Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness

Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. E.P. Dutton and Company, 1969. 340 pages.


The quasi-mystical psychological state known as cosmic consciousness is for Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D. the next (final?) step in the evolutionary development of the human mind.Four stages delineate such evolution: (a) perceptual mind, the acquisition of sense perceptions; (b) receptual mind, the acquisition of simple consciousness of the world (recepts = combinations of percepts); (c) conceptual mind, the acquisition of self-consciousness (concepts = named recepts); (d) intuitional mind, the acquisition of cosmic consciousness.Since cosmic consciousness is recognizable in recorded historical instances, claims Bucke, it “may be studied with no more difficulty than other natural phenomena” (16), which is precisely what Bucke does, describing the acquisition of cosmic consciousness in fourteen complete cases and numerous other partial, temporary and doubtful cases.Historical examples of cosmic consciousness stretch as far back in time as the historical Buddha, Lao Tzu, Socrates and Jesus, increasing in frequency as one approaches the present age, thereby leading Bucke to infer that cosmic consciousness would eventually be born in all humans at a very young age.He confidently concludes his work on such a note: “This new race is in act of being born from us, and in the near future it will occupy and possess the earth” (384). Elsewhere he proclaims cosmic consciousness “the savior of man.”

Bucke explicates cosmic consciousness under four main characteristics.First, cosmic consciousness is constituted by an intense, sudden experience of immersion in a flame or rose-colored cloud and a perception of an inner light.Secondly, it is accompanied by a state of “moral exaltation” (an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation and joyousness, and a sharpening of moral sensibilities).Thirdly, it is constituted by an intellectual enlightenment or illumination, the essential content of which concerns the understanding that the cosmos is a living spiritual presence, not dead matter.Finally, cosmic consciousness is accompanied by a sense of immortality and eternal life and a loss of fear of death and sin.While cosmic consciousness clearly appears to be a type of religious experience, Bucke is adamant about the fact that cosmic consciousness represents the “meltdown” of religion.Cosmic consciousness is tradition-less religion for all – without church, creed, scripture and ritual.Since cosmic consciousness is simply a new psychological faculty and the next step in human evolution, its appearance and continuation requires no religious tradition.

Not unsurprisingly Bucke himself claims to have had a personal experience of cosmic consciousness.In the introduction to Cosmic Consciousness Bucke recounts an experience that occurred in 1872 after an evening spent reading the poems of such Romantics as Whitman, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Browning, an experience that bears all four of the essential marks of cosmic consciousness listed above.

by Tim Knepper
Boston University, 2001

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