From A Guide for the Perplexed by E F Schumacher

The four Levels of Being exhibit certain characteristics in a manner which I shall call progressions.

Passivity to activity. At the lowest level, that of ‘minerals’ or inanimate matter, there is pure passivity. A stone is wholly passive, a pure object, totally dependent on circumstances and ‘conginent’. It can do nothing, organise nothing, utilise nothing. Even radioactive material is totally passive. A plant is mainly, but not totally, passive; it is not a pure object; there is a certain, limited ability of adaptation to changing circumstances: it grows towards the light and extends its roots towards moisture and nutrients in the soil. A plant is to a small extent a subject with its own power of doing, organising and utilising. It can even be said that there is an intimation of active intelligence in plants not, of course, as active as that of animals. At the level of ‘animal’, through the appearance of consciousness there is a striking shift from passivity to activity. The processes of life are speeded up; activity becomes more autonomous, as evidenced by free and often purposeful movement not merely a gradual turning towards light but a swift action to obtain food or escape danger. The power of doing, organising and utilising is immeasurably extended; there is evidence of an ‘inner life’, of happiness and unhappiness, confidence, fear, expectation, disappointment and so forth. Any being with an inner life cannot be a mere object: it is a subject itself, capable even of treating other beings as mere objects, as the cat treats the mouse. At the human level, there is a subject that says I a person: another marked change from passivity to activity, from object to subject. To treat a person as if he or she were a mere object is a perversity, not to say a crime. No matter how much a person may be weighed down and enslaved by circumstances, there is always the possibility of self-assertion and a rising above circumstances. Man can achieve a measure of control over his environment and thereby his life, utilising things around him for his own purposes. There is no definable limit to his possibilities, even though there are everywhere practical limitations which he has to recognise and respect. The progressive movement from passivity to activity, which we observe when reviewing the four Levels of Hiring, is indeed striking, but it is not complete. A large weight of passivity remains even in the most sovereign  autonomous human being; while he is undoubtedly a subject, he remains in many respects an object dependent, contingent, pushed around by circumstances. Aware of this, mankind has always used its imagination, or its intuitive powers, to complete the process, to extrapolate (as we might say today) the observed curve to its completion. There was thus conceived a Being, wholly active, wholly sovereign and autonomous; a Person above all merely human persons, in no way an object, above all circumstances and contingencies, entirely in control of everything: a personal God, the ‘Unmoved Mover’. The four Levels of Being are thus seen as pointing to the invisible existence of a level (or Levels) of Being above the human.

Origination of movement. An interesting and instructive aspect of the progression from passivity to activity is the change in the origination of movement. It is clear that, at the level of inanimate matter, there cannot be change of movement without a physical cause, and that there is a very close linkage between cause and effect. At the level of plant the causal chain is more complex: physical causes will have physical effects as at the lower level the wind will shake the tree whether it is living or dead but certain physical factors act not simply as physical cause but simultaneously as stimulus. The sun’s rays cause the plant to turn towards the sun. Its leaning too much in one direction causes the roots on the opposite side to grow stronger. At the animal level, again, causation of movement becomes still more complex. An animal can be pushed around like a stone; it can also be stimulated like a plant; but there is in addition a third causative factor which comes from inside: certain drives, attractions or compulsions of a totally non-physical kind; they can be called motives. A dog is motivated, and therefore moved not simply by physical forces or stimuli impinging upon it from the outside, but also by forces originating in its ‘inner space’: recognising its master, it jumps for joy; recognising its enemy, it runs in fear. While at the animal level the motivating cause has to be physically present to be effective, at the level of man I there is no such need. The power of self-awareness adds for him another possibility of the origination of movement: will, that is, the power to move and act even when I there is no physical compulsion, no physical stimulus and no motivating force actually present.  There is at the human level an additional possibility of the origination of movement one that does not seem to exist at any lower I level, namely, movement on the basis of what might be called ‘naked insight’. A person might move to another place not because present conditions motivate him to do so, but because he anticipates in his mind certain future developments. While these additional possibilities the power of foreknowledge and therewith the power of anticipating future possibilities are no doubt possessed, to some degree, by all human beings, it is evident that they vary greatly and with most of us are very weak. It is possible to imagine a supra-human Level of Being where they would exist in perfection. Perfect foreknowledge of the future would therefore be considered a divine attribute, associated with perfect freedom of movement and perfect freedom from passivity. The progression from physical cause to stimulus to motive and to will would then be completed by a perfection of will capable of overriding all the causative forces that operate at the four Levels of Being known to us.

