- Carl Jung – Man and His Symbols
- Friedrich Nietzsche – Twilight of Idols and Anti-Christ
- Paul Tillich – Systematic Theology
- The great disembedding happened in the axial revolution between: the every day world and the real world.
- Wisdom is knowing how to make the transformative leap of self-transcendence from the every day world to the real world.
- New psychotechnologies like rational reflection and mathematics give us access to abstract patterns that we are not directly aware of.
Welcome back to “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis”. This is our third time together. Last time we were talking about more what was going on in Shamanism and the Upper Paleolithic Transition. We talked a lot about the flow experience and how it integrates altered states of consciousness. Something like, or at least on a continuum with, mystical experiences and meaning making. Enhanced insight and intuition and how this resulted in an enhanced capacity for metaphorical cognition which greatly expands human cognition, makes it much more creative, much more capable of generating all of those fantastic connections in meaning that drove the Upper Paleolithic transaction’s explosion in culture and technology. And then we moved to consider some other intervening revolutions that also had an impact. We talked briefly about the Neolithic revolution and the beginning of agriculture and the rise of civilizations. We got into the Bronze Age civilization and then that led us into the revolution we’re concentrating on now which is the Axial Revolution – a period around between 800 B.C. and 300 B.C. following the Bronze Age collapse. The Bronze Age collapse, if you remember was one of the greatest if not thee greatest collapse in civilization the world has ever seen. Then that facilitated much more experimentation in smaller scale societies, and that experimentation resulted in the creation of new pshcho-technologies. One was alphabetic happening in the area of Canaan, and it’s eventually going to be taken up very quickly by the Hebrews and then taken up by the Phoenicians and taken to the Greeks. The Greeks, as we’ll see today or next time, further improved it. We talked about how that psycho-technology – alphabetic literacy – makes literacy more effective, more efficiently learned, more powerful and its operation greatly expands the number of people that can be literate, it enhances the distributed cognition, and how that psycho-technology gets internalized into our metacognition and produces second order of thought.
We get an enhanced awareness of our own cognition. Both its power and its peril. We get an enhanced awareness of its capacity for self correction self transcendence. We also get an enhanced awareness of its capacity for self-deception. We talked also about the invention of coinage to help deal with the mobile armies of this time and how that trains you in abstract symbolic thought and more rigorous mathematical reasoning. And that also gets internalized, it gets exapted into second order thinking and people start to become aware of themselves in a different way. They start to become much more aware of the meaning making nature of their cognition, its capacity to generate illusion and self-deception and also its capacity to break out of illusion and self-deception and to come into a contact with a more real world.
So, this leads to some fundamental changes. People start to become more aware of their responsibility for the violence and the chaos and the suffering in their own lives and they start to become aware of how much that transformation of mind or mind and heart – because in the Axial age these terms are often referred to in a singular manner – how much transformation in the mind and heart is the way to alleviate suffering. So what starts to happen is the mythological framework and the way people are framing themselves and their world changes. Now let me explain to you how I’m using this word “myth”, because I’m not using it the way we standardly we use it. The use I’m going to talk about, it’s been deeply influenced by people like Jung, people like Tilak, Victor Turner… just a whole bunch of different thinkers. So when we use the word myth we tend to mean a falsehood that is widely believed. And that’s unfortunate because we’ve lost the term for what I want to talk about. See myths aren’t false stories about the ancient past. They’re symbolic stories about perennial patterns that are always with us. That’s a very different thing! So a lot of what’s going on in myth is an attempt to take these intuitive, implicitly learned patterns and put them into some form that is sharable with ourselves and with each other.
