A Theory of Everything

From what I can tell talking to the few writers I’ve met in real life and the forums and interviews I’ve read online, the majority start a new writing project by just beginning with an idea and figuring out the overall structure as they go. That’s never worked for me. I learned early in my writing “career” that, at least for anything longer than a blog post, I write much better when I know the overall structure upfront. So, I map out the whole synopsis before writing a single word on the body of the text. That’s the approach that I’ve taken for all of the six books I’ve published so far and it’s worked well.

Thus, when I boldly predicted earlier this year that I could knock over the majority of my next writing project The Age of the Orphan in two weeks, this prediction was actually based on past experience. I thought I had the overall structure ready to go and the only thing left to do was write the thing. But things refused to come together as I’d hoped. Rather than go back to the drawing board as I had already done a few times, I decided to try the alternative method mentioned above: force myself to write and hope that the overall structure would come later.

It’s been hard going but, a couple of weeks ago, I think I finally did figure out what I’m trying to say and I’ve actually been in denial about it since it’s a completely audacious idea that I’m calling the theory of everything. Since it will help me to solidify the concept for myself, I’m going to try and summarise it in this post.

The core realisation which started all this, even though I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, was that the underlying structure of several different theories that I’ve discussed on this blog over the past several years is the same. The Hero’s Journey is one that I’m intimately familiar with since I’ve used it to structure my four fiction novels and the several short stories I’ve written. My understanding of the Hero’s Journey was the key to my analysis of The Plague Story as the myth which drove the corona debacle.

The Hero’s Journey can be mapped as a cycle consisting of three phases. There’s a number of different labels for these phases, but what is more important to understand is that each phase is itself a Hero’s Journey. Therefore, the structure is a fractal.

The Hero’s Journey

The structural correspondence between Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey concept and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s rites of passage idea is well known. Van Gennep also identified 3 elements of the rites of passage: Separation – Transition – Incorporation. Again, the pattern is fractal since each individual phase also has the same 3-part structure.

The Rites of Passage

Not only is the underlying structure of the Hero’s Journey and rites of passage the same, their content corresponds since both are born out of the fundamental beliefs of the culture to which they belong.

It’s no coincidence that the foundational myth of corona (the Plague Story) was followed up by a rite of passage (vaccination). The underlying cultural belief which motivates both is the faith in “science” or “progress”. Myths and rites of passage are the ways in which a culture propagates itself, even in the secular modern West.

Myths and rites of passage are fundamental to civilisation. But civilisation also shows the same underlying structure as the Hero’s Journey and the rites of passage: a cycle.

The Cycle of Civilisation using Toynbee’s model

And, we can see that the individual lifecycle has the same circular structure:

The lifecycle of the individual

Since the above diagram links to the psychological discoveries of Freud and Jung, and since the rites of passage and Hero’s Journeys link from the individual back to the broader culture, we can posit a unifying pattern that unites the whole of civilisation: the cycle.

This pattern also qualifies as a human universal. It is the same pattern we see in the cycle of the earth around the sun and the sub-cycle of the earth spinning in relation to the sun which give us our days, seasons and years; the fundamental substrate of human existence. In this way, the cycle is the kind of archetype that Jung became interested in later in his life; namely, one which can be seen to unify the physical and psychic worlds. In my theory-of-everything, it also unifies the socio-political at the level of civilisation.

It’s noteworthy that both Freud and Jung both attempted several times in their careers to make a similar extrapolation from the domain of individual psychology to the civilisational. Freud did this in his books Totem and Taboo and Civilisation and Its Discontents. Jung was on a similar track in Aion and Answer to Job.

Meanwhile, Spengler and Toynbee were coming at it from the other direction. Their approach to history, much like Marx was to abstract away from individuals and focus on forces. What they implied, but never explicitly spelled out in psychological terms (Spengler sort of did), was that the overall pattern of civilisation affects the psychology of each generation which is born into a different phase of the cycle . That was the realisation I had also stumbled across with my Devouring Mother – Orphan analysis. I began with a socio-psychological analysis and then tried to trace its emergence over time.  

What we have then are cycles within cycles. We are each born into one of the generations which makes up a civilisation. The arc of our own life is part of the arc of our generation which is part of the arc of the civilisation. The rites of passage and myths (Hero’s Journeys) are the primary ways in which we are initiated into that civilisation.

Trying to diagram this dynamic is something I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out. Originally, I was trying to do it using the circle diagrams above. Finally, I realised that a sine wave makes more sense because the sine wave allows us to more easily represent the fractal nature of the relationships.

