Theosophy and Modern Problems
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1920
Notes of a lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 25, 1920,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
Think that all the members of the audience realize that this lecture is a part of the Theosophical Convention,—the annual Convention of The Theosophical Society. I remember President Hadley’s saying once that he thought the function of a University was to establish and to maintain standards of education. One view of The Theosophical Society is that its purpose is to establish and to maintain standards of spiritual and moral life; not generalities or vague, wide statements, but principles which shall be entirely practical, whether for the organization of religions or nations, or for the conduct of daily life—the daily life of the individual, whether it be typesetting or housekeeping or anything else—to establish a spiritual standard which must be conformed to, if those great or small tasks are to be rightly done.
As to the more particular topic of this afternoon—Theosophy and Modern Problems—let me explain just how it came to be chosen. Some of us were discussing the debates in a legislative body concerning a subject then very much in the public mind—let us say it was the Parliament of the Chinese Republic. We came to the conclusion that the participants in that legislative discussion might be divided into two groups: those who were quite clearly and palpably supporting the wrong side, and those who were supporting right things for entirely wrong reasons. They were united by the fact that there was practically a complete absence of moral principle in them all. (In some ways I am very fond of China, so I will tell you the truth, that this body was not Chinese.) There was that flagrant fact—not a particle of moral principle in the whole thing from beginning to end. One asks oneself, very naturally, where do we find moral principle in public life today. What policies can we indicate, what movements can we name, which are quite consciously resting on a clear moral principle which is absolutely sound; or where are we to find a statesman, or the leaders or the organizers of some undertaking, who are consciously seeking the fundamental moral principle implied, and founding themselves on that? You then realize, I think, that there is an appalling absence of moral principle in the world at this time. I think that is the great modern problem.
I am going to try to elucidate that statement, but the elucidations are not at all so important as the fact itself,—the crying need for a recognition of moral principles to begin with, then a clear understanding of these moral principles, and lastly a firm determination to carry them out in action.
I am going to take an illustration somewhat far away, because it is not expedient that anyone speaking to a representative audience on Theosophy, and as a part of the Theosophical Convention, should take examples so close at hand as to be suspected of partisanship. So while taking a distant example, I ask you not to infer that there are no examples closer at hand. There is no lack of them. But I cannot do them justice, for the reason already given.
So we shall begin a good many miles away, in Bolshevik Russia. I think we realize very clearly that the theories and motives of Bolshevik Russia came from German Socialism. In reality they go back much further. The Socialism of Karl Marx has a fundamental moral defect and a fundamental scientific defect. The moral defect is that it is the expression of envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. I think one might say that its fundamental scientific defect is that all its theories are wrong; and one reason for that is that the man who founded them had not a glimmer of an idea of evolution. He published his most notorious book in 1850, nine years before Darwin made public his first discoveries. The system of Marx is the deadest thing from that point of view that could be conceived of. It has no conception of evolution. This false philosophy is the origin of the Russian movement. Lenin—I believe his real name is Ulianoff; he is of an old Russian family and ought to know better—came by way of Berlin, from Switzerland, to go to Russia. I will not say anything about the Russia to which he came or the first revolution which had taken place before he arrived, in July, 1917, to be welcomed by the moderate Socialists. I am not going back at any great length to the breaches of principle of which they had been guilty in their absolute disloyalty to their sovereign and to the Allied cause, and to the flood of lies they put into circulation, to the effect that the Emperor was going to conclude peace with Germany, and that therefore they ought to have a revolution. There had been, in all this, a grave breach of moral principle.
And this is a point on which I wish to lay stress: a breach of moral principle is invariably two things,—a piece of moral treachery to begin with; second, in the result it is invariably calamitous. The working out of that law may not always be immediately evident, but I am quite sure that moral compromise means first moral treachery and then physical disaster. The moral compromise of the first Russian Revolution was moral treachery, which came nigh to bringing defeat to the French, British and Belgian Armies in France, and which brought complete disaster to the first Russian revolutionists.
