The Dance of the Visions

Part I:  The Laws of the Dance

by Cory Panshin


Three years ago, I started using my blog to present a theory that human history is structured by an evolving sequence of visions of the underlying nature of reality.

Although I had been working on this theory for many years, I found when I tried to summarize it for public consumption that there were still many gaps and unanswered questions. As a result, instead of presenting a brief introductory description as I had planned and then moving on to other things, I became caught up in an extended effort to refine the theory itself.

It's only now that I feel able to follow through on my original intention and present a broad sketch of what I see as the mechanics behind human history.

I start with three fundamental premises. My first premise is that the most advanced capacity of the human mind is what might be called higher knowledge -- a non-rational way of engaging with existence that on the most obvious level takes the form of intuitive problem-solving.

Second is that interacting with the world in this manner does not merely generate creative solutions to problems. It also leads to certain mystical conclusions which have been remarkably consistent throughout all eras and cultures. The most important of these are:
  • That existence is far vaster and more complex than anything we can know through direct sensory experience.
  • That we ourselves are an integral part of this larger universe and, reciprocally, that it is a part of us and affects everything we do.
  • That we have a moral obligation to act on our awareness of this higher reality by putting its interests ahead of our own and by remaking the everyday world to align more closely with our glimpses of transcendent possibility.
And my third premise is that along with being natural mystics, we humans are also practical, hard-headed types who are skeptical of our own mystical intimations unless we can reconcile them with our factual knowledge of the world around us.

This tension between the factual and the mystical creates a powerful dynamic. It compels us to search for points of reconciliation wherever we can find them -- in the latest discoveries of science, in our experiences as members of social groups and movements, or in the bizarre landscape of our dreams and hallucinations.

The sequence of visions grows out of this dynamic, with each vision representing one particularly successful reconciliation between higher knowledge and a specific area of ordinary knowledge.

Every one of these visions at its peak appears so persuasive and so universally applicable that large numbers of people are swept up in it and begin attempting to transform the world, society, and their own lives in accordance with its implications.  However, each vision also has built-in limitations that eventually cause it to fail and be discarded -- the most fundamental of which is that none of them is more than a fragmentary and imperfect reflection of our highest mystical intimations.

Even the nearly limitless universe of stars and galaxies falls far short of the ultimate reality that lies beyond our ability to perceive.  Subscribing to a political cause, no matter how worthy and high-minded, is not the same as obeying an inner voice that transcends mundane politics.  And although the archetypal beings of our imagining may speak words of profound wisdom, they can never be taken as fully reliable and without flaw.

These impediments can be overlooked when a vision is in its tentative early stages and is embraced only by prophets and poets who recognize it as a fruitful metaphor and not a final word.  But as visions mature and are adopted as the belief systems of entire cultures, they start to be taken literally and to be enforced by social pressure -- and it grows increasingly difficult to see past them to the larger reality of which they are only faint echoes.

That is why all visions must eventually fail and give way to successors that are based on new scientific knowledge, new political forms, and new areas of inner experience.

But there are also additional complications.

One is that the visions come in three distinct types, depending on whether they derive from our experience of the physical universe, of society, or of our own minds.  These are three very different knowledge systems, differing both in their premises and in their conclusions about the nature of reality.  And this makes it relatively easy to reconcile higher knowledge with any one of them in isolation, but almost impossible to do so with all three once.

As a result, we always have multiple visions active simultaneously, each with its own way of reflecting higher knowledge.  But at the same time, higher knowledge itself assures us that ultimate reality has a single nature, and that encourages us to try to combine visions of two or three different types into a grand synthesis.

These attempts can be philosophically fruitful, but their central objective is not the pursuit of mystery but forcing existence to make sense. Over time, they inevitably get lost in purely intellectual arguments that distort the visions involved and contribute to their decline.

And we don't merely intellectualize the relationships among the visions -- we also emotionalize them.  Like children playing with their dolls or action figures, we identify the visions as archetypal personas, cast them in melodramatic confrontations with one another, and act out these confrontations in our own lives.

