Review of Cosmic Consciousness: A study in the evolution of the human mind.  by Richard Maurice Bucke. Penguin Arkana 1991

Reviewed by Susan Blackmore

For The Skeptic (UK)  10.1.1996, p 25 1995

Did you know the origin of the phrase “Cosmic Consciousness”? I didn’t, until I read this re-issue of the 1901 classic.

Bucke grew up on a farm in Canada in the 1840s. At 17 he left to travel the States and, after terrible hardships and injuries, put himself through medical school, studied in Europe, and finally returned to Canada to practice medicine and psychiatry.

He was deeply affected by the poetry of Walt Whitman, and used to meet with friends to read Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Browning. Driving home one night, in a hansom cab, he found himself wrapped around by a flame-coloured cloud, and propelled into a typical mystical experience, with a sense of great intellectual illumination and bliss – and from that a conviction that all the universe is ordered for the best and that the soul of man is immortal.

His experience inspired him to study the stories of other great men and eventually to put together Cosmic Consciousness. His thesis was (and I am reminded of Ken Ring and John Mack, for whom NDEs and alien abductions are signs of coming enlightenment) that there are several levels of consciousness. A few men achieve the highest, cosmic consciousness, and the number of them is increasing. The book is basically the stories of these special men (and yes, he is utterly sexist throughout, with only a couple of women being mentioned).

The special men include Gautama the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Paul, Plotinus and Mohammed; as well as great writers or artists like Dante, Blake and Francis Bacon (who entered into cosmic consciousness at about the age of 30 and immediately began writing the “Shakespeare” sonnets).

Bucke’s thesis is clearly deeply flawed. Presumably the list consists almost entirely of men and with more in recent decades, because those are the ones he could easily read about. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, I appreciated his real insight into mystical experiences, and am glad to know at last where the famous phrase comes from.

Oh – and skeptics might enjoy some of his predictions for the future. He believed that, with the invention of “aerial navigation”, national boundaries would disappear, language differences die out, cities no longer be needed and, with the advent of Socialism, everyone would live together without crowding, hardship or toil. Oh dear.