Here comes a short explanation of what has been called the Great Chain of Being by Arthur Lovejoy and how it relates to psychosynthesis according to Roberto Assagioli.
By Kenneth Sørensen, This text is an extract from my unpublished book Two Versions of Psychosynthesis: A Comparison of Assagioli and Firman and Gila; which will be published around Feb. 2021.
The Great Chain of Being: The inner levels of reality
The inner levels of reality are an important aspect of Assagioli’s underlying philosophy. According to Wilber (2011: Loc. 250 ): “The core of the perennial philosophy is the view that reality is composed of various levels of existence – levels of being and of knowing – ranging from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit.”
According to the perennial philosophy, the physical world is only one of a number of inner levels of reality. The scholar Huston Smith (1976) explains that these inner worlds have been called many names in the traditions – heavens, lokas, spheres of existence – and most of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions have embraced such hierarchical or holarchical conceptions of existence. Diagram 2 shows how the various traditions have depicted these inner worlds. The diagram can also be seen as a depiction of what Jung described as the collective unconscious, even though Jung didn’t differentiate between the different levels – however, Assagioli (1967) did, remarking: “The collective unconscious is a vast world stretching from the biological to the spiritual level, in which therefore distinctions of origin, nature, quality and value must be made.”
These worlds – whether conceived of as inner or outer worlds – consist of different ontological levels of reality and frequencies of energy within creation. This is what Lovejoy (1933) calls “The Great Chain of Being”, which is what Assagioli (Undated 2) is referring to when he writes about “the various levels of reality or energy fields” which, for him, form “an essential part of psychosynthesis”. Let us see how he envisions these levels(Undated 2):
“There are various levels of reality, or if you like a modern term – energy fields. Each has its own qualities and laws. For instance, certain chemical laws at the atomic level are no more valid at the subatomic level but they are not abolished, not superseded; only at the other level other laws work. Here comes a jump, leaving aside intermediate steps which you can find out – ‘All is One’ is a deep metaphysical truth at that level, but unfortunately many bring down that wonderful reality at human levels, or other levels in manifestation where it simply does not operate, and many of the so-called metaphysical movements, and also some Oriental approaches don’t take into consideration the basic difference. All is One in essence, in Being; but in becoming, in manifestation, in that process of life, there are countless many. I don’t enter into that problem. ‘All life is One’ has chosen to reflect itself in countless ways. If He did it we may surmise He had very good reasons, but it is His business not ours. What we can say is that the great process of involution culminated in the mineral, as far as we know, and then started the contrary movement or process of evolution. We perhaps optimistically can say that we are at the middle point. We have passed through the mineral, vegetable, animal and partially human. So we have to proceed in this evolutionary work towards the ‘One’, but it is still far off. And here comes the confusion between the two selves which creates so much mischief. When we say ‘I am that Self’ – quite true, I am the One, but we are not that in daily life at all; that could be paranoia. As I have written, some paranoias just take that literally, and when they have a glimpse they think they are God. So you see all this fits with the levels of reality.”
Here we have an example of how Assagioli balanced the concepts of oneness and duality, and we can see how he understands the concepts of involution and evolution, both of which we’ll further explore below. Today, the concept of levels of reality is frequently discussed in the writings of Ken Wilber.
According to tradition, the Great Chain of Being came into existence with the creation of the cosmos. The idea of the chain posits not only a material world – which may have come about through a Big Bang – but also a number of inner worlds created by the involution of the Spirit. When we speak about the creation of matter in this way it may sound dualist, in that God precedes and is separate from matter, however, there are important differences between a theist and a panentheist understanding of creation. For the theist, there is an essential dualism in creation – with God and matter forever separate; for the panentheist, creation does not mean the creation of matter as a separate entity, rather, creation is a process whereby God manifests in and as matter at different levels of consciousness – this latter concept, known as involution or emanation, will be explained in more detail below.
In the lower half of Diagram 2, we find the individual levels of selfhood, and it is here we can place Assagioli’s egg diagram with its three levels (lower, middle and higher unconscious) as well as the transcending levels that lie beyond or above the Transpersonal Self. In Christian terminology, the ‘soul’ equates to Assagioli’s Transpersonal Self. In the upper half of the diagram, we find the collective levels of reality, a reality Assagioli (2007: 84) refers to in this way:
“There are a series of inner worlds, each with its own special characteristics, and within each of them there are higher levels and lower levels. Thus in the first of these, the world of passions and feelings, there is a great distance, a marked disparity of level, between blind passion and the highest feelings. Then there is the world of intelligence, or the mind. Here too are different levels: the level of the concrete analytical mind, and the level of higher, philosophical reason (nous). There is also the world of the imagination, a lower variety and a higher variety, the world of intuition, the world of the will, and higher still, those indescribable worlds which can only be referred to by the term ‘worlds of transcendence’.”