What's more, different people may tell very different stories using the same cast of characters.  For those of a progressive bent, the newest visions typically become the heroes, while the older visions are viewed as repressive tyrants.  Call this scenario the Rebel Alliance versus the Evil Emperor.  But at exactly the same time, those who are conservative by nature may regard the established visions as protectors of all that is pure and holy, while demonizing the newer ones as forces of destruction and desecration.

These casting choices underlie most of the great historical confrontations -- the wars and revolutions and conflicts between believers and non-believers.  And although everyone tries to paint themselves as the good guys, the outcome is always the same.  As time passes, the oldest of the active visions becomes increasingly hollow and repressive and is finally discredited and discarded.  But then, to maintain the balance of society, the guiding vision of the insurgents is co-opted, toned down, and installed as a new defender of social mores.  The king is dead, long live the king.

And even that is not the complete story. There is a second aspect to the emotional side of the visions which goes beyond archetypal scenarios and taps into our deepest and most primitive hopes and fears.

It seems as though every one of us -- revolutionaries and reactionaries alike -- is motivated by what might be a nostalgic recollection of the earliest days of humankind, when we were all masters of the same simple hands-on technology, lived in small, intimate family units, and discussed our dreams around the campfire.  To some extent, we all want that simpler time back, and we frequently hint at its restoration in our political slogans and battle cries.

Beyond that, we all share the same primal terror of the unknown and the same anxiety over any unleashing of the destructive forces of unrestrained sex and aggression.

Because these hopes and fears are universal, they do not attach to particular visions so much as they control the overall timing of the cycle of change.  At certain moments, most of us are driven by positive expectations and an openness to change, so that many people become partisans of the newest visions and those visions develop rapidly.  But at other times, the majority is driven by fear and a desire for security, and we seek reassurance in the older and more familiar visions and let the newer ones slide.

This regular alternation of impulses is one reason why the vision that inspires the insurgents at times of active innovation always becomes the new monarch once things restabilize.

Taken as a whole, then, the cycle of visions might be said to be driven by four factors that can be described in terms of the ancient schema of earth, air, fire, and water. At its heart are the mystical intimations of higher knowledge -- represented by fire -- which we attempt to reconcile with our practical experience of earthly things. Then to either side stand the intellectual demands symbolized by air and the emotional needs symbolized by water.

Our intellect and our emotions tug the visions back and forth, insisting that they either make rational sense or cater to our innermost hopes and fears.  These competing demands eventually bend the visions out of shape, so that they no longer mediate effectively between heaven and earth. And then the cycle begins anew.


My theory of a sequence of visions of different types grew out of a simpler version of the same idea in which I saw every historical era as shaped by a distinctive worldview that sets the tone for its art, technology, and social institutions.  But although that approach worked well enough to describe the changes from one period to another, it didn't explain the continuities.

For example, there is an obvious connection between the scientific romances of the late 19th century and mid-20th century science fiction.  However, although they share a common faith in the miraculous potentials of science and invention, they differ in almost every other way, from social attitudes to their understanding of human nature.

Considerations like these led me to the concept of a sequence of discrete visions which enter into temporary associations with those that precede and follow them. With that in mind, I found that I could redefine each worldview as the product of a partnership between two visions that are immediately adjacent in the sequence.

The overall tone of any worldview is further influenced by a third vision, the one that comes next in the sequence. This younger vision stands outside the partnership but also interacts with it, serving at some times as a source of welcome novelty and at others as a focus for discontent.

Although the membership of the ruling triad differs from one era to the next, it always includes a vision of each type -- scientific, social, and inner experience.  Taken in concert, they provide the basis for a comprehensive philosophical synthesis, which for a time appears capable of explaining all of existence and offering a reliable guide to technological, political, and personal change.

Eventually, though, every such synthesis develops cracks.  It fails to deliver on its promises, the component visions fall into conflict, and finally it comes apart at the seams.

This collapse sets off a brief but intense period of intellectual and political upheaval -- and by the time the turmoil subsides and the dust clears, everything has changed.  The senior member of the partnership has been discredited and discarded, the junior member has been reformed and modernized, and the outsider vision has cast off its wild, rebellious ways and turned into a mature and dependable leader of society.

At that point, these two surviving visions join together in a new partnership that will furnish the template for the next cultural era, while the outsider role is assumed by a still younger vision of the same type as the one which was discarded.

