Emerson and Occult Laws
The Theosophist, May, 1888
“It is true that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”—LORD BACON.
Bulwer Lytton, writing for an age more credulous than our own—observes a recent writer,—painted the Dweller of the Threshold in colours altogether terrible and fear-inspiring, while the ordeal of the threshold is, for our more sceptical age, no longer an ordeal of fear but an ordeal of doubt.
And that this is very true, we at once perceive; for there is in each one of us,—in every man and woman,—a philosopher-sage and a materialist-sceptic.
Just now, the two wage incessant war: those in whom the sceptic has for the time got the upper hand, at present fill up the “serried ranks of materialism.”
But no man is altogether a materialist; just as no mortal is altogether a philosopher,—a sage.
The armoury of the sceptic,—the materialist within our breasts—is well supplied. The weapons he wields are no less than the whole array of seemings, of appearances, of things well assured, and provable at once by the senses; things that can be seen and felt by every one who takes the trouble to walk abroad, with his eyes open; for our sceptic-materialist has an altogether plausible case, such as one would act upon in the ordinary affairs of life.
What weapon can the philosopher and sage use against so well armed an opponent? At first sight he has hardly any; and his supporters fear that the world may be entirely given over to the enemy.
But if we look closer, we find that it is not quite so.
There is a legend of a little child who once went out to fight a great army of warriors, armed only with a magic sword formed of a single pure diamond, so free from every flaw as to be well nigh invisible unless the sun shone on it.
The host of warriors, clad in strong armour of steel and bronze, were full of wonder when they saw the little child coming out to meet them, not even having any weapon, as far as their eyes could see.
But suddenly the sun appeared from behind a cloud, and shone full on the diamond-sword in the child’s hand, kindling it into sudden splendour, and blinding the eyes of the warriors with its dazzling brightness.
The legend goes on to relate that, such was the virtue of the magic sword, all the warriors began straightway to unbuckle their armour, casting their swords and shields upon the ground, losing all feelings of hostility, and finally choosing the little child for their king and ruler, through the potent magic of the diamond-sword.
Very much like the weapon of this little child, is the power that the philosopher-sage within us brings to bear on his potent foe.
It is at first a softly whispered intimation,—faint as the first rosy streaks of dawn,—telling us that perhaps the sceptic and materialist does not know the whole truth about the universe after all.
As the child’s sword suddenly gained potency, so does this whispered voice grow in strength and volume, till it bursts out into a grand song which all the holy bards and sages help to swell,—the song of the divinity of man. And thenceforth a great and holy peace reigns in the heart of man, for the true ruler has been exalted to his throne. Theosophy has from the first boldly thrown in its weight on the side of the philosophy of the sage, and declared war to the death against the materialism of the sceptic.
But theosophy is still a stranger to many; and perhaps the best way to secure for this stranger a more cordial welcome, is to show its complete harmony with what has been written by those “elder brothers of the race” whom all have already learnt to recognise and love.
Not least amongst these valued teachers, amongst the later births of time, stands Emerson.
That the broad outlines of his teaching truly harmonise with what is taught by the leaders of the theosophical movement, has been shewn elsewhere.1
That he is in unison with theosophy, in detail also, it is intended now to shew.
Occultism was well defined as “practical pantheism;” and that Emerson was a practical pantheist his writings again and again declare. For example, he writes:—
“Of the universal mind, each individual man is one more incarnation. It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that, besides his privacy of power as an individual, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law. . . .
“The universal soul is the alone creator of the useful and the beautiful; therefore, to make anything useful or beautiful, the individual must be submitted to the universal mind. . . .
“There is but one Reason. The mind that made the world is not one mind, but the mind. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. . . .
“A million times better than any talent, is the central intelligence which subordinates and uses all talents; and it is only as a door unto this, that any talent, or the knowledge it gives, is of value. He only who comes into this central intelligence, in which no egotism or exaggeration can be, comes into self-possession.”
