Transcending Limitations of the “Human All-Too Human”
Glen T. Martin
21 May 2022
Human beings flourish in idealism, in symbolism, and imagination. This astonishing ability, bequeathed to us by the ground of Being through the process of cosmic evolution, could almost entirely serve to distinguish human beings as qualitatively different from even the highest animals. Our minds are not only not limited to our bodies and our immediately perceptual environment; our minds overflow the immediate perceptual environment on every side, in terms of a memory that itself draws on symbolism and imagination, a present rippling with possibilities and alternatives on every side, and a future that can even transcend the Cosmos and envision alternative kingdoms beyond this world, whether the Pure Land of the Buddhists or the Heaven of the Christians. In every case our human imaginations are bursting this world of present actuality wide open and envisioning a plethora of rich possibilities.
I have previously argued on several occasions that our “utopian” imagination gives us real and objective possibilities, because we are constituted as temporalized creatures who embrace the future under a horizon of imaginative possibilities that are necessarily transformative and can be experienced as morally imperative. The utopian imagination animates our lives far beyond our mere physical and empirical existence (see Martin 2018 and 2021).
Since the famous Axial Period in human history (approximately 800 to 200 BCE) when humans first achieved sufficient self-awareness to pursue objective knowledge and understanding of the whole Earth and Cosmos, we have been able to think in terms of the whole and our integral relation to the whole. This was clearly done by the great thinkers of the Western tradition, from Plato and Aristotle through Aquinas and Eckhart to the rise of science in the 17th century.
Through the use of the symbolic imagination in the form of advanced mathematics, Galileo and the other 17th century scientists and philosophers began to discover the mechanics of the cosmic order. They used abstract mathematical equations in conjunction with a hypothetical method (called an experiment) that imagined the way the world might be and then devised models and experimental situations to confirm their hypotheses. Neither knowledge nor the progress of knowledge would be possible without this symbolic imagination.
This immense breakthrough in our human ability to understand the Cosmos clearly required tremendous symbolic and imaginative power, and it is no accident that the major 17th century thinkers, from Descartes to Leibniz to Spinoza to Kepler and Galileo were all mathematicians. Yet the great paradox of that century and the next was that they discovered no place for “mind” in the universe that they were unveiling. The universe appeared to be a gigantic mechanism of “bodies in motion” governed by inexorable mechanical laws (such as inertia, momentum, and gravitation) that was strictly “physical” in its composition. Descartes had said that mind was a different kind of substance from matter, but the early-modern cosmologists did not discover it in their experiments. In his book Leviathan that appeared in 1651, Thomas Hobbes concluded that only matter exists. The mind, he said, is nothing but the brain, and the brain can be explained as merely the motion of extremely tiny atoms within the human head.
As science continued to progress through the 18th and 19th centuries, with Charles Darwin reporting discovery of the principle of evolution in 1859, human beings appeared to shrink in significance from a creature once thought to be “made in the image of God” to a tiny, merely physical creature within a vast universe, a creature whose existence was not significantly different from innumerable planets and animals coming and going over many millions of years within “the immense journey” of evolution. We appeared so cosmically insignificant, no wonder we clung to what was familiar: family, nation, race, etc.
It ultimately took the 20th and 21st century revolutions in scientific theory to restore mind to the Cosmos where it belongs. Max Planck in 1900 and Albert Einstein in 1905 launched paradigm revolutions in quantum physics and relativity physics that have entirely altered our conception of the Cosmos. It is now clear to most scientific cosmologists that mind is an integral feature of all that exists, and, for many cosmologists, it is the primary category for characterizing reality—all energy forms are ultimately mind, and “matter” is simply the way the energy of mind appears to us in our everyday lives (see, e.g., Kafatos and Nadeau 1990 or Laszlo 2017). It is not our physical bodies that are now primary, but mind, integral to the entire Cosmos, within which we participate, and to which we are responsible.
What we mean by “mind” includes that central capacity to transcend immediate perceptual existence with the symbolic imagination. As we have seen, this imagination is not simply reducible to loose ramblings of consciousness when dreaming or sleeping, but rather fundamental to scientific methodology and every other sphere of human existence, from religion, art, culture, politics, investigation, love, and justice to the very idea of progress. Ernst Cassirer, in his Essay on Man (1944) develops these ideas in some depth.
Yet, despite all this tremendous progress that human beings have made in understanding ourselves and our Cosmos in the past 125 years, for most people, the utopian symbolism of mind links to some fragment, some ethnocentric division of humanity—my family, my nation, my religion, my race, my culture, my language, etc. Here lies the great potentially omnicidal failure of the 21st century. Despite the many thinkers who have underlined the universality of the human project—that we are one species, within one planetary ecosystem, within one universal civilization, within one absolutely holistic Cosmos—neither the mass media nor the ordinary citizen anywhere on Earth has internalized this universality.
I have often argued that the system of militarized “sovereign” nation-states and the system of privatized greed called capitalism serve as structural impediments to this identification. Yet most basically the problem is us—it is our “unholy” imaginative limitations, our refusal to look inside to discern the utopian call that is always present there. We need to see our planet as a whole, humanity as a whole, and civilization as a whole if we are to properly exercise our utopian imagination for life and goodness and future generations rather than for pathology, evil, and death. The utopian imagination is a generic feature of humanity that operates at any and all levels of abstraction.
