Reflections 3
Gaia: Myth and Science



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"Face to Face" 1971,
Oil on board, 36"x48" © Robin Baring


Woman as Custodian of Life
by Anne Baring
Spirit and Stardust
by Congressman Dennis Kucinich
Gaia - Myth and Science
by Jules Cashford
- this page
Devastating the Earth
by Jane Goodall
A New Image of God
by Anne Baring
The Incarnation and the Mystery of Suffering
by Joy Ryan-Bloore
The Miracle of Death
by Betty C. Kovács
The Survival of the Soul
by Anne Baring
Near Death Experience
Mellen-Thomas Benedict
Alchemy: The Light of Darkness
by Paul Levy
Dreams: Messages of the Soul
by Anne Baring
Animals in Dreams
by Anne Baring




by Jules Cashford

     Every component of the Earth community has a right to be.

Since we can now stand upon the Moon and look back at Earth, seeing ourselves looking at the Moon, we might ask if this image has anything to say about the evolution of the human race at this particular point in history. For this image could be seen as itself embodying the essence of the new consciousness, allowing us, for the first time, to see our planet as a whole. From this magnificent perspective, all boundaries - tribal, national or religious - dissolve into absurdity, even as the smoke of their conflicts floats in the air, hovering over regions too small to name.
      The other major discovery of the twentieth century also made it impossible to think of continents and countries in isolation from each other. As Einstein warned in 1964, "The unleashing of the power of the atom bomb has changed everything except our mode of thinking, and thus we head toward unparalleled catastrophes." He was surely signaling that the brilliant experiment in consciousness of the last four thousand years had reached its peak and must now sacrifice its autonomy, if it is not to destroy what it has created.
      The scientific exploration of human consciousness is relatively recent. It began, interestingly enough, around the time that Einstein was speaking. It soon became clear that we understand very little of the way in which a mode of consciousness might change. Although we began to make connections between consciousness and mythology, we still do not know how mythologies come to be, whether they arise spontaneously from the unconscious, or whether we can consciously assist them to emerge. But by comparing myths from different cultures and times, we have learned that myths make visible to us our deepest longings and imaginings, and so offer one way in which we can apprehend and know our own being.
      Since the Enlightenment, it has been a common assumption that the way of thinking about life 'mythologically' belongs to the distant past; that modern science and philosophy owe nothing to the 'irrational' intuitions of mythology, and, indeed, are founded on a heroic refusal of them. But it has become apparent that speculative and imaginative thought, whether in science, philosophy or any other creative field, is an inherent feature of mythical thinking, and that mythic images are never absent from any attempt to understand the universe, however rational and empirical it would aspire to be. In this case, there might be something vital to be learned from the way early people - and contemporary cultures not bound by western thinking - relate to the universe.
      Before philosophy became a separate discipline, the poetic images of myth were the central way in which people addressed the immediate contingencies of daily life, and the questions of life and death. Like philosophy, predicated on clear definition and explicit statement, these early modes of mythical thought began with a hypothesis. It may have been a living presence - a goddess or a god; it may have taken the form of an animal or bird, or manifested as Moon, Sun or landscapes of Earth - but it was no less an attempt to reach for an idea that would reveal patterns and structures and make sense of the world. In this sense myth is the original and living impulse of philosophy.
      Early myths found their way through and imaginative sympathy, which included the entire relationship of people to their world. And - since this was a mutual process - it included the way the world related to human beings. The world of early people was a presence both numinous and personal, and so was a 'subject' in the dialectic of thinking, not an inanimate object of thought. What we now call Nature was once not distinguished from humankind: they belonged to the same continuum of feeling and did not, therefore, have to be apprehended by different modes of cognition. There was no dichotomy between them. It was not that early people did not think philosophically: it was that 'the good', 'the true' and 'the beautiful' were once good, true and beautiful things, and these 'things' were dynamic personalities, activities, cosmic events and happenings.
      One of the discoveries of psychology in the last century has been to show us that myths structure our thinking whether we are aware of them or not. We all, as a race, culture, or individual, have a story about the world in which we live and about our place and purpose in it. A myth, in its original Greek meaning - muthos - is simply that: a story, one which seeks to render life transparent to an intelligible source. It can be conscious, open to dialogue with other stories, and self-reflective, or it can be unconscious, or less-than-fully conscious. What the stories have in common is that they are all constructions of the human psyche. They have to be, because the world is not given as fact but inhabited through interpretation.

