Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1923
A lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 29, 1923,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
It may be asked how the single word, Theosophy, can stand as the title of a lecture. It is because Theosophy is at once the science of life and the art of life; at once a criticism of life and the method of living in the most excellent way. And life is the one thing that interests all mankind, everywhere and always. Life may be viewed and lived as a splendid manifestation of the Divine Spirit, or it may be lived feverishly, in the infatuation of the senses; but it is always the over-ruling interest, for the sake of which all else is dear. Therefore Theosophy, the science of life, is the supreme science; Theosophy, the art of life, is the supreme art.
In the past there have been many Theosophical Societies, societies for the study and practice of Theosophy, beginning many centuries ago. In the present epoch, in its present incarnation, The Theosophical Society was born nearly fifty years ago, in 1875. It began its work as a science of life by criticizing two great presentations of life: science and religion.
What was the condition of science, of religion, when The Theosophical Society began its work in 1875? It is not unfair to say that science was materialistic and dogmatic; that religion was dogmatic and materialistic.
We may take as characterizing the science of that time the famous pronouncement of John Tyndall, as President of the British Association, at Belfast in 1874: “We find in matter the promise and potency of every form of life,” or “of all terrestrial life,” as he later wrote the phrase. This may sound like a mere philosophical abstraction, but let us make it concrete. What does it mean in terms of human life? It means that our life is absolutely bound up with, and limited by, the material substance of the body and the brain; it means that “when the brains are out, the man will die.” It means the complete extinction of consciousness with the dissolution of the body. It means unconditional death. It is not unfair to call that materialistic.
Not all men of science at that time were equally materialistic. Huxley was no materialist; he had the mind and spirit of a philosopher and was thoroughly convinced that the position of Berkeley’s idealism is unassailable. But Huxley was, in certain ways, fiercely dogmatic. In 1860, the year after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Huxley wrote to Darwin that he was sharpening his teeth and claws for the conflict that he foresaw Darwin’s views would bring. And the conflict began immediately, with Huxley as the protagonist on the one side and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, on the other. In their famous contest at Oxford, teeth and claws were vigorously used by both sides, and Huxley reached the climax of fiery denunciation by saying that he would not be ashamed to own an ape as his grandfather, but he would be ashamed to own as his grandfather such a man as Bishop Wilberforce. He did not name him, but drew instead a word picture which became famous as a piece of fierce invective.
That is not the spirit in which truth is sought and found. That is not the spirit in which students of Theosophy seek to penetrate the deep mysteries of life, to establish the science and the art of life.
If science was then materialistic and dogmatic, religion was dogmatic and materialistic. And we may come at once to the fundamental dogma; practically every Church, every division of religion, tacitly or openly held that salvation belonged to it alone. There were exceptions, as there were exceptions to the materialism of science. There were more liberal spirits, who followed Thomas Aquinas when he said: “If anyone born in barbarous nations do what in him lieth, God will reveal to him what is necessary for salvation, either by inspiration or by sending a teacher.” But this was not the general view. The view broadly accepted was that, while the heathen and those of other religions might have their qualities, there was no expectation of meeting them in heaven.
We can find a good illustration of this mischievous dogmatic attitude in the quotation from a seventeenth century theologian with which F. Max Müller begins Volume I of The Sacred Books of the East, published in 1879. The intent of this quotation is, that we should study other religions to convince ourselves of the superiority of our own.
Once again, this is not the spirit of truth, the spirit in which truth may be sought and found. It is not the spirit of Theosophy.
So much, then, for the position of science and religion fifty years ago, at the time when The Theosophical Society began its work. What progress has been made in fifty years? What has been the result of the tremendous inspiration of Theosophical ideas on the thought and life of the world? What has been accomplished toward making the science of life more luminous, toward making the art of life more enlightened and more divine?
