1898–1997) and the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (1905–73).

Barfield spelled out his ideas in a series of books, History in English Words, Poetic Diction, and Saving the Appearances being probably the best-known. He came to the idea of an evolution of consciousness—which he defines as “the concept of man’s self-consciousness as a process in time”— through a study of language, specifically poetry, which, strangely enough, is the same way that Gebser came to it (Barfield, Romanticism, 189). While reading his favorite poets, the Romantics, Barfield noticed something. He saw that the delight he found in reading their lyric poetry was the effect of a change in his consciousness that it produced. It somehow made his consciousness more “alive.” This was the effect of the poets’ using figurative language, that is, metaphor, especially the metaphors they used to speak of their souls, their inner worlds, their feelings and emotions. So, for example, in “Ode to the West Wind,” a favorite of Barfield’s, Percy Bysshe Shelley asks the wind to “make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” Shelley wants the wind to blow through his soul as it does through the trees, and the inspiration it will bring is like the rustling of the leaves.

As Barfield said, there was something more to these metaphors than “merely reading and enjoying” them: “One could somehow dwell on them.” They altered the way in which he saw the world; it became “a profounder and a more meaningful place when seen through eyes that had been reading poetry.” Poetry, he found, “had the power to change one’s consciousness a little” (Barfield, Origin of Language, 3).

Barfield later came to see that a similar change in consciousness occurred when he looked at language from earlier times. This language was not intended to have a poetic effect. It just seemed to have it. Like poetry, this earlier language was much more figurative, much more metaphorical than our modern language. Barfield saw that the further we go back in history, the more figurative language seems, the more metaphorical and poetic. This was the argument of his first book, History in English Words. As we move closer to the present, language becomes less metaphorical and more literal.

For example, according to several dictionaries, our word electricity means “a form of energy,” which is rather abstract. But electricity derives from the Greek ēlektron, which to the ancient Greeks meant “amber.” This is because, when rubbed with fur, amber produces what we call static electricity. To the ancient Greeks this phenomenon had a lively, less abstract character, because their ēlektron was related to ēlektor, which meant “gleaming” or “the beaming sun.” So for our bare term denoting a form of energy, the Greeks, it seemed, used a more pictorial language (Barfield, History in English Words, 17).

We seem to have moved from what the literary philosopher Erich Heller called “the age of poetry” to “the age of prose.” Many metaphors that at an earlier time seemed fresh and vital either have become clichés or have become so worn down by use—a metaphor itself—that we no longer notice them and accept them without thinking as figures of speech.

Barfield concluded that while poetry may transform consciousness because it purposefully strives to do this—each individual poet using his imagination to create the effect—early language about the most ordinary things did the same thing, not because it went out of its way to do it, but because this consciousness was in the character of the language itself. Rather than accept that people of, say, the Middle Ages or ancient Greece were all remarkably poetic, he concluded that their language had this living quality because the world it spoke of was that way for them. It was an age of poetry not because everyone was a poet, but because, as Heller writes, it was an age in which “poetry was not merely written but, as it were, lived . . . The poetic comprehension of life,” Heller goes on, “was at that time not a matter of the poetic imagination at work in the minds of a few chosen individuals, of artists . . . but was ‘natural,’ a matter of fact, of ways of thinking and feeling shared by the whole community” (Heller, 3).

Barfield saw that the change from an age of poetry to one of prose meant a change in the way people saw the world, and this meant a change in their consciousness. Earlier language is much more alive than ours because the people speaking it saw a world that was much more alive than ours, which meant for Barfield that their consciousness presented the world that way. Barfield’s term for this living character of perceiving is participation. For him, the language of an earlier time is livelier than ours because the people of that time somehow participated in the life of the world around them in a way that we now only experience occasionally. They were somehow aware of the inside of things, of the inner life of nature, in a way that our more prosaic consciousness, which concerns itself simply with the surface of things, isn’t. Our consciousness is different from that of the people who spoke this earlier language. It has changed, shifted, moved, or evolved from that state to our own.

We can, though, get flashes of this “inside.” It can happen, as it did with Barfield, through poetry—the other arts can also do it—or it can happen through certain mind-altering substances. Even something as simple as wine can do it, hence the longstanding association of poetry with the fruit of the vine.

