The Archetypal Calculus Part 3: Organisms and Civilisations

Apart from the general clarity of his writing and thinking, one of the reasons I like Jan Smuts as a figure in general is because he was not just a scholar but a successful statesman. Smuts played an integral role in the foundation of the state of South Africa and then the League of Nations and the United Nations. He was so respected in Britain that there was actually a plan to make him Prime Minister during WW2 if Churchill died. In short, he was a man of action as much as a man of intellect.

Of more importance, I think, is that Smuts derived his ideas in Holism and Evolution from within what was then the mainstream western tradition of scholarship. He was a Cambridge graduate, after all. The fact that mainstream western thought could produce a thinker like Smuts is evidence that the intellectual culture of the West was far more interesting and even radical one hundred years ago than it is today. In the aftermath of WW2, ideas like Smuts’ have been pushed to the fringe and we’ve seen what remains of intellectual culture in the West coalesce around an unholy alliance between scientific materialism and postmodernism. That’s where we remain today: skewered between two equally pathological ideologies. Smuts holds the prospect, however unlikely, that we can reconnect with a better alternative that connects back to the western tradition rather than deconstructs it.

(As a side note, what both scientific materialism and postmodernism have in common is that they form the nexus of political power wielded by the elites of the West. Materialism delivers the military and economic muscle and postmodernism forms the basis of internal political power which takes place in the psychic realm and which I have characterised by the Devouring Mother archetype. One of the missing elements in the thinkers that have formulated ideas similar to Smuts is how the exercise of power shapes evolution. This is particularly strange in Smuts since he was first and foremost a politician and had been involved in the operation of power at the highest levels. Nevertheless, his analysis completely ignores power as a operative principle.)

If we consider the thinkers who have pursued the paradigm which Smuts laid out in 1926, almost all of them are on the fringe. Gregory Bateson, Gerald Weinberg, Jean Gebser, Francisco Varela and others are hardly household names. Of more interest, perhaps, is Ken Wilber. I admit, I haven’t read any Wilber and hadn’t even thought of him in relation to this series of posts before a reader (hat tip to Jinasiri) put me onto him. It turns out that Wilber’s work looks to be a direct continuation of Smuts’ and Wilber acknowledges that influence.

In that respect, it’s fascinating that Wilber’s “integral” movement apparently became very popular and then crashed equally as quickly in the 2010s. I admit I missed all of that, but I’ll be very interested to read about it since it’s a sign that there is some renewed interest in holistic and integral thinking. More generally, it’s clear that I need to read Wilber since he is the one who seems to have most rigorously pursued the holistic paradigm sketched out by Smuts.

Smuts at the founding of the UN

I’m not sure why Wilber’s movement crashed, but it’s noteworthy that Smuts’ own contributions in the political sphere are not doing too well these days either. Smuts was an integral player in the formation of the United Nations, an institution that is not exactly in a good state.

Meanwhile, Smuts’ other major political achievement, the founding of the nation of South Africa, isn’t looking too crash hot either. The country looks to be on a pathway to becoming a failed state and, in any case, is throwing its hat in with the BRICS bloc, something that would have horrified Smuts for multiple reasons.

There’s another important political angle that relates broadly to these issues and that highlights yet again that seemingly abstract philosophical issues do make a difference in the “real world”. Smuts fought against the Nazis and the Nazis had adopted an ideology that was in large part grounded in the ideas related to Holism which appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We saw in last week’s post that the version of the levels of being that Smuts implied in his work was the one that had been handed down from antiquity and modified by the Catholic Church. Smuts placed the human at the top of the hierarchy. He called that level of being personality. It corresponds to E.F. Schumacher’s self-awareness.

Level of Being

It should be no surprise that the Church had placed God at the top of the tree and that was the version of the levels of being that formed the basis for much of modern European civilisation. As the Church’s influence waned in the 19th century, most thinking Europeans no longer placed God at the top. That left the human as the highest level of being by default and many philosophers, Nietzsche being perhaps the most vociferous, embraced that outcome. Smuts belongs broadly in that camp since he places personality at the top of his hierarchy.

Another thread which arose in western thought in the 19th century was increased attention on the collective aspects of society and civilisation. This included anthropology and comparative history and mythology among others. From this vantage point, Smuts’ model would be criticised as being far too individualistic and leaving out the influence of society.

