The history of the West is a history of the growing segregation of the strands of consciousness, separating the moral and spiritual from the sensual and physical, losing the unity felt by the Nilotic clansman.
Every early culture has understood its genesis and history as one woven of threads both divine and mundane to form a multidimensional mythology of creation, destruction and migration. The drama is organized in time. In Hindu cosmologies, world time is ordered into yugas, the Mayans have their katuns, the Aztecs their many ages and five "sun" periods. Among the Greeks, the poet Hesiod described the ages of man as Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron, the last our own. Even our word world stems from the Old Germanic compound wer-aldh , meaning "the life or age of man."
Each age was associated not only with external events, but a moral order as well. The Golden Age, wrote Hesiod, was a time when men "lived like gods, carefree in their hearts, shielded from pain and misery. . . . They knew no constraint and lived in peace and abundance as lords of their lands." After this blessed age, a second childish and unnatural race arose, followed by a third brazen race of mortals, who were a harsh, violent people. Then came the "divine race of heroes," among whose number were Achilles and Odysseus. The fifth race of men, our own, is a tragic mingling of justice and injustice, a time of disorder, when all holy alliances between families and friends are violated, and the hallowed patterns of life are lost. Hesiod's was a mythopoeic, multistranded history of human nature, not a chronology of purely mundane events.
The rich, psychospiritual story of our origins has only recently given way to another imagination. Since the rise of science in the 16th and 17th centuries, the physical origins of the world have gradually disentangled themselves from its spiritual origins. Divine descriptions of the cosmos found a rival in the upstart physical explanations of astronomy and physics. With the appearance in 1859 of Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection," the battle moved closer to home, from the realm of cold matter, planets and stars, to plants, animals and Homo sapiens.
In purging our history of the sacred, we have unwittingly lost sight of our cognitive role in history. We have neglected the minds, or mentalities, of the figures who enacted the history. At best, we give a chronology of ideas, an intellectual history, but we leave the history of their thinking (as opposed to their thoughts) untouched.
Light has lived through all ages, \o7 yugas \f7 and societies. Its transmutations exemplify a dramatic evolution in consciousness. And what has been true for peoples is also true within the course of an individual life.
IN BOTH UTICA, N.Y., AND WASHINGTON, D.C., HANGS AN ALLEGORICAL series of four works by Thomas Cole, a leader of the Hudson River School in American painting, which depict the seasons of life from infancy to old age. In the early springtime of life, an infant appears in a small boat whose shape has been sculpted into the figure of Hours. At the helm stands a radiant, angelic being who pilots the craft and her young charge out of a dark cavern into luxuriant growth bathed in a misty dawn light.
When, in the next panel, the infant has become a youth, the landscape opens up into a vast, exotic and exciting prospect. The youth, now fully animated, yearning for the multitude of dreams outspread before him, takes the helm, while his unnoticed spirit guide gestures farewell from the bank. In the third canvas, manhood, the boat is poised at the brink of a cataract. The helm is broken, the sky is dark, the light is menacing, and the now-mature soul seems utterly lost. Only from the heights at the upper left of the painting does there stream a faint light of hope in which we can make out the delicate shape of his angelic companion. The final season of life, old age, is rendered as a vast and lifeless expanse of rock and water. The figure of Hours is broken and gone. Seated, the timeworn and bearded figure certainly recognizes that his journey through life is at an end. For the first time, he sees the spirit who has accompanied him throughout. It gestures toward a brilliant field of light, his luminous future.
In these four canvases, time has become space. As if at a family reunion, or perhaps in a traditional peasant village, all the ages of man are simultaneously present. With a simple shift of one's gaze, decades can lapse, moving from infant to grandmother, from worried father to youthful daughter, all with the turn of an eye. The full gamut of human experience is drawn into the lines of every face and into the creases of every hand. These are the images of hope and care, of perennial aspirations and the harsh knowledge of mortality, set side by side.