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Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind by Richard Maurice Bucke is the magnum of the author’s career. In the book, Bucke explores his personal experiences, contemporaries’ experiences, as well as the engagements of historical figures such as Buddha, Muhammad, Paul, Jesus, and William Blake. Richard Maurice Bucke came up with a theory that there are three different levels of consciousness. These are cosmic consciousness, self-consciousness of humanity, and simple consciousness of animals. Cosmic consciousness is higher-level and one which the book focuses on.
Richard Maurice Bucke, the author of Cosmic Consciousness, was raised in a Canadian farm in the 1840s. Having left for the United States at 17, he faced non-stop hardships and injuries until he funded his medical education, studied in Europe, and went back to Canada, where he practiced medicine and psychiatry.
Dr. Bucke’s life-changing moment happened at one time when he went out with friends and spent the evening exploring writers of the age. A bigger percentage of Bucke’s readings revolved around Walt Whiteman, whose poetry deeply affected him. Heading back home at around midnight, the author felt a cloudy light surrounding him. At first, he felt as if the whole of London was on fire but soon realized that the light was inside him. He and the light were inseparable as he entered into the world of light where there was no beginning nor end.
This encounter lasted for a few moments but changed the rest of his life. It inspired him to study the works of great men and eventually write Cosmic Consciousness. His thesis asserted that the world has three levels of consciousness: cosmic consciousness, self-consciousness of humanity, and simple consciousness of animals.
Bucke’s work is largely sexist as he tells the stories of great men and mentioning women sparingly. The special men who attracted his attention include Jesus, Buddha, Paul, Mohammed, and Plotinus. There are also sections for renowned writers like Francis Bacon, Blake, and Dante.
This is the lowest grade of consciousness, as articulated by Richard Maurice Bucke. The author explains that it is possessed by the upper half of the animal kingdom. In an attempt to provide a better understanding of this categorization, Bucke gives the example of a dog and a horse. He says that a dog or a horse is as conscious of the things about him as a man is. That is, those in possession of simple consciousness will care mostly about their limbs and body. They are aware that these are a part of them.
The topic of animal consciousness, which Bucke terms as simple consciousness, is beset with a wide range of difficulties. It takes the perspective that we are trying to get into the minds of other animals. That is so since animals, lacking human language ability, are unable to share with us their experiences. Furthermore, the difficulty is enhanced based on the fact that there is no clear guideline for arguing against this kind of consciousness. Denying that animals do not have consciousness is often translated to mean that they do not feel, the animal life has no value, and that you would not be morally wrong harming it. French philosopher René Descartes is a good example in this case as he was accused of mistreating animals when he asserted that only humans have consciousness.
One might be interested in finding out why Richard Bucke decided to assign consciousness to animals. The probable explanation could lie in his belief in life after death. The author maintains that all things, trees included, have eternity. The eternity of trees is secured by how they are rooted to the ground. That of animals is based on the confines of religions. It would have been ironic for him to believe in eternity while at the same time cast aside the possibility of animal consciousness.
Man possesses simple consciousness just as the animals do. On top of that, he has another, which Bucke calls Self Consciousness. This faculty means that man would be conscious of his own limbs and body, just as animals do, but then gets an extra understanding that he is a distinct entity, uniquely set apart in the universe. There is no animal that is capable of realizing himself in a manner that man does.
Due to self-consciousness, the author explains, man is capable of treating his mental states as objects of consciousness. You could equate this to thinking out of the box. Animals are immersed in their consciousness in the same way fish is in the sea. He is unable to imagine getting out of it even for a moment. On the other hand, man can step aside from himself and think. It is as a result of this virtue that you can think about your thoughts. “I think I should have not thought about such a thing in the first place.”
When Richard Bucke was asked how he knows that animals are not able to come up with such thoughts, he explained that there is no evidence suggesting the ability of animals to think in such a manner. If they were able to, we would have already seen it. He explains that the existence of a language barrier between humans and animals (dogs and horses as an example) is a clear indicator of the absence of self-consciousness in the animals. This virtue would have been the simplest in opening up communication.
Even though we feel good about our ability to be self-conscious, it is not all rosy. It might impair one’s ability to complete complex actions as you might be troubled by the smallest happenings.
Being the book’s title, it goes without saying that the author invested a considerable amount of time in discussing Cosmic Consciousness. This third form is way above self-consciousness, as it is a simple consciousness. Those who possess this faculty already have the previous forms, and this is an additional level of awareness.
A major characteristic of cosmic consciousness is the ability to be aware of the cosmos (life and the universe in its entirety). The existence of this consciousness is an indication that the cosmos is not made of dead matter governed by un-intending law. Rather, it is wholly immaterial, spiritual, and alive. It is a clear sign that there is eternal life and that the universe is God, and God is the universe.
With cosmic consciousness, one can see things in an interconnected manner. The cosmic sense has many other elements apart from the alluded central concept. One that’s worth putting into consideration is intellectual enlightenment or illumination. This alone is enough to place any individual on a whole different level of existence. With such attainment, one also gets some form of moral exaltation, out-of-this-world elation, and joyousness.
To gain a better understanding of this kind of consciousness, Richard Bucke maintains that the average mind would not comprehend unless it studies men who have gone through it.
The motivation behind Bucke exploring cosmic consciousness was so that his work could be used for broadening the general view of human life. He also hoped to aid his fellow-men in a practical and refreshing manner. The bottom line of his arguments is that eventually, our descendants would be able to attain cosmic consciousness.
Some people might find Bucke’s philosophy to be deeply flawed. The fact that his long list of impactful and special people is dominated by men says little to salvage sexism. Furthermore, the men talked about are of recent times, apparently because these are the ones that Bucke could easily read.
Apart from these setbacks, the author gives some real insight into mystical experiences. Bucke believed in life after death. He did not hold onto such beliefs because he wished for there to be life when he dies. His main inspiration was the relevance of God in our lives. “Death is an absurdity. Everyone and everything has eternal life.”
An important takeaway from this book is where humanity is headed. While developing the theory of cosmic consciousness, Bucke says that our descendants would be able to attain cosmic consciousness at one time. His lists of men who have attained the faculty so far are all from many generations ago. It seems like none is approaching the form in recent times. However, the advent of technology appears to be more promising. Would it be possible to use technology to attain cosmic consciousness? That is something to think about.