So in the Bronze Age world, before the axial revolution, people experienced the world in what’s been called by Charles Taylor “the continuous cosmos” (I have a few questions about the use of word Cosmos but we’ll come back to that later.) The idea here is human beings experience themselves in radical continuity. That sense of connectedness that you see even back in the shamanic world was very prevalent in the continuous Cosmos. In the continuous Cosmos. people feel there’s a deep connection, a deep continuity, between the natural world and the cultural world. And between the cultural world and the world of the gods. So she differences are not really differences so much in kind as they are in power. It’s not odd that animals might talk or that they might have deep societies. It’s not odd for us, for certain human individuals to think themselves divine like the great greatest pre Axial Age empire is Egypt. The Pharaoh is a god king! He’s something like a god! Why? For us we can only understand that, at most, metaphorically. Here’s what we have to try and understand: it’s not a metaphor for the ancient Egyptians.
Why? Because the differences between human beings and the gods are differences in power. This is a cosmos where reality is experienced primarily in power, in terms of power. The gods are just more powerful than us, more glorious than us. You can even see this in the Old Testament where, if you ask people/you can ask people “what term is most often used of God?” and people will say “righteous or holy”! Well those are used quite often, but the term that’s most used is “glorious” – shining with power! Which is not a moral term at all. So think of the Greek gods. They’re not moral exemplars at all. They’re just extremely glorious and extremely powerful. The Egyptian king, the pharaoh, is extremely glorious and extremely powerful. So of course he’s godlike or potentially even a god. So there’s this continuous cosmos. And it’s continuous in another way. It moves like this – It moves in great cycles. Just like the seasons. Just like day and night. Time moves in large cycles that repeat through eternity. In fact, what you’re often trying to do with your ritual behavior is you’re trying to tap into this continuity. You’re trying to get back to the original power of creation. So you often enact the metaphorical story – the myth – of how the universe is created in order to try and tap into. That creative power. There’s a constant nostalgia for getting back, and your attitude towards the world is you want to fit into these cycles. You want to be in harmony with them. You don’t want to really change things a lot because if I change this, if I change my future, I’m actually undermining my past. It’s a very different way of relating to the world. There’s this continuity between the natural world, the social world and the divine world, and time is wrapped on itself in this really important way.
Now what happens in the axial age is this way of looking at things is shattered. Now it doesn’t go away. There’s aspects of our thinking that are still like this. But what gets layered on top of it is a totally different world view. A totally different mythology for understanding the relationship between the self and the world.
So Charles Taylor talks about this as “The Great dis-embedding”: when the Axial revolution hits, this world is replaced by a different one. Now again I’m speaking mythologically here. People will talk about it mythillogically and you have to understand that it doesn’t mean the way we would think of it as a literal scientific thing. Nor is it what we would merely call metaphorical. Mythological is neither scientific nor just metaphorical.
Now what’s this new world? Well, this new mythological world view uses a mythology of two worlds. The idea is “this” is the “Everyday World”. This is the world of the untrained mind. This is a world that is beset by self-deception, self-destruction, illusion, violence, chaos. It’s a world in which we are out of touch with reality. But, opposed to this is the “Real World” and mythologically you can talk about this as two worlds. But of course in a lot of the traditions the real world is just cutting through the illusion of the everyday world. But the idea is the real world is how the trained mind, the wise mind, sees the world. This is how the world looks when you’re in touch with reality. When your mind is not beset by illusion and delusion. When you have that sense that this is how things really are. This is a world also in which there is reduced suffering and violence precisely because the mind is not beset by foolishness, precisely because it is not out of touch with reality.