I can have personal utopian ambitions for myself, family, church, and country or other identifications (like my race). But none of these will redeem and save humanity and future generations. And insofar as these limited identifications are not transcended, they create only more evil and destructive consequences. My particular utopian projections for my life, family, church, or nation will not disappear when we ascend to a universalized understanding. But they must be integrated into a utopian vision for the whole. It is the greatness and the destiny of humanity to integrate with the holism of the universe and actualize that holism in our concrete lives and institutions.
Otherwise, our lives and institutions fragment and distort. They set nations, families, and religions against one another. Only integrating the particular into the whole of humanity will liberate and redeem all particular ideals. Ultimately, we may move to the wholeness of the Cosmos itself, and to the wholeness of the ground of Being or God. How do my particular utopian ideals integrate with the whole of existence? The universe and its foundations are one. Humanity is one and is integral to the oneness of our planetary life and the oneness of the Cosmos. We can grow to this insight slowly and deliberately, or it can come as a flash, but it must come. 19th century thinker Friedrich Nietzsche declared that our common human task was to transcend what was “human all too human” about us, our institutions, and our visions.
The utopian imagination is ultimately a product of the Cosmos become conscious of itself in us. Thinkers as diverse as Sri Aurobindo (1973, 49) and Errol E. Haris (1988, 104-5) have drawn this conclusion. We are living incarnations of the divine ground of Being. Holism and the utopian imagination go together. Only the holistic vision of a liberated unity in diversity can redeem us. We do not need to experience a “mystical union” with the whole in order to appropriate this universality. We simply need to make the kind of actions that lead to personal growth. For authentic personal growth inevitably leads to this universality. Educators as well as governments worldwide need to encourage personal growth to universality.
For those few who are privileged enough to experience mystical union with the whole, this experience must eventuate in utopian ideals and actions in the concrete world. To remain in a kind of Buddhistic non-action and non-attachment is not enough. The integrated relational whole must become actualized in human reality on planet Earth through utopian-oriented actions, systems, and organizations. No nation on Earth today operates from this universality. Ultimately, the only avenue for authentic realization of the utopian imperative is world federation.
The Constitution for the Federation of Earth concretizes our utopian imagination relating to peace, human rights, justice, and environmental sustainability. It embodies these symbolic dimensions of our fragmented human selfhood and focuses these values like a laser beam on to a world system that persons can realize here and now. It gives humanity a World Parliament in which every member has taken a pledge in the service of humanity and within which most of its members will have accomplished that transcendence and personal growth that can make this service a reality. It gives us a judiciary, administration, enforcement system, and human protection system second to none among the various visions that have been proposed for a new world system.
The Earth Constitution is based explicitly on the principle of unity in diversity, which is the principle of integral wholeness in both the Cosmos and in human affairs. It does not abolish the nations, races, cultures, or religions but embraces them all in a unity that in its very nature transcends them all. Despite the carefully designed features of the Constitution directed toward preventing abuse and perversion of its democratic processes, the essential insight here is that it is unlikely that these features will be necessary. For in ascending to affirmation of the Earth Constitution, human beings are embracing their cosmic destiny. They are truly uniting in mutual respect and dignity. Our pettiness, hate, and fear will be replaced by expansiveness, love, and courage.
Now in the early 21st century, we are at the cusp, at the turning point between immanent self-destruction and a redeeming human liberation. What is demanded of us is ascent to universality, to harmony with the holistic structure of the Cosmos and everything within it. This ascent, in concrete terms, lies with ratification of the Earth Constitution. However, the tragedy worldwide today is that people lack the courage, insight, and understanding to make the step to wholeness.
There is a reactionary sickness worldwide, an irrational escape into arbitrary embrace of fragments such as my possessions, my race, my nation, or my religion. Rather than expanding and uniting within the embrace of our common humanity and divinely inspired destiny, people are running away, clinging ever more fanatically to localized identifications and systems. This is the great terror (and sin) of our times—that people lack the courage and vision to lift themselves into the redeeming embrace of the holism of humanity, the Earth, and the Cosmos, the first step of which would be to ratify the Earth Constitution.
In conclusion to this essay, allow me to quote 20th century philosopher Eric Gutkind summarizing the challenge we face:
Our main sin today is that we do not ultimately accept our human destiny…. We are the “principle of ascending” in the universe. We ourselves are such an envelop that surrounds nature…. Man’s destiny is paradoxical, and that means—in religious terms—that something extremely great is being delegated to us, not something that is “reasonable.” The demand made on Man seems to be superhuman, and yet it must be accepted. It is what the great philosopher Kant called: the dignity of Man. We are looking for something petty, something practical, something to give us shelter. We must realize that our present situation is by no means petty. It brings us to the awareness that Man is greater than he thinks. (1969, 94).
Aurobindo, Sri (1973). The Essential Aurobindo. Ed. Robert McDermott. New York: Schocken Books.
Cassirer, Ernst (1944). An Essay on Man: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gutkind, Eric (1969). The Body of God: First Steps Toward an Anti-Theology. Eds. Lucie B. Gutkind and Henry LeRoy Finch. New York: Horizon Press.
Harris, Errol E. (1988). The Reality of Time. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kafatos, Means and Robert Nadeau (1990). The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole in Modern Physical Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Laszlo, Ervin (2014). The Self-Actualizing Cosmos: The Akasha Revolution in Science and Human Consciousness. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Press.
Martin, Glen T. (2021). The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press.