Essay by PennUniversity, Ph.D. June 2004

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The word evolution, in its purest form, merely denotes a process of improvement. Of course, individuals can evolve, moving from a relatively undeveloped state to one of greater sophistication or complexity. The all-important question is, whether or not the process is self-willed.

There have been throughout history two camps of antagonists -- one that sought to elevate man by increasing his liberty, encouraging the virtuous exercise of his free will, and affirming the existence of beings superior to him; another that sought to reduce man to the level of an ape by denying the existence of the higher beings he might strive to emulate, destroying his belief in self-determination, and forever placing limits on his liberty. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud belonged to this latter camp.

In his life and work, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats struggled to prevent the soul-deadening theories of this trio from becoming orthodoxies.

One of his most famous poems, "Sailing to Byzantium," develops the concept of evolution as a personal and voluntary process. It is predicated on the belief that man at any given time finds himself on a spectrum somewhere between ape and angel. He can move in either direction, choosing for himself whether to accentuate the animal or the spiritual aspect of his nature.

There are men and women among us who seem to have known from childhood that the spiritual world is of greater value than the material, but for most of us it is only with advancing age that we begin to transfer our allegiance from one to the other. We find ourselves -- in the words of Yeats' poem -- "caught in that sensual music," and not until the tatters begin to show in our "mortal dress" do we come to recognize that our...