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A Secret History of Consciousness

4.7 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1584200116
ISBN-10: 1584200111
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Editorial Reviews


For the last four centuries, science has tried to account for everything in terms of atoms and molecules and the physical laws they adhere to. Recently, this effort was extended to try to include the inner world of human beings. Gary Lachman argues that this view of consciousness is misguided and unfounded. He points to another approach to the study and exploration of consciousness that erupted into public awareness in the late 1800s. In this "secret history of consciousness," consciousness is seen not as being a result of neurons and molecules, but as being responsible for them; meaning is not imported from the outer world, but rather creates it. In this view, consciousness is a living, evolving presence whose development can be traced through different historical periods, and which evolves along a path to a broader, more expansive state. What that consciousness may be like and how it may be achieved is a major concern of this book.

Lachman concentrates on the period since the late 1800s, when Madame Blavatsky first brought the secret history out into the open. As this history unfolds, we encounter the ideas of many modern thinkers, from esotericists like P. D. Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, and Colin Wilson to more mainstream philosophers like Henri Bergson, William James, Owen Barfield and the psychologist Andreas Mavromatis. Two little known but important thinkers play a major role in his synthesis—Jurij Moskvitin, who showed how our consciousness relates to the mechanisms of perception and to the external world, and Jean Gebser, who presented perhaps the most impressive case for the evolution of consciousness.

“A marvelously exhilarating gallop through every important modern theory of consciousness, from Steiner to Maslow, from Bucke’s ‘cosmic consciousness’ to Gebser’s ‘integral consciousness.’”—Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider

Thinking outside the box, A Secret History of Consciousness is a marvelously erudite mind-stretcher that offers a philosophy to live—and a vision of a future infused with mystery, wonder, and appreciation of the things that really matter.

Written for Quest Magazine by Robert Ellwood, vice president of the Theosophical Society in America and Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California
Gary Lachman, whom many readers of The Quest will recognize as a contributor to this magazine, is at once a highly successful popular musician, a much-published writer, and a serious student of psychology and philosophy. It is in the last capacity that he has produced this ambitious and wide-ranging work. A Secret History of Consciousness is both a history of consciousness and a history of ideas about the history of consciousness.

The history of consciousness takes us back to the Paleolithic emergence of a distinctive human mode of awareness. The history of the history of consciousness presented here offers an admirable mix of philosophers usually considered mainstream, including Kant, Hegel, James, and Bergson, together with others, such as Steiner, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Blavatsky, often put into a special “esoteric” category. Lachman’s way of enabling representatives of the two sets to dialogue with each other is one of the great strengths of this work; we do not understand consciousness so well that we can afford to neglect any significant perspective on it.

Theosophists will be particularly happy to see that this study is highly appreciative of Helena Blavatsky’s importance in that conversation, presenting her work as the first major post-Darwinian response to nineteenth-century scientific materialism. Her picture, often mythopoeic, of convergent physical and spiritual or “consciousness” evolution, showed how the sterile impasse of religious and scientific dogmatism could be transcended through reference to ancient wisdom in which mind and matter coexist and evolve together.

It is Jean Gebser (1905–1973), however, who is the culminating figure in this book and clearly the scholar with whom Lachman feels the deepest affinity. In Gebser’s view of the history of consciousness, archaic magical and mythical ways of thinking “mutated” into “mental-rational” structure and are finally are reaching an “integral” stage. We are now transiting into integralism, in which all previous modes of consciousness are all brought together more perfectly than before. Amid the tension of change, however, there is always the danger of “atavistic” relapse into modes of consciousness whose time is past, which is what Gebser saw happen around him, as perverted forms of magic and myth returned in Europe in the form of fascism and other antirational ideologies. In passing, it may be noted that Gebser was highly regarded by Theosophical intellectuals such as Fritz Kunz well before he became the widely recognized thinker he now is.

A Secret History of Consciousness is highly recommended to all serious readers of philosophy and intellectual history.

"A thrilling white-water ride down the stream of consciousness."

A hundred years ago 'consciousness', rather like 'the soul', was a word that marked a line in the sand which the physical sciences like biology had no business in crossing. Not so today: neurologists, cognitive psychologists and sociobiologists are trampling over one another to explain consciousness—or, at least, to explain it away as an epiphenomenon, a by-product of natural selection or electrochemical complexity. For those who have followed this process with interest but also with the nagging sense that such explanations somehow contrive to miss out all the most interesting bits, A Secret History of Consciousness is essential reading.

Gary Lachman's handling of the science of consciousness, from neuroanatomy to quantum physics, is sophisticated and impressive, and yet he perhaps tangles with the scientists more than he needs to: he and they are not really talking about the same thing. The scientists are talking about the mechanics of being alive, awake and self-aware; the highly original selection of philosophers, mystics and occultists to whom Lachman introduces us are mostly talking about a particular state of 'higher' consciousness, one only experienced by a minority of people and, until the late nineteenth century, typically subsumed within the religious tradition. In fact, as Lachman hints, this is really a story of thinkers who were (and are) profoundly driven by what used to be regarded as 'the religious urge', but who, born into a culture where religion was being discarded, forged ahead regardless by creating their own models of cosmic consciousness.

Among their inspirations for this were science, and particularly Darwin's theory of evolution; it is this which gives Lachman the throughline for his enquiries, as he explores the question of whether consciousness itself is evolving, and if so from what origins to what future point. Madame Blavatsky's theosophy was perhaps the first occult system to use Darwin to buttress its baroque cosmology of root races and cosmic cycles; R.M.Bucke, with whom Lachman opens the book, set Edwardian pulses racing with his bestselling Cosmic Consciousness, which posited the idea that humanity was in the process of 'a gradual ascent from simple sense perception to a broader vision encompassing the entire cosmos'. Bucke was a slightly scary psychiatrist—patients diagnosed with 'masturbatory insanity' found silver wires surgically implanted in their penises—whose life was transformed one night by an overwhelming vision which descended on him in the back of a hansom cab, a 'momentary lightning-flash of Brahmic splendour' which told him that 'the cosmos is not dead matter but a living presence'. Many of the subsequent figures in this book—Rudolf Steiner, P.D.Ouspensky, Jurij Moskvitin, Jean Gebser—were driven in their quests by similar lightning-flashes of revelation, and many of them strove to develop techniques for reproducing them at will.

The idea that consciousness is evolving made strange bedfellows throughout the twentieth century, and Lachman shows extraordinary versatility in summarising their often oblique and maddening metaphysics in crisp and highly readable style. He does so without being judgmental: the likes of Madame Blavatsky, Stan Gooch and Colin Wilson are treated with the same respect as more venerable figures like Friedrich Nietzsche, William James and Henri Bergson, an approach which is both democratic and illuminating. He also has a knack for getting vividly inside the mindsets which different types of consciousness produce: the oceanic unity with nature experienced by babies, animals and (presumably) our pre-human ancestors; the sacred medieval world-view of harmony of the spheres and cyclical time; and the devastating 'shock of the new' wrought in modern times by the discovery of perspective, the notion of onward-and-upward progress, and the exhilarating but destructive separation of individual consciousness from the 'group mind' which previously contained it.

Lachman's own thesis about where consciousness came from and where it might be going is framed within a masterly analysis of the Swiss cultural philosopher Jean Gebser—like many other thinkers in the book, extremely heavy going in the original but accessible and absorbing here. Mixing in Steiner's occult notion of 'Old Moon consciousness', when humanity thought in pre-verbal pictures, and Owen Barfield's theory that the origins of language speak of a time when the metaphors which now pepper (a metaphor) our speech were understood literally, he argues that our modern, rational sense of consciousness is only one among many, and one which not only shapes the contents of our heads but the outside world that we perceive.

But this is no call to return to a utopian dream-time before the individuation and alienation which characterise the human condition today. Lachman rejects the pervasive New Age dogma of 'right brain good, left brain bad' in favour of a more subtle argument: that an evolution of consciousness would not involve jettisoning our current analytic consciousness that 'granulates' the world into separate units of experience, but rather developing some form of 'duo-consciousness' which might allow us parallel access to the ways of seeing the world that characterised previous stages of human development. Moving from meditations on prehistoric and Neanderthal consciousness to the 'irruptions of time' wrought on us today by the pace of life and the 'simultaneities' of digital media and the internet, A Secret History of Consciousness packs a powerful punch in laying bare the many and unexpected ways in which our reality is constructed by our minds, which in turn are constructed by our culture.—reviewed by Mike Jay

About the Author

Gary Lachman was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, and has lived in London since 1996. He is a full-time writer with more than a dozen books to his name on topics ranging from the evolution of consciousness and the Western esoteric tradition to literature and suicide and the history of popular culture. Lachman writes frequently for journals in the US and UK and lectures on his work in the internationally. His work has been translated into several languages. Mr. Lachman's books include Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (2012); Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work(2007); Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings (2010); The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus (Floris, 2011); and A Secret History of Consciousness (Lindisfarne, 2003).

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Lindisfarne Books (July 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1584200111
  • ISBN-13: 978-1584200116
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #372,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Dr. Richard G. Petty on June 26, 2006
Format: Paperback
I read a great many books, and most seem to have one or two new ideas or a re-hash of something familiar. So it's easy to get the gist of most of them and to move on.

But then there are some books to savor. Books that demand care and focus. Most of these demanding books soon become covered in notes, comments and annotations, and if I feel that people might be helped by a review, it is these that make the cut. I have now read three of Gary Lachman's books: this one, The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse, and Turn off Your Mind. All three have been excellent and demanding.

Gary is evidently an interesting person. A former musician and composer with the band Blondie, he first began his explorations of consciousness between gigs. But unlike so many of his generation, he decided to do something less ephemeral than soak himself in psychedelics.

This book is an exploration of the possibility and the potential that we have to transform our consciousness, not just personally but also as a society. This is not an idle preoccupation: many of us feel that we must transform if we are to survive as a species. Yet there is also another piece to this: if and when we transform, that transformation is associated with its own parcel of challenges. Over the last few centuries, we have already begun to change physically and psychologically, and these changes help explain the rapid emergence and evolution of new laws of life and of healing.

Gary Lachman has something in common with Colin Wilson, who contributed a deeply insightful forward to the book. Both have felt feelings of boredom and dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and these feelings have propelled them to see what else is out there.
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Gary Lachman, the author of the highly engaging Turn Off Your Mind, has, with this new work, again written a very lively account of a part of modern intellectual history. This book traces the development, from the late 19th century up to our own time, of the idea of the collective transformation of human consciousness, both the evidence of such evolution in the past, and speculation about future evolution. A fascinating array of thinkers is presented, at a pace that is fast but not superficial. Even readers who are already familiar with these thinkers will find much to engage their minds and send them off into profound reflections of their own. One important measure of this book's success is that it has inspired this reader to go directly to the works of the authors covered.
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I don't believe consciousness evolved but this book is a good overview of various theories as to how it could have evolved. I suspect that if you could experience another's mind, you would find significant differences in consciousness even within our present time. The mind of somebody else would seem like an alien world to you. Anyone who possesses exceptional access to their unconscious mind is aware of how alien and distorted its perception can be and this distortion of perception is even present, in a very subtle manner, during full consciousness.

The author does explore an interesting concept, duo-consciousness, the hypnagogic state between sleep and consciousness in which it is possible to dream while being partially awake. He even speculates about consciously induced hypnogogia, the first reference to this secret ability I've seen in print. But he does not go far enough in his speculation. Given exceptional access to the unconscious it is possible to enter the hypnagogic state at will. It is possible to awaken the unconscious into activity by consciously recalling dream imagery, even snatches of long forgotten dreams, and thereby bring it into a near conscious state to the point of experiencing irrational fears. More interesting, it is possible to acquire some of the imaginative capabilities of the dream state and create highly unexpected mental imagery as random, mild hallucinations which are nevertheless subject to some conscious direction towards specific images. This is day dreaming empowered with the faculty of true dreaming! Baudelaire once described this as the poet's gift to dream exceptionally well.
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I picked this book up without any preconceptions. I just wanted to read more about the history of consciousness, having become interested in the topic over the years. To my delight, Gary Lachman's book opened some great avenues for further study. I was unfamiliar with most of the authors he discusses in depth, other than some notables like Bucke and Gurdjieff. To my delight, he gave a really good overview of Jean Gebser, whose writing I greatly admire, and who made some amazing breakthroughs in the study of the evolution of consciousness. Fourtunately for me, Lachman not only gave clear descriptions of the writers he surveys, but also shows the development of their ideas. There is also a very good bibliography for further explorations. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a student of the evolution and levels of consciousness from a "western" perspective.
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