This process can be seen repeating over and over during the last century and a half.  The worldview of the period from 1865 to 1915, for example, was based on a partnership between one vision which viewed reason as the defining quality of the human mind and another which explained the physical universe in terms of scientific materialism.

As a result, the Victorian Era was the heyday of scientific rationalism.  There was a proliferation of technological marvels, Western civilization was transformed by industrialization, and its favored sons set out to colonize the world in the name of reason and science.

During this same period, the ambivalent outsider role was held by the democracy vision, which defined the ideal society in terms of equality and self-government.  Democracy was applauded by the Victorians to the extent that it appeared more rational and scientific than monarchy -- but its wild, anarchic side was seen as dangerous and destabilizing and was often violently repressed.

The Victorian worldview held firm for fifty years -- and to many people it seemed as though it might last forever -- but in the end it was swept away by an inexorable wave of change that began with the vast disillusionment of World War I, continued through the Roaring Twenties, and concluded in the early years of the Great Depression.  By the time the turmoil subsided, faith in human rationality had collapsed and a new worldview, based on a partnership between scientific materialism and democracy, was settling into place.

The mid-century worldview would not last as long as its predecessor -- only from the 1930's to the 1960's -- but at its peak it was every bit as dynamic and resilient.  It generated the glowing promises of the World of Tomorrow displayed at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. It was the power source for the New Deal, the American effort in World War II, and the consumer economy of television sets and interstate highways that followed the war.  Even in its declining phase, it remained capable of inspiring the futuristic gadgets of The Jetsons and the galactic explorations of Star Trek.

The outsider vision of this era was one that had arisen out of a radically new understanding of the human mind.  The reason vision that was dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries had been founded on the belief that humans were capable of arriving at a rational understanding of themselves and the universe and of constructing rationally-based societies.  In contrast, the chaos vision embraced everything its predecessor had excluded, with a particular focus on madness, hallucination, intoxication, and general wackiness.

Early hints of the chaos vision can be seen in the art and literature of the late 1700's and 1800's, but it only gained a comprehensive theoretical basis in the 1890s, in the form of Freud's theory of the unconscious.  By the 1920's, the fundamental irrationality of human nature was widely accepted -- but like democracy in the 19th century, it wasn't fully trusted and was seen as dangerous and destabilizing.  In the 1950's and 60's, chaos was firmly associated with the disruptive power of Hollywood movies, comic books, and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

But just as had happened fifty years earlier, the era of scientific-materialism-and-democracy came to an end in a great social paroxysm. Between the early 1960's and the mid-1970's, the old mechanistic view of the cosmos was decisively rejected, together with its techno-futuristic dreams and its glorification of the Conquest of Nature.

At the same time, the democracy vision was being cleansed of certain negative tendencies picked up during its long association with scientific materialism -- particularly the manipulative attitudes that had come to be blamed for the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate. And when things quieted down in the middle 70's, it was ready to enter into a new partnership with a domesticated chaos vision.

By then, chaos had ceased to be perceived as an overwhelming, nihilistic force. Rather than being identified with madness and wild abandon, it was now viewed primarily in terms of individualism and human rights.  Even the monsters and vampires that had once symbolized the most terrifying aspects of chaos were reduced to cuddly muppets offering messages about tolerance and self-esteem.

In the partnership that resulted, democracy was no longer the be-all and end-all it had been since World War II.  Its abuses of power had fostered a general distrust of government, and people on both ends of the political spectrum were convinced that it would be wise to subordinate even democratic institutions to individual rights and freedoms.

The democracy-and-chaos partnership has ruled us ever since, providing the worldview for the era that is now ending.  That worldview has provided the basis for everything most characteristic of the last thirty-five years, from identity politics and gay rights to laissez-faire capitalism and libertarianism.  All of these are based not merely on a dedication to individual freedom but also on a belief that passion and gut feelings are more reliable guides to action than rationally-conceived plans and agendas.

Meanwhile, the outsider role has been filled by the holism vision, which first became prominent in the late 60's and early 70's, as scientific materialism was fading.  Like every scientifically-based vision, holism offers a model of existence derived from the natural world -- but where the model of scientific materialism was one of simple physical interactions controlled by rigid natural laws, the model of holism focuses on complex systems, networks, and elaborate feedback loops.