Now here (indicating left side of the board – The Continuous Cosmos), wisdom is power oriented. To be a wise individual is to learn how to acquire the power that was imbued at creation into the cycles. Its like energy’s put into the system and it cycles around. And then energy is put in the system and it cycles around… and you want to tap into that power. Wisdom is how to tap into that power because what you’re after is “long life”. “Live long and prosper” as it’s in the Star Trek mythology for the Vulcans right? You want to be prosperous, you want to live long, you want to be free of conflict, you want to provide security for your offspring. So that’s a sense of wisdom that is still captured in our sense of the word prudence – being very “Prudential” is to have that knowing how to fit into the power structures of your society – how to make things work for you. Getting the most power and prosperity you can. But over here (right hand side of the board – Modern World) there’s a radical change. Wisdom changes because “you” do not want to fit into this world because this is the world of suffering and violence. It’s a world in which you’re out of touch with what’s real. And as we’ll talk about it later you deeply desire to be in touch with reality. It’s one of your most powerful drives. You don’t want to conform to this world. You want to be transformed out of this world. You want to move from here Every day world to here Real World. Now notice what’s happening here. The old shamanic enacted myth of soul flight – flying above – is being exapted into a new sense. It’s being exapted into this sense of self transcendence out of the everyday world into the real world and wisdom is now knowing how to make that transformative leap. And meaning isn’t about just ‘connectedness’ as it was here but a special kind of connectedness; a connectedness to the real world as opposed to a detrimental connectedness to an illusory world.
So meaning is changing and the notion of wisdom is changing. And the notion of your “self”; what it is to be a self. Because here (Continuous Cosmos) you’re defined largely by how you fit in. And of course that’s always going to be part of our definition. I’m talking about emphasis here, not talking about absolute differences. But here (Continusous Cosmos) you’re defined more by how you fit in. But here (The Modern World) you’re defined increasingly more by how you can self transcend; self transform. How you can grow as a person. Notice how pervasive this has become in our self understand. Notice how we don’t like to be with people who aren’t growing, who aren’t somehow transcending. Growing… Which way do you…? Growing up gesturing upwards. Becoming “more” mature. Getting “more” in touch with themselves and reality.
So this is called “The Great dis-embedding” because now we have a different relationship to “the everyday world”! And this is a metaphor that you don’t see before. You don’t see over “here” (Continuous Cosmos). This (Modern World) is the idea that we’re somehow strangers in the world. We’re pilgrims. We don’t belong “here” (The Everyday World), we belong “there” (The Real World). Now as I keep saying, some some people of course will literalize this, and this is really one world and another world. Most people will see this – when we talk about Plato and others – they’re understanding this as a mythological representation for the process of self transcendence and self transformation. Once again we see the exaptation, just like the shamans were engaged in exaptation – we see the exaptation of that shamanic ability into this new mythological framework.
So, there’s three places that I want to talk about in particular about this because they’re the ones that we’re going to talk a lot about. I will mention China periodically throughout especially when I talk about Daoism. But I want to talk about Greece and ancient Israel because those are the two foundational world mythologies for us. Those are two places in which the Axial revolution took place in a way that has become deeply, deeply constitutive of what “we” are – how “we” are still here in our minds the way we experience ourself and the world.
I also want to talk about India because India is the source of that of that – how do I put it? – that source of the confluence between Buddhism and the Western world that we talked about in the first session together – the mindfulness revolution. Mindfulness is a psycho-technology that came from India. So the axial revolution of Siddhārtha Gautama and the Buddha we’re going to talk about that. And what I want to talk about is how each one of these areas, in addition to the axial psycho-technologies of literacy and coinage – alphabetic literacy and coinage – how they also develop particular psych-technologies that have become internalized. A lot of what you think is natural to you – just part of how your mind works – is actually culturally internalised. It has been generated historically and you have internalized it culturally and you think of it just as how your mind works. Think again about literacy. It is hard for you to remember, and I mean to reenact, what it was like to not be able to think in literate terms; to imagine words. In a similar way, a lot of these ways of thinking, these psycho-technologies have become so second nature to us that we forget the historical origin and that’s problematic because the degree to which we don’t have a historical understanding is the degree to which we are going to be ignorant of the historical factors that are driving the meaning crisis.
