The Evolution of Consciousness and The Soul


In our discussion of Julian Jaynes’s ideas, reader Speedbird recommended the book “Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry” by Owen Barfield. The above lecture covers that book and illustrates some remarkable overlap between his ideas and those of Jaynes. It’s well worth a listen.

And, related, here’s an essay that cites both:

What Barfield points out is that the distinction between mind and matter, or inside and outside, didn’t exist in early peoples. (This is also the basis of Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though being a materialist, Jaynes explains this with the dubious theory that our thinking was done unconsciously in one cranial hemisphere, which then “talked” to the other.) Thinking happened to the person, and was not felt as being produced by the person. In the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ slave-girl away from him. Achilles naturally wants to kill Agamemnon, but if he does that would be the end of the Greeks’ siege of Troy, so he doesn’t. We would say that reason prevailed, but what Homer says is that Athena tells him not to. It is something outside of Achilles that controls his action. And of course, Homer credits his own work to the Muse. One may also note that it is only recently that “genius” came to mean a great thinker, and not some external source that inspires the thinker. There was innovation in ancient times, but such innovation was credited to divine kings and prophets, not to a common individual’s cleverness.

All this is to say that the growth of control in our thinking, feeling, and willing is a marker of the evolution of consciousness, which amounts to a change of common sense. This control moved from “outside” (belonging to the supernatural) to “inside.” Parallel with this change is a change in sense perception. Supernatural control was exercised equally on humans and nature, which means that humans were just as much “nature” as anything else, all pervaded by spiritual entities. And that was perceived. It was not an “animist belief system” that people made up to explain things. Rather it was, simply, experienced. But as our ability to think grew, the perception of spirit in nature declined, until in modern times it has disappeared. Hence modern common sense divides reality into two: our (more or less) controlled minds on the one hand, and on the other, a mindless physical system.

Idealism vs. Common Sense (Bernardo Kastrup)

And here’s an older article from Psychology Today describing the psychological transformations of the Axial Age. It feeds into our initial question: how was ancient consciousness different from that of contemporary industrial societies?

Before a certain time, some psychologists believe, ancient peoples also differed from us by exhibiting far less capacity to monitor their internal thoughts, feelings, and motives; they engaged in little or no self-reflection, and lacked a personal identity other than a name, parentage, and a recollection of a sequence of life events.

Before the Axial transformation, human beings told one another myths and other stories about how they came to be. The stories were not regarded as true or false; rather, their truth did not require questioning. Such was the state of human beings, Jaspers believed, because of a lack a self-reflective, fully conscious self-understanding. Under such conditions, abstract truths matter not.

During the Axial-age, however, some scholars argue that dramatic shifts took place in human thought across four geographically distinct regions of the world: India, China, the Middle East, and Greece.

New ways of thinking emerged that defined the world’s psychological culture for all time since. Jaspers wrote:

“What is new about this age…is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals.”

Big questions that were specifically psychological in nature emerged: “Who am I?” and “Why are people different…

The Significance of the Axial Age (the Great Transformation) (Psychology Today)

Since we’re on the subject of podcasts, this is from an interview with Professor Richard Seaford, whom we first met when we talked about where the ideas about money came from in Classical Greece, and what it’s effects were. Here, Seaford makes the case that the emergence of something like an individual spirit, soul, or essence, was paralleled in both Greek and Indian culture:

This is interesting because one of the consistent criticisms of Julian Jaynes’s work has been that he only looked at Greek culture and ignored other, particularly non-Western, civilizations. But Professor Seaford’s studies indicate parallel developments in the civilizations of Classical India at about the same time (6-5th centuries B.C.). The transition from the Rigveda to the Upanishads seems to follow roughly the same trajectory as that which Jaynes sketched out as taking place between the composition of the Iliad to that of the Odyssey with regards to human self-reflective consciousness (the following transcript not blockquoted for clarity):

[Begin 2:36] SHWEP: “…If there wasn’t a soul, what was a human being before [the Axial Age]?”

Richard Seaford: “Well, the two Axial civilizations that I know best, which are also, I think, the two which are best placed…to answer your question, are Greece and India.”

“Interestingly, you have—both in Greece, and in India—early texts which are roughly speaking pre-philosophical. I’m talking about Homer, in particular, in Greece, and the Rigveda in India; followed by—in both civilizations—something like the birth of philosophy, depending, of course, on how you define philosophy.”

