The Ascent of humanity

The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein (Book Summary)

In “The Ascent of Humanity,” the visionary thinker Charles Eisenstein challenges our society’s materialistic ways of thinking. Eisenstein presents what he calls the Myth of ascent which is built on two tenets: (1) Science will grant us the complete understanding of reality (2) Technology will grant us complete control of reality. He goes on to poke holes in these dominant beliefs and shows us the dangers associated with them. Finally, he offers inspiration for creating a new story of us. 

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*All sentences in quotations are direct quotes from “The Ascent of Humanity” and are attributed to Charles Eisenstein. Bold is added for skimmability. 


What is the Ascent of Humanity Myth?

  • The ascent of humanity myth goes something like this: whereas in the beginning, we were fully at the mercy of natural forces, someday we will transcend nature completely”
  • “The myth states that the answer to our problems lies in New technology allowing us Increasing control over nature”
  • “The myth of ascent can be distinguished into two aspects: The scientific Program of complete understanding and the Technological Program of complete control

*note: The Myth of ascent is directly related to our sense of being separate selves. 


The Origins of Separation

  • “Humans are by their very nature technological animals”
  • “Technology has a cumulative nature, once started it naturally builds upon itself.”
  • “Agriculture arose independently in several locations around the globe points to a natural progression from earlier technology and mind-sets, and not an accident”
  • Domestication of plants and animals caused them to rely on our assistance
  • Agriculture, the archetype of human control over nature, induces dependency and the need for ever-increasing control — over land, people, plants, and animals — as the population continues to grow.”
  • In agricultural societies, people came to be defined more and more according to generic functional classifications, a trend that drew as well from the anonymizing effect of the vast increases in population density that agriculture permitted”. 
  • With agriculture, a new category of being came into existence: the stranger. Before then, humans lived in tribes of at most five hundred people, comprising bands of about fifteen to twenty people each.”
  • Religion, which literally means “that which ties back” or “that which reconnects us,” is only necessary when there is separation.”
  • “More than a symptom of separation, religion is also a response to it, a manifestation of the primal urge to reunite with all that we have separated from.” 
  • Money is the instrument – not the cause, the instrument – by which our separation from nature, spirit, love, beauty, justice, peace, and community approaches its maximum.”
  • “We try to “build community,” not realizing that mere intention is not enough when separation is built in to the very social and physical infrastructure of our society.”
  • “By moving life into the privacy of indoors, our neighbors have become strangers and we no longer feel at ease knowing that “someone will look out for them”
  • “In depopulating the outdoors we have conceded it to cars, creating space inhospitable or downright dangerous to people, especially children, driving them even more indoors.” 
  • Our separation from nature, our war against nature, our ambition to transcend nature forever is actually in accord with nature’s purposes, an evolutionary step not just of the human species, but of the planet as whole.” 
  • “In a million ways, culture conditions us to accept all the premises of separation. Deep down we know it isn’t true, but we are afraid that it is. We are afraid that there is just this, just a bunch of discrete, separate beings in a “blind, pitiless, and indifferent” universe of force and mass.


How language perpetuates of sense of separation 

  • “Language is the foundation of the separate human realm, and from the very beginning it has borne a destructive as well as a creative power.”
  • Words deny the uniqueness of each moment and each experience, reducing it to a “this” or a “that””
  • “People used to be able to distinguish 300,000 sounds now its closer to 180,000”
  • “By naming the world, abstracting it and reducing it, we impoverish our perception of it.”
  • “We delude ourselves when we suppose that the main impact of speech lies in the words (as opposed to the voice), just as we delude ourselves when we cite logical reasons, which are actually rationalizations or justifications, for our decisions.”
  • “The apparent objectivity of written words explain why people tend to believe what they read more than what they hear.” 
  • “The increasing obviousness of the corruption of the language is a blessing in disguise, for it makes all the clearer the authenticity of nonverbal modes of communication based in immediate experience rather than representation.”
  • “These modes of communication, in contrast to the distancing implicit in the abstraction, naming, and symbolizing of the universe, demand a letting go of barriers between self and world.
  • “The purpose of a lie is at bottom the same as the purpose of the technology of separation: to manipulate and to control.
  • No single human being has the physical power to render whole forests to sawdust or whole peoples to slavery. He does so only through language.” 
  • “Language can be an instrument for humanity’s co-creative play with the universe.”