Let me foreshadow that meeting crisis right now. So this is a mere foreshadowing. We’re going to come back to it. This (Modern World – “The Every Day”) is a mythological way of thinking which allows us to articulate and train the psycho-technologies of the Axial revolution; these psycho-technologies of self transcendence. Of wisdom and enhanced meaning. But the problem is, this (the Modern World) mythology is failing for us now. The scientific world view is destroying the possibility of this for us. In a way that might seem sort of cosmically ironic, the scientific world view is returning us to a “continuous Cosmos”. There is no radical difference in kind between you and the primates that you evolved from naturally. There isn’t some radical difference in kind between your mind and your embodied existence. Science is levelling the world and returning to a “one world”. We’re going to talk about that. But if we can no longer live in this (Modern World) mythology – and that’s what mythologies are: they have to be liveable. People claim to “believe” this. Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what you can practice. Tell me what’s livable for you. For most of us we can’t live this anymore. We still talk this way. But we can’t live it. So here’s part of the problem: this is a foreshadowing. How do we salvage the ability to cultivate wisdom, self transcendence, enhanced meaning, overcome self-deception, realize who we are and how the world is, when we can no longer use the mythological world view in which it was born?
We are going through a re-embedding. It’s been progressive and increasing. Copernicus and Galileo re-embed us. Darwin re-embeds us. Einstein re-embeds us. We’re being re-embedded back into the physical world but we don’t want to lose all that we gained through the “Great dis-embedding”. How do we reconcile those? How do we live with the legacy of the Axial revolution when we can no longer inhabit its world view? That’s part of the problem. That’s only part.
Now the place I want to turn to first is ancient Israel. As I mentioned, some of you have probably read parts of the Bible or at least heard parts of the Bible, although biblical illiteracy is rising and that’s problematic, not because I think people should be Christians or Jews – I’m not here to proselytize – but the degree to which you don’t have a grasp of the grammar of the Bible is a degree to which you don’t have a grasp of the grammar of your own cognition. And you may say I’m an atheist! I don’t care! That’s irrelevant! I’m not talking about ‘what’ you say. I’m talking about how you think. There’s a big difference there. Grammar is how you put thoughts together. It’s not the vocabulary; it’s not what you say. So this is what Nietzsche meant when he said “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar”.
We still talk this way. We still are filled with the God grammar of the Bible and you say “no I’m not!” Yes you are!!! You go to a movie and you watch the person who falls in some way, and then they have an insight and they are redeemed and they find their way back – maybe it’s through Alcoholics Anonymous or they come out of addiction… That’s biblical grammar!
Again, what matters here is how it shapes our sense of self and world. I’m not advocating for a particular religion but of course I am going to talk about the Judeo-Christian heritage precisely because I want to explain to you how these psycho-technologies have become part of the very grammar, not only of your cognition, but of your existential sense of being.
So, there is an important psycho-technology that’s invented, or at least significantly developed, by ancient Israel. Perhaps it was influenced from Persia through Zarathustra. But it’s this idea – and when I say it ,it’s going to seem to you like “of course!”, but it’s not “of course!”; even saying “of course” is important, remember that…. Here’s the idea: It’s a psycho-technology of understanding time as a cosmic narrative, as a story. It’s applying something, again, that’s universal – all cultures tell stories, and we’ll talk about the cognitive science of this later – but you see this isn’t a story. This is a circle. It’s a cycle.
What kind of structure does a story have? Well a story has a beginning. It has some crucial climax, a turning point in it. And there’s a resolution. There’s a direction to it. There’s a purpose to it. So you get this idea of cosmic history; of using our skills for story to explain how the cosmos is unfolding through time. It’s a radical idea! So why is it radical? Well, notice the difference here (The Continuous Cosmos). This this is not an open future. You are condemned to repeat! So cultures where cyclical time is still prevalent – Eastern cultures for example – the repetition of the cycle is onerous. It’s horrible. People think reincarnation, for example within an Indian context, is a wonderful idea: “I’ll be born again!”. No! That’s horrible. What you’re trying to do is get free from those cycles because doing this again and again and again and again and again is terrifying.
uninteligible word. You want freedom – Nirvana! You want sessation. You want release from the cycle because there is no purpose to it. But here (Modern World) the future is open. Your actions now can change the future. If you four figure out how to participate – remember that participatory knowing – if you figured out how to participate in the story, your actions can change the future. There isn’t ‘the all at once’ creation at the beginning. There is an ongoing creation through history and you can participate with God in the ongoing creation of the future. How? Because… How do stories operate? They operate in terms of meaning and morality. How you make meaning – the moral content of your action – decides how things are going to go.