To come to the second revolutionary group, the Bolshevist group: they founded themselves on the principle of tyranny, and of murder as a means to tyranny (principles which come straight from hell, and I presume will thither return with their votaries); tyranny of the most infamous kind,—domination of the worst over the best, of the lowest over the highest, with murder as a means to tyranny. So far as Russia is concerned, the wheel has not yet run the full circle. But meanwhile I am going to speak on another aspect of that matter, as it concerns the relation of other nations with the Bolshevist Government. There is once more the point of moral compromise and moral treachery. Is it a desire to get certain raw materials—let us say wheat, and platinum, and flax, and what not—which is the real cause of this extraordinary inclination to recognize the Soviet Government? Surely people who advocate that, ought to read the mediaeval legends about those who make compacts with the devil. It is very easy to see how retribution will come. It requires no second-sight or gift of prophecy to see what must follow, if this supreme folly is persisted in. If we recognize that detestable tyranny as a legal government, we do two things: we are guilty of moral baseness, and we come under the legal obligation to recognize the Bolshevist representatives, to receive them here and to give them diplomatic immunity. The so-called envoy of Soviet Russia, who is a dyed-in-the-wool German, has already shown what the envoy of a Soviet government is prepared to do. To receive Bolshevist representatives is, of course, putting dynamite under our own government and under everything decent in this and other countries. If we recognize them, and receive their representatives, we give them a free hand. Personally, I am not going to underwrite any fire insurance to cover that liability. If we do it, we shall get just what we deserve, and we shall learn that moral compromise is moral treachery on the one hand, and physical disaster on the other. I think perhaps things will move somewhat rapidly to give us that valuable lesson, if we commit that extreme act of folly.
Now comes the question: if it be our duty to establish and maintain moral standards, not in the abstract, but standards which shall be workable in the smallest details of human life, how are we to reach these moral standards; how are we to formulate them? Precisely for that purpose our work as members of The Theosophical Society exists. This is what we have in view in our discussions, debates and studies; precisely to reach the fundamental moral principles of life. And recognizing, as we do, that there are fashions in that, just as there are in other things, subject to just as rapid changes, and desiring not to be at the mercy of temporary fashions, we carry our thought over long periods of time and try to include the best thought of the best thinkers of all nations through all time. That is the meaning of the second object of the Society, to study the religions and sciences of all times and all nations, and to demonstrate the importance of that study—its importance for our purpose. We have no vague indefinite views, and we are not enamoured of glittering generalities. We want something that we can make work; therefore we are seeking in the religions and philosophies of the world the fundamental principles of human life in order to put them into action.
Perhaps I have told some of you the story of the Chinese politician who was a candidate for office. A delegation came to him to find out where he stood on some such question as the League of Mongols. Our candidate was in the embarrassing position of not knowing whether it was a delegation of the Yellows or the party of the Greens. He asked the delegation to be seated. They said, “Mr. Candidate, we should like to hear about your principles.” The candidate was greatly embarrassed, because he did not know which party the delegation came from. If he said he was for a high tariff on the Tibetan frontier, he was in bad favour with the one party. If he advocated the Mongol League, he offended the other. So he said: “Gentlemen, I have principles,—but they can be changed!” Now I think he had a very decided advantage over many contemporary politicians who have no principles—though they can be changed, also. To have no moral principles is pretty bad , but there is one thing which has been exemplified, let us say within a hundred years, which is that to have a lot of principles, not one of which is really true, may be fully as calamitous. The emotional lower nature catches reflections from the spiritual world, and these reflections flash and flicker over the lower mind; all kinds of topsy-turvy reflections of moral principles, sprinkled about on the surface of the emotional waves. This makes up much of what is called the new idealism. The psychic reflection of a principle is about as safe to stand upon as, let us say, the reflection of a bridge in the water. There is your real bridge, which is the spiritual principle, and there is the water—the psychic nature—and in the water is the reflected bridge. People who try to found their action on these pseudo-principles, which look like real principles, are exactly as we should be if we tried to cross that picture bridge in the water, and were not very good swimmers. That is a danger which is a very real danger, a dependence on things that look like moral principles and are not real principles at all. It is a part of our work as students of Theosophy, to distinguish the true principles, eliminating the bias of the day, all personal and national bias; trying to take the spiritual testimony of all time and deduce the principles from that.
