Highlights of His Writings 1924-1958
by Rev. Edmund A. Opitz
February 11, 1958
During the past 34 years, Gerald Heard has averaged a book a year. There are 34 books to his credit in the fields of history, anthropology, philosophy, religion, and literature; including six novels, an allegory, and two collections of short stories. His mind has ranged through all branches of ancient and modern knowledge, including the sciences. He is at home in the religions and philosophies of both West and East. In his books he has integrated this vast accumulation of knowledge and brought it to bear upon the persistent personal and social problems of man in the modern world.
The theme of evolution and growth runs through Gerald Heard’s life work, but it is not evolutionism of the Darwinian variety as conceived by the typical 19th century mind. That mind viewed nature as an arena entirely devoid of moral and spiritual values, an arena in which organisms struggle for existence and where only the fittest survive; and the word “fittest” was interpreted in terms of brutestrength, speed, or pugnacity. In the light of Heard’s examination, the biological history of the planet reveals an entirely different picture. The word “fittest” does not connote merely the physically strongest or toughest or most cunning; it means the organism most unspecialized—and thereby, the organism most aware, most capable of adaptation, wonder, curiosity, and love. In terms of “fitness,” man is the ranking organism.
Man, as Mr. Heard conceives him, has always been at the growing and knowing edge of planetary life; forces more than human and beyond the material have been playing upon the human stock ever since its appearance. These forces have produced a creature who has evolved to the point where he is capable of entering into a creative partnership with these forces. They have produces a creature who is self-conscious and whose further development, or evolution, consists in the refinement of awareness and the enlargement of consciousness. If consciousness is to evolve it must obviously evolve by a conscious effort — the unconscious evolution of consciousness being a contradiction in terms. But to speak of the evolution of consciousness is to talk of spiritual development, and this brings us into the field of religion where Heard is also a master. Mr. Heard’s religious philosophy thus grows naturally out of his scientific and historical researches; it is not a parallel development or an afterthought. Man’s unique history, and indeed his very structure, orient him Godward. Many traditional religious doctrines and insights have important biological and psychological roots.
Gerald Heard announced his premises and theme in his first book entitled Narcissus, a volume in the Today and Tomorrow Series published by Dutton in 1924. The evolutionary basis of his thought was set forth and he spoke of, “the broad and unbroken band of organic evolution which carries forward the whole gear of man from his retina to his spectroscope, evolving the whole of him, body, clothes, and tradition, first racially, then subconsciously, and finally self-consciously and on purpose.” Amplifying his theme he wrote: “The thesis of this book is that evolution is going on no longer in but around the man and the faster because working in a less resistant medium. Man becomes like a wireless valve, a transmitter which in the process immensely amplifies the current that he receives. When the Force that shaped all life evolved man, it seems that it kept him henceforward unspecialized, gave him, strangest of gifts, no vocation and equipment but, if not in one blow, freedom, innate opportunism. This was reserved for the favorite. To all others their function and place. They sink into their groove, deeper, ever deeper; they run their appointed race; they become every generation more perfectly adapted to what they are. Vague trial and error pass into the exquisite precision of instinct…Life is justified in all her children: she has rounded their day in perfect completeness. But man she has not completed. That is her supreme bequest to him: he shall finish the story as he likes” (p. 11).
“Progress,” he said, “may yet be recognized as a matter of quality, not quantity. We are the only animal which, when given unrestricted supplies, has not become vaster. The energy has run through us instead of accumulating in us. When we project our evolution onto the stars, we ourselves may be a pinpoint. The fulcrum that moves the world may be atomic” (p. 18).
Continuing this same thought he writes, “The Force, then, is ceasing to work upon man because it can now work through him. He has become its medium rather than its material. Through him it stretches out to an intenser evolution. Cumulative speed is gained. Still it is intense only in comparison with anatomical advance” (pp. 23-24). The older idea of evolution conceived the process as taking place in a nature “red in tooth and claw,” in which the hand of every man is raised against his brother. This element cannot be ignored in assessing our total life, but it must be help in mind that, “Man has had his evolution projected onto a field which he can establish only in company with this fellows” (p. 22). But even so, Heard writes, “Life needs stimulation more than nourishment, prefers difficulties to indifference, is surer of itself in experiment than in routine” (p. 43).
Narcissus contains the germs of many of the ideas developed at much greater length in subsequent volumes by Heard. His first major book appeared in 1929 entitled The Ascent of Humanity: An Essay of the Evolution of Civilization from Group Consciousness through Individuality to Superconsciousness (Harcourt, Brace). This lengthy synthesis of history and science—which was awarded the Hertz Prize by the British Academy—is a difficult book, primarily because the viewpoint itself is so novel. Most history is written as if people just like us, with similar outlook and emotions, responding about as we might respond to the various features of their environment, came marching down the corridors of time from the ancient world to the present. Mr. Heard’s thesis is that man himself has changed his aperture of awareness, and that history is a reflection of evolving human consciousness. The modern individual is self-conscious, but he is aware—the first individual in history to be aware—that his mind has a large substratum of the unconscious.
Primitive man was not the same creature as modern man. Early man was “united to the group (and undivided in himself) by the fact that the threshold which now, in all individuals, divides the conscious from the subconscious had not yet arisen” (pp. 14-15). Man’s present sense of intense individuality dawned with the Renaissance. It is marked in the individual by a fracture in the mind separating the conscious from the unconscious and in the group by a gap which sunders the individual from his fellows. It is Mr. Heard’s contention that these two breaches must be closed—if man is to be made whole and society kept from disintegrating—and that the only way to go about closing them is for man to advance in consciousness until he heals the breach within himself and, by the same process, is united with his fellows. If a man seriously undertakes this task he will be following out the course of his own evolutionary development.
Merely to state Mr. Heard’s thesis in The Ascent of Humanity is likely to cause more confusion than clarification. The entire book is an attempt to clarify and substantiate the point of view that, “The vastest change in man’s evolution has not been in his anatomy or his environment or his gear but in himself, in his consciousness itself—the fundamental term of experience and the last to be estimated. Beside this change all others in his condition have been no more than faint symptoms of the underlying revolution. Today for the first time, civilized self-conscious critical man is able to recognize a pre-individual condition, and the fact that he can so recognize it is evidence of an evolution in himself which has carried him whiter he can perceive that individuality is not final; that other states lie behind him in the past and may await him in the future” (p. 33). Mr. Heard surveys the evidence derived from studies of prehistoric man, contemporary primitive peoples, and child psychology, and concludes that, “Our power to recognize that earlier (pre-individual) condition was withheld from our immediate predecessors because of the intensity of their phase, their individuality, and so we calculate that it is because our individuality is become somewhat less intense, because we are opening again to a larger, less engrossed, less urgent awareness, that we are able to recognize its lower expression in all that extent of our ancestry that lies below the level of history, of civilization, and of self-consciousness” (p. 65).
Rev. Edmund A. Opitz's (1914-2006) biographical sketch is on the Foundation for Economic Education website. Essays by Gerald Heard and Rev. Opitz appeared in the 1956 book, The Kingdom Without God: Road's End for the Social Gospel.
The Barrie Family Trust is most grateful to Claudia Opitz and Elaine Opitz for their kind permission to republish excerpts from their father's article, The Philosophy of Gerald Heard: Highlights of His Writings 1924-1958 by Rev. Edmund A. Opitz, published privately on February 11, 1958.
"Mr. Heard’s religious philosophy thus grows naturally out of his scientific and historical researches... Man’s unique history, and indeed his very structure, orient him Godward."