We can map the cycle of civilisation as a sine wave as follows:

Although I have left them off the diagram for clarity, what we see here are Toynbee’s four phases playing out over time: Genesis – Growth – Breakdown – Disintegration. In the early phase of a civilisation, society is poor and militarily weak. It resonates mostly in the esoteric realm as the core great ideas which will shape its destiny are taking form. To take one example, Faustian civilisation had right from the beginning a genuinely international institution – the Church. Is it a coincidence that the Faustian would go on to create another set of international institutions (UN, WTO, WHO etc) during its Dominant phase?

If we assume that each generation follows the same trajectory as the overall civilisation, that gives us a fractal sine wave as follows:-

Each individual sine wave is a generation within the overall arc of civilisation. Obviously, the diagram is not accurate in that there are only a small number of generations represented, but this helps with the clarity of presentation. As a thought experiment, we can walk through the arc of the civilisation and consider each generation in its relation to the overall pattern:

Here is a generation that occurs around the transition from the Genesis to Growth phases. We know from history that this will be a time of relative economic and military weakness and political incohesion. On the other hand, we would expect to see great breakthroughs in the arts, theology and philosophy as the Creative Minority reaches the peak of its powers.

An individual born into the general population at this time is going to have a very different life to one born later in the cycle. They are likely to be much poorer and have a physically more challenging existence. On the other hand, they will be part of a tight-knit community based on firm notions of the sacred which are reinforced in a rich variety of ceremonies and stories (Hero’s Journeys) which propagate the growing culture.

Here I reach the limit of my diagramming abilities. But imagine that we added an extra dimension of sine waves to represent the lives of each member of the generation. We would then have represented the individual psychological viewpoint “beneath” the generational (collective). Imagine, then, that we zoomed in on the individual life and represented that as a sine wave. It would look like this:  

The archetypes of the Child – Orphan – Adult and Elder represent the developmental phases that we each must go through in life, although, as Freud and Jung noted, human psychology is complex and its possible to get wholly or partially stuck in one of the phases which manifests as complexes, neuroses or even psychoses later on.

The individual sine waves on this graph then represent psychologically important parts of the cycle which the society and the individual navigate via rites of passage. Rites of passage are there to both assist the individual through the phases of life while also connecting the individual with the wider society. The green area highlighted above could, for example, be the Christian rite of passage of Communion which marks the coming of age of the individual as they become Adult members of the congregation.

Since the meaning of the Eucharist is closely tied with the mythology of Jesus, we see once again the cohesion between rites of passage and myths, in this case based on the underlying cultural template of Christianity. A rite of passage undergone by a single individual ties back to the mythology and theology that grounds the entire civilisation.

The progression of the individual from Orphan to Adult is arguably the most important transition for the propagation of the culture. When that process breaks down or changes, this is not an arbitrary or random development. It signals a change in the broader society. Early in the civilisational cycle, such changes are taken very seriously and are normally fiercely resisted. Later on, they happen with rapidity as the bonds of tradition are loosed.

Here in the late Faustian civilisation, few people go through the rite of passage of Communion and few know the mythology of Jesus to any great extent. Instead, we have education and the myth of science as our guiding initiation rites both of which fit the materialist bias of late civilisation as the Dominant Minority comes into its own.

What I came to realise writing my Age of the Orphan series was that the breakdown of tradition is, in fact, the breakdown of the Orphan – Elder relationship. Freud and Jung spent a great deal of time talking about the psychology of the Parent – Child relationship. I have come to believe that there is another fundamental pairing: Orphan – Elder.

To the extent that Freud or Jung talked about this, they seemed to assume that the Elder is an extension of the Parent. That is possibly true in a psychological sense. However, what the Orphan Story shows is that this must be transcended on the journey to Adulthood.

The Elder’s role is to initiate the Orphan into the wider society. That is what differentiates them from a parent. It’s possible for an actual parent to fulfill both roles but they must still state change from archetypal Parent to archetypal Elder to successfully get the job done. When they don’t, they become either Devouring Mothers or Tyrannical Fathers.

In feudal European society, the two primary Elder roles were the local priest and the local lord. Both carried out specific rites of passage that formed the initiation by which Orphans graduated to become Adult members of the church and the manor.

What happens as civilisation progresses through its cycle is that the Orphan – Elder relationship breaks down. Toynbee called this the breakdown of tradition and the subsequent loss of a feeling of connection to the ancestors. The Elder is the bridge to the ancestors. Once the Elder relationship breaks down, so too does the connection backwards to history.

What this means in practice is that the connection becomes abstract. In the early phases of the civilisational cycle, the Orphan is directly connected to the ancestors through local rites of passage, local myths and local Elders. With the homogenisation and centralisation that occurs in late civilisation, this direct connection with Elders is replaced by abstractions. This coincides with the transfer of culture from the countryside to the mega-cities.