This is why the god of ancient Israel is such a different God. You look at the gods of the Pre-Axial world… Look, you’ve got a God and it’s a god of a place. A particular function: here is the god of weaving, or here’s the god of ancient theeves. The gods are located in place. They’re tied to function. They have no significant moral arc attached to them. What’s the God of the old testament? What he or she like? It’s not bound to time and place. Think of the great story of the Old Testament; the story of the Exodus. Here you have the Israelites and they are imprisoned. They are imprisoned in the epitome of the Bronze Age world: Egypt. And God comes and liberates them and sets them on a journey towards a future that is promised – the promised land. This God moves through time and space.
The God of the old testament is the God of the open future. That’s why at first he has no name because to name something is to locate it, to specify it, to tie it down and for the longest time this God has no name. And then, when Moses finally challenges, and he reveals his name he says – it’s badly translated In the older versions of the Bible; it’s often translated as “I am that I am”. But it actually in Hebrew means “I will be what I will be”, “I am the god of the open future and you can participate with me in this”. This ongoing creation of the future because you can shape it; you can cause it to come to resolution but you can also cause it to go off course.
The idea – when I said “of course” to you, remember? The sense of time passing as a ‘course’. We still take ‘courses’ in universities. This is what we have here and you’re looking for turning points where the course turns. And of course that’s what you’re looking for in a movie. You know at some level that none of that is how the real world works. You know at some level, come on you do!! …that your life doesn’t unfold like a movie. Yet you love it! You love going to a movie. You love seeing this structure and participating in it and there’s the great turning point where something is learned or problem is solved and there’s resolution and the future is now made.
So, this God is interested in… becomes progressively…
Now, again you can’t point and say “there! There is where it changed!” in the Bible! But you can see there’s aspects of a Pre-Axial God. But as you read through the old testament God becomes more and more axial. He becomes more and more the deity of something that you now take for granted: Progress. The idea – for us it’s not just an “idea”, right? – it’s in the life blood, it’s in the very bones of your sense of self and your life. Is your life progressing? Or are you stuck? Is it moving forward? This is this idea. History progresses and it can degenerate and it can improve. God becomes more and more a representative of that.
Now, there’s a technical term for these turning points: Kairos. It’s developed by the theologian Paul Tulloch. This is this sense of the crucial turning point. Getting things at the right time and the right place to turn things. Either back on course or to further develop them. Now let’s talk about that because, again, we’re gonna go back to talking about these senses of knowing that we’ve lost touch with. (Important is this sense: “DA’ATH”.) So people sometimes note, and often humorously, that the Bible will talk about sex – sexual intercourse – with the verb ‘knowing’, so you’ll get things like “Adam knew his wife Eve” and it’s like “What? What does that mean?” …and it means has sex with. Its “DA’ATH” in this sense. And it’s like “What? Why? We don’t use sex as a metaphor for knowledge!” You’d be surprised how many cultures actually do! Because this is, again, this is a participatory sense. There’s a course here and you’re participating in it. Now what do we mean by participating. You don’t know it from the outside just having beliefs about it or just having skills. You know it in this way: you know it by identifying with it. You change it while it’s changing you and you’re changing it while it’s changing you. You are immersed in it like a stream, like a course of a river. You are participating in it. When you’re making love with somebody you are participating in them. You’re identifying with them, empathizing with them, resonating with them. You are changing them as they are changing you and it – Forgive me the pun – to a climax! To a turning point to a resolution.
