In The Next Enlightenment, Walter Truett Anderson treats Eastern spiritual traditions and Western philosophy, psychology and science as steps along the same evolutionary path rather than as completely separate and incompatible schools of thought.
In the opening chapters, he looks at five different "Liberation Movements" that emerged in the modern world: the eighteenth century European Enlightenment; the nineteenth century upheaval resulting from the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species; and in the twentieth century, existentialism, psychoanalysis, and the human potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He then argues that this century's next surge of thought and action will regard the exploration of the physical universe and the study of human consciousness as two sides of the same coin, and equally important, come to understand personal enlightenment as a natural process of growth rather than a supernatural gift bestowed upon a chosen few.
Elegantly argued and written with a sense of humor, The Next Enlightenment offers a refreshing vision of how the ancient quest for enlightenment is taking on new life in a rapidly-changing, globalizing world.
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About the Author
Walter Truett Anderson has explored many different facets of contemporary life and evolutionary change in his essays, books, poetry and journalism. His recent books include The Future of the Self, Evolution Isn't What It Used to Be, and All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization. He lives near San Francisco, California.
Walter Truett Anderson has explored many different facets of contemporary life and evolutionary change in his essays, books, poetry and journalism. His recent books include The Next Enlightenment, The Future of the Self, Evolution Isn't What It Used to Be, and All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization. He lives near San Francisco, California.
Read an Excerpt
The Next Enlightenment
Integrating East and West in a New Vision of Human Evolution
By Walter Truett Anderson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Walter Truett Anderson
All rights reserved.
Enlightenment, European Style
The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one.
What objects may be by themselves, and apart from the receptivity of our senses, remains completely unknown to us. We know nothing but our manner of perceiving them.
Our personal lives and the lives of societies are a continual process of change; this is one of many things that we all know, sort of, but don't know deeply enough. And to make matters even more interesting, there are also second-order changes: accelerations, leaps to another level, and occasionally the appearance of radically new ideas about change itself. Second-order changes are emergents, not merely continuations of what has been going on so far. They're surprises that can't be predicted from the state the system was in prior to the change.
The cultures of both East and West are rich with accounts of second-order changes in the lives of individual people: the Bible tells of revelations, the Greeks spoke of metanoia, the Zen masters teach the doctrine of satori. Some of these changes are described as instantaneous, others as deep and gradual unfoldings, but they are always seen as profound transitions in which a person becomes fundamentally different in some major way from what he or she had been before. Today such change is studied by developmental psychologists, who know that personal growth isn't simply a matter of accumulating information according to what you might call the architectural model, adding pieces according to a predetermined plan. It's also a series of restructurings in which you form new and different concepts about yourself and the world—including new concepts about personal growth.
The second kind of progress, social, historical growth, is described by such terms as Michel Foucault's "episteme" and Thomas Kuhn's ever-popular "paradigm shift." An episteme, for Foucault, was the underlying set of rules that framed the thinking of a specific society at a certain stage of its history—and was occasionally replaced by a new episteme. A paradigm shift for Kuhn was one of those revolutionary upheavals when the members of a scientific community, forced by new evidence to change their minds about some essential feature of the natural world, began to see things differently, form different theories, and find things in their research that an older paradigm had not been able to explain. After such a paradigm shift, according to Kuhn, comes a period of first-order change in which researchers accumulate new information consistent with the new paradigm. These terms (particularly "paradigm shift") have been so promiscuously overused that they no longer have much value—and yet societies do change their prevailing worldviews, sometimes on a large and heroic scale. Such changes are a common and natural part of the history of civilizations as much as they are the growth of individuals. They are also wonderful generators of political and intellectual conflict as they set liberals and conservatives, radicals and reactionaries, hucksters and heroes to arguing about how much change is desirable, how soon, and in what direction.
The past few centuries have been a time of remarkable first-order changes in the everyday realities of human life and even more remarkable second-order changes in how people think about change itself. Some of these changes really define the beginning of the modern era. In the Western world, the Middle Ages was a long period in which life seemed to grind on through endless cycles, little was known of the past, and the future promised to stretch on with more of the same until the angelic horns would finally blow at Judgment Day. Toward the end of that era, people began to revise their ideas about how they were located in space and time. If there was ever a new episteme, that was it.
The new orientation in space is the easier part of this epistemic change to understand, more clearly readable in the pages of history. Human beings were becoming increasingly footloose; developments in shipbuilding and navigation were making it possible for explorers to travel far beyond land on the high seas and soon literally around the world, bringing back news of distant civilizations, vast oceans, and heretofore unknown territories. The early modern era was a time not only of exploration but also of mapmaking and printing. Even the stay-at-homes could study Mercator's map of the world—as awesome an intellectual achievement in its time as the sequencing of the human genome in ours, and a whole lot easier to figure out—and browse through Ortelius's first atlas, or read that smashing sixteenth-century bestseller, Mundus Novus, the story of Amerigo Vespucci's adventures along the coastlines of South America. In the process of study their mental maps took on a new clarity and scope, and their minds ventured out into the vastly larger world that the navigators had found for them.
