The Theosophical Society
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1909
An Address delivered at the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society in New York, on April 25, 1909
When we were in search of a suitable theme for the lecture on the occasion of our Convention, a good friend suggested that it might be well to take as subject “The Theosophical Society”; to try to show its aims and nature, and, perhaps, to remove some of the misconception and hostility with which it is so often regarded. The suggestion commended itself, and was accepted. Therefore I shall endeavor to tell a simple tale of the character and work of The Theosophical Society.
For close on a quarter of a century, for four and twenty years, to be exact, The Theosophical Society has been the most important, the most vital and inspiring element in my own life, and, I think I may add, in the lives of most of my closest friends. And these friends have been people of widely varied character, temperament, national and hereditary culture and experience. Take, for example, a Committee for Theosophical purposes, to which I have the honor to belong. One member is a Norwegian soldier of distinction, another member is a German publisher, a third an English physician, a fourth an American scientist, and so on with the others. The members of the Committee are persons of clearly defined type and culture; of widely differing experience and knowledge, and at the same time they work together in perfect unity of heart. This unity in diversity is characteristic of The Theosophical Society, and would in itself be a sufficiently marked fact to claim our interest and attention.
It was not, however, the eclectic character of the Society which first attracted me to it; and I think this is true also of my friends and fellow-workers. We held a meeting last night, at which the general topic was: “Why I joined The Theosophical Society,” and perhaps I may be permitted to generalize from a number of answers which were then given to the question.
I think we were all drawn to The Theosophical Society—in my own case it was certainly so—because it offered us a view of spiritual life which was intelligible, acceptable to the intellect, in no way at variance with sound and vigorous analytical thought. Most of us, most of those who last night told why they had joined The Theosophical Society, had already gained some certainty as to the reality of spiritual life. We had verified that reality in some degree; we had a basis of personal experience to build on. But we found ourselves in a position which, at that time—I am speaking of a period between twenty and thirty years ago—was almost universal. We found our spiritual life in almost complete discord with our intellectual life. The spirit warring against the mind, and the mind warring against the spirit.
Many of my auditors may remember the fierce attacks which were made on Charles Darwin, a generation ago. For the first few years after the appearance of The Origin of Species, in 1859, Darwin was almost ignored by the general public. Then he came suddenly into view, and became the target of abuse which was unmeasured and sometimes ferocious. He was branded as an Anti-Christ by many people, who believed themselves to be good Christians and guardians of public morals and sound religious thought. This attack on Darwin was only a single instance of something which has been almost characteristic of the thought of our Western world—the idea that there is a necessary antagonism between Religion and Science. That sentence is almost the title of a famous book, and it represents the attitude of many famous books, throughout many centuries of the history of Christendom. There has been, on the one hand, a real religious experience, firmly based, and repeatedly verified. There has been, on the other hand, a strong intellectual life, recognized by those who possess it as something sterling, vital, indispensable. And whenever these two forces have come together, it has seemed that they were in necessary conflict; that no reconciliation between them was possible.
Here, then, was the first boon which attracted us to The Theosophical Society. We saw the possibility of a reconciliation between the soul and the mind, between our religion and our science. We had, on the one hand, the soul, known to us through religious experience. We had, on the other hand, the doctrine of Evolution, supposed then to be fatal to all belief in the soul. The new ideas with which we came in contact, in The Theosophical Society, showed us the possibility of a complete reconciliation between the soul and evolution. That reconciliation lay in the idea of the evolution of the soul.
We were shown a view of the soul’s growth and progression, through many stages and many experiences, in a development as gradual, as ordered, as that of organic life; through an unfolding of powers and perceptions as natural and wonderful as the unfolding of the plant from the seed, the leaf and flower from the bud. And we gained the idea that all experience, as we saw it about us, was indeed the expression of the evolution of the soul, the gradual unfolding of its perception and powers.
So with the antagonism between Spirit and Matter, which has kept the Spiritualist and the Materialist in hostile camps, constantly under arms, for so many centuries. We came to see, as we made ourselves familiar with the ideas we found in The Theosophical Society, that here, too, reconciliation was possible; that Matter and Spirit were not in antagonism, any more than the two poles of a magnet are in antagonism; that, indeed, spirit and matter are but the two poles of the one Being—different aspects of the same thing, which, as Force takes the aspect of Spirit, and as Form takes the aspect of Matter.