It is not too much to say that in large measure both science and religion have broken their bonds. Science is no longer in the literal sense materialistic. The Churches no longer speak of the heathen religions, but term them more politely “ethnic” religions, “ethnic” being the Greek word formerly rendered “heathen.” There is some recognition at least of the fact that there may be religious truth, that there may be life and light and immortality in some of these non-Christian religions. The prefatory quotation in The Sacred Books of the East would now strike a discordant note: the suggestion that we should study the religions of others in order to prove the superiority of our own. Religious and philosophic thought have moved past the point where a process of that sort would recommend itself as a means of obtaining spiritual truth. Therefore, in religion, the constrictive power of dogmatism has in a sense been broken, as has the constrictive power of materialism in science.
Going back to the position of scientific materialism fifty years ago, there is a touch of humour in the thought that when Tyndall, in 1874, found in matter the promise and potency of life, he thought he knew what matter was. Today, science is certain that it does not know. Matter in the old sense is gone, it has ceased to exist. Instead of the solidly substantial matter of Tyndall’s thought, we have something subtle and elusive; as Professor Frederick Soddy of Oxford says, in his fine book, The Interpretation of Radium (1920, page 226): “inevitably as science proceeds, the solid tangible material universe dissolves before its touch into finer and still finer particles, the unit quantities or ‘atoms’ of positive and negative electricity.” Matter in the old sense has ceased to exist; it has vanished, leaving in its place a tissue of electrical spray. Materialism has gone into bankruptcy with no assets.
We may take Frederick Soddy’s book as a summary of the best thought of today regarding the physical sciences, including something of geology and astronomy. Soddy has a deeply intuitional mind, a wide sweep of creative imagination, a firm grasp of the subtle side of manifested Nature; in many ways, one might call him a Theosophical thinker. He has, indeed, given an admirable interpretation of the serpent of eternity which, combined with Solomon’s seal, the key of Isis and the swastika, forms the seal of The Theosophical Society:
“Consider the ancient mystic symbol of matter . . . a serpent, coiled into a circle with the head devouring the tail. . . . The idea which arises in one’s mind as the most attractive and consistent explanation of the universe in the light of present knowledge is, perhaps, that matter is breaking down and its energy being evolved and degraded in one part of a cycle of evolution, and in another part, still unknown to us, the matter is being again built up with the utilization of the waste energy. If one wished to symbolize such an idea, in what better way could it be done than by the ancient tail-devouring serpent?” (page 181).
And it has already been pointed out that certain of Soddy’s cosmic theories are eminently “theosophical.” Take, for example, such a passage as this:
“So far as physical science yet can deduce, the accumulation of thermal energy within a world containing elements undergoing atomic disintegration during the ‘geological age’ must alternate with a state of things which might be termed ‘the incandescent age,’ in which this accumulated energy is dissipated by radiation. This periodic cycle of changes must continue until the elements in question have disintegrated—that is, over a period which radioactive measurements indicate is of the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of millions of years” (page 179).
This idea of the cyclic return of the Cosmos, the magnitude of the figures and the comparison with the alternations of night and day are all very close to ideas held by many students of Theosophy, and set forth ages ago in the Indian Puranas and in sermons attributed to the Buddha.
And these are not the only points at which Soddy approaches Theosophical ideas. Take the passage immediately following that on the symbol of the serpent:
“It is curious to reflect, for example, upon the remarkable legend of the philosopher’s stone, one of the oldest and most universal beliefs, the origin of which, however far back we penetrate into the records of the past, we do not probably trace to its real source. The philosopher’s stone was credited with the power not only of transmuting the metals, but of acting as the elixir of life. Now, whatever the origin of this apparently meaningless jumble of ideas may have been, it is really a perfect and but very slightly allegorical expression of the actual present views we hold today. It does not require much effort of the imagination to see in energy the life of the physical universe, and the key to the primary fountains of the physical life of the universe today is known to be transmutation. Is, then, this old association of the power of transmutation with the elixir of life merely a coincidence? I prefer to believe it may be an echo from one of many previous epochs in the unrecorded history of the world, of an age of men which have trod before the road we are treading today, in a past possibly so remote that even the very atoms of its civilization literally have had time to disintegrate.
