Growth Online

The Four Stages of Society's Evolution


by Roy Posner

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George Lucas, the famed movie director and writer of Star Wars series, was being interviewed by Bill Moyers. Both noted the great progress humanity had made since its inception. Moyers noted that if humanity started out at a 0, we were now at a 5 rating after all of these years of evolution, and were on our way to flower as a full 10. Lucas responded with "no, actually our potential is a million."

Society has developed through three overlapping stages -- physical, vital, and mental. Over the course of tens of thousands of years humanity has evolved from a society mainly concerned with the physical realities, such as our survival, a life of fear and threat from without, and the need for complete deference to authority; to a stage in which our individual vital needs and wants, including our desire to interact with others and expand and trade, come into their own; to the present emerging mental stage where understanding, knowledge, peace, freedom, democracy, the fulfillment and empowerment of the individual, the emergence of fast, complex organizations, and the extraordinary power of thought to shape our world for endless progress emerges. Beyond that is the spiritual stage of social evolution where mind is more fully developed to allow multi-sided awareness of truth, instead of the current limited capacity of mind, and where one connects with the spiritual Force that enable the ultimate flowering and transformation of life.

Let's then examine each of these stages.

Physical Stage
When humans first evolved on earth say 100,000 years ago, and in particular over the last 10,000 years, individuals were mostly focused on their very survival and existence; everything else was secondary. The atmosphere was one of physical and psychological insecurity. Threats were perceived everywhere -- from threats in nature to threats from other tribes or collectives. 

In this physical stage people's social awareness was limited to the tribe. To think and act outside of the tribe and tradition was considered treasonous. In other words, humans had a very limited sense of their own selves. They were beyond to the concerns and authority of the collective.

Vital Stage
Over time society, the collective, overcame these threats from nature, from the outside. Plus they began to develop better cohesion and unity within the collectives they were a part of. We began to master the basic productive operations of life, and we gained control of the physical forces around us. This enabled the emergence of a new vital human. Another way of saying this is that humanity organized themselves at a higher level in the physical stage, enabling a more expansive vital stage.

So what is this vital age? In this stage we see a willingness of people to engage others not of their own tribe or collective. We begin to see the beginnings of trade with other tribes, more interaction with others. This leads to the desire for more travel and exploration to expand trade and resources. Gradually there is an awakening that the individual can improve his own lot, and that he does not have to only focus on the concerns and needs of the collective. 

In this vital stage there is a broadening of the social interactions, of interchange with others. We could now begin to focus on our own individual self-interests. We could become prosperous and enjoy life. There was thus a vast expansion of vitality in the vital stage.

Where the physical stage of life was the culmination of an evolution that began 100,000 or so years ago, and formed more fully around 10,000 years ago, the vital stage has only been there around 500 years, roughly corresponding to the Renaissance and the centuries of exploration and discovery. In the last 100 years, and in particular the last 50, there has been the rapid emergence of the next stage of human development; the mental stage

Mental Stage
The first thing that we notice about the mental stage is that society begins to value the vast amount of accumulated knowledge of the past. In the modern era this knowledge base of the past began to be organized, codified, and then disseminated to the population. Information that was formerly unfocused and scattered is now distributed through systems of training and education. That in turn energizes individuals to further advancement in work, their careers. And then that in turn accelerates people's achievement in life, which we can see expressed in the vast developments in science, communications, and technology of recent years. 

Then through that rapidly expanding technology base, through exposure to the vast knowledge base presented in media, in the Internet, people become even more aware of what can be achieved. They become aware of possibilities for achievement; and see that others are doing it. That in turn leads to an era of ever rising expectations; people want and demand more in their own lives. 

It's actually been going on for centuries. Freedom, democracy are unstoppable forces that have emerged in the last century or two. These are products of the rationality of the mental age; an acknowledgement of the needs for these essential values in life. Now that same freedom is extending further as we each as individuals become aware of our ability to fulfill our individual dreams, our own self-fulfillment and human potential. 

So in this emerging mental stage that we have now begun to enter, with its possibilities of freedom, initiative, and self-determinism, we are very far from the determinism of the physical stage, where we deferred to the collective will to survive.

The quantification and dispersion of accumulated knowledge, the qualitative improvements in life in areas such as education and social benefits, the demand and ability to fulfill one's potential, the awareness and concern for the plight of others, the demand of the individual to be involved in the decisions of the collective, and the emerging political and social freedom are some of the indicators of the mental stage of social evolution.

Spiritual Stage
Then there is a spiritual stage beyond the mental. That is obviously further out. As we begin to emerge through the mental stage, we perceive that even the power of mind cannot be the ultimate salvation for humanity; for after all the faculties of mind as we have said are decidedly limited. So there begins to develop a longing for a unity of awareness and perception that mind cannot hold; an openness to greater truths, greater insights, spiritual knowledge and vision. To an understanding that our individual will, the collective will, and the Divine will are all bound together. 

At some point individuals who have experienced the inner life of the spirit, who have begun to transform themselves to a higher physical, vital, and physical existence, who have experience the spirit in action in life, who have felt and opened themselves to a greater spiritual power to effect life, become the harbingers of a new collective life, a new divine life on earth. This is the vision that Sri Aurobindo envisioned beyond the mental stage that we are only just emerging into just now.



Evolutionary movement upward from
the physical to the vital to the mental
to the spiritual stages


 -For additional Growth Online thoughts on the emerging stages of society, click here.

-To review more detailed information on this topic of The Four Stages of Social Evolution, please click here. (ICPD)

-To learn about the course of human evolution, which describes how the individual human grows and develops amongst the same physical, vital, mental, and spiritual aspects of his being, click here.

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