Nature, Civilization and Consciousness

Emilios Bouratinos

Two major theories attempt to explain the current difficulties of our civilisation. The first attributes them to the side effects of modernisation, starting from the industrial revolution.   Concentration of large blue and white collar worker populations in the cities, their alienation from a more sanguine way of life, lack of proper political leadership, crime, stress, drug abuse, technological as well as economic globalisation, but most of all, the staggering level of environmental destruction, have placed unprecedented strains on the human psyche.  

These are very real problems, but their origins lie in practical questions.   They must be dealt with on that level, case by case.

The second theory maintains that the current difficulties our civilisation is having stem from modernisation itself, not from its side-effects. The ‘good old values’ have been eroded by consumerism, fanned as it is by the clamouring for ever higher standards of living and the explosive population increase.   The lack of vision, coupled with the radical secularisation of all aspects of life, have compounded the situation.   Creation seems to be luring man away from the Creator.   He is being corrupted by his very success in developing.   The problem is mainly moral and must be treated as such.

In this text the currently negative turn of civilisation is explained by a third notion. The history of our difficulties doesn’t start from the industrial revolution.   It is not rooted in shameless exploitation.   Both the difficulties and their causes stem from something much deeper:   civilisation itself.   It is civilisation that makes us think the way we do.   And it is the way we think – or rather do not think – that creates the problems. Any action to reverse the trend must start from a thorough understanding of this.   The overall problem is neither practical nor moral.   It is rooted in how consciousness operates – and why.   We have allowed civilisation to alienate us from the dynamic and intertwined operations of nature.   We have lost the ability to listen.

Antiquity of man’s negative influences on nature

This third notion of what went wrong is based on three fundamental observations.   First, environmental destruction is not just one effect of the present predicament.   It reflects an attitude which lies at the heart of the predicament itself.   Second, we have the fact that man’s destructive behaviour toward nature isn’t recent, as most think. It is very old. Third we have the fact that such destructive behaviour hasn’t occured only in the West.   Not only most civilisations have myths describing a cataclysm and/or a fall from some initial ‘golden age’, but these myths invariably attribute the cataclysm to types of behaviour not unlike those associated with the modern ills.

Numerous widespread man-made environmental disruptions in remote antiquity have been attested to by ample archaeological, meteorological and geological evidence.   It has been shown that not just the Greeks, but most major ancient Middle East civilisations like the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Petra had destroyed their ecosystems.   Deforestation proved so wide-spread that Hadrian forbade access to the mountains of Syria, which had been almost completely denuded by his time.

People in other areas of the world also destroyed their habitat. The inhabitants of Mohenjo Daro in India, of Ankor Vat in Cambodia, of the Easter Islands and of all city-based civilisations in pre-Columbian America enfeebled their surrounding areas.   As a result, the land they occupied couldn’t feed the population any more and the latter was obliged to abandon their places of habitation.

With respect to Greece, studies show that the first major man-made ecological destruction occurred in the Peloponnese around 6,000 B.C. 1 the second around 3,500 B.C. 2   and the third from 1400-1100 B.C. 3   The latter signalled the end of the Mycenaean civilisation. It was spearheaded by an impressive growth in Mycenaean wealth and population.   A fourth catastrophe occurred around 650 B.C. in Greece 4, forcing Solon to call for protection against land erosion.

There is another important component.   We today have come to realise that civilisation develops along a number of major landmarks, which enhance man’s destructive behaviour toward nature.   The oldest (and most definitive) of these is the discovery of agriculture – around 10,000 B.C.   It triggered two major destructive changes. First we have the cutting of forests, land erosion and topsoil impoverishment. Secondly we have the spreading of various infectious diseases – the result of man’s close involvement with domesticated animals, cattle rearing and shepherding.    

Discovery of agriculture initiated a number of other developments, characteristic of civilisation.   Among them was the building of settlements, the weaving of economic relationships and the formation of organised societies (with their consequent destructive antagonisms.) 5 Hunters, fruit collectors and roaming shepherds don’t establish civilisationsin our sense of the term.   They establish ways of life.   They feel that they exist in order to live (and experience) their daily lives.   They don’t invest their activities with goals or values that go beyond this.   Nature is not treated by them as a tool.   It is treated as a larger whole to which they themselves belong – and which generously offers them the means to live.

