Top positive review
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Pioneering early classic
on 2 October 2002
What is remarkable about this book is that it is one of the first to consider religious illumination from a psychological perspective. It differs from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience in that many of Bucke’s opinions (e.g. his views on socialism) have been proved wrong by time and has dated. In order to judge it objectively, one ought thus to always keep the era in which it was written in mind.
The basic point is that the human race is slowly and sporadically – albeit with increasing speed – developing a new consciousness, one that is substantially more advanced than the normal human consciousness, and one that will eventually lift the species above the fear, ignorance and brutality that has plagued mankind throughout its history.
Bucke’s argument is based on analogy. He points out the three phases of consciousness found among living creatures: perception amongst lower animals, receptual consciousness amongst higher animals and the conceptual thinking of human beings, that is accompanied by a strong sense of self.
In a very interesting chapter he demonstrates the development of consciousness over the last couple of millennia by referring to mankind’s increasing refinement in distinguishing different colors. Initially only black and red were differentiated, but what was perceived as “red” has been refined into red, orange, yellow and white and even further. Likewise with “black” which split up into black and blue-green, from which the separate colors blue and green were again discerned:
“The blazing blue of the oriental sky is not mentioned in Homer or the Bible, nor in the Rig Veda or the Zend Avesta. But in this present century we know not only the seven primitive colours, but literally thousands of different shades and gradations of them.”
Bucke argues that new or enhanced senses originate with sporadic manifestations among a minority of human beings and that a new consciousness eventually spreads through the whole population. The new, or fourth level of consciousness, which will enable mankind to perceive the unity of the cosmos and the divine presence inherent in it, that will liberate humanity from fear and that will enable the race to perceive that love is the rule and the basis of the universe, is what is called cosmic consciousness. Bucke predicts that cosmic consciousness will ultimately be the norm amongst the majority of people.
No reader will agree with all the author’s points, but some of his great contemporaries like the scientist and philosopher Ouspensky agreed to such an extent that he devoted an entire chapter in his work Tertium Organum to this book. The response of psychologist William James in a letter to Bucke was: “My total reaction on your book, my dear Sir, is that it is an addition to psychology of first rate importance, and that you are a benefactor to us all.”
Bucke considers the greatest teachers, artists and religious thinkers by looking at their teaching and what is known about their lives, and points out the remarkable correspondences. Some of those discussed in detail include Gautama, Jesus, Paulus, Plotinus, Mohammed, Dante, St. Jan of the Cross, Francis Bacon, Jacob Behmen, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Lao Tse, Socrates, Benedict Spinoza, Swedenborg, Emerson, Thoreau and Ramakrishna Paramahansa.
His arguments are persuasive, as far as both the comparison of texts and the similarities in the numinous experiences of the individuals are concerned. As such, the book also serves as a brilliant study of the nature of the mystical experience that is exactly the same in all the religious traditions.
He concludes that these individuals were the pioneers who had already entered cosmic consciousness and wished to convey its essence to the rest of humanity. They were, however, restricted to use the language of normal consciousness and that is why their revelations appear to be incomplete and even deceptive..Bucke's work deserves its "classic" status and may be appreciated even more when read together with William James' aforementioned work, plus Stephan Hoeller's brilliant book "The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead."