Thanks to the achievements of archaeology, anthropology, prehistory and several auxiliary sciences, it is now possible to reconstruct with some confidence the story of mankind for at least seven thousand years; and, with many gaps and uncertainties, for twenty-five thousand years, that is, back to the time when Aurignacian man first left evidence of a high culture. The human story goes back still further for at least half a million and perhaps one or two million years, but it is known only from a few hundred skeletons and a very limited range of stone implements that give us little idea how our remotest ancestors really lived. The whole story of life on the earth covers the hardly imaginable span of much more than five hundred million years. During this time prodigious changes have occurred in the dominant forms of life on earth and in the oceans.
It is no longer possible to account for the sequence of events on the supposition that no agency save blind chance has been at work, and that consciousness and a directive will were entirely lacking on the earth until men appeared. In Volume II of The Dramatic Universe, I endeavour to show how much simpler and more satisfying is the theory that the entire story, from its earliest beginnings, has been directed by Conscious Powers that have known how to make use of the uncertainty or freedom inherent in the operation of all the laws of nature, and bring about the progressive development of the living forms that were required at each successive stage of the evolution of the earth itself.
We cannot represent to ourselves the nature of such Conscious Powers, and we should certainly be wrong to picture them as individualized beings in any way resembling men—that is, having a body with limbs, organs, and perceiving by way of senses like ours.
But it is no new thing for science to accept the reality of entities of which we can form no mental picture at all. Indeed, the recourse to 'unthinkables' has been one of the strangest developments of science since Planck introduced his mysterious quantum of action, and Einstein based his relativity theory on a Riemannian geometry that cannot be pictured by the senses or grasped by the mind.
We shall start then from the supposition that there always have been and still are Conscious Powers that regulate events upon the earth without violating the laws of nature. It may shock the susceptibilities of scientists—who are very touchy about supernatural entities that they have not themselves invented—if I call these Powers by the name of angels. I do not know who or what angels are, but for many years I have had no doubt that there are such beings, and that it is possible to be aware of their presence. I am equally sure that the angelic powers work within the framework of the natural laws of geometry, physics and biology.*
As we survey the past, with its vast time scale of cosmic, geophysical, palaeobotanical and palaeontological history flowing into the very early prehistory and later history of man on the earth—we can observe one common and indeed universal phenomenon. This can be called 'progress by explosion.' History never has been continuous. The great changes in the families and genera populating the earth have come about suddenly, and have been followed by long periods of relative quiet. It would be out of place to review here all the evidence for the 'explosive theory of progress.' Indeed the theory is not new, and has been adopted in many branches of science.
If we combine the Theory of Conscious Directive Power with the Theory of Explosive Progress we arrive at the notion of Creative Cycles.
* In Volume I of The Dramatic Universe I have shown that the 'natural' geometry of six dimensions has several degrees of freedom that allow full scope for a regulative consciousness even in the rigorous sciences of kinematics and electromagnetism.
This is simply illustrated in the working of an internal combustion engine which alternates between phases of compression, explosion, expansion and renewal. The sudden explosions which occur in history can only be understood if we assume that the Angelic Powers direct natural energies for a certain time into a phase of concentration and compression that accumulates enough energy to make an explosion, the results of which then expand and grow until their force is exhausted. Explosions that occur without any system of regulation are inevitably destructive, and the incontrovertible fact that explosions have occurred over and over again in the history of the stars, of the earth, of life in general and of mankind in particular, and have resulted on the whole in progress towards higher levels of consciousness and a greater freedom, is the best evidence that the Conscious Directive Power of the angels has seldom been absent.
From the notion of Creative Cycles in general we come to that of the Epoch* in the life of man. By 'Epoch,' I understand a period when all humanity is dominated by a certain creative attitude towards life. This I call the Master Idea of the Epoch. For example, the middle Neolithic Epoch, from about 11,000 to 8,000 years before the present was marked by the idea of the Earth Mother. Until that time, nearly all the people of the earth were nomadic hunters or gatherers of fruit or sea foods. From 9,000 B.C., serious agriculture began, and men first realized that it was possible to claim ownership of the land they worked and to accumulate material possessions. Since generation, i.e. birth-death-resurrection, is the essence of the agricultural cycle, men were able in that Epoch to receive the notion of birth-death-resurrection as applicable to their spiritual life also. Thus the so-called 'fertility cults' were a real step forward in the spiritual development of man. The mutual need of the sexes in the spiritual life was an obvious fact to people who began to see the continuity of the family in their village settlements. The idea of the Earth Mother encouraged a matriarchal social system such as existed in the Neolithic Epoch.
The middle Neolithic Epoch began with an explosion that probably coincided with considerable disturbances of the earth's surface. It ended when a fresh change of climate led to the desiccation of the densely populated areas of Central Asia and North Africa, and it was succeeded by the Epoch of the Great Migrations that lasted from 6,000 B.C. to the middle of the fourth millennium. This time the Master Idea was that of the Search, of which fragments remain to us in ancient myths and legends and epics in which man is depicted as searching for the secret of immortality. The instability of external conditions created a natural background for the realization that life on earth is precarious, and that salvation must be sought in the invisible world. It was during this Epoch that knowledge of the mysteries of life and death began to reach ordinary people from the hidden societies that were still in conscious relationship to the Angelic Powers.
The next Epoch coincides with the beginning of written history, and the appearance of priest-kings or semi-divine beings as rulers of the various nations of the earth. The founders of the earliest dynasties of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and the Malay Archipelago were looked upon as half-god, half-human, and for this reason I have called the era that lasted from 3,200 B.C. to 600 B.C. the Hemitheandric Epoch. Its Master Idea was that of the dependence of the common people upon the Hero for their welfare in this life and in the life beyond the grave. History proper begins about the same time, towards the end of the fourth millennium B.C., not only in the form of written accounts of dynasties and their achievements, but also in clearly decipherable records of events preserved in the ruins of ancient cities and monuments.
Mankind entered upon the Heroic Epoch with an immense heritage of languages, cultures, techniques and social organization built up over thousands of years.
Once again there was an explosion. During a brief period of a few centuries, extraordinary advances were made in every department of life. The Hemitheandric Epoch ended about two thousand five hundred years ago with the unspoken discrediting of the notion of the Semi-Divine Ruler. It was followed by the Megalanthropic Epoch, of which the Master Idea was that of Individual Salvation. We shall return to this later, since it leads directly to the theme of the present book.
The theory of Epochs as a cycle of concentration, explosion and expansion requires that there should be a concentrating force that accumulates the energy needed for the explosion. This we ascribe to the Angelic Power, but the theory is not complete unless we go further and assume that the source of the Power itself is altogether beyond this visible world. An internal combustion engine is constructed so that compression comes from its own momentum, but the fuel that produces the explosion comes from beyond. Similarly in human affairs the new impulse that comes with each succeeding Epoch reaches mankind from beyond the earth itself.
Arnold Toynbee in his great Study of History reaches virtually the same conclusion: that we are forced to believe that human history has been directed by a Merciful Power that comes from God and manifests through the Saints, Prophets and Founders of the great religions of the world. Without presuming to challenge Toynbee's deep historical insight, I would say that through fixing his attention upon Civilizations, which are but secondary human consequences, he has overlooked the significance of the Epochs that are the primary manifestations of Divine Providence in human affairs. Nevertheless, Toynbee strongly reinforces the argument for conscious intervention of the Angelic Powers by the distinction he makes between true and arrested civilizations. He estimates that there are now on earth many hundreds of human communities that were formerly under the direction of conscious leaders, but having at some time lost contact with them, failed to develop, and so have lingered on, preserving, in the form of customs now almost devoid of sense, traces of an ancient wisdom whose origin may go back before the beginning of written history five thousand years ago.
We are thus not leaving explored territory when we add to the theory of Conscious or Angelic Powers the principle of belief in Divine Providence. This belief cannot be called a 'theory,' for it belongs to a realm that the mind of man is powerless to explore.
We know the history of the earth from a most fragmentary and unequal record, but even this is enough to convince us that from the remotest past, organic life on this planet has adapted itself to great changes of climate, has survived prodigious catastrophes and has gradually but surely moved forward to prepare a place for the coming of mankind.
We cannot fail to be impressed by the timeliness of the explosions that have occurred as one form of life has given place to another. To an observer with ordinary human understanding watching the course of events, it would have seemed, time and time again, that life on the earth must perish or degenerate into a miserable remnant of forms too insignificant to challenge the cataclysmic forces that disrupted the earth's surface and played havoc with its climate. And yet each time, by a wise manipulation of the genetic potentialities inherent in existing families and orders of plants and animals, the Angelic Power brought forth new genera and species that could not only survive, but prosper in the new conditions.
When man appeared, our earth entered the great ice ages, when at times all life was threatened. According to some theories, such as that of Hoerbiger, there were other catastrophes caused by the destruction of a former satellite and the capture of our present moon. Whatever may be the truth of such theories, it is certain that during the million or more years of his existence on the earth, man has survived appalling changes of climate that required powers of adaption quite different from those that saved the plants and animals of earlier ages.
I am sure that Saurat* is right in concluding that survival was achieved only by the timely direction of human energies into the sole channels which gave hope of safety—as for example in the Epoch of the Great Migrations away from Central Asia and North Africa when these regions dried up and fertile soil became desert sand.
Guidance in the outer life has always been based upon the renewal and strengthening of the inner life, and we can trace the gradual penetration of religious belief from the inner circle of those who had direct revelation of the Divine Purpose outwards through the masses of mankind. In the earliest periods, the superhuman beings who guided human destiny were very far removed from the savage hunting tribes that looked to them for help. They were disguised as magicians, and their rule was based upon dread of the powers that they were able to evoke. During the Neolithic ages—which probably included three distinct Epochs—there was a great transformation of social conditions, and the new stability and continuity of external life made it possible to impart to the masses forms of religious worship, of private and social morality based upon belief in the division of man into a mortal and an immortal part.
Many students of the early history of mankind are now convinced that from the earliest times man has believed in one God, the supreme power in the world, and that the crude animism observed in many savage tribes is not primitive at all, but the result of degeneration in the absence of guidance from conscious beings. If this conviction is justified, it must follow that there have always been teachers of mankind who have gradually prepared man to understand the true significance of our life here on earth. Such teachers could not have received their knowledge from any human source, for it is not given to man to know the Divine Purposes. It is in this sense that teachers or prophets are termed Messengers from Above. The proof of their missions lies not so much in the loftiness and grandeur of their ethical teachings as in the timeliness and efficacy of their intervention. We do not attempt to teach metaphysics to infants, nor did any of the prophets throughout history attempt to teach men truths for which they were not ready. Each explosion that inaugurated a new Epoch corresponded exactly to what people were able to receive at that time.
We can take one or two examples to illustrate this theme. The city of Ur upon the river Tigris was already a great city at the beginning of the Hemitheandric Epoch in 3,200 B.C. It flourished far more than two thousand years and was the centre of high cultures. When the Epoch was moving towards its period of degeneration about 1,500 B.C., there was an exodus towards the west of which an account has been preserved in the book of Genesis, and of which hints can be found in old cuneiform writings of Chaldea. The leader of this exodus was a prophet whom we know by the name of Abraham. The story of Abraham is both true history and also an allegory of the power of faith. Through Abraham, the ancient monotheism was preserved from the universal degeneration that finally destroyed the hopes of the Epoch. The lesson for us in the story of Abraham consists in the extreme simplicity of his faith and his childish inability to understand the workings of Divine Providence. Abraham's very simplicity was precisely what the age required, and it is to be contrasted with the marvellous scientific attainments of the Chaldean Magi and the Egyptian priests of the eighteenth dynasty who were his contemporaries. A similar contrast is to be found in the story of Moses, illustrated by his legendary contest with the Egyptian priests.
The Hebrew Torah is concerned to show how the prophets were endowed with a power from God that does not depend upon human science or human abilities. It insists upon the duty of preserving the ancient traditions, and calls for belief in the One God and in His providential ordering of human affairs. Nevertheless, if we were to attempt to transfer into our modern world the message and the example of Abraham, Isaac and Moses, we should see at once that they belong to a different Epoch from ours, and that the validity of their message consisted precisely in its combination of timeliness and timelessness. The fundamental truth that God will help those who turn to Him belongs to all Epochs, but the form of Abraham's message belongs only to the Epoch when men could readily believe that their prophets could 'speak with God,' and were therefore ready to accept their autocratic leadership.