We see this progression in ancient Rome with the cult of Caesar and later the Christian church. What is notable about the cult of Caesar, and this ties in with my Devouring Mother discovery, is that it included the concept of Pater Patriae, which means father of the fatherland. This honorific was bestowed by the Roman senate on the Caesars starting around the time of Julius Caesar. At the same time, Rome became a military dictatorship. In archetypal terms, the Caesars were manifesting the Tyrannical Father.

This is the same pattern we see in our time except that the Dominant Minority of the British-American Empire has manifested the Devouring Mother. This leads me to a hypothesis I haven’t been able to fully investigate yet: the Creative Minority manifests the Elder archetype while the Dominant Minority manifests the Parent (Tyrannical Father or Devouring Mother).

The link between the microcosm and macrocosm is the Orphan – Elder relationship. The rites of passage break down at the local level and this severs the individual connection with the ancestors. The Creative Minority had previously held its position of authority based on mythology and rites of passage. From our vantage point in late civilisation, we call this “superstition”. But it is an organic and decentralised way of uniting a culture.

Later in the cycle, the Dominant Minority is concerned only with power. In order to fully realise the economic and military opportunities in the second half of the cycle, society must be homogenised and centralised. Culture moves to the mega-cities and the State begins to rule through propaganda which is, of course, nothing more than degraded “superstition”; mythology stripped of belief. The State becomes the archetypal Parent ruling by obedience and force alone.

(Of course, this is the exact objection that people in our time level against the medieval period. Ironically, it may be that we are just projecting our own circumstances onto the early phase of the cycle. We are ruled over by abstractions. The average person from earlier in the cycle was ruled over not so much by an abstraction as by a real person. The exercise of power was more direct and a lot more honest).

With arrival of the Dominant Minority as Tyrannical Parent, we also see the appearance of what I have called in past posts the Rebel Priests. Can it be a coincidence that these arise once the local Orphan – Elder relationship has broken down? The Rebel Priests are the Elders of the late civilisation. They fill the archetypal role that is left vacant once the localised Orphan – Elder relationship disappears.

As if that wasn’t enough of a theory-of-everything, consider what happens if we zoom out from our civilisational sine wave.

The cycle of civilisation shows the same underlying structure as the Hero’s Journey. In fact, all these correspondences between the cycle of civilisation, the rites of passage, the Hero’s Journey and the Freudian and Jungian psychology (the Ego, Self) are themselves likely to be part of a cycle of history which we might call the Age of the Heroes.

The Creative and Dominant Minorities are the Heroes who drive civilisation on. Civilisation is itself a Hero’s Journey and, therefore a journey into the Unconscious per Campbell and the Sacred per van Gennep. We each partake of that journey by virtue of our belonging to the larger cycle. Our link to the larger cycle is through the rites of passage and myths of our culture.

What the modern West has realised with our science is that the pattern of civilisation is a recent arrival on the scene. History stretches back well before. It may well be that civilisation is part of some larger cycle that we don’t understand yet. That is exactly what the Hindu mystics presupposed with their enormous astrological cycles that stretched over hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Age of Civilisation will itself give way to something qualitatively different.

Whether we view the cycle of civilisation as a repetition-of-the-same as the ancient Greeks believed (and which Nietzsche later modified with his eternal recurrence idea), or whether we view it as a cycle of transcendence as implied by the Hero’s Journey, is a matter of theology. It requires a leap of faith.

13 thoughts on “A Theory of Everything”

  1. Trust someone raised in Faustian culture to take a theory and apply it universally at all scales and all times!

    But seriously this is nice work, makes sense and what is really silly for those who deny cyclical models is that all it takes is simple observation of the organic world, a plant, an animal, a star, a weather pattern. It’s when we lose touch with this that we forget this pattern.

    I think it might be correct that the current post Ice age cycle of civilisations is just a cycle within a cycle, as more and more evidence emerges that civilisations potentially existed during the last ice age, in places that are now underwater (Sphinx is probably around 10000 years old). Even the Australian landmass has probably been through the cycle, and certain Aboriginal tribes have legends pointing in this direction. JMG often mentions that occult law states that there have been civilisations for the past 80000 years at least. The funny thing is this doesn’t fit in with the Faustian myth so has been vehemently denied until recently.

  2. Skip – well, the Vedics discovered the recurring pattern of the stars and humbly went on to extrapolate the next 16 million years of human life. In comparison, I think I’m being rather modest 😛

    I’d say the denial of cyclical models probably has a couple of sources. Firstly, it’s too simple and easy to understand. The average person might be able to use it to, heaven forbid, think for themselves.

    Second, most people now live in cities and are removed from the vagaries of the weather and the seasons to a large extent. Even night and day means little since there is artificial light everywhere. Everything is in equilibrium all the time and the very idea that something might “go wrong” seems to cause people real anxiety as if it would be an insurmountable problem instead of a period of time they just have to navigate through. This is also predicted by the model since the purpose of rites of passage and Hero’s Journeys is that they must involve a real break from the everyday world and a “descent” into the Unconscious/Sacred. The breakdown of those rites means that many people have never really experienced a time of real uncertainty in their entire life.

  3. The rise of the backpacker over the last few decades (probably going away now) to me was pointing out that young people actively seek out the heroes journey and rites of passage even when they are taken away from them. A holiday is just a relaxation venture but backpacking can go very wrong and often does, and the fact that the young person is away from both their parents and their state is important, because the devouring mother safety net isn’t there like in the home country. Being lost with no money in the middle of the night and having to hike alone across border mountains to sneak onto a train without speaking any of the language can give you a good descent into the unconscious (it’s happened to me).

  4. Skip – Good point. On one of my trips to China we climbed the Hua mountain which has a long religious tradition behind it. There’s a meditation spot with a cave near the top and in order to get to it you have to walk over a ledge that’s about ten metres long. Doesn’t sound like much except the ledge is probably about 30cms wide with a sheer drop below. If you make a mistake, you’re dead.

    That’s the key point of a Hero’s Journey. There has to be real consequences for failure. But a successful society automatically creates conditions where there aren’t real consequences. I think that explains the currently madness of our society. It’s not that anybody wanted it. It’s that for many decades there have been no consequences for stupid decisions. Without feedback from the real world we slip back from Freud’s reality principle into the pleasure principle i.e. we become children.

  5. Hi Simon,

    I’m only half way through. As a note, those authors may be telling half-truths. It’s hard to know and it is possible.

    I tend to begin with an idea, and have a vague notion as to where it is headed – then set off on the journey. Your writing is more rigorous than my own though.

    Anywhoo, I’m getting a bit tired, but wanted to say: Respect. Yes, a sinewave makes a lot of sense. Did you know that the curves of the sinewave in the form of the inverted bell shaped curve are hard wired into many things? You see it playing out everywhere. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? But the sinewave allows a sort of reset.



  6. Chris – if I remember correctly (and maybe I don’t), everything in space spins, including black holes. So, I guess if you wanted to get mystical about it, you might say that the cycle is a fundamental of the universe. It’s strange to think that your favourite novel or movie has the same underlying structure as day/night, the seasons, the life of plants and animals or any number of other natural processes that we normally consider independent of each other.

  7. Simon – this is deeply fascinating, thanks. Re denial of cyclic models, that would seem essential to uphold the myth of progress. And goes hand in hand w/ denial/phobia of death (&, incidentally, scientific/scientistic contempt for astrology).

    Recent months have seen a massive influx of Irish backpackers in Sydney; ‘backpacker’ as synonym for working holiday? A safe hero’s journey. 🙂

  8. Shane – I recall that Karl Popper was against psychoanalysis which he criticised as being untestable and therefore based on “myth”. It’s true in some respects and the same criticism can be levelled against comparative history, mythology and anthropology too. On the other hand, how could you empirically test comparative history? You’d have to set up multiple different “civilisations” with different starting conditions and “cultures” and then see how they worked out. It’d be like the Old Testament only with God as a scientist 🙂

  9. It’s funny the Ancient Greeks I’m guessing would laugh at someone like Popper and point out that his whole ‘testable’ schtick is based off myth as well. Namely the myth that by isolating something in a test you can then draw conclusions as to the nature of things that apply universally. It’s all myth, and what matters is whether it works or not. The why is secondary to the how. As Nietzsche said, sometimes in the end it all boils down to aesthetics.

    Astrology is a good example of this. Rational materialists get so stuck on the why that they ignore that it might have something to offer.

  10. Simon, would you say comparative history’s not so much gone out of fashion as it’s been suppressed, perhaps for reasons comparable 🙂 to religious (both church & scientific) suppression of astrology?

    God as a scientist instead of the other way round?

  11. Skip – following Kant, I think we can say that any empirical test is partly based on “eternal” structures of cognition that are implied in any hypothesis and partly based on sense impressions which are garnered from the experiment. The scientific objection to armchair philosophers is that they don’t bother with the second part of the equation and that’s sometimes a valid criticism. I think true scientists wouldn’t object to astrology since it’s a model that can be tested and if a model produces a pattern of results it “works” even if you don’t know why. The people who object are usually dogmatists not scientists.

    Shane – I think the whole of post-war science has been corrupted by money and power. If I were king, we’d do a “reboot” of science and just go back to the early 20th century and start where they left off 🙂

    The more I think about God as a scientist, the more I like it. There’s a comedy idea in there somewhere.

  12. Chris – well before that. The Reformation was the beginning. The British Civil War and US/French Revolutions were the political manifestation. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all rebellious boys who renounced religion and turned to ideology. The Orphan – Elder relationship had completely disappeared by their time. By our time, it’s been gone so long that nobody even remembers that it’s a thing.

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