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by Jay Michael Barrie

 Part 1 of 2

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"If I am to be remembered at all,

I hope it would be as

an historian of consciousness

and its evolution."

Gerald Heard to Professor Ted Solomon

of Iowa State University, early 1950s



William Sheldon once wrote, "Considering the whole panorama of human life, historic, anthropologic and archeologic, Gerald Heard may well be the best informed man alive." Certain it is that the range of his interests and the span of his learning were seemingly unfathomable.

Christopher Isherwood noted, "Gerald Heard is one of the few who can be properly called philosopher, a man of brilliantly daring theory and devoted practice. I believe he has influenced the thought of our time, directly and indirectly, to an extent which will hardly be appreciated for another fifty years."

And Aldous Huxley stated, "The Universe is a continuum; but our knowledge of it is departmentalized. Every learned Society is a pigeonhole, every University a columbarium. Gerald Heard is that rare being, a man who makes his mental home on the vacant spaces between the pigeonholes."

These words of Isherwood and Huxley summarize admirably two important aspects of Heard's unicity—an uncanny prescience in regard to the future of human affairs, made possible by an uncommonly open mind. Huxley further said that in an increasingly compartmentalized world where knowledge is locked up in leak-proof packages of "omolies" and "ologies," where communication between the many and various disciplines of the mind—not to speak of efforts to exchange and correlate new discoveries—is practically nonexistent, where scholars and scientists know "more and more about less and less," Gerald Heard was able to escape the dread trap of specialization because the range of his interests and the span of his knowledge were so wide. Almost as impressive was Heard's ability to retain information. Yet he was no mere collector of data, as are so many able men who are regarded as original thinkers.

What is the unique quality or state of his mind that makes it possible for such a man to see so clearly what lies ahead before others are aware of it? Perhaps Huxley’s remarks will furnish a clue.

It was by avoiding the pigeonholes that Heard maintained an open mind—that is, a mind that was unable to be satisfied either with explanations that were simply apt for the moment or with final and irreversible conclusions that were not to be disturbed by new or contradictory facts. No new idea, theory, or apparent discovery was, for him, unworthy of consideration. One of his favorite sayings was that, "An educated man is one who can entertain himself, entertain a stranger, and entertain a new idea."

And always he kept before this open mind a cosmology—a philosophical frame of reference—in which, to keep it constantly up to date, every new bit of information must find a place or be filed in a "suspense account." Never was any new evidence rejected because it threatened to embarrass his cosmology. Perhaps years later another discovery would turn up which, when joined with one held in the suspense account, happily fit in and closed the gap. This was one of his greatest gifts and contributions and, incidentally, the mark of an original thinker—the ability to see a correlation where no one would have suspected it existed, simply because he had refused to ignore an anomaly that at the time appeared not to fit.

Born toward the end of the nineteenth century, Heard had anticipated, formulated, and stated properly many of today’s major problems before the twentieth century was thirty years old. Gerald Heard believed that there are two basics that must prevail if a society is to endure. The first is the relationship between cosmology and ethics. One’s cosmology, as Heard used the word, is a person’s philosophical worldview—the core beliefs that they espouse about the universe and themselves, and the frame of reference by which they interpret and understand life. Ontology concerns itself with the ultimate nature of existence.

Strictly speaking, Heard's cosmology was more of a "cosmontology" since it posited a self-existent Life Force, an Ultimate Reality. However, for the moment, let us call it cosmology and see how he related it to ethics. Heard said, "One’s cosmology must produce an ethic or it is not adequate, it is outdated, or untrue. And conversely, unless one’s ethic is deduced from a cosmology that is supported by a preponderance of up-to-date evidence, it had no sanction, and one will not be able to adhere to it." Of course he would have gone on to say that the principle involved is that everyone, from the fool and the criminal to the hero and the saint, consciously or unconsciously behaves in terms of four concepts: (1) what they believe themselves to be; (2) what they believe to be the nature of the Universe in which they find themselves; (3) what they believe to be the nature of the Life Force that appears to be running things; and, (4) the relationship among all three. If this fourfold concept is inadequate, if it is hopelessly outdated, or if it violates a person’s reason, then the person’s moral code will be sketchy and confused. Torn between uncertainty and greed, one will behave erratically, unpredictably, and self-interest alone will be their guideline.

The ethic we have deduced from a picture of the universe as being a huge machine that can be ever more understood, brought under control, and exploited for comfort and gain (the prevailing social "needs") has allowed us to plunder and despoil our planet and each other to a point where it is quite apparent that only a spiritual renaissance (a new cosmology that produces a new ethic) can save us from plunging recklessly into self-destruction.

Heard believed that the second basic necessity to a viable society is that all progress in physics must be matched by an equivalent progress in psychology. For every advance in the knowledge and management of the outer world there must be an equal and simultaneous advance in the understanding and control of that inner world contained in those few inches between the forehead and the back of the skull. Otherwise, the balance between man’s scientific and technological strides forward and his knowledge of himself, his motives, and his goals is upset. For example, it is a precarious balance that exists between the scientific knowledge and technology that has produced nuclear power and the value system used in making the decision as to how it will be utilized.

Gerald Heard's breakthrough book, The Ascent of Humanity was published in 1929. In it he outlined his philosophy of history. The "drum and trumpet" interpretation of history, that it is only a record of the "crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind," is not true. History, he proposed, is "the shadow cast by the evolving consciousness of man," a concept presented in germinal form five years earlier in his first philosophical book, Narcissus.

According to Heard, man has evolved into five distinct stages. At the beginning, he was co-conscious; he had no sense of being an individual, separate from his fellow creatures and the world in which he lived. He has developed over the millennia through the further stages of proto-individual and mid-individual to the fourth stage of the total individual—a self-conscious being who for the first time is conscious of the fact that he has an unconscious that he does not understand and cannot control, but who at the same time is able to extract greater and greater power from and wield more and more control over his environment.

Despite popular belief, and notwithstanding the fact that any further physical evolution needed for coping with an environment rapidly being changed by ruthless and blind exploitation with its many consequent forms of pollution, can be provided through prosthetic extensions of his present body by his highly developed intelligence working through his highly developed science and technology, man at present does not represent the peak of nature’s achievements through evolution. He is now emerging, in Heard's theory, into a fifth psychological stage, that of the post-individual who can, if he chooses, discern the direction of his continuing evolution.

This fifth stage constitutes a psychological revolution that will force man to turn inward and attempt to understand himself and to gain control of himself, which will provide the necessary counterbalance to his present knowledge of the outer world and his power to exploit it. How is this to be achieved?

The way forward, out of our present chaos and confusion, says Heard, is through a further, self-consciously accomplished evolution of his consciousness that will give him the self-knowledge and self-control needed to identify himself once more with the Life Force that pervades and contains the universe and all that is in it, and to behave accordingly. Heard spent the rest of his life developing and refining this philosophy and living in conformity with it. His 1941 book, Training for the Life of the Spirit, was the result of twenty years of such research and practice.

Gerald Heard's birthplace (courtesy Stawell Heard, Jr.)

Henry FitzGerald Heard, his given name, was born in London on October 6, 1889, the youngest of three boys. His family home, however, was in Ireland, where the Heards have been landed gentry since the sixteenth century, bearing the formal ancestral name "Heard of Kinsale, County Cork." According to Heard Family lore, in 1579 John Heard of Wiltshire came to Ireland with Walter Raleigh and decided to settle there. Gerald's father, Henry James Heard (1856-1931), a direct descendant of the sixteenth-century John Heard, graduated from Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge, founded in 1348. He became a Deacon in the Church of England in 1883 and a Priest in 1886. At the time of Gerald’s birth, he was the Curate at Christ Church South Hackney in East London. He served at Shortlands, Kent, from 1890-1892 before becoming Rector of St. Michael’s Church at Bath in 1894, and residing in the Rectory there until 1915.