Unification of object and concept

The approach of pre- civilisational man to nature during this very long evolutionary stage has been investigated by anthropologists, psychologists, students of primitive religions and historians of civilisation.   Particularly useful for the purposes of this paper are three.

The first is cultural historian Richard Tarnas.   Commenting on the archaic mode of thinking which Socrates tried to re-introduce, Tarnas observes:   “In the mind of archaic man there obtains an unbroken continuum between the archetype and experience.” 6

One cannot help being reminded here of two extracts by Parmenides , 7 which reflect a similar unitary attitude.   The first goes:   “Understanding and that which is understood are one and the same.” 8 The second extract goes:   “Do not allow custom, born of much experience, to force you to wander [as your senses dictate].” 9 Parmenides’ assumption here is that the unthinking pursuit of custom directs the senses to apprehend things in a certain fashion, which beclouds reality.

The second student of how pre- civilisational man approaches nature is the historian of philosophy F. M. Cornford.   Picking on the love of Anaximander for much older forms of thinking than those prevalent in his time, Cornford observes that for Anaximander “nature was not simply the outer world presented through our senses; it was a representation of the world order actually more primitive than the Gods themselves.” 10 Mythic man experiences whole in part so naturally that he doesn’t even notice the difference.

The third student, whose insights enlighten our subject here, is anthropologist Lucien Levy- Bruhl.   Writing on how pre- civilisational man takes in nature, he observes:

“We ought not to say, as is often done, that primitive men associate with all objects that strike their senses of imagination, occult forces, magical properties…. They don’t add animistic beliefs to their perceptions…The mystic properties of persons or things are an integral part of the representation which the primitive man has of them – a representation which, at this stage, is an indecomposable whole.  

  “We ought [then] never ask, ‘What explanation must the primitive mind give itself of such and such a natural phenomenon?’   The statement of the problem implies a false hypothesis.   There are, for the mentality of the lower societies, no natural phenomena in our sense of the word.   For them the explanation has no need to be sought; it is implicit in the mystical elements of their collective representations.

“The question that has to be asked,” Levy- Bruhl concludes,” is how the phenomenon, little by little, detached itself from the complex in which it was first imbedded, so as to be separately apprehended and how what was once an integral element in it, became later an explanation. ” 11

 Why consciousness needs to be studied

To answer Levy Bruhl’s two-pronged question we need to find out what made man fragment his once unified conception of the world; i.e. we need to understand in depth what influences the operation of consciousness.

This need was strongly articulated by the great physicists and mathematicians of the 20th century. Einstein, Dirac, Eddington, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Bohr, Pauli, Bohm, Godel, Quine and Tarski all point to two important things — each in his own way.   The first is the crucial role that consciousness plays in formulating both the theories and the findings of science.   The second is the need to study this role carefully, so that science becomes more effective and reliable.   Some 20 years ago a first unwitting response to this dual realisation came from neuroscience.   Since then consciousness has been studied systematically with the help of increasingly sophisticated brain scanning equipment and through different disciplines.

In this talk, however, we will not go into any of this, fascinating though it may be.   We will stick to the anthropological aspect.   We will glance not at what happens to the brain when aroused, but at its operation in the light of how man looks at the world — and why.   It is here that the link between nature, civilisation and consciousness becomes clear.

The two great phases of man’s evolution

One can divide human progression through evolution into two main phases.   They are correspondingly determined by two distinctly different modes of consciousness operation.

The first, which I call wandering phase, is by far the longest.   It starts with the emergence of Homo Habilis around 2,500,000 years ago and ends roughly with the advent of agriculture. 12   Either as hunters or fruit gatherers for the greater period of that stage, or as animal tamers, breeders and herders a little before the discovery of farming, human beings incessantly roam the earth.

Some survivals into our times of this wandering phase are the Bedouins of the Middle East, the Bushmen of south-west Africa, some Indian tribes in the USA, the Australian aborigines and a number of wandering Mongolian tribes.   These people flow with nature.   They move as dynamically as she, they live by her rhythms, they co-operate with her and they consciously contribute to maintaining her balance.

