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


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 7: Homeric Existence


In earlier chapters we have distinguished between the receptive consciousness, the consciousness organized in terms of signals, and the symbolically ordered or reflective consciousness. In Chapters Four and Five, we traced the progressive rationalization of the reflective consciousness. This rationalization is a process of replacing the mythical symbols provided by the unconscious with others derived from nonreflective consciousness.

In general, the rationalization of reflective consciousness proceeded through its close association with the intelligent interpretation of signals. Symbols that were projected on the environment were checked against observed relations in that environment. The resulting modification of the symbols served the practical end of better adaptation to, and control over, the environment.

This account of the emergence of rational consciousness has omitted reference to receptive consciousness. This is because it was those aspects of experience which were already significantly organized in terms of signals which could be most readily employed to check and modify unconscious symbolization. However, along with the emergence of the rational consciousness, there arose heightened ability also to attend to the content of receptive awareness. This attending extended the possibility of checking and reforming the symbolization by which the whole of experience had been unconsciously organized.

An element of objectification or distancing is present in all rationalization of the reflective consciousness. The whole process involves the distinguishing of the internal from the external and the allowing to the external of its autonomous existence. The forms of thought are conformed to the relations actually observed in the external world. However, this distancing of the object from the subject is generally for the sake of practical purposes.

In addition to such practical distancing of objects, there is a more radical form in which the object is accorded its freedom also from the interests of the subject. This we can call aesthetic distancing. In aesthetic distancing, the content of the receptive consciousness plays the primary role, although significantly organized experience can also be objectified in this way. Once the psychic act of distancing is performed, the subject is open to being formed by what is given in the object. Thus in this case as well, the mythical symbolization gives way to forms determined by objective reality.

It would be foolish to suggest that the psychic act of aesthetic distancing occurred for the first time among the Greeks. Here, as everywhere, we must assume gradual development of the new rather than sudden emergence. Nevertheless, it seems that only among the Greeks did the habit of aesthetic distancing attain sufficient strength or stability to play a dominant role in the formation of the basic structures of human existence.

All distancing involves the suspension of our deep-seated habit of projecting symbols on the world. It does not, thereby, bring about the cessation of the unconscious processes in which these symbols are produced. Hence, alongside the appreciation of the beauty of the world made possible by aesthetic distancing, the Greek experienced the products of his unconscious activities as numinous and threatening powers.

The unique psychic act by which the Greeks entered axial existence was an aesthetic projection of the gods by which Olympian religion was brought into being. Such an aesthetic projection is a very different phenomenon from aesthetic distancing, for it is a projection of a content not given to receptive consciousness. Yet, it is also radically different from the type of projection characteristic of mythical existence, because it aesthetically orders the products of unconscious processes into an aesthetically distanced world.

Mythical projection involves the symbolization of elements given in unreflective experience in forms determined by unconscious processes. Thus, from the point of View of the rational consciousness, it distorts the sensuously given world. Aesthetic projection treats the products of unconscious processes as if they were of the same order as that which is given in receptive awareness. It thus introduces these symbols into the sensuously given world, but without confusing them with any other entities in that world. In this way, their power to distort experience of that world is broken. Indeed by aesthetic projection of the gods, the Greeks subordinated mythical meanings to the rational consciousness. The gods were conceived as visual objects having excellence in themselves, an excellence that inspired interest and admiration rather than numinous terror or the expectation of interference in the practical affairs of life.

These gods had existed among the Greeks, as among all primitive and archaic peoples, as numinous products of unconscious processes. The stories and rituals in which they were apprehended were the language of a consciousness enslaved to these unconscious meanings. The Indian thinkers of the axial period simply denied or relativized these deities. The Greeks, however, because they had aesthetically projected the gods, could treat the myths as if they were the bearers of intelligible meanings. This does not mean that they approached the myths as moderns, believing only what accorded with some kind of evidence, or seeking the kernel of existential truth in the supernaturalistic husk. But they did undertake to impose an intelligible order upon the myths, which were thus enabled to become a part of the conscious life rather than a pervasive threat to its autonomy and dominance. In this way arose the mythological in distinction from the mythical.