The limits of Science & Technology 

  • Science is a vast and elaborate articulation of the defining myth of our civilization: that we are discrete and separate selves, living in an objective universe of others. Science presupposes, embodies, and reinforces that myth, blinding us to other ways of thinking, living, and being.”
  • “History has shown that scientists are no less subject than anyone else to peer pressure, self-deception, institutional blindness, and tunnel vision.”
  • “Living up to its name, reductionism attempts to explain the complex in terms of the simple. “
  • “The Scientific Method assumes that there is an objective universe “out there” that we can query experimentally, thus ascertaining the truth or falsity of our theories.” 
  • The universe “out there” is in principle unconnected to one or another observer; hence the replicability of scientific experiment.
  • “Science is incapable of apprehending phenomena that are not objective or deterministic.”
  • “Science and indeed reason itself are based on the discovery of regularities in nature. The possibility that we are not observing but rather creating these regularities through our beliefs presents a profound challenge to the very validity of science as we know it, implying that we are merely observing our own reflection.”
  • “Eighty years after its mathematical formalization, quantum mechanics defies interpretation.”
  • “The metaphor of quantum mechanics is one of choice, autonomy, self-determination.”
  • “If nature is inherently unpredictable and mysterious, if it somehow eludes complete description in the form of numbers, if identical setups produce different results each time, then the goal of perfect control is unattainable.”
  • The medical establishment is having more and more trouble hiding the fact that, with the sole exception of emergency medicine, the last forty years of “advances” have had little impact on human health and mortality.” 
  • “In medicine objectivity is embodied in the controlled double-blind study, which seeks to isolate the objective effects of a therapy so that we know how well it “really works,” independent of the attitudes and foibles of patient or doctor.”
  • “Technology usually has unintended consequences, often including a worsening of the problem the technology was meant to solve.”
  • “Maximizing pleasure and eliminating pain is the goal of the Technological Program taken to its logical extreme.”
  • “Evolutionary biology has given us the outlines of a story of the origin of life — our creation myth. Like all creation myths, it encodes deep-seated cultural values as well as our sense of ourselves as a people.”
  • Darwinism was born in an environment conducive to its acceptance, and its concepts, in turn, reinforced and accelerated preexisting trends.” 
  • “The apparent diametric opposition between the New Humanists and the religious fundamentalists is a facade that masks a fundamental agreement: that to accept the scientific worldview is to lose meaning, purpose, significance, and sacredness.”
  • At its heart, the Scientific Method rests upon a beautiful impulse, an ideal of humility and intellectual nonattachment that would serve any system of belief in good stead.”


The Illusion of Control 

  • “The restrictions we place on children arise out of two related concerns: safety and practicality, both of which boil down to some version of control.”
  • The emphasis on safety is a manifestation of survival anxiety, and the belief that the purpose of life is to survive.”
  • Our children are nature; they represent the very thing we are trying to bring under control.”
  • Embedded as we are in modern society, much of the control imposed upon children is structural in origin and beyond the power of parents to easily alter.”
  • “No matter how deeply and thoroughly we frighten children with our power to invoke their survival anxiety, their natural curiosity and compulsion to test limits will eventually provoke them to “try it anyway,” often in secret. When they find, as is often the case, that the consequences aren’t as bad as their parents said they were, then parental authority loses all credibility.”
  • “No matter how fine the distinctions of law, there will always be situations that are not logically resolvable from the law.”
  • “The seeming objectivity of a law or contract is an illusion, since the words’ interpretation and enforcement indeed still depend on these, more human, factors.”
  • “When we are deprived of the opportunity to explore our limitations, we become more fearful of them, more tightly bound to them, and less able to cope when, despite our strivings for control, reality presents us with a new challenge.”
  • “Yes, you can locate yourself as far as possible from the war zones, trash incinerators, toxic waste dumps, smog zones, bad neighborhoods, and other perils of an increasingly toxic world, but sooner or later the converging crises of our era will obliterate all defenses. No matter how diversified your investments, no matter how many guns in your walled compound or cans of food in your basement, the tide of calamity will eventually engulf you.”

