“Progress is the law of life. Man is not man as yet.”
The story of all life is one of progress, one of becoming, one of nurturing latent potential into manifest achievement and of the perpetual emergence of the new. This is the spiritual view. It applies to every human being, to humanity as a whole, to a planet, to a solar system, and, so far as we are able to even begin to sense it, to the manifested universe in its entirety.
In the vastness of this universal picture we are faced with the extraordinary fact that a life-form which we call humanity with a developed self-reflective consciousness has emerged on an apparently insignificant planet in a tiny part of the universe, yet able to grasp the concept of the almost infinite whole of the material Cosmos of which it – we – are a minute part.
Wonderfully now, this is beginning to be paralleled by our first tentative exploration as a species of the inner spiritual dimensions. In response to the kaleidoscope of human experience, we have developed the ability to ponder, to ask questions, to inquire about the different motives that govern our lives and to meditate on the ideals and qualities to which we aspire. This condition of reflection marks the stage of evolution when the first glimmer of light from the indwelling soul is sensed. It manifests in the recognition that there are better values to live by than those which put self-interest first. The desire to meet the needs of others challenges the old selfish habits, and a growing sense of responsibility for the welfare of others becomes an increasingly insistent motive for action. In other words, the person becomes more and more of a giver and less and less of a taker. On a collective level we can see this pattern embodied by the people of goodwill in any nation responding to the higher values and challenging the status quo, often at great personal cost.
For each human being this story has meant the long and painstaking creation of a form through which the inner reality of the soul can express itself; a journey of lifetimes that most of us are still far from completing. On the larger level, the recorded history of human experience – the cultures, the religions, the empires that have been built up and subsequently died away – can be regarded in a similar way, as sequential attempts to build better forms. Naturally and obviously there have been many failures as well as successes on the way. For most of history the truth of this has only been fully understood by a very few. But all the time the goal of “man becoming Man”, to paraphrase Robert Browning, has been visioned by these few, mediated and filtered through mythology and institutional religion, and presented to the humanity of any particular period in a way which could be grasped and in a measure acted upon.
A backward glance over the relatively few thousand of years of recorded history gives a dual picture of the intensity of human striving toward some form of betterment or freedom, paralleled by the inevitable march towards collapse and oblivion. This is wonderfully expressed in Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias”, with its depiction of the broken statue in the desert – all that remains of a proud ruler and his lustrous empire. In his fascinating book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright makes a broad survey of many of the civilizations and cultures that have arisen, existed, and finally disappeared into oblivion. Although all civilizations are unique, he nevertheless highlights recurring patterns in their emergence and development and in the circumstances which lead to their ultimate demise. One of the interesting ideas he explores is the “progress trap”. Every civilization starts out with a “gift of capital” from the environment. As long as a civilization lives within its means – in other words, on the investment accruing from the capital and not on the capital itself, then it can – and in a few cases does – continue indefinitely, for it is living in harmony with the natural world. But as soon as it begins to live beyond its means and starts to eat into its capital, as is the usual pattern, then its demise is inevitable.
A perfect example of this is the civilization on Easter Island in the Pacific where the people at some point in the 15th and 16th centuries became the victims of their own success. An expanding population put increasing strains on the natural environment of the island. More and more of the originally plentiful trees were felled to provide wood for housing, for canoes, and above all for the transport and erection of the statues, or Moai, for which the island is so famous. Analysis of the annual layers of the lakes in the island’s craters show that there were no further deposits of tree pollen after the beginning of the 15th century. In other words, at some point around then the islanders had cut down the last tree. As resources became scarcer, the various clans on the island started to fight for what was left; and by the time European explorers visited in the middle of the 18th century the population had shrunk from an earlier 10,000 to 2,000.
Another example Wright cites is 6th century BC Athens where, in contrast to the Easter Islanders’ lack of foresight, there was an awareness of a likely future problem from the unintelligent felling of the forests. At least two rulers – Solon and later Pisistratus – tried to resolve these potential problems: first, by banning farming on the hillsides; and later, by offering grants to establish olive groves which would stabilize the soil. Ronald Wright notes with irony that “as with such efforts in our day, funding and political will were unequal to the task”.
To the outer eye, these examples seem like a pattern of life from which humanity cannot escape. They inevitably make us wonder if we are collectively on a headlong course that will end in disaster for our present humanity that is overspending its gift of capital at an alarming rate. But to the inner eye, these and many other examples are better seen as experiments, where the motives that led to success or were the cause of failure are recognized and understood, and the learned lessons gradually contribute to the development of a more responsible and loving character, on both the individual and communal level.
