Chapter 4: Civilized Existence

The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 4: Civilized Existence

Terms such as "primitive" and "archaic" lack clear demarcations. Furthermore, in the continuous process of development, any such demarcations are arbitrary. However, in the Neolithic period we find the presence of a culture to which the word "primitive" does not readily apply. There were settled communities that had domesticated both plants and animals and possessed highly developed skills in various arts and crafts. This type of community life we will call "archaic," and thereby differentiate it from earlier modes of existence before stable communities, domestication of plants and animals, and skilled craftsmanship had arisen.

The term “civilization” we will reserve for a still further stage of cultural development — that in which cities were built. The building of cities required additional technical advances, but primarily it required new forms of social organization. Whereas primitive and archaic cultures required little specialization of functions and little work beyond that required to provide food, clothing, and shelter, civilization required a high degree of specialization and a great amount of disciplined labor directed to providing wealth for the community as a whole and for a small class within it.

The transitions from primitive to archaic culture and from archaic culture to civilization were, of course, gradual. But in general, we may guess that archaic culture emerged for the first time in the eighth millennium before Christ and civilization in the fourth. In both cases we can trace the spread of culture from certain early centers, but we can also see that it emerged independently in widely separated places and at different times.

I have grouped these two stages of human development together because, despite the great sociological differences between them, I see them as expressing a single continuous process in the development of human existence. This process is that of the rationalization of the reflective consciousness. If we related this process to the sociological phenomena, we would probably find that, whereas in archaic culture this process involved the whole community more or less equally, in civilized societies it was greatly accelerated in certain social classes and retarded in the mass of workers on which such societies rested. However, I shall not attempt to pursue this kind of analysis. Instead, I intend only to treat the one question as to what is involved in the emergence of the rational consciousness. For this purpose I shall focus attention on civilized existence, simply acknowledging that the process described was already far advanced before the advent of civilization.

In Chapter Two, we considered the nature of consciousness in order to gain the basis for an understanding of the major stages of human development. In addition to the vast complexity of unconscious experience, I suggested, we can analyze conscious experience into significantly organized and receptive levels. In Chapter Three, we distinguished further between significant organization by signals and by symbols. Whereas we can posit the presence of receptive consciousness wherever a developed central nervous system is to be found in the animal world, and of organization by signals wherever learning is possible, symbolic organization of consciousness or reflective consciousness depends on the power of symbolization, which is the distinguishing characteristic of man.

Civilization depends on and makes possible a high degree of rationalization of the reflective consciousness. By rationality I do not mean the self-consciousness about the principles of thought that is expressed in explicit logic or reflection about methodology. I mean, instead, the kind of thinking that logic, in its most elementary forms, attempts to bring to self-consciousness. The process of such thinking is initially and primarily unconscious, yet it differs profoundly from mythical thinking. It conforms, for example, albeit unconsciously, to the principle of noncontradiction, whereas contradictions disturb the mythical mentality but little.

Rationality is not to be identified with intelligence, although it cannot occur apart from a high level of intelligence. Intelligence is the capacity to learn from experience and to develop more appropriate and functional responses. As such it emerged very early in the course of animal life. Some animals are more intelligent than others, and man is probably the most intelligent of all. This capacity to learn from experience in man, as in other animals, is primarily bound up with the interpretation of signals and with the ability to bring past experience to bear on present interpretation.

In primitive existence, intelligent adaptation to the environment and unconscious symbolization, as a means of intensifying and ordering the psychic life, existed side by side. Consciousness contained both the awareness of stimuli and the interpretation of signals as well as the inclusive overlay of a new, reflective level. On the one side, there was intelligence; on the other, the use of symbols. Neither in itself constituted rationality.

Nevertheless, the conjoint presence of intelligence and symbolization provided for the possibility of the rational consciousness. Rationality emerged whenever the process of symbolization was controlled by intelligence or whenever intelligence made use of symbols instead of mere signals in its interpretation of the environment. Since the two levels of the primitive mind were not rigidly separated from one another, we should expect some rationalization of the reflective consciousness from a very early point. But before the rise of archaic culture, the role of rationality was very limited. The reflective consciousness, which is the most striking factor differentiating man from other animals, was the by-product of unconscious processes and initially fully subordinate to them. As long as this subordination existed, the reflective consciousness could not interpenetrate effectively with the other dimensions of conscious significance. The effective rationalization of the reflective consciousness required the attainment by the reflective consciousness of a high degree of autonomy.