The process by which the gods, as representatives of the powers of the unconscious, were domesticated by the rational consciousness of the Greeks can be traced through a period of centuries. It was, however, in the work of Homer that the Greeks themselves saw the Bible of their Olympian religion. In these writings, the mysterious and fearful gods were transformed into idealized persons, not without their all-too-human foibles, but just for that reason understandable and freed from dread. Further, they were provided an intelligible order in their relation with one another. These idealized men and women were projected to a distance and endowed with immortality and superhuman power. They no longer constituted a pervasive aspect of the total experience of the world.

Because of the normative importance of Homer for pre-Socratic Greek culture, the distinctive structure of existence that arose in this culture can be called " Homeric existence." It is important to recognize that the term "Homeric culture" is elsewhere more often used to refer to the pre-Dorian civilization reflected in the Homeric epics, a civilization which, in terms of the language here employed, was "pre-Homeric." In this book, "Homeric culture" refers to that culture made possible by the aesthetic distancing unconsciously accomplished in the Homeric epics. This is the period in which the Olympian gods and such myths as those associated with the Trojan War were taken seriously, provided the major material for sculptors and poets, and profoundly influenced the vision of reality. Its last great literary expressions were in Aeschylus and Sophocles. In the fifth century before Christ are to be found both the climax of this culture and its erosion by the Sophists and Euripides as well as the rise of Socratic existence. There is a rich development from Homer to the tragedians, and the historians and pre-Socratic philosophers provide other important variations. It might be better to interpret the period in terms of several threshold crossings and, hence, of several structures of existence. However, I am attempting to present the whole culture in terms of fundamental and unifying factors capable of explaining also its great variety and internal development.

Chief among these unifying factors was the aesthetic objectification that has been emphasized above. Not only sensory experience and the numinous products of the unconscious, but also the emotions and passions were distanced in this way. But what was distanced could not exhaust the content of existence. Hence, the objectified gods stood in an ambiguous relation to that other primal religious reality that represented the apportionment to each entity of its lot or place. As the ultimate ground of order in nature and human life, moira was, at times, almost regarded as a function of the will of Zeus. But this was not quite possible. The ground of order could not be reduced to a function of one entity within the aesthetically ordered world. The gods, too, had their portions, which, however great, implied also their limits. Thus moira was also fate, an inevitability of outcome against which man struggled in vain and which the gods themselves were unable to deflect. As that which was ordained beyond all willing and all comprehension, moira was also a darkness surrounding the radiant, but all too narrow, world of consciousness.

For and within Homeric existence, moira functioned as a limit. But this existence as a whole was challenged and threatened in the form of Dionysianism. In Homeric existence, the dominance of the unconscious over the conscious was broken by the aesthetic ordering of its products. But the exclusion of unconscious symbolization from consciousness did not destroy the power of the unconscious. It only estranged it. In its estranged state it took upon itself new forms and expressed itself in new ways. Dionysianism was in continuity with primitive and antique religions, but the dominance of the Homeric culture forced upon it a new character and a new role. A discussion of this important aspect of the Greek experience is not possible in this chapter, where attention is focused on Homeric existence as the original form of axial existence in Greece. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that what was excluded in Homeric existence forced itself on the attention of Homeric man as a profound threat and that, to a considerable extent, the Greek tragedy was the attempt, almost successful, to include the Dionysian powers within the beauty and order of the Homeric world. In this it went far beyond the Homeric epics and represents the maturest expression of Homeric existence.