“So that in Greece, you move from the world of Homer—which is, roughly speaking, the eighth century B.C.—to a new conception, a radically new conception, of the universe and man’s place in it, in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., known as pre-Socratic philosophy. And out of pre-Socratic philosophy you have Plato and Aristotle and the whole of ancient philosophy.”

“In India you have the Rigveda, which is (a bit like Homer but even more so) dated to very different periods…from at the earliest about the middle of the second millennium B.C., but clearly the Rigveda—particularly the tenth book—contains material which is much later. And, of course, Homer probably wasn’t written down until the sixth century B.C., but these early Indian texts were not written down until very much later. So the Rigveda was subject to centuries of oral transmission, and therefore very difficult to date.”

“However, what’s interesting, in answer to your question, is that in India from about eighth, seventh, sixth century BC (again dating is impossible with these early Indian texts), you have a new conception of the universe and the place of man in it. Just as in Greece you have a new conception [at] about the same time in the sixth century B.C.”

“And the transition from Homer to pre-Socratic philosophy has some striking similarities to the the transition from the Rigveda to these later texts, in particular the Brahmanas (which are mainly about ritual, but nevertheless contain some proto-philosophical speculation), and the Upanishads. The Upanishads [emerged] out of the need to interpret the sacrifice (which is what the Brahmanas are mainly concerned with), and as a result of the need to interpret the sacrifice, producing something that is legitimate to call philosophy, in which ritual has to a large extent been left behind. That, then, corresponds to pre-Socratic philosophy.”

“Now, what is it that’s similar between the Indian transition and the Greek transition?

Well, let’s take the idea of the ‘inner self,’ or soul. There are a lot of terms which are used for something like the inner self, the soul, the mind, the subject; and it can be quite confusing because they mean different things; they overlap. One is perhaps best advised to think of them in terms of their opposite: so the soul is the opposite to the body…the subject is opposite to the object, and the self is opposite to others. I like the term ‘inner self’ because it implies an individual, but just the ‘inner dimension’ of the individual. It’s quite close, therefore, to soul and mind.”

“Now, it’s striking—and this has been recognized for some time—that in Homer there’s no word for the inner self as a bounded, comprehensive entity of consciousness. That is to say, what we think of as the mind or the soul which constitutes the personality—the ‘real person’ of each individual.”

“I use the terms ‘comprehensive’ and ‘bounded.’ It’s ‘comprehensive’ in the sense that it contains emotions, perceptions, desires; it originates action, it contains the full range of consciousness. It’s ‘bounded’ in the sense that it has boundaries; it can’t be confused with what is outside it. My inner self is quite distinct from your inner self, and my inner self is quite distinct from that table, or my leg. It is a bounded entity.”

“In Homer there’s no word for that. What you have is a number of different words for the various organs of consciousness like thumos meaning ‘spirit,’ or menos meaning something like ‘might,’ and so on. Kradíē. You have a whole list of these Greek words, none of which refers to what later was referred to by the word psuchê (ψυχή), meaning ‘soul,’ which particularly from Plato onward meant precisely this bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness.”

SHWEP: “We have psuchê in Homer, don’t we? But it means something very different.”

RS: “Yes, we do have psuchê in Homer, but it is has only one role, which is to leave the body on loss of consciousness—whether on death or on fainting. Now the psuchê, then, having left the body on death, goes down to the underworld, and the underworld then has psuchê in it.”

“The psuchê of Patroclus appears in a dream to Achilles late in the Iliad. Now the interesting thing about the psuchê of Patroclus—it’s the dead Patroclus—you can see him, you can hear him, he speaks, he is Patroclus. Except that, there’s a sense in which he doesn’t exist. He’s insubstantial. It’s not quite clear what’s involved here, but he not substantial. Were you to lean out and touch him, he would dissolve like a shadow.”

“However, the fact that he’s Patroclus for all eternity, and in most respects like Patroclus, meant that the psuchê was the word used later on by Plato—but also even before Plato—to refer to the most important part of you, which is the immortal part of you—the part of you which will survive after your death. So you have a development which, in Homer, there is no word for the comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. In Plato there is, but the word Plato uses, psuchê, has evolved from being simply the thing which leaves you when you die and plays no role in your life, to the thing which is the most important thing about your life, which is your inner self, which will indeed leave you when you when you die, and is immortal.”

“So, this is an enormous transition in which the psuchê becomes at the center of attention. It, for Plato, is enormously important for understanding the world, and above all for understanding how we should live.”

