On Criticism, Authorities, And Other Matters
BY AN UNPOPULAR PHILOSOPHER
THEOSOPHITS and editors of Theosophical periodicals are constantly warned,
by the prudent and the faint-hearted, to beware of giving offence to "authorities," whether
scientific or social. Public Opinion, they urge, is the most dangerous of all foes.
Criticism of it is fatal, we are told. Criticism can hardly hope to make the person or
subject so discussed amend or become amended. Yet it gives offence to the many, and makes
Theosophists hateful. "Judge not, if thou wilt not be judge." is the habitual warning.
It is precisely because Theosophists would themselves be judged and court impartial
criticism, that they begin by rendering that service to their fellow-men. Mutual criticism
is a most healthy policy, and helps to establish final and definite rules in life—
practical, not merely theoretical. We have had enough of theories. The Bible is full
of wholesome advice, yet few are the Christians who have ever applied any of its ethical
injunctions to their daily lives. if one criticism is hurtful so is another; so also is
every innovation, or even the presentation of some old thing under a new aspect, as
both have necessarily to clash with the views of this or another "authority." I maintain,
on the contrary, that criticism is the great benefactor of thought in general; and still
more so of those men who never think for themselves but rely in everything upon acknowledged
"authorities" and social routine.
For what is an "authority" upon any question, after all? No more, really than a light
streaming upon a certain object through one single, more or less wide, chink and illuminating
it from one side only. Such light, besides being the faithful reflector of the personal
views of but one man—very often merely that of his special hobby—can never
help in the examination of a question or a subject from all its aspects and sides. Thus,
the authority appealed to will often prove but of little help, yet the profane, who
attempts to present the given question or object under another aspect and in a different
light, is forthwith hooted for his great audacity. Does he not attempt to upset solid
"authorities," and fly in the face of respectable and time-honored routine thought?
Friends and foes! Criticism is the sole salvation from intellectual stagnation. It is
the beneficent goad which stimulates to life and action—hence to healthy changes—
the heavy ruminants called Routine and Prejudice, in private as in social life. Adverse
opinions are like conflicting winds which brush from the quiet surface of a lake
the green scum that tends to settle upon still waters. If every clear stream of
independent thought, which runs through the field of life outside the old grooves
traced by Public Opinion, had to be arrested and to come to a standstill, the results
would prove very sad. The streams would no longer feed the common pond called Society.
and its waters would become still more stagnant than they are. Result: it is the most
orthodox "authorities" of the social pond who would be the first to get sucked down
still deeper into its ooze and slime.
Things, even as they now stand, present no very bright outlook as regards progress
and social reforms. In this last quarter of the century it is women alone who have
achieved any visible beneficent progress. Men, in their ferocious egoism and sex-privilege,
have fought hard, but have been defeated on almost every line. Thus, the younger
generation of women look hopeful enough. They will hardly swell the future ranks of
stiff-necked and cruel Mrs. Grundy. Those who to-day lead her no longer invincible
battalions on the war-path, are the older Amazons of respectable society, and her
young men, the male "flowers of evil," the nocturnal plants that blossom in the
hothouses known as clubs. The Brummels of our modern day have become worse gossips
than the old dowagers ever were in the dawn of our century.
To oppose or criticize such foes, or even to find the least fault with them, is
to commit the one unpardonable social sin. An Unpopular Philosopher, however, has
little to fear, and notes his thoughts, indifferent to the loudest "war-cry" from
those quarters. He examines his enemies of both sexes with the calm and placid
eye of one who has nothing to lose, and counts the ugly blotches and wrinkles on
the "sacred" face of Mrs. Grundy, as he would count the deadly poisonous flowers
on the branches of a majestic manceniller—through a telescope from
ajar. He will never approach the tree, or rest under its lethal shade.
"Thou shalt not set thyself against the Lord's anointed," saith David. But
since the "authorities" social and scientific are always the first to break that
law, others may occasionally follow the good example. Besides, the "anointed" ones
are not always those of the Lord: many of them being more of the "self-annointed" sort.
Thus, whenever taken to task for disrespect to Science and its "authorities," which
the Unpopular Philosopher is accused of rejecting, his demurs to the statement. To
reject the infallibility of a man of Science is not quite the same as to
repudiate his learning. A specialist is one, precisely because he has some
one specialty, and is therefore less reliable in other branches of Science, and
even in the general appreciation of his own subject. Official school Science is
based upon temporary foundations, so far. It will advance upon straight lines so
long only as it is not compelled to deviate from its old grooves, in consequence
of fresh and unexpected discoveries in the fathomless mines of knowledge.
Science is like a railway train which carries its baggage van from one
terminus to the other, and with which no one except the railway official may
interfere. But passengers who travel by the same train can hardly be prevented
from quitting the direct line at fixed stations, to proceed, if they so like,
by diverging roads. They should have this option, without being taxed with
libelling the chief line. To proceed beyond the terminus on horseback,
cart of foot, or even to undertake pioneer work, by cutting entirely new
paths through the great virgin forests and thickets of public ignorance, is
their undoubted prerogative. Other explorers are sure to follow; nor less sure
are they to criticize the newly-cut pathway. They will thus do more good than
harm. For truth, according to an old Belgian proverb, is always the result of
conflicting opinions, like the spark that flies out from the shock of two flints
Why should men of learning be always so inclined to regard Science as their
own personal property? Is knowledge a kind of indivisible family estate, entailed
only on the elder sons of Science? Truth belongs to all, or ought so to belong;
excepting always those few special branches of knowledge which should be preserved
ever secret, like those two-edged weapons that both kill and save. Some philosopher
compared knowledge to a ladder, the top of which was more easily reached by a man
unencumbered by heavy luggage, than by him who has to drag along an enormous bale
of old conventionalities, faded out and dried. Moreover, such a one must look back
every moment, for fear of losing some of his fossils. Is it owing to such extra
weight that so few of them ever reach the summit of the ladder, and that they
affirm there is nothing beyond the highest rung they have reached?
Or is it for the sake of preserving the old dried-up plants of the Past that they
deny the very possibility of any fresh, living blossoms, on new forms of life, in
Whatever their answer, without such optimistic hope in the ever-becoming, life
would be little worth living. What between "authorities," their fear of, and wrath
at the slightest criticism—each and all of them demanding to be regarded as
infallible in their respective departments—the world threatens to fossilize
in its old prejudices and routine. Fogeyism grins its skeleton-like sneer ar every
innovation or new form of thought. In the great battle of life for the survival
of the fittest, each of these forms becomes in turn the master and then the
tyrant, forcing back all new growth as its own was checked. But the true Philosopher,
however, "unpopular," seeks to grasp the actual life, which, springing fresh from
the inner source of Being, the rock of truth, is ever moving onward. He feels
equal contempt for all the little puddles that stagnate lazily on the flat and
marshy fields of social life.
Lucifer, September, 1892
"No Religion Higher Than Truth"
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