In this and kindred ways, the great reconciliation was brought about for us. We were able to keep our spiritual experience, our verified knowledge of the soul and its reality. At the same time we were able to keep our intellectual life, with its honesty, its clearness, its analytical sincerity. And we were able to bring the two together, with no dread of clash or discord, but rather with the confident hope of finding them in perfect harmony, clarifying and upholding each other.
This, I believe, was the first great boon, the strongest force which drew us to The Theosophical Society. We found ourselves in possession of an intelligible view of spiritual life, something which rang true both to the soul and the intellect, and bridged for us the chasm between religion and science.
Then we came to a further reward. Gaining thus a clearer understanding of our own spiritual experience, we became better able to understand the spiritual experience of others—and not only of those of our own type and time, but also of those belonging to widely different ages, and races and climes. We were enabled to see that the spiritual experience of others was of like nature with our own; and this as well in the case of the ancient sages who inspired the Upanishads, the Buddhists of Burma and Japan, the Maoris of the Southern Sea, as in the case of Christian mystics like Saint Francis or the author of the Imitation.
In all these religious records, in all these records of spiritual experience, we were taught to see at once a unity and a diversity. In expression, in form and coloring they were, perhaps, as different as possible. Yet the reality, the experience underlying them and giving them life and inspiration, was in essence the same; we could understand and accept it in the light of our own experience.
From this secured foothold, we advanced to two new conquests. First, as we came to see, in the life of those around us, the expression of spiritual forces, the unfolding life of the soul; all life became for us not only infinitely more real and valuable, but also in the sheer intellectual sense infinitely more interesting. Let me illustrate this by a simile. We can well understand that, to a master of botany, such a collection of dried plants as one sees in a botanical museum may be profoundly interesting. As he turns over page after page of well-pressed specimens, gathered, perhaps, from many lands, he experiences a very real measure of joy. But his pleasure cannot be compared with that of another, equally skilled, who is at the same time a good gardener; and under whose eyes a large collection of plants are actually growing, set in the warm earth, and bathed in living air and sunshine. What delight is his, as he watches the green shoots piercing the earth, the varied growth of stem and branch, the endlessly beautiful unfolding of leaf and bud, in their charm of form and line and color, and finally the perfected miracle of flower and fruit.
With such a living joy we found ourselves rewarded, when we came to understand the life of those around as being indeed the life and unfolding of the soul, in its endless variety, its infinite progression. Life became far more vital, more absorbing, fuller of delight, and, in the sheer intellectual sense, infinitely more interesting.
We found another truth along this path, and one, perhaps, of even greater value. As we came to see in the infinitely varied life about us, the expression of the soul and its endless progression and unfolding, we were impressed with the unity of the soul’s life; we were not less impressed by its diversity. Seeing in the varied life about us the expression of the soul’s nature and power, we came to recognise the great truth that the very diversity in that life is the expression of an inherent quality of the soul. The experience of each, the life of each, is in some sense peculiar and individual. It has never been precisely anticipated. It will never be exactly repeated. Each life is in some degree a new revealing of the soul. There is for each a certain revelation, an inspiration never before vouchsafed to any human being, never to be revealed again to any other in exactly the same way. This very diversity, therefore, far from being harmful and to be reprobated, is a sacred thing, a precious possession. The spiritual life of each and every one is a holy thing, not to be criticized, not to be condemned, but rather to be reverenced and prized. There is a diversity of gifts, but the same spirit. Therefore we found our way, or perhaps it would be truer to say we were shown the way, to a deep reverence for liberty of thought, for freedom of spiritual life. We were taught to esteem diversity of religious experience, not as an injury, but rather as a treasure. And this principle we were able to apply to the varied expressions of spiritual experience in the world’s religions. We learned to see in them all a many-sided expression of the life of the soul.
