Qualitative Social Development

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Written by Nash Popovic

We propose that societies develop through stages akin to those of individual development[1]. After all, any society consists of individuals (although, of course, it cannot be reduced to them), so some parallels can be expected.
The concept of stages has lost traction though, not so much because of empirical data (that are open to various interpretations), but mainly because of two concerns: determinism and inequality. So, we should address them first.

Determinism – until the early 20th century, social determinism was popular among both idealists (e.g. Hegel) and materialists (e.g. Marx). Later on, however, the idea that there is a particular trajectory of social development was largely abandoned (with the notable exception of Teilhard de Chardin). One reason for this was a teleological overtone of those theories that was a mismatch for the dominant zeitgeist. The other more important reason was that social determinism didn’t go very well with human freedom. If global social processes were determined, this could mean that historical events and even individuals themselves are also determined – not leaving much room for choice and free will (the basis of political and legal systems in most of the world). This concern is not warranted though. Recognising that there is a particular trajectory of social development (at least up to a point, which will be clarified below) does not imply inevitability of any social event and can be compatible with individual choices. It only means that a society and humankind as a whole may sooner or later, in one way or another, reach a certain stage of development (that is, if that society or humankind does not perish beforehand). To repeat the above analogy, the fact that every person (who lives long enough) goes through the stage of adolescence does not determine all their choices. So as in quantum physics, global patterns can be discerned, but no single event can be claimed to be pre-determined. Still, social processes and relations between them may be favourable to some events and individuals. In other words, if the circumstances are right, some potentials are allowed to be realised. For example, Napoleon and Kutuzov (the Russian general who first defeated Napoleon) became prominent not because they were creating history, but because the flow of history at that particular moment allowed them to surface. If they had not been there, somebody else would have taken their roles, which would perhaps have altered particular events and their quality, but the underlying dynamic of social processes in Europe at that time would still have played out in one way or another. Individuals are important for history: they may speed up or slow down the process, and even affect its direction, but they are not irreplaceable. The same applies to societies. If one society does not take a particular step, another will. So, to what extent may the purpose of life and the Intent be deterministic? The Intent seems to operate in accord with the principle of minimal interference. It only sets the boundaries to the process without taking sides. Consistently siding, for example, with whatever we think is good, would be unhelpful for developing agency – people would choose to be good because it pays off, which would reduce the whole process to conditioning. So even if occasional interferences do occur, they must be rare and their source could never be conclusive.

Inequality – there is a reasonable worry (if judging by the past) that the concept of stages could be used to legitimise the claim that some societies are superior to others. Such a claim is, however, groundless. To make again a parallel with students, a second year student is not a superior human being to a first year student. They may even be less intelligent or a worse scholar than the latter (and even if they were not, it could not justify using the term superior – there is more to being a human than being a good student). The same applies to societies. A stage of development does not make them superior or inferior. In fact, more advanced societies are potentially more destructive, so a further stage only implies a greater responsibility. By the same token, being at an early stage of development does not imply being primitive. There are primitive individuals and groups at every stage, including the stage of transcendence (as they may be poor in quantitative development). Furthermore, humankind may be better grounded if there are cultures at all stages (so attempting to force or coerce societies into change would be a mistake). Those that have remained at one stage for a long time are likely to have acquired some knowledge and wisdom that other societies have lost (or never had). For example, the capacity for spatial orientation in some indigenous people compelled Howard Gardner, the creator of the multiple intelligences theory, to add spatial intelligence to the list.

We have hopefully demonstrated that the above concerns are not intrinsic to the concept of stages of social development. However, they do highlight possible pitfalls if this notion is not correctly understood. To minimise such misunderstandings, a few further clarifications need to be made:

  • The stages of social development cannot be associated with stable features inherent in the group. Evidence clearly shows that such a link does not exist. Any attempt to relate social development to biological (genetic) or geographical factors is nothing more than a crude attempt at reductionism. Those who try to make connections between development and race or nationality, for example, demonstrate a strong need for simplicity and generalisation that only reveals their own limited degree of development. All peoples have a brain of sufficient capacity and other potentials to achieve any stage. If there are some minor chemical and structural differences between groups, they may, perhaps, affect the path of development, but not its stage. Any group can progress, stagnate, and regress, even if the physical features associated with a group remain relatively stable. Of course, some circumstances and living conditions may not be favourable for development (e.g. harsh conditions that do not allow any spare time for development), but this is a separate issue.
  • Although the average stage of the individuals in a society and the developmental stage of that society may coincide, these two cannot be equated. The dominant social pattern at that moment is what matters. The current stage of a particular group can perhaps say something about the majority or else a powerful / influential minority, but nothing about an individual from that group, who can be at any stage. It is likely that within any reasonably large society, there are individuals at all stages.
  • Stages may provide a platform, an opportunity for progress, but moving to further stages does not guarantee progress. Quantitative development, as discussed earlier, also plays a role in this respect.

