Consciousness in the World: Ancient Ideas Still Resonate Today

“The reflective understanding of reality has seemed to me helped by the incursion into the present moment of remembered situations from which one gains his bearings and his stance as a human being. Thus the re-collective understanding of one’s actual experience is intimately connected with the reflective understanding of reality…Above all else, then, I trust in the remembrance of what I have loved and respected; remembrance in which love and respect are clarified. And I trust in such remembrance to guide my reflections in the path of essential truth.”

— Henry Bugbee from “The Inward Morning,” July 1953

Egypt farmer2

Image from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Egypt; Scene: Plowing farmer.

Part of my fascination with the study of human consciousness clearly stems from my intense interest in ancient human history, which was originally piqued by its introduction in my earliest educational experiences. As far back as I can remember, images of ancient peoples and civilizations always seemed to engage my mind whenever I encountered them. In particular, images from the first books of children’s stories of mythological creatures and ancient hunters, and early text books which contained stories and illustrations of ancient cultures in distant lands, all excited my imagination and prompted me to imagine myself participating in the lives of such cultures. The intensity of this interest has stayed with me my whole life, and in the unfolding of my education through the years, I accumulated dozens of books about a variety of ancient civilizations. Our complex modern-day existence and our deepest sense of our humanity has been built upon ancient beginnings, and even as our modern lives become entangled in advancing technological innovations of every sort, there are indications of our ancient beginnings which resonate in our modern consciousness.

Farming scenes in the Tomb_of_Nakht

Agricultural scene from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes

One of the most important adaptations which resulted from a shift in the sophistication of human consciousness was the one which saw the transition of the many nomadic groups of early human hunter gatherers to the development of agriculture and small communities of individuals engaged in farming the ancient lands. According to most estimates, (Wikipedia) deliberate and organized “sowing and harvesting of plants,” appeared somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 years ago, and arose independently in the various continents of the world, but was quickly adopted among many adjacent civilizations as the advantages of food production which would support “increased population densities,” necessary to support expansion of the various cultures of antiquity. In Egypt, as farming developed in the fertile Nile Valley, images like the one above began to appear in many of the illustrations of life in those times. Eventually, this shift to agriculture contributed significantly to the expansion of communities into cities, cities into regions, and larger and larger aggregations of humans into empires and great civilizations.

modern farmers2

Recently, I visited the location of a brand new farm in the early stages of being established locally by my son and several others, and as I photographed them on the modern bulldozer which was clearing the land in preparation for planting, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come in some ways from those ancient “farmers,” and how much we owe to those intrepid innovators of antiquity for so much of our modern mindset. The ancient farmers had no such advantages as bulldozers or modern day tractors:

modern tractor2

The path of illumination and discovery, not to mention technological innovation over the centuries, could only have occurred with a commensurate expansion of human consciousness. We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed a remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, it seems apparent that they were not initially as fully and cognitively self-aware in a way that would allow them to utilize that awareness for much of that time. From an evolutionary perspective, any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, and at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us with a capacity for art, music, and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery, and the development of language to express that imagery as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions like farming, and led to contemplation about the mysterious workings of the world around us.

According to Carl Jung, in his writings on Gnosticism:

“The ancient mind rejected the material world and felt that everything originated outside of himself. The modern mind rejects the gods and is smugly satisfied with the false material nature of both himself and the world. The mind of today must acknowledge the origins of self in the unconscious and the duality of humanity as being both material and non-material.”

Deep within us lies a tremendous storehouse of knowledge–not knowledge in the sense of information, statistics, or formulas–but rather, knowledge of centuries old memories, ancient thoughts, and the progressive synthesis of understanding inherited from the dawn of humanity. The synthesis of old and new, much like the changes that occur in us genetically through periodic advantageous mutations, produces variations of our inner life that did not exist previously. While those changes may be incrementally small and subtle, after a time they result in profound differences in the depth and breadth of our inner lives. The signposts of these changes range from subtle cultural changes as are evident in the ebb and flow of conventional wisdom, to the unfolding of dramatic alterations that come to define a shift in the direction of our species. One need only contemplate the progression of humanity from ancient times to today to realize that it required not only imagination, intuition, and innovation, but also a fundamental alteration in the depth and breadth of our inner worlds to support those possibilities…

4 thoughts on “Consciousness in the World: Ancient Ideas Still Resonate Today

  1. My own view has a slightly different timeline.

    I think the critical changes in human capabilities occurred about 70-100,000 years ago and involved language, arts, and the development of extended kinship structures.