The act of aesthetic distancing is not only one of introducing separation but also one of attending to form. Furthermore, this distancing has its clearest and easiest exemplification in visual experience, and it was in this dimension that the Greeks projected and objectified their gods. Alongside power and immortality, and to some extent superseding them as time went by, their most striking attribute was beauty of physical form. At least in the work of the sculptors who celebrated the Homeric deities, perfection of visible form became the all-consuming concern. Since, in the initial act of distancing, the gods were portrayed as idealized men and women, the beauty celebrated by the Greeks was ever the beauty of the human body. A beautiful man was hardly to be distinguished from a god either in his own excellence or in the admiration he excited. Hence, rational man no longer stood before a mysterious and foreign reality, in front of which he must grovel and to which he must sacrifice his distinctively human aspirations. Man’s consciousness moved into the center of a stage cleared of unconscious mythical power.

Both the sensitivity to visual form and the glorification of the human are also attested by the Greek temple. It was the most humanistic of cultic buildings. What this means can best be indicated by contrast. The dimensions of the Greek temple did not inspire awe and the sense of mystery. The temple did not soar toward the heavens or dwarf the beholder into insignificance. It did not embody the powerful symbolism of the unconscious or point to some fulfillment of man in relation to a superhuman state. Rather, the Greek temple embodied just those formal values which reason could apprehend. It achieved balance and proportion, an aesthetically pleasing form that neither thrilled nor frightened. It encouraged the viewer to keep his distance, a distance from which he could enjoy the perfection of intelligible beauty.

In other words, the Greek temple helped the human observer to organize his world in terms of objective forms, rather than in terms of subconscious forces or aspiration for some superhuman state. It belonged, with the Homeric gods it honored, to the sphere of human beauty. Where the gods were displayed in relief and sculpture, they only served further to idealize the beauty of man himself, not to overawe him or drive him into shame for his merely human condition.

The aesthetic projection of the gods made possible, in its turn, a still greater freedom in the aesthetic distancing of the real environment. It thereby provided a context in which the capacity for careful and objective observation of the natural world could make great advances. Even more important, the dispassionate creation and admiration of harmonious forms, so remarkably exemplified in Greek sculpture and architecture, provided a congenial environment for investigation of the nature of form as such. The Greek mind, liberated from myth, was open to mathematical inquiries far transcending the practically oriented and magically conceived mathematics of the ancient civilizations. Its greatest development was in the study of space, and, for the Greeks, a certain spatiality always clung to the idea of number and quantity. This is not surprising when we consider how closely the act of distancing was bound up with visual experience, and how a detached and critical interest in form depended on this act of distancing.

In their reflection on forms, the Greeks made two major discoveries. They found that laws of form, quantitatively conceived, are capable of absolute demonstration and universalization. They found also that such qualitative forms as musical tones correlate with quantitative measures and can be expressed as functions of mathematical laws. With those two discoveries the Greeks were launched into the development of natural science and philosophy. Their sustained and brilliant speculations both presupposed and furthered their extraordinary capacity for distancing the total environment, especially as it was given in vision. Both the careful observation of nature and the bold speculative generalizations with which this was combined expressed a rare freedom from the practical concerns of life as well as from the mythical mentality.

The process of distancing went even farther. The Greeks not only reasoned with extraordinary clarity and daring, but they also inquired into the forms of reasoning itself. These forms, too, they objectified and reduced to order, thus founding the discipline of logic. They considered the relation of the forms embodied in reason and the forms embodied in nature, and thus further extended their philosophical speculations far beyond the range of philosophy of nature.

In summary, Homeric man emerged into axial existence by the psychic acts of the aesthetic distancing of the environment and the aesthetic projection of the gods -- psychic acts bound up almost inextricably with vision and the forms given in vision. These two acts were mutually interdependent. Only where the world was aesthetically distanced could the gods be aesthetically projected, and only where the mythical power of the gods was broken by such a projection could man be really free to enjoy his aesthetically distanced environment. Thus the foundation of Greek culture was aesthetic, specifically the aestheticizing of mythical meanings. Within this context, the rational consciousness could pursue its inquiry into forms in geometry, science, and logic.

