How Theosophy Affects One’s View Of Life by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

–A Paper Read Before the Dublin Lodge.

In asking you to consider with me the influence of the system of thought called Theosophy upon one’s view of all the things which are included in the term Life, I have to preface my remarks by the confession that I have not extracted my ideas from portly volumes, or indeed, engaged in any great research; and I have further to ask you to believe that what you will hear is the most unbiased statement, as far as possible, on the subjects which will necessarily come under notice.

The outlook of any individual mind is not a constant quantity; it is to some extent determined by education, environment, and the innate tendencies; but it is always subject to alteration; it is constantly feeling the influence of subtle forces and circumstances, and it changes with every fresh experience and every new sensation. Still these influences seldom evince their presence by a great reversal of the mental attitude, and we are best able to sense them by seeing how the actions of the individual, which are very largely the voluntary or involuntary expression of his standpoint, represent at different times changes in that standpoint. Indeed, one’s own experience will supply plenty of material to work upon; for, I daresay no one will insist that his present attitude towards the rest of the universe is identical with that of ten or five years ago, or even one year. A little examination will show that the mental processes which precede some definite action are altered in some important manner from those of 1890. The question which is of importance is to find out how the change has come about, and whether one is to allow extraneous events to mast his mental conclusions, or one is to become, through wisdom acquired by effort, the conscious master of his destiny.

Theosophy has for its leading tenet the absolute unity in essence and correlation of all life, whether visible, invisible, material, intellectual, spiritual, and this affords at once a clue to the consideration of the present subject; for, according to the view which the individual thinker takes of the powers and relations of the mind itself will be his view of the duties and responsibilities which these powers and relations involve; in other words, Ethics or moral philosophy must be based upon metaphysics. Now, I wish to be as brief as possible in pointing out the theosophic view of the mind, and soul, and their powers and relations; and were it not that it is necessary for the unity of my remarks, I would take refuge in referring to the numerous able, intellectual, and forcible expositions of this matter which you have heard in this room.

Theosophy, to put it as concisely as possible, accepts the universe as “the unfolding of a Divine life, functioning in every form of living and nonliving thing.” Man is viewed as a compound being, a spark of this divine universal spirit being clothed with the body. The immortal indestructible part of man consists of this spark of universal spirit, its vehicle the human spirit, and the mind or intellectual faculties. It uses as a dwelling the body, with its animal life, its passions and appetites, to which mankind is so prone to attach tremendous importance. The connecting link is the mind, which, being full of agitation, strong, and obstinate, senses all the material existence, is moved by the hopes and fears, and the storm of existence. The lesson, ever insisted on as having to be learnt, is that the lower part of man, the body, and its attachments, have to be conquered and purified; and the only way to teach it its true functions is by suffering; and when this is done, we shall have got somewhere nearer the goal, when we shall identify our consciousness with our true self, not with the illusion. The powers of the mind to sense all existence, and its relations towards the rest of our being as the connecting link, bearing the contact with external things towards the soul, and at times being the vehicle of the Wisdom which is one of the attributes of that which has no attribute: I say, then, these powers and relations of the mind, which one finds everywhere treated of in Theosophical literature, are the determining factors in the formation of our Ethics. And since, from Socrates down, we are taught that self-knowledge is necessary for guidance of one’s conduct, the knowledge of the mind and its capacities is at once shadowed forth as of immense value. It has at least three elementary powers–viz., the power of knowing, the power of feeling, and the power of acting. These powers, though distinguishable, are not separable; but rather when we distinguish knowledge, feeling, and action, what we call by these names will be found, when accurately examined, to be combinations of the three elements, differing only in respect to the element which preponderates. Locke would have us suppose that when I say “I know,” it means that an object is inserted into my consciousness as into a bag. But no bag could produce the phenomenon of knowledge. To produce it requires the putting forth of an active power, which we call intelligence. The knowledge of an object always produces in the mind some emotion with regard to it: this emotion is normally pleasure. Sometimes the difficulties which beset the acquisition of knowledge are so great and cause such dissatisfaction and pain that the mind is tempted to banish them, together with the object which excites them, from its consciousness. Knowledge and the emotions to which it gives rise induce those actions which are the result of the inherent activity of the mind stimulated by them. Thus we see that the antecedents of all action include intelligence as an active power: and Ethics, more particularly Theosophical Ethics, are seen to have practical value, and not merely a speculative interest.