In order to grasp the significance of the Message brought to mankind by the early prophets of the next, that is the Megalanthropic Epoch, we must picture to ourselves the almost universal wretchedness of the peoples of China, India, Assyria, Egypt and Greece at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. Some of the prophets, like Confucius and Solon, were mainly concerned with the social misfortunes of their nations, but the greatest of all were sent with a deeper message of hope for the afflicted. This was no less than the promise of individual salvation for every man and woman who was ready to pay the price. We are the descendants of a hundred generations who have lived with this promise, and we cannot readily picture the misery of those who believed themselves to be entirely dependent upon the Hemitheandros or Divine Ruler, and yet could see in their kings and pharaohs only monsters of cruelty and oppression. The words of the prophet Isaiah, "Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money come ye, buy and eat" conveyed an entirely different meaning to the children of the Captivity to that which they would bear in our modern world. We cannot understand that the very hope of eternal life was destroyed for those who believed that only the Divine Ruler could ensure welfare beyond the grave and saw that their priests had become servants of the oppressor, extorting impossible payments for the performance of complicated rituals believed to be indispensable for the welfare of the dead. It was the hope of liberation from spiritual oppression that drew the Indian multitudes to Gautama Buddha and the Israelites to their prophets.
Within five hundred years was fulfilled the sombre prophecy of Gautama Buddha that his Dharma would deteriorate and the Sangha break up into warring sects. All over the world the gospel of individual salvation had been misinterpreted and misapplied. And yet everywhere there was a sense of expectancy, made explicit by the Jewish belief in the coming of the Messiah and the neo-Buddhist doctrine of the Bodhisattva. The Greco-roman world was disgusted with itself and its own moral failures. The Persian empire of the Seleucidae was sunk in impurity. India had lapsed grievously from the reforming zeal of King Asoka. Those who sought for purity, the Jains, the Pharisees, the Stoics, were discovering that purity could not be achieved by any human striving.
In response to a desperate human need, Almighty God sent into the world Jesus Christ, whose perfect purity is symbolized in His virgin birth. The message of Jesus was as simple and direct as those of His predecessors—by faith alone can man be purified in body and soul. Jesus was endowed with the power to work miracles because He was completely free from the impurities that in ordinary man obstructs the working of the spirit of God. What He taught he practised, and He proved by His death and resurrection that the pure spirit is indestructible. His message and His evidence gave an entirely new meaning to the doctrine of individual salvation, liberating it from all worldly considerations, placing the hope of mankind in the invisible world of the spirit, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Another six hundred years passed and once again the message had been distorted. The Kingdom of Heaven had become an earthly power, salvation was no longer sought in pure faith but in the toils of an enforced external discipline. Worst of all, the message of pure Love had been twisted into a mass of superstitions that even a true man of God like St. Benedict was powerless to overcome. The dark ages had descended upon the western world, and men were again living without hope and yet obsessed by the fear of damnation. A cardinal error had crept into Christian dogma—the belief that the celibate state is pleasing in the sight of God. Strangely enough, the repudiation of marriage and the belief that only ascetic practices can lead to liberation had taken possession also of the eastern stream of spirituality—especially in the forms of Buddhist monasticism and the solitary withdrawal from the world recommended by the Hindu Sannyasis and Yogis. Even those who still were seeking salvation did so in ways that can only in the rarest of cases lead to the complete human being that each man must become in order to enter into eternal life.
Once again a new message was needed, and it was brought by the Prophet Muhammad, who exemplifies the complete man who fulfills all his earthly obligations and yet whose will is wholly surrendered to the service of God. The message of Islam cannot be understood by those who have not realized something of the meaning of the complete man. Muhammad was rejected and denied by those who saw in his very completeness a lack of perfection, and who imagined that asceticism was a necessary mark of holiness. Nevertheless, the power of the Islamic revelation was so great that within two centuries a great belt of Islamic peoples stretched from end to end of the inhabited world from Morocco to the Malay Archipelago. By the tenth century A.D. Islam had become the greatest spiritual power in the world, but unfortunately Moslems, Christians and Jews, destined to unite and demonstrate to the world the invincible power of the Sacred Impulses of Faith, Love and Hope, succumbed to the disruptive forces of materiality, lust for power, and fear. From the end of the first millennium the degeneration of the Divine Message of Individual Salvation into the cult of human self-sufficiency had become inevitable.