The Negative Effects of Our “Progress” (Anxiety & Boredom) 

  • “Another word for experiences fabricated by others is entertainment. In the absence of these, having lost or never developed the capacity for autonomous creativity, we experience the discomfort we call boredom.”
  • “Boredom is virtually unique to western culture”
  • Boredom – nothing to do – is intolerable because it puts us face to face with the wound of separation.”
  • “Boredom was not even a concept before the word was invented around 1760, along with the word “interesting.””
  • “Anxiety is the way threats to survival are translated into action to mitigate those threats”
  • The anxiety theory purports to explain boredom as follows: we really cannot afford to sit there and do nothing.”
  • “Many physiological functions, such as digestion, tissue-building, and immunity, operate only under conditions of relaxation. The stress we consider normal interferes with them and damages our health.”

The sources of our anxiety & Boredom:

  1. Technology has separated us from each other, from nature, and from ourselves, inflicting the interior wound of separation.” 
  2. The definition of the self as a discrete entity, fundamentally separate from other beings and the environment, contributes to our psychological loneliness.” 
  3. “The competitive view of the world that is inseparable from the edifice of science weaves  anxiety into the very fabric of life, which becomes a competition for survival.”
  4. ”The belief that the universe at its most fundamental level consists of atomic particles interacting according to impersonal forces creates an existential insecurity, an alienation from the living, enspirited world and selves we intuitively sense.”


Modern Ways of Living that Impoverish Life 

  • “Our craving for entertainment points to the impoverishment of our reality.” 
  • Taking photographs at birthday parties and weddings to preserve those happy memories substitutes an image for an experience, and can sometimes imbue the event with a staged feel, as if it were not real, as if it were an enactment to be enjoyed later.”
  • Contemporary parties, for example, are almost always based on consumption — of food, drink, drugs, sports, or other forms of entertainment. We recognize them as frivolous, this sort of fun really doesn’t matter, and neither do the friendships based on fun. Does anybody ever become close by partying together?”
  • “The significance of the superficiality of our social leisure becomes apparent when we contrast that sort of “fun” with a very different activity, play. Unlike joint consumption, play is by nature creative. Joint creativity fosters relationships that are anything but superficial.”
  • “Play is the production of fun; entertainment is the consumption of fun.
  • To despise the fact of aging is not only to despise life but to betray a pitiful ignorance of the nature of life…..Youth is not a state to be preserved but a state to be transcended.” 
  • Alcohol, drugs, gambling, television, and the other addictions large and small are simply technologies for controlling pain and accessories in making life-as-it-is manageable.
  • People depended on the favors and nonmonetary reciprocation that we call neighborliness. In most places in America today, few of those mechanism of social pressure still operate, and my neighbor has no choice but to sue me, resorting to the outright coercive force of a distant and impersonal authority.”


How scarcity is built into our money system 

  • “For a bank-debt-based fiat currency system to function at all, scarcity must be artificially and systematically introduced and maintained.
  • “When a bank extends a loan, the borrower must pay it back with interest, which he competes with everyone else to procure from the limited amount of still-to-be-created money. Governments and their central banks must exercise careful control — through interest rates, margin reserve requirements, and, most important in the present era, purchase sale of government securities on the open market — over the rate at which this new money is created.”
  • “When new money is loaned into existence system-wide in amounts exceeding the ability of the economy to create new goods and services, the result is inflation.”
  • “Cash does not depreciate in value; on the contrary, in its modern, abstracted form of bits in a bank’s computer, it grows in value as it earns interest. Thus it appears to violate a fundamental natural law: impermanence.”
  • “The present money system and underneath it, the enclosure of the wild into the exclusively owned, has created artificial scarcity where none need exist. Half the world goes hungry, whole the other half wastes enough to feed the first half. It is not food nor any other necessity that is scarce; it is money, whose built-in scarcity induces the same in everything else.”


Pitfalls of a Capitalistic Society 

  • “Financial security means having enough money not to be dependent on good luck or goodwill. From this perspective, the quest of financial security is but a projection of the technological program into personal life.”
  • “The sinister core of financial independence: it isolates us in a world of strangers.”
  • “Not only is perfect independence (financial or otherwise) forever beyond our grasp, it is an illusion cloaking an even greater dependency. It is not the dependency that is dangerous though — it is the illusion. It is the illusion that separates us from, and thus allows us to destroy, so much of what we actually depend on.”
  • “In economics, the very word “rational” means the maximization of one’s financial interests — a very significant assumption.”
  • ““Every man has his price.” Is that saying really true? Or is it just a symptom of how broken we are to the enslavement of money?”
  • The monetized life is a lonely life because it reduces the people in our lives to anonymous occupiers of roles, and also because financial transactions are by their nature generally free of obligation.
  • We can see economic growth, as reflecting an escalation of neediness, an intensification of the state of being in want.
  • To be constantly in want is the very definition of poverty, no matter how large one’s house or bank account.”
  • Money opens the door to pressures that are distinctly unfriendly. It is not very nice to maximize your rational self-interest. Yet that is what our present money system compels us to do. Yes, better to keep money out of the friendship. The only problem is that when all of life has been converted to money, we must then keep all of life out of the friendship too, leaving us with superficialities.”
  • “This separation of the spiritual needs of friendship and material needs of economic relationships reflects the Cartesian separation of spirit and matter. Friendship without material interdependency is usually just as anemic, just as superficial as spirituality divorced from the real world.”
  • “Social capital is the totality of human relationships that sustain life and make it rich. It is our relationships that create our identity. The sell-off of social capital thus represents a sell-off of our very being.”
  • “When wealth is separate from accumulation but refers to a richness of relationships, each person’s wealth makes everyone wealthier. 
  • “Another thread in the mosaic of the monetized society is the replacement of such social functions as reputation, word of mouth, credibility, and trust with standardized, objective substitutes. Since the professionals we pay are unknown to us and outside our shrunken social networks, we rely on various kinds of certification and licensing to assure us that these professionals are competent and responsible, protection we need in the absence of personal connections.”
  • Cultural Capital refers to the cumulative products of the human mind, including language, art, stories, music, and ideas.”
  • No person has a moral right to own an idea”
  • “All of what we call “intellectual property” – patents, phrases, text, images, sounds – are piece of the cultural universe that we separate out and make private.”
  • “Corvette owns a certain shade of red, UPS a certain shade of brown. These are parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Did these companies create these colors, or just enclose them, wall them off, and call them theirs?”
  • “Natural capital refers to the earth itself: the earth’s minerals, land, soil, oceans, freshwater, genomes, and biota; everything, that is, that was not created by human beings.
  • To think of the planet as consisting of “resources” already implies it is ours, defines the world in terms of its usefulness to us, and sets us separate and apart in relation to it.”
  • Our civilization is constitutionally incapable of reversing the annihilation of natural capital, or even slowing it down. Get used to that. When we really understand that, the project of reconceiving civilization itself will gain powerful impetus.”
  • “Other than the street, and perhaps Antarctica, all the world’s land surface has been made into mine, yours, his, theirs, ours.” 
  • “If we understand technology as a means to convert nonmonetary forms of capital into financial capital, then there will come a point when these other forms of capital are exhausted.”
  • “The conversion of all other capital into money is unsustainable. Someday it will run out. As it does our impoverishment will deepen. Misery and desperation will overcome whatever measures can be invented to suppress or narcotize them.” 


