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Evolutionary Theory and the Common Good: Beginnings of a Wisdom Inquiry

One of the more surprising revelations to grow out of our winter’s pilot “Civics for Wisdom Students” project has been the growing realization that while our Constitution pays lips service to “the Common Good,” it actually makes very little constitutional provision for it. The founding documents come down heavily on the side of individual rights (explicitly laid out in the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments), while failing even to minimally define what the Common Good might be, let alone how it might carry the day in a legal challenge posed by any apparent infringement of these traditionally sacrosanct rights.

From a Gebserian/evolutionary standpoint, it is not hard to see why this is so. The founding documents emerge from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, just at the highwater mark of the “rational” (a.k.a., “deficient mental”) structure of consciousness. Within this structure of consciousness, egoic consciousness is the principal vehicle of self-awareness, and the individual is the sacred expression of this self-awareness. Selves are individuals—and individuals are the building blocks of larger social units, and ultimately of nations. These larger units grow by simple aggregation: i.e., by an optimization of individual “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Reciprocally—as in Adam Smith’s classic economic formulation— “individual ambition serves the Common Good.”

The Gebserian analysis, however, suggests a radically different scenario playing out as we journey deeper into the emerging Integral structure of consciousness. In an evolutionary leap no less quantum than the leap from “super-molecules” (repeating domino chains of “individual” molecules) to the cell (featuring differentiated function within an overall unity) these domino chains of individuals are being pressured evolutionarily to reconfigure as “persons”—i.e., at a higher evolutionary stage—where the functional unit of consciousness is no longer the boundaried ego but the interpenetrating and diffusive Witnessing Self (remember Beatrice Bruteau’s classic quip, “What if true persons are circles whose centers are nowhere and whose circumferences are everywhere?”). Within this even-now-unfolding Integral structure of consciousness the direction-of-flow is from the whole to the part; the whole possesses “emergent properties” vested only in the whole, not attributable to the part(s) in isolation. Larger social units are based no longer on simple aggregation (i.e., domino chains of individuals individually self-optimizing) but on autopoesis: individual, holographic participation in a dynamic, intelligent, and purposive whole.

…And so, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Jefferson, ball’s in your court!!! Are our constitutional founding constitutional documents inextricably tied to a waning structure of consciousness which even now is rapidly disintegrating, or is it possible to imagine a creative transposition of our founding ideals to a new structure of consciousness based on a radically evolving notion of personhood and “the Common Good?”

I believe that this is a worthy project for our Wisdom circle to take on.

One of the reasons I have been so zealous this past year about trying to prevent our discussions from falling into traditional liberal/progressive social analysis is because it’s precisely at the junction point between these two very different paradigms—historical/critical (“perspectival”) and evolutionary (“aperspectival”)—that the opportunity for authentic third force is most likely to present itself. If the evolutionary model holds water—if we really are convinced that on this “second line of bearing” we are collectively experiencing the intensifying birth pangs of a new structure of consciousness as it dramatically resculpts the contours of our Western cultural heritage—then it becomes that this transpositional work must be done, and that it will succeed because the purposive force of evolution is on its side. Individual (“hypertrophied ego,” as Gebser calls it) will eventually give way to Personhood (“circles whose centers are nowhere and whose circumferences are everywhere”). And the Common Good will shift from an aggregation model (domino chains of individuals) to an autopoesis model, in which the Common Good is understood within a dynamic flow system as an emergent property of the whole.

And we get to be players in the game. If we’re up to the challenge.

While the term “autopoesis” may at first sound intimidating, I’d be willing to bet that you already have the gist of it in your bones; it’s basically a moving center gig. You get a taste of it driving on a high-volume freeway just off-peak rush hour. In this dynamic flow system, the Common Good is served by keeping the traffic moving. Anything that causes anyone to stop or brake unexpectedly is going to have ripple effects, sometimes leading to several-mile backups. Any attempt to maximize individual gain at the expense of the whole (aggressive driving, road rage, cutting others off, daredevil lane-weaving, “camping out” in a passing lane) is going to slow down the journey for everyone. Individual self-expression must be modified in service of the common aim: to arrive safely and as expeditiously as possible. If the system can be kept flowing, everyone will eventually get there, and as individuals eventually synchronize themselves to the calculus of the whole, the dance can actually become exhilarating. It’s a direct moving center taste of thinking from the whole to the part, of participating individually in an intelligence of orchestration that belongs to the whole. And I think it’s no surprise that some of the most leading-edge work on the Common Good in our own transitional times is not coming from classic philosophical and ethical reference points, but from engineering, economics, and game theory—and of course, quantum physics, which confirms that the stable world of “things” and “boundaries” assessed by “objective” “individuals” as we once knew them is simply part of that late-perspectival glacier rapidly melting before our eyes.