The second stage of human evolutionary progression, which I call settling phase, starts with the discovery of agriculture and extends to our times.   During this stage people settle in specific regions amenable to farming in the beginning and to craftsmanship later.   They begin to conserve and rationalise all they are able to conceive.   Not only do they cultivate permanent areas, they construct permanent tools, permanent dwellings and permanent institutions.    No longer are they satisfied merely to live.   They live to obtain some form of added satisfaction.   And they secure this added satisfaction by gradually transforming nature into a tool.     

No objectification

The moment has come to see how the two phases of our evolutionary progression influence the operation of consciousness.   First a general point concerning how consciousness manifests.

There is a level of operation on which consciousness remains unfocussed.   Consciousness here doesn’t zero in on particular objects.   Rather, it senses what passes in-between them – or beyond them.   The person feels the non- objectifiable whole engulfing all and informing each.   He doesn’t become aware of a nothingness.   He becomes aware of no– thingness. He senses the presence of an absence.   It would be there even if no concrete objects emerged to view.

Non-objectifying consciousness – or pre-consciousness, as Jacobo Grinberg calls it – figures prominently in ancient myth.   Many cosmogonies, like the Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Greek, start from the notion of a primeval ocean, out of which the cosmos emerged.   This primeval ocean symbolises non-objectifying consciousness.   In the Old Testament the story has it that “darkness was upon the face of the deep.   And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” 13

Mircea Eliade offers the following insight on the primeval ocean as symbol for non-objectifying consciousness:

“The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are [at once the] spring and origin [of things], the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation.   One of the paradigmatic images of creation is the island that suddenly manifests…. in the midst of the waves.

“On the other hand,” Eliade continues, “immersion in water signifies regression to the pre-formal, re-incorporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence…This is why the symbolism of the waters implies both death and rebirth.   Contact with water always brings a regeneration…. because immersion fertilizes and multiplies the potential of life.” 14

No wonder that immersion in water — like its sister practices of symbolic death and ritual burial — were used not only for healing the body from sickness, but for cleansing the mind.   On the one hand no- objectification   balances out objectification.   On the other it frees the perception of objects from the tight grasp of ego.   Objectification can thus be used in the service of wholeness rather than wholeness being used in the service of objectification.

Self-releasing objectification

Let us see what happens when consciousness emerges on a level of activity where it begins to focus.  

This level is connected with man’s wandering phase and produces incisive, acute, spherical and continuous awareness.   I call it self-releasing consciousness.   Things, relationships, situations are mentally objectified only to the extent that (and for as long as) practical need justifies it. After their usefulness passes, conceptualisations are psychologically released. People live in an eternal present.   Included are the dead, whom the wanderer considers just as present – and subject to the same needs – as the living. 15   His inability to conceive linear time allows him no other interpretation.

Abiding in the here and now constitutes the wanderer’s survival kit.    If something escapes the hunter’s attention he is liable not to track down the prey he needs for sustaining himself. Or he may become prey himself.   If something escapes the gatherer’s attention, he is liable not to spot a useful fruit. Or he may be killed by some poisonous one.   If something escapes the shepherd’s attention he is liable not to find the proper pasture for his animals.   Or he may expose both them and himself to lurking predators and to dangerous diseases.

Three types of activity force the wanderer to maintain a vigorous self-releasing consciousness.

The first is his continual movement.   It is not just that hunting, fruit collection and shepherding require the scaling of large areas and great bodily and mental agility.   It is also that the wild herds move according to season, feeding conditions and weather changes.

The second type of activity for the wanderer is his continuous scanning of both the immediate and the distant environment.   This scanning requires an ability “to conceive unified multiplicity on its own terms”, as Heidegger puts it.   For that to happen it becomes incumbent on the wanderer to highly develop his senses, to have them interpenetrate and to use this interpenetration as the basis for understanding.   The wanderer doesn’t only see.   He discerns.   He doesn’t only hear.   He listens. Thinking for him is only an elaboration of sensing.   The more all rounded his sensing, the more well rounded his thinking. 16  

Interpenetration of the senses – what neurologists call synaesthesia – allowed our wandering ancestor to communicate with the surrounding area far beyond what the senses are able to conceive today.   He was able to notice almost imperceptible changes and to conceive local phenomena in relation to more complex situations.   Anthropologists tell us that the Kalahari Bushmen, the Australian aborigines and some tribes in the Amazon jungle are able to sense the presence of animals, the committing of human acts and the significant weather changes over great distances.