“Let us give the imagination a moment’s further free scope in this direction, however, before closing. What if this point of view that has now suggested itself is true, and we may trust ourselves to the slender foundation afforded by the traditions and superstitions which have been handed down to us from a prehistoric time? Can we not read into them some justification for the belief that some former forgotten race of men attained not only to the knowledge we have so recently won, but also to power that is not yet ours? Science has reconstructed the story of the past as one of a continuous Ascent of Man to the present-day level of his powers. In face of the circumstantial evidence existing of this steady upward progress of the race, the traditional view of the Fall of Man from a higher former state has come to be more and more difficult to understand. From our new standpoint the two points of view are by no means so irreconcilable as they appeared. A race which could transmute matter would have little need to earn its bread by the sweat of its brow. If we can judge from what our engineers accomplish with their comparatively restricted supplies of energy, such a race could transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, and make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden. Possibly they could explore the outer realms of space, emigrating to more favourable worlds as the superfluous today emigrate to more favourable continents. The legend of the Fall of Man, possibly, may be all that has survived of such a time before, for some unknown reason, the whole world was plunged back again under the undisputed sway of Nature, to begin once more its upward toilsome journey through the ages” (page 182).
Take the sentence “some former forgotten race of men attained not only to the knowledge we have so recently won, but also to the power that is not yet ours,” and compare it with this: “Ages before the Royal Society found itself becoming a reality upon the plan of the ‘Prophetic Scheme,’ an innate longing for the hidden, a passionate love for, and the study of, Nature, had led men in every generation to try and fathom her secrets. . . . The vril of the Coming Race was the common property of races now extinct . . .” and it is clear that Professor Soddy, albeit unconsciously, is walking in step with the august author of the letters in the Occult World.
So much for the physical sciences, with their complete liberation from materialism. Let us now turn to the sciences which deal with life, taking as our text a very remarkable book written in this country, The Origin and Evolution of Life, by Henry Fairfield Osborn, published in New York in 1918. The book is as representative and as admirable as Soddy’s.
Its key-note is a departure “from the matter and form conceptions” of the period we began by criticizing, and an advance toward “an energy conception of Evolution.” It is true that Osborn does not reveal the origin of life, or the causes of the evolution of life, but he himself quite clearly realizes this. His mind is both reverent and intuitive. He quite frankly admits miracles of adaptation and heredity, and declares that “the germ evolution is the most incomprehensible phenomenon which has yet been discovered in the universe”; indeed, he speaks of the heredity-germ “inconceivable in each of its three powers” in terms that remind us of the Athanasian Creed, “there are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.”
Osborn speaks of the forms of life capturing energy from the elements, using this word much as Plato and the Orientals do; capturing energy from the earth, from the water, from the air, from the fire of the sun. And he rises to a high degree of scientific imagination, when he says:
“We appear to inherit some, if not all, of our physicochemical characters from the sun; and to this degree we may claim kinship with the stellar universe. Some of our distinctive characters and functions are actually properties of our ancestral star” (page xviii).
There is a reminiscence in this of the famous passage in Plato’s Timaeus, which Dante quotes. We are kindred of the stellar universe. We are children of the sun. The essential thought of this valuable book is the movement away from matter, the movement toward energy, as the source of life. In sharp contrast with Tyndall, Osborn finds, not in matter, but in energy, the promise and potency of every form of life. The deliberate turning from materialism is thus as marked in the biological as in the physical sciences.
Here, then, we have the progress of the fifty years since The Theosophical Society began its work. What has Theosophy to say of this progress? Taking Theosophy as a science of life, a criticism of life, what have its students to say of the ground thus gained?
Let us take as our measuring rod Paul’s splendid sentence in the letter to the disciples at Ephesus: “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Paul makes clear what he means by the measure of the stature of the perfect man when he writes to the disciples in Corinth concerning the triune man, body, soul, spirit: the body; the psyche or living soul; the life-giving spirit, from heaven. Paul is following a division earlier used by Aristotle, who distinguishes between the psyche, the living soul, and nous, the spiritual intelligence, which he holds to be immortal and eternal; a threefold division used with even deeper significance by Plato.