As that new sense of geographic space spread throughout the world, so did a new perception of time and history. The ancient view of time as cyclical was overtaken by what sociologist Goran Therborn calls "the discovery of the future," a recognition that the basic conditions of life changed, that there was not only a New World out there across the ocean but also new worlds continually appearing everywhere as the future revealed itself—"an open, unbuilt site never visited before, but a place reachable and constructible."
Those unfolding landscapes of space and time were the spacious environment within which the Renaissance and the Enlightenment flourished. The former brought exuberant visions of life's possibilities; the latter an outburst of scientific discovery, social dissent, and philosophical exploration that at some points produced concepts of personal enlightenment much closer to what we find in Eastern traditions than today's spiritual seekers may suspect. It isn't entirely coincidental that we use the same word in English—enlightenment—for the Eastern concept of liberation from illusion and the Western concept of liberation from ignorance.
The March of the Philosophes
The European Enlightenment wasn't only a concept, of course; it was also a Zeitgeist, a period of time with a distinct personality, and it was first and foremost a movement. As it gained momentum its leaders, particularly the boundlessly energetic philosophes of France, formed a loose community, something like what today we would call a network. It had its cliques and loners; it had some deep philosophical differences, especially the schism between empiricists and idealists; and it had no lack of strife and rivalry. But the various writers, academicians, scientists, aristocrats, politicians, and renegade clergymen who formed the movement shared a sense of common purpose—they saw themselves as united in a noble cause. This understanding stretched across national boundaries: it was the Age of Enlightenment in Great Britain and the United States, the illuminismo in Italy; the siècle des lumières in France, and the Aufklärung in Germany. The philosophes and their allies believed that the time had come to bring the final end to the Dark Ages, debunk superstition and dogma, and create a new and more hopeful sense of human nature and the possibilities of civilization. In the words of the encyclopedist Denis Diderot, the movement's objective was nothing less than to "change the general way of thinking." They wanted a new episteme, built on the discovery of the future but going well beyond it, in which human beings would for the first time deliberately transform themselves and create the conditions of life in the decades ahead.
Their project took them inevitably into an extensive running battle with established religions. Although the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had been shaking up the power structures of the Christian world for some two centuries before the philosophes and their allies emerged as a major force, the kind of religious freedom most of us in the West take for granted today was nowhere to be found in Europe. Official state religions—whether Catholic or Protestant — were the norm, and religious authorities had real power, which they exercised with great enthusiasm. The persecution of dissent was vigorous in most of the great monarchies: On the Continent people were still being put to death for sacrilege and sorcery, and even in relatively open-minded England life could be difficult for anyone whose faith was not that of the established church.
However, despite its strong reformist bent and general skepticism, the Enlightenment was not simply an antireligious movement. Even Sir Isaac Newton — the scientific ikon of the age, whom some of the philosophes considered to be the greatest man who ever lived—was a devout believer who saw his work as advancing the cause of Christianity. Most of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment considered themselves to be religious in some sense of that word, and they had all been reared and educated within a civilization saturated with Christian belief. But they were dedicated to the free exercise of the mind and favored a more relaxed, tolerant, and nondogmatic form of religion. They tended to regard many of the official teachings as little more than primitive superstitions—in some cases rather silly and in others downright dangerous.
The doctrine of original sin was especially uncongenial. Both Catholic and Protestant churches taught that humanity had been naturally corrupt since Adam and Eve got into trouble with God for disobeying his orders. This was a proposition that the authorities no doubt sincerely believed, but it just happened to serve nicely in support of both religious and secular power structures: It was—said the church—necessary for people to follow the teachings of religious leaders in order to save their souls and escape eternal damnation. It was equally necessary —said the state—for people to submit to the power of monarchs (endowed with divine right) who would benevolently but forcefully hold down their animal natures and guide them along the paths of righteousness.
The concept of original sin worked wonderfully well for defenders of the status quo, but not so well for reformers; it just wasn't hospitable to ideas about improving the conditions of human life for the living, and religious authorities were likely to regard any exercise of reason as evidence that the wily Devil was playing games with the human mind again. If people were inherently, naturally corrupt, it followed that there were definite limits to their ability to better themselves. In fact, too much concern for improving their conditions was missing the true point of mortal life, which was to seek salvation in the hereafter.
The prevailing view of the Enlightenment was that human beings were essentially good—or at the very least were capable of self-improvement—and that the means to improvement was the free exercise of reason. The Baron d'Holbach, for example, insisted that religious teachings had it all wrong in holding original sin to be the cause of evil and misery in human affairs: "Men," he wrote, "are unhappy only because they are ignorant; they are ignorant only because every thing conspires to prevent their being enlightened; they are so wicked only because their reason is not yet sufficiently unfolded."