In the 1970's, everybody from the flower children to Richard Nixon seemed to be enamored of the ecological ideals that were the leading expression of the holism vision, but in the 1980's holism was recast as a dark, subversive force -- like chaos before it and the democracy vision before that.  Environmentalists were derided as fanatical tree-huggers or eco-terrorists, and in the early 1990's they were joined as targets of FBI infiltration and arrests by computer hackers, who were similarly inspired by the network-based premises of holism.

It's now late 2012, and the war against holism is still in full swing.  Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, fearing extradition to the United States.  Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has skipped bail in Germany to avoid being extradited to Japan over his attempts to thwart that nation's annual whale hunt.  And any number of less prominent environmental activists and members of Anonymous have been hounded or jailed.

But the pattern of the past already informs us as to how all of this will turn out.  Within a decade or so, any remaining faith in the tattered rags of representative democracy will have crumbled, but meanwhile the most radical exponents of holism will have been either knocked out of the game or turned into reformed characters.

At the same time, the chaos vision will have been purged of its most extreme tendencies towards hyper-individualism, self-indulgence, and naked greed and will be ready to join in a new dominant partnership with the tidied-up holism vision.  This chaos-and-holism partnership will then turn its attention to the problems of global warming and environmental degradation and the urgent task of building a more livable world.

By then, the Internet will have lost much of its present anything-goes spirit, even as it becomes the heart of global civilization.  But a new outsider vision will have stepped forward in the form of horizontalism -- a socially based vision focused on direct democracy and peer-to-peer relationships that even now can be seen bubbling up in the Occupy movement and elsewhere.

And as past example also tells us, following a few years when horizontalism is embraced as warmly as ecology was in the 1970's, it will be thrust into the antagonist role and will take up the struggle against the inevitable limitations and excesses of chaos-and-holism.


This same pattern of distinct worldviews separated from one another by periods of political and intellectual turmoil also holds true at earlier times. As you go back in history, however, the length of each era stretches out from decades to centuries and even millennia.

Again and again, there have been extended periods of cultural continuity that seemed as though they could last forever but that ultimately collapsed into fragmentation and upheaval.  And just as regularly, every period of upheaval has concluded with the construction of a new worldview and the onset of a new era of stability.

There are strong indications that this pattern can be traced back to the final part of the Paleolithic, during which a single artistic tradition endured for tens of thousands of years, until it was thrown into turmoil by the abrupt climate changes at the end of the Ice Age.

The next several thousand years were a time of cultural dislocation and rapid innovation that climaxed around 7000 BC with the establishment of fully agricultural societies and a new Neolithic lifestyle.

By then the pace of change was quickening. The peak of the Neolithic lasted for only about four thousand years, ending when a brief but acute deterioration in the climate around 3200 BC threw the most advanced agricultural societies into crisis and promoted the development of a more complex form of social organization that we know as civilization.

The millennium that followed was characterized by radical uncertainty mingled with dazzling cultural accomplishments, such as the pyramids of Egypt.  New political and religious systems emerged with lightning speed and just as quickly fell back into decadence and confusion. And through all these dizzying ups and downs, new visions of reality were not only being cultivated but were driving events.

Evidence from archaeology and anthropology suggests that the Neolithic worldview had been based on a partnership between two extremely ancient visions -- the kinship vision and the spirit vision.  The former was based on the elaborate kinship systems of the time and viewed all of nature as following similar principles of organization.  The latter was derived from the shamanistic belief in spirit beings and spiritual power.

Both these visions had been modified somewhat when they were joined together in a dominant partnership. The spirit power of the shamans was reconceived in more material terms, as a life-force that underlay the fertility of plants, animals, and people.  And this same force was seen as maintaining the cohesion of society as it flowed down the generations from ancestors to descendants.

The outsider role at this time was held by the cosmic order vision, which had its roots in the mind-boggling recognition that the sun, moon, and stars follow predictable paths in space and time. At the peak of the Neolithic, this younger vision was brought into the grand synthesis of the era, through a belief -- of which traces still survive today -- that the movements of the heavenly bodies also influenced the ebb and flow of the life-force on earth.