Body, soul, spirit: what do we mean by spirit, by spiritual life? We mean a life from which self has been dissolved; and, as self disappears, other selves begin to come into view, until we behold the Supreme Self of all Beings, the Oversoul, the eternal Logos. We mean by spirit the threefold inspiration that Plato speaks of: the revelation of the true, the beautiful, the good; of the three in one, and that one the Logos. We mean the triad of the Vedanta, eternal being, infinite consciousness, everlasting joy; once more, the essential being of the Logos. We mean a consciousness which shall have that quality, that character; a consciousness, selfless, receptive of other selves, receptive of the Supreme; a consciousness illumined by beauty, truth and goodness; a consciousness immortal, eternal, in essence one with the Logos.
Here, then, is our measuring rod, the measure of the stature of the perfect man. Tried by this measure, how shall we judge the present attainment of science? We are children of the sun. Are we children of the Eternal, one in essence with the Divine Consciousness? What provision is there, in what we have quoted, for such a consciousness? What recognition is there even of the problem of such a consciousness? Soddy depicts our world melted by fervent energy, driven by the forces of radioactivity into space, as a vast sphere of incandescent mist. Where, during his age of incandescence, is consciousness, that spiritual consciousness which, in the view of many students of Theosophy, is the true eternal Being, compared with which the fiery mist is evanescent? Soddy shows hardly any recognition of that problem. He writes, it is true, of the precarious tenure of life, of its disappearance during the incandescent age, “to be inaugurated and consummated afresh, if at all, between the ending and the beginning of each new cosmical day,” the age of incandescence being in his view comparable to day, while he compares the age of geological evolution to night. He seems, therefore, to have no conception of spiritual consciousness as the eternal reality, for whose sake, as the Sankhya philosophy teaches, the whole process of Nature exists. He does not even appear to realize the truth that was so plain to Huxley: that consciousness is the one thing of which we have first hand knowledge; that we are indebted to consciousness not only for all our knowledge of objective fact, for all our observations, but also for our divination of the meaning of these facts and observations. All his wonderful observations of radioactivity dwell in consciousness; all the profound insight with which he has interpreted them is a mode of consciousness; that mode, in fact, which Aristotle called nous, and which he held to be immortal and eternal, because of its quality of divination.
We should think that Soddy must conceive his own perceiving mind to be one of two things: either a real spiritual consciousness, or a whirlpool of those electrical units to which he reduces all matter. But that a swirl of electrons should form a concept of the Cosmos, seems to us a philosophical absurdity.
To go back again to Osborn’s eloquent passage: We are kin of the stellar universe, partaking in the nature of our father, the sun. A thought of real profundity and beauty; but what of man the immortal? The sun is in a sense immortal. We have evidence that the sun has been in existence, practically unchanged, for a hundred million years. The warmth of our bodies is the heat of the sun. But whence do we inherit the light in our souls? Must there not be, as the Masters of all religions have taught, a spiritual Sun, a Sun of righteousness, whence we draw that light? If we be heirs and children of the sun, must we not be, by the same measure, heirs and children of the infinite Logos, the Oversoul, drawing thence our immortality, drawing thence that spiritual light through which Soddy and Osborn interpret life and nature? Here again is the measure of the stature of the perfect man.
We do not know what are the religious convictions of the two men whom we have quoted, as representing physical and natural science today. They may well be religious men. We find in both the spirit of reverence and intuition, with much that is entirely consonant with Theosophical thinking. But where do we find in the two books we have quoted any revelation of the spiritual man in his immortality, in his escape from self to the life of the Logos, in his partaking of the beauty of holiness? There is hardly a trace from cover to cover.
These two noteworthy books cover the field of biology and the field of physical science. They show a great liberation from the materialism, the constricted bondage of Tyndall’s day. Science has started from that fixed point, has broken away from its limitations. Where has it arrived?