I think this quote testifies to the perennialist view of Assagioli. The concept of the inner worlds is also a fundamental tenet of theosophy so, from this perspective, it becomes clear why Assagioli (1965b) stated the following:
“The Self, the ‘Soul’, the true spiritual Centre, is, in both nations and individuals, superconscious. It does exist, but in a realm or at a level that is ordinarily above the reach of the personal consciousness. Its reality is revealed by its manifestations, which usually occur only on exceptional occasions, but which are so vivid, potent and of such a different quality that they bear a sure proof of their higher origin.”
The Transpersonal Self, was for Assagioli a transcendent being, as he explained: “this Self [i.e. Transpersonal Self] is above, and unaffected by, the flow of the mind-stream or bodily conditions” (1965: 19) and “the transpersonal Self is ‘outside’ time and above it. It exists and lives in the dimension of the Eternal” (1973c: 6).
Let me offer one more striking argument for Assagioli’s belief in the perennialist view of different levels of reality and an evolutionary ascent upwards towards Unity. Assagioli was inspired by the Italian poet and writer Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). He considered Dante to be an enlightened being, even comparing the process of psychosynthesis with Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poem which describes the soul’s journey from hell, through purgatory, into paradise. Assagioli (1965: 211) says of Dante’s poem:
“The first part – the Pilgrimage through Hell – indicates the analytical exploration of the Lower Unconscious. The second part – the Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory – indicates the process of moral purification and gradual rising of the level of consciousness through the use of active techniques. The third part – the visit to Paradise or Heaven – depicts in an unsurpassed way the various stages of superconscious realisations, up to the final version of the Universal Spirit, of God Himself, in which Love and Will are fused.”
Assagioli is describing a purely hierarchical and ascending development through higher and higher worlds of existence, which he calls a “wonderful picture of a complete psychosynthesis”. Yes, indeed, and a precise articulation of how the world’s most renowned spiritual teachers have defined it.
So how do Assagioli’s concepts of the “I”, Transpersonal Self and Universal Self fit into the perennialist concept of the Great Chain of Being. To make this link, we need to look at concept of involution.
Involution: The great descent of Spirit into matter
The processes of involution (or emanation) and evolution explain how Assagioli understands the creation of the universe, including the inner levels, and the individual journey through them. Involution is the process whereby God, who is unmanifested Spirit, creates the universe by emanating a small part of “Himself”, with different aspects of God manifesting at different levels of the Great Chain of Being. At the lowest physical level of the chain, God is only indirectly visible in nature and in the body in the form of life, consciousness and intelligence (including the laws of nature). At this lowest level, there is no immediate awareness or realisation in consciousness of the transcendent God, even though God is immanent (present) in the most basic form. At the highest level of the Great Chain of Being, the individual will have evolved through stages of realisation of God, incrementally receiving and manifesting God’s consciousness, leading to the ultimate realisation of Oneness with God, whereby the full enlightened individual knows that all is in God and God is in all.
According to the perspective of involution, the Transpersonal Self is a part, or aspect, of God that is manifesting in creation. Here is how Assagioli (2007: 85-86) describes what happens when the Soul, or Transpersonal Self, incarnates from its heavenly abode:
“Time and time again one is brought up against the paradoxical duality and Unity of the Deity. The personal ‘I’ comes down from the star, or from the spiritual ‘I’, in the form of a reflection. This fits one of the interpretations of the parable of the prodigal son. The personal ‘I’ is the prodigal son who has descended to the level of the material world and forgotten his origin, to the point where of his own free will he resorts to all the foolishness he is capable of, all the errors (‘errors’ both in the sense of making mistakes and of going astray), and only then feels a longing for his father’s house, sets out in search of it and eventually finds it.”
Elsewhere, Assagioli (2007: 102) offers further details:
“We have now reached the fifteenth group of symbols, that of resurrection and return, what in the gospels is referred to as the return of the prodigal son to his father’s house. This is a return to a previous state and points to a return to the original, primordial Being. It presupposes an emanatistic theory of the Soul, descending, becoming one with matter, and then returning to its ‘home’, the heavenly homeland – not as it was before, but enriched by the experience of self-awareness which has come to maturity in toil and conflict.”