See in ancient Israel, “faith” – this term has become useless for us now – but “faith” didn’t mean ‘believing ridiculous things for which there is no evidence’! That is a recent idea; that is not what it meant. Faith was your sense of “DA’ATH”. Faith was your sense that you are in this reciprocal realization: you’re “in course”. You’re “on course”. You’re involved and evolving with things. It’s your sense “Ah! I’m on course” or even your sense “Ah! This is the turning point and I, I know what to do. I know who I need to change into.” …I knew how to turn myself in things.
Notice you have this in your relationships. You’ll often be asking yourself “How is this relationship going? Is it on course? Is it progressing? Is it growing? Is this the kind of person I want to be? What’s my… Am I becoming? What’s my sense of how I’m changing? Is this all going well?” That’s “DA’ATH”.
Now, of course, you can get it wrong! You can think you’re on course, when you’re actually dramatically off course. You’re trespassing, to use older biblical language. You’re walking off the path. You’re no longer on course. That’s the basis of a word that we can’t use anymore again because of our biblical literacy and the fact that we’ve lost touch with this sense of knowing. In fact this word – many people treat this word almost like a comical word – sin. Sinning isn’t just doing something very immoral. In the New Testament the word that translates to this is when you’re shooting a bow and arrow. So, if you’ve done archery, you can’t shoot for where your eye tells you to look because you’ll actually miss the bullseye. You have to have a kind of faith to sense where you need to actually shoot. So you don’t miss the mark. So the idea here is that I’m trying to sense the course of things and, if I’m self deluded or illusory, I’m actually dramatically off course without realizing it.
That’s the original meaning and so the idea is that human beings are thrown into this universe in which they have the option – because it’s an open future – of participating in the creation of the future. But of course human beings sin. In the sense that they are self deceptive. They go off course. So notice what the Hebrews are doing. They’re taking this movement from the “everyday world” to the “real world” and they’re turning it into a historical story. The way you go from the false world to the real world is you start ‘now’ and you move towards the promised land. They understand it historically. But human beings sin: They make decisions that steer the course of history away from its culmination. And so the idea is that God has to intervene periodically. God has to redeem. God has to do something to wake people up. To remind them. To help them to sense how they’ve gone off course, and so that they can come back on course. And so what you have is you have – in the old testament – you have the creation of the prophetic tradition: prophets. Here’s another thing that we’ve lost the sense of. A prophet is not somebody who tells the future like some sort of psychic. Prophecy isn’t about telling you what’s going to be happening 200 or 300 years from now. Prophecy means “a telling fourth”. The job of the prophet is to wake you up right now to how you are off course.
So a better analogy isn’t the psychic – So, when you go to the psychic and “oh you will meet a tall dark stranger” or some crap like that. That’s not a good analogy for a prophet – a better analogy for a Prophet is when you and your loved one go into therapy and the therapist says something and it wakes you up to “Holy crap. This is how I’m going wrong. This is how I’m off course. This is how I need to get back on track.” That’s the job of a prophet. And what you have in the prophetic tradition is you have an increasing emphasis on the morality of human decision making. More and more – and again it’s not perfect; there’s all kinds of pre-axial stuff that’s still woven in there and mixed up with it and mashed up with it – but you do have more and more this discussion, this exhortation to wake up to your moral responsibility for helping everybody to get back on track and to turn things back towards the promised land. This idea of justice and righteousness and waking up so that we get back on track become endemic.
Now think about how much – and I’ve tried to show you through examples – how much this is just how you naturally think of yourself. You think of yourself as somebody who’s on a journey. You’re starting here and you’re trying to make a better self, and you’re trying to make the right decisions, and trying to steer things. You want your life to progress. You want your culture to progress. Try to think about how you would understand yourself, how you would judge yourself, and you couldn’t make use of this notion of progress…? So what starts to happen is a commitment to more and more trying to cultivate the wisdom of deeply remembering God, which doesn’t mean reciting beliefs. It means participating. Participating in the ongoing creation of the world. Shaping the future. Helping yourself, your neighbors and your society to progress where that progress is measured mostly in terms of moral improvement, Increasing justice, increasing flourishing, increasing sense of people living up to their promise.