“Now, if you turn to the Indian material with this question in mind, and ask the same question of the Rigveda: ‘Is there a bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness?’ The answer, insofar as I can see after some research, is ‘no.’ There are various words—manas, jiva, prana, atman, and so on—none of which refers to a comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. So it’s like Homer. And indeed, as in Homer, the words that do exist for organs of consciousness are not particularly important. They’re not at the center of attention. They’re not made into the subjects of sentences in the way that psuchê clearly in Plato is. So it’s rather like Homer.”

“Then you go into the Upanishads—sixth, fifth century B.C., and what you find is that one of the words that was used in the Rigveda as an organ of consciousness, though it sometimes seems to mean rather something like breath, Ātman, has become at the center of everything. The famous expression ‘Ātman is Brahman,’ which you find repeated several times in the early Upanishads, means effectively your Ātman—your inner self—is Brahman, meaning the whole of the universe. Your Ātman is everything. And in the discourse of the early Upanishads, Ātman is enormously important, just as psuchê in Plato is enormously important for understanding the world and how you should live.”

“Now, there are, of course, important differences between the Greek and the Indian material. But this is a respect—and there are others—this is a respect in which they’re strikingly similar. You have a movement from a world in which there is no bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness, to one in which, not only is there a term for it, but it has become enormously important.” [12:15]

[14:15] RS: “Psuchê is, of course, still with us. We might call it the mind or the soul, but he notion of this bounded inner self is very much still with us…Interestingly, there has been, in the last fifteen years or so, a…debate in British analytic philosophy as to the question of whether the inner self exits.”

“Now, this goes back to David Hume…who said, actually, ‘No the inner self doesn’t exist,’ because if you examine your experience, your emotions, your perceptions, what’s going on in your mind; what you’re aware of is a constant flux of impressions, thoughts, motives, desires, and so on. And where is this ‘extra’ thing which is the inner self? It just isn’t there. We made it up! You don’t need to talk about it in order to describe your subjectivity.”

“Now this position was argued in great sophistication and detail by a man called Derek Parfit in the book called Reasons and Persons. And the counter-position was taken by Richard Sorabji in a subsequent book on the self in which he claims, ‘No, there is an inner self;’ the inner self is what owns our perceptions and emotions and so on.”

“One of the interesting features of [the debate] for me is the terminology used by Sorabji: owns, which must be a metaphor. I mean, ‘ownership’ is legally sanctioned possession. You don’t have legally sanctioned possession of your emotions, but he’s constantly using this word, owns. So the question is, what is it a metaphor for?”

“I don’t believe it’s a metaphor, ultimately. I think that ownership, historically, is crucial in constructing the idea of the inner self, in which I stand apart from my inner data—my desires and perceptions and all the rest of it—in the the way that an owner of goods stands apart from his goods, and yet he has exclusive rights to them in the way that he does to his own body, for example.”

“But another interesting thing, of course, is the fact that its happening at all. Because we just take it as a fact of nature that each of us has an inner self. We reify it. But neither of them—neither Parfit nor Sorabji—consider the question anthropologically. They talk about this issue as if they’re talking about whether Paris is the capital of France or not. It’s just a fact about the world, isn’t it, that you either have it or you don’t have it. But actually, if you look outside the tradition in which they’re operating; outside the Western tradition, particularly at Melanesia, you’ll find a wealth of anthropological writing which shows that these people don’t have a conception of the bounded, comprehensive inner self. They just don’t have it.

“So the question then arises: Have they just not noticed that they’ve got it? This is the question you might put to Sorabji. Are these people in error? Have they gone through their lives just not realizing that they’ve got this thing, they just never got around to noticing it or describing it?”

“And the answer, if you consider it in this light, is, of course, that the inner self is a construction. And, of course, the Buddhists who are cited by Parfitt take the view that we don’t have such a thing…” [End 18:08]

Episode 4: Richard Seaford on the Origins of the Soul (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast)

The next section puts forward a fascinating thesis briefly touched on above. It is the idea that the notion of the the unique, individual ‘self’ is intrinsically linked with the emergence of inalienable private property rights in a culture! In other words, the idea that I am the absolute “owner” of something that is my own, personal “self,” corresponds to the  notion of “absolute ownership” over things like goods, land, livestock, and chattels, and hence more “modern” economic ideas:

[Begin 20:08] SHWEP: “…Obviously a priori reasoning has led in both directions—to a strong idea of the soul, and to a non-strong idea of the soul. But, you would argue, that this so-called a priori reasoning is always conditioned by the kind of society that a given reasoner finds himself in. That they reason a certain way depending on the kind of society they live in.”