We hold, as theosophists, that the true elder brothers of our race, whom we know as Mahatmas, have thus been “caught up into the life of the Universe,” that their “speech is thunder, and their thought is law.”
These “elder brothers” are the true founders of our movement, and we can confidently predict that their help will never fail us, so long as we deserve success.
If the full import of his words be thoughtfully weighed, it will be seen that belief in the existence of these exalted sages is the logical outcome of these sentences. Emerson is yet another added to the band of witnesses to the necessary existence of these mighty souls. If further evidence of this is needed, we have not far to seek for it. Emerson writes:—
“Whoever has had experience of the moral sentiment cannot choose but believe in unlimited power. . . .
“The boundaries of personal influence it is impossible to fix, as persons are organs of moral or supernatural force. . . .
“We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. . . .
“Often the master is a hidden man, but not to the true student; invisible to all the rest, resplendent to him. All his own work and culture form the eye to see the master.”
But again: that the doctrine of reincarnation, which has played such an important part in the theosophical exegesis, was also familiar to Emerson, and received his adherence, we can easily show. This doctrine finds its strongest support in the feeling of eternalness in the human heart, linked as it is with the belief in immortality.
Re-incarnation is the necessary corollary to immortality, as many theosophical writers have ably shown.
The chief point which distinguishes the Oriental conception of immortality from that which obtains in Christendom, is that the Oriental mind, from its greater spiritual insight, perceives that the soul must be immortal backwards as well as forwards, that its life extends beyond birth as surely as it triumphs over death.
To prove that the specific idea of re-incarnation was known to Emerson, the following words suffice:
“It is the secret of the world that all things subsist, and do not die, but only retire from sight, and afterwards return again. Jesus is not dead: he is very well alive: nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could easily tell the names under which they go.”
Is this enough? or is further testimony needed? We can easily produce it.
In another place Emerson writes:—
“Do not be deceived by dimples and curls. I tell you that baby is a thousand years old.”
“The soul does not age with the body. On the borders of the grave the wise man looks foward with equal elasticity of mind or hope, and why not, after millions of years, on the verge of still newer existence?” . . .
“We are driven by instinct to live innumerable experiences, which are of no visible value, and which we may revolve through many lives before we shall assimilate or exhaust them.”
These sentences are enough to fortify us, in so far as the knowledge that Emerson also is on our side can fortify us, in our adherence to the ideas of universal spirit, of Mahatmahood, of re-birth.
When it is clearly perceived that what we believe, as theosophists, is not something new and grotesque, but is altogether sane, and is what the great teachers have always taught, not those of antiquity only, but those whom our own century has honoured, then the difficulties which we have to encounter will have been diminished by half.
It is not intended now to take the doctrines of theosophy one by one, and to show that they have their counterparts in Emerson’s works. This has already been done to a sufficient extent. For the present, we shall confine ourselves to the most tabooed and unorthodox amongst the theosophic ideas; those which it requires most courage to support, and those to which the sceptic within us offers the strongest opposition.
First amongst the tabooed doctrines, comes the possibility of occult phenomena, produced by deliberate intention, by the educated human will. To believe in such phenomena at the present day, is to be ranked as either knave or fool,—in the opinion at least of those whose “little philosophy has led their minds to atheism,” and yet whatever weight Emerson’s authority can give is on the side of occult phenomena. Speaking of power, he writes:—
“There are men, who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race. And if there be such a tie, that wherever the mind of man goes, nature will accompany him, perhaps there are men whose magnetisms are of that force to draw material and elemental powers.”
Men “whose magnetisms are of that force to draw material and elemental powers:” a better definition of the conscious producer of occult phenomena could not be desired.
In another place Emerson writes:—
“The whole world is the flux of matter over the wires of thought to the poles or points where it would build.”
It is well known how theosophists have been derided, for believing that, even in small things, a “flux of matter over the wires of thought” is possible. And yet we find Emerson, a man esteemed of good understanding and entire sanity at the present day, repeating the very words almost that a theosophist would use.