From necessity to freedom. The progression from passivity to activity is similar and closely related to the progression from necessity to freedom. It is easy to see that at the mineral level there is nothing but necessity. Inanimate matter is what it is and cannot be other; there is no choice, no possibility of ‘developing’ or in any way changing its nature. The so called indeterminacy at the level of nuclear particles is simply another manifestation of necessity, because total necessity means the absence of any creative principle. As I have said before, it is analogous to the zero dimension a kind of nothingness which, at the extreme, means that there remains nothing to be determined. The ‘freedom’ of indeterminacy is in fact the extreme opposite of freedom: a kind of necessity that can be understood only in terms of statistical probability. At the level of inanimate matters, there is no ‘inner space’ where any autonomous powers could be marshalled. As we shall see, ‘inner space’ is the scene of freedom. We know little, if anything, about the ‘inner space’ of plants, more of that of animals, and a great deal about the ‘inner space’ of the human being: the space of the person, of creativity, of freedom. Inner space is created by the powers of life, consciousness and self-awareness; but we have direct and personal experience only of our own ‘inner space’ and the freedom it affords us. Close observation discloses that most of us, most of the time, behave and act mechanically, like a machine. The specifically human power of self-awareness is asleep, and the human being, like an animal, acts more or less intelligently solely in response to outside influences. Only when a man makes use of his power of self-awareness does he attain to the level of a person, to the level of freedom. At that moment he is living, not being lived. There are still numerous forces of necessity, accumulated in the past, which determine his actions; but a small dent is being made, a tiny change of direction is being introduced. It may be virtually unnoticeable, but many moments of self-awareness can produce many such changes and even turn a given movement into the opposite of its previous direction. To ask whether the human being has freedom is like asking whether man is a millionaire. He is not, but can become, a millionaire. He can make it his aim to become rich; similarly, he can make it his aim to become free. In his ‘inner space’ he can develop a centre of strength so that the power of his freedom exceeds that of his necessity. It is possible to imagine a perfect being who is always and invariably exercising his power of self-awareness, which is the power of freedom, to the fullest degree, unmoved by any necessity. This would be a Divine Being, an almighty and sovereign power, a perfect Unity.

Towards integration and unity.  At the mineral level, there is no integration. Inanimate matter can be divided and subdivided without loss of character or Gestalt, simply because at this level there is nothing to lose. Even at plant level inner unity is so weak that parts of the plant can often be cut off and will continue to live and develop as separate beings. Animals, by contrast, are much more highly integrated beings. Seen as a biological system, the higher animal is a unity, and parts of it cannot survive separation. There is, however, but little integration on the mental plane; that is to say, even the highest animal attains only a very modest level of logicality and consistency; its memory, on the whole, is weak, and its intellect shadowy. Man has obviously much more inner unity than any being below him, although integration, as modern psychology recognises, is not guaranteed to him at birth and remains one of his major tasks. As a biological system, he is most harmoniously integrated; on the mental plane, integration is less perfect but is capable of considerable improvement through schooling. As a person, however, a being with the power of self awareness, he is generally so poorly integrated that he experiences himself as an assembly of many different personalities, each saying I. The classic expression of this experience is found in St Paul’s letter to the Romans: My own behaviour baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe. Yet surely if I do things that I really don’t want to do, it cannot be said that I am doing them at all it must be sin that has made its home in my nature. [Rom. VII.14ff, Phillips translation] Integration means the creation of an inner unity, a centre of strength and freedom, so that the being ceases to be a mere object, acted upon by outside forces, and becomes a subject, acting from its own ‘inner space’ into the space outside itself.