Jean Gebser came to a similar conclusion through reading the work of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the early 1930s (Barfield himself began writing in the late 1920s). For Gebser, Rilke’s use of language suggested that in the twentieth century a shift had happened in Western consciousness. If Barfield and Heller recognized a shift from an age of poetry to one of prose—a shift from an age of living, metaphorical language to a more literal, matter-of-fact one—Gebser saw that this prosaic way of seeing the world was itself starting to change and that the stable, common-sense vision that it presented was beginning to break down.

In Rilke’s use of language, and in many other forms of human expression at the time, Gebser saw a movement away from the sequential, logical form of consciousness—a characteristic of plodding, prosaic thinking—and toward a kind of simultaneity. Rather than one-thing-following-another in a nice, orderly, steplike fashion, Gebser saw that in Rilke and in other writers and artists—Proust, James Joyce, Picasso—and scientists—Einstein, Max Planck—what was emerging was a kind of vision of “everythingallatonce,” a world in which past, present, and future were not as stable as they had been. Gebser spoke of this as an “irruption of time,” which he saw as the overall consequence of a new “structure of consciousness” that, he argued, was appearing in the West. Our own digital age, which prides itself on simultaneity and instant availability, may give us pause to consider Gebser’s idea.

Gebser’s magnum opus, The Ever-Present Origin—originally published in 1949 but not translated into English until 1984—charts in great detail the cultural evidence for what he calls the different “mutations of consciousness” that the human mind has gone through from prehistoric times until our own.

Like Barfield, Gebser believed that consciousness evolved, although he preferred the term “mutation” to “evolution,” to avoid the nineteenth-century notions of progress associated with evolution. I don’t have space to go through the different structures of consciousness Gebser depicts; an interested reader can find an outline of them in my book A Secret History of Consciousness. Here it is enough to say that Gebser believed that this irruption of time was both the result and the agent of what he called the “breakdown of the mental-rational structure.”

Gebser’s “mental-rational” structure of consciousness is much like the kind of consciousness that Barfield and Heller recognized in the age of prose. Barfield and Heller knew that these shifts take place over long stretches of time, and that the passing of the age of poetry into that of prose began in the distant past, perhaps during what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the period around 500 BC that saw the start of Western philosophy and its peculiar focus on logical reasoning and rational explanation. Both Barfield and Gebser agreed that this trend reached an apogee in the early seventeenth century with the rise of what we have come to call science. Science, we can say, is the epitome of the age of prose. In order to succeed, it had to denude the world of its mythological, mythopoetic character. Science works because it treats the world as a dead object, not a living being, as our earlier, more metaphorical consciousness had. It sees the world as a machine, subject to rigid mechanical laws, not something in which we participate.

Earlier I remarked that the change in consciousness in the seventeenth century gave humanity greater freedom and control of its destiny, but also confronted it with perhaps its greatest challenge. The rise of science marks this change precisely. Certainly the world has changed more in the four centuries following this revolution than in the millennia that preceded it. To enumerate all the benefits that have come from the development of science and its offshoot, technology, would be tedious. We see them all around us, from space probes voyaging beyond our solar system to the latest breakthroughs in medicine. We live today in ways that kings of old could not imagine. So the change in Western consciousness at the beginning of the seventeenth century did, it seems, make things better.

Yet this change also led to many of the challenges facing us in our “time of troubles.” The loss of our sense of participation in the world allows us to detach from it and observe it impersonally—the essence of science—but it has also left us, as the novelist Walker Percy said, “lost in the cosmos.”

Gebser believes something similar. The mental-rational consciousness structure is the furthest removed from what he calls “Origin,” the ever-present source of consciousness itself. Our radical break with it began in the early fourteenth century; one sign of this, he argues, is the discovery of perspective in art, which marks a change from the flat, tapestrylike perception of the Middle Ages to what became our own “space age,” a vision of infinity extending in all directions. This shift enabled man to stand on his own, to confront the world with his own intelligence and will. The computer I am using to write this essay is one result of this shift. But Gebser would agree with Walker Percy that it also led to our existential angst in the face of a mute universe that seems oblivious to us.