The megalithic monuments of the late Neolithic, which appear to reflect this synthesis at its moment of greatest influence, were devoted simultaneously to venerating the ancestors, enhancing the earth-bound life-force, and correlating it with the vast patterns of the heavens. Like every grand synthesis, however, this one eventually reached its natural limits and fell apart.

By 3000 BC, peasant societies held together solely by bonds of kinship had proven incapable of dealing with major crises and were being superseded by highly-organized kingdoms that took their inspiration from the cosmic order vision and aimed to become earthly reflections of the perfect regularity of the skies.

As the kinship vision faded, the spirit vision became free to throw off its earthly attachments and assume a more otherworldly aspect.  The partnership of spirit and cosmic order that formed before 2000 BC was most clearly reflected in the new celestial gods who were replacing the older ancestral spirits and nature spirits. These deities of the sun and stars, together with the divine kings who were considered to be their children or earthly representatives, stood at the core of Bronze Age society.

Meanwhile, a new outsider vision was coming along -- the aristocracy vision, which had grown out of the mystique surrounding the warrior class.  During the final centuries of the Bronze Age, the divine kings attempted to co-opt this vision by depicting themselves on their monuments as triumphant warriors, but it seems likely that they were more often in conflict with unruly nobles or barbarian invaders.  And when the era of the great empires collapsed around 1200 BC, it was the warriors who took over.

The succeeding period of upheaval witnessed the decline of the spirit vision and the flowering of aristocratic ideals.  In the great heroic epics composed about 800 BC -- the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Mahabharata -- the focus is on the noble deeds of their protagonists, while the doings of the gods have been relegated to the background.

By the time the next worldview came together in the 6th century BC, it was becoming difficult to believe in the gods at all. In the classical world of Greece and Rome, the cosmic order vision persisted, but the celestial deities themselves were reduced to the objects of official state cults, reinterpreted as abstract universal principles, or superseded by formal astrological systems.

The jettisoning of the spirit vision, and with it the dead weight of all-powerful gods and god-kings, was experienced as a great psychological liberation that made possible an enormous flowering of art and philosophy. By the time of the Roman Empire, however, the partnership between aristocratic power and an increasingly deterministic cosmology had hardened into an oppressive system that seemed to offer no way out -- except by way of the revelation vision, which became the chief antagonist of state power.

The revelation vision, which was the direct successor to the failed spirit vision, was founded on the premise that glimpses of higher truth revealed to prophets and sages were not literal spirit-journeys but the result of inspiration from some higher power.  This new way of perceiving inner experience became the basis for the mystery cults, mystical philosophies, and salvationist religions that flourished in the latter days of Rome.

The persecution of the Christians that reached its peak in the 3rd century can be seen as the final attempt by the fading Classical worldview to maintain its authority, but eventually the last remnants of the old polytheism and its philosophical offshoots were defeated and discarded. By then, the Roman Empire itself was tottering, and between about 400 and 600 AD, once-invincible empires crumbled everywhere across the Old World, much as they had at the end of the Bronze Age.

This period of turmoil came to an end in the early 600's, with the reestablishment of stable power centers that included the Catholic Church, the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic caliphate, and the Tang Dynasty. However, all these institutions took their legitimacy not from the failed cosmic order vision but from the new partnership of aristocracy and revelation.

The same pattern has continued to be repeated over and over ever since -- rise and fall, stability and change -- but the last thousand years have been marked by a few highly significant variations.

For one thing, the periods of turmoil that accompany the collapse of each worldview have become far less drastic.  Instead of civilizations falling, barbarians storming the gates, and entire social orders vanishing without a trace, the upheavals now are relatively modest in scale.

For another, the leading creative figures during those transitional periods are no longer shamans, priests, or prophets, as they were in ancient times, but artists, poets, musicians, and spinners of tales.

This was already the case in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, which was the time of Arthurian romances, of the troubadours, and of new forms of secular music.  It was true again in the Italian Renaissance, when artists and their wealthy patrons set the style.  It was true in the early 18th century, when music, theater, and the novel comprised the leading edge of culture.  And the tendency reached an even greater degree of self-awareness in the 1840's, with the invention of the concept of bohemianism which has provided the template for the countercultures that have marked every period of upheaval since.