Visibility. The more ‘interior’ a thing is, the less visible it is likely to be. The progression from visibility is just an other facet of the great hierarchy of Levels of Being. Obviously the terms ‘visibility’ and ‘invisibility’ refer not merely to the visual sense but to all senses of external observation. The powers of life, consciousness and self-awareness that come into focus as we review the four Levels of Being are all wholly invisible, without colour, sound, ‘skin’, taste or smell, and also without extension or weight. Nevertheless, who would deny that they are what we are mainly interested in? When I buy a packet of seeds my main interest is that the contents should be alive and not dead, and an unconscious cat, even though still alive, is not a real cat for me until it has regained consciousness. The invisibility of man has been incisively described by Maurice Nicoll: We can all see another person’s body directly. We see the lips moving, the eyes opening and shutting, the lines of the mouth and face changing, and the body expressing itself as a whole in action. The person himself is invisible . . . If the invisible side of people were discerned as easily as the visible side, we would live in a new humanity. As we are, we live in visible humanity, a humanity of appearances . .. All our thoughts, emotions, feelings, imaginations, reveries, dreams, fantasies, are invisible. All that belongs to our scheming, planning, secrets, ambitions, all our hopes, fears, doubts, perplexities, all our affections, speculations, ponderings, vacuities, uncertainties, all our desires, longings, appetites, sensations, our likes, dislikes, aversions, attractions, loves and hates are themselves invisible. They constitute ‘oneself’. Dr Nicoll insists that, while all this may appear obvious, it is not at all obvious: ‘It is an extremely difficult thing to grasp. . . .’  We do not grasp that we are invisible. We do not realise that we are in a world of invisible people. We do not understand that life, before all other definitions of it, is a drama of the visible and the invisible? There is the external world in which things are visible, i.e. directly accessible to our senses; and there is ‘inner space’, where things are invisible, i.e. not directly accessible to us, except in the case of ourselves. This all important point will occupy us at some length in a later chapter. The progression from the wholly visible mineral to the largely invisible person can be taken as a pointer towards Levels of Being above man which would be totally invisible to our senses, just as there is total visibility at the other end of the scale, the level of minerals. We need not be surprised that most people throughout most of human history implicitly believed in the reality of this projection; they have always claimed that, just as we can learn to ‘see’ into the invisibility of the persons around us, so we can develop abilities to ‘see’ the totally invisible beings existing at levels above us. 

The ‘world’ experienced beings at different levels.  The degree of integration, of inner coherence and strength, is closely related to the kind of ‘world’ that exists for beings at different levels. Inanimate matter has no ‘world’. Its total passivity is equivalent to the total emptiness of its world. A plant has a ‘world’ of its own a bit of soil, water, air, light and possibly other influences a ‘world’ limited to its modest biological needs. The world of any one of the higher animals is incomparably greater and richer, although still mainly determined by biological needs, as modern animal psychology studies have amply demonstrated. But here is also something more like curiosity which enlarges the animal’s world beyond the narrow biological confines. The world of man, again, is incomparably greater and richer; indeed, it is asserted in traditional philosophy that man is capax universi, capable of bringing the whole universe into his experience. What he will actually grasp depends on each person’s own Level of Being. The ‘higher’ the person, the greater and richer is his or her world. A person, for instance, entirely fixed in the philosophy of materialistic scientism, denying the reality of the ‘invisibles’ and confining his attention solely to what can be counted, measured and weighed, lives in a very poor world, so poor that he will experience it as a meaningless wasteland unfit for human habitation. Equally, if he sees it as nothing but an accidental collocation of atoms he will needs agree with Bertrand Russell that the only rational attitude is one of ‘unyielding despair’. It has been said (by Gurdjieff to his pupils), ‘Your Level of Being attracts your life.’ There are no occult or unscientific assumptions behind this saying. At a low Level of Being only a very poor world exists and only a very impoverished kind of life can be lived. The Universe is what it is; but he who, although capax universi, limits himself to its lowest sides to his biological needs, his creature comforts or his accidental encounters will inevitably ‘attract’ a miserable life. If he can recognise nothing but ‘struggle for survival’ and ‘will to power’ fortified by cunning, his ‘world’ will be one fitting Hobbes’s description of the life of man as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The higher the Level of Being, the greater, richer and more wonderful is the world. If we again extrapolate beyond the human level, we can understand why the Divine was considered not merely capax universi but actually in total possession of it, aware of everything, omniscient ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and no tone of them is forgotten before God’ (Luke XII.6). 

Levels of Being – E F Schumacher