The third activity necessary for maintaining the wanderer’s self-releasing consciousness is close inter-personal synergy.   Whether the prey is small but fast and needs to be driven into an impasse, or large but dangerous and needs to be surrounded, the hunter is obliged to collaborate with his kin.   The same goes – though to a lesser degree – for the fruit collector.

More importantly, inter-personal co-operation must be sensitive and self-evident. Shouting or gesticulating is prohibited, since it may either betray the presence of humans, or confound the necessary tactical moves.   What is necessary, particularly for hunting and fruit collecting, is the ability to co-ordinate action automatically and silently. Not only every second counts, every move must be executed at the right moment – and with appropriate accuracy.

The result of these three activities is that our wandering ancestors developed not only highly refined and effective senses; they avoided all those conceptual crystallisations which would cut them from the present, delay their movements and distort their conceptions of the environment.   They had elevated alertness to a true art.   Alertness required of them to develop larger craniums than ours – and anthropologists have indeed discovered such larger craniums. 17

Self-locking objectification

Now to the question of how consciousness changed during the second stage of evolution – what was earlier called the settling phase. This stage began with the discovery of agriculture. However, it then gradually advanced through such technical innovations as the use of metals, the discovery of the wheel, alphabetic writing and in our own times, the invention of computer technology.

What the settler does to survive is qualitatively different – if not entirely opposite to – what the wanderer does.   The last is in constant movement.   The first installs himself permanently.   The wanderer needs to overview continuously a broad spectrum of factors.   The settler needs to overview those alone that are pertinent to his settled existence.   The wanderer feels himself into nature.   The settler first estranges himself from her and then begins to rationalise her.   The wanderer bases himself on knowledge.   The settler bases himself on information.

This is how the road was paved toward a number of radical changes in the way man lives and thinks.   One of them is in the area of religion.   Mircea Eliade has the following to say about it:   “The discovery of agriculture basically transforms not only primitive man’s economy, but especially his economy of the sacred.   Other religious forces come into play – sexuality, fertility, the mythology of woman, of the earth and so on.   Religious experience becomes more concrete – that is more intimately connected with life.   The great mother-goddesses and the spirits of fertility are markedly more dynamic and more accessible to men than was the Creator God [of the previous hunting era].” 18

Another important change is that which gradually led to the appearance of science and technology.   Prometheus prides himself on this change.   The settler now observes the heavens to know when he must sow and harvest; he invents geometry so that he can redefine the limits of his farm after the yearly floods in the Middle East; he weaves economic relationships to satisfy his increasing needs; and he concocts mathematics to facilitate all the above. Before self-locking objectificationharmony consisted in flowing with nature.   After its appearance it consisted in organising it.

The real change, however, takes place on a much deeper level.   The fixing of address, of activity, of horizon, of tools and of institutions make the settler develop some feeling for all these.   He thus not only gets attached to them, but to the logic permeating their crystallisation. From now on the he doesn’t communicate just with one part or level of nature. He learns to apprehend this part or level more as a concept and less as it is itself.

He also gets progressively entrapped in the mental reification process, which he shares with all other animals. Thus he sets the stage for the development of self-locking conscious-ness.   The dynamic element in him gives way to the static, the all-rounded to the fragmented, the qualitative to the quantitative.   No longer is he able to develop his conceptions intuitively. He develops them with an eye for gain.   He learns to fathom relations without weighing them, to abstract objects without understanding the framework in which they are imbedded and to handle tendencies without comprehending their causes.   His sense of measure in all transmogrifies into a need for measuring all.   Value becomes mere addition.   