Blaise Pascal, one of the great mathematical minds of the seventeenth century, and also a deeply religious one, recognized this early on. In his Pensées, a collection of notes found after his death, Pascal had written about the new model of the universe arising from the nascent science: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” But today Pascal’s terror has dwindled to a numb acquiescence in the notion that the universe is meaningless. The respected astrophysicist Steven Weinberg dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s when he announced in his book The First Three Minutes that “the more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.”

So we have a change in consciousness that resulted in many things getting better, but which has also landed us with the greatest challenge humanity has faced: overcoming the passive nihilism that has become our accepted way of understanding ourselves and the world.

Barfield and Gebser believed that consciousness continues to evolve or mutate and that we today are involved in this process. Both believe that the meaninglessness behind our cultural and social malaise can be overcome, and that there are signs of another change in consciousness—one that will somehow allow us to reconnect with our source while at the same time maintaining the independent, free, creative consciousness that was the reason we lost touch with it in the first place. The loss of what Barfield calls “original participation,” resulting in our modern, alienated consciousness, can be seen as a fall, but Barfield would say it was a necessary one. Human consciousness needed that separation in order to individuate into its own independent “I.” Now the aim is to achieve final participation, a conscious grasp and understanding of participation instead of our earlier, unconscious immersion in it. This can be achieved, Barfield believes, through a certain effort of the imagination, akin to the change in consciousness he felt when reading poetry. In essence it is a way of seeing the world figuratively, as alive, as a kind of metaphor to be grasped rather than an object to be used. Unlike original participation, this is something we must bring our will and attention to; it requires effort on our part. It is an evolution we bring about, not one that happens to us. Barfield himself found the deepest insight into this process in the work of Rudolf Steiner, but we may read Barfield with profit without having to agree.

Gebser believed that the breakdown of the mental-rational structure was necessary for the next structure of consciousness to appear. He called it the integral structure, because it integrated all the previous structures and completed the unfolding of Origin. Gebser’s vocabulary is difficult, and his descriptions of the integral structure of consciousness require much effort to grasp; but as Barfield recognized while reading poetry, the attention directed at this kind of consciousness can itself induce a glimpse of it. Gebser speaks of a fundamental change from our current “perspectival” consciousness to an “aperspectival” one, a shift from a linear, utilitarian, ego-based view to a holistic, contemplative, ego-free one. What Gebser meant by “ego-free” was not that we lose our egos, as some forms of mysticism suggest, but that we are no longer limited to them. Our perspective is broadened to include much wider horizons. We achieve a bird’s-eye view; we see from above, and not just what is smack in front of us. We get the big picture, not just the close-up.

Gebser and Barfield knew that such a change in consciousness is not passive and that the people in whom it stirs must make the effort to bring it about. Neither of the two believed in any millenarian singularity—some event that will trigger the shift and change things overnight. Gebser believed that such notions were illusions. “Let us not deceive ourselves,” he wrote. “The world will not become much better, merely a little different, and perhaps more appreciative of the things that really matter” (quoted in Feuerstein, 166). The work of actualizing consciousness remains, whether things get better or not.

My own belief is that any new consciousness will emerge first in individuals, and for them it may be as much a burden as a blessing. They will have glimpses of what others do not, and will be driven by needs others find absurd. They will be what Colin Wilson calls Outsiders, people who see too deep and too much, where most others are near-sighted. Until they understand who they are, they will be misfits, but if consciousness has a future, it depends on them.

Space will not allow me to say more. I encourage readers to go to Barfield and Gebser themselves or, for an overview of their work, my own books, where you will find their ideas discussed along with those of other thinkers who are confronting the same problems. I can say with some assurance that if you do, you will find more evidence for an evolution of consciousness there than you will on the evening news.


Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. West Stockbridge, Mass.: Lindisfarne, 1985.
———. Owen Barfield and the Origin of Language. Spring Valley, N.Y.: St. George Publications, 1976. Lecture.
———. Romanticism Comes of Age. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.
Feuerstein, Georg. Structures of Consciousness. Lower Lake, Calif.: Integral Publishing, 1987.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1959.

Gary Lachman, a longtime Quest contributor, is the author of twenty books on the links between consciousness, culture, and the Western esoteric tradition, most recently Beyond the Robot: The Life and World of Colin Wilson. He can be reached at www.garylachman.co.uk.