Perhaps it would be helpful if we focused on human progress as a dual process. There is firstly a materialistic component. It is one that we are all very familiar with, particularly in the West, where material progress has been one of its outstanding achievements. In fact, since the European Renaissance, human ingenuity and the will-to-know have together precipitated among many other things a breathtaking expansion of scientific and technological discovery, invention and achievement. This cannot be gainsaid. Humanity owes a huge debt to the servers in these fields who have raised human life expectancy and living standards, and enormously developed scientific knowledge and skill. In our present time, for example, we have the ability to feed and properly look after every person in the world. The fact that we don’t is not a problem of resources or technical ability, at any rate at the moment; it is a problem of the lack of vision and insufficient political will – both qualities of the heart.
This leads us to consider the second parallel dimension of human progress, which embraces the spiritual side of life and covers emotional refinement, the development of inclusive rather than separative thinking, ethical awakening, and a growing sense of universal responsibility, all of which can be described as expansions of consciousness. It is this second dimension which is crucial. What progress can we identify here? Because it is obvious that if we do not go forward spiritually as well as materially, then all other progress is a two-edged sword. For all its enormous benefits, material progress has also often meant, and continues to mean, that we have just been able to develop more manipulative ways to build empires, to destructively exploit the environment and to invent more terrible ways to kill each other. In our own time especially, material progress is creating humanity’s nemesis in the form of our growing threat to the integrity of the entire biosphere of the planet. In the minds of some this brings into question the future progress and even continuance of the human race.
A central theme of the many spiritual traditions is that they look forward to a time when the selfish preoccupations of the outer self or personality are displaced by the motives of the awakening higher Self or soul. This is exemplified in Buddhism in the discovery of the noble middle path with its eightfold achievement of right belief, right intentions, right speech, right actions, right living, right endeavor, right-mindedness and right concentration. Correctly practiced, this breaks the wheel of rebirth and the individual attains the permanent state of selfless, compassionate bliss called nirvana. This is the goal, and the various stages of achievement along the way define progress. In Christianity the same story is embodied in the parable of the Prodigal Son, where rampant desire leads to a life of profligate indulgence until the prodigal, in the gutter, comes to his senses and decides to tread the spiritual path or “arise and go to his father”.
There are many signs that we have now reached just this point in the evolution of humanity as a whole. We are beginning to realize that beyond a certain level, more wealth and an increasing number of possessions do not translate into greater happiness or a greater sense of fulfillment and security. Indeed there is much evidence that the reverse is the case. Our intense materialism and consumerism is inevitably leading to a healthy questioning and a growing suspicion that the pursuit of happiness is completely misunderstood as the pursuit of pleasure – surely not what the founding fathers of the United States had in mind over two centuries ago!
All this means that, on a large scale, humanity is beginning to undergo the ‘prodigal’ drama. We are beginning as individuals and societies to want to develop the qualities of right relationship that characterize the noble middle path. We are collectively beginning to experience the awakening to the reality of the soul and are taking the first faltering steps on the spiritual path as the world disciple. There are many implications to this statement but we will look at just two of them because of their relevance to the state of humanity and the world at the present time. The first is to recognize that it is a triumph to have reached this point in human unfoldment. Our present crisis is a sign of the enormous strides of progress humanity has made through the past centuries. These strides are not to do with the evolution of the human body which has remained roughly the same for hundreds of thousands of years; they are to do with the gradual refinement of the desire nature, the co-ordination of a powerful intellect, and the conscious unfolding of the soul itself.
The second is that when this unfolding consciousness begins to gather pace and people really start to experience something of the living presence of the soul there occur two parallel recognitions of reality. One is the extraordinary sense of joy that arises when we touch, if only for the briefest moment, that exquisite reality of lighted love which we call the soul. It is a joy which surpasses all other human joys, as witnessed to by the testimony of the world’s great sages and mystics throughout the ages. It is a mistake, however, to assume that this experience is reserved only for those of a religious inclination. On the contrary, in every field of human activity, striving to fulfill one’s higher potential and to serve can give rise to this sort of expansion of consciousness.
Whatever the specific path of approach, over time this experience reveals that life has meaning and is animated by a loving purpose – in other words that there is a Plan. At the same time, however, all who have this experience become acutely aware that the Plan “is very far as yet from consummation,” as Alice Bailey describes it. “The dark becomes more truly apparent; the chaos and misery and failure of the world groups stand revealed; the filth and dust of the warring forces are noted, and the whole sorrow of the world bears down upon the astounded, yet illuminated, aspirant. Can he stand this pressure? Can he become indeed acquainted with grief and yet rejoice forever in the divine consciousness? Has he the ability to face what the light reveals and still go his way with serenity, sure of the ultimate triumph of good? Will he be overwhelmed by the surface evil and forget the heart of Love which beats behind all outer seeming? This situation should ever be remembered by the disciple, or he will be shattered by that which he has discovered.” (A Treatise on White Magic p.355) This is a most appropriate thought to include in a commentary on human progress as it highlights in a nutshell both the achievement and predicament of humanity at the present time, and also helps us understand why some people despair about the nature of humanity and only see gloom for the future.