Standing imaginatively upon the Moon looking back at Earth, what do we see 'in its sight'? Do we not see what Plato saw - a living being, a zoon, composed of other living beings, bound together in mutual and intimate relationship, all dependent upon one another for survival and value? If we do, then we see what early people saw - a community of subjects, not a collection of inanimate objects with only the human mind to bring them to life. From this perspective, the dignity of being a 'subject' is not restricted to humanity but extends to all manifestations of life on the living Earth - animal, vegetable and mineral. Nature, as all that is born (natus) and dies, cannot then be called an 'it' but becomes a 'Thou', and a Thou with all the complexity of any personal relationship, which includes the rights and responsibilities common to all communing subjects.
      It would follow from a perception of a living Earth as a communion of subjects that these subjects are entitled in principle to be accorded the same rights that human beings confer upon themselves. To quote the cultural historian and ecologist Thomas Berry:

"The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights, from the universe that brought them into being. Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right and responsibility to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community. All rights are species-specific and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights. Difference in rights is qualitative, not quantitative."

     But do we, can we, feel this? Is our imaginative sympathy sufficiently practised for us to 'widen our circle of compassion', in Einstein's evocative phrase. Many individuals, of course, feel such things instinctively, and always have done. The question is addressed only to those times when we think as members of a culture, and express the values of that culture rather than our own personal experience. In these moments we may well initially assent with our minds to ideas such as Berry's - since they follow logically and organically from the original vision of Earth as seen from the Moon. But do we carry them through in the way we live? The proposal presented by Berry was to see Earth as an end in itself, as inherently good, without reference to how human beings may benefit or profit from it. It does not say that the Earth will be better able to be 'managed' as a resource if it has not been polluted, and that we will all live longer. It says rights belong to all existence as their right; that we have to accept individual responsibility for ensuring that Earth and all Earth's members are no longer deprived of these rights. This is a vision specifically honed to the morality of being a human at this time in our and our Earth's history.
      Habits of response, and the mythic structures in which they are, however tenuously, embedded, are extremely difficult to dislodge, as history has taught us many times. A paradigm which sees Earth and Earth's creatures (except humans) as Nature without Spirit, sets up a way of seeing and valuing which cannot be disproved from within the paradigm; it is not falsifiable because it has already subsumed the methods of falsification. But even if we cannot disprove the basic assumptions of the paradigm, we can still recognize and refuse them. We can say that arguments that are exclusively anthropocentric, oppositional, mechanistic and materialistic belong to the last stage of the evolution of consciousness, not to the holistic paradigm that is coming into being.
      Ultimately, one paradigm can only be displaced by another paradigm, a wholly new vision. It is worth considering whether the emerging paradigm is fostered by imagining it as being fully operative already, responding as if its tenets were true, so that the new way of envisioning life may be explored at the deeper instinctive levels of the psyche. The practice of strengthening and giving free rein to the Imagination in all its manifestations may also assist us to imagine ourselves into the being of the other, whether that 'other' be humans or animals or plants or the body of Earth. Only in this way can we argue for their rights as if they were our own. Acting as if, seeing through the present into the future, or seeing a future in the present - these are of the essence of Imagination, which, as Coleridge said, dissolves, diffuses and dissipates what is, in order to create what could be.
      Imagination is revealed in the choice of the name Gaia for James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, since it makes present to the mind and evokes the feeling of the original creative power which once belonged to the ancient Greek Mother Goddess Earth. In this way, the modern and the ancient sensibility meet across the millennia in a way that may perhaps serve as a model: both for reclaiming our lost inheritance and for bringing it back into service so that it can help us to imagine a new future for all of Earth.

ŠJules Cashford
Reproduced from Resurgence Magazine, September/October 2002, No 214
Jules Cashford is the author of The Moon: Myth and Image

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