In this attitude toward the world’s religions, we found ourselves in a position somewhat different from that of the professional students of the world’s religions. It is, perhaps, true of a good many Orientalists that their attitude towards the ancient faiths to the study of which they devote their lives is somewhat superficial, sometimes almost flippant. They study these old religions. They do not believe in them. This is not because they do not love them, for they do; have, in fact, devoted their lives to this study, just because they do love them. The reason is, rather, because they did not learn the secret of The Theosophical Society, and so did not learn to look on these old faiths as records of spiritual experience, none the less real and vital, because they differ so widely in expression from the records which are closer to us in clime and time.
If the Church, as a whole, can be said to have an official opinion, it is rather in favor of the validity of these ancient religious documents. I had the honor of discussing this question with a distinguished Churchman, an Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church. He quoted to me the view of Thomas Aquinas, who, speaking of an Indian in his far-off forests seeking in all ways to fulfill the law of righteousness as he found it in his heart, declared that if Christian baptism were necessary for the salvation of such a one, God would send an angel from heaven to baptise him.
The worthy Archbishop also declared, and with all sincerity and seriousness, that he hoped to meet Plato in heaven, and not only Plato, but all who, like him, had sought to fulfill the law of righteousness. This view, based on that of Thomas Aquinas, recognizes the validity and oneness of spiritual experience under forms very different from that which is closest to ourselves; and it is probable that the Angelic Doctor was consciously following St. Paul, who puts forward the same view, at the beginning of the Epistle to the Romans.
We came, therefore, to hold that the spiritual experience of each and everyone is holy; a sacred thing, to be reverenced, and at the same time a thing to be prized for its very diversity from our own experience. Here again we may use an illustration. If we study good poetry—the poems, let us say, of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth,—we shall find two things. First, there is in them all the underlying unity; they are all poetry, and therefore of kindred nature. But they are also markedly diverse; so different that one who has learnt their ring and rhythm can tell a single line of any one of them, even if it be taken from a poem he may never have read. So perfect is their individuality of expression, and this, though they lived in the same land, at the same time, in the same moral and intellectual atmosphere. Yet it is their very diversity which is the source of our never-ending delight.
The same thing is true of the diversity of spiritual experience. We learned first to hold it sacred, to reverence it as a revelation of the soul. Then we learned to delight in it, and to find not only delight but a great and growing reward.
For just because this diverse experience about us was an expression of the same soul which we found within ourselves, for that very reason it revealed to us new aspects of the soul, of its nature and riches, which had not yet, perhaps, been revealed directly to ourselves, but which we were thus able to realize and apprehend in the lives of others. We learned to supplement our own spiritual experience by that of others, to add to our own riches the riches of the experience of others, and thus, by extending a genuine and understanding sympathy to them, to find ourselves at once related and enriched. Here, again, was an immense gain.
There was more in the matter than this, however, great gain as this undoubtedly was. For, as we came to see in all life the expression and unfolding of the soul, so we came to recognize in all good works the effort of the soul to unfold itself, to express its nature and life. Whether it was the research of some cloistered astronomer, seeking among unthinkably distant stars to find unity of substance and unity of law, or, on the other hand, the benign work of a devotee, trying to secure warm clothing and food for the friendless children of the streets, we learned to see in both these poles of human thought and work, and in every one of the endlessly varied activities which lay between these poles, the working of the soul, the same soul which we found in ourselves; and therefore we became able, not only to sympathize with these diverse activities, but also to co-operate with them.
We were drawn to take a part in every good work, not for our own sakes or for the development and enrichment of ourselves which such participation always brings, not even for the sake of those who were engaged in the work, or for whose benefit the work was intended, but rather for the sake of the primal soul, in them and in ourselves, which was seeking thus to express itself, to bear much fruit.
Thus did all good works, from the starry contemplation of the astronomer to the simplest charitable act, take a new complexion, becoming a part of a splendid unfolding, the soul made manifest in action. As we learned to share, and, so far as might be, to further and forward these energies, we became sharers in the work of the soul, and in its rich, inexhaustible life.
Then another beneficent law came into force. The branches of the vine bear fruit. The branches are fed and stimulated through the root. But at the same time the branches in their turn feed the root. Spreading delicate leaves, set with breathing pores, in the air and the sunshine, they separate from the air an invisible store of food which is carried inward, and meets the store of nourishment carried upward in solution from the root, which in like manner draws supplies from the liquids in the soil. So root and branch nourish and support each other. It is the same with faith and works.