As I see it, our job as Wisdom students up to the challenge of holding the post during this epochal consciousness shift is threefold:

  • First of all, to understand and articulate clearly this emerging new vision, ranging as widely as possible in the resources and perspectives we are able to bring to this evolving (and still largely uncharted) terrain of the Common Good as it plays out in the Integral structure of Consciousness.
  • Second, to vigilantly nurture and guard a specific quality of being (I have so far referred to it as “sobriety” and “enstasy”), which refuses to split along deficient/rational fault lines but sustains at all costs a direct energetic connection to Originary Presence as it emerges into the world as third force.
  • Third, to continue to educate ourselves in Constitutional Law so as to be able to work more strategically within its givens of our present system to spot openings and appropriate venues for a fuller articulation of the Common Good as we are coming to understand it at this evolutionary inflection point in our planetary history. This includes not only study, but opportunities as they present themselves to teach and network, engaging a wider and wider swathe of the cultural conversation in a direct consideration of the Common Good and the rebirth of moral leadership. It also involves, for those with standing in these arenas, strategic political and legal action when the window of opportunity presents itself.

These three aims will furnish the backbone of my own exploration and teaching in the upcoming year. I thank you all for the tremendous clarity, commitment, and being you have brought to this inquiry already, and—as the year of our pandemic “sequestered” work together phases into a new and more public octave, that the fruits of what has been explored and tempered here will continue to make themselves known.

Meanwhile, for bibliographical starters: Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon; Beatrice Bruteau: The Grand Option, The Maundy Thursday Revolution, God’s Ecstasy; Adrian Bejan, Design in Nature (“The Constructal Law” and flow systems), Ilia Delio, Making All Things New; Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin; and of course, continued meandering in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales and associated commentaries.

Stay tuned!

Comments (10)

  1. The possibility that we are in the midst of an emergent “new vision” of the common good as a dynamic , autopoietic movement of evolving consciousness is beautiful and intriguing. I feel moved to point out, however, that the “greater good” has been wielded as a weapon of social control for a long time, and never more violently than right now, when people who do not wish to participate in a global clinical trial of an experimental medical intervention are being ostracized in their own families and threatened with loss of various kinds of freedom if they do not comply.

    This concept of “greater good” clearly is not rooted in autopoiesis or anything related to evolution of consciousness–but the language is very similar, perhaps indistinguishable. The idea being put forth is that the individual must be willing to be sacrificed for the good of the whole–to “take one for the team.” And many, many people are accepting this and seeing it as their contribution to the “greater good” because humans naturally desire connection and mutuality, which leaves them open to manipulation because they also do not understand their own sovereign nature, their personhood under God.

    For many, and I am one, the protection of individual rights that is found in the US Constitution seems vitally important as the billionaire technocrats use their concept of the “greater good” to strip away those rights and bring us into a system that appears to be based in a collectivist vision but really seeks to engage our innate altruism so we consent to enslavement. And in fact, I am seeing the Bill of Rights in this moment as actually affirming the sovereign personhood of each individual human, which seems like something that must be acknowledged.

    I feel there needs to be an understanding by each person of their own individual sovereignty under God first, which means fully stepping into awareness of our sacred personhood as individuals, before a dissolving of boundaries can be thought of. I have only just come into fuller awareness of this myself in the context of this pandemic which is highlighting the ways we have been taught to turn over our authority over ourselves to outside sources–doctors, governments, etc., whom we trust more than our own inner authority which is sourced in our Divine Sovereign.

    I do think this moment is inviting us to see ourselves as sovereign beings and reconsider what it means to be human in that experience. While at the same time some pretty strong forces are seeking to redefine what it means to be human in quite a different direction. I’m not sure myself how to respond to this. But I do know I am not ready to move away from the self-understanding I have only just gotten to, into an amorphous, aperspectival kind of self or anything called “common good.” Maybe I just won’t be able to go on the next leg of this journey.

