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Interpreting the Chain of Being

From Esoteric Great Chain of Being to Postmodern Great Nest of Being

One of the central elements in Ken Wilber's teaching is the concept of the Great Chain of Being, an unbroken continuum or spectrum of levels of being - or as I would term it an ontological gradation - from God or the Absolute down to matter. Although the Great Chain of Being represents a central element of what Aldous Huxley (following Leibnitz) called the Perennial Philosophy and Huston Smith the Primordial Tradition, it is probably not as universal as is sometimes claimed. This concept is found in sophisticated form in Middle and Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in the late Classical World. From Neoplatonism it spread to Christianity and the Islamic world, and it was also assimilated into Kabbalah. In India it plays a big part in Kashmir Shaivism and other traditions, although it is never as widespread as it is in the West, due to a preponderance of Monism. In Taoism it appears in only undeveloped form. In the philosophical and naturalistic West it reaches a culmination in the 18th through to early 19th century continental philosophers (especially evolutionary schools of German Idealism and Nature Philosophy), and was never as strongly developed in the East. In the late 19th and 20th century it was revived by Theosophy and Hermeticism (Theon, Golden Dawn, etc), and in India in the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. Theosophical versions are influential in aspects of the New Age movement.

It is however necessary to distinguish between an esoteric-occult interpretation of a series of ontological gradations, planes, and worlds from Spirit to Matter, and an evolutionary physicalistic one of a "temporalized" Great Chain of Being by which matter evolves to Godhead. Wilber's Integral Philosophy unambiguously rejects the former in favor of the latter. In his more mature work (Wilber-IV and V) Wilber scraps the traditional concept of supraphysical planes and emanations of existence as a sort of hold-over from the past that will prevent a fuller acceptance and understanding of an evolutionary Chain of Being.

" In my opinion, we want to keep as much as possible of the great traditional systems while jettisoning their unnecessary metaphysical interpretations, interpretations that not only are not necessary to explain the same set of data, but interpretations that guarantee that spirituality will not get a fair hearing in the court of modern and postmodern thought."
Excerpt G: Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies - Part I. Introduction: From the Great Chain of Being to Postmodernism in Three Easy Steps

The metaphysical interpretations Wilber refers to are precisely those that involve the idea of realities that are totally non-physical or supra-physical in nature. Mind beyond body, soul beyond mind.... This concept - presented as a central thesis in Professor Huston Smith's synthesis (see Amazon com Forgotten Truth) and central to all esoteric cosmology and cosmognosis, naturally does not fit comfortably with the rationalistic, physicalistic position of the secular Western world. Hence Wilber has to tone down metaphysics and esotericism, make it digestible to the modern reader, for whom the existence of esoteric and occult planes, worlds, and forces are unpalatable. Like Jung, Wilber straddles two worlds. But Jung's attempt at synthesis - the Collective Unconscious - is too fuzzy, too amorphous and prone to New Ageism. So Jung was never accepted by the mainstream. Wilber's formulation is much drier, less poetry, less "wonderworld" and romantic. It is shown in the following diagram.

Great Nest of Being

Here we can see that Spirit includes Soul, Mind, Life and Matter, Soul includes Mind, Life and Matter, and so on down to Matter, which only includes itself. This is indicated by the letters mind [A + B + C] etc on the left of the diagram, where A equals matter, B, life and so on to E (Spirit). Thus the traditional occult-esoteric Great Chain metaphor is replaced by the Kosmos (the totality) as a "Great Nest of Being", with concentric circles where each ascending level includes (in the manner of Koestler's holons) and transcends the previous level [Link to Amazon com A Brief History of Everything], as shown in the above diagram.

My feeling is that Wilber's attempt here at bridging the divide will be a lot more successful than Jung's. He says things more clearly and succinctly, his own metaphysic is easier to digest than Jung's, he uses the methodology of postmodernism that is popular in academia, and society has moreover moved on since Jung's time, through the assimilation of many previous radical and fringe ideas into the mainstream, as the New Age of the 60s and 70s has become the mainstream of the 90s and 00s.

One reason why this cosmology will not be threatening to the secular physicalistic West is that this approach rejects the possibility of mind without life and matter, soul without mind, life and matter, etc. It is not reductionistic materialism, but what I call holomaterialism, a materialism which encompasses mind and spirit as part of an integral unity.

The only exception to this subtle materialism is the original emanation of the cosmos, and a token external link reference to reincarnation, which after all is part and parcel of the Eastern worldview, but sits uncomfortably in this otherwise secular-friendly metaphysic.

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page uploaded 16 June 2004, last modified 12 December 2009