The Self-Aware Society

53coverBy Seth Jordan
Issue: Fall 2008: Social Health - Issue #53, Vol. 13

The times we live in are especially dark. Many of the social structures, ideas, and traditions we’ve relied on have collapsed; those that haven’t are teetering wildly. The problem has both inner and outer dimensions. On the one hand, we can’t simply annihilate a great enemy “out there,” for we know what lives within our own breast. But the disease is systemic and structural as well. The fact that our social forms are failing us, that they’ve distanced us from each other and left us depressed, indifferent, and cruel, has become obvious to millions of people.

In the face of this cold evil, countless individuals have created in themselves new hope and courage. Literally millions of inspiring social initiatives have sprung up in response. Their stories, the stories of individuals and communities who are consciously taking up their own development in a healthy way, fill the pages of the alternative media. But the solutions have not yet reached their full and necessary proportions. The story of a conscious, healthy, self-aware society has not yet been told. “Society, know thyself” is today’s global imperative. But this will be impossible unless a critical mass of citizens strives to know its greater nature. Much depends on this. If we’re to survive, societal development can no longer take an unconscious course. Society too must become self-aware.

Spiritual Man––Spiritual Society

People are sick of being sick. They want their lives to make sense. Millions of people tuned into Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle’s web event to study Tolle’s book A New Earth because they’re striving for answers to the riddles of their own existence. But this awareness is only slowly turning outwards. When it comes to outer phenomena and the different social realms of man, many “spiritualists” still view the world through the lens of materialism.

Can it make sense to view man as a cosmic being and simultaneously hold that the social organism within which he lives is lifeless and mechanistic? Many people think not. These people work within society, each in their own way, all of them trying to consciously understand the whole in order to discover how best to work with any one part. They view society as a living, evolving organism and recognize that, like the human organism, society too has a higher lawfulness that will cause imbalance and infirmity if acted against.

Many people striving to work in this way have found the observations and methods of the early 20th century spiritual-scientist Rudolf Steiner to be of inestimable worth. His body of insights, generally known as “social threefolding,” is not the blueprint of a static utopia to be arrived at by following a prescribed course. Instead he offers a lens through which one can begin to discern the higher significance of social phenomena, empowering individuals to discover for themselves the healthy social forms appropriate to the present day.

Social Threefolding

How can we know the spiritual realities behind society? Where do we begin? We begin with ourselves. Human societies are a reflection and a further elaboration of our own essential nature. And the nature of man is threefold. We work through our physical body, our connection to the earth. Through our life experiences we develop an inner world of feeling, a personality all our own. And we can come to know our higher spiritual nature as beings within a universal consciousness through the development and exploration of our own minds. Though the language of body, soul, and spirit is not universal to every wisdom tradition, the actual experience of man as more than just a body or an ever-changing personality is.

As with man, so with all human communities. One finds, in the social forms which society has evolved, the same archetypal threefoldness of the human being. The body of society, the infrastructure through which it functions and provides for the most basic needs of its citizenry, is maintained through the economy. Here society meets the earth and transforms it for the good of the whole. At the other end of the spectrum we have the most spiritualized form of social activity, the sphere of culture. Here we are not concerned with the basic needs of the whole but with cultivating the unique spiritual gifts of each individual citizen. Through education, art, medicine, religion and science human beings come to understand their own life purpose and acquire the means to express and fulfill it. That which lies between these two spheres, which is concerned neither with taking up the fruits of the earth nor bringing down the gifts of the heavens but which finds it’s rightful place in the domain of what is human alone, is the sphere of government.

Asleep in a Bipolar World

Today’s social thinking rarely considers the relation of all three of these realms. Especially in the last 100 years, the cultural realm has become an increasingly ineffectual player on the world stage (often only to be co-opted when useful—as in the case of the evangelical church by neo-conservative politicians during the past decade). For much of human history, the cultural realm, in the form of caste or church, has dominated the social organism (and certainly not always for the greater good). But today the story of society is almost exclusively the story of big business and big government battling for hegemony in a bipolar world. Culture survives only to the extent that it’s “marketable,” and so, for instance, the arts become their own shadow side—the entertainment industry.

A powerfully persuasive force is distracting us from the fact that there are three equally important and entirely different types of social activity. It would be difficult to confuse thinking, feeling, and willing within the human being, and yet we’re not even mildly incredulous when everything becomes a commodity before our very eyes. Everything King Midas touched turned to gold. He could not recognize a more spiritual wealth—the love of his own daughter—until it was too late. When it comes to the scientist’s invention, the musician’s sonata, the water we all drink, or the worker’s labor, hopefully society won’t remain stuck in the same temptation.

Society Begins to Awaken: The rise of civil society and conscious economics

There are a number of encouraging signs that society is waking up to itself and to its own inner necessity to recognize and have all three realms working in harmony. Two of the most important of these are the rise of civil society as a third global force and the creation of a new, conscious economics.

Civil society is today’s largest social movement, just coming of age and in the throes of a struggle to identify its own nature and purpose. It consists of the many grass-roots organizations who have rushed into the world to fight for social rights and environmental justice. For the most part it has defined itself by what it is not: as the non-governmental or non-profit sector of society. But now it’s begun to move away from only organizing protests and has formed an increasingly powerful network of what the Stanford sociologist Paul Ray calls “Cultural Creatives.”

This movement is indeed the new vanguard of the cultural realm. It has been hugely successful at identifying and rejecting the new, bipolar world order on ethical grounds, and has begun to offer and implement solutions that work for everyone. Elite economic and political institutions such as the UN and World Bank have taken note, and have themselves begun to initiate “tri-sector partnerships.” Also, due largely to the tireless efforts of civil society leader Nicanor Perlas, social threefolding practices are further and more broadly developed in the Philippines than perhaps any other nation. In working with business and government there are real dangers for civil society. Not yet knowing the source of their own power as cultural organizations, they might be tempted by the political or economic clout of others. But the possibility also exists that, with the right influence and pressure, business and government could themselves become more conscious and collaborative. We find this happening especially in the economic sector. “B Corporations” are for-benefit corporations, ethically-baked businesses that have restructured themselves to encode their ideals right into their legal genes. Instead of maximizing profit for a handful of shareholders halfway around the globe, B Corps benefit all stakeholders. This is but one example. Local stock exchanges, socially-responsible investing, slow money, open money, community-supported agriculture and new local business alliances (check out BALLE provide countless others. Activities like these strive in their way to acknowledge and respect other forms of wealth, both natural and social, and to meet the real (triple) bottom line: people, profits and planet. And all of them represent a growing movement from dog-eat-dog competition to conscious cooperation.

The Right Balance of Powers

Social threefolding strives to create a society where human beings meet each other’s needs, treat each other fairly, and are left free to unfold according to their own nature. Many see this ideal as inherent to the social organism itself at this stage in its evolution. To become healthy, all three spheres of society need to work together and yet remain autonomous. How they understand their own purpose and administer their own affairs needs to be up to them. Government should not be telling teachers what to teach or negotiating trade agreements. Lobbyists should not be writing government policies nor paying universities to teach Ayn Rand. (This is the case at a number of American universities that have recently received millions of dollars from the banking company BB&T in exchange for agreeing to teach her pro-capitalistic novels.) People on the ground, in the classroom, in the courtroom, and in the conference room, need to call their own shots. This is the ultimate “go local” campaign and the full extent of its ramifications is far-reaching.

Seth Jordan is a co-founder and the executive director of Think OutWord, a peer-led training in social threefolding for young adults ( He lives and works in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.