want to share with you something about a classic work related to New
Thought and esoteric teachings: the pioneering study of the evolution
of the human mind: Cosmic Consciousness by Richard M. Bucke,
MD, (E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.).
First published in 1901, the original printing run of Cosmic Consciousness
was only 500 copies. That the book is still in print over 100 years
later confirms its significance to readers.
Currently, a total of over one million books on all subjects are published
annually in the United States alone. Very few make it to a second edition.
To last a century, a book must make a unique contribution to its readers
and the culture in general. Clearly, this one does.
author, Richard M. Bucke, MD, (1837-1902) was not only a medical doctor,
but was also an "alienist," the former term for what today we call a
He was, for a number of years, the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum
for the Insane in London, Ontario, Canada. In that capacity he had much
opportunity to study the workings of the human mind.
He became well known for his advanced reforms in treating mental and
nervous diseases. At the same time he was a devoted student of great
literature, one who read all the great works, especially poetry.
From the age of 30, Bucke especially admired the work of Walt Whitman
and devoted the rest of his life to studying Whitman's work. " It is
even said that he could repeat from memory the entire volume of Walt
Whitman's Leaves of Grass, no mean feat."
the spring of 1872, at age 35, Bucke experienced what he called "Illumination."
He described it as: "All at once... he found himself wrapped around,
as it were, by a flame-colored cloud.... The next (instant) he knew
that the light was within himself.
Directly after, there came upon him a sense of exaltation, of immense
joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination
quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary
lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which ever since lightened his
As Bucke describes in his book, this Illumination led him, over the
next 20 years, to "ponder more deeply the relation between man's mind
and his moral nature." In 1894 "he developed the idea of [Cosmic] Consciousness
as a mental evolution of mankind, which as it became increasingly common,
and eventually general, would lift the whole of human life to a higher
what we have in this work is a seminal discussion of mental and spiritual
evolution of human beings that goes far beyond the physical evolution
theory of Darwin. Indeed, such an idea that humanity is evolving mentally
and spiritually may not seem radical to contemporary readers.
Many books today by spiritual teachers of all kinds carry that as an
implied or underlying theory. For example, the books about Indigo
and Crystal Children clearly suggest such an evolution.
work is unique. He was neither a mystic nor an esoteric teacher. He
was a scientist, "a student of the human mind, a psychologist, and he
treated Illumination from the standpoint of psychology."
Given the limitations of research at the time, Bucke poured through
volumes of history and literature and concluded that there had been
"at least 14 undeniable cases of complete and permanent Illumination"
and many other cases of partial or temporary Illumination.
He deduced, finally, that "very gradually... the human race is in the
process of developing a new kind of consciousness."
book presents a clearly developed investigation into the topics of human
consciousness and man's mystic relation to the Infinite. An introduction
by George M. Acklom, written for the 1946 edition, gives a comprehensive
overview of the author and the book.
Then in three highly readable parts totaling 82 pages, the author develops
his theory of Cosmic Consciousness. In his "First Words" he explains
and defines three levels or forms of consciousness experienced by humans:
Simple Consciousness, a consciousness shared with the upper half of
the animal kingdom, in which the being is conscious of the things about
Self Consciousness, unique to humans, in which the being is "conscious
of himself as a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe;
and Cosmic Consciousness which involves "a consciousness of the cosmos...
the life and order of the universe."
With this last the person experiences "a sense of immortality, a consciousness
of eternal life."
author's thesis is that humanity's consciousness has evolved over the
ages. "The view he takes is that our descendants will sooner or later
reach, as a race, the condition of cosmic consciousness, just as, long
ago, our ancestors passed from simple to self consciousness." Without
knowing it, Bucke's theory matches many esoteric teachings.
this early chapter Bucke also describes his own personal experiences
with illumination and also explains the psychological origin of Cosmic
Consciousness, arguing step by step how the mind and understanding develop.
His second chapter takes the discussion to the second step of mental
evolution: self-consciousness, noting that "self consciousness would
doubtless prove to be the primary and fundamental human attribute."
His arguments and data are often fascinating and range from the development
of sensitivity to sound to the perception of colors.
have always thought that his discussion of color perception is extraordinarily
interesting. He points out, citing various classic sources, that "not
more than 15 or 20,000 years ago, man was only conscious of, only perceived,
Evidence for this prevails in studies of the Indo-European language
history. Studies found "no names of colors in primitive Indo-European
speech" and "no Sanskrit root... has any reference to color."
Bucke concludes that gradually, color perception evolved. Early literature,
such as the Rig Veda only refers to red, yellow, and black. Later, white
and green joined the list. Even in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey,
and the Bible, the sky is not identified as "blue" and for Homer,
the sea is "wine-dark."
students or esoteric students who have studied the vibrational measurements
of color may note that the colors apparently came to be perceived by
humans in the order of the spectrum beginning with red, which has the
As a physician, Dr. Bucke notes that the existence of color-blindness
in persons of all countries what he calls an "atavism," or a "relapse
to a condition which was normal in the ancestry of the individual" "shows
that the color sense is a modern faculty." Bucke also discusses the
sense of fragrance and the evolution of the human moral nature.
Part III, Dr. Bucke takes his argument from self to cosmic consciousness.
Here he begins to discuss the difficulty of expressing the experience
of this kind of consciousness into words.
He identifies some of the individuals who he believes exemplify this
Illumination and shows how they tried to explain it.
entire first section of Bucke's work has always been my favorite part
of the book, because I have always learned the most from these chapters.
I do, however, think I need to state a brief "caveat" or warning here
for this book or any book from the 19th century or before in fact, any
creative work from a period different from our current times, be it
the Jerome Kern musical Showboat or a Mark Twain novel.
We live in a much different time, one in which certain words or attitudes
are seen as insensitive or labeled as "politically incorrect."
For example, authors, even professional physicians like Dr. Bucke, used
different terms for mentally handicapped persons, for example, than
we do now.
Readers might even assume some racial or gender insensitivities on rare
occasions in the book, instances that I would attribute instead to the
lack of adequate statistics and data in the 19th century or just common
I would always urge readers to use common sense and tolerance when experiencing
literature from earlier times.
second edition of Richard Bucke's work includes chapters on each of
the fourteen historical personages he believes to have experienced "Illumination"
or "Cosmic Consciousness."
These chapters are highly interesting, providing readers with excellent
biographical information that supports Bucke's theory and often, numerous
quotations, even somewhat lengthy citing from that individual's work.
This section forms the longest segment of the book. Among the fourteen,
Bucke includes, in chronological order, Gautama the Buddha, Jesus the
Christ, Paul, Plotinus, Mohammed, Dante, St. John of the Cross, Francis
Bacon, William Blake, Balzac and Walt Whitman.
chapters on Bacon, Blake, Balzac and Whitman are, of course, especially
insightful and interesting for anyone who loves great literature.
Bucke was a proponent of the theory that Francis Bacon was the author
of the sonnets and plays attributed to Shakespeare. Most students of
Shakespeare's works are probably familiar with the theory and Bucke's
discussion provides further enlightenment.
Also, since Bucke was personally acquainted with Walt Whitman and was
a great admirer of that great American poet, the chapter on Whitman
is especially rich with insights.
final major section of the book treats several dozen examples of people
whom Bucke considers to be "lesser, imperfect or doubtful instances"
of their having Cosmic Consciousness experiences.
Sometimes his doubt is simply the result of lack of data. Many of these
examples are anonymous and identified only by initials.
Some of the more well-known and thereby more interesting examples, again
in chronological order, are: Moses, Isaiah, Lao-Tze, Socrates, Pascal,
Spinoza, William Wordsworth, Pushkin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Tennyson
and Henry David Thoreau.
The preponderance of poets tends to reflect the author's interest in
literature, no doubt, more than anything else.
This is not to criticize Bucke's scholarship, which was immense. He
lists 208 sources at the beginning of his book from which he quotes
or refers to in this volume.
final chapter, called "Last Words," provides him the opportunity both
to recapitulate his points, but also to diverge just a bit to points
he didn't explore in the main chapters.
He draws conclusions from his studies, which reiterate his point of
the mental and spiritual evolution of the human species. He notes, moreover,
that as each development of consciousness happens, it happens to more
and more people as the years pass.
He concludes that just as self consciousness has become "almost universal
and appears at the average of about three years (of age) so will Cosmic
Consciousness become more and more universal... until the race at large
will possess this faculty."
Bucke's classic work, Cosmic Consciousness, is a highly valuable
work, well worth any effort on the part of the reader. It is truly a
work of great insight and hope for the human race.
who want to explore the topic of consciousness further may enjoy the
following books, briefly described.
Annie Besant. A Study in Consciousness. 1938. An esoteric discussion
from a Theosophical perspective.
Rudolf Steiner. The Evolution of Consciousness. 1979. An esoteric
discussion from Steiner's lectures.
Julian Jaynes. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of
the Bicameral Mind, 1976. A controversial, but fascinating psychological
theory by a Princeton University professor.
Ken Wilbur. The Spectrum of Consciousness, 1977. Challenging,
scholarly text by a contemporary philosopher.
Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics, 1996. A theory
that demonstrates the evolution of human psychologies, beliefs and values.
To order Cosmic Consciousness from Amazon.com,
Woityra, a retired high school English and Humanities teacher, now resides
in Arizona where she continues to pursue her eclectic metaphysical studies
in consciousness, the Ageless Wisdom, astrology, flower essences, music,
color and alternative medicine.
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