What’s at stake here is the question of whether civilisation/society is a Whole. The collectivist thinkers implied that it was and that it was more important than the human. Let’s follow that idea and place civilisation/society in the table as follows:-

Level of BeingBeings/Wholes
MindAnimals, Humans
LifeCells, organisms
MatterAtoms, molecules

Recall from last week’s post the error that scientific materialists make which is to apply the mechanical method of analysis to the levels of being higher than Matter. What makes this error difficult to identify is because the Wholes at the higher levels of being also resonate at the level of Matter. Therefore, it’s not categorically wrong to apply the mechanical analysis. Rather, the error is to assume that mechanical analysis can provide a complete picture of reality. When we solely apply the mechanical analysis, we not only leave out aspects of the higher Wholes, we leave out their most important aspects.   

What we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries was the same kind of error as scientific materialism only now it came not from applying the mechanical paradigm to where it did not belong but from applying the organic paradigm to where it did not belong.

Just a slightly less complex version of New York City, right?

With the advances in biology that happened in the 19th century, we saw the same enthusiasm for the organic mode of being as the Newtonian and Cartesian revolutions had created for the mechanical mode. That enthusiasm led many thinkers to believe that the organic mode held the answers to all questions. One of the domains it was assumed to hold the answers to was the social and civilisational.

Perhaps the main property that differentiates the Life level of being from Matter is organisation. A living organism reproduces itself through a constant process of metabolism by which external sources are broken down and reconfigured into the material that renews the structures of the organism. The parts that make up the structure of the organism cooperate to achieve that outcome but the level of cooperation and coordination required surpasses anything that can be explained on cause-and-effect grounds. Thus, in the organic domain, cause-and-effect is not the primary mode of explanation but rather stimulus-and-response.

Because organic Wholes have a fundamental property of organisation and self-reproduction, it is at the Life level of being that the concepts of health and pathology become valid. In the world prior to Life, there was no sickness and health. There was only cause-and-effect.

Health is the equilibrium position in which the organism successfully reproduces and renews itself. Pathology is the breakdown of the organism’s processes of renewal. Thus, the nexus of meanings around the terms Whole, Health and Holy apply to the organism and we also get the concept of the sacred as the process by which wholeness, health and holiness (equilibrium) are re-established.

It is clear that there are many points of overlap between organisms and societies. We have seen that organisms have structure, that they constantly renew that structure through a process of metabolism and that the breakdown of the processes of renewal leads to pathology (illness). Societies seem to share these properties at some level. They have political, legal, religious and economic structures. Those structures are renewed and reproduced over time and also defended from attack in the same way an organism protects itself. In morality and ethics, societies construct norms that are there to ensure its “health”. All of this seems very much like an organism.

The comparative historians, including the two I have written about extensively over the past couple of years, Toynbee and Spengler, seemed also to find that civilisations can “die” and this added an extra correspondence with the organic domain. It was Spengler who made this correspondence overt by explicitly likening civilisations to organisms. For him, the death of a civilisation was explained by the loss of vigour that accompanies old age. Toynbee disagreed with this claim by pointing out that civilisations are not organisms.

It’s noteworthy in this respect that Spengler created a distinction between the statesmen and aristocrats who acted out of “instinct”, a direct reference to the organic realm, while the philosophers, theologians and other practitioners traditionally associated with realm of Mind were relegated to an inferior status as far as their influence on civilisation went. The irony is that Spengler was an intellectual who fell in with the Nazis, many of whom were also intellectuals. Their ideas had tangible real world effects. In fact, the society-as-organism metaphor was right at the heart of Nazi ideology.

Most people would be aware that the Nazis had concocted for themselves a view of civilisation as being either healthy and strong or weak and decadent. The master race was the one which could meet the Darwinian survival of the fittest. All this belongs to the realm of organism. So, too, did the Nazi predilection, which Spengler shared, of characterising political enemies as diseased or disease-carrying animals such as rodents and insects. If the state was an organism, then something had to be causing it to be “unhealthy”.

Arguably the most important way the state-as-organism metaphor played out in fascism was in the type of political system that followed from its logic. We have seen that one of the defining features of the organism is its self-organisation. The organism relies on an incredible coordination of parts and functions which keep it alive. In order for that to work, the lesser parts must be subservient to the Whole.