So how do societies change? There are many factors that can contribute to a jump to a different stage, but this cannot happen without accumulated ‘pressure’ from the inside. A society changes when the aggregate power of those who want a change becomes greater than the aggregate power of those who don’t. This skews the balance in favour of conservativism, because there is always a number of possible changes (some progressive, some regressive, and some sidewise) so the power of those who want to make a change is rarely aggregated. However, the conservative side has something that works against them too. We have an intrinsic drive to grow and develop and everything has to change, so not changing eventually becomes self-defeating. As in biological evolution, the heralds of a change may for a long time exist at the social margins (an equivalent of environmental niches), slowly accumulating power until they get a chance to take over.

As this part is about the process, we will now attempt to describe the stages from a historical perspective. Each stage has its cross-cultural characteristics in every area of social life (religion, social and economic organisation, art, the interpretation of time, personality constructs, etc.). The emphasis here will be on religion though, since it has fewer exceptions and is clearer in this respect than other areas (possibly because religion usually has a strong grip on society and affects other areas). We should point out, however, that religions are not formative, but provide a framework for the stages. They are taken as an example of social organisation that structures a dominant process. What follows though is no more than an outline. Its only purpose is to illustrate a broad tendency, and it is by no means an attempt to provide even a remotely comprehensive account of the historical dynamic. It would be easy to find many aberrations and exceptions, but these should not cloud the view of an overall trend emerging from history.


The physical stage

This stage is sometimes called ‘pre-historical’ because there are no written records, but it was by far the longest period of human history. According to archaeologists, modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, and for most of that time we were at this stage. The population had grown remarkably and managed to spread to all continents (except Antarctica). Societies consisted of ‘hunter-gatherer’ communities, usually organised in relatively small groups. Physical determinants (including the physical environment) and the first ring were dominant. The writer J. N. Sansonese notes that ‘the more ancient the myth, the more often do parts of the human body play an explicit role in the myth’ (1994, p.7). Elements of the physical world were worshipped: celestial objects (the Sun, Moon), the natural forces, as well as animals and plants that often had supernatural powers. Deities were immanent – sharing more or less the same space with humans (they became distant only gradually). The after-death life too was inextricably fused with physical reality. Rites or rituals were based on the physical and instinctual (e.g. rhythmic and repetitive sound and movement). Magic was a major way of controlling and learning about the world. An abstract notion of time did not exist. The present, rather than the past or the future, was dominant. A lack of further rings, though, can facilitate intuitive insights and transpersonal experiences. We can be fairly certain that spirituality in some form already existed in this period. This is quite clear from amazing cave paintings. Their art was all about nature (mostly animals) and may have had a practical function, but many pieces go way beyond attempts to faithfully capture external reality – there is much more to it.

All the above indicates that there was not such a clear cut distinction as nowadays between the subject and the object (the mental and the physical world), as well as between material and non-material reality. Perhaps not surprisingly, the human psyche was in relative harmony with the environment. How this stage remained in the collective memory is encapsulated in the story of Eden before ‘the fall’ and other similar myths[2]. This is not to say that the physical stage should be idealised. As any other stage, this one had its dark side too (there is some evidence of bodily mutilation, human sacrifice and cannibalism). In any case, with such large brains, our ancestors could not stay there forever. Challenges also increased at least in some parts of the world, so about 50-40,000 years ago, some groups embarked on a long historical journey that would change everything.


[1] This does not mean that individual and social development can be equated (tables have legs and animals have legs, but this is not to say that they are the same).
[2] Unfortunately, we cannot rely on memory traces of past lives from that period because there is as yet no community of transpersonal researchers who could verify such claims. For now, we can only say that despite many dangers and pains, there was also unparalleled sense of happiness and fulfilment in that period.


The transition between the physical and the conventional stage

Social development had already greatly advanced in this period. Its outset can be linked to the appearance of horticultural farming. Horticulture started as simple gardening, supplementary to hunting and gathering. It used relatively crude technology and was less efficient than agriculture. Nevertheless, this mode of production had important social implications.

It became possible to establish permanent settlements (hunters and gatherers usually had to follow the food). The villages were initially small, some no larger than the temporary ones of hunters and gatherers. However, because the soil would quickly get exhausted, new land had to be found, sometimes at the expense of neighbours, which in more populated regions greatly increased the chances of conflict. Large-scale warfare was not usual though, probably because there was no political or other unifying force that would amass a sufficient number of individuals for such endeavours. Horticulturalists had more material goods than most hunter-gatherers due to the greater stability of their settlements, with the implication that divisions on the basis of wealth started to emerge. However, this was a less physically demanding way of production than agriculture, so women were still able to work in the fields alongside men, resulting in greater equality between the genders. Tracing one’s ancestors through the mother’s lineage has its roots in such societies. Cults of goddesses rather than male dominated pantheons were widespread (this trend continued through the worship of Inanna in Sumer, and Ishtar in Assyria and Babylonia).

Nevertheless, in many respects the religion of horticultural people resembled that of the hunter-gatherers. Shamans, rites of passage, human sacrifices, animism (worship of plants or animals believed to be ancestral to clans or lineages) were common. In time, religions became more and more anthropomorphised though: deities were often represented in a half human, half animal form (this legacy can be found in as diverse civilisations as the Egyptian and Olmec). Among horticultural peoples with chiefdoms, the chief’s remote ancestors, the founders of the lineage, eventually became the most important gods. More recent or less significant ancestors were accorded a lesser status. The result was a hierarchy of gods moving religions in the direction of fully-fledged polytheism.

This transition lasted for millennia but eventually led (in many parts of the world) to a qualitative jump that we now call ‘civilisation’ (consisting, of course, of many civilisations). They were characterised by larger settlements and groups than in previous periods, but there is more to it. Social elements very often became more important than the physical.

The conventional stage

Roughly speaking, this stage started around 6,000 B.C.E.[3] with agricultural farming that allowed the establishment of relatively large settlements. All the ancient civilisations were founded in this period (Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Ancient Indian, Chinese, and European). Most importantly, writing appeared. Although it had at first a mainly practical purpose, the value of writing for establishing and perpetuating social constructs can hardly be overestimated. Social determination was dominant, based on customs, conventions, duty (e.g. dharma in Hinduism), shame, reputation and glory. Personality was externally defined (by name, social position or heredity). The overriding psychological faculty was affect (e.g. fear of punishment), rather than instincts or thinking (even though the first philosophies appeared at that time too). A hierarchical differentiation between societies and within a society was fully established (slave, caste and feudal systems). This can easily be seen as a step backwards, but the previous stage should not be idealised. Besides, however repugnant such a move may seem nowadays, it did bring some advantages at the time: it enabled social organisation on a larger scale, the undertaking of long term projects, and it created free time (at least for some) that could be devoted to activities that did not have an immediate practical purpose.

This stage was characterised by polytheistic religions that reflected the socio-political organisation (as practiced by early Hindus, the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Vikings, and number of Far East cultures). Religion was based on cults and rituals that were more elaborate and ceremonial than the rites in the previous stage. Observance and procedures were paramount. Mythology replaced magic. The separation of material and non-material realities increased in favour of the former. For example, the after-death world was inferior, a shadow of this reality. Fate and superstition regulated daily life (as evident from the Greek narratives, for example). Art had a predominantly social function – glorification of heroes, leaders or victories. Time, in terms of the process, was perceived as cyclical (based on the seasons, vital for agriculture). The reference point was the past, rather than the future. Consequently, the ethos was essentially conservative: it valued the authority of ancestral custom. Innovation was regarded as dangerous and subversive: the Romans, for instance, were highly suspicious of movements that would challenge a tradition even if it was not their own (which is why they persecuted the early Christians). Such attitudes still exist today: for example, many people attend religious services not so much because of an interest in theological or even spiritual aspects of their religion, but because they find comfort and security in the rituals that link them to the past.

[3] B.C.E. (before common era) is used instead of B.C.

The transition between the conventional and the individual stage

Most of documented history belongs to this period. Its beginning can be traced back to the 6th century B.C.E. Karen Armstrong, who can be credited for providing a balanced, informative and yet accessible account of the history of monotheism, describes this time as follows:

All the chief civilisations developed along parallel lines, even when there was no commercial contacts (as between China and the European area). There was a new prosperity that led to the rise of a merchant class. Power was shifting from king and priest, temple and palace, to the market place. The new wealth led to intellectual and cultural florescence and also to the development of the individual conscience. (1993, p.36)

It seems that within a relatively short time, the foundations of many major world’s cultures were laid (which can be compared, in its magnitude, to the Cambrian explosion in biological evolution). K’ung-Fu-tzu and Lao-tzu developed their teachings in China (known as Confucianism and Taoism, respectively). In India, Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism, and Mahavira Jina, an early rebel against the caste system, founded Jainism. In the Middle East, Zoroaster created the first monotheistic religion (or, at least, it rose to prominence at that time). The greatest of the Hebrew prophets, Deutero-Isaiah appeared, and (while in Babylonian captivity) the Jews transcribed and compiled the Torah, the foundation of the Old Testament. This move towards belief in a single spiritual reality coincided with the search of Greek thinkers for a single principle to explain the material world. This was the start of classical philosophy, with the three Milesian ‘natural philosophers’, Anaximenes, Anaximander and Thales (and a little later Pythagoras). The evidence is sketchy, but a ‘paradigm shift’ may have occurred at that time in central America too (the first writing system used by Zapotecs and the large Mayan temple-pyramids came from that period)[4].

Not all of them, however, chose the same direction. In fact, practically every conceivable path was attempted. For example, it looks like the pre-Columbian civilisations of Central America tried to reach straight for a kind of transcendence. This can be recognised in the fact that they had highly sophisticated art, architecture and astronomy – but not technology, which remained on the stone-age level. They did not have metallurgy or use wheels (although they knew how to make them – for toys). Physical existence was secondary and, perhaps not surprisingly, (self) sacrifice became prominent. This had disastrous consequences when the content and meaning of such practices were lost and only a husk (a ritual) remained – as later on with the Aztecs, leading to an obsession with sacrificing others on a massive scale. The other main directions can be linked to three dimensions of development (see p.223). Buddhism focused mainly on the experience (particularly how to free oneself from suffering) and gave us experience-based practices such as mindfulness. It was a truly rebellious doctrine that denied the existence of the One (although acknowledging other, lesser deities), the self (anatta doctrine), and universal purpose. The aim was to break out of the cycle of life and death (samsara) that is the cause of suffering, and end in a kind of undifferentiated state, similar to the state from which life came. In the same period, Confucianism concentrated on the development of self-control (the agency applied to oneself), in order to provide social harmony and stability.

The occidental cultures, spreading from the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe, favoured thinking and discourse, which appeared to be the most conducive to this transition as it was more open to change. This is not to say that other civilisations did not pay attention and contribute to the advancement of intellect (nor that occidental cultures completely neglected experience and intent). Science and technology thrived in India and China. The decimal numerical system and Arabic numbers, commonly used nowadays, were Indian inventions (passed on by Arabs). The conceptualisation of zero, accepted in Europe only in the 15th century, is also attributed to India. The Chinese were using paper, gunpowder (mostly for fireworks) and print long before Europeans. However, the West created relatively coherent frameworks, which allowed the assimilation of invaders and integration of disparate groups, while the affinity towards discourse accelerated the process. In comparison, Buddhism, for instance, with its emphasis on experience and the inner world, managed to ascend to the status of an official doctrine and act as the means of social organisation only for a brief period (during the reign of King Asoka), then Hinduism took over again. Buddhism is nowadays practically wiped out in India and is the state religion in varied forms only in a few South East Asian countries and Tibet, after being heavily modified by the indigenous cultures. Confucianism produced a fortified culture (occasionally punctuated by invasions and rebellions), which contributed to stability but perhaps at the expense of the social evolution. For example, although a Chinese fleet of 63 ships sailed as far as Africa in the 15th century, China remained relatively isolated (but tolerant, allowing foreigners to build their churches, temples and mosques).


For these reasons, in an attempt to summarise some general characteristics of this transition period, the focus will be mainly on the occidental culture. This by no means implies its superiority (in fact, as the above indicates, some dimensions may have been more developed elsewhere). However, for better or worse, the occidental culture reached the individual stage and has been the most influential ever since. The Americas and Australia are practically its extensions. The political system in China is based on the ideology of a German philosopher, and its legacy in Africa and India is ubiquitous from politics to sport. One of the reasons for this is arguably that the information dimension has a greater potential for practical use. It encourages innovation, exploration, discovery and interest in the new, which lead to cross-cultural fertilisation. Thinking, having gradually become a dominant faculty, was conducive to the development of science (culminating in the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century). It also led to the development of philosophy. Philosophy, in turn, enabled freedom from custom and convention. In the view of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, it promised to ‘create a community of beings who can take charge of their own life story and their own thought’ – a community, in other words, of autonomous individuals (Jenkins, 2002, p.17).

Personality and with it personal responsibility (epitomised in equality before the law) emerged, and guilt took over from shame:

The ‘old commitment’ in more stable, traditional cultures depended on maintaining a role in relationships, putting the good of the group above the good of the self, and avoiding punishment from the group for deviating from social expectations. The ‘new commitment’ depends more on the individual’s decision-making about a given relationship… [it] is experienced more by the individual as coming from within and not from societal pressure. (Lund, 1991, p.213)

Consequently, the individual became important. Sociologist Durkheim claims that individuality was not prized and the individual, in a certain sense, did not exist in traditional cultures; only with the emergence of modern societies and, more particularly, with the division of labour, did it become the focus of attention (in Giddens, 1991, p.75). In fact, the major changes in this period were usually initiated by an individual standing against society and social norms: Socrates is one of the first examples, but this trend continued with Jesus, Mohammad, Copernicus, Bruno, Luther, Nietzsche and Marx. What they all have in common is a move from action that is prescribed to action by choice.

This shift towards the personal (inner, psychological life) is also reflected in art. Greek dramas, for example, do not have personal conflicts (arguably, the only exception can be found in Agamemnon when Cassandra, a king’s lover and slave, predicts that she will be killed if she enters the house, hesitates for a moment and turns back, but nevertheless enters out of duty). On the other hand, great dramas from the later periods are dominated by personal conflicts and dilemmas (e.g. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Ibsen’s A Doll’s House). Epics are another example. For Milton (in comparison to Homer) true epic action occurs in the mind (where, when and how we make decisions). Joyce takes it to an extreme in Ulysses – rejecting any structure – it is an epic about events of the human psyche, not external events.

In religion, the whole period is marked by the gradual ascendancy of monotheism over polytheism – an important step towards the individual stage. Armstrong (1993, p.242) writes:

The personal god has helped monotheists to value the sacred and inalienable rights of the individual and to cultivate an appreciation of human personality.

It is suggestive that even in strictly polytheistic societies, many individuals whose own development superseded the conventional stage had reached this point. For instance, in Ancient Greece, a number of great thinkers and artists including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had monotheistic tendencies. Xenophanes, for example, wrote:

One god, alone among gods and alone among men, is the greatest,
Neither in body does he nor in mind resemble the mortals.
Always in one place he abides: he never is moving;
Nor is it fitting for him to change now hereto, now thereto.
Effortless he moves the world by thought and intention.
All of him is sight; all is knowing; and all is hearing.

Monotheism is not only about reducing the number of gods, it is a qualitative shift. Mythology is gradually replaced with theology. Religious belief (as an internal process) increasingly becomes more important than religious observance or sacrifice (as external processes). God comes to be more and more distant and less interfering (which is to be expected with the increase of independence). The punishment and reward take place after death, so that reality is split in two (Heaven and Hell) to accommodate for choice and personal responsibility. Significantly, the after-death world was no longer a mere shadow of the material world, but became an aim, something to look forward to, so the future became more important than the present. Time is starting to be seen in more linear terms as an arrow, and the future is contemplated not as a cyclical repetition, but something different (the book of Daniel being possibly the first written example).

This transition had lasted for more than two millennia, until what we call modernity (roughly the 18th century), and involved many steps, which can be illustrated by the development of monotheism through various religions. Needless to say, we do not attempt here to provide an overview of religions. We try to discern a thread (among many threads) that goes through all of them. They are hugely different, but there is little doubt that they built on each other, allowing for a cumulative growth.

Zoroastrianism is arguably the first major monotheistic religion. Many of its elements: a battle between good and evil, beneficent angels, immortality of the soul, a saviour born of a virgin, Heaven and Hell, and the final judgement, were later incorporated into other ones (the Jews were exposed to Zoroastrianism during their exile in Babylonia). Its essentially dualistic nature (Good and Evil) and the emphasis of its ethics on human free will contributed to the shift from the prescribed order of the conventional stage to individual responsibility. Good thoughts and conduct mattered rather than sacrifice. Another characteristic of the individual stage, besides choice and responsibility, was germinated too: greater equality (including, up to a point, the equality of women). However, the conventional stage was still very strong. Zoroastrianism had many polytheistic elements, even another creator responsible for evil in the world, and a host of other deities and semi-deities (six of which were especially prominent). As it is often the case with a herald of the new, Zoroastrianism was eclipsed relatively quickly and is today almost extinct. Another religion had to take the mantle.

Judaism had a profound effect on social development in that part of the world. It ‘provided for the first time a moral reference point which would help people to rebel against their rulers on the grounds of individual conscience’ (Brazier, 2001, p.30). Displacement of the Jewish tribes contributed to the sense of further psychological separation from the divine and the purpose. The Hebrew kaddosh means otherness, a radical separation. Seraphim (high ranking angels) were crying ‘Yahweh is other! Other! Other!’ This facilitated a turn towards self-reflection and valuing debate and freedom of thought – necessary steps for individuation. The deed became more important than the creed (at least in some quarters). Israelites were very reluctant, though, to give up the cult of other gods. In fact, it is difficult to situate The Old Testament within a purely monotheistic framework. Although there is only one creator, Heaven seems to be inhabited by other gods (elohim) and supernatural beings – angels and archangels helping God, Satan with whom God makes a wager, even a goddess (Asherah). The very idea of the covenant, in fact, ‘only made sense in a polytheistic setting. The Israelites did not believe that Yahweh, the God of Sinai, was the only God, but promised, in their covenant, that they would ignore all the other deities and worship him alone. It is very difficult to find a single monotheistic statement in the whole of the Pentateuch. Even the Ten Commandments delivered on Mount Sinai take the existence of other gods for granted…’ (Armstrong, 1993, p.31). The social stage, that was still prevalent, combined with the social circumstances, led to a limited individualisation within the nation (a phenomenon that has recurred throughout history, as in 19th century Europe). However, another religion, born in the margins of Judaism, during the Roman occupation, spread way beyond one nation.

Early Christianity was a further move towards the personal stage[5]. Christianity made the person the centre of the religious life in a way that was unique in the history of religion: it took the personalism inherent in Judaism to an extreme. Religion is no longer identified with a particular group of people or nation. It becomes a question of personal choice. The essential message of Christianity is that ‘God shows Himself in the freedom of individual human action… Without the freedom, and the historical development of the human to which it gives rise, there would be no God’ (McMullin, 1987, p.78). An individual became the image of God. The internalisation of sin (that replaced sacrifice) led to taking the inner world and self-reflection seriously. Personal psychology became important. Augustine (and later on Bonaventure and others) urged introspection, descending into the depths of oneself as a way of discovering God.

Of course, the conventional stage was still powerful in that period, reflected in various polytheistic tendencies. Everybody assumed that there were many otherworldly beings. St Paul, for example, referred to Thrones, Dominions, Sovereignties and Powers. These invisible forces were believed to be the ancient gods that were intermediaries between humans and the One. Gnostics also believed in an array of supernatural entities. In Eastern Europe, polytheistic elements were incorporated in the form of saints that are worshipped even nowadays. The most important of such elements though was tritheism: the belief that there are three emanations of God: Father, Son and Spirit. In the Orthodox church, where the conventional stage had a stronger hold, the idea of the trinity was central. The Greeks always started with the three hypostases, while the West began with the notion of God’s unity and then considered the three entities within that unity. This was also reflected in church organisation. While the Eastern church has several patriarchs who are supposed to be equals, the Catholic church had one person, the Pope, at the top. In any society the priesthood had a prominent role, but never before was so much power concentrated in the hands of one man, who was in most cases even above kings. This had a uniting effect in otherwise divided Europe. Still, particularly in time of crises or decline, the West would retreat to the (safer) conventional stage reflected in the resurfacing of polytheistic elements. Armstrong writes that ‘soldier saints like St George, St Mercury and St Demetrious figured more than God in first crusaders’ piety and, in practice, differed little from pagan deities’ (1993, p.229). This trend continued. During the 14th and 15th centuries, people in Europe were more and more making other human beings the centre of their spiritual life. The medieval cult of Mary and of the saints increased alongside the devotion to Jesus the man. Even nowadays in some Catholic societies saints or the cult of Mary dominate. However, in the middle of all this (the 7th century) another religion made an appearance. Its phenomenal success can be partly credited to the adoption of more rigorous monotheism.

Islam: monotheism was adopted in the Arabic world as a unifying force: ‘Muhammad knew that monotheism was inimical to tribalism: a single deity who was the focus of all worship would integrate society as well as the individual’ (ibid., p.175). Islam succeeded remarkably in that and became another integral step towards the individual stage of social development. Several factors contributed to this. The Koran was written in Arabic, therefore directly accessible to all literate people (at that time, the Bible was still only in Latin or Greek that very few could read and understand). There was no priesthood, sanctified intermediaries. Religion became more about the personal relationship with God and personal responsibility. While Christianity of that period attempted to wipe out free-thinkers and non-conformists (as in the case of the Cathars), in the Islamic world they were not persecuted. Rationality, which have come to the fore in the individual stage, became prominent in Islam. Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages had a decisive role in moving from Platonic intuitionism to Aristotelian rationalism, which greatly contributed to the development of the Western world and the rise of science. They used paper and printing, and introduced algebra and Arabic numbers (that originated in India). In the 9th and 10th centuries, more scientific discoveries were achieved in the Abbasid empire than in any previous period. Islam was, at that time, a step forward in social organisation too, which is reflected, for example, in a greater egalitarianism and equality of genders (the right to inheritance and divorce). This all correlated with the more strict monotheism (Tawhid) upon which entire Muslim’s  faith rests, as well as an increasing distance between God and humans: ‘In the Koran, al-Lah… is more impersonal than YHWH [Jehovah]. He lacks the pathos and passion of the biblical God’ (ibid., p.167).

Yet, even Islam, from the start, was not immune to polytheistic influences (as exemplified by the so-called ‘Satanic verses’). The decline of Muslim society (due to numerous invasions and a geographical shift of trade routes and economic power) inevitably led to a retreat to the conventional stage, and as a consequence, the re-surfacing of polytheistic elements. Muhammad and the members of his family gained the status of deities and even imams ‘were revered as avatars of the divine, each one has been “proof” of God’s presence on earth and, in some mysterious sense, made the divine incarnate in a human being’ (ibid., p.190). After its Golden Age, that ended roughly in the 14th century,  Islam was not so progressive any more, and a decisive shift towards the individual stage took place elsewhere.

Protestantism indicated another step towards the individual stage. Until the 4th century Christianity was still very much about society. After Augustine, it became more about the individual (saving his own soul), but he was still largely passive and that remained for centuries to come. With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century the individual became more active (had a duty to be active) in shaping his destiny. This was accompanied by strengthening monotheism. Protestant reformers (and Catholic too) insisted on turning away from saints and angels and focusing on God alone.

In 16th century Europe Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and call for education for all resulted in the democratisation of religion and a heightened sense of individualism. Shortly after, Calvin managed to transform society on a small scale (in Geneva), so people started to believe that they could make a difference in this world. Calvinist predestination for salvation may seem on first sight to remove choice but, in fact, it furthered individuation – social control became harder with the belief that one’s thoughts and behaviour do not determine the final outcome. By the end of the 16th century Christianity was fragmented into many groups, so religion became more than ever a question of choice. Moreover, ‘instead of expressing their faith in external, collective ways, the people of Europe were beginning to explore the more interior consequences of religion’ (ibid., p.318). The cornerstone of modern philosophy, Descartes, urged a turn within, self-reflection being the only reliable method to cognise reality. Individualism and autonomy that sprang from the Cartesian method were to become the central characteristic of the Western mentality. When introducing what is now known as Pascal’s wager, Pascal ‘was the first modern’ (ibid., p.343), conceding that a belief in God was a matter of personal choice. In the 17th and 18th centuries Deism emerged as an attempt to reconcile religion with reason. Nothing was left except an impersonal God, who does not interfere with human affairs and could be discovered only by one’s own efforts. This was only one step away from discarding God all together, which was yet to come.

All the above prepared the ground for a radical break with the past and a turn towards the future. While traditional societies resisted innovation and change, a new feeling that people are in charge of their own affairs provided fertile ground for embracing novelty and innovation. The idea that people forge their own destinies was perfectly aligned with the emergence of a new economic system – capitalism – that glorified work and private enterprise, and favoured competition over cooperation. Reformed religion did play a part and left its mark in all that. As Max Weber famously suggested, it might not be an accident that capitalism first developed in Protestant countries. Still, the further secularisation of the society was inevitable.

[4] It is not clear what was happening at that time in Sub-Saharan Africa as there are no written records (writing may have appeared, but if perishable materials have been used, we wouldn’t know) . We know though that the Sao civilization, which flourished in Middle Africa for almost two millennia, was founded in the 6th century BCE. However, it is possible that many cultures emphasised quantitative development rather than a qualitative change (reflected, for example, in the achievements of the Bantu people in coping with disease, climate and topography).
[5] Although nominally polytheistic, the Roman Empire, within which Christianity developed, contributed to this shift. The winning of individualistic values over collectivistic ones was signalled by Caesar’s abolition of the Roman republic just a half of century before Christianity (the reason for doing it: his personal worth).

The Individual Stage

There is no way of specifying precisely when the transition finished and the individual stage started in earnest, as this very much depends on the geographical location. However, most scholars would agree that a monumental shift (known as the Enlightenment) took place in the 18th century, with the central tenets of individual liberty and the rights of individuals. The idea of progress also became dominant at that time: the previous stage was looking for guidance in the past; this one made a deliberate break with the past and institutionalised change. The development of science and technological innovations brought new optimism, and manufacturing and merchandise became the leading economic forces. A belief that science brought the demise of the old religion is not completely accurate, though. Most scientists (including Newton, who is considered the originator of the mechanistic view of the world) were spiritual or religious. According to physicist and theologian Stanley Jaki (1970), mechanistic science arose in Europe as an outgrowth of the development of religious outlook, where God was becoming steadily more and more removed from the material world. In fact, religion continued to matter till this day (most people still consider themselves belonging to a religion). However, religion does not have (except in a few cases) such a great power to shape society as it had in the past. This mantle was passed to secularism.

Indeed, the individual stage has been fully realised in secular societies dominated by materialism. Materialism and atheism have a long history, but they really took hold in the 19th century. Philosopher Nietzsche (among others) can be seen as its prophet. As suggested, Zoroaster started the shift towards the individual stage. Appropriately, Nietzsche used his character to herald the last step in the process, and chose to write in a form more suitable for religious rather than philosophical texts. Nietzsche was aware that he was endorsing a new religion that dispensed with God’s image. Socrates and Jesus were wrestling with the establishment and died at the hands of the establishment, while Nietzsche, consistent with this stage, was wrestling with himself and, in a way, created his own demise (syphilis and madness). In any case, new self-reliance led many people to reject the whole idea of God who reduces them to the state of a dependant.

A transcendent being was replaced with self-transcendence – an attempt to overcome human nature (Übermensch) by focusing on one’s ego. The cult of personality replaced other cults. Observance was replaced with self-observance, and confession with psychotherapy. Freud, one of the main contributors to this shift, encapsulates in his theory the conflict between a socially determined I (superego) and a physically determined I (id) that need to be negotiated by individuality (ego). It is not difficult to see this schema as the struggle for dominance of an aspect of personality that is an expression of the individual stage, with aspects linked to the conventional and physical stages. This, however, did not bring true freedom as hoped, but replaced the old forms of conditioning with ego conditioning – in a way, people became slaves to their own desires. As the father of public relations and a relative of Freud, Edward Bernays realised, sublimation of the ‘primitive drives’ (aggression and sex) and other tenets of Freudian theory could be used to manipulate the masses for commercial and political ends.

As religion, materialism was based on some sound insights, but in time it embellished them beyond recognition, and rather than adapting to reality and experience, it tried to fit them within its own framework (e.g. anything non-material was rejected a priori). In fact, materialist ideologies are not very different from religion (they do not have a deity, but some other religions too do not have a deity). Even some collective practices and sentiments (notably in societies that adopted dialectical materialism) strongly resemble religious rites. ‘The death of God’ really meant the death of an old form of religion, and the rise of a new one.

The disastrous consequences of receptivity to ideologies as substitutes for religion became apparent in the 20th century with Fascism and Stalinism. An obsession with power was nothing new (also, the unprecedented magnitude of destruction was due to technological advances, and was not reserved for these two). What was new in such cases is that they were a product of a belief that society can be engineered in accord with utopian images of the future. The reason why so many people were susceptible to these ideologies is that freedom and separation also brought a sense of isolation and anxiety. A parallel can be made with adolescents. In order to reach a certain level of autonomy and independence, they ‘abandon’ and even rebel against their parents – only to identify themselves with and conform to their peer group. Whole societies too, especially at times of economic or political downfall, are susceptible to that ‘fear of freedom’.

This is another reason (beside the reaction to religious oppression) why materialism was embraced. As described in many works of fiction and non-fiction (particularly of the existential orientation), life without ‘objective’ universal guidelines that God of religion used to provide made people feel bereft, exposed to the uncertainties of life and their own choices. Naturally, if they rejected the security that comes from above, they tried to find it in the solidity of matter. But reducing everything to matter has its consequences. As some religions, materialism also ends in its opposite[6]. A doctrine that had begun with the aim to humanise the individual led to dehumanising the world. Materialism reaches the other side of the subject-object spectrum. While at the beginning the external world was subjectivized, this time the subject becomes objectified (the mind, including subjective experiences and inclinations, is reduced to electro-chemical impulses in the brain). In the extreme, human beings and other life forms are considered to be just complex machines. However, this created a contradiction – at the very time when personal experiences and personal freedom were valued more than ever, the unique quality of being the subject as well as free will were denied.

Materialist philosophy and common sense went their separate ways, and the steady march of experimenting with newly gained individual freedom continued undeterred. It can be hardly a coincidence, for example, that nonconformity in such different fields as mathematics and music was reached around the same time, in the mid-20th century. Other areas of life were developing in the same direction. Parliamentary democracy, in which individuals have a greater role, became increasingly the dominant political system. Personal aims and achievements were highly valued. Philosophy was no longer concerned with producing grand systems but with the individual, while art embraced the function of personal expression (even art that commented on social events – such as Picasso’s Guernica). Unlike the conventional stage that imposed uniformity, at this stage morality was reduced to the no-harm principle (not hurting others). Spirituality, which was growing more and more separate from religion, also became highly personalised, as exemplified in the New Age movements. Greater orientation towards the personal, pluralism of values and truths, led to further social segmentation and an ensuing feeling of ‘loneliness in the crowd’.

All the above illustrates the major issue with this stage: it is unstable and, in effect, unsustainable. More of the same could only result in ending itself, which transpired in post-modernism. Not only religion, but philosophy, science and art, as they were known before, came to an end. Post-modernism attempted to clear the table, but it had nothing much to offer in return. As Professor Sam Kin (1991, p.110) puts it, ‘Without an organizing centre, post-modern man is lost, wandering in a wilderness of confusing plurality’. This could not last long. As an improvisation in jazz that wanders for a while, but eventually finds a resolution in a more stable tone or aria, this stage too seeks a resolution in a more stable societal tone. This renders a transition period unlikely or very brief[7], so we will address the transcendent stage next (as only one possible option – the instability of the individual stage makes the next step of social development highly unpredictable).

[6] Christianity had started with an ideal of love and ended up as one of the most aggressive and brutal religions, Islam had started with an egalitarian model, but in time has created highly unequal societies (including gender inequality).
[7] A comparison can be made again with music and musical tones. Between the tones G, A and H there are semitones (G sharp and A sharp). But between H and C (the last tone in octave) there is no semi-tone. The individual stage is like the tone H.

The Transcendent Stage

No society has yet reached this point. However, in the margins of all major societies there are groups that are laying the foundations for the transcendent stage, while still within an earlier one. We can try to extrapolate what such a society might look like on the basis of these groups, and also on the basis of the corresponding characteristics of individual development.


The main feature of such a society would be a turn towards the universal, a shared purpose (which may or may not be formulated as in this material). Some readers may be concerned that a reference to the universal would impose a limit to personal freedom and cultural diversity. In fact, operating within a mutually recognised (rather than imposed) larger framework, or a synthesis between freedom and necessity, doesn’t limit but can increase freedom beyond what we can imagine. In the same vein, recognising a common core, trans-cultural underlying humanity, would not undermine cultural differences. There is no reason why the prime achievement of the previous stage, the value and respect for individual freedom and existence, could not be preserved. However, its shadow, excessive individualistic tendencies, as well as nationalism and other forms of social segregation are to be transcended. So, competition would be balanced with cooperation on all levels (and in particular between societies), and the economic system would not be based on the exploitation of, but working with the environment and others, while taking into consideration long term goals and effects.

 The value of various approaches to knowledge and understanding (science, spirituality, philosophy and common sense) would be recognised too. For those at this stage, religion as well as materialistic ideologies would not be needed (the New Jerusalem does not have churches). Such frameworks would be eclipsed by (secular or theistic) spirituality as an exploration of relations between the human and the universal. These relations may differ substantially between individuals and groups, so certain diversity is anticipated in this respect. The image of God (as a social construct) would be transcended too, without denying the possibility of a universal agency. Art in such a society would find its new purpose – to express the timeless and catch a glimpse of infinity beyond the veil of our constructs, which no other social activity can do so well. All this would make these societies more permeable and fluid. While the temporal locus of the physical stage is the present, of the conventional stage the past, and of the individual stage the future, at this one they would be integrated. The social process is seen as a spiral, which is a combination of point time (characterising the physical stage), cyclical time (the conventional stage) and the arrow of time (the individual stage). However, as already mentioned, reaching this point is not guaranteed, so we will explore that spiral and its possible trajectories next.