I am not completely sure of how to interpret these changes -- but my best guess is that they mean we have internalized the cycle of visions and are driving it along of our own accord.  Apocalyptic catastrophes are no longer necessary to overturn declining worldviews because we are learning the moves of the dance, and an increasing number of us are eager to celebrate the end of an era rather than holding onto its fading promises of stability.

Another factor making this shift possible is a proliferation of new symbolic forms that enable us to act out the contention among visions on a highly abstract level.  A few thousand years ago, for example, there was no such thing as "fashion," and clothing styles in ancient Egypt or even the Roman Empire barely changed from century to century.  But in the course of the Middle Ages, the adoption of faddish new attire became an accepted way for young people to send messages to one another (and to their elders) about their rejection of the old ways and endorsement of the new.

This internalization and abstraction may also underlie the extreme shortening of the cycle in recent times, since the speed with which each worldview rises and falls appears to be controlled by how quickly new ideas can be disseminated.  That speed depends in part on material factors -- ranging from population density to advances in communication technology -- but it is also enhanced by our ability to express our attitudes and ideals in symbol forms that can be easily understood and adopted.

It also seems that once the cycle had shortened to a certain degree, a feedback effect may have taken over to shorten it still further.  The people who built the pyramids and Stonehenge, after all, had only vague myths concerning the invention of the Neolithic.  For Homer and his contemporaries, the ancient megalithic monuments were the work of long-vanished giants.  But the shorter the cycle becomes -- and the more precise our methods for recording past occurrences -- the better able we are to remember the people and events of the previous turn, and the more prepared we are to learn from their example.

This is a very strange adventure we humans are on, and there is no way to guess where it will wind us up. However, it seems reasonable to assume that this game, like any other, is one we will only get better at as we master the rules.


My more immediate question, however, is not where the cycle of visions is going -- which will reveal itself in its own time -- but where it came from and how it could have gotten established in its present form.

The mechanisms that maintain the cycle are extraordinarily complex, to the point where I've compared them at my blog to a Rube Goldberg device.  Every small shift in the relationship among the visions provokes the next, in a highly precise fashion that somehow manages to keep the rise and fall of successive worldviews exactly on track.

But how could that sort of self-regulating complexity have emerged out of nowhere?

This question can be seen as a special case of the puzzle of evolution in general, to which our society has come up with two very different answers.  The intelligent design folks argue that you can't have watches without watchmakers and that the presence of design implies a Designer.  The Darwinians counter that nature is self-organizing and that complex innovations can arise through a series of simple adaptations, each of which has its own immediate utility.

When it comes to the cycle of visions, I'm willing to allow for a pinch of intelligent design -- with the proviso that we humans are the ones doing the designing.  It is, after all, part of our heritage to have dreamed ourselves into being at every step of the way, starting when the first proto-shamans awakened to their own nature on the plains of Africa 200,000 or more years ago and began to reshape the world.

But although self-creation may be part of the story, the element of conscious control is not particularly apparent in early turns of the cycle.  The worldviews of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, and the Bronze Age all appear to have been toppled by abrupt deteriorations in the climate, and it is not until the time of the Roman Empire that we see a worldview crapping out just because it has become oppressive and stifling and people are sick to death of it.

So I believe the origin of the cycles also demands a more conventional evolutionary model -- one in which simple adaptations, added one step at a time, could have eventually come together to form a complete system.

When I initially worked out the succession of worldviews in the early 1970's, there was no room for an evolutionary scenario. It was believed that modern humans had appeared only some 45,000 years ago, and I assumed that the cycle of visions might have come into being in its present form as part of the same evolutionary leap. But the more I learn about the visions, the less satisfactory that answer appears.

