III. A Psychological-Historical Tapestry


Jack Sprott, Gerald Heard, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey at Strachey's Ham Spray House, c. late 1920s.

Photo used by kind permission of the Archive Centre, King's College, Cambridge.

Heard’s passion for history kept him roaming the corridors of the past, haunting the open spaces between the pigeonholes. He had found it increasingly difficult to avoid the notion that there was a pattern to be discerned in man’s history. By 1924, the first hints of his psychological-historical schema made their appearance in Narcissus. This theme was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life and culminate in his final book, 1964's The Five Ages of Man.

Along with his service to Sir Horace Plunkett, Heard was busily engaged in a number of activities during the 1920s as well as during the post-Plunkett period and before he came to the United States in 1937. He was, by 1925, "...just then making his name as a scientific journalist. He was reputed to read two thousand books a year and had an extraordinary flow of information about hygiene, sex, paranormal phenomena and the probable destiny of mankind."[2] His circle of acquaintances included J. R. Ackerley, W. H. Auden, G. Lowes Dickinson (who wrote the introduction to 1929's The Ascent of Humanity), E. M. Forster, Naomi Mitchison, Harold Nicholson, artist Glyn Philpot (who used Heard as a model for two oil-sketch portraits at his Tite Street studio around 1915), and Christopher Wood. He published ten books in the 1930s.

Because of Sir Julian Huxley's friendship and influence, he was brought in as literary editor of "The Realist," a monthly journal of scientific humanism, during that periodical’s short life of less than one year, from 1929-1930. There he worked with an editorial board composed of, among others, Arnold Bennett, Aldous Huxley, Julian Huxley, Bronislaw Malinowski, H. G. Wells, and Rebecca West. Pacifists Heard and Aldous Huxley, associated with the Peace Movement, gave lectures in England in support of their cause in the mid-1930s, mainly at London's Peace Pledge Union, a major pacifist organization. (Two of their essays are included in the 1936 anthology, The New Pacifism.) They also advocated boycotting the sale of nickel to Nazi Germany, which was crucial to produce her armory. According to Heard, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rejected their idea as, "Impractical."[3]

Heard began his career as a public speaker in 1926, lecturing for three years under the auspices of Oxford University’s Board of Extra Mural Studies. Beginning in 1927 he became a regular Sunday speaker for South Place Ethical Society in London. For ten years, from 1932 to 1942, he was active on the council and research committee of The Society for Psychical Research. As mentioned earlier, in 1929 he published his second philosophical book, The Ascent of Humanity, an essay on the philosophy of history that was awarded the distinguished Henrietta Hertz Prize by The British Academy.


Gerald Heard at the BBC broadcast microphone, 1932.

Reproduced under license from the BBC Photo Library.

For four years, from 1930 to 1934, he was the first Science Commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation, commanding a large and regular listening audience with his fortnightly broadcasts, during which time he had instant access to all the greats in the world of science, both in England and Europe. As H. G. Wells once said of him, "Heard is the only man I ever listen to on the wireless. He makes human life come alive." These BBC lectures were published weekly in "The Listener" and eventually were assembled as This Surprising World (1932), Science in the Making (1935), and Exploring the Stratosphere (1936).[4] Throughout this period he acquired an amazing grasp of general principles in the various scientific disciplines that, coupled with his encyclopedic retention of facts, would furnish him with so many apt illustrations for his writing and lecturing in later years.

As part of his backlash against formal religion, Heard had become interested in psychical research at the age of seventeen. Although skeptical, he persevered in his investigations, and after twenty years had come to the conclusion that, despite the maddeningly elusive character of the evidence, a strong case could be made for the idea that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon. It is not just a kind of steam given off by the organism that vanishes into nothingness when the body disintegrates at death. It appears to operate outside the space-time continuum and so would neither be completely subject to the laws of linear causality, nor does it seem to be a measurable form of energy.

Pushing this concept further, it seemed a tenable proposition to Heard that consciousness, if it did exist outside time and space, could be the substratum that underlay the fluctuating states arising and disappearing in our day-to-day experiences within time and space. Heard would later discover that this was a fundamental teaching of Vedanta philosophy. At this point he began to feel certain that life did, after all, have a meaning. This was the first of three great designs—meaning, method, and training—that dominated his thinking from the mid-1930s on, weaving in and out as his psychological-historical tapestry emerged.

Is there any purpose to this human existence, in being born and living for a fleeting "three score and ten years," and then disappearing in the event called death? Or is the whole thing an "idiot-told tale" consisting in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, the frantic chase after wealth along with the power and possessions it brings, the quest for praise, and the flight from shame and blame? Then, if there is meaning to life, are there methods of detecting that meaning, maps to point the way, left behind by others who had found it? Again, Heard's studies and researches had impelled him to accept that there were.

But just as an athlete must train, imposing on himself or herself a relentless self-discipline in order to gain the self-control needed to follow his or her particular form of sport, be it golf, tennis, track, or whatever, the person in search of meaning must practice a rigorous athleticism (the term Heard preferred to asceticism), following the guidelines of those who had gone before in order to become proficient in his or her method. And this training must be a total way of life, affecting and transforming one’s conduct, one’s character, and ultimately, one’s consciousness. Heard argued for living such a "rationed life" in 1937's The Third Morality wherein he states, "The general aim is the individual's realization of his unity with all life and being: his realization that the universe is alive and that every creature, himself included, is part of that life" (p.187).

Satisfied now as to meaning and method, Heard's life and resources from here on were dedicated to an attempt through constant research, experiment, and practice, to discover a contemporary system of spiritual or psychological training. It was in this frame of mind that he came to the United States and encountered Swami Prabhavananda and the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta.


[2] E. M. Forster: A Life, Volume II by P. N. Furbank, 1977, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, p.136. Used by kind permission of Professor P. N. Furbank.

[3] “The Poignant Prophet” by Gerald Heard, first published in The Kenyon Review, Winter 1965, OS, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, p.58. Copyright The Kenyon Review. Used by kind permission of The Kenyon Review.

[4] This information provided courtesy of Dr. Rhodri Hayward, 2002.