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The four interlinked practices of wisdom-seeking co-evolved with the appearance of self-reflective consciousness and human culture. As such the practices are intuitively persuasive and widely accessible. Accordingly, they can be found in many traditional wisdom teachings as well as in our everyday lives.  


Today, if we consciously cultivate the truth quest as a core political practice, it can become a cultural catalyst, rapidly accelerating both personal self-realization and collective transformation.

Truth Quest Grounded Paleolithic Politics

The human search for the best way to live emerged during the nine-tenths of human existence we lived in small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers, free from the scourges of warfare and slavery, caring for and sharing with one another, in a wilderness environment which provided directly for all our needs. The synergy between fire-making, the development of language and social complexity triggered that leap in self-reflective consciousness which made us fully human. With expanded self-awareness came deeper memory, a blazing imagination, and a realm of individual freedom. As human beings recognized that some choices were obviously better and others worse, they entered a moral dimension of existence. The truth quest emerged from the tension  between self-interest, sharing with others and caring for the whole. Over time this sharpened into an awareness of good and evil and the cultural forms of religion, politics, philosophy, and ethics. Humanity is now recognizing itself as Homo sapiens sapiens—the species that knows it needs to keep learning to survive and flourish.

The Birth of Good and Evil

The Genesis account of creation tells the story of our discovery of good and evil with Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It tells of human suffering beginning with the expulsion from the wilderness Garden and the shift to agriculture. However the evolutionary story suggests that the initial discovery of the moral nature of human existence occurred tens of thousands of years earlier when humans still lived a nomadic existence, and wild nature provided directly for all our needs. This bigger story tells us that Good and Evil already existed in God's Garden. But this also makes clear that when human crossed the threshold into the classical civilizations warfare became endemic along with slavery, patriarchy and domination through institutionalized terror. With civilization the tension between Good and Evil intensified dramatically. Today the stakes have never been higher as industrialized  humanity destroys the living fabric of the earth, and with it the possibility of a good life for generations into the future. 

The Personal Quest


Each one of us relives aspects of this evolutionary leap into self-consciousness as we grow and wake up inside a story already underway. We are each born as a wild creature shaped by a particular family within an already established society, at a place and time not of our choosing. The particular facts of our personal situation shape our awareness of the larger realities of which we are part. We live ‘in-between’ what created us and what we create, all the while aware that the ultimate origin and destiny of the human drama are the deepest mysteries. Our  personal story of growth and self-discovery becomes an entry into, and integral part of the Big Story of the Universe.

The mystery of origins: NASA Hubble Space Telescope captured this Ultra Deep Field view during 841 orbits around the Earth between 2003-2009 focused on one small patch of empty sky. Combining images revealed approximately 10,000 galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away. Each blur and spot of light is a galaxy containing billions of suns soon after the birth of the universe. The James Web Space Telescope has updated this image to reveal additional thousands of galaxies in this frame. This is our Big Reality.

While certainty is impossible, knowledge-seeking is essential. Keeping the ultimate mystery of origins and destiny in mind helps us avoid the murderous certainties of cults, religious dogmas and ideologies. We keep the quest going by seeking new experiences and questioning what we already know. As we search we get specific answers to practical questions all the while adding to and qualifying the big picture of our worldview.  Over the course of our lives, as we reflect on the process of  learning and growing  we can identify four tightly interwoven practices guiding our search. 


Mandala by graphic artist Marianne Murphy. Diagram by Cyril Rothenberg.

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This involves personal growth as we pass through the stages of life and live out as many of the archetypal human experiences as fully as possible—birth, infancy, adolescence, productive maturity, old age, and the final confrontation with death. Individuation also requires deep reflection upon and integration of these lived experiences. A variety of spiritual and psychological disciplines—inner work—enhances ordering our inner lives. This is expressed in self-knowledge, psychological maturity, and the wisdom of elders. It is also commonly associated with character and integrity. Ultimately, we search for meaning with the totality of our lives. 