The process by which the reflective consciousness achieved such autonomy is analogous to that in which the psyche as a whole entered into autonomous development. It is, indeed, a further step in the same continuous process of psychic growth — the crossing of another threshold. In the earlier process, the dominant occasion of animal experience ceased to function purely for the sake of the animal body and began to develop activities for its own enrichment independent of their functional value for the organism. These activities conformed to entirely new patterns, patterns of which even today we have only a little understanding. This new activity brought into being a new mode of consciousness, the reflective consciousness, which integrated the externally given world of the receptive consciousness with the world of unconscious symbolization. But once the reflective consciousness existed, it embodied an immense new value in itself, so that a psychic life aimed at its own heightened richness tended to aim at the enhancement and strengthening of this new mode of consciousness. Insofar as this heightening of the reflective consciousness occurred, it necessarily increased the role of the forms that are given in the receptive consciousness and, hence, their influence on the reflective consciousness and the symbolization by which it lives. To whatever degree the symbols and their association were correlated with what was given in the receptive consciousness, symbolization could be checked and developed through a process of learning from experience. That meant that it could become intelligent; it could be employed for the interpretation of signals and greatly increase the power and range of such interpretation. In short, that marriage of intelligence with symbolization could occur which constitutes rationality.

The reflective consciousness is necessarily symbolic, primordially mythical, but incipiently rational. It is necessarily symbolic, because reflection is possible only in symbols. It is primordially mythical, because the process of symbolization was originally unconscious and determined by the laws of psychic satisfaction as such. It is incipiently rational, because its attention is directed to data supplied by the receptive consciousness, and insofar as the reflective consciousness becomes free from the dominance of the unconscious, these data must play a larger and more direct role in their own interpretation.

Prior to the rise of the great civilizations of antiquity, from the fourth millennium before Christ on, rationality played a minor role in human life. That did not mean that there were not individuals with considerable rational ability. At least in the later millennia of this long development we may assume that there were many men capable of relatively sustained rational reflection. Nevertheless, the effects of this rational activity on existence as a whole were minor. The signs that such reasoning did begin to restructure man’s relations with the environment and with his fellowman are precisely those remains which represent to us the emergence of civilization. Furthermore, the conditions of civilization demanded and encouraged an immense increase in the role of rationality. Hence, it is my thesis that correlative with the rise of civilization in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and, later, in Mexico and Peru, a new psychic threshold was crossed. Men could observe, calculate, plan, and organize on an entirely new scale, opening up a new range of possibilities, both externally and inwardly. Mathematics, astronomy, architecture, law, education, medicine, and government emerged as quite new outward achievements of a reflective consciousness freed to think in terms of meanings given by the structures in the observable world. Important and increasing areas of the existence of many individuals were dominated by this rationalized aspect of the reflective consciousness.

Nevertheless, the dominant mentality in these great ancient civilizations remained mythical. Just as in primitive man intelligent interpretation of signals continued alongside the more comprehensive reflective consciousness, so now the rational consciousness came into being alongside the mythical consciousness, but without overthrowing its inclusive dominance. In the astronomy of civilized man, careful observation, intelligent generalization, and accurate prediction played a large and impressive role. But the motivation of the astronomy, its interpretation, and its integration into the whole of reflective consciousness were predominantly mythical. Similarly, the complex organization of government could not have arisen or been adapted to new needs apart from the extensive rationalization of consciousness. Yet the ultimate understanding of government and of the persons of the rulers was mythical.

What, then, shall we say of the structure of existence in ancient civilized man? It continued to be mythical in the sense that the reflective consciousness continued to be dominantly determined in its comprehensive functioning by the activity of unconscious symbolization. But it gained also extensive autonomy, and that meant that in large segments of its activity it was rational. With the emergence of rationality as an important factor inhuman existence, a whole new range of possibilities arose.