    The development of agriculture does mark another sort of transition that may have involved changes in consciousness (have you looked at the bicameral mind theory of Jaynes?) and coincides with the climatic changes after the Last Glacial Maximum and the beginning of the warming of the Holocene. Personally I think this change in consciousness was less significant than the earlier change.

    1. Jim,

      Thank you so much for your comment and for the link to your courageously lengthy essay on the development of the early humans. While I admire your courage in drawing conclusions in view of some fairly speculative reasoning, it seems like the precise timeline isn’t really the issue. What you describe as language, I think is more properly described as “speech” or “vocal utterances,” which are not exactly the same thing. We see in the fossil evidence of those earlier epochs from around 200,000 years ago, physiological structures and cranial dimensions which suggest certain possibilities, but we really have no clear way to assemble a definitive theory based on so little evidence. Obviously, language did not spring up overnight, and selecting where the precise line might be between the formative epoch where true language might properly be described as such, and what was only a precursor to actual language, is not really possible. I think it presumptuous at best to say with any certainty that speech or vocal utterances alone, even combined with gestures constitutes language in any definitive sense, but I am prepared to agree to disagree on such details.

      Arts are a whole other subject, and your inclination to describe the scant evidence of body decoration and other primitive tendencies as “art” in the earliest epochs of even 100,000 years ago, in my view, pushes the envelope a bit. Clearly, individual development of particular tendencies in the various primitive epochs must have had some sort of beginning that led to wider adaptation among groups and cultures, but even the “extended kinship structures,” which began to form gradually as groups began to thrive when they actually became groups, was less compelling for me personally as the means for significant change, as the deliberate and clearly structured “drawings” in the Aurignacian epoch.

      Climate change was necessary also, and a host of other contingencies had to be in place for significant changes to occur, and I am less inclined to be concerned about a timeline for any of the significant changes, as I am to attributing the fullness of consciousness to a much later time than 100,000 years ago. There are many different views of the scant evidence currently available, but I am glad to give the earliest possible beginning to whichever variety of hominid finally possessed a fully syntactical, symbolic, and grammatical language, and also was able to demonstrate such capacities in some clear way. We may never know exactly when it all came together, but even inventing agriculture required some sort of developmental progress that simply isn’t evidenced 100,000 years ago.

      Regardless of any disparity in our conclusions, it remains a fascinating subject to contemplate, and even in our own epoch today, there is still much debate on these subjects…..John H.

  2. Well, we have cave paintings from 40,000 years ago.

    Did you ever see Herzog’s movie?

    “During the Old Stone Age, between thirty-seven thousand and eleven thousand years ago, some of the most remarkable art ever conceived was etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain. After a visit to Lascaux, in the Dordogne, which was discovered in 1940, Picasso reportedly said to his guide, “They’ve invented everything.” What those first artists invented was a language of signs for which there will never be a Rosetta stone; perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age; and a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls, and move across them like figures in a magiclantern show (in that sense, the artists invented animation). ”

    1. Agreed, Jim,

      40,000 years ago we have some of the first truly deliberate and conscious efforts which might properly be described as art. The drawings discovered at Lascaux, and in the Caves of Chauvet in France are a spectacular demonstration of the beginnings of sophisticated symbolic representations of abstract thoughts–the images painted on the cave walls represent real animals in the physical world. These images are an indication that humans had finally crossed over a kind of threshold, but even the individuals who executed those cave drawings were only starting to demonstrate their capacities, and the purpose of creating those drawings seems likely to have been some sort of ritual indoctrination for the young to learn hunting, or perhaps served as an early shamanistic ritual to honor the beasts who provided sustenance. Regardless of what motivated the people who placed those images there, it required them to possess a capacity for understanding and association that really had not appeared prior to that time in any significant way, so far as we know.

      No doubt, the beginnings of the earliest proto-languages were available by this time, and as I have suggested in several of my postings on this blog, the ability to PRODUCE a meaningful thought required the ability to EXPRESS a thought in some comprehensive way. It is a fascinating idea to contemplate what it must have been like for the earliest humans to finally have sufficient access to a functional consciousness to be self-aware–to KNOW that they existed. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!!

      There is so much more to discover!…….John H.

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