In addition, the starting-point of our species has been pushed further and further back in time. The oldest known remains of anatomically modern humans have been dated to 115,000 years ago.  Still earlier skulls found in Ethiopia and dated to 160,000 years ago are nearly modern in appearance, with only minor archaic features.  These remains, along with evidence of sophisticated tool-making techniques being applied in South Africa around 164,000 years ago, suggest that our ancestors had already passed through the major changes in brain organization that distinguish us from our cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Taking the story back even further, DNA studies have dated our earliest common ancestor -- so-called "mitochondrial Eve" -- to 200,000 years ago, and if recently proposed adjustments in the molecular clock are confirmed, that could stretch out to 300,000 years or more.  Yet despite this vast expansion of the human time frame, there is still no evidence prior to about 50,000 years ago of the combination of sophisticated art, music, and advanced technology which archaeologists describe as "behavioral modernity."

The archaeologists are still arguing about the nature of that shift and whether it was biological, behavioral, or cultural. But from my own perspective, I am convinced that what really happened was that the very first worldview was constructed at that time and brought with it a sudden burst of symbolic activity.

This conviction grows out of two lines of reasoning. One is that the culture of the late Paleolithic -- as represented, for example, by the cave art of Western Europe -- has an air of freshness and vitality about it. When judged by the standards of more recent eras, if feels like something you would expect to see while a worldview is still undergoing active development, and not at all like the very tail end of a culture that might have begun 100,000 or 200,000 years earlier.

But at the same time, I find it impossible to believe that there could have been any earlier worldview, because the three visions that were active during the later Paleolithic appear to be the very first of their respective types. The two dominant visions then were the transformation vision -- in which the fundamental metaphors of existence were drawn from food and sex, birth and death, growth and decay -- and the kinship vision. The third member of the synthesis was the spirit vision of the shamans.  And there are no indications of anything earlier than these three.

Worn-out visions may lose their cultural dominance, but they never vanish entirely. They leave traces in folk customs and superstitions, in the stories we tell, in the derivations of words and the very structure of our languages. Even today, we are surrounded by fragments of these three most ancient visions -- but nothing beyond that.

But if the first worldview goes back only 50,000 years or so, what would have been happening in human intellectual development during the 200,000 years before that?

My best guess is that the visions go back much further than the worldviews, and that it took all that time for the earliest visions to emerge, mature, sow the seeds of their own successors, and start to decline. It was only then that the more complex system of partnerships and worldviews became both possible and necessary.

Until very recently, it was my assumption that every vision gives rise to its successor of the same type at the point where it becomes the senior member in a partnership.  That is when an aging vision starts to lose its integrity and fall out of touch with higher truth -- and it is also when its successor takes on formal structure and attains widespread cultural visibility.

I believed, for example, that the formation of the late Paleolithic worldview was what had provoked the transformation vision to give birth to its own successor, the cosmic order vision. But in the course of exploring this question at my blog over the last year, I've realized that the crucial step actually occurs much earlier -- at the point when a vision surrenders the outsider role and begins to assume worldly power and respectability.

To cite some recent examples, this means that the earliest signs of the holism vision are to be found not with the development of ecology and cybernetics in the 1930's, but with the nature-mystics of the early 1800's who first began entertaining doubts about mechanistic science. Similarly, the roots of the horizontalism vision lie not in the liberation movements of the 1970's but among the radical Wobblies of the 1910's, who had come to view even democracy as just another hierarchical system of oppression.

If this same pattern held true in prehistoric times -- and there is every reason to believe it did -- it would mean that the first tentative hints of the revelation vision must have been developed not by the prophets and sages of the Bronze Age, but by the shaman-priests of the early Neolithic.

It would also mean that the earliest glimmerings of the aristocracy vision should be associated not with the appearance of class societies in the late Neolithic but with the big-game hunters of perhaps 75,000 years ago.

And it would throw the origins of the cosmic order vision back even further, possibly to a time when those big-brained almost-modern humans of 160,000 years ago were gazing up at the stars and dreaming of another world that seemed near enough to touch and yet was eternally beyond reach.

This is a strange and surprising scenario.  It suggests that our most remote ancestors, far from being inferior to us because they had not yet developed the succession of worldviews that makes up recorded history, may have actually enjoyed an order of intellectual openness and flexibility that we ourselves have lost.

It would be premature to jump to conclusions about any of this -- and yet it does seem possible to imagine a sequence of events that could have gotten us from there to here.