Richard Seaford: “Yes, that’s right. The reason why the issue between Sorabji and Parfitt is undecidable is that the inner self, in my view, is a construction. That’s really pretty much all you can say when it comes to trying to resolve the dispute between them.”

“But then the interesting questions start, which is, why do you find this construction at all? Why do you find this in some societies but not in other societies? And if you look at the anthropological evidence, you can see how the arrival of Western economic models, in particular individual property, promotes the belief in the bounded, individual self.

SHWEP: “Can you talk about exactly what you’re talking about when you say, ‘the arrival of Western economic models?’ And when this is happening, what exactly we are talking about? Money has something to do with it, I believe.”

RS: “Money has something to do with it, but there’s a…for example, there’s a passage written by a Melanesian anthropologist who is describing the arrival of the trade store in a community. And he has experience of this…the arrival of the trade store makes a big difference, because it brings with it different ways of constructing the world in which you can’t just go and take your cousin’s things. If you do that you might get prosecuted. It’s illegal. And people don’t understand this.”

“But now, because of the trade store, what he says is—by looking the way the trade store operates, it does involve money; it does involve commercial relations rather than sharing and gift exchange. In commercial relations, there’s absolute ownership and absolute separation of goods and money from [the] possessor in the exchange, which never occurs in gift exchange. You are always, in some way, identified with what you’ve given, and that creates links between people.

The arrival of the trade store introduces a new model of the person, in which ownership is used to construct the new kind of individual. And if you go to a text which is no doubt somewhat out of date but nevertheless clearly contains some truth by [C.B.] Macpherson about seventeenth century England, you find something very similar. The new conception of the individual is created, he says, by reading back into it ownership of property. Because this is a period in which a new class is establishing itself through the individual ownership of property which is theirs absolutely—it’s not vulnerable to being taken away, in any form, by anybody else. So their freedom and their life potential is defined by the property that they own. And therefore, the notion of the individual is constructed, to some extent at least, out of the institution of individual property.

“If you go to Greece and India, there’s evidence—quite independent from everything I’ve been talking about—for the development of individual property at the expense of ownership by the kinship group.

SHWEP: “So, what is exchange like in the Homeric poems?”

RS: “Well, first of all, in the Homeric poems there’s no money. Second, there’s very little commerce, and its only at the margins and performed by disreputable people like Phoenicians. The main form of exchange is gift exchange, and it’s though gift exchange that you create relations.

“Now, what is exchanged in gift exchange? Well, in Homeric poems—because they’re only concerned with an elite group—it’s prestige objects like tripods and horses and so on. Fine textiles. And that creates links between aristocratic households in different places. And you have genre scenes in which it’s all beautifully described—it’s at the center of what’s going on, socially.”

“When it comes to the Iliad, you have a problem, because the Greeks stormed a city. Not necessarily Troy—they storm a number of other cities. And the issue arises of who has a right to distribute the plunder.”

“Now, it can be done by the Greeks in general, or by the king. The king does it in various versions, and he does it unfairly. So, what he should be doing, is taking this plunder and giving it to Achilles, or Odysseus, or whatever it is. That’s a gift—its not an income—it’s a gift, and by doing that he creates the links. There’s no other link that enables Agamemnon to hold the Greeks into a coherent body. It’s through distributing the goods, and they’re gifts.

“But things go wrong, and Achilles feels slighted, and he withdraws from the battle. So what does Agamemnon do? He offers gifts, lots of them, to bring Achilles back into the battle. But Achilles says, in effect, it’s too late. ‘I hate your gifts’—ekthrati moi tassadoura: ‘Your gifts are hateful to me.’ That is devastating, because it’s not just about Agamemnon and Achilles, it’s about a whole social system breaking down. He’s rejecting the principle of gifts. And there’s something similar that goes on in the Odyssey.”

“So the Iliad and the Odyssey are about what I call, ‘a crisis of reciprocity,’ in which the old economic system has broken down. And it’s precisely in the context, incidentally, of rejecting the gifts that Achilles talks about his own psuchê. And it’s the passage in Homer which becomes closest to the psuchê being what it is later, which is something infinitely valuable which he’s not going to give up in return for gifts.

“So it’s the isolation of Achilles as a result of the breakdown of this exchange system which gives you the first glimpse of what would be so important later, which is the valorization of the individual psuchê.” [End 27:08]

See also: Seaford on Soul, Ritual, and Money (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast). This is a “members only” podcast, so if anyone would like to “donate” it to me (link, email, Dropbox, etc.), I’d love to have the chance to listen to it!

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