Assagioli is claiming that the soul level, or “heaven”, is not merely a symbolic picture but a real existential sphere to be encountered and explored. The Indian mystic Sri Aurobindo made a detailed investigation of the various levels of existence in his books (1939), and other skilful meditators have had the same experience of escaping the restrictive mental spheres, with their sense of separation, into intuitive spheres which are accompanied by a profound sense of connectedness and boundlessness. It is through such realisations that we wake up to our true identity as the Transpersonal Self, waking up to our identity as a connected consciousness with a dynamic purpose.
This Transpersonal Self is the star at the top of the egg diagram – it is our divine Soul. In the words of Assagioli (1974: 260): “The Transpersonal Self of each is in intimate union with the Transpersonal Self of all other individuals, however unconscious they may be of this. All Transpersonal Selves can be considered as ’points’ within the Universal Self.” This relationship is mirrored in Vedantic terminology, whereby Atman is the Transpersonal Self and Brahman is the Universal Self.
We have now got a glimpse of Assagioli’s philosophical tradition and background. This view – which speaks of a divine being and levels of reality – has been tested and verified by thousands of mystics and enlightened beings throughout history. According to Assagioli, the meaning of life is to manifest and incarnate our spiritual being in service to humanity and thereby help God incarnate in the world through the “supreme synthesis”.
Now we are going to take a closer look at the exact process of involution – the process by which God becomes manifest at different levels of creation. How does involution work? Again, it is helpful to turn to Wilber for a neat explanation.
Wilber (1999: 626), in his book Up from Eden, outlines the concept of involution in Diagram 3. When Spirit creates and incarnates in the universe, or envelops into matter, he calls this process involution or emanation. Involution is, in this respect, the whole downward movement, whereby Spirit loses and forgets itself in successively lower levels and in this way becomes immanent in creation. But the immanence of Spirit is only a pale reflection of the original spiritual source, and when it steps down into matter, which is the densest, lowest, least conscious form of Spirit, it is almost not recognisable as Spirit.
The well-known statement that “all is One” – or what Wilber calls One Taste – is only a factual experience on the highest non-dual level (see point 8 in Diagram 3); until this point our union with Spirit is more or less unconscious according to the level of consciousness we are identified with (levels 1-7 in left side of the diagram). The higher we climb the ladder of Being, the closer we get to non-dual consciousness and Unity.
From an individual point of view, we as spirits do exactly the same prior to physical birth. According to Wilber (1999: 250-253), drawing on the Tibetan book of the Dead, we descend from the spiritual regions until we reach the plane of physical birth. After physical birth, we, as unconscious Spirit, reverse the direction, and the inner spiritual nature in the child (inherent in matter) will now – through the stages of the subconscious, self-conscious and superconscious – attempt to return to the source, to Spirit. This process is called evolution.
Assagioli’s cosmological concept of creation, involution and evolution is fully aligned with Wilber’s version, as was demonstrated in Assagioli’s quote above regarding the descent of the Transpersonal Self and its later ascent. Assagioli writes a lot on these abstruse matters; I will not go into a deep consideration of all his metaphysical thoughts, but I offer some insights in Appendix 1 of my MA thesis (2008).
For now, I will briefly demonstrate how Assagioli understands God’s descent into matter through the principle of involution. Assagioli believes that the transcendent Spirit is One and can only be defined by what it is not, but as soon as Spirit creates the universe, duality arises between Spirit and matter. Assagioli (2007: 250-251) states:
“First of all we have the original Unity, free from any form of differentiation, i.e. the Absolute, Transcendent, Unmanifested. It is from this that we have obtained the manifestation or differentiation we might regard as the projection, emanation or self-expression of the Supreme. This great cosmic process has various stages. The first is that of duality: the One becomes two. The first fundamental difference has been introduced: Spirit and matter, the subjective aspect and the objective aspect, energy and resistance, activity and passivity, a positive pole and a negative pole, a male aspect and a female aspect… This is the primordial stage which we can call the relationship between the two.
“These two great aspects of Being do not remain separate, as though they were indifferent to one another, but exchanges take place – there is action and reaction – and the effect of this vital attraction is the creation or the manifestation of the Universe as we know it, this fully developed, concrete Universe. It did not reach its present form in a moment: there were successive stages of differentiation at the heart of creation. There was the expression of ever more concrete and material planes or levels of life, and ever more limited states of consciousness. And at each level countless new, successive differentiations until we reach the present highly divided state of separateness and difference between creatures in the widest sense of the word.