If we start by assuming that the cosmic order vision was born around 160,000 years ago, then the three original visions must be even older. They would have to have developed between about 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, when the earliest true humans began to perceive reflections of higher reality in the world around them -- first in the natural world, then in their own increasingly elaborate kinship systems, and finally in the inner workings of their minds.

These three initial visions -- transformation, kinship, and spirit -- would have guided our footsteps for an almost unimaginably long time, until one after the other they became too deeply embedded in ordinary life and fell out of touch with higher knowledge.  That opened the way for successor visions to emerge.

The dreamers who stayed up after dark to watch the stars were looking for something vaster and more eternal than the narrow boundaries and limited timespans of their everyday lives.  The big-game hunters who perceived their success as owed to their own strength and courage -- along with the luck they gained through being on good terms with the spirits -- were rebelling against an inflexible kinship system in which destinies were sealed by accidents of birth.

But as soon as the first hints of these newer visions appeared, the established visions began to push back.  Imagine it, if you like, as old-timers versus young punks.  Or as people who were still only proto-human being disconcerted by those who were doing their best to be fully human.  Regardless of exactly how and where the lines were drawn, however, the upshot was that the original visions planted their feet firmly and refused to budge.

For tens of thousands of years, the old grandmas and midwives who were the upholders of the transformation vision were able to ignore the midnight ravings of the stargazers.  But then the aristocracy vision began to emerge as well, challenging the deeply rooted taboos built into the kinship system.

With the two oldest visions both under assault, the social fault lines might have intensified to a point that I imagine as being something like the turbulent final phase of the 1960's counterculture -- with the wise old women and tribal elders of the transformation and kinship visions on one side and a shifting alliance among shamans, stargazers, and hunters on the other.

And to up the stakes still further, the established social order would have been flying to pieces just as a new ice age was setting in and posing a threat to the very survival of humankind.


But at the very moment when things looked darkest, an extraordinary act of cultural ingenuity provided a solution that satisfied all parties while reconfirming the bonds of human society.

One aspect of this great compromise was that the transformation and kinship visions came together in the first partnership, giving rise in the process to stabilizing institutions such as tribal initiations and other rites of passage.  The other aspect was that the upstart younger visions were furnished with a protected space by being interpreted as occult truths, hidden behind the facade of the dominant worldview and to be revealed only to a few.

At least that is the secret bargain which has been struck in every new worldview since -- and there are reasons to believe it was that way from the start. In late Paleolithic Europe, for example, the Venus figurines associated with fertility and reproduction appear to have been used in rituals carried out above ground, while the darkness of the caves was devoted to images of spirit-beings, markings that tracked the movements of the heavens, and invocations of the magic of the hunt.

It was a brilliant solution, but not a stable one. Every worldview is an artificial construct that eventually falls into disillusionment and collapse, and even this first and seemingly most perfect worldview was no exception.

Each new worldview ever since has attempted to recapture the balance and harmony of the prototype that was created some 50,000 years ago. And each worldview has come unraveled in the same way, giving rise to a fresh period of turmoil that echoes both the extraordinary creativity and the unsustainable social tensions of the time before the first worldview was constructed.


Return to Trogholm

Return to The Abyss of Wonder

The sequence of visions that have served to order experience:
  • Scientific visions - derived from observation of nature and the physical world
    • Social visions - derived from the structures and rules of human societies
      • Inner experience visions - derived from trance, dream, and inspiration
  • Transformation (rhythms of growth and decay) - peak in Paleolithic
    • Kinship - peak in late Paleolithic and Neolithic
      • Spirit - peak in Neolithic and Bronze Age
  • Cosmic Order (cyclical movements of the heavens) - peak from Bronze Age to ancient Rome 
    • Aristocracy - peak from Iron Age to Dark Ages
      • Revelation - peak in Dark Ages and Middle Ages
  • Emanation (philosophical causality) - peak in Middle Ages and Renaissance
    • Hierarchy - peak from Renaissance to 18th century
      • Reason - peak in 18th and 19th centuries
  • Scientific Materialism (laws of nature) - peak in 19th and early 20th centuries
    • Democracy - peak from early to late 20th century
      • Chaos - peak in late 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Holism (feedback and emergent systems) - about to reach its peak
    • Horizontalism
      • Creative Imagination

Border courtesy of Eos Development