THEOSOPHY, Vol. 43, No. 6, April, 1955
(Pages 255-260; Size: 19K)
[Part 21 of a 29-part series]
IN an earlier discussion of this series, during discussion of the word ethics, an attempt was made to draw some useful distinctions between ethics and morality (THEOSOPHY, June, 1954). [Note: This refers to the 11th article in this series.--Compiler.] The derivation of both terms suggests that clear distinctions are advisable and, furthermore, as noted at that time, "it is easily conceivable that more could be written concerning the words ethics and morality than about any other two terms in the English language. This, for the reason that, from a theosophical point of view, every man has a concern with establishing some measure of consistency, purpose, and general helpfulness to others -- and also finds he is being measured by the yardstick of other peoples' customs."
In this case, the "word puzzle" consists in the fact that a man may, as with Socrates, be considered immoral by the society in which he lives and yet be a great ethical teacher and exemplar -- a truly moral man, if one uses the term in its best or highest sense. When is apparently moral man immoral? Not only when he falsely rationalizes his own conduct, but also when he judges and condemns others in a manner which shows no respect for ideas and ideals different from his own. While many "moral" customs are derived from valid ethical principles and may inspire to ethical conduct, other "moral" customs and attitudes apparently exert an opposite sort of influence, particularly when the moralist is prideful of his supposed virtue, and contemptuous or condemnatory of those whose behavior follows a differing pattern. Theosophy, it has been said truly, is the essence of morality -- that is, composed of the ethical principles which underlie philosophic concepts of goodness, justice, etc. But, by the same token, teachers of Theosophy have, almost without notable exception, been branded as "immoral" by hostile contemporaries who possessed vested interest in the established order.
Along with such abbreviated analysis it is interesting to isolate some of Madame Blavatsky's and William Q. Judge's statements on the limitations of the "moral" or "conventional" -- perhaps one should say, moralistic -- point of view. To begin with, H.P.B. was at no time more vehement than when calling attention to the fact that the Theosophist would find himself, of necessity, renouncing popular categories of "good" and "evil." The reason for her insistence, and for a similar emphasis in some of William Q. Judge's remarks in Letters That Have Helped Me, seems clearly to be that if a man believes in the combined self-reliance and inescapable responsibility suggested by the view of reincarnation, he cannot foreshorten his viewpoint on human conduct by the self-righteous standards of custom. The "conventional way," unthinkingly pursued, involves far too much of self-righteousness and prejudice to encourage justice in dealing with one's fellows or growth in one's own understanding.
H.P.B's most impressive statements on this subject occur in her article, "What is Truth?", first printed as a leading editorial in Lucifer for February, 1888. She introduces her thesis by noting that "to approach even terrestrial truth requires, first of all, love of truth for its own sake, for otherwise no recognition of it will follow. And who loves truth in this age for its own sake? How many of us are prepared to search for, accept, and carry it out, in the midst of a society in which anything that would achieve success has to be built on appearances, not on reality, on self-assertion, not on intrinsic value?" That Madame Blavatsky has little respect for what modern psychologists frequently call "the social self" is attested by her further statement that the average man, in his societal relationships, "allows himself usually to be drifted down from cradle to grave, nailed to the Procrustean bed of custom and conventionality." She continues:Now conventionality -- pure and simple -- is a congenital LIE, as it is in every case a "simulation of feelings according to a received standard" (F. W. Robertson's definition); and where there is any simulation there cannot be any truth. How profound the remark made by Byron, that "truth is a gem that is found at a great depth; whilst on the surface of this world all things are weighed by the false scales of custom," is best known to those who are forced to live in the stifling atmosphere of such social conventionalism, and who, even when willing and anxious to learn, dare not accept the truths they long for, for fear of the ferocious Moloch called Society.Further philosophical dimensions of this challenging argument are supplied by a discussion of selfishness, extracted from portions of the same article, and also from The Key to Theosophy. In the Key, H.P.B. remarks that "selfishness is essentially conservative, and hates being disturbed." In "What is Truth?", she adds the following in a similar context of discussion:SELFISHNESS, the first-born of Ignorance, and the fruit of the teaching which asserts that for every newly-born infant a new soul, separate and distinct from the Universal Soul, is "created" -- this Selfishness is the impassable wall between the personal Self and Truth. It is the prolific mother of all human vices. Lie being born out of the necessity for dissembling, and Hypocrisy out of the desire to mask Lie. It is the fungus growing and strengthening with age in every human heart in which it has devoured all better feelings. Selfishness kills every noble impulse in our natures, and is the one deity, fearing no faithlessness or desertion from its votaries. Hence, we see it reign supreme in the world, and in so-called fashionable society. As a result, we live, and move, and have our being in this god of darkness under his trinitarian aspect of Sham, Humbug, and Falsehood, called RESPECTABILITY. [Note: For those who would like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "What is Truth?" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]Mr. Judge carries on the development of the principles involved in Madame Blavatsky's paragraphs in one of his letters of philosophical "advice" to Jasper Niemand, bringing the matter down to the everyday psychological level of a student's life. The way of the moralist, he implies, is to abhor, shun, or grow righteously indignant upon observing some species of conduct which he feels clearly merits our disapprobation. "But," Judge writes, "to turn away in horror is not detachment. That is, if we love vice or anything, it seizes on us by attachment; if we hate anything, it seizes on our inner selves by reason of the strong horror we feel for it. In order to prevent a thing we must understand it; we cannot understand while we fear or hate it. We are not to love vice, but are to recognize that it is a part of the whole, and trying to understand it, we thus get above it. This is the 'doctrine of opposites' spoken of in Bhagavad-Gita. So if we turn in horror from the bad (we may feel sad and charitable, though), in a future life we will feel that horror and develop it by reaction into a reincarnation in a body and place where we must in material life go through the very thing we now hate."Good