We may say the same thing of religion. No longer is there the same dogmatism, the egotistic self-assertion of sect against sect. Officially the Church of Rome has not abated anything of its exclusive claim, but the general temper of members of that Church is without doubt more liberal. Religious feeling and thought, like science, has moved away from the fixed centre of dogmatism. Where has it arrived? The Theosophical standard, the measure of the perfect man, is spiritual experience; not the outward observation of psychic appearances, but the inner experience of spiritual realities. Let us take this as our measure, and let us ask whether we shall find anywhere, in any of the Churches, anyone who will say: “I know of my own knowledge that the spirit of man is immortal, the child of the Logos, the heir of Divinity.” Many will say that they know this through tradition, through the teaching of the Church. The Churches do hold this knowledge in a vague and traditional way. But do we find a readiness on the part of their teachers to come forward and say: “Through my own spiritual experience, through the illumination of my own consciousness, I know that the spirit of man is immortal, the child of the Logos, and that, in virtue of that sonship, the spirit of man is destined to enter into the full glory of the life of the Logos?”
These two views of life, therefore, have set forth from a certain point and have gone a certain distance, but they have not reached the desired haven. Take a comparison: the journey from Dover to Calais, a distance of twenty-five miles. The two boats have pushed out from Dover. The harbour with its enclosing piers is left behind. The boats are in mid-channel. Some of us may have crossed from Dover to Calais in the days of the small packet boats, and we may remember the charm of the centre of the channel as a resting place. If so, we know also that, in spite of the charm of resting there, there was an impelling desire to push on, to leave the centre of the channel and to land in France. So we wish, in our more momentous journey, to leave the troubled water of the channel, to reach the harbour of the knowledge of spiritual man. This is the challenge of the Theosophical Movement to the sciences and the Churches.
But the problem is first of all our own, as students of Theosophy. It may depend on students of Theosophy to a degree we hardly realize, whether science and religion shall complete their journey, or remain like the fabled coffin of Mahomet in the interspace, leaving earth but not reaching heaven. Shall we, students of Theosophy, work with such wisdom, such devotion, such ardent faith, such effectiveness, that we may take advantage of this great liberation of science and religion, this breaking of the iron bonds that bound them fifty years ago? Have we the will, have we the courage and determination so to work and think and live that The Theosophical Society may be a mighty force, potent enough to carry science and religion forward from mid-channel to the haven where they would be? Or are we to fail in our magnificent opportunity, leaving the two barques in the fretful centre of the channel?
Shall we be content with a science of life that lacks the definite certitude of the immortality of the spirit of man? Shall we be content with an energy concept of evolution, splendid and vital though it be, and great as may be the advance which it marks, a concept able to say: “We are children of the earth, we are children of the waters, we are children of the air, we are children of the sun,” but which cannot add: “We are children of God, we are children of immortality”?
Again, shall we rest content with a religious concept of life, largely undogmatic, tolerant enough toward other religions, suffused with general benevolence, given to institutionalism, busy with social service often undistinguishable from Socialism, addicted, as Emerson said, to the distribution of herb tea and blankets; yet without firm conviction, without genuine experience of immortality? No amount of herb tea and blankets will make up for the immortality of the soul.
Or, to look at the sinister side of this absence of strong convictions, shall we be content with a Church tolerant in the face of evil doing, unwilling to denounce crime, ready to bow before the former recipients of herb tea and blankets, giving flattery instead of doles, even condoning assassination if political profit seems to come from it, with a moral limpness that goes back to the invertebrate period of the biologists? Or shall we work for and demand religious teaching which shall speak with authority, as the Masters have always spoken; shall we demand teachers who shall know of their own knowledge that we are heirs of immortality, that we are destined to break the bonds of self, to inherit the kingdom of the Logos, the splendour of Divinity, the living consciousness of spiritual truth, of the beauty of holiness?
If we demand a science which shall speak with authority of immortality, a religion which shall speak with authority of immortality, and this Theosophy does demand, then we must first live up to our own ideal. It will be futile for us to set as an ideal for scientific attainment, the certitude of spiritual things, while we ourselves seek no certitude. It will be futile for us to ask for a Church which shall have certain knowledge of God, of the Divine, of our immortality, our oneness with the Logos, if we ourselves do not seek the spiritual experience which shall certify these things.
