“Jean Gebser was born August 20, 1905 in the Prussian town of Poznan (which is now a part of Poland). His lineage dates back through an old Franconian family that had been domiciled in Thuringa since 1236. His uncle was the German Chancellor von Bethmann- Hollweg and on his mother’s side he was a descendent of Luther’s friend Melanchthon. He came into this world at an auspicious time to be sure. Five years earlier, Freud had published his groundbreaking work, The Interpretation of Dreams, that was to form the foundations of psychoanalysis and change the course of the study of psychology. In the very year of his birth, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity that was to have a significant impact on Gebser’s thinking as well as on the world of science as a whole. Max Planck, the great German physicist was promulgating his quantum theory; and Edmund Husserl, a then unknown Austrian philosopher, published his Logical Investigations which were to become the foundation of one of the most influential schools of philosophic thought in the 20th century, namely phenomenology. This was also a time of a great occult revival as well, for the primary rosicrucian organizations that are still operating in the United States, for example, were incorporated around this time as well.
Gebser’s father was a lawyer of some renown; his mother a whimsical, self-seeking beauty many years younger than her husband. He grew up, then, in an educated and cultured environment. Difficulties between his parents drove him inward and he instinctively turned toward literature as his medium of discovery; this was especially true after his father’s death in 1922. Being forced to interrupt his studies upon his father’s death, he spent two years in an apprenticeship in a bank, a task that he disliked severely. A year after beginning this training, however, he and a friend started at literary magazine called the Fischzug, where his first poems were published. In Berlin at the time, and at least a part-time student, he listened to many of the renowned faculty teaching at the university there. Among these was the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini whose depth of knowledge and spirituality left an indelible impression upon Gebser. During this time he also discovered the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke which had a tremendous impact on his thinking. It was during his Berlin years, however, that he first confronted suicidal despair and the realization that he must venture out into the world in order to find himself. The appearance of the first Brown Shirts in Munich provided him with the reason he needed to leave Germany.
The first stop on his journey was Florence, where he worked for a while in a second-hand bookstore. It was here that he came to the realization that all the books he read had never taught him how to live, hence he began a more active quest toward fulfillment. He tried Germany again, but bade it a final farewell in the Spring of 1931, first going to Paris and then on to Southern France. It was here that he changed his German first name “Hans” to the French “Jean.” Following the footsteps of Rilke, Gebser moved to Spain. He managed to learn the language and obtain a position in the Ministry of Education, in fact, and made friends with many prominent Spaniards, among them Federico Garcia Lorca. Gebser also published a volume of translations of some of these newer Spanish poets. It was in Spain that Gebser first conceived of the ideas that would later take form in his works, Decline and Participation and, of course, The Ever-Present Origin. Shortly before his home in Madrid was bombed in 1936, he managed to flee from Spain. Gebser settled in Paris and made the acquaintances of many of the notable French artists and intelligentsia of the day, including Pablo Picasso. He was involved in writing and literature for the most part, translating Hölderlin’s poetry into Spanish and some of his Spanish friends’ political essays into German; he also produced some of his more minor works. Two hours before the Germans sealed off the borders to France, Gebser again managed to flee, this time to Switzerland, where he would reside from then on. These years were the most productive for Gebser, although life still was not easy for him. He supported himself by freelance writing for the most part, but it was in Basel that he befriended Carl Gustav Jung, at whose institute he also taught for many years. In 1949/1950, his efforts culminated in the publishing of The Ever-Present Origin, his most profound statement regarding the unfoldment of consciousness in man. Throughout all of Gebser’s writings we find him wrestling with this subject, trying to find real answers to the important questions in life, such as “Who am I?,” “Where do I come from?” and “Where am I going?” This work is an answer to all these questions on behalf of us all. During the remainder of his life, Gebser taught, traveled, wrote and lectured. Each subsequent publication elucidated and illuminated various aspects of his most fundamental theme, the evolution of consciousness. He had come into his own and enjoyed a certain, yet modest, renown for his work. On May 14, 1973, Jean Gebser passed through transition, as Feuerstein describes it, “as his death mask bears witness, with a soft and knowing smile.” (Gaiamind)