A few weeks ago while perusing the clearance section of a nearby Half-Price Books, I came across a copy of Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D. The title of the book rang a bell; I recalled that Colin Wilson had made mention of this work several times in his illuminating The Occult and its sequel Beyond the Occult. I looked at the photograph of the author, saw the book was only three bucks, and decided to check it out.
And I am glad I did.
First off , the biography of Bucke is amazing. For a more complete account, click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Maurice_Bucke. But , in brief, Bucke was born in England, immigrated with his family to Canada, lost his parents at an early age, went to the United States to seek his fortune where he was attacked by Indians, survived (the sole survivor, no less) a horrible snowstorm that wiped out his mining party and cost him a foot and several digits, went back to Canada, became a medical doctor, went to Europe and mastered psychiatry, returned to Canada and oversaw an insane asylum where he instituted many progressive developments in the care for the mentally ill. Whew. And that was just his mainstream biography. His "mystical " biography began through his love of poetry, Walt Whitman being his primary guide. He could recite Whitman's Leaves of Grass verbatim from memory, as well as innumerable other works: truly, an amazing man with an amazing mind.
Cosmic Consciousness is the best known of his several works, and has been reprinted often since its first publication in 1901. The first part of the book lays out his theory in a very cogent and well researched manner. In its simplest form it is this: man's consciousness has evolved over the ages, from simple consciousness: the very basic awareness that all animals have of their immediate surroundings and needs, to self consciousness, when man became aware of himself, his place in the world, how to use reason and imagination, and the knowledge of the certainty of his own death, and lastly, cosmic consciousness, a state of awareness that has slowly been developing over the centuries, becoming more and more present as generations unfold. Cosmic consciousness is a sudden awareness that manifests itself in a revelatory manner to an individual , illuminating the wholeness of the universe as one enormous living and organic presence, bringing with it a great feeling of spiritual immortality, intellectual enlightenment, moral profundity, and shedding in that instant the fear of death, and the sense of sin.
The second part of the book is a rundown of the various historical figures that Bucke believed to have obtained cosmic consciousness, such as Jesus Christ, Gautama the Buddha, Mohammad, William Blake, and others , including, of course Walt Whitman. He uses the recorded words and deeds of these individuals to support his theory and breaks them down in a very interesting way.
Bucke makes his case in a very scientific manner. The theory has every potential to go off into mystical hocus pocus but it never does in Bucke's hands; he treats his subject with seriousness and sobriety. Still, the cumulative message about Cosmic Consciousness and its effect on humanity as it develops is profoundly optimistic and affirming.
The book came to me at a good time. I have been prowling around various religious, mythical, and philosophical works, and have been noticing a subtext in most of them that point to this very kind of unifying vision, all shown through the particular local vernacular of its source. I will post more on this later, but I believe that Bucke is correct, and the 109 years that have followed the publication of his book, with all the historical and technological upheavals that have occurred, show an intellectual and spiritual trend away away from the local "masks" of God, and a move towards a universal Spiritualism.