The young Gerald's early years were divided between Bath and his paternal grandmother’s home at Ballintubber, Carrigtwohill, County Cork, as Gerald's side of the family had moved from Kinsale to Ballintubber in the eighteenth century. His boyhood years were unhappy, as his father, who often raged at the boy, subjected him to beatings. His older brothers teased him. Gerald's mother, Maud Jervis Heard, the daughter of Alexander Bannatyne of County Limerick, died when he was a child, and afterward the Rev. Heard remarried. Although his stepmother was fond of him (as he was of her), his excessive need for love made him emotionally vulnerable and overly responsive to the slightest show of kindness. This heightened sensitivity coupled with his uncommonly precocious mind made him an irresistible target of the sadistic teasing for which the English public-school boy is notorious. Gerald finally learned to fend off the boys' attacks by keeping them absorbed in outlandish, outrageously unbelievable stories that he made up as he went along and which he recounted with such conviction that in the end he became a kind of bard who, so long as his tales could hold the attention and interest of his schoolmates, was left unmolested.


Lord Robson, 1900 (Elliott & Fry)

Having finished public school at Sherborne School in Dorset, his university years, 1908-1913, were spent at Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, and eldest brother. There, in 1911, he took a second class in the History Tripos, the final undergraduate examination that confers a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors. He remained there in residence on a scholarship doing postgraduate work studying theology as a candidate in preparation for Holy Orders and a career as an Anglican clergyman, but subsequently he never pursued ordination. After leaving Cambridge in June 1913, Heard became literary secretary to Lord William Snowden Robson of Jesmond (1852-1918), an attorney general in the government of Mr. Asquith, who was then retired writing his memoirs. He worked with Lord Robson for two years, having been rejected by the military on physical grounds, as he suffered from a back injury when dropped as a child. (Alas, his immediate older brother, Captain Robert Bannatyne Heard, born in 1888, was not so fortunate, having been mortally wounded in Alexandria, Egypt during the British war effort on May 4, 1915.)

From his youth on, it had been Heard’s intention to follow in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather Rev. John Bickford Heard (author of a number of religious books), his father, and his eldest brother Alexander St. John Heard, and take Holy Orders in the Church of England. However, such a probing mind as his, consumed with curiosity and with such a vast spread of interests, had been on a collision course with doubt as to many of the doctrines of Christianity from the time he was in his teens. This happened even as a youth of eight, when he saw one of the first X-ray photographs in a shop window, which was treated by the public as a fraud. This was Heard’s first brush with skepticism. The same reaction occurred with the Wright Brother’s historic 1907 flight, again initially dismissed by a doubting public. The crash came at last in 1916. The result was a nervous breakdown.

After a long illness, Heard recovered to find that the young man who had wanted to be a priest-missionary had become a scientific materialist with a strong sense of social responsibility and an equally strong conviction that the world could be tidied up, that justice could and must prevail, and that it was his duty to dedicate his life and efforts to a frontal attack on the obstacles to these ends. The next few years, then, found him active in such things as agricultural cooperatives, progressive education, prison visiting, and social reform.

Sir Horace Plunkett, 1924
(courtesy The Plunkett Foundation)

By December 12, 1919, Heard became associated with Sir Horace Plunkett (1854-1932), founder of the Irish agricultural cooperative movement, and worked with him as a highly trusted confidential secretary for about ten years, living first in Kilteragh, his Dublin home, and from 1923 on, living in Plunkett’s Crest House close to Weybridge near London. During the time in Ireland he came to know well many of the notables of the time. George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte, W. B. Yeats, Lord Fingall, George Russell, Colonel E. M. House, and Lady Gregory were some of those with whom Heard made friends when they were Plunkett’s houseguests. "In Gerald Heard," Plunkett once wrote, "I have a secretary who, however ill I feel, can amuse the most brilliant and most varied guests."1