Most readers of this commentary will know from personal experience that we make the greatest progress in our lives through dealing creatively with the various crises that come our way. It is the times of greatest difficulty that compel us to discover and draw out the previously hidden resources of the soul, of wisdom and creative thought, in order to take a major step forward. Perhaps we had to recognize a destructive habit of thought or a harmful emotional pattern and leave it behind, or a fresh and unexpected insight made us realize we had an opportunity to make a radical change in our life interest and direction. Whatever it was, it took the best in us plus something more to achieve the necessary transformation.
What is true for the individual is also profoundly true for humanity as a whole. At the present time humanity is facing a series of stupendous self-generated crises that are causing even the most optimistic to look at the future with a certain level of alarm. This commentary is not the place to explore these in great detail. Nevertheless it is wise to evaluate them in order that we have a clear picture of what is happening. Major problems of the physical world are increasingly occupying our attention. These include climate change, overpopulation, the supply of adequate and affordable food and fresh water, energy scarcity, environmental pollution, military conflict and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Humanity’s negative impact on the natural world is generating an extinction rate that matches the great extinction periods of the past when, for example, the dinosaurs disappeared. Some experts predict that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100. Then there are also the problems of human emotional attitudes such as fanatical fundamentalism, excessive material desires, despair, and the fear of failure. In addition there are the problems of an over-active and destructive intellect with its heightened sense of separateness, selfishness and their associated cruelties. Above all, even though there certainly is a new sense of vision and of values, this does not seem to be evoking the necessary radical response quickly enough from governments and the corporate business world, though NGOs, groups and individuals around the world are responding sacrificially and imaginatively in their millions.
Thus, humanity is now being challenged in all three areas of its form life – mental, emotional and physical. At the same time, many people are coming to see all these crises together as aspects of one fundamental crisis – the crisis of relationship. That people are beginning to see things in this light is in itself a good cause for optimism, for it is testimony that humanity is starting to bridge between the intellect’s natural tendency to separate and divide and the heart’s ability to think inclusively and take account of the well-being of the whole.
Values and Vision – The Evidence for Progress
It is said that one of the first signs that the soul is exerting its influence in a person’s life is the emergence of new values and the practical application of a developing sense of responsibility. The history of the past 500 years is full of examples where a few individuals working together with a new sense of vision galvanized a larger group of people into planned and dedicated activity. Not only did this invariably lift their own community or nation, it eventually resonated throughout the whole of the human family empowering the role of conscience and raising the quality of life for all.
Notable among the achievements of recent centuries are the abolition of slavery and the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course it is true that slavery or its modern equivalent shamefully still exists in the forms of bonded and forced labor, trafficked people, sexual exploitation and generational debt. This and similar facts are often used to argue that human progress is a fiction. However, a more balanced view sees that, despite the fact that the abolitionists’ work is not yet completed, there has been a fundamental change in opinion within humanity as to what is right and proper, and there now exists a multitude of dedicated groups and NGOs and inter-government agencies working hard to achieve the vision of the total abolition of slavery in all its forms. We have thus progressed in 200 years from a general state of consciousness that regarded slavery as natural and legal (and a good money-spinner to boot!) to one that could formulate and give consent to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fourth of whose 30 articles states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
Hearteningly, the same story can be found in all areas of human need, for example the progress towards universal franchise, the emphasis on human freedom, the growing manifestation of gender equality, the prohibition of torture and the abolition of child labor, though these latter two remain sadly widespread. The existence of the United Nations itself, born out of the immense suffering associated with the 2nd World War, is testimony to the fact that people the world over – the United Nations Charter begins with the words “We the peoples of the United Nations” – have understood the universality both of human suffering and of human empathy and compassion, and are acting to heal past hurts and create a path to the future that will lift all people to a better life, not just some. Viewed from this perspective the various instruments, charters and treaties created by the UN and ratified by the vast majority of countries of the world are a wonderful testimony to the gradual ascendency of that deeper aspect of human nature which is characterized by love, goodness, kindness and a creative use of the mind.
Let us look in a bit more detail at a few of the areas within the life of humanity which have given special concern especially in the past half century and see if there are signs of new vision, emerging values and true progress here.
The World's Children
It has been said that a good way to judge a civilization is by investigating how it treats its minorities especially its children. This most vulnerable part of humanity has often been brutalized and exploited and many millions of children have been denied the possibility of realizing their full potential as human beings. There are complex reasons for this - psychological, social, economic, political and religious - but at root is humanity's failure to measure up to a sense of responsibility.
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