What are some of the fundamental principles that we do find? Let us say that we take, going back through the ages, works like the Autobiography of St. Teresa, or the Imitation, or the writings of St. Francis, St. Thomas à Kempis, or the best of the Church Fathers; or going behind these, to their sources in the Gospels; or back to the ages before, to the Tao-Teh-King, back to the far off Scriptures of India, to the Upanishads. There we have a wide and sufficient basis from which to extract principles not coloured by personality, time, or national bias. What principles do we find? What is the supreme principle? That everything exists for spiritual life, which is destined to be everlasting. Not only our human life, but the whole palpable and visible universe exists for purposes of the soul, for spiritual life. Everything else is to be subordinated to the spiritual principle, both in our understanding and inspiration, and in our action.
There is a universal statement of the application of that principle by an Indian Master of Life, in the letters in the Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism, where that Master speaks of the vast progression of humanity from the ages in the past to the ages in the future, and where he indicates that the effort of the Masters through all ages is directed towards one critical problem—namely, to the dead point, if you like, of the curve between materialism and spirituality; to the problem of whether the human race, or the majority of it, shall pass that dead point and ascend the curve which leads to spirituality. The effort of Masters for ages past has been directed to that one problem: that humanity shall pass the dead line from materialism and more dangerous psychism, to enter the spiritual path. That is the application of our principle to all humanity. Life exists that mankind may become spiritual and open the way for the Kingdom of Heaven.
One can come to the other pole and apply the matter to the individual at any moment, in any act, and test both act and situation by the same principle. A man will act in some particular in one of two ways. Which is the way that makes for spiritual life in him? Which is the way that makes against spiritual life in him? There is no other question. Does the way in which he is going to act make for spiritual life, the eternal life, the One Life, in him, or does it bar the way to that life and make for darkness and death? All ethics, all morals are summed up in that one question.
Let us express it a little differently and put it in terms of consciousness. Will he, as a result of his action, be more conscious of the divine Spirit, more conscious of the life which the Masters represent, or will he be less conscious? In the first case, his act is right, his consciousness is deepened, enriched, and perfected; in the second case his act is wrong, he is on the downward path. Will he enter more fully into the life and spirit of the Masters, as the result of his action, or will he enter less fully? There are the two poles, the destiny of all humanity and the individual act, measured by the same standard: that all things exist for eternal life, for the divine life.
Let me try to apply some of the workings-out of this principle in another direction, which has been very much the fashion in this country for several months—I mean the recrudescence of spiritualism. The second object of the Society, I have already spoken of: the study of religions, philosophies and sciences of all nations and over all time. We have a third object, which is not of obligation, but which is nevertheless in the Constitution. That is to study the hidden laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man. When that object was formulated, in 1875, the word psychical covered a multitude of planes. Everything that was not physical in those days was called psychical. To modernize the wording of that object, we should have to say the psychical and spiritual powers latent in man.
I think that many students of Theosophy are familiar with everything of note that has been done in that field for a generation back. Members of our Society have studied the Psychical Research Society’s proceedings since the first; they may have heard its speakers, met its leaders.
Much should be said, I think, on the positive side. That is to say, these seekers into psychical things have amassed a very remarkable body of knowledge, of opinion, of fact, touching unseen worlds and planes. To begin with the matter with which they themselves began: the transference of thought, telepathy. Students of Theosophy know that thought transference is a fact. We do not doubt in the least the fact of telepathy, the transference of thoughts, feelings, sensations from one person to another. The next step of the Psychical Research Society was to investigate the transfer of thought, independent of the body and brain. Sir Oliver Lodge indicated that that transference was not carried by brain waves or any kind of etheric waves, because thought transference was not subject to the law of diminishing intensity which governs all wave motions. He went on to say that the transference is not so much from brain to brain as from mind to mind, or soul to soul, using soul in the general sense. If two souls which happen to be embodied at the time can communicate in this way, irrespective of ether waves, is it equally possible that there should be communication with a soul that does not happen to have a body? Can we communicate with such souls? Can we communicate with the dead? He answered in the affirmative and adduced much evidence, as in his book containing communications from his son Raymond, which has been so widely read.