This is one of the reconciliations we were led to, by our experience and study in The Theosophical Society. We had been familiar with that old feud between Faith and Works which echoes through the Epistles. We found exactly the same feud in far older India. But we awoke to the fact that there is no more real antagonism between faith and works than there is between religion and science, or between spirit and matter. The two are but two aspects of the same thing, of the same soul. Works are the soul in action. Faith is the soul in contemplation.
More truly, perhaps, faith and works are complementary modes of the soul, each of which enriches the other. We found this to be so in our spiritual experience. For, just as, having gained some insight into the life and work of others, as being an expression of the soul which we already knew in ourselves, we were able to sympathize and work with them, perhaps even aiding the soul to express itself through them, so, in proportion as we did this, in proportion to our effective work and aid and service, we found a benign reaction upon ourselves, an enrichment of our own spiritual consciousness, a strengthening and clarifying of our faith.
And according as was the measure of our effective aid and service, so was the measure of our enrichment and reward. If we had bent all our energies in one direction, seeking to co-operate in one form of work and one alone, we found our spiritual consciousness deepened and strengthened in one realm, one direction. If, on the other hand, we had tried to lend aid and effective service in many fields, to blend our effort and force with those of many others, of differing type and genius and bent, then we found ourselves repaid with a corresponding richness and breadth of spiritual consciousness; a deepening, broadening and enriching of our interior life in many ways. We were rewarded with an unfolding of spiritual vision, in proportion to our effectual work for others.
The reciprocal law came once more into force. This added insight and vision, this broadened and deepened spiritual consciousness enabled us to render more effectual help, to offer more fruitful service. It enabled us at the same time to lift a heavy weight from the heart.
Pain and sorrow and affliction are heavy and real burdens. We find it very hard to bear them, and they cast a dark shadow on our lives. But far harder to bear than our pain and sorrow and affliction are the pain and sorrow and affliction of others. Here is something to wring the heart with almost intolerable anguish.
This heavy burden we were now enabled in some degree to lift. For we could see, first in our own lives, and then in the lives of others, that pain and sorrow and privation were not mere calamities, workings of the adversity of mankind, but rather that they were the work of the soul itself, seeking thereby to gain some fine quality of endurance, of patience, of purity. These also were fruits of the soul. So we learned to regard death but as an expression of life; sorrow, as joy in the making.
Thus we grew able, in however humble a degree, to gain a vision of the soul and its marvelous and mysterious works; we were able, perhaps, to see a little deeper into the darkness of the universe, to divine the august figures that move beyond the veil of that darkness. Life, for us, gained in depth, in richness, in interest, in holiness. Day after day became a living miracle.
Something like this, I think, we all found in The Theosophical Society. First, an intelligible account of spiritual life, enabling us to reconcile soul and mind. Then, the realization of the kinship of all spiritual experience, finding in our own experience a clue to the spiritual life of others, however far removed from us in race and time and clime. From this, a reverence for the soul’s work in each, a realization of the sacredness of spiritual experience, of the supreme obligation of religious liberty. With this reverent sympathy, a desire to co-operate, to aid the expression of the soul, in all good works of whatever kind. And with effective co-operation a deepened and enriched spiritual consciousness in ourselves, a further vision of the divinity of life.
These are very simple principles, and such, I think, as may commend themselves to all who come in contact with them. Th principles of The Theosophical Society are, in fact, quite simple, and they have commended themselves to many of us, as worthy of a lifelong devotion and obedience.
Why, then, has The Theosophical Society met so much opposition, hostility, misrepresentation? If its principles be so simple and worthy of acceptance, why has it not been widely and universally accepted?
The question is one of high interest, and I believe the answer to it would be of equal interest and of lasting value; and I should endeavor to give such an answer, did time permit. But the time allotted to me is already spent, and I must leave this question for the present unanswered.
Those who have so kindly and courteously listened to what I have had to say, can, however, no longer plead for themselves that the principles of The Theosophical Society are obscure, or remote, or inimical. With this result, I am well content, and there remains for me only the pleasant duty of thanking my hearers for their courteous attention.