Using objectification to overcome objectification

Above all, where man previously considered the partial in the light of the whole, he now considers the whole in the light of the partial.    He loses the feeling that everything wells up from an underlying oneness in accordance with its particular rationale and function and without disrupting it.   The result of this great loss is the total reversal of man’s relationship to and understanding of nature.   Whereas under the influence of self-releasing objectification he understood things to the extent he experienced them, after the onslaught of self-releasing objectification he experiences things to the extent he understands them.

This is what the mythic mind tries to avert.   By weaving repeatable (hence partly fossilised) stories about heroes fighting evil enemies, about the killing of some threatening monster, about initiation in some dark labyrinth or about wars between gods and demons, myth tries to free man homeopathically from the tyranny of self-locking objectification.

The same homeopathic effect is sought in the oral epic traditions.   Here 100% fossilised texts are used to point to the negative aspects of crystallised objectification.   Man uses what oppresses him and alienates him most as a tool for liberating himself from it.  

However none of these practices constitute full-proof antidotes to self-locking objectification.   This can be achieved only by a path of liberation based on a profound and clear understanding of the issue at hand.   The mysteries of Egypt and Greece, Christian theoria (deification), the eastern methods of mind training (yoga-meditation) and the Socratic imperative for returning to the things themselves through self-knowledge, all represent such efforts. They are more consciously informed by the need to link-up once again with the lost ‘golden age’, to re-enter the Garden of Eden.   We have not only forgotten what it means to penetrate behind the scenes.   We have forgotten that we have forgotten, as Hoelderlin reminds us.   To remember we must stop considering truth as “representation” and experience it once again in the Heideggerian sense of “ revealment”.  

The more self-releasing consciousness is active – i.e. the more open it becomes to the beyond and the all – the more information can it accommodate.   Consequently, the deeper can it penetrate behind the scenes.   Locking into particular things precludes stimulation from others.   That is why the human skull has begun to shrink in the last 100,000 years.   Re-activating self-releasing consciousness doesn’t represent an idle pursuit for the few.   It represents the key to meaningful survival. If humankind is to handle effectively the big problems self-locking consciousness has created, it will need all the intelligence (in both senses of the word) and all the skillfulness (in every sense) that it can muster.

The practical use of an inter-disciplinary science of consciousness

Two basic conclusions can be drawn from what has been said about the link between the two great evolutionary phases of man and the two different modes of consciousness operation.

The first is that the two modes influence man’s relationship to nature.   What we want from life doesn’t only determine where we focus our attention.   It determines whether what we focus our attention on does (or does not) seal our consciousness — and in what degree.    It determines, so to speak, whether we apprehend things as they occur, or we just encounter our earlier conceptions of them.

The self constitutes our only gateway to nature.   Therefore, when we lock into our conceptions we lose our ability to perceive both the things themselves and their qualities – both the apparent relations among them and the non-apparent influences.   Unheeding objectification is directly counter-productive to the emergence of real objectivity , 19 since most objects extend beyond their apparent confines in both time and space.

From this conceptual distortion stems our much discussed inability to address Immanuel Kant’s famous Ding an sich— ‘the thing in itself.’ as Socrates first called it.   We have woven a veil of ideas over the face of Isis. Or as Gregory of Nyssa puts it:   “We have thrown a charm over the world.” 20

The second conclusion is that any action to reverse this trend can be organised only on the basis of a broader, more radical and better considered programme of qualitative social reform.   This programme must start from a new inter-disciplinary science, that of a self-reflecting science of consciousness.   The new science will draw attention to how exactly consciousness influences personal and social actions and will then suggest, with sensitivity and prudence, what should be done to enhance the long-term prospects of meaningful survival.

The destruction of nature and civilisation happens on the level of phenomena. But the process of so doing begins in and from the mind.   So it is there that any serious attempt to stem the tide must be initiated. As Sydney Harris makes one of his cartoon characters quip:   “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men.   It is that men will begin to think like computers.”


1) Tjeerd H. van Andel, Eberhard Zangger and Anne Demitrack, ‘Land Use and Soil Erosion In Prehistoric and Historical Greece’, Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol 17/4, winter 1990, p 379-396.

2) Curtis N. Runnels, ‘Environmental Degradation in Ancient Greece’, Scientific American, March 1995, p 72-75.