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Having digressed thus far from my subject, the point to which I proceed to address myself is, the working out on the individual of the system of which I have tried to shadow forth the greater truths. The first class I will deal with are the indifferent. To them, Theosophy presents the widest possible field of, and reasons for, activity that can be desired. It shows that no action is without its direct permanent result, and that consequently the position of the indifferent is absolutely untenable. No one who has studied Theosophical literature can ever find there a justification for mere laissez-faire. It points out the enormous value of what we call trifles, and the comparatively trifling value of what the indifferent would take most note. Theosophy always insists on action in some direction, preferably conscious, well-directed action, with pure motive.

The Agnostic is, as it were, Theosophy’s special care–It shows him at once the directions in which further, fuller, and greater knowledge of every branch of science or philosophy can be gained. It says to him “pursue your previous method of inquiry, and remember, taking nothing for granted, do not accept other’s authority. Seek for knowledge: we can only point the way we have ourselves gone. Investigate every nook and corner of your mind, and learn how to control it and your sense perceptions. Then you will no longer mistrust your results as possibly imperfect, but you will have attained to some closer contact with Truth.” To both the Agnostic and the indifferent, the study of Theosophy will bring a consciousness of the responsibility towards others, which is the basis of our universal brotherhood. It will tend to remove the personal element which has hitherto done so much to cloud and obscure one’s investigations; and it will gradually lead to the elimination of the anxiety as to results, which will bring us (by the removal of remorse or approval) to calmness of mind, in which condition great work can be achieved.

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The appeal of theosophy to the scientific investigator is practically identical with the last. It will show him what so many of his confreres are more or less tacitly recognizing, that the hopeless and soul-deadening belief of the Materialist (that all the growth of the race, the struggling towards a higher life, the aspirations towards virtue shall absolutely vanish, and leave no trace), is a crushing mental burden which leads to absolute negation; it will show the spiritual nature of man in perfect consistence with the true theories, and as dependent on fundamental laws and causes.

Coming from the region of unbelief to belief, to use these words in their narrowest sense, let us consider what way Theosophy will affect a believer in doctrines of some system of religious thought. To take the ordinary Protestant first; Theosophy is apparently likely to fail on account of its taking away the personality of the Deity, and the habit of prayer: for to both of these doctrines the earnest churchman is attached. But if it does do so, what does it substitute? It puts forward an atonement, not an atonement of 1,861 years ago, but a daily atonement to be carried out in each one’s life, and having as great an influence on one’s fellows; it suggests the possibilities are within each one of us, if we but seek the true path. Also, and this is a small point, it removes the horrible canker of church government, which ministers so powerfully to the idea of separateness and personality: and lastly, it offers, in place of mouthing prayers to a God whom one is taught to fear ten times to the once that love is insisted on, a union with that higher self which, if pursued, brings peace, wisdom, an infinite compassion, and an infinite love.

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What has Theosophy to offer to the Roman Catholic? All that it offers to the Protestant; with this addition, that not merely one woman is exalted, but all womankind as being of the same essence and spirit of all nature. It shows that there is no superiority, but that by effort, by training, by aspiration, everyone, both man and woman, shall be found worthy of being taken into heaven, and joined again to the one source of life and being. It shows the whole doctrine of saintliness and blessedness to have a source in Truth, though overlaid and altered.

And what of the other sheep? What of that soul which, feeling compelled by its intuitions to recognise the essential divinity of man, yet find no expression in the churches which will fit into its emotional nature? What of him whom, for want of a better word, I shall call a Symbolist, who is always striving to express in some form of art or thought, that divine energy which is wisdom, consciousness, and energy all in one? Does not Theosoophy afford the very best outlet for his soul force? Are not its ideas on a level with, if not higher than, what his most sublime moments of feeling can bring before him? Surely if anyone can find peace in its bosom, the symbolist, ever struggling to express his sense of the True, the Beautiful, which are, after all, but a second reflection of the Higher mind, with its knowledge of the essence of all life, can therein do his noblest work for Humanity in company with those who, having previously done all they could for the race through a sense of duty arising from intuitions they declined to recognise, have found in the doctrines of Theosophy the broadest possible field for such work, and the purest motive.

And now, changing from particular types, how do we look upon Theosophy as a power in Ethics? We find the elimination of the selfish instinct insisted upon as necessary for the progress of the Ego through its material envelope to a full and complete knowledge of its higher self; we find the doctrine of Brotherhood put forward in its noblest aspects; we find as a necessary corollary that responsibility is increased and widened with an accompanying sense of power to accept and carry on that responsibility; with the growth of higher feeling within us comes a sense of added strength; we learn gradually to work without consideration or anxiety for results; we grow more tolerant of our neighbor’s shortcomings, and less so of our own; we find that by disengaging ourselves from the objects of the senses, we become indifferent to small troubles, and more free to assist our neighbor when they press on him; with the knowledge of the causes of present conditions lying in past action, and our present actions going to be the causes of future conditions, we place ourselves in a position to work to the full extent of our powers to set in motion such causes as will bring about the happiest results for Humanity as a whole; we learn to look upon death, not as the opening of the spiritual life, but as a release from a weight which keeps under the spiritual life, which is always with us, now as well as before birth and after death; we learn to sense the methods by which the universe works out its destiny; we find every day growing stronger that sense of immortality, of absolute union with the universal soul, which at first merely manifested itself in strange feelings and emotions; we find the clues to the control of our physical and mental faculties, and are not surprised to discover the ten-thousand- fold increase in value these faculties then bear; we put ourselves more and more in harmony with what we feel to be the source of all Truth; we find ourselves gradually able to give expression to those dumb feelings which we could not find words for, of its grandeur and greatness; until finally we come, after many incarnations, after suffering, after despair sometimes, to a knowledge which transcends all human knowledge, to a bliss which is above our present ideas, to a peace which the world cannot give, which surpasseth all understanding, and are then ready to give up that bliss and peace, and to use that knowledge for the divine compassion towards our fellows who are following.

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But how are we to hope for this progress? What are we to do to realize these ideas? Is it by wishing for it that this state will come about? Is there no everyday way of getting forward? These are some of the questions which will rise naturally to the lips of any here who are not thoroughly acquainted with Theosophical ideas: and what have we to say in reply? Are we to confess Theosophy is a doctrine only for the learned, the cultured, the wealthy? Are we to acknowledge that Christianity or Agnosticism is more practical, easier for the men in the street to grasp? Are we to say that Theosophy is not a gospel for to-day? No: a thousand times no! If there is one result of a study of Theosophy, it is the gaining of Hope, a sure and certain Hope, which soon becomes Trust, and later, knowledge. I affirm most strongly that there is no one to whom Theosophy in some of its myriad aspects does not appeal, and appeal strongly enough to cause it to be the ruling passion of his existence; but I do also affirm as strongly, that in Theosophy, as in all other things, what are necessary are, pure motive and perseverance. It costs no one anything to spend an hour a day in meditation on some aspect of life; in thinking of our eternal nature and striving to place ourselves en rapport with our highest ideals of purity, nobility, Truth. Then cannot we get the idea of universal brotherhood firmly fixed in our consciousness as an actual reality to be attained, and always act upon that basis. To me, the thought of the absolute unity of all life, affords as high an ideal for putting into practical shape as my deficient development allows me. Cannot we get this ideal or some other ideal so essential a part of our thought that it colours all our feelings, emotions and actions? We will then be doing our part in the struggle. We will not be of the Laodiceans, who were neither hot nor cold. Let us try this: let us see whether it will have such an effect, and if we, by our personal experience, have convinced ourselves of the reality of this, let us progress further, and by further trial find out the greater truths beyond. Reincarnation and Karma are essentially doctrines for the poor and needy; mental and physical. Intellectual subtleties are not needed in Theosophy: it is spiritual perception, and who will dare say to the poor that they have less of this than their fellows?

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The only region where the “exclusiveness” argument can have even a momentary hold is with regard to Occultism. There is in most people’s mind a distrust of anything secret. But remember, believe only in what your own test has shown you to be true: and learn not to condemn those who have found some irresistible impulse urging them forward to seek further. Besides, anyone who is not clear in his motive in studying Occultism had better pause before he pledges himself to anything, or undertakes that the result of which he does not know even dimly.

And before passing from this digression, let me insist strongly once again on the fact that true progress will come only to those who seek to attain it.

They who would be something more
Than those who feast and laugh and die, will hear
The voice of duty, as the note of war,
Nerving their spirit to great enterprise,
And knitting every sinew for the charge.

Again, get rid of indolence, or its synonym, indifference. The real hereditary sin of human nature is indolence. Conquer that, and you will conquer the rest. We cannot afford to rest with what we have done; we must keep moving on. In this, indeed, to stand still is to go back–worse still, to keep others back.

In conclusion I may, perhaps, be permitted to give you a few remarks as to the influence Theosophy has had upon myself. It has furnished me with satisfactory reasons for living and working; it has infused an earnestness in that work which I prize as one of the valuable things of my life’s experience. It has ministered to that inmost sense of worship and aspiration which all of us possess; it has shown me that by expanding one’s consciousness in that of the universe, one gains more knowledge and opportunity for helping on humanity; and it has pointed out where the materials for a scientific basis of ethics can be found, and also what will be the outlines of the future building; and finally it has shown that if the objects of our desires be changed, and many things we held dear are no longer prized, it is owning simply to the acquirement of larger and fuller interests.

–September 15, 1894

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