August 28, 2010

The Myth of Progress vs. The Myth of The Fall

Posted in Philosophers tagged at 10:39 pm by tiffanyannbrown

More than ten years ago now, I remember reading an essay entitled “The Great Initiation” by Richard Tarnas, a Harvard graduate famous for his book, The Passion of the Western Mind. On his web site, I recently came across another interesting article entitled “Is the Modern Psyche Undergoing a Rite of Passage?” In it, he discusses the idea that our society and world is at a fundamental crossroads in human history.

Below is a quote from the article (I’m going to quote heavy because he does a better job of explaining than I could do myself):

If we examine many of the intellectual and cultural debates of our time, particularly near the epicenter of the major paradigm battles today, it is possible to see looming behind them two fundamental interpretations, two archetypal stories or metanarratives, concerning the evolution of human consciousness and the history of the Western mind … One could be called the myth of progress, the other the myth of the fall.

More on the “Myth of Progress”:

The first, familiar to all of us from our education, describes the evolution of human consciousness, and particularly the history of the Western mind, as an extraordinary progressive development, a long heroic journey from a primitive world of dark ignorance, suffering, and limitation to a brighter modern world of ever increasing knowledge, freedom, and well-being … The apex of human achievement in this vision begins with the ascendance of modern science and individualistic democracy. The view of history is one of progressive emancipation and empowerment. It is a vision that emerged fully in the course of the European Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though its roots are as old as Western civilization itself.

More on the “Myth of the Fall”:

The other view, whose presence has become much stronger in our cultural discussion in recent years, though it was always present to one extent or another as a compensatory countercurrent to the progressive view, describes this story in quite opposite terms. In the form this myth has taken in our era, the evolution of human consciousness and the history of the Western mind are seen as a tragic story of humanity’s radical fall and separation from an original state of oneness with nature and with being … In this perspective, both humanity and nature are seen as having suffered grievously under a long domination of thought and society associated with both patriarchy and modernity, with the worst consequences being produced by the oppressive hegemony of Western industrial societies empowered by modern science and technology. The nadir of this fall is seen as the present time of planetary ecological disaster, moral disorientation, and spiritual emptiness, which is the direct consequence of human hubris as embodied above all in the structure and spirit of the modern Western mind and ego.

Throughout the 26-page article, which you can read by clicking here, Tarnas discusses the difference between these two worldviews in depth and goes on to make the grand statement that these two stories actually constitute two parts of an equation, or that the “larger story is one in which the two opposite interpretations are exactly intertwined to form a complex but integrated whole.” It is within this statement that I find hope for humanity despite all of the current setbacks we’re experiencing, but the author still isn’t clear about what that integration will look like, when it will occur, or how we’re going to get there.

In a similar vein, in his essay Tarnas references a statement made by Carl Jung (often considered the first modern psychologist to state that the human psyche is “by nature religious” and to explore it in depth) that seems to reflect his thinking quite closely, but also rings true to the current state of affairs we are experiencing today:

“[A] mood of universal destruction and renewal … has set its mark on our age. This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos—the right moment–for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious human within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science … So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of the modern human.”

The reason why I like Tarnas is because he’s so well spoken and fun to read.  Certainly worth a click if you’re interested in exploring more. He is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he currently teaches.  He also teaches on the faculty of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, and gives many public lectures and workshops in the U.S. and abroad.

You can find his web site at


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