A Pathway Towards a new Economy 

  • “Gift transactions are quite different: they are open-ended and personal. The transaction is incomplete, leaving an obligation-a tie-between the giver and the receiver.”
  • “One of the main reasons we give gifts in the first place: to become more tied to, and thus less independent of, the person receiving.”
  • “When the relationships of gift-giving in a community are replaced by monetary transactions, the fabric of the community unravels.”
  • A community is a group of people who honor each other’s gifts, who can trust that their gifts will be reciprocated some day, in some way. In the absence of such trust, the interests of the self are the accumulation and control of resources that defines self-interest in a money economy.”
  • “Negative interest (demurrage) ….To remain valid, each piece of this locally issued currency required a monthly stamp costing 1 percent of its face value. Instead of generating interest and growing, accumulation of wealth became a burden, much like possessions are a burden to the nomadic hunter-gatherer.”
  • “Conceptually, demurrage works by freeing material goods, which are subject to natural cyclic processes of renewal and decay, from their linkage with a money that only grows, exponentially, over time.”
  • Demurrage currency subjects money to the same laws as natural commodities, whose continuing value requires maintenance.”
  • In an interest-based system, security comes from accumulating money. In a demurrage system from having productive channels through which to direct it.”
  • “Whereas interest tends to concentrate wealth, demurrage promotes its distribution
  • “Value is the doctrine that assigns to each object in the world a number. It associates an abstraction, changeless and independent, with that which always changes and that exists in relationship to all else. Demurrage reverses this thinking and thus removes an important boundary between human realm and the natural realm. When money is no longer preferred to goods, we will lose the habit of thinking in terms of how much something is “worth.”” 
  • “The “intelligent products system” attempts to implement the ecological principle that “waste is food” through (1) a leasing economy for durables, (2) complete nontoxic biodegradability of consumables, and (3) permanent storage charges for any other waste — you can still produce dioxin if you want, but it is yours forever.
  • “The first means that consumers lease large appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines instead of buying them. In effect they buy services (refrigeration, clothes-washing) instead of the machines themselves. This removes the structural incentive toward planned obsolescence while creating new incentives to make products easy to repair and recycle.
  • Storage fees for toxic waste create an incentive to develop processes to render it nontoxic.” 


Reconnecting to purpose 

  • “Genius is the result of doing what you love, not a prerequisite for it. The problem, of course, is discovering what that is. That is what childhood is supposed to be for, but our culture has turned it into the opposite.”
  • “When we are so thoroughly broken that we know not what we love, the only way out is first to stop doing what we do not love, to do nothing for a while.”
  • Build a career off the question “What would I most love to give to the world?” And you will be successful in ways you can hardly imagine.”
  • “To even believe “Why am I here?” Has an answer, already empowers life. It generates an urgency to discover what that purpose is. It makes any other life intolerable, including the standardized, compressed life offered by the Machine. Self-respect demands that we live in accordance with our purpose and seek to fulfill it.”
  • We are not just here; we are here for a purpose.” I don’t think I’ve ever penned a more banal spiritual cliche, but it is true nonetheless. Can you feel that in your bones? Young people know it most certainly; we call that knowledge idealism. They know that there is a way the world is supposed to be, and a magnificent role for themselves in that more beautiful world. Broken to the lesser lives we offer them, they react with hostility, rage, cynicism, depression, escapism, or self-destruction — all the defining qualities of modern adolescence. Then we blame for not bringing these qualities under control, and when they finally have given up their idealism we call them mature. Having given up their idealism, they can get on with the business of survival: practicality and security, comfort and safety, which is what we are left with in the absence of purpose.”
  • In a blind, purposeless universe we are at perfect liberty to do our will, for there is no natural order on which we might infringe, no destiny to interfere in, no destiny at all, in fact, except that which we create. But if there is a purpose inherent in The Way of the World, then the whole bent of science must change from understanding for control’s sake, to understanding for the sake of according more closely to nature’s purpose. Asking of ourselves, “What are we for?” We will seek out proper role and function on the planet and in the universe.”


