Psychologist Clare W. Graves outlined a personality theory involving eight "levels of existence" that he believed individuals progress through as circumstances permit. Those familiar with Spiral Dynamics or the work of Ken Wilber have encountered popularizations (and simplifications) of Graves' work.
Those who share my distrust of the narrative of Progress™ will be understandably suspicious the concept of levels of the personality (not to mention anything connected with Ken Wilber). I myself rejected it for some time after I finally gave up on that mythology. However, after reading Clare W. Graves: The Levels of Human Existance, a transcription of some of Graves' lectures edited by William R. Lee (available at the SD Store, linked), I've come to believe Graves' research is valid and that he was on to something important. More on that in a later post.
Briefly, Graves outlines eight levels labeled A-N to H-U. The first letter denotes the psychological attitudes and basic worldview of a person at that level, while the latter denotes the neurological subsystem associated with that level. My understanding is that these could theoretically be one step out of sync, but this seems to be of little significance; Spiral Dynamics and Wilber ignore it, and label each normal pair with a color.
The first two levels are more speculative, and were inferred from a combination of anthropological reports of hunter-gatherer societies and research into children's cognitive and moral development. The A-N level is the level of more-or-less automatic survival. B-O is a level associated with establishing and maintaining security through rigid adherence to tradition.
The more interesting levels are what we might call the "civilizational" levels, which account for nearly all members of developed civilizations. These are C-P, D-Q, E-R, and F-S. Some convenient stereotypes for these levels (as well as a mnemonic) are the Biker, the Believer, the Banker, and the Barista.
The C-P level was described as based on the ethic of "express self impulsively," and its stereotype is that of the Biker, the rough-and-tumble misfit who lives at the edge of the law. Warlords, gang members, and drug addicts are among the negative stereotypes.
Graves described the D-Q level's prerogative as "deny self for future reward." These are the Believers, who sacrifice for their family, for their country, for their gods. They look for a reward in the future, even after death. Police officers, patriotic soldiers (as opposed to C-P mercenaries), and religious fanatics are some of the stereotypes for this level.
The E-R level's motive is "express self cautiously." Like those at C-P, they are out for number one; unlike those at C-P, they mean to be smart about it. Go too far, and it just blows back in your face (not to say this never happens to people of this temperament). I've nicknamed this one the Banker, because the stereotypical business executives is a great example of this mindset.
Finally, the F-S level's motive is "deny self for approval now." People at this level are motivated by a need for approval from their peers. I've called this one the "Barista" to preserve the alliteration. You know the type: majored in liberal arts, goes to yoga classes, highly fashion conscious. (Again, this is a stereotype, meant to paint a picture of an extreme case. I'm not talking about real people. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)
Above these are still more complex levels, G-T and H-U, and possibly more. Those at G-T seek to, in Graves' words, "express self, but not at the expense of others," and those at H-U are motivated by a desire to "adapt self to existential realities." (I have some ideas on what that might mean, but that will have to wait for another time.) Graves noted that in his lifetime the dominant level of Western civilization had changed from E-R to F-S. Graves conjectured that modern Western society was on the verge of a leap to G-T.
For what it's worth, I think he was wrong. I think F-S is for all practical purposes the highest level that a society as a whole can reach. Again, more on this another time.
Anyway, I want to paint some pictures of these four types with superheroes from the various eras of DC Comics. I should mention that there are some very mild spoilers to follow if you haven't been reading comics in a couple of decades. Seriously, they're barely spoilers at all. Still, I'll place the rest of this post under a cut just in case.