Evolutionary Theory and the Common Good: The Beginnings of a Wisdom Inquiry

One of the more surprising revelations to grow out of our winter’s pilot “Civics for Wisdom Students” project has been the growing realization that while our Constitution pays lips service to “the Common Good,” it actually makes very little constitutional provision for it. The founding documents come down heavily on the side of individual rights (explicitly laid out in the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments), while failing even to minimally define what the Common Good might be, let alone how it might carry the day in a legal challenge posed by any apparent infringement of these traditionally sacrosanct rights.

From a Gebserian/evolutionary standpoint, it is not hard to see why this is so. The founding documents emerge from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, just at the highwater mark of the “rational” (a.k.a., “deficient mental”) structure of consciousness. Within this structure of consciousness, egoic consciousness is the principal vehicle of self-awareness, and the individual is the sacred expression of this self-awareness. Selves are individuals—and individuals are the building blocks of larger social units, and ultimately of nations. These larger units grow by simple aggregation: i.e., by an optimization of individual “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Reciprocally—as in Adam Smith’s classic economic formulation— “individual ambition serves the Common Good.”

The Gebserian analysis, however, suggests a radically different scenario playing out as we journey deeper into the emerging Integral structure of consciousness. In an evolutionary leap no less quantum than the leap from “super-molecules” (repeating domino chains of “individual” molecules) to the cell (featuring differentiated function within an overall unity) these domino chains of individuals are being pressured evolutionarily to reconfigure as “persons”—i.e., at a higher evolutionary stage—where the functional unit of consciousness is no longer the boundaried ego but the interpenetrating and diffusive Witnessing Self (remember Beatrice Bruteau’s classic quip, “What if true persons are circles whose centers are nowhere and whose circumferences are everywhere?”). Within this even-now-unfolding Integral structure of consciousness the direction-of-flow is from the whole to the part; the whole possesses “emergent properties” vested only in the whole, not attributable to the part(s) in isolation. Larger social units are based no longer on simple aggregation (i.e., domino chains of individuals individually self-optimizing) but on autopoesis: individual, holographic participation in a dynamic, intelligent, and purposive whole.

…And so, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Jefferson, ball’s in your court!!! Are our constitutional founding constitutional documents inextricably tied to a waning structure of consciousness which even now is rapidly disintegrating, or is it possible to imagine a creative transposition of our founding ideals to a new structure of consciousness based on a radically evolving notion of personhood and “the Common Good?”

I believe that this is a worthy project for our Wisdom circle to take on.

One of the reasons I have been so zealous this past year about trying to prevent our discussions from falling into traditional liberal/progressive social analysis is because it’s precisely at the junction point between these two very different paradigms—historical/critical (“perspectival”) and evolutionary (“aperspectival”)—that the opportunity for authentic third force is most likely to present itself. If the evolutionary model holds water—if we really are convinced that on this “second line of bearing” we are collectively experiencing the intensifying birth pangs of a new structure of consciousness as it dramatically resculpts the contours of our Western cultural heritage—then it becomes obvious that this transpositional work must be done, and that it will succeed because the purposive force of evolution is on its side. Individual (“hypertrophied ego,” as Gebser calls it) will eventually give way to Personhood (“circles whose centers are nowhere and whose circumferences are everywhere”). And the Common Good will shift from an aggregation model (domino chains of individuals) to an autopoesis model, in which the Common Good is understood within a dynamic flow system as an emergent property of the whole.

And we get to be players in the game. If we’re up to the challenge.

While the term “autopoesis” may at first sound intimidating, I’d be willing to bet that you already have the gist of it in your bones; it’s basically a moving center gig. You get a taste of it driving on a high-volume freeway just off-peak rush hour. In this dynamic flow system, the Common Good is served by keeping the traffic moving. Anything that causes anyone to stop or brake unexpectedly is going to have ripple effects, sometimes leading to several-mile backups. Any attempt to maximize individual gain at the expense of the whole (aggressive driving, road rage, cutting others off, daredevil lane-weaving, “camping out” in a passing lane) is going to slow down the journey for everyone. Individual self-expression must be modified in service of the common aim: to arrive safely and as expeditiously as possible. If the system can be kept flowing, everyone will eventually get there, and as individuals eventually synchronize themselves to the calculus of the whole, the dance can actually become exhilarating. It’s a direct moving center taste of thinking from the whole to the part, of participating individually in an intelligence of orchestration that belongs to the whole. And I think it’s no surprise that some of the most leading-edge work on the Common Good in our own transitional times is not coming from classic philosophical and ethical reference points, but from engineering, economics, and game theory—and of course, quantum physics, which confirms that the stable world of “things” and “boundaries” assessed by “objective” “individuals” as we once knew them is simply part of that late-perspectival glacier rapidly melting before our eyes.

As I see it, our job as Wisdom students up to the challenge of holding the post during this epochal consciousness shift is threefold:

First of all, to understand and articulate clearly this emerging new vision, ranging as widely as possible in the resources and perspectives we are able to bring to this evolving (and still largely uncharted) terrain of the Common Good as it plays out in the Integral structure of Consciousness.

Second, to vigilantly nurture and guard a specific quality of being (I have so far referred to it as “sobriety” and “enstasy”), which refuses to split along deficient/rational fault lines but sustains at all costs a direct energetic connection to Originary Presence as it emerges into the world as third force.

Third, to continue to educate ourselves in Constitutional Law so as to be able to work more strategically within its givens of our present system to spot openings and appropriate venues for a fuller articulation of the Common Good as we are coming to understand it at this evolutionary inflection point in our planetary history. This includes not only study, but opportunities as they present themselves to teach and network, engaging a wider and wider swathe of the cultural conversation in a direct consideration of the Common Good and the rebirth of moral leadership. It also involves, for those with standing in these arenas, strategic political and legal action when the window of opportunity presents itself.

These three aims will furnish the backbone of my own exploration and teaching in the upcoming year. I thank you all for the tremendous clarity, commitment, and being you have brought to this inquiry already, and—as the year of our pandemic “sequestered” work together phases into a new and more public octave, that the fruits of what has been explored and tempered here will continue to make themselves known.

Meanwhile, for bibliographical starters: Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon; Beatrice Bruteau: The Grand Option, The Maundy Thursday Revolution, God’s Ecstasy; Adrian Bejan, Design in Nature (“The Constructal Law” and flow systems), Ilia Delio, Making All Things New; Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin; and of course, continued meandering in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales and associated commentaries.

Stay tuned!

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