This account of the evolution of consciousness raises a fascinating question. When did it begin to unfold? When did the new consciousness take root? In whom did it find its first flowering?
Barfield realised that there will be eras when, looking back through the prism of words, we can see original participation dominating and, then, eras in which the withdrawal of participation is operative and early experiences of reciprocal participation stand out. Historically, they will look like pivotal periods during which the nature of human consciousness undergoes processes of fundamental change.
It is often called the Axial Age or, as I think is more accurate, times through which “axial shifts” can be observed developing.
This way of putting it was formulated by the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers. Axial shifts occur when people evolve, not in the usual Darwinian sense but culturally, socio-economically, religiously and, fundamentally for Barfield, existentially – in terms of their sense of themselves.
It’s a psychological transformation that can be tracked through the evolution of those fossils of the psyche, words.
Jaspers didn’t do it that way but instead discussed how cultures come to recognise key, transitional individuals. Examples include Socrates, Lao Tzu, Confucius and the Buddha. They had grappled with the inner changes in the experience of being human and tried to make sense of them.
To their contemporaries, they seemed like odd characters with an unhealthily interest in disturbing, blasphemous practices like meditating and questioning. But they were subsequently remembered as iconic because they managed to fashion philosophies of life that could support the ways increasingly required for human flourishing.
During axial shifts, human beings “dared to rely on themselves as individuals”, as Jaspers put it. They confronted traditional ways of doing things. It meant that “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination” so that human beings might be more “open to new and boundless possibilities”.
They did it by connecting with a new sense of inner life.