The Completion Of Our Historic Human Quest For Reason, Dignity, And Love
Glen T. Martin
Today, it is common to speak of human consciousness as having evolved from earlier forms of consciousness. It is common, for example, to speak of the childhood of humanity as a “magical consciousness,” from which evolved the era of the “mythological consciousness.” During the well-known “Axial Period” of human history, a consciousness emerged out of the mythological stage into our present stage that delineates subject from object and makes possible the great philosophical visions that have characterized history since the first millennium BCE.
Human history over the past 2500 years since the Axial Period has also been a developmental process. In this paper I want to review a few of the philosophical visions that have emerged in this period, with an eye to the progressive realization of the Earth Constitution as culminating this process. In so doing we will be examining the movement of the divine-human dialectical spirit within history and showing how and why the Earth Constitution represents a true culmination of this process. I will focus on Western history with the understanding that similar movements have taken place in the East as well. Much of this history is detailed in my 2008 book Ascent to Freedom: Practical and Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law.
During the Axial Period, human beings acquired the capacity for “personal openness to transcendence,” as philosopher John Hick puts this. They went beyond the mythological deification of the forces of nature to the “discovery of the transcendent” (1989, 30). To put this in a later philosophical idiom, finite human beings developed the capacity for openness to the Infinite, a dimension both transcendent of the finite and immanent within it. Our capacity for this openness appeared to many as a divine gift. To many it appeared that the human spirit was a microcosm of the Divine Spirit.
Our infinite dignity as human persons (placing us beyond all other creatures in the natural world) appeared derivative from this divine gift, this Imago Dei in us. Throughout history, our universal dignity has been discerned and articulated in a number of different ways. This paper reviews some of these ways and reveals that we have now arrived at the point in history when we can actualize this dignity as the framework for a truly global civilization. We can establish a planetary civilization, for the first time in history, on the dignity of mankind, and not on some contingent territorial or power-based principle.
In the Ancient world of the 4th century BCE, Plato discerned the logos, the dimension of mind and intelligibility that informs the cosmos. He understood that human beings are a microcosm of the macrocosm, that the divine is manifested in human reason in a finite form. But even though reason is finite, it can illuminate our human situation and our sacred place within the scheme of things. In his Symposium, Plato also described the “ladder of love” showing stages of spiritual development for the ascent of the human spirit to awareness of the divine foundations of the cosmos. In his Republic, Plato attempted to imagine an ideal government on Earth that reflected the intelligibility, justice, and perfection of the logos.
Aristotle, the most famous pupil of Plato, emphasized that we could not ignore the natural world in our vision of the divine foundations of the cosmos. He brought the intelligible forms of Plato down into the heart of the natural world and articulated the ways in which form in living things moved toward actualizing its inherent potentiality for development. This development of our human rational potential, for Aristotle, was mirrored in the political community organized around a constitution in which government must be framed to encourage excellence and virtue in the citizens who in turn would produce excellence and virtue in government. A demand was thus placed upon history by Plato and Aristotle to actualize the dignity of humanity concretely through the governments and constitutions by which we organize human affairs.
In the first century BCE Cicero focused the philosophical movement called Stoicism in a powerful way. The Stoics were the first to articulate the truth that all human beings are brothers and sisters and that the Earth was a cosmopolitan community based on our common human reason. Our common reason means that moral principles are universal and that these derive from the divine foundations of the cosmos. Cicero applied these ideas specifically to the law and legal systems. Legal systems around the world may differ, but the principles of law and justice are not relative to culture. All legal systems approximate to the one principle of legal justice that informs human reason and the minds of lawmakers everywhere. The equality and dignity of all human beings were seen as the proper foundation of all systems of law and justice. Cicero thereby further elaborated the demand for universal law based on equal justice for all humanity.
In the fourth century of the common era, Saint Augustine inherited not only the Greek philosophical tradition stemming from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero but also the Hebraic tradition and its explosion in the Christian phenomenon that had spread throughout the Roman Empire. The confluence of these traditions was there in the Gospel of John that famously reads “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” Whereas Plato had oriented the logos within the human spirit outward toward the cosmos, “beyond the world,” so to speak, Augustine went inward, into the depths of his selfhood, into the inner dynamics of his spirituality.
There he found Truth. He believed that God is Truth, just as Plato had done, but the Truth could also be existentially experienced within our inner lives as love and Spirit. Life became a process of ascending to the Truth within, of recognizing that the Truth of God already resided within the depths of the human self-aware spirit. Augustine distinguished the universal truth that can be recognized by human reason (pointing to a common good for all human beings that might be embodied in law) from the multiplicity of partial truths and perspectives into which people fall when they abjure the universal for their private ends, desires, and goals.
Just as the possibility of democratic world law is implicit in Plato’s focus on the universal logos and is underscored by Aristotle’s emphasis on the virtuous polis that is possible when the right kind of constitutional framework encourages virtue and excellence in the population, so Cicero’s affirmation of the universal basis of all law in principles of justice underlines the possibility of democratic world law. With Augustine, this affirmation receives a Christian articulation. God had taken on humanity in the form of Jesus as the Christ, revealing and confirming the Imago Dei and setting the stage for the redemptive love of the Holy Spirit and the Christian civilization that followed Augustine for the next 1000 years. The Divine Ground of Being became the background for all culture, law, and governance during the coming millennium.
At the height of this civilization in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas produced a monumental philosophical corpus expressing the vision of Christian civilization. Following the Aristotelian idea that the rational soul in man can actualize itself in the form of moderate, just, and equitable principles of living, Thomas worked out a theory of natural law directed toward the common good. “The purpose of human law,” he wrote, “is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually.” Once again, the insight is expressed that there is a reciprocity between the way men govern themselves through external principles of law and justice and the inner condition of the human spirit in virtuous relations with others and with society. Institutions influence human consciousness and human consciousness in turn generates just and equitable institutions.
During the Renaissance of the 15th century, Pico della Mirandola wrote his famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” He did not deny the immense dignity of man that had been recognized by the tradition we have reviewed in this paper, a tradition that began with discernment of the logos that informed both the human mind and the cosmos and continued with Christian discernment of the Imago Dei in which the divine blessed and sanctioned human existence through becoming incarnate in the form of Jesus as the Christ. Pico connected human dignity with our freedom, a freedom that indeed derived from the logos, but also gave us freedom to define the kind of beings we become. We are not locked into a specific species-form as are the other living creatures, Pico declared, we can ascend to the heights of the scale of being in dimensions close to God or we can descend into degradation and deprivation. Our freedom is this great and is our greatest gift from God.
The tradition to this date articulated the principles of law and justice as universal to humanity and as expressing the immense dignity and equality of human beings in relation to the Divine Ground of Being. But soon there would be a fall, another fall like the one posited in the book of Genesis in which human beings fell away from God because they wished to define and possess knowledge of good and evil for themselves independently of the Divine Ground of their Being. The new fall that begin in the 17th century was an unintended consequence of the discovery of the scientific method that allowed human beings to begin unlocking the secrets of how the natural world works.
In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton synthesized the progress of early-modern science in his monumental Principia Mathematica. The world was conceived as a collection of bodies in motion, bodies governed by the law of universal gravitation and universal causality operating like a vast, cosmic machine. The natural world was understood as deterministic, atomistic, and non-teleological (i.e., going nowhere), simply a huge clockwork created and wound up by God at the beginning of time and ever since operating autonomously within a framework of absolute space and time. Human beings had been sifted from the center of creation to the status of an apparently insignificant appendage of a gigantic, mechanistic system of “bodies in motion.”
This picture of the universe appeared to provide no place for mind, no place for the human spirit as microcosm of the macrocosm, and no place for love or freedom. The subjectivity of persons, the “inwardness” of persons that had led Augustine to the Truth of God within, the inwardness of persons that had led Pico to declare the dignity of freedom that was our greatest gift from God, was now becoming understood as merely private inner noise. The human spirit had no place in this Newtonian universe that claimed “objectivity”—everything, including the human body, was mechanically constructed and causally determined.
Our inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were declared “merely subjective.” Our so-called reason and values were merely “slaves” of our passions and desires, as David Hume was to declare in the 18th century. Our perceptions and conceptions were no longer an integral part of a holistic cosmos inhabited by a microcosm of that cosmos. Universal human reason and dignity were called into question. The inner life was now merely an epiphenomenon unrelated to the objective reality of “bodies in motion.”
In the 18th century Immanuel Kant understood that there was something very wrong with this early-modern scientific synthesis. He did not find a way to challenge the perception that the universe was a mechanistic collection of bodies in motion but he did manage to articulate the idea that values are not merely subjective and that the human mind has an immensely important role that is ignored by the Newtonian world view. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant focused on the “transcendental unity of apperception,” the contentless point that knows itself as “I” in which the manifold dimensions of perception and consciousness are synthesized. In addition, he understood that the unity of apperception presupposes the universe as a whole in which both subject and object imply one another and presuppose the whole. He declared that he had achieved a “counter-Copernican revolution” in which he had restored human dignity and placed humankind back in the center of the cosmos.
In the 19th century, G.W.F. Hegel understood that Kant had made a step in the right direction, but because he had limited the scope of reason to the lesser dimension of the “understanding,” Kant had missed the fact that both subject and object were predicates of the dialectical activity of “Spirit” and that the human spirit was a finite reflection of the Absolute Spirit or God. Here, if anywhere, the immense dignity recognized by the Ancients and Medievals was restored to human life. The world is a holistic, dialectically moving dynamism of subject and object and the human mind is a finite reflection of the Divine activity behind the entire course of historical development. Dialectic is the articulation of wholes. It is the logic of parts within wholes seeking to actualize themselves in relation to the Infinite totality, or God. Dialectic moves in history through ever-larger forms of universality that transcend past forms while lifting them up into ever new syntheses. The direction of history demands concrete embodiment for the evermore universal synthesis of the divine-human spirit.
In the 20th century a number of important thinkers articulated the human situation in the light of the discovery that the universe itself and everything within it, from the time of the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, involves a process of evolution, of perpetual dynamic change. The universe is no longer the static Newtonian universe of bodies in motion but is characterized by emergent evolutionary forces bringing levels of mind and spirit to self-consciousness out of the process. Alfred North Whitehead published his book Process and Reality in 1929 articulating a universe in dynamical relationship with God characterized not by things and inert substances but by processes, development, the actualization of Spirit.
Out of this evolutionary holism that has characterized the most advanced thought of the 20th century, a renewed consciousness of universal human dignity appeared. Correlative with this dignity there emerged articulations of universal human rights such as that embodied in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1947. The logos discerned by Plato and Aristotle, expressed and expanded in the Imago Dei of Medieval Christianity, and placed within a dialectical developmental framework by Hegel, was formulated in the 20th century in terms of a universal cosmic process bringing mind and Spirit into ever-greater levels of self-consciousness. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares recognition of human dignity as “the foundation of peace, justice, and freedom in the world.”
Yet the developmental process foundered in the UN System that was premised on the dogma of militarized sovereign nation-states going all the way back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and presupposing the fragmented Newtonian world view. Universal human rights could not be effectively actualized under this system of gigantic militarized power centers in competition with one another. The developmental process of recognizing and actualizing man as a microcosm of the living, evolving Divine Spirit at the heart of the cosmos also foundered on the capitalist system, again going back four centuries, in which atomistic units compete with one another for wealth and power irrespective of human rights and human dignity.
The corruption that we see everywhere in the political world of today (in governments around the planet, in terrorism, and in clandestine wars of sovereign nations) reflects the fragmented and inadequate institutions provided by custom for governing in today’s world. The inadequacy of territorial nation-states for governing is reflected in the rise of vast, undemocratic governance structures like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and global private banking cartels. Respect for human dignity and universal human rights are everywhere in shambles. The threat of a nuclear war that could wipe out humanity infuses all human governing with an air of absurdity.
If the progress of our cosmically grounded human vocation is to continue, we must recognize a culmination of this 2500-year process in the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. The Constitution transforms the fragmented world system according to the principles of evolutionary holism discovered by 20th century science and philosophy. It is premised on the common good of humanity and the common equality and dignity of all persons (an insight going back at least as far as Cicero and the Stoics). It redeems human civilization from the “fall” that occurred with the Newtonian aberration away from the progressive actualization of the human spirit.
The scientific revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries has again given us the holism of the Earth, of humanity, and of the cosmos. As philosopher Errol E. Harris concludes, “In relation to the whole, mankind must be seen as a single community, a kingdom of ends, the undivided interest of which is to maintain the integrity of the world that it inhabits…. The conception we need to deploy is that of a spiritual community of persons, morally responsible for the welfare of all” (1987, 262-63). The inner logos that we all share, the reason and love that binds us into a single moral, rational, and spiritual human community, must come to fruition in the actualization of that community within a planetary constitutional framework.
The Earth Constitution, therefore, because it is based on the common equality, dignity, and rights of all humanity, and because it designs a democratic governmental framework for actualizing the common good of humanity in the forms of peace, justice, and sustainability, represents nothing less than the highest peak to which practical reason can aspire in its historic quest for self-actualization within the human community. 2500 years of Western history has progressively articulated the rational and spiritual foundations embodied in this document. This document is not simply one possible perspective on the global problems currently faced by humanity. It is the only practically effective solution available to us. It actualizes what we truly are as a single rational-spiritual-ethical community.
Today, we have the technology, communications, and know-how to make Plato’s vision of a logos-based human society a reality. We have the capacity to bring the universal cosmopolitan natural justice of Cicero and the Stoics to fruition. We have the ability to actualize Aristotle’s and St. Thomas’ ideas that virtuous human beings can be produced by a well-designed society based on the common good. We can make Hegel’s idea of the embodiment of the divine-human dialectical spirit a reality. Either we actualize the love and reason embodied in the Earth Constitution through its ratification and implementation, or we will likely destroy ourselves through our refusal to leave the outdated Newtonian fragmentation of our planet and enter into an effective framework of emergent evolutionary unity in diversity.
The Earth Constitution is the culmination of 2500 years of philosophy and religion condensed into a practical plan to embody human reason and dignity within a framework of effective world law. It opens up a future of a perpetual journeying of humanity into ever-greater forms of self-awakening and self-actualization. The Earth Constitution redeems humanity from its Newtonian fall into fragmentation and discord and lifts us to a higher level of self-aware existence as microcosms of the macrocosm, as cosmic citizens living in peace, justice, and sustainability on our sacred planetary home. It culminates the rational trajectory of history and makes possible ascent to ever-higher levels. Now is the time to seize the day (carpe diem)—to create a world civilization truly based on our universal human dignity.
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Kant, Immanuel (1965). Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Martin, Glen T., ed. (2010). Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
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Martin, Glen T. (20018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Martin, Glen T. (2021). Design for a Living Planet: The Earth Constitution Solution. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press. Whitehead, Alfred North (1978). Process and Reality. New York: Macmillan Publishing Comp