The Five Levels 

The Five Levels system was developed in 1983. At that time, I was looking for a way to convey, as best I could, the stages or levels of thinking and being available to human beings. I had developed the top line of the schematic (No Mind, Hive Mind, etc.) and was beginning to explore the notion of a five-level or five-stage system. At the same time, I was reading The Mirror and the Lamp by the literary critic M. H. Abrams. In his book, Abrams argues that the metaphor for the mind from Plato’s time to the time of the Romantic poets was the mirror, at which point it became the lamp. I aligned mirror with Hive Mind and lamp with Poetic Mind, and began asking the questions that allowed me to flesh out the system. In a single afternoon the schematic seemed to complete itself, all except for two entries. It was my colleague Dan Daly, PhD, who suggested that I use eagle for Heroic Mind and dolphin for Poetic Mind.

A Map

The Five Levels Schematic is my effort to offer a map of developmental possibility. Read it from left to right, row by row, in order to get a sense of each stage as it is defined by the relationship of the descriptors to one another. The stages are not fixed. They blend into one another and there could be more or fewer stages. Still, from left to right across the schematic, there is a developmental direction, a maturation that is mapped.

Perhaps for clarity’s sake I should add that the Five Levels system is not science. The stages are not based on field surveys or on psychological testing, nor are they considered synonymous with unfolding physiological structures. Rather, the Five Levels system is simply a way of mapping developmental possibility through the ordering of common or everyday terms.

When I developed the Five Levels system, I was aware of only one other similar system. Since that time, I have become aware of many such systems (for example, the remarkable work of both Ken Wilber and Robert Kegan).

What I have concluded over the years, having reviewed many developmental systems (some scientific and far more detailed), is that the Five Levels system maps adequately the territory for many a would-be traveler.

Why have a map?

In his wonderful book, A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher wrote the following:

“In the whole of philosophy, there is no subject in greater disarray than ethics. Anyone asking the professors of ethics for the bread of guidance or how to conduct himself, will receive not even a stone but just a torrent of ‘opinions.’ With very few exceptions, they embark upon an investigation into ethics without any prior clarification of the purpose of human life on Earth. It is obviously impossible to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong, virtuous or evil, without an idea of purpose: Good for what? To raise the question of purpose has been called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’— virtue is its own reward! None of the great teachers of mankind would have been satisfied with such an evasion. If a thing is said to be good but no one can tell me what it is good for, how can I be expected to take any interest in it? If our guide, our annotated Map of Life, cannot show us where The Good is situated and how it can be reached, it is worthless.”

According to Schumacher, A Map of Life is needed to show us where The Good is situated. The Five Levels Schematic is a map of life, the Good situated in the direction of our fullest possible maturity, a maturity that is life-centric in nature (see below). Much of the purpose and joy that is available to us is found—increasingly, I believe—in the pursuing and obtaining of that maturity.

Perhaps the following—though brief—can clarify further the five developmental stages. With each level, the sense of self changes, as does the objective or mindset commanding allegiance:

— from a self just beginning to form for which the need for biological survival rules the day (Level I)

— to a self formed through the units of family, community, and local culture, a self that is conscious of other selves and in search of the acceptance and validation that other selves provide (Level II)

— to a self more fully individualized, self-directed, no longer a believer in the party line but a rebel with a cause, a cause that may or may not benefit others but which, at base, is intended to secure a sense of place, worth, and self-esteem (Level III)

— to a self with greater mindfulness, imaginatively engaged, actively working to undermine the hardening habits of thinking and doing that obstruct opportunity, understanding, the flow of experience (Level IV)

— to a self at the top of its game—integrated, playful, capable of service to the largest of possible motives; a self that through discipline has won its freedom, the freedom to transcend the concerns of all previous levels if duty and service to life so require (Level V)

David Thomas, PhD

For more on the Five Levels system and on the ethics of human development, see Human Development and the Theater of Everyday Life and The Ethics of Human Development Training Program.


After I created the Five Levels Schematic, I sent it to a number of individuals whose work I very much admire.

I should add that when I first developed the Five Levels Schematic, the fifth level was labeled Never Mind (as in never mind what might distract you from the ethical requirements of the situation). Later, that was changed but the individuals listed below received that early version. Also, the initial schematic had American population estimates for each level.