What attitude is a student of Theosophy, generally speaking, justified in taking toward that situation? On the one hand, there are very evident facts, which, moreover, clearly illustrate many of our own ideas and thoughts and views. For instance, we have held for a long time that we make our own future; our own after-death setting and furniture and so forth, we make ourselves. It is worked out in what is called the doctrine of Devachan, or the state of bliss; that paradise is not a universal monochrome, but depends upon the amount and colour of spiritual life in the individual in each case. The outstanding fact in all this body of psychic communications from the dead, is the demonstration that we are right in holding that view. Each of these excarnate individuals is going on doing just what he was doing in ordinary life, and each says the spiritual world consists in just that kind of thing. If he were a tinker, he will say the spiritual life, the life after death, consists in tinkering,—in other words, the forces that he handled in material life continue after death. This appears to be well supported by a mass of sound psychical research. Therefore we do not, broadly speaking, quarrel with the conclusions of psychical research. But do we endorse the moral principle of this research? Do these seekers begin by asking themselves: is this morally right, this communication with the dead? Is it morally right? That is the fundamental question. Until you have answered that question, you have no right to take another step. We hold that it is, broadly speaking, morally wrong, and for many reasons.
The first fact that we see is this: let us say that Sir Oliver Lodge or one of his colleagues seeks to investigate the spiritual planes of life—the plane, let us say, of paradise. Is there any claim on their part that they open within themselves the spiritual eye to see those planes, that they view what they study with their own spiritual vision? Not in the least. How do they get it? Through mediums, of whom Mrs. Piper was perhaps the best known, though she was only one of a score. These mediums, for the most part, are morbid pathological specimens. Do these mediums claim that they themselves have the spiritual vision which enables them to see into the world of paradise of which we are speaking? So far as I know—and I have studied the thing for many years—not at all. The medium is in a comatose condition, and something else or some one else is speaking or writing through the medium. After the session is over, the medium has no understanding of what really went on. The medium was comatose in the full sense of the word-unconscious, or conscious in some lower physical way, but spiritually conscious not at all.
Now there are a number of points one might pick up. To begin with, what about this question of the medium, already pathological, already morbid, opening the doors of his or her inner nature to whatever happens to come? Would you open the doors of your house or your rooms in the same way? Is it not clearly prudent to find out first what sort of things might come in? It might be angels, it might be the opposite. How is the comatose medium going to tell? Have they made any study of the denizens of these innumerable unseen planes? Have they any information about them? We have an idea that there are a great many kinds of things, clean and unclean, and that it is, to say the least, unwise to open the door and go to sleep, leaving the door open.
There is a fundamental objection that we have to that kind of research: it does not demand the spiritual growth, spiritual unfoldment, spiritual vision in the investigator, which we believe to be essential on moral and practical grounds. We believe that this is one meaning of the old saying: “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” In other words, the true door of spiritual life is the door of aspiration and spiritual growth. He who tries to enter the spiritual world, to get knowledge by another way, is a thief and a robber. That is the moral principle.
The practical principle is that he will not know, in the least, of what value his material is; gold dust, nuggets or dross will be all the same. And surely it is unsatisfactory, from the standpoint of science, not to know what your results are when you have got them. The moral point is that there is no demand for previous spiritual growth and sacrifice, no demand that the lower nature shall be purified.
We believe that a moral and spiritual compromise is made by approaching the spiritual world in that way. The right way is that of spiritual development, sacrifice and growth; of illumination. And because it is a moral compromise—a breach of moral rectitude—to go that way, we believe it will be highly dangerous in its results. You will remember Portia said the quality of mercy is blessed in both him who gives and who receives. In that same way, we hold that spiritualistic research of that kind is highly dangerous both to those who communicate—the so-called spirits—and to those who are communicated with—the investigators. Let me speak of the danger to the latter first. It seems to me that as a result of Sir Oliver Lodge’s investigations and the mass of material that goes with them, there is established in people’s minds generally, a vision of false immortality—that is, an immortality which is gained simply by “passing over” (we call it dying), irrespective of moral character and moral accomplishment. The result of that is quite evident in the lowering of the whole view of immortal life. The scriptures of the world which we study and try to understand, are unanimous on one point amongst others: namely, that real immortality comes through sacrifice and holiness, and in no other way. The Upanishads are as emphatic and clear cut on that as are the Gospels. The door of holiness, the path of sacrifice, is the only means to real immortality. He that loveth his life shall lose it; he that hateth his life—that is to say, offers his life as a sacrifice—shall keep it unto life eternal. Our feeling about the body of psychic research regarding those who have passed over, is that it has degraded and vulgarized the whole field of immortality. Here is the penalty, on the one side: the degrading of the whole idea of immortality for the seekers.