A more holistic way of living 

  • “Maybe the body goes through cycles of sickness and health, or of cleansing, rebuilding, and maintaining, that actually necessitate a head cold now and then, or that make it nearly unavoidable.” 
  • Maybe diseases like colds and the flu serve some kind of eliminative function: toxins being discharged along with the mucus; poisons incinerated in the heat of fever; bacteria invited in as scavengers to help eliminate the by-products.”
  • If you don’t get little illnesses, someday you’ll get a big one.”
  • “It is important, to acknowledge and be sad for what is lost, so that we may complete the past and create the future in wholeness. Drawing on the Sanskrit root sat, to be sad means to be full. Sad, satisfied, sated. Complete. Ready to live and create from a full experience of reality.
  • “Knowing the pain of the world fills me with energy and confirms the rightness in my life’s direction. Otherwise what would stop me from occupying my hours with the trivial and the vain, staying comfortable for as long as possible until I died? We need not avert our gaze from ugliness and pain in order to live a happy life. Ignorance is not bliss. Quite the contrary: the more we insulate ourselves, the weaker we become, the less able we are to take on reality. The more we numb and defer the pain, the more afraid of it we are, until we willingly submit to the confinement in the (temporarily) secure, predictable, controlled semblance of life our society offers.”
  • Adult depression can be a sign of health. When we have been frightened away from our creative purpose into a life not really worth living, the soul rebels by withdrawing from that life.”
  • The first step to freedom is simply to allow yourself to fully feel whatever there is to feel. This, and not mind control, is where the true benefit of meditation lies.”
  • “What are those things that exists only in relationship, that are properties of wholes and not of parts? Here are a few examples: consciousness, spirit, sacredness, life, beauty, selfhood, divinity, love, truth, emotion, purpose, transcendence, will; in short, all that makes us human.
  • When we see the logic of the whole guiding the evolution of the parts, then we must recognize that each part — of a body, an ecosystem, the biosphere — has a purpose that we may not ever fully understand, not even if we measure its every component.”
  • “The homeopath seeks out the natural substance that can teach the body a healthier pattern of being. Looking within nature instead of seeking to defeat or transcend it, the homeopath approaches healing in the spirit of water instead of fire.
  • “Like demurrage currency, like the energy of the gift, water resists confinement, moves from high places to low, and ultimately circles back to its source.


Creating a New Story of Us

  • “The reuniting of these two categories, art and life, is central to the healing that will occur with the collapse of the Age of Separation.” 
  • “The whole world is spiritual. It does not contain or possess spirit; it is spirit.”
  • “What the Knower in our hearts knows is that the people and events of our lives are connected according to an ineffable logic, proceeding as if by divine orchestration toward a destiny that flows from who we are, and that changes according to who we choose to be.”
  • “Not just some events, but all events are significant; none are random. Yes, I am asserting the “magical thinking” shared by all primitive cultures. Science disagrees. Science says we merely project nonexistent patterns and relationships onto a random reality.”
  • Truth is a state of integrity”
  • “When faced with two different interpretations of an experience, instead of gathering more and more evidence to decide which is true, the new metaphor calls us to simply choose one or the other, depending on which fits with the greater integrity into all that we are and, more importantly, all we strive to be. We create who we are through the truths we choose.
  • “If we understand truth as a creative choice, we will be all the more conscientious in choosing.”
  • “In choosing a truth we are choosing an interpretation of our world; that interpretation, in turn, generates new experiences consistent with it.”
  • “Whether inside or outside of science, we might see the quest for truth not as an encompassing of more and more facts, not as a growing certainty about the world, but rather as a path of self-understanding and conscious creativity.”
  • “The progression from one belief-state to another is unconscious, subject to a logic and a process beyond my understanding. A truth that served me well in one stage of existence becomes obsolete as I move on to another. And so it is with all of us.”
  • “I am suggesting a different conception of God, not as creator but as Creativity itself, not outside the universe but an inseparable property of the universe.”
  • “Animism, often misunderstood as the belief that all things are possessed of spirit, actually holds that all things are spirit.”
  • “I offer the reader not a mundane universe in which nothing is sacred because there is no God, nor a split universe in which some things are holy, of God, and others just matter, but rather a universe that is fully sacred, pregnant with meaning, immanent with divinity, in which order, organization, and beauty arise spontaneously from the ground up, neither imposed from above by a designer nor projected from within by the observer, and of which God is an inseparable property.” 
  • Our stories in the social realm translate into experiences in the material realm. The entire world of the modern human experience is built upon a story.” 
  • “Storyteller consciousness…. proposes that instead of seeking to describe a reality already out there, we will be aware that we create reality through our story about it.”
  • “Our mistake has been not in telling stories, only in thinking they are real. When we let go of that, we will be able to play with them consciously and let them go when they no longer serve us.”