According to a February 1, 1923 article in "The Irish Independent," Heard was the lone resident in Kilteragh when the residence was set on fire the previous Tuesday night, barely escaping with his life. Heard penned 1924's Narcissus while at Crest House, which Sir Horace praised as "a brilliant book," while at the same time lamenting Gerald’s lost secretarial skills during the time he spent producing the book. Heard traveled with Plunkett to Capetown, South Africa in January 1925 when Sir Horace decided to winter there. Back in London he convinced the skeptical but obliging Plunkett to accompany him on a visit to the Laboratory for Psychical Research in September 1926. By 1927 Heard had scaled down his hours for Plunkett, now that his own career was on the rise. In due course, by about 1929, Heard had substantially left his work with Plunkett. However, they remained close friends until Plunkett’s death in 1932.

Turning up at the door of the Plunkett Foundation’s London offices one morning before departing for the States in 1937, Heard said he, "…had something which might be of interest to you." He then produced the complete set of Plunkett's diaries, maintained until a week or so of Plunkett’s death. A measure of Plunkett’s confidence and reliance in Heard was shown when Heard was named executor of his will—a task that took eighteen years to discharge.

All the while Heard’s passion for history had kept him roaming the corridors of the past, haunting the open spaces between the pigeonholes. He had found it increasingly difficult to avoid the notion that there was a pattern to be discerned in man’s history. By 1924, the first hints of his psychological-historical schema made their appearance in Narcissus. This theme was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life and culminate in his final book, 1964's The Five Ages of Man.

Along with service to Plunkett, Heard was busily engaged in a number of activities during the 1920s as well as during the post-Plunkett period and before he came to the United States in 1937. He was, by 1925, "...just then making his name as a scientific journalist. He was reputed to read two thousand books a year and had an extraordinary flow of information about hygiene, sex, paranormal phenomena and the probable destiny of mankind."2 His circle of acquaintances included J. R. Ackerley, W. H. Auden, G. Lowes Dickinson (who wrote the introduction to 1929's The Ascent of Humanity), E. M. Forster, Naomi Mitchison, Harold Nicholson, artist Glyn Philpot (who used Heard as a model for two oil-sketch portraits at his Tite Street studio around 1915), and Christopher Wood. He published ten books in the 1930s.

Jack Sprott, Gerald Heard, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey

at Strachey's Ham Spray House, c. late 1920s.3

Because of Sir Julian Huxley's friendship and influence, he was brought in as literary editor of "The Realist," a monthly journal of scientific humanism, during that periodical’s short life of less than one year, from 1929-1930. There he worked with an editorial board composed of, among others, Arnold Bennett, Aldous Huxley, Julian Huxley, Bronislaw Malinowski, H. G. Wells, and Rebecca West. Pacifists Heard and Aldous Huxley, associated with the Peace Movement, gave lectures in England in support of their cause in the mid-1930s, mainly at London's Peace Pledge Union, a major pacifist organization. (Two of their essays are included in the 1936 anthology, The New Pacifism.) They also advocated boycotting the sale of nickel to Nazi Germany, which was crucial to produce her armory. According to Heard, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rejected their idea as, "Impractical."4


Heard began his career as a public speaker in 1926, lecturing for three years under the auspices of Oxford University’s Board of Extra Mural Studies. Beginning in 1927 he became a regular Sunday speaker for South Place Ethical Society in London. For ten years, from 1932 to 1942, he was active on the council and research committee of The Society for Psychical Research. As mentioned earlier, in 1929 he published his second philosophical book, The Ascent of Humanity, an essay on the philosophy of history that was awarded the distinguished Henrietta Hertz Prize by The British Academy.