On the other hand, we have certain views as to what takes place in those who die. How do we get these views? From those who have real vision, gained by real and most arduous sacrifice, lasting through ages; who have real holiness, real aspiration, a real life in the eternal and spiritual world, who look down on these things from above, instead of feeling for them blindfolded, from below. What are certain of the fundamental facts which they give? That the whole purpose and importance of this present life depends upon and consists in what it can give to the soul. The soul is the undying immortal, who stands above this life, and the last life, and the next life. What can that life yield to the immortal? It is a part of the teaching that, when a human being dies, he enters into what one might call a stage of gestation, in which there is a solution of the materials of his nature (using “materials” in the larger sense)—a period in which is sifted out that which belongs to the immortal and is to be handed over to the immortal, and that which belongs to time and is not to be assimilated by the immortal. That is a period of gestation. I use the word advisedly, to indicate what a precarious condition it is; every injurious influence must be warded off. There must be silence and stillness, in order that the aspiration which is in that soul may awake; that the finer part of the nature may be drawn upward to the immortal; in order that all that can be given may be given to the true owner, the undying soul. But what can be more fatal to the personality than to have this stillness broken, as if by the ringing and clanging of telephone bells, calling it to come back to this world? The din and whirl and clang and clatter of physical life is brought once more to the ears of the soul, in that sensitive condition of gestation;—the geese cackling, as Portia says, and the whole whirl of physical thoughts, desires, appetites, revived once more. It is likely to be an abortive soul-birth, with all the calamity that that implies. The person concerned may know nothing of it. It is unfortunately true of this world that when we are in the direst danger, we often think we are quite safe. And in the same way, those “spirits” may think they are safe, when they are in great danger and on their way to dissolution. They are no judges , and though they may be exultant, and delighted with the happy hunting grounds in which they find themselves, it does not for a moment follow that this is the right thing for them to do; that it is well for them to do this, or well for us to encourage it.
I am not going to expand that, because I do not wish to enforce a conclusion, or even to lay great stress upon the conclusion. What I do wish to repeat is: moral compromise is doubly fatal because it is a moral betrayal and certain to end in physical disaster. That is the text which I do wish you to carry away and to think over, to see for yourselves whether it is true. Try it. Use it as a standard in one case after another. Keep that principle rather than the illustrations.
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In conclusion, this: we have our clear spiritual and moral standards. We seek always to clarify them, to make them more sure; to test them; to try them; to live by them. And because the world is in such a whirlwind of moral confusion, it is of utmost importance that members of the Society, students of Theosophy, should have very clear moral principles and should carry them out in action. It is of the utmost importance,—the one solid ground in a world of confusion, in a broken mass of shifting ice such as Peary described near the pole.
If we succeed and are able to establish our standards, not merely to carry them out ourselves, but gradually to win to them, finally, a working majority of mankind, what will be the fruit? Our first great principle is that everything is for spiritual life; that all that we see, all that we are, makes for spiritual being, for ourselves and for others, in a unity of life—of spiritual life—destined to be everlasting; a life not untenanted now, but already occupied by the Masters, the lords of spiritual life, who have attained, who are now what we look for as the ultimate fruit,—as the realization of just that principle, just that spiritualizing of the majority, and perhaps of all mankind, in ages to come.
We work for the drawing of mankind into that spiritual life; the drawing of that spiritual life into mankind, so that these lords of spiritual life, the Masters, who at present are checked and thwarted at every point where they try to help us; who are met with resistance of mind, of heart, of every part of our nature, shall, on the contrary, be welcomed with humility and the greatest gratitude, to take the greatest possible part in the guidance of our lives; that the lords of spiritual life shall come amongst men, and help us to live our lives, shall guide our powers, and lead us in their wisdom and mercy, in their grace and love, along the path that they themselves have already trodden to our home, our everlasting home in the Eternal.