Our major concern is not to understand the many achievements of the Greeks in art, mathematics, science, and philosophy, but rather to understand the structure of Homeric existence. To approach this question more closely, we must consider briefly the understanding of man expressed in Homeric culture.

I have emphasized that the first stage in the act of distancing was the visual one. The objects of vision were observed apart from their relation to the preexisting emotions, practical needs, and mythical meanings of the observer. They were allowed to present themselves as forms. In Olympian religion, man was understood, presented, and honored in the context of such an act of distancing. In the first instance, this meant that the aesthetic quality of the human body, both male and female, played a role in Greek culture hardly paralleled elsewhere. Probably no other people have been able to celebrate the excellence of form of the naked body in such remarkable separation from sexual interests. But more important, men were presented to the hearer of the poetry or to the viewer of the play objectively -- as they would appear to a dispassionate observer. One saw the situation in which they were fated to act, one observed the quality and character of their acts, and one watched as the interaction of the situation and act moved to its inevitable end. The reality of a man was presented as essentially public. It was what it showed itself as being to others.

The Homeric ideal of excellence is to be seen in the context of this understanding of man arising through the act of aesthetic distancing. Excellence was not moral in any usual sense of that term. The heroes were admired for their passion, their forcefulness, their wisdom, their uncompromising insistence on their own dignity, rather than for unselfish service of others, conformity to moral law, or inner purity. These categories scarcely came into play. When something like moral judgment did occur, it had to do with the keeping or breaking of ancient taboos, rather than with the demands of a rationalized morality. Men suffered for breaking these taboos quite apart from the question as to whether they had any choice in the matter. Indeed, they were all the more to be admired because they dared to break the taboos. The taboos were part of the given situation within which greatness had to assert itself. They did not stand in judgment on that greatness.

Despite its love of life and admiration of excellence, the Homeric vision was deeply tragic. Excellence was its own reward, but for his self-assertion man must pay a price. Precisely those whom the Greeks most admired were those who were brought to a terrible destruction by their own excellence. The Greeks knew that the dark and mysterious powers pushed aside by their aesthetic vision of the world remained undestroyed. Sophocles finally portrayed a greatness of such superhuman stature that it was vindicated by the gods themselves, but only after a lifetime of suffering. Aeschylus, in his great trilogy, concluded with a vision of a transformation of the dark powers into supporters of the rational life of the city-state. But in the Bacchae of Euripides, we see that the problem was far from solved, that the brilliant achievement of aesthetic reason remained fragile and brittle before the overpowering forces of the unconscious.

In the face of the almost inevitable destruction to which greatness of human self-assertion was seen to lead, there was a second ideal. This ideal received its clearest expression in the choruses of the tragedies. This was the ideal of moderation. The heroes were destroyed, because they refused to conform to the limits that were written into the human situation. They insisted on constituting their own excellence through unlimited willing and acting. The reasonable man, seeing this, might be struck with admiration, but he himself steered another course. He sought to find commonly accepted patterns of behavior, to avoid becoming conspicuous, to observe the taboos, and to bend before the pressure of events so that he would not be broken.

The ideal of moderation was not more " moral in our usual sense than was heroism. One pursued one’s ends with moderation not in order that, thereby, the greater good might be served or so as to sacrifice one’s own interests to one’s neighbor. One strove for moderation in order to avoid the offense of greatness, in order to escape the tragic consequences of high nobility. The life of moderation respected the taboos, not because one supposed that there was some intrinsic rightness about them, but because one knew that there was danger in their violation.

Homeric man lacked the self-awareness of the Indian sages. These latter knew themselves as subjects and developed intricate analyses of their psychic states and of the interrelation of their introspectively given subjectivity with bodily states. Homeric man understood man as he was given from without through sense experience and especially in vision. Self-awareness could mean only awareness of himself as he appeared to others, rather than as immediately and privately given to himself. Hence, we can find little direct description of the psychic states as such.