3) Emilios Bouratinos, Perivallon kai Syneidese stin Archaea Ellada [Environmental Consciousness in Ancient Greece], Arsenides, Athens, 1997.

4) Anthony J. McMichael, ‘Environment, Life Support and Human Health:   Classical and Modern Views’, conference on Philosophy and Ecology, 23-28 August 1998, Samos, Greece.

5) It is no accident that in Greek the terms for ‘war’ ( polemos) and ‘civilisation’ ( politismos) are etymologically linked to the term for ‘city’ (polis).

6) Richard Tarnas ,   The Passion of the Western Mind:   Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View,   Ballantine Books, New York, 1993, p 38.

7) The archaic (or pre- civilisational) attitude of presocratic philosophy doesn’t manifest only in Parmenides.   It manifests in most philosophers of that period.   I consider it as a reaction to the spreading of alphabetic writing and the bias toward objective logos which this encouraged.   Objective logos (usually translated as ‘reason’) represents the single most important achievement of the settling (or civilisational) phase of human evolution.   As a result many presocratics considered objective logos a distortion of their own pre- civilisational version of it.In the light of their thinking, pre- civilisational logos can be defined as the relationship of a locally and temporally restricted part to a dynamic non-local and non-temporal whole.   Or put more simply, the relationship of an objectified part to a non- objectifiable whole, like that existing between the sensing and the reifying operations of consciousness.   (You sense with all your being for what you need, you reify only that which becomes pertinent to you now.)

In other words, presocratic philosophy reflects in many ways the mystical approach of pre- civilisational man, as of course does socratic.   The kind of nature on which pre- civilisational man focussed his attention bears no resemblance to the nature we today objectify and rationalise.   It is what Heraclitus says “loves to hide”, so that its “non-manifest inter-relations are more potent than the manifest” [Fragments 123 and 54].

8) Parmenides, Fragment 8, 1.34.

9) Parmenides, Fragment 7.2-6.

10) F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1991, p 43.

11) Lucien Levy Bruhl, Fonctions mentales dans les societes inferieures ,   Paris, 1910, p 39.

12) This statement needs to be qualified.   Not only does agriculture appear at different times in different regions.   The particular operation of consciousness associated with it appears in many cases before agriculture, while some vestiges of the wanderer’s consciousness survive well into our times.

13) Genesis, 1 ,2.

14) Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane:   The Nature of Religion, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New York, 1959, p 129.

15) It is the inability to conceive linear time rather than belief in after-life that underwrites the wanderer’s attitude toward the dead and/or the spirits.    Spengler pointed out that death is a human invention.   We can point out (a) that this invention occurred only after the discovery of farming and (b) that the concept of death is dependant on the concept of time.   The parallel existence of the dead and the living because of eternal now-ness was at some stage translated into a life after death — i.e. as a linear extension into infinity.  

16) In his book The Symbolic Species:   The co-evolution of language and the human brain [published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 1997], evolutionary anthropologist Terrence Deacon writes on page 291:   “This is consistent with the fact that the innermost tiers [of language formation] are located adjacent to primary tactile, auditory and motor areas, and the outer tiers are distributed within multimodal and association areas.”

17) It is interesting that in August 1972 the discovery of a human skull near Lake Rudolf in Kenya obliged anthropologist Lewis Leaky to tell journalists:   “We either discard this skull or discard all our theories about primitive man.    The cranial cavity housing the brain is extremely large, shooting down the notion that the fossils of primitive men can be neatly taxonomised along the line of evolutionary change”.   Other researchers have since ascertained that human craniums shrank by 10% in the last 100,000 years.   Even Neanderthals have been found who possess larger craniums than our own of the same period.

18) Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane:   The Nature of Religion, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., New York, 1959, p 126.

19) The more objective one wants to be, the less must he lock into his objectifications.   The latter not only restrict him within the limits of past objectifications and the mental processes leading thereto – they cut one from other pieces of information and other mental processes capable of assessing these pieces from a different and perhaps more relevant angle to the present circumstances and their dynamics.   

20) Gregory of Nyssa, P.G., 44, 628 C, 428 C.