— James Cares, author of the truly remarkable Finite and Infinite Games (among other books)

“Thank you so much for your letter and your wonderfully inventive schematic. I got more than a few chuckles and ahas! from it. Very clever. I can certainly see how it is compatible with some of the thinking in my book. I am of course delighted by your response to my book.

“Very best wishes in what I can only imagine is creative and important work.”

— Owen Barfield, brilliant author of a number of wonderful books: Poetic Diction, History in English Words, History, Guilt and Habit, Romanticism Comes of Age, among others.

“It was very good of you to go to the trouble of packing and mailing to me your impressive chart on the Five Levels of Being. I am gratified to learn that my books played some part in bringing it to birth.”

“I am a little puzzled by your pejorative use of the term ‘helpfulness’ though I think I have a fair idea of the lines on which you would explain it to me, if the opportunity arose. The polar opposition between No Mind and Never Mind is also rather intriguing—and incidentally a good example of the wide semantic scope of the English work mind. No other language, as far as I am aware, has a term that quite matches it.”

“Thank you for making just the kind of positive use of my own work which makes me feel it has been worthwhile.”

(Note: I had inadvertently typed “helpfulness” in my letter to Mr. Barfield and had meant to type “helplessness”.)

— M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, a beautiful book that reached a wide market.

“Thank you so very much for your letter of April 29th and also for the beautiful schematic diagram of ‘The Five Levels of Being in America’.”

“I do not even get to read, much less answer the bulk of my correspondence these days, but the sophistication of your work compelled that it be referred to me personally and that I personally answer.”

“I did want to let you know how much I agreed with the essential dynamics of your ‘schema’. I have a few quarrels with it. The most important is your numerology at the bottom. Although I pride myself on being realistic, I actually think that you underestimate the numbers in the ‘higher” categories. I would make your ‘Poetic Mind’ category as having about 5 million people, and your ‘Never Mind’ category as having about 2 million people. This is a much more optimistic assessment than I would have made five years ago, but the response that I have received from my work has made me even more optimistic.”

“In case you are not already familiar with it, I think that you would very much enjoy reading ‘Stages of Faith’, by James Fowler. Jim talks about some six stages. You have five. In my next book, I will be talking about four. I expect that book to be published on the 1st of April next year.”

“I am sorry that I am not able to join together with you to encourage your work with my body and time. But I did at least want to let you know my opinion that your work is indeed representing a reality rather accurately.”

— John David Garcia, author of The Moral Society and Creative Transformation, both of which I thought were brilliant.

“Thank you for your interesting diagram on the levels of consciousness, your letter, and your other materials. You seem to have had a varied and humane career. I hope we may find a way of working together.”

“As the enclose materials indicate, we are an unusual organization, since we make no effort at all to accumulate money, but merely do our best to be maximally creative and keep going on the track we are currently on until we run out of resources. At that time, we use this economic feedback to change tracks and correct our tactics. This produces an interesting but economically unstable and unpredictable life. Very few persons can take the economic uncertainty of working at SEE—to say nothing of the low salaries and dependency on uncertain future profits for even a halfway decent income.”

“Feel free to call me, if you wish to discuss these matters. However, I strongly suggest you read as many of my books as possible first, to ascertain if we are going in the same direction. We usually need persons with backgrounds in the physical and biological sciences more than in the social sciences. However, we are ready to explore cooperating with anyone after they have understood our goals, methods, and ethics.”

“Please keep in touch. I was contacted by the Chairman of the School of Engineering and Technology at the University of Nebraska. There is a slight chance I may be invited to give some lectures, seminars, and workshops there. These are usually free, since I do not charge for my time.”

“Thank you again for your interest. Please keep in touch. I hope that we can find a way of working together.”

Afterword Two

I realize that including these letters is self-serving. In graduate school, I was a part of a research group. That group provided its members with both critique and support. I did not remain in an academic setting and over the years, I often have found myself in need of such a group.

A friend from long ago, futurist Leland Kaiser, once suggested to me something along the lines of the following: Say you move to a new community, or you venture into another field, another arena of work or study… if so, then one of the most important skills you can have is the ability to find those individuals who will support you in your pursuits… individuals who can critique, offer constructive feedback, yes, but also individuals who are willing to look into what you are doing and confirm and encourage your efforts.

The above letters were an aid to me in that regard.

David Thomas, PhD