It is precisely the common features of all experience, such as characterise everything we encounter, which are the primary and most profound occasion for astonishment; indeed, one might almost say that it is the fact that anything is experienced and encountered at all.
It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense—that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it, as in Spinoza’s pantheism. For we should then have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? What, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but, inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you—and all other conscious beings as such—are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance.
Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.
To divide or multiply consciousness is something meaningless. In all the world, there is no kind of framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the spatio-temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction.
A man or an ant will not survive if he really gets separated from the (biological) unity of the state and left on his own, and this for the very same reason that a single cell or organ of a higher animal will die if separated from the unity of the organism: because specialisation has proceeded too far, and the separated fragment, out of contact with the rest of the organism, is deprived of the environmental conditions which it needs.
Why is it precisely at this intermediate level in the hierarchy of successively superimposed unities (cell, organ, human body, state)—why, I ask, is it precisely at the level of my body that unitary self-consciousness comes into the picture, whereas the cell and the organ do not as yet possess it and the state possesses it no longer? Or, if this is not so, how is my Self constituted out of the individual selves of my brain-cells? Is there a higher Self similarly constituted out of the consciousness of myself and my fellow-men, equally and directly conscious of itself as a unity—the Self of the state or of the whole of humanity?
What does ‘organic’ mean?—that is, in the wider sense here supposed, naturally excluding such simple answers as ‘protein’ or ‘protoplasm’. Fixing our attention on a somewhat wider concept than this, we arrive at the criterion of metabolism. Thus Schopenhauer’s line of demarcation may be regarded as highly suitable, when he says that in inorganic being ‘the essential and permanent element, the basis of identity and integrity, is the material, the matter, the inessential and mutable element being the form. In organic being the reverse is true; for its life, that is, its existence as an organic being, consists precisely in a constant change of matter while the form persists.’
A special characteristic which was originally helpful to the species may become damaging to it in the course of evolution; in just the same way, an egotistical attitude in general is a virtue, helpful to the species, in an animal living in solitude, but becomes damaging to the species if it lives in community with others. Hence those with a long phylogenetic history of city-building, like ants and bees, have long since abandoned all egotism. Man, who is obviously much younger in this respect, is only beginning to do so; with us this transformation is even now in progress. It is bound to take place, with all the necessity of a natural law, for an animal which advances to the building of cities without abandoning egotism will not survive; hence only those builders of cities who achieve this transformation will continue to exist.
I get to know the external world through my sense-perceptions. It is only through them that such knowledge flows into me; they are the very material out of which I construct it. The same applies to everyone else. The worlds thus produced are, if we allow for differences in perspective, etc., very much the same, so that in general we use the singular: world. But because each person’s sense-world is strictly private and not directly accessible to anyone else, this agreement is strange; what is especially strange is how it is established. Many people prefer to ignore or gloss over the strangeness of it, explaining the agreement by the existence of a real world of bodies which are the causes of sense-impressions and produce roughly the same impression on everybody.
Isn’t there in fact an extremely strict correspondence, even to the very details, between the content of any one sphere of consciousness and any other, so far as the external world is concerned? Well, well; and who is going to be the one to establish this correspondence? What does establish it is language, including everything in the way of expression, gesture, taking hold of another person, pointing with one’s finger and so forth, though none of this breaks through that inexorable, absolute division between spheres of consciousness.