Brief history of mind

“To be or not to be. That is the question.” Why has humanity been so long fascinated with Hamlet’s oft quoted words? Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most famous works of Western literature. During the 400 years since he wrote it, thousands of volumes have been written about this play. Almost every famous English author of the 18th and 19th Century has written commentary on it. Yet, even today, both the behavior of Hamlet in the story and the long-standing popularity of the drama itself remain a mystery. When the young, noble Danish prince discovered that his father had been murdered by his uncle, why did he not immediately expose and avenge the crime and claim the throne for himself? Why is this simple revenge story considered great literature?

A spiritual perspective of human evolution provides a new and fascinating answer to these questions. Hamlet represents the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of Western society – the birth of thinking mind and the emergence of mental individuality in the human collective. Instead of immediately seeking to revenge his father’s death, Hamlet begins to contemplate the nature of human existence. He perceives the pretense and falsehood of society. He becomes conscious of his own personal defects. He comes to question the very purpose of life and action. All this is possible, because the thinking mind has been born in Hamlet and that mind is giving shape to his individuality.

Were this only a story of a fictitious Danish prince, it would hardly explain the popularity of the character or the play. But it is much more than that. Hamlet is a symbol captured in fiction of a real historical phenomenon that was occurring at the time the play was written – the collective development of thinking mind and mental individuality in Europe.

The world had great thinkers millennia before Shakespeare and Hamlet—Confucius, Aristotle, Shankara to name just a few. What then is different or special about this time? To answer that we need to examine a very brief history of mind.

The evolution of human consciousness began as a very slow development of the physical consciousness in man from the subconscious, instinctive state of higher animals. Primitive man created languages, tools, primitive arts, and rudimentary laws to govern the organization of society. These developments are obviously mental in character, but they were not the result of the thinking mind, as we know it today. They resulted from the development of mind in the body, a thinking body that became conscious and learned from its physical and sensory experiences, not a thinking mind capable of abstract conceptual ideas.

In the next phase, which occurred over thousands of years, the primitive physical man evolved into the vital man in which human relationships and social organizations became more and more sophisticated and central to his existence. In this phase man developed a mind in the vital, a mind capable of thinking about other people, human relationships, and the governance of society. Institutions such as marriage, kingship, aristocracy, and trade were born during this phase. It culminated in great early civilizations such as Egypt, Persia and Babylonia.

Then came the Greeks and humanity has never been the same since. Ancient Greece excelled in all the accomplishments of earlier civilizations. They were superb physical athletes and valiant warriors who invented the Olympics and established a vast empire by conquest. They were also skillful traders, who acquired vast wealth from their exchanges with other nations, and excelled in the fine arts, especially the most physical arts such as architecture and sculpture. But the Greeks went further – they developed thinking mind and used it to explore the nature of life and society. They formulated new principles of government and were the first Western nation to establish a democracy. They explored and excelled in all fields of science – Pythagoras and Euclid in mathematics, Aristotle and Archimedes in physics, Galen and Hippocrates in medicine, etc. They conceived of the atom 2000 years before it was discovered. They believed that the earth revolved around the sun 1500 years before it was generally accepted as true. The greatest minds of ancient Greece -- Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates – rank even today among the greatest thinkers the world has ever known.

Men of genius may have lived in earlier times and other climes, but in ancient Greece thinking mind emerged in the collective society, as an endowment not limited to a rare few or confined to narrow fields of inquiry. In Greece, mind was placed on an altar as a God to be worshipped. Mind’s powers were investigated and applied to a wide range of issues, giving rise to the Hellenic civilization, which has powerfully influenced the whole development of humanity over the last two millennia.

Greece was supplanted by the Roman Empire, which grew much larger and lived much longer than its predecessor, spreading all the way to the northern reaches of Europe, surviving for nearly 1000 years, and leaving a heritage in law and governance that forms the basis for much of modern civilization. It was the power of mind acquired from the Greeks that enabled the Romans to convert their tiny city-state into a vast empire. Greece developed and used the thinking mind to contemplate abstract ideas such as the principles of truth, love, beauty and justice. The Romans used the thinking mind to master the activities of life. They used the power of mind to organize their military into the most formidable, the world had ever seen. They used the power of mind to formulate laws and create institutions for governance and public administration that are still followed even today. The Roman Empire marked the descent of thinking mind to elevate and organize life.

Roman domination was followed by a 1000-year period of apparent stagnation known as the Middle or Dark Ages. During this period, Christianity spread and established itself as a civilizing principle and institution throughout Europe and feudalism reigned as the predominant mode of social organization and governance. Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, we find that this was an essential period of social stability, which prepared for and gave rise to the birth of mind and modern civilization.

The birth of the modern age can be traced back to the Renaissance, which began in Italy early in the 15th Century and gradually spread throughout Western Europe. Here in the tiny city-states of coastal Italy, the developments of ancient Greece were rekindled and applied anew to create a highly creative, vibrant, flourishing society. Interest in the classical art forms of ancient Greece re-emerged and was followed by the greatest period of artistic creativity the world had ever seen, led by Michelangelo, Leonardo De Vinci and many others. The sciences revived alongside the arts. Copernicus and Galileo gave birth to modern astronomy. Leonardo conceived of a host of mechanical inventions that would become realities over the next 400 years. Democracy reemerged with new vigor. Trade flourished. The modern institution of banking was born.

The Renaissance was followed in quick succession by a series of radical social movements that have created the world as we know it today -- the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Democratic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. All these movements have one thing in common – they all represent the applications of the powers of the thinking mind to develop and elevate life. It was by the power of the thinking mind applied to the field of social life that Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation broke the stranglehold of Catholic religious superstition that had suppressed freedom of thought and discovery for 1000 years, empowering the thinking individual to consider and interpret religious doctrine according to the best light of his own mind. The ideal of universal education was born in Europe at this time. It was the power of the thinking mind applied to the study of nature that led to the explosion of new ideas and discoveries that constituted the birth of modern science and scientific organizations from the time of Newton. It was the power of the thinking mind that led free thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau to formulate the ideal principles of democratic government that spurred the French Revolution and now rule the world. And it was the power of thinking mind applied to the practical organization of production that led to all the successive technological innovations from the early days of the Industrial Revolution to the Computer Age and the growth of all forms and institutions of business enterprise that we know today.

Mind is that which distinguishes human beings from our animal ancestors. The evolution of human consciousness can be described as the gradual emergence of mentality in the body, life and mind of humanity, reaching its acme in the development of the pure thinking mind in ancient Greece. This ascent of consciousness has been followed by a progressive descent of the power of thinking mind from the development of theoretical, abstract ideas in ancient Greece to the application of mind to organize social life in the days of the Roman Empire and for the conquest of matter in modern times.

Somewhere along the way, the unique endowment of a few isolated thinkers became a widespread endowment characteristic of society-at-large. Today we have as many thinkers, writers and scientists as there were warriors in the armies of Alexander the Great. Today the transfer of knowledge is not confined to a few youth of Athens who received personal instruction from Socrates. Education is rapidly being extended to the entire population of the world. Today democratic ideals are being applied not just to the elite of Athens or the ruling aristocracy of Rome but to the whole of humanity. Today scientific thinking is not confined to a few men like Archimedes contemplating the nature of reality in his bath tub, but by millions of scientists around the world pursuing every conceivable branch of scientific inquiry and creating new fields as well. Today the art of invention is not limited to a few rare geniuses like Leonardo, but is being carried on globally on a daily basis in universities, research laboratories, corporations and even garage-scale home businesses.

Around the time of Hamlet, some 500 years ago, thinking ceased to be the sole prerogative and preoccupation of a rare few and became the common right and heritage of humanity as a whole. Since then society has taken great strides to enshrine the right to free thought, to impart through education the knowledge required for informed thinking, and to encourage the habit of thinking in its citizens, so that humanity as a whole may eventually acquire the endowment of mind, which distinguishes us from the lower species.

The emergence of thinking mind has made possible the emergence of mental individuality in humanity. But this is not the end of the journey or the last stage in human evolution. Mind is only a transitional stage and point of departure for our further progress into the realm of spirit and the gradual emergence of the spiritual individual in humanity. While much of humanity has yet to acquire the capacity for conceptual thinking that forms the basis of true mental individuality, our real future lies beyond thought in the application of spiritual power to inform and elevate life. As the pioneers, adventurers, discoverers, inventors and thinkers of the past blazed new trails for humanity to follow, the future of humanity lies along a course that will be blazed and in territory that will be first settled by the spiritual individuals of tomorrow.