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Face-to-face discussion in authentic, honest, open, and empathic relationships. This is the deeper wisdom contained in the so-called Socratic method—dialectics. Face-to-face communication takes us beyond our own direct experience by imaginatively entering the lives and thoughts of others and making their experience part of our own. The back-and-forth of discussion helps us create a shared realm of ‘inter-experience’ which becomes the foundation for authentic relationships and, by extension, a truth-loving community. The practice of honest discussion helps give us the clarity and courage required to talk truth to power with compassion.




Participation in democratic community life is expressed in the African concept of Ubuntu, whereby we are constituted, in part, by our connection to others. Accordingly, our participation in democratic community life sustains mutual care and gives us a societal reality-check. Both are vital for personal growth, honest discussion, and making shared meaning narratives. Every voice needs to be considered in collective decision making. The more democratic and egalitarian the community, the greater the level of trust the more we can create and share wisdom.





The bigger picture gives meaning to the part by relating it to the whole. As we integrate our own story with the stories and insights of others we are bonded into communities. Small local stories nested within bigger more inclusive stories connects our individual lives to those of families, neighborhoods, regions, nations, civilizations all inextricably connected to the living ecosystem of the Earth. The most encompassing story of all—that of a creative, evolving universe—binds us into a global community of wisdom seekers.

While, the knowledge of materialistic quantitative science is essential to the truth quest, it is woefully insufficient. It cannot, by definition, offer value or meaning which are ultimately rooted in feelings—our emotionally permeated experience. The practices of the quest do exactly this. All work together, informed by the facts and theories of science and history, to give meaning, value and direction to our life-journey. Courage and passion for the quest come from joy in being alive, an encompassing experience of the universe as magnificent, unfathomable and awe-inspiring—the mysterious creation from which we all emerged, and by which we are all sustained. With these four practices every person becomes a lover of wisdom –– a philosopher.


About ten thousand years ago the Neolithic, or agricultural revolution marked the beginning of the decline of the nomadic way of life and initiated division of labor and social hierarchy. Roughly five thousand years later, a threshold was crossed and domination intensified with the rise of centralized warrior and slave-based societies. Torture and terror were introduced as additional principles of order. Humanity was traumatized, ‘cast out of the Garden of Eden.’ The quest for a better life intensified.

The Blessing and Curse of Specialization


Surplus wealth and specialization amplified the search through the development of writing and then science. But the four practices split apart, and their essential synergy was lost. Hierarchical societies, held together by fear and obedience repressed the growth of the whole person, damaged the moral autonomy of the individual, undermined the democratic dimension of truth-seeking, and constricted the shared vision of the whole. Inevitably such societies became disconnected from reality, fell into chaos, and collapsed. They helped us understand why authoritarianism is inherently stupefying.  


The religious and spiritual revolutions initiated by the great teachers of the first millennium BCE—Zoroaster, the Hebrew prophets, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and later Christ and Muhammad—responded to self-inflicted suffering and injustice by attempting to recover our lost humanity. Their shared revelations were relatively simple: awe in the face of the mystery of existence and the wisdom fostering qualities of humility, generosity, and loving-kindness. They taught that transformation comes through awareness of our creative participation in the great cosmic order. However, their teachings were inevitably distorted by prevailing systems of domination.  Much of organized religion today still serves social hierarchies, requires blind obedience, worships the text and is hostile to questioning.


The practices of the quest reappear in times of crisis, openness, and cultural ferment. We see the political possibilities of the quest quite clearly in the creative explosion of the classical Greek polis when the four defining practices were explicitly promoted, although still confined to adult Greek males. 

The Liberal revolutions of the European Enlightenment recovered and elaborated parts of the quest for a literate and scientific elite; but they also produced the urban, industrial, mass societies which isolated the individual and distorted the quest. 

Today the very extremity of our global crisis creates an extraordinary opportunity for creative transformation. Our urgent practical priority is to clarify the truth quest, bring it into the center of our culture, and make it available to all. This would constitute the fulfillment of the unrealized promise of the Axial age and the Enlightenment—an evolutionary leap-in-being through conscious human choice.  

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