Gerald Heard at the BBC broadcast microphone,

November, 1932.5

For four years, from 1930 to 1934, he was the first Science Commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation, commanding a large and regular listening audience with his fortnightly broadcasts, during which time he had instant access to all the greats in the world of science, both in England and Europe. As H. G. Wells once said of him, "Heard is the only man I ever listen to on the wireless. He makes human life come alive." These BBC lectures were published weekly in "The Listener" and eventually were assembled as This Surprising World (1932), Science in the Making (1935), and Exploring the Stratosphere (1936).6 Throughout this period he acquired an amazing grasp of general principles in the various scientific disciplines that, coupled with his encyclopedic retention of facts, would furnish him with so many apt illustrations for his writing and lecturing in later years.

As part of his backlash against formal religion, Heard had become interested in psychical research at the age of seventeen. Although skeptical, he persevered in his investigations, and after twenty years had come to the conclusion that, despite the maddeningly elusive character of the evidence, a strong case could be made for the idea that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon. It is not just a kind of steam given off by the organism that vanishes into nothingness when the body disintegrates at death. It appears to operate outside the space-time continuum and so would neither be completely subject to the laws of linear causality, nor does it seem to be a measurable form of energy.

Pushing this concept further, it seemed a tenable proposition to Heard that consciousness, if it did exist outside time and space, could be the substratum that underlay the fluctuating states arising and disappearing in our day-to-day experiences within time and space. Heard would later discover that this was a fundamental teaching of Vedanta philosophy. At this point he began to feel certain that life did, after all, have a meaning. This was the first of three great designs—meaning, method, and training—that dominated his thinking from the mid-1930s on, weaving in and out as his psychological-historical tapestry emerged.

Is there any purpose to this human existence, in being born and living for a fleeting "three score and ten years," and then disappearing in the event called death? Or is the whole thing an "idiot-told tale" consisting in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, the frantic chase after wealth along with the power and possessions it brings, the quest for praise, and the flight from shame and blame? Then, if there is meaning to life, are there methods of detecting that meaning, maps to point the way, left behind by others who had found it? Again, Heard's studies and researches had impelled him to accept that there were.

But just as an athlete must train, imposing on himself or herself a relentless self-discipline in order to gain the self-control needed to follow his or her particular form of sport, be it golf, tennis, track, or whatever, the person in search of meaning must practice a rigorous athleticism (the term Heard preferred to asceticism), following the guidelines of those who had gone before in order to become proficient in his or her method. And this training must be a total way of life, affecting and transforming one’s conduct, one’s character, and ultimately, one’s consciousness. Heard argued for living such a "rationed life" in 1937's The Third Morality wherein he states, "The general aim is the individual's realization of his unity with all life and being: his realization that the universe is alive and that every creature, himself included, is part of that life" (p.187).

Satisfied now as to meaning and method, Heard's life and resources from here on were dedicated to an attempt through constant research, experiment, and practice, to discover a contemporary system of spiritual or psychological training. It was in this frame of mind that he came to the United States and encountered Swami Prabhavananda and the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta.

Click here to continue to part 2

1 Horace Plunkett: An Anglo-American Irishman by Margaret Digby. Used by kind permission of the Plunkett Foundation, as are quotations from Sir Horace Plunkett’s unpublished Diaries.

2 E. M. Forster: A Life, Volume II by P. N. Furbank, 1977, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, p.136. Used by kind permission of Professor P. N. Furbank.

3 Ham Spray House photo obtained from the Archive Centre, King's College, Cambridge, CB2 1ST. Used by kind permission of the Archive Centre, King's College, Cambridge.

4 The Poignant Prophet” by Gerald Heard, first published in The Kenyon Review, Winter 1965, OS, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, p.58. Copyright The Kenyon Review. Used by kind permission of The Kenyon Review.

5 "Gerald Heard at the BBC broadcast microphone, 1932." Copyright BBC Photo Library. Reproduced under license from the BBC Photo Library.

6 This information provided courtesy of Dr. Rhodri Hayward, 2002.

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