    1. Whoa! “and never more violently than right now” is WAY over stating the quite voluntary decision to be vaccinated. Sadly history has many much more violent examples. Consider 1958-1962 China’s Great Leap forward which resulted in “tens of millions of deaths, with estimates ranging between 15 and 55 million deaths”-Wikipedia. Individual liberty and common good are interdependent.

  2. Thank you Cynthia for this thoughtful piece. And also thank you Betsy Barnum for your response. I would like to propose what may be third force in this dialogue. It’s nothing original, but rather a pointing towards a person who I think is has been working for more than 20 years in the field that brings together what you are saying here Cynthia, AND the very real issues you are aware of Betsy. That person is Associate Professor Dr Danny Siegel MD. Go to http://www.mindsightinstitute.com Danny has various courses to introduce the wide application of his seminal contribution to various fields. Click the “Explore” label at the top left of the banner at the top to see the wide application of Danny’s work. I recommend his courses on IPNB -interpersonal neurobiology.

    Personally I’d love to see Cynthia and Danny engaging in a dialogue. There would be much potential for a richness that would be inspirational, and perhaps the combination needed to inspire an evolutionary jump.

    Gerry Douglas

  3. I wanted to comment in a certain way about CB’s incredible insights, but I first departed to read another’s post about the writings. Now, I only want to say that I greatly appreciate Cynthia; she mines from the intellectual exterior and finds a soulful gold nugget for us. Thank you!

  4. I love your description, Lorraine, that Cynthia ‘mines from the intellectual exterior [finding] soulful gold nuggets for us’ … it matches my experience so precisely…

    What comes to me is deep gratitude, Cynthia, for how you ‘stretch the stakes of your tent’ continuously, and offer this evolutionary and integrative attitude wherever It wants to go. You personify what you are inviting…

    I sense my own journey toward an inner ‘common good’ as a fractal of the larger questions you pose, leaning on what you describe as a ‘direct energetic connection to Originary Presence as it emerges into the world as third force.’

  5. Beautiful clarifying important thoughts. I think you are pointing out that evolution is moving us from excessive focus on individuals and individuality to focus on wholeness first, wholeness that we are expressions of, wholeness living us, us living from wholeness. And pointing out that we are suffering the birth pangs of this new awareness and what would be a new way. Thank you.

  6. Beautiful clarifying important thoughts. I think you are pointing out that evolution is moving us from excessive focus on individuals and individuality to focus on wholeness first, wholeness that we are expressions of, wholeness living us, us living from wholeness. And pointing out that we are suffering the birth pangs of this new awareness and what would be a new way. Thank you.

  7. As I read Cynthia, Betsy, and others, I feel myself settling down to embody Third Force as my post.

  8. As someone who is hanging on by her fingernails as it were to this outpouring of new ways of perceiving and reflecting introduced this last year by Cynthia. I simply give thanks . Not only to Cynthia but to you the group working together. I find your thoughtful comments and reflections truly inspiring. I found myself agreeing with Betsy Barham . The reality of being free to discard / let go of the various authoritive dictates I had allowed to run my life . To realise the beauty and dignity of selfhood as a sovereign being is new ,awesome ,humbling as well as palpably exciting . The Wisdom teachings illuminated by Cynthia using Chardin, Gurdieff ,Gebser, and others have so thrilled my being, my gratitude is immense. I have so much to catch up as it were and although I am not from your part of the world I know I want to be an individual participating as intelligently as I can in what Cynthia called “ an intelligence of orchestration. That belongs to the whole. “ So I will continue to go slowly and hopefully gently with my not causing too many holdups on the freeway ! I too will seek to inform myself with constitutional law that affects us all. I am already feeling the negativity towards those who simply choose not to take the vaccine yet for whatever reason. My travel is restricted and I suspect many other restraints will follow. But I do believe in the reality of a third force being able to lighten the darkness as it were for us all.
    Thank you. From a grateful nonmember of the wisdom school.

  9. I want to just add this as my hope/ prayer From psalm 106 translated by NaN C Merrill
    May we become bearers of joy, we who are invited to share in the cosmic dance!
    We pray for the gift of wisdom that the motivations of our heart may be made pure
    That we may recognise the perfect timing of all things and know the seasons of the heart.May we walk with faith all the days of our life— confident in your living presence, even in time of trouble, and with assurance for what is and all that is to be. May we have faith in the unfolding of our lives, and radical trust in the universe.

    I stop there but it’s a great psalm

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