And this is what I ask you: Do you feel like you’re living up to your promise? Is it an important thing for you? If it is – and I feel it’s probably the case that for many of you it is – that very way of thinking, that’s part of the grammar that we have inherited from the Hebrews. It’s part of the very way we think. It’s part of the warp and woof of our cognition.
Now we’re going to come back to this strand. We’re going to come back and look at a particular way of understanding Kairos that became central in Christianity because what Christianity did is it made a really radical claim: It claimed that this Kairos was found in a particular person and what that’s going to do is it’s going to personalize all of this in a really dramatic way. But before we do that I want to switch back over to what’s happening at a similar time in ancient Greece.
So as I mentioned, the psycho-technology of alphabetic literacy is taken to the Greeks but the Greeks do something that’s very important and it helps to explain some of the differences we see in the Greek Axial revolution from the ancient Hebrew Axial revolution. Now the Greeks do something that again seems inconsequential now, but they add vowels to the alphabet. And it’s like “oh WAW, so what?” Well the thing is, when you add vowels you really again increase how easy it is to process information. So let’s stop here because we need to do a bit of Cognitive Science because this ease of processing really matters. So I want to introduce you to an important idea from cognitive science. This is the idea of cognitive fluency.
We’ve got increasing experimental evidence for this basic kind of fact: when you increase the ease at which people can process information, regardless of what that information is, they come to believe it is more real, they have more confidence in it etc.. That can be something very simple. It can be as simple as changing the font contrast between the letters and the page. So, consider two individuals Tom and Susan. Tom is reading words in which the color contrast between the letters and the page isn’t as good as the color contrast that Susan’s reading. They’re reading exactly the same thing. They can both clearly read it. It’s just the font difference makes it easier for Susan than for Tom.
They read the same thing. If you ask both of them “well how true is what you read?” Susan’s more likely to say “that was true!” She’s more likely to have confidence in it regardless of the content. The fluency of your processing actually increases your confidence in it, your sense of how real the picture it’s giving you is. Now it’s not really easy in some simple sense because it has to do more with how well your brain is accessing information, applying it… It’s very complicated. But what I’m telling you is when I do something that increases your cognitive fluency, your brain generates an enhanced sense that you’re actually in touch with things. We’ll talk about this later. That turns out to be a good policy your brain is using. It’s a very good idea for your brain to try and use the fluency of its own processing as a measure of how much it’s in touch with reality.
By the way, when you get a lot of fluency you of course are going to get into the Flow State. So when the Greeks introduced vowels they improved the fluency of alphabetic literacy. They ramp up how powerful it is. They also introduced something else. They introduced a standardised reading from left to right which you now take for granted. Many of you know that other languages go the other way. Hebrew’s read this way for example. That has an impact on your cognition. First of all it’s standardized – that improves the fluency. Why does it improve your fluency? When this is standard – if you look at Egyptian hieroglyphs they can go up. They can go down. They can go this way. They can go that way – when you standardize things, that increases the fluency of the processing. So they ratchet up this power of literacy to enhance cognition.
They’re also developing something else. So the Greeks don’t form a unified nation state. They have individual city states that are in competition with each other and in Athens in particular – and Athens is going to be the hotbed of the axial revolution in Greece, although not the only place – in Athens you have, slowly, the emergence of democracy. Now, it’s a particularly problematic form of democracy – it’s direct democracy. We’ll talk about stuff like that later. But what this does is this puts a premium on argumentation and debate. So, the Greeks start to speed up the axial revolution in their own cognition. They enhance the effects of alphabetic literacy. They enhance the use of reason and reflection and so they start to do things that, again, don’t happen before. Lots of cultures were doing arithmetic. But the Greeks invent mathematics. They invent geometry. They start to create abstract symbol systems for their own sake. Now that’s what’s going on, what’s basically being invented, in ancient Greece, is this capacity for rational argumentation. That’s the psycho-technology. Again you think of this – now, I want to be clear here: I’m not claiming that other groups or people are irrational or they can’t be reasonable. I’m not being ethnocentric – but you get the explicit training of rational argumentation as a core psycho-technology in ancient Greece. Now that is going to have very important consequences.