During recent centuries, the material forces in human life have gradually gained the mastery over the spiritual forces. Thus we have before us in the history of our own times the demonstration of the twofold nature of human potentialities.
The Master Idea of an Epoch is the highest expression of man's capacity for understanding his destiny at the spiritual age he has reached. Taking the rough estimate of twenty-five million years for the entire life-cycle of the genus Homo on this earth, the two or three thousand years occupied by an epoch is the equivalent of one week of our ordinary lives. Each week brings a new lesson that the child assimilates as best it may. So in each great epoch a new message is sent to mankind. Owing to the youth and inexperience of the human race, and to our inability to perceive what is beyond the senses, we make over and over again the mistake of interpreting the message in terms of this visible world and its passing values. If we look back to the messages of the past, we can see how this hazard has always been present, and how mankind has never learned to value the eternal above the temporal. But this must not be regarded as 'failure.' We do not expect children to acquire at one step the same learning as their teachers. Week by week new lessons are given—and mostly forgotten—but the process of education goes on.
If we look at history upon too small a scale of time, it looks like a story of material progress and social improvement, but of spiritual stagnation. Many people today say that although we have far more knowledge and far better social conditions than those of two or five or ten thousand years ago, we are just the same human beings; as selfish, as short-sighted and as discontented and full of fears as people have ever been. This diagnosis is only valid if we think of humanity as an already fully developed adult being. We must lift ourselves above the preoccupation with our immediate present. If we wish to understand human destiny, we must study it in relation to a much greater time-scale than that of the history of the past few centuries. When we are able to survey—even with our meagre knowledge—the history of mankind over half a million years and by applying the general law of cycles to make some estimate of future time—we begin to see a great and consistent pattern emerge from the confusion, and our faith is confirmed that Divine Providence has never failed to intervene at moments of need to give mankind new lessons and new opportunities.
The 'End of the Age' or the 'End of the World' are strange phrases that have been on men's lips for thousands of years. Sometimes they have conveyed a sense of urgency, as when the early Christians were awaiting literally from day to day, the coming of the Lord, and thought it foolishness to be occupied with the affairs of a world that was soon to be destroyed or superseded by the Reign of Christ. Even when the 'latter days' belonged to some indefinite future, the belief remained that history would have an end, and utterly different conditions of existence would await those who 'endured to the end.'
Belief in the Second Coming was not confined to the Christian churches. The Prophet Muhammad also foretold the future degeneration of religion and the coming of a time when men would give themselves up to the material or satanic forces. When certain signs were fulfilled, Jesus was to come again to the earth and separate the believers from the unbelievers, after which the final conflict of the good and evil powers was to come and end in victory for the righteous. According to some traditions this victory was to be the signal for the immediate end of the world. According to others, it was to inaugurate the millenium, when the earth would be peopled only by the righteous, and only after a thousand years of earthly felicity was the last trumpet to sound. Since these prophecies are preserved only in the form of verbal traditions collected long after the death of Muhammad we cannot hope to reconstruct with any accuracy what he really foretold. Moslem eschatologists of the present time attach great importance to the hadisat—sayings of the Prophet—to the effect that in the latter days men would invent carriages that would run without horses and build houses as high as the hills. These and other portents of the End of the Age have now been accomplished, and I have met many Moslem learned men who believe that the Second Coming is imminent.
It is not possible to draw any definite conclusions from all the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions of a future 'End of the Age' beyond the most important of all—that is, that the future degeneration of religion was clearly foreseen by Those whose messages founded the Megalanthropic Epoch, and that they predicted a fresh intervention of Providence at the very time when the material or satanic powers would seem to be in the ascendant.
Again and again, men have believed that the latter days must have come and have expected the end of the world. The perennial disappointment of these expectations has led in modern times to a complete distrust of any literal eschatology, and those who look for the early Second Coming are generally regarded as dreamers or cranks.
Nevertheless, we have still with us the mysterious warnings of Jesus that the Son of Man would come as a thief in the night and that few would recognize his coming. It is scarcely surprising that the world has failed to understand a message that was 'told in darkness'—that is, to people who had not yet been awakened to the spiritual realities.