It will always remain a mystery how humanity could ever blossom into that wondrous dream that we call Greece.
— Gottfried Richter.
This series of essays is an attempt to look at the role of art in life through the lens of its origin and evolution.
Last week, in the first essay, we explored how cave paintings emerged at the time of what Nietzsche later called first internalisation of man: the emergence of what we know as our “inner world”. According to Nietzsche, this happened because humans had to suppress the outward expression of their animal instincts in order to live in a society — and so these instincts were turned inwards instead. Thus the separation between the inner world and the outer world was born, and cave walls with images of animal spirits served as a “membrane” between them.
Gottfried Richter, in “Art and Human Consciousness”, traces the further evolution of the inner world of humans through the succession of four pictorial archetypes: the divine animal, the sphinx of Ancient Egypt, the centaur, and, finally, the charioteer of Ancient Greece (emphasis mine):
Egypt had revered the nature of the animal as something divine and superhuman <…> as a distant recollection of a time when man was still passing through the animal stage. That is the first stage.
The second stage was also reached in Egypt and can be recognized in that great, enigmatic image that is something like an epitome of the whole culture: the sphinx. A human head is struggling to escape from the body of an animal. That was Egypt: still crouched down heavily in the animal’s horizontal position, and completely devoted to the breath and pulse-beat of overwhelming cosmic forces with by far the greatest part of its being. <…>
The centaur is the third stage of this development. Not only the head is born now, but the chest as well, the centre of the human pulse and breath. But man is still immersed in the gloom of night. It is true that thinking and feeling have been set free into the human sphere, but the actual forces of the will rise up out of the deep darkness to carry and pull man around wherever they will. The centaur is still more related to the animal than it is to man. <…>
The charioteer is the fourth stage in that sequence of pictures, the first three of which were the divine animal, the sphinx, and the centaur. In the charioteer the development is complete. Man has pulled away from the animal and has released the animal from himself. He stands outside it now, awake, self-disciplined and in control. <…> And the true charioteer is Apollo. He is the heavenly, divine charioteer who leads the sun upward with his glorious team of horses; he is the one the Greek experienced within himself as the divine power of his Ego.”
Nietzsche, of course, didn’t think that man’s animal instincts had been really conquered (and he was probably right — for better or for worse, they are still here). If anything, a human being is both the charioteer and his horses, at the same time (whatever the Ego might think about it), and it is not at all clear who is really in control.
There is also another important difference between Nietzsche’s concept of “internalisation of man” and Richter’s series of stages. Nietzsche appears to assume that the inner world — and the human consciousness as we know it — sprung to life instantly, in response to the rise of society. In contrast to this, Richter’s series of archetypes captures the gradualness of this process — many millennia had to pass before the ancient divine animal “split” into the charioteer and his horses.
This distinction is essential for this whole series, so I need to discuss it in more detail before returning to art per se.
So was Nietzsche right? Did the painter of Altamira have essentially the same inner world as the sculptor of Delphi (who created the charioteer), and Socrates, and Pythagorus? Had nothing happened to human consciousness in the intervening millennia, and so the whole development from the bison of Altamira to Apollo the charioteer was purely a progress of artistic form?
First of all, it is of course not just Nietzsche. This assumption — that we humans have had essentially the same consciousness all along, from the pre-historic times till nowadays — is deeply embedded into modern thinking, be it in humanities or in social sciences. To give the nearest example, David Lewis-Williams’ hypothesis on the origin of art in cave paintings is explicitly based on the idea that the pre-historic painters had “fully modern consciousness”. It is essential, because this assumption allows him to support the hypothesis with modern experimental data on altered states of consciousness.
More generally, this assumption — that we all have fundamentally similar “inner worlds” (just as we have fundamentally similar bodies), and that this is true for all humans of all times — this assumption makes it much easier to study humanity, its history and its social structures. One can, for example, study a group of undergraduates in an American University and make far-reaching generalisations about “human consciousness”. On another level, one can study modern languages and make inferences about their pre-historic counterparts, and about natural language in general (I admit I was engaged in this practice myself).
Apart from being the cornerstone of social sciences and humanities, this assumption — that we are all essentially the same “inside” — is also an essential antidote against the so-called “othering”, that is, against considering people of other tribes, cultures, epochs as somehow “less human” than oneself.
All in all, it’s not an assumption that’s easy to let go of.
But the closer we look at it, the harder it becomes not just to accept it implicitly, but even to understand what it really means — if only because it’s hard to understand what the word “consciousness” means. This very concept, “consciousness”, is central to the time we live in, and it seems to be everywhere, but there is not much agreement on what the word refers to. For example, in one sense, one can say that apes have consciousness, and so consciousness predates humanity; in another, it is only later in the evolution of humankind that consciousness arises. In one sense, we all have the same consciousness; in another, it can be deliberately modified by practicing meditation.
But we are not after a rigorous definition here — and, to quote Nietzsche again, “only something which has no history is capable of being defined” (and consciousness is, quite obviously, not one of these things). What’s important is that it is quite possible to entertain the hypothesis that a significant shift in the evolution of consciousness separates the divine animals of Altamira and the charioteer of Delphi.
This is, in fact, Gottfried Richter’s hypothesis, and I tend to agree: the idea that art could have changed so dramatically on its own, without any changes in human consciousness, seems much less compelling. A very elaborate and compelling variant of this hypothesis was later suggested by Julian Jaynes, in his book “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of bicameral mind”.
What Jaynes means by “consciousness” is the familiar inner mind-space in which we introspect, self-reflect, talk to ourselves, travel in time (with the help of memory and imagination), narrativise our experiences, rationalise (or “think through”) our decisions. It is, so to speak, the “thinking”, “story-telling” consciousness — the accepted way to make rational decisions without external guidance, and without relying on intuitive impulses. This is, at least, what this consciousness likes to believe about itself, even though this is likely to be an illusion. In other words, it experiences itself as the charioteer of mind-body system — “awake, self-disciplined, and in control” (I believe it’s closer to what (some) other people would rather call “ego”).
According to Jaynes, this talkative consciousness emerged relatively recently, not long before the golden age of Ancient Greece. Before that, there was what he calls a bicameral mind, in which the right hemisphere of the brain made all the decisions in critical situations and issued verbal instructions, experienced as commands from gods (often accompanied by hallucinations). Perhaps the closest a modern Westerner can get to this experience is always following a strong and clear voice of intuition, or rather being permanently hypnotised by one’s own intuition — so that there is no experience of “free will”, “thinking” (and, as a bonus, no second-guessing oneself and no procrastination).
I will return to this shift, and its connection to the golden age of Greece, next week. But what I want to stress for now is that it was, obviously, a further step on the path of internalisation — and the accompanying world-alienation — of human beings: the inner world had become even more separated from the world out there.
Just as I was writing this essay, I received this blog post from Leo Babauta in my inbox. He writes about how the happenings in our inner worlds — our thoughts, our story-telling consciousness — prevent us from even noticing the world out there in all its beautiful glory:
This experience of complete separation between the inner world and the outer world is how the modern stage of internalisation feels like. It is perhaps more extreme now than it was during the first millennium B.C., but this is a consequence of the emergence of modern consciousness in the breakdown of bicameral mind. That’s what the artists of Greece were responding to — and I will return to this topic next week.