What is common to all axial peoples is that the seat of existence shifted from the unconscious to the reflective consciousness, and that, thereby, the reflective consciousness ceased to be bound by the mythical meanings of the unconscious. In being freed from these meanings, it became open to being restructured by the forms given in unreflective consciousness and by principles internal to itself -- that is, it became rationalized.

But despite this common structural character, the axial cultures express different structures of existence. To understand what is peculiar to the Buddhist structure of existence, it was necessary to concentrate attention on the relation of each dominant occasion of human experience to the predecessor and successor occasion together with which it constituted a soul. To understand the Homeric structure of existence, on the other hand, we must reflect especially on the subject-object structure of experience, and the ways in which consciousness forms itself in relation to it.

All experience, conscious and unconscious, has ontologically a subject-object structure. The diversity lies in the respective roles of subject and object and in the aspects of this structure that enter consciousness. In mythical existence, the separateness of subject and object was not recognized in experience. There was a flow of symbolically ordered material in which subjective and objective contributions were bound together. There was no clear consciousness of subject as subject or of object as object.

Among the Indian sages, in contrast, there developed an extraordinary understanding of the subject as subject. The psychic processes, which were the content of conscious and unconscious experience, became for them also the objects of awareness, and these were, to an astonishing degree, thereby subjected to conscious control.

Homeric man was incapable of any such understanding of his own psychic processes. For him the object of conscious experience -- and he knew of no other kind of experience -- was primordially the sensuously given world. Insofar as other entities could be acknowledged at all, they must be assimilated to this world or objectified in analogy with it. For him, as for mythical man, there was no experienced duality of subject and object. But whereas for mythical man the unity of subject and object was one in which the objective was subordinated to the subjective, for Homeric man the subjective was subordinated to the objective. His experienced reality was constituted by the objective pole of experience. Man’s own reality to himself, insofar as it could be consciously conceived, was as an actual or possible part of this objective pole of experience.

The dominance of consciousness by its objective pole cut it off from most of the unconscious life of the psyche. Consciousness was dissociated not only from mythical symbols but even from the emotions and passions. These too were perceived as quasi-objective entities. The primacy of sensory objects for consciousness meant that even the most subjective aspects of experience could only enter consciousness as clothed in a comparable objectivity.

The consciousness expressed in the work of the scientist-philosophers embodied a new factor. Their world, too, was initially that of the sensory flux in which vision played the primary role. But with them the activity of abstraction, generalization, and inference came into its own. Here, too, consciousness functioned as conformation to the given as much as, or more than, as a constructive agent, for reasoning was discovery of what was there in the forms rather than a creative act. But the processes of reason opened up a new world beyond that of sensation, a world free from the curse of decay and death, a world in which consciousness came alive in a new way. The dominant object of reflective consciousness ceased to be the flow of sense experience and became, instead, the unchanging forms. Correlatively, the dominant factor within consciousness ceased to be sensuous perception and became, instead, the activity of reason.

Furthermore, a consciousness dominated by reason could achieve a measure of indirect self-awareness denied a consciousness dominated by sensation. Reason objectified itself and attempted to understand itself. However, such logical or metaphysical inquiries into reason did not imply the direct self-awareness of the conscious soul in the sense earlier attained by the Indians. Among the Greek scientist-philosophers, individual consciousness identified itself with reason and then objectified this as an impersonal and universal reality.

We can conclude this chapter by calling attention again to the profound contrast of the existence of Homeric man and Indian man. For Indian man, sense experience was the most superficial and illusory aspect of the soul’s life, whereas it constituted the very selfhood of man in Homer’s world. Rational activity of the sort so prized by the Greek philosophers could be, for the Indian, at best one factor in the total life of the soul alongside others of equal or greater centrality. Much that the Indian recognized as an integral part of the soul remained for Homeric man something foreign. But from his far more limited base, it was the achievement of Homeric man to find and create a world of harmonious order.

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