Levels of Being

From A Guide for the Perplexed by E F Schumacher

The four great Levels of Being can be likened to an inverted pyramid where each higher level comprises everything lower and is open to influences from everything higher. All the four levels exist in the human being, which, as we have already seen, can be described by the formula

Man = m+x+y+z — mineral+life+consciousness+self-awareness.
the physical body (corresponding to m);
the etheric body (corresponding to x);
the astral body (corresponding to y); and the
I or Ego or Self or Spirit (corresponding to z).

In the light of our understanding of the four great Levels of Being, such descriptions of man as a fourfold being become easily comprehensible. In some teachings, m+x, is taken as one – the living body (because an inanimate body is of no interest at all), and they therefore speak of man as a threefold being, consisting of body (m+x), soul (y) and Spirit (z).
As people turned their interests increasingly to the visible world the distinction between soul and Spirit became more difficult to maintain and tended to be dropped altogether; man, therefore, was represented as a being compounded of body and soul. With the rise of materialistic scientism, finally, even the souls disappeared from the description of man – how could it exist when it could be neither weighed nor measured? – except as one of the many strange attributes of complex arrangements of atoms and molecules. Why not accept the so-called ‘soul’ – a bundle of surprising powers – as an epiphenomenon of matter just as, say, magnetism has been accepted as such? The Universe was no longer seen as a great hierarchical structure or Chain of Being; it was seen simply as an accidental collocation of atoms; and man, traditionally understood as the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm (i.e. the structure of the Universe), was no longer seen as a cosmos, a meaningful even though mysterious creation. If the great Cosmos is seen as nothing but a chaos of particles without purpose or meaning, so man must be seen as nothing but a chaos of particles without purpose and meaning – a sensitive chaos, indeed, capable of suffering pain, anguish and despair, but a chaos all the same (whether he likes it or not) – a rather unfortunate cosmic accident of no consequence whatsoever. This is the picture presented by modern materialistic scientism, and the only question is, does it make sense of we can actually experience? This is a question everybody has to decide for himself. Those who stand in awe and admiration, in wonder and also in perplexity, contemplating the four great Levels of Being, will not be easily persuaded that there is only more or less – i.e. horizontal extension. They will find it impossible to close their minds to ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ – that is to say, to vertical scales and even discontinuities. If they then see man as higher than any arrangement, no matter how complex, of inanimate matter, and higher than the animals, no matter how far advanced, they will also see man as ‘open-ended’, not at the highest level but with a potential that might indeed lead up to perfection. This is the most important insight that follows from the contemplation of the four great Levels of Being: at the level of man, there is no discernible limit or ceiling. Self-awareness, which constitutes the difference between animal and man, is a power of unlimited potential, a power that not only makes man human, but gives him the possibility, even the need, to become superhuman.

Schumacher – Progressions