and Evil are only the two poles of the one thing. For in the Absolute one is just as necessary as the other, and often what seem evil and "pain" are not absolutely so, but only necessary adjustments in the progress of the soul. Read Bhagavad-Gita as to how the self seems to suffer pain. What is Evil now? Loss of friends? No; if you are self-centered. Slander? Not if you rely on Karma. There is only evil when you rebel against immutable decrees that must be worked out. You know that there must be these balancings which we call Good and Evil. Just imagine one man who really was a high soul, now living as a miser and enjoying it. You call it an evil; he a good. Who is right? You say "Evil" because you are speaking out of the True; but the True did know that he could never have passed some one certain point unless he had that experience, and so we see him now in an evil state. Experience we must have, and if we accept it at our own hands we are wise. That is, while striving to do our whole duty to the world and ourselves, we will not live the past over again by vain and hurtful regrets, nor condemn any man, whatever his deeds, since we cannot know their true cause. We are not Karma, we are not the Law, and it is a species of that hypocrisy so deeply condemned by It for us to condemn any man. That the Law lets a man live is proof that he is not yet judged by that higher power. Still, we must and will keep our discriminating power at all times.These points of emphasis are hardly isolated remarks, being implied, at least, in some way in nearly everything written by Mr. Judge and Madame Blavatsky. There is also abundant evidence that, wherever distinctive theosophical ideas have occurred in a philosopher's writings, one finds a similar insistence. Given the perspective of reincarnation and Karma, it is seen to be absolutely necessary to refrain from judging either our own conduct or that of anyone else in terms of appearances, and to make sure that whatever "judgments" are passed simply represent a decision that a given action is not one we can commend or must oppose. The conventional moralist, however, is interested in more than action; he presumes to judge the motive and ultimate character of the one who acts. Thus it is that the theosophical philosopher is apt to show an especial capacity for appreciation of the non-conformist. The non-conformist, or genuine "radical," whatever his ignorance and whatever his appearance, is at least so concerned with the task of discovering true principles for his own conduct that he has little time or inclination for censuring others. His Karma is more truly his own, his standards being self-induced and self-devised rather than borrowed from a social or religious consensus. Moreover, the temptation to dishonesty is far less, since there is absolutely no incentive for pretending to embrace a popular morality; the non-conformist morality, by definition, is unpopular anyway.
Emerson proffered a ringing paragraph on this subject in his essay, "Self-Reliance."Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, "What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?" my friend suggested, -- "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.These points of emphasis are particularly impressive, coming from Emerson, for he was in his own conduct, we understand, the most circumspect of men. It is not only those who carry on a kind of personal war with social standards, then, who protest the soul-stultifying effects of custom; matters of profound philosophic import and matters of self-reliance are also involved. Emerson continues by saying:The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides. There are two confessionals, in one or the other of which we must be shriven. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.Going far back in the theosophic tradition to the philosophy of Gautama Buddha -- he whom H.P.B. referred to as the greatest religious teacher the world has ever known -- we find the following remarks preserved in The Dhammapada: "Not merely by moral precepts and observances," the Buddha said, "does one earn the right to be called a sage," nor find release from ethical dilemmas. Further, he said, "a man is not a Bhikkhu because he begs alms from others; he who merely outwardly adopts all forms is not on that account a Bhikkhu. He is in reality called 'The Bhikkhu' who in this world has cast out both merit and demerit, who lives a life of purity, and who, with full realization, walks in this world." So strong is this current in Buddhist thought that despite the development of a formal Buddhist priesthood and the deterioration of much of Buddhism into ritualism, some elements of high-minded tolerance toward the apparent wrongdoings of others have been preserved among Buddhist votaries to this day. The Buddhist has always claimed that "no tonsure can make an ascetic," as Buddha pointed out, and conversely, that outward appearances cannot be depended upon to give full measure of a man nor of the nature of his soul-striving.
And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!
Such attacks on conventional morality seem to be necessary in order to help overcome the delusion that matters of right and wrong can properly be determined by vote or agreement. Neither that which most people want nor that which most people believe provides the right to pass judgment, and all of history attests to the fact that "morality by social agreement" inhibits philosophical growth. As Dwight MacDonald noted in his essay, The Root is Man:If what most people want is one's criterion of value, then there is no problem involved beyond ascertaining what in fact people do want -- a question that can indeed be answered by science, but not the one we started out with: Is a scientifically-grounded ethics possible? For this answer simply raises the original question in different form: why should one want what most people want? The very contrary would seem to be the case: those who have taught us what we know about ethics, from Socrates and Christ to Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Gandhi, have usually wanted precisely what most people of their time did not want, and have often met violent death for that reason.In conclusion, then, we have, in these remarks concerning morality, a practical example of why it is sometimes necessary to attack prevailing attitudes of mind -- even to challenge and condemn them, as did H.P.B. and Emerson -- in order to allow the soul's vision to come through clearly. And here, as elsewhere, it may be rewarding to ponder the additional fact that men of theosophical persuasion have only condemned the condemnatory attitude itself. Two negatives, as has often been pointed out, manage to cancel each other out, leaving opportunity for the emergence of positive, constructive ideals.
[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "What is Truth?", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler]
[Metempsychosis. Transmigration. Reincarnation.
Soul Passing Beyond a Former Condition.
Striving for Enlightenment.
Theosophy Primarily Psychological.
Third Fundamental Proposition.
About Metempsychosis in H.P.B.'s Glossary.]
[Part 22 of a 29-part series]
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