The personal stage

Although it very much depends on the geographical location, it can be said that this stage started, in earnest, roughly in the mid 19th century. At that time, the idea of progress became dominant: the previous stages were looking for guidance in the past, while this one made a deliberate break with the past and institutionalised change. Science and technology became the leading economic forces. It is a mistaken belief, though, that science brought the demise of the old religion. After all, most scientists (including Newton, who is considered the originator of the mechanistic view of the world) were spiritual or religious. Quite the opposite, 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.

This stage is fully realised in secular societies dominated by materialist ideologies. Materialism can be considered a form of religion too (true, it does not have a deity, but some other religions, such as Buddhism, also do not have a deity). ‘The death of God' really means the death of an old form of religion, and the rise of a new one. What makes atheism a religion is that as other religions, it is based on a set of arbitrary beliefs, and is an attempt to conform reality and experience to this set of beliefs (the existence of non-material reality, for instance, is rejected a priori). Materialism should not be identified with humanism that has always existed (in parallel with religious attitudes). The difference is that a humanist may accept that non-material reality exists, but is not concerned with it. The focus of shis attention is this world (s/he may be dedicated, for example, to improving the living conditions of the poor). A materialist, on the other hand, as a starting premise, adheres to an ideological framework that rejects the possibility that non-material reality may exist. Although the roots of this new religion can be traced to the renaissance and enlightenment (and even earlier), it really took hold in the 19th century. Philosopher Nietzsche (among others) can be seen as its prophet. As already mentioned, Zoroaster started the shift towards the personal stage. Appropriately, Nietzsche used his character to herald the last step in this process, and chose to write in a form more suitable for religious rather than philosophical books. He was aware that he was endorsing a new religion that disposed of the image of God. Socrates and Jesus were fighting the establishment and died at the hands of the establishment, while Nietzsche, consistent with this stage and his philosophy, created his own demise (syphilis and madness).

Materialism replaced a transcendental being with self-transcendence, an attempt to overcome human nature (Übermensch) by focusing on the ego, or the third ring. Observance is replaced with self-observance. The cult of personality replaced other cults. Confession was replaced by psychotherapy. As personal responsibility is internalised (no punishment and reward), nothing happens after death. 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 through 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 third stage with the aspects linked to the second and first stages. This, however, did not bring freedom as hoped, but replaced the old forms of conditioning with ego conditioning - in a way, people became slaves to their own wants. 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 other ideologies, materialism also ends in its opposite[7]. A doctrine that had begun with the aim to humanise the individual, led to dehumanising the world. In a way, materialism reaches the opposite side of the spectrum. While at the beginning the external world was subjectivised, the subjective here became objectified (in some cases, rejecting even consciousness itself). In its extreme, human beings and other life forms are considered to be sophisticated machines, objects. This can be explained by fear of uncertainty and fluidity, and an attempt to find security in the solid matter. However, it created a contradiction, because at the time when personal freedom and personal responsibility were valued more than ever, the existence of subjects (and subjectivity as something unique) were denied.

The disastrous consequences of attempts to tailor destiny according to human-created ideologies (disregarding universal guidelines) became apparent in the 20th century with Fascism and Stalinism. Such an obsession with power has happened before and could happen at any time (the magnitude of destruction is the result of technological advances). The difference is that these ones were the result of a relatively new belief that society can be engineered in accord with utopian images of the future. The reason why so many people were susceptible to such ideologies is that freedom and separation also brought a sense of isolation and anxiety. Similarly, adolescents who need to reach a certain level of autonomy and independence in order to become responsible adults, ‘abandon' and even rebel against their parents, only to conform and identify themselves with their peer group. Whole societies, especially at times of economic downfall, are also susceptible to experiencing this ‘fear of freedom'.

All these extremes, however, generally failed and only slowed down, but did not stop the steady march of individual freedom. 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. After the World War II, parliamentary democracy, in which individuals have a greater role, became more and more the dominant political system. Personal aims and achievements were valued. Philosophy was not concerned any more with producing grand systems but with the individual, while art had the function of personal expression (even art that commented on social events). Unlike the conventional stage that imposed uniformity, the third stage individual morality was based on non-intrusion (not hurting others). Spirituality, that was growing more and more separate from religion, also became highly personalised, as exemplified in the New Age movements.

The major problem with this stage appeared to be instability. Its logical consequence is ending itself, which found its expression in post-modernism. Not only religion, but philosophy, science and art, as they were known before, came to en end. Post-modernism cleared the table, but it is an unsustainable position:

Without an organizing centre, post-modern man is lost, wandering in a wilderness of confusing plurality. But, paradoxically, being bereft of set moral landmarks, he is in a unique position to undertake a new journey. (Keen, 1991, p.110-111)

This resembles an improvisation in jazz (which is not only an expression of a musician's skills, but also shis individual freedom) that seeks a resolution at the end in a more stable tone or aria. The third stage also seeks a resolution in a more stable society, which renders a transition period unlikely (or very brief)[8]. Thus, the fourth stage will be addressed next.

  • [7]. Christianity had started with an ideal of love and ended up as one of the most aggressive religions, Islam had started with an egalitarian model, but in time has created highly unequal societies.
  • [8]. A further comparison with musical tones can be made. Between the tones G, A and H there are semitones (Gis and Ais). But between H and C there is no semi-tone. The third stage can be paralleled to the tone H.