While it is true that this applies with special force to students of Theosophy and members of The Theosophical Society, I cannot see how anyone in this audience can escape a measure of responsibility. What are those who hear these things willing to do about them? Are they willing to look forward to a science which has ceased to be materialistic without becoming spiritual? Will they be content with a Church which has ceased to be dogmatic without attaining to real knowledge? Will they be content to take their station on either of these barques perpetually lingering in mid-channel, or are they determined to push on to France?
While I cannot see how you may escape responsibility, such responsibility is something God alone in His wisdom can judge. But when you stand, in the words of the ancient parable, before the Great White Throne, and the Judge asks: “What have you done to combat materialism and dogmatism?” if you answer, “I was waiting for The Theosophical Society to do it!” this would seem to me to be a difficult and embarrassing position. Personally, I should like to be able to say: “I have tried to do my part; I have fallen short a thousand times, but I have loyally and honestly tried!”
If science and religion in the coming years are to make the harbour, to gain definite knowledge of man the immortal, the true spiritual man, the heir of divinity, then it would be well for students of Theosophy, for members of The Theosophical Society, for all who have the vital sense of human life as it ought to be, diligently to try and examine themselves, to see what we, what you and I individually, are going to do about it. Nothing will be accomplished without effort. Nothing will be attained without faith, without enthusiasm. As the Sanskrit proverb says, nothing happens without a why. And we must be the why, or we must explain the reason of our failure.
I think that there is only one way in which we shall make real headway. That is, by learning, through whatever means we can, from whomsoever we can, the laws of spiritual life, and by faithfully living according to these laws. If we do this, we shall thereby awaken in ourselves the powers of perception and the powers of action which will, in due time, give us experimental knowledge of immortality. We must seek to discover the laws of spiritual life, to learn them, try them, test them, follow them by wise experiment and experience. This is an experimental science.
In following certain sciences, astronomy, for example, men undergo extraordinary hardships. There are the adventures of eclipse expeditions, the long vigils, rigorous personal discipline. In order to see the details of a faint nebula, it may be necessary to sit for hours in darkness, to prepare the retina of the eye. Certain observations with the microscope require a like withdrawal from the light of the world, an entering into quietude and darkness. It is a law of the eye that, if it has been exposed to bright light, it cannot at once respond to faint illumination; otherwise we should see the stars in full sunshine. Scientists have found out that law, and they follow it in their search for truth.
This is only a symbol of the rigorous training that students of science are willing to undergo, and do undergo, following out the light of their science. It is one of a thousand examples that might be given. In this, at any rate, science sets a superb example. Science shows us the honesty and zeal with which we must proceed, the conditions under which success in our search is possible. Let us seek the laws of spiritual life. Let us obey them to the letter. The reward will be an awakening unto life.
We move as shadows among shadows. We need an awakening unto life, the life of the spiritual man. We need to come alive. Saint Paul speaks of those who were dead in trespasses. This is a true figure not only of Paul’s time, but of ours; not only of them, but of us also. We are dead until we come to life. And we can come to life by discerning the laws of life and by obeying them, and in no other way.
If students of Theosophy are willing to do this, if they have the wisdom and the courage and the fidelity and the loyalty to follow this course, and to follow it to the end, then one may confidently say that fifty years hence, though science may not have reached the final goal, though religion may not have gained full illumination, yet there will be among students of Theosophy a genuine science of life, a true art of life, based on real experience, a firsthand knowledge of our immortal nature. We shall have waked up. We shall have come to life. We shall know through our own experience that we are immortal. We shall not need to go for testimony to Plato’s Phaedo or to the Epistle to the Corinthians. There will be genuine knowledge. There will be genuine wisdom. There will be genuine light.
Here, then, is our problem. Here is our task. Here is our superb opportunity. And it is not too much to say that the future of mankind will depend, and does depend, on the way in which we meet this spiritual opportunity. Let us, therefore, seek the wisdom and power of Masters to help us. Let us use every power we possess, wisely and courageously, faithfully and loyally. And let us embark on this high adventure realizing that we owe to the Divinity our boundless gratitude, gratitude unspeakable, for an opportunity so superb, so magnificent.