Now what’s interesting is how this comes in to ancient Greece. I’m going to introduce you to two individuals who are sort of the epitome of the Axial Revolution in Greece: Pythagoras and Socrates. You know Pythagoras, of course because of an important mathematical theorem: the Pythagorean theorem. Now Pythagoras is a very interesting person because he belongs to – Cornford makes this argument very well – he belongs to a group of individuals that are just coming out of that dark age around 600 BCE. These individuals were called “The Divine Men” it’s pretty clear that these men seem to represent a rediscovery of shamanic psycho-technologies. They seem to… they have a lot of associations with capacities for healing, for flying through the air, and so a lot of this is legendary. It’s mythological. It’s not literal, but Pythagoras is a real person. Now of course, there’s lots and lots of legendary material around him but the legend even points towards these important aspects. He seems to have gone through shamanic training, engaged in something called “The Thunder Stone Ceremony” which involved him isolating himself in a cave and going through some radical transformation and then coming out of it. He seems to have experienced soul flight because he talked about the capacity for the psyche to be liberated from the body. He was very tall and he dressed like a god but no one found it offensive for him to do so, at least not the people that followed him. He discovers the octave. He discovers that there’s mathematical proportions in the world. He comes to this realization that the new psycho-technologies of rational reflection and mathematics give us access to abstract patterns that we are not directly aware of. We all take it for granted that we know what an octave is and we know that it can be expressed by ratios but that was his discovery. So what he does is he takes this idea about realizing, through music and math, these abstract patterns, and then he links them to the “project”, the shamanic ability to engage in self transcendence.
He comes up with the idea that we’re somehow trapped in this world, but we can learn to fly above it; we can fly free! Like the Shaman. But he’s allied it explicitly to the Axial “project” of self transcendence, of getting in touch with the rationally realized patterns because that will liberate us. That will change and transform us. Pythagoras gives us a lot of the words that we take for granted. I said earlier that I didn’t like calling the Pre-Axial world the “cosmos” because Pythagoras actually invents this word Cosmos. He’s the first person to describe the universe as a cosmos and many of you probably treat those two terms as synonymous: Universe – the one verse – and Cosmos. They’re not! Try to think of a word it’s actually related to Cosmos that you’re familiar with. So the word that might not come to mind is the word cosmetic. Cosmetics come from cosmos.
What did cosmetics do? They reveal the beauty of things – how beautiful and ordered they are. So Pythagoras has the idea that if we can use music and mathematical thinking and practices that engage in this altered state of consciousness and he’s integrating them altogether, it’s not quite clear how, but what we can do is we can transcend and see the world as beautiful.
And we’re going to come back and talk about this: How when people have awakening experiences they suddenly experience the world as a cosmos, as radically beautiful. Now remember Pythagoras because he’s going to have a huge influence on somebody we’re going to talk about: Plato. But there’s somebody who had an even greater influence on Plato and somebody who really epitomizes the Axial Revolution in ancient Greece. In fact he has a revolution named after him. This is called the Socratic revolution and the person we want to talk about is Socrates. I’m going to argue how Socrates epitomizes the Greek form of the Axial Revolution and then what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna see how Plato takes Socrates and Pythagoras and puts them together and how Socratic and Platonic your cognition is. How it’s part of the grammar of how you think. But once again, even though that’s the grammar of how we understand meaning and wisdom and what a “self” is and how we grow, how we self transcend, how we get in touch with reality… We are no longer in the world view of Pythagoras! Do we… Do you actually – I mean seriously – do you actually experience the universe as a cosmos.
We’ll take a look at that the next time we’re together. Thank you very much for your time.