“This then is the framework, or the stage on which we must come to terms with an understanding of love. Beneath the present state of division, difference and separation, in their various ways, and to different extents, these creatures have a distant, dim recollection of their original Unity, a vague sense of common origin and an unconscious, though powerful longing to return to that origin. Every creature every separate being, feels incomplete, inadequate, unsatisfied; it lacks peace and searches for something, though it does not know what that something is. As it searches it makes mistakes and suffers one disappointment after another, but it cannot help continuing to search. It is spurred on relentlessly, and its thirst is never quenched. Indeed there is no alternative because this urge, this yearning, is an expression of the great law of evolution”.
This perspective offers an explanation for why the world is imperfect even though God is immanent and present at the material level – even though all is in God, as panentheism claims. We live in a world full of conflict, death and suffering; Assagioli (2007: 241) explain it this way:
“In order to fully understand the nature and power of beauty we need to remember the spiritual concept, which states that everything existing externally, in concrete form and individually, is the manifestation, effect and reflection of a higher, transcendent, spiritual Reality. It is the great principle of involution or emanation. From a basic, original absolute reality, a series of levels of life, intellect, feeling and material life has developed, through gradual differentiation, to the point of inorganic matter. Thus every quality or attribute of the eternal world, of matter itself, and of the countless different creatures is but a pale, obscure reflection of a quality or attribute of the spiritual Reality, the Divine Being.”
According to this view, God is enfolded in matter, as omnipresent life, consciousness and intelligence, and if the individual is to realise their divine potential then they must climb through the inner levels and, at each stage, create and manifest new spiritual qualities through working on individual, social and cosmic synthesis. The concept of evolution refers to the manifestation of the Transpersonal Self’s universal love, power and light in the world: for this to happen we must evolve through the prepersonal, personal and transpersonal stages towards spiritual consciousness and will. (these stages will be discussed in chapter xxx).
Involution explains how God incarnates in the world, and it offers an explanation for why we have suffering in the world: it is because the world is out of touch with God’s fullness and purpose, but this fullness and purpose can be attained through the transfiguration of the world. In other words, God as immanent is evolving towards fullness of life and purpose, while God as transcendent is already One and complete.
We are perhaps now getting a picture of how Assagioli conceived of the relationship between oneness and duality. From an absolute, transcendent and unmanifest perspective, all is one, and this oneness accounts for Assagioli’s monism. However, as soon as the universe comes into physical manifestation (via involution), duality emerges between Spirit and matter and there begins a long evolutionary journey towards Unity, or what Assagioli called the “Supreme Synthesis”, which concludes with the full and final evolution of all living beings in the universe. Evolution is what Aurobindo called the descent of Supermind; the final stage of evolution is what the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point.
Let us now see how Firman and Gila’s metaphysical beliefs differ from Assagioli. I will do so by exploring how their views differ from Assagioli with respect to the concepts of involution, the Great Chain of Being, and the personal journey of ascent through the levels towards Unity.
 It can be retrieved here: https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/integral-psychosynthesis-a-comparison-of-wilber-and-assagioli/
Assagioli, Roberto. 1965. Psychosynthesis. Hobbs, Dorman & Company: New York.
Assagioli, Roberto. 1965b. Psychosynthesis: Individual and Social, Psychosynthesis and Research Foundation.
Assagioli, Roberto. 1967. Jung and Psychosynthesis, Psychosynthesis Research Foundation. Issue No. 19.
Assagioli, Roberto, 1973c, The Conflict between the Generations and the Psychosynthesis of the Human Ages, Psychosynthesis Research Foundation, Issue No. 31.
Assagioli, Roberto. 1974. The Act of the Will. Penguin Books.
Assagioli, Roberto. 2007. Transpersonal Development. Inner Way Productions.
Assagioli, Roberto, (Undated 2), Talks on the Self, (Handed out from The Psychosynthesis and Education Trust, London).
Aurobindo, Sri. 1939, The Life Divine, Lotus Press.
Smith Huston, 1976. Forgotten Truth: The common Vision of the World’s Religions, Harper San Francisco.
Lovejoy, Arthur. 1933. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Harvard.
Wilber, Ken. 1999. The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume Two, Shambhala.
Wilber, Ken. 2011. Integral Psychology. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.