Although d'Holbach stood at the most radically anticlerical wing of the Enlightenment, that particular statement pretty well expresses the mainstream view of the movement: Humanity would improve—perhaps even achieve utopian perfection, a sort of Salvation on Earth—through the disciplined and unfettered application of its capacity for rational thought.
The kind of science that had led Newton and Copernicus and Galileo to new comprehension of the natural world was now to be applied in the realm of human affairs. Toward the end of the eighteenth century the term "social science" appeared in the vocabulary of Enlightenment thinkers. It was the ancestor of the social sciences that are now part of the curriculum of modern universities everywhere, but with a much more proactive thrust. The object was not merely to understand social conditions but to apply that understanding in practical ways to change those conditions for the better. Knowledge—won and tested with scientific rigor —would be the shining key to social progress.
The Apostles of Progress
It's hard for us now to realize that there was a time when the idea that the world changes, and might even change for the better, was a stunning, shining-new concept. Scholars argue about whether people in classical Greece and Rome or in the Middle Ages had any idea of progress at all: Some claim that expressions of such a concept can be found in the works of various philosophers. Others find the evidence that it was a driving force in social life very scanty, and doubt that any such concept had much of an effect on the lives of the majority of people. Sociologist Robert Nisbet believes that the idea of progress was never entirely absent from Western thought, but concedes that it underwent a remarkable surge of vitality at a fairly recent stage of history. "During the period 1750–1900 the idea of progress reached its zenith in the Western mind in popular as well as scholarly circles. From being one of the important ideas in the West it became the dominant idea, even when one takes into account the rising importance of other ideas such as equality, social justice, and popular sovereignty—each of which was without question a beacon light in this period."
The tangible signs of progress—the explorations, discoveries, and inventions; the spread of knowledge and prosperity—were so much in evidence that it is hardly surprisingly that people began to think there was an underlying natural law at work, something comparable to those Newton had discovered. The inevitability of progress was an idea whose time had come, and it made a dramatic entrance in December of 1750, when a twenty-three-year-old student named Anne-Robert Turgot delivered a public lecture at the Sorbonne entitled "A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind." There may have been other ideas of human advancement in the past, but this was a modern idea, based on Turgot's survey of what was known of human history and his scientific search for a unifying pattern: "The natural philosopher forms hypotheses, observes their consequences. ... Time, research, chance, amass observations, and unveil the hidden connections which unite phenomena." And what such investigations revealed was an onward-and-upward march of human betterment in which "manners are softened, the human mind enlightened, isolated nations brought together; commercial and political ties finally unite all parts of the globe; and the total mass of humankind, through alternations of calm and upheaval, good fortune and bad, advances ever, though slowly, toward greater perfection."
Some aspects of Turgot's thesis sound terribly naive today. He was unselfconsciously ethnocentric, never really questioning whether what looked like improvement to one group of people might not look so bright to another. But his lecture wasn't just giddy boosterism. It took into account the ignorance and folly of human life, the backward steps and the distance yet to be traveled. That was what gave such conviction to its enormously optimistic conclusions about the general direction of change.
The young student's lecture was one of those remarkable statements—like Martin Luther's two centuries before—that somehow catch the spirit of the time and open the floodgates for an outpouring of new thought. After Turgot came a long parade of thinkers with ideas about how humanity progressed: Adam Smith with ideas of progress through economic freedom, Thomas Jefferson and the other American founders with ideas of progress through political change, Immanuel Kant with ideas of progress through advanced understanding of the nature of truth. One of the most dedicated apostles of progress was the Marquis de Condorcet, who wrote an adulatory biography of Turgot and proclaimed him the discoverer of the "law of progress." For Condorcet, progress had to happen and keep happening and was firmly built into the order of the universe: "Nature," he wrote, "has set no term to the perfection of our human faculties, that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us." Condorcet became a dedicated supporter of the French Revolution, so passionately committed to its democratic promise that he wrote the lines above while he was in hiding from Jacobin police. He finally died in prison, probably a suicide, and would have been dragged to the guillotine by his fellow revolutionaries if he had not taken his own life. But his faith in progress never wavered.
Excerpted from The Next Enlightenment by Walter Truett Anderson. Copyright © 2003 Walter Truett Anderson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Pulling Buddha's Tooth,
Part One: Five Modern Liberation Movements,
1. Enlightenment, European Style,
2. Meeting Cousin Mushroom,
3. The Dark Matter of the Mind,
4. Existence Lost and Found,
5. East Meets West in the Hot Tubs,
Part Two: The New Mirror of Science,
6. Meeting Cousin Sirius,
7. The Mysterious Material Mind,
8. Being Constructive,
9. All the Things You Are,
Part Three: Daring to Know in the Twenty-First Century,
10. The Social Ramble of Ego and Identity,
11. Up and Down with Religion and Spirituality,
12. Real People, Transcendent Moments,
13. Personal Evolution: Becoming Who You Are,
14. The Emerging Enlightenment Project,
Epilogue: You Are Never Alone, You Are Always Home,
ALSO BY WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON,