His range of interests and span of learning were seemingly unfathomable. William Sheldon wrote, "Considering the whole panorama of human life, historic, anthropologic and archeologic, Gerald Heard may well be the best informed man alive." And Aldous Huxley famously stated, "The Universe is a continuum; but our knowledge of it is departmentalized. Every learned Society is a pigeonhole, every University a columbarium. Gerald Heard is that rare being, a man who makes his mental home on the vacant spaces between the pigeonholes."
These words of Huxley summarize admirably two important aspects of Heard's unicity—his uncanny prescience in regard to the future of human affairs, made possible by an uncommonly open mind. Huxley further said that in an increasingly compartmentalized world where knowledge is locked up in leak-proof packages of "omolies" and "ologies," where communication between the many and various disciplines of the mind—not to speak of efforts to exchange and correlate new discoveries—is practically nonexistent, where scholars and scientists know "more and more about less and less," Gerald Heard was able to escape the dread trap of specialization because the range of his interests and the span of his knowledge were so wide. Almost as impressive was Heard's ability to retain information. Yet he was no mere collector of data, as are so many able men who are regarded as original thinkers.
What is the unique quality or state of his mind that makes it possible for such a man to see so clearly what lies ahead before others are aware of it? Perhaps Huxley’s remarks will furnish a clue. It was by avoiding the pigeonholes that Heard maintained an open mind—that is, a mind that was unable to be satisfied either with explanations that were simply apt for the moment or with final and irreversible conclusions that were not to be disturbed by new or contradictory facts. No new idea, theory, or apparent discovery was, for him, unworthy of consideration. One of his favorite sayings was that, "An educated man is one who can entertain himself, entertain a stranger, and entertain a new idea."
And always he kept before this open mind a cosmology—a philosophical frame of reference—in which, to keep it constantly up to date, every new bit of information must find a place or be filed in a "suspense account." Never was any new evidence rejected because it threatened to embarrass his cosmology. Perhaps years later another discovery would turn up which, when joined with one held in the suspense account, happily fit in and closed the gap. This was one of his greatest gifts and contributions and, incidentally, the mark of an original thinker—the ability to see a correlation where no one would have suspected it existed, simply because he had refused to ignore an anomaly that at the time appeared not to fit.
Heard's Philosophy of History
Born toward the end of the nineteenth century, Heard had anticipated, formulated, and stated properly many of today’s major problems before the twentieth century was thirty years old. Gerald Heard believed that there are two basics that must prevail if a society is to endure. The first is the relationship between cosmology and ethics. One’s cosmology, as Heard used the word, is a person’s philosophical worldview—the core beliefs that they espouse about the universe and themselves, and the frame of reference by which they interpret and understand life. Ontology concerns itself with the ultimate nature of existence.
"If I am to be remembered at all, I hope it would be as an historian of consciousness and its evolution." Gerald Heard to Professor Ted Solomon of Iowa State University, early 1950s
Strictly speaking, Heard's cosmology was more of a "cosmontology" since it posited a self-existent Life Force, an Ultimate Reality. However, for the moment, let us call it cosmology and see how he related it to ethics. Heard said, "One’s cosmology must produce an ethic or it is not adequate, it is outdated, or untrue. And conversely, unless one’s ethic is deduced from a cosmology that is supported by a preponderance of up-to-date evidence, it had no sanction, and one will not be able to adhere to it."
Of course he would have gone on to say that the principle involved is that everyone, from the fool and the criminal to the hero and the saint, consciously or unconsciously behaves in terms of four concepts: (1) what they believe themselves to be; (2) what they believe to be the nature of the Universe in which they find themselves; (3) what they believe to be the nature of the Life Force that appears to be running things; and, (4) the relationship among all three. If this fourfold concept is inadequate, if it is hopelessly outdated, or if it violates a person’s reason, then the person’s moral code will be sketchy and confused. Torn between uncertainty and greed, one will behave erratically, unpredictably, and self-interest alone will be their guideline.
The ethic we have deduced from a picture of the universe as being a huge machine that can be ever more understood, brought under control, and exploited for comfort and gain (the prevailing social "needs") has allowed us to plunder and despoil our planet and each other to a point where it is quite apparent that only a spiritual renaissance (a new cosmology that produces a new ethic) can save us from plunging recklessly into self-destruction.
Heard believed that the second basic necessity to a viable society is that all progress in physics must be matched by an equivalent progress in psychology. For every advance in the knowledge and management of the outer world there must be an equal and simultaneous advance in the understanding and control of that inner world contained in those few inches between the forehead and the back of the skull. Otherwise, the balance between man’s scientific and technological strides forward and his knowledge of himself, his motives, and his goals is upset. For example, it is a precarious balance that exists between the scientific knowledge and technology that has produced nuclear power and the value system used in making the decision as to how it will be utilized.
The Ascent of Humanity
Gerald Heard's breakthrough book, The Ascent of Humanity was published in 1929. In it he outlined his philosophy of history. The "drum and trumpet" interpretation of history, that it is only a record of the "crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind," is not true. History, he proposed, is "the shadow cast by the evolving consciousness of man," a concept presented in germinal form five years earlier in his first philosophical book, Narcissus.
According to Heard, man has evolved into five distinct stages. At the beginning, he was co-conscious; he had no sense of being an individual, separate from his fellow creatures and the world in which he lived. He has developed over the millennia through the further stages of proto-individual and mid-individual to the fourth stage of the total individual—a self-conscious being who for the first time is conscious of the fact that he has an unconscious that he does not understand and cannot control, but who at the same time is able to extract greater and greater power from and wield more and more control over his environment.
Despite popular belief, and notwithstanding the fact that any further physical evolution needed for coping with an environment rapidly being changed by ruthless and blind exploitation with its many consequent forms of pollution, can be provided through prosthetic extensions of his present body by his highly developed intelligence working through his highly developed science and technology, man at present does not represent the peak of nature’s achievements through evolution. He is now emerging, in Heard's theory, into a fifth psychological stage, that of the post-individual who can, if he chooses, discern the direction of his continuing evolution.
This fifth stage constitutes a psychological revolution that will force man to turn inward and attempt to understand himself and to gain control of himself, which will provide the necessary counterbalance to his present knowledge of the outer world and his power to exploit it. How is this to be achieved?
The way forward, out of our present chaos and confusion, says Heard, is through a further, self-consciously accomplished evolution of his consciousness that will give him the self-knowledge and self-control needed to identify himself once more with the Life Force that pervades and contains the universe and all that is in it, and to behave accordingly. Heard spent the rest of his life developing and refining this philosophy and living in conformity with it. His 1941 book, Training for the Life of the Spirit, was the result of twenty years of such research and practice.