If the state is an organism, it follows that citizens are the parts and their job must be to serve the interests of the Whole. Thus, fascism in particular and communism less directly follow from the metaphor of state-as-organism.

Just as scientific materialism is a category error that comes from applying the “rules” of the domain of Matter to all levels of being, fascism and communism commit a similar category error by applying the rules of the organic domain to the higher domains. Spengler committed the same error by applying the organic mode to civilisation.

In fact, there’s a dual error at play because not only has the organic mode been applied to a domain that is “higher” than itself, but that domain is not even a Whole in the first place. The unspoken assumption in this entire train of thought has been that society and civilisation are Wholes. This is an easy mistake to make since they do share some of the properties of Wholes. Smuts sometimes called them “limited Wholes”, but mostly he referred to them as “Fields”. In the next post, we’ll go into detail about the difference between Wholes and Fields.

18 thoughts on “The Archetypal Calculus Part 3: Organisms and Civilisations”

  1. I don’t think that the Socialist tendency of the West from which Facism and Communism arise comes from an organic conception of society, as it’s lineage is older than the 19th century and really takes off under Frederick the Great in Prussia. This ‘for the collective’Socialism is still with us everywhere in the west today as Corona highlighted.

    I think it’s more a specifically Germanic (as opposed to French or British or Spanish, which all have their own flavours) branch of the Faustian conception of Society, and the fact that both Nazism and Communism arise from German intellectuals is to me not an accident. Social Darwinism and biological metaphors seem like fashionable intellectual cover for older themes that relate to the attempt to hold power on an extremely war prone continent. Even caring about the organisation of ‘society’ is something that only seems to matter a great deal to the European and to a lesser extent Chinese cultures. And this organisation seems to arise as a response to crisis, war in the former and natural disaster in the latter.

    There seems to me to be a fundamental difference between the conceptions of society between central Europe and the UK, and most of the differences can be explained by the differences in geography and local history.

  2. Skip – if you have the inclination, Lukacs’ book “The Destruction of Reason” is an interesting read on this subject.

    Long story short: a French historian called Boulainvilliers wrote a book in the early 18th century with the wacky theory that the aristocracy in France was of a completely different race from the general public and that, because the aristocracy were the carriers of civilisation descended from ancient times, to overthrow them would be to destroy civilisation. Of course, the theory was designed to inhibit the revolutionary tendencies that were growing at that time in France, but it was an original precursor to the conflation of race and civilisation and so it’s no surprise that none other than Cosima Wagner (Richard’s missus) took a liking to Boulainvilliers in the 19th century.

    All of these theories were a flimsy veneer for the real underlying political problems that were going on in France in the 18th C and Germany in the 19th C. We really haven’t progressed much in our time. The whole covid narrative was clearly also a veneer for our evolving underlying political crisis. (In this respect, it’s noteworthy that the Spanish Flu came along during a political crisis too).

  3. Human beings are indefatigable in their capacity to dress up cycles of greed, hatred, delusion and fear in their masculine and feminine modes.

    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy was mostly right. The latter are alike too, but surfaces are endlessly mutable.

    I hope you enjoy Wilber

  4. Human collectives are not Wholes. Asserting the notion leads to tyranny and oppression. But nor can individuals properly develop without concern for their society. Asserting this leads to rampart and disintegrative selfishness.

    Big-hearted leaders who have integrated and individuated themselves by way of authentic spiritual practice, it seems, are capable of directing collective Fields to consciously provide conditions in which individuals can integrate and individuate. Such properly individuated individuals are then capable of acting independently in ways which are consistently beneficial to the collective Field. This creates symbiotic feedback cycles between individual and collective, a middle way between tyrannical collectivism and disparate individualism. A win-win situation where both the collective and the individual prosper. Sustainable peace within and without, being founded on finding happiness within than on consumption of goods and services. The model is also scaleable and thus pragmatic in all situations.

  5. Jinasiri – yes. This is exactly the dynamic I had stumbled upon with my archetypal analysis. The Orphan – Elder relationship is about the reproduction of the Field which is society/culture/civilisation. Although, I’ve now realised it’s more complex than that. The breakdown of the Orphan – Elder relationship that began with the Reformation actually gave rise to modern science. The science and the politics of the culture in general became predicated on peer-to-peer relationships that seemingly only became possible once the Elders of the old paradigm were removed. Did the new science and politics have their own Orphan – Elder paradigm? I think so but the use of the written word definitely broadened the scope of the Field. Nevertheless, the scientific societies had a tightly maintained internal culture i.e. a proper initiation that inducted new members into the group and protected the collective Field as well as the individual (Whole).

  6. “Did the new science and politics have their own Orphan – Elder paradigm?”

    I think so. You had to put yourself at the feet of your Professor if you wanted a PhD in the old days. The horizontal peer to peer dynamic of science would have been mediated by the Professors, creating a deep atmosphere of collegiality and tradition. I suspect this changed in the 70s with the rejection of the Elders as a whole.

    Healthy eldership is a necessarily cross-disciplinary affair as it is as much about teaching orphans about how to be adults as it is about training them in a craft, skill or specialty. I suspect the rot starts at the top though. Poor Elders invite rebellion. But pointing fingers isn’t pragmatic. We all play both roles eventually so we need to take up the challenge of how to do both well.

  7. True. Even in the rock music scene there used to be an Orphan – Elder relationship. The most famous one was between George Martin and The Beatles. I think we’re just now seeing the amount of damage that has been wrought by the internet. The dream was that we were “getting rid of the gatekeepers”. But it turns out the gatekeepers (Elders) were actually fulfilling a vital role and now nobody knows who to trust or where to turn for reliable information. That was another crucial aspect of the corona hysteria. People were desperate for someone, anyone to tell them what to do and followed along even when none of it made any sense.

  8. Yes. I think having authority figures in our lives that we genuinely trust is a basic ingredient for maintaining sanity. But power is hard to hold. The usual thing is to be corrupted by it. And eventually people lose faith in the untrustworthy.

    Without some method to check this the keen student of history is bound to be fatalistic. It means that every rise must be followed by a fall. But if we can understand the way that power can be used without becoming corrupt for, indeed, the evolution of humanity, then we move from circularity to spiralarity (a term I just made up), from revolution to evolution.

  9. According to the (largely ignored, even by Buddhists) Early Buddhist texts, the secret herb and spice, it seems is the conscious cultivation of successful worldly leaders who are not just people of high moral courage but have genuine plans to renounce power, luxury and wealth well before they die. Archetypally, the King who has genuine plans to retire as a Hermit-Sage and who teaches his Orphan prince to do the same before he sheds his royal garb, and then, teaches him even more as an accomplished Sage.

  10. Yes, it’s no coincidence that one of the main themes in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies was the inability of the powerful to yield to the next generation. That’s the main motif of King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and, in a more roundabout way, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. It’s also a topic that Plato addresses numerous times too. For all our technological advances, I’m not sure we’ve advanced one millimeter on this issue.

  11. Hi Simon,

    It’s funny, I was reading this very topic in your book earlier today of: ‘Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies was the inability of the powerful to yield to the next generation’.

    You’ve got me thinking about this issue. So many of the policies being pursued are supporting this outcome. Doing that just seems all so weird to my mind. As a metaphor, it’s kind of like having a table for use, then cutting some parts of the legs off, and yet expecting the table to still be usable. At some point the table simply falls over from a lack of part of the legs. Better to leave the table intact for other folks who may want to use it.

    The challenge you wrote about in your book in relation to this subject of the shadow has me wondering, is it really that hard to face up to? But clearly, what is proper and right, is not being done.

    Thanks for the insight.



  12. Chris – what’s interesting about our situation is that it’s not a specific ruler who is refusing to hand over power but an entire generation. Look at the age of the two candidates for president of the USA, for example, or the fact that the economy massively favours the elderly demographics who already have wealth while the next generation is looking down the barrel.

  13. Coincidentally, a friend just recommended The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber. Apparently, it contains interesting discussions of the archaeological record on how people in the past counteracted the misuse of power and came up with many ways of preventing it — at least for a while.

  14. That book has been recommended to me a number of times. It’s definitely high up on my to-read list.

  15. Hi Simon,

    Yes it’s not right, either point. In archetypal terms, do you believe those folks may be expressing their shadow, which has been described as ‘the parts of being that they want to reject the archetypal world’?

    Sounds like that to me. 🙂



  16. It’s a tough question. There are a lot of variables at play and it may be that we don’t have as much control of them as we think we do. It’s also a problem with democracy since you have to give voters what they want and asking them sacrifice for the greater good simply doesn’t win votes.

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