In India especially it will be of interest just now to learn what Emerson thought on the subject of Alchemy and Astrology—the most derided of the sciences springing from Occultism.
In his Essay on Beauty, he writes:—
“Astrology interested us, for it tied man to the system. However rash, and however falsified by pretenders and traders in it, the hint was true and divine, the soul’s avowal of its large relations, and that climate, century, remote natures, as well as near, are part of its biography.”
Let us remember that Emerson considers that the truth hinted at by astrology,—by the astrology known to him,—is “true and divine.”
Of alchemy he writes:—
“Chemistry takes to pieces, but it does not construct. Alchemy which sought to prolong life, to arm with power,—that was in the right direction.”
Alchemy, Emerson thinks, and not chemistry, is in “the right direction.”
The natives of India have recently seen an attack made on their ancient system of Astrology, by one of themselves, the weapon of attack being what is vaguely called “Western thought.” But Emerson’s position in Western thought is high and incontestible. Let the natives of India therefore remember that Emerson esteems the germ of truth contained in astrology as “high and divine.”
Of Eastern thought, he writes:—
“I think Hindoo books the best gymnastics of the mind. All European libraries might almost be read without the swing of this gigantic arm being suspected. But these Orientals deal with worlds and pebbles freely.”
Amongst the “class of books which are the best,” Emerson mentions the Zoroastrian oracles, the Vedas, and laws of Manu, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavad Gita, the wisdom of Mencius and Confucius, and Hermes Trismegistus.
Let those who question the fitness of the Theosophical Society’s second object, remember this list of the “best” books, in Emerson’s opinion.
It has been thought of late years to exalt modern science into a deity. Let us learn what opinion this great man held-he writes:s
“The universe is the externization of the soul. Wherever the life is, that bursts into appearance around it. Our science is sensual, and therefore superficial. The earth and the heavenly bodies, physics and chemistry, we sensually treat, as if they were self-existent; but these are the retinue of that Being we have.”
“Our science is sensual, and therefore superficial;” let us remember this before we capitulate to the army of materialism.
On the same subject Emerson writes further:—
“The spurious prudence making the senses final, is the god of sots and cowards.”
Plainly, and simply, Emerson declares, that he believes the criterion of materialistic science to be the god of “sots and cowards:” this also should be remembered.
The struggle for existence, and all the misery it entails, has been declared by modern materialistic science to be the law of the universe; but what does Emerson think regarding human misery?
“We have violated law upon law, until we stand amidst ruins. . . .
“The disease and deformity around us certify the infraction of natural, intellectual, and moral laws, and often violation on violation, to breed such compound misery. War, plague, cholera, famine, indicate a certain ferocity in nature, which, as it had its inlet by human crime, must have its outlet by human suffering.”
It seems that the Hindu is right after all, when he believes Kali-yuga is the result of human depravity.
And this is not the only point in which Emerson is in harmony with Indian cosmogony. He writes:—
“Plants are the young of the world. They grope ever upward towards consciousness; the trees are imperfect men.
“The animal is the novice and probationer of a more advanced order.
“The men, though young, have tasted the first drop from the cup of thought.”
We see a complete harmony here with what theosophy has taught of the evolution and destiny of the lower kingdoms.
But we must now rise to a more joyful strain. The Iron Age weighs heavy on us no doubt; and yet it is only the dark hour before the glorious dawn. All that is now darkness shall then be light, and what seems evil will be turned to good.
Man’s redemption is depicted thus by Emerson—
“. . . as when the summer comes from the south, the snow banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path, it shall draw beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts around its way, until evil is no more seen. The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation,—a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God,—he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.
“A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and we shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.”
Let us remember that this glorious future can only dawn through human righteousness,—rectitude always and for ever. Whoever else wavers, let us stand fast; remembering that we are the visible representatives of the eternal, and that by rectitude alone the universe is held together.
1. Lucifer, Dec. 1887. “Emerson and Occultism”