Copyright © 2011 by Theosophical University Press
It is the course of everything, after birth, to grow and attain maturity; then decline and old age follow, and finally death ensues. This cycle of change and repetitive phase occurs with civilizations as noticeably as it does with man. Yet while the sun is setting on one part of the earth, it is rising elsewhere. In times of decay, of spiritual loss to the organism, men hunt for truth perhaps more fervidly than in the hot morning of aggressive youth; but as a rule they do not know whither to turn in order to find it; nor do they know how to use the gems of wisdom that their forefathers have bequeathed to them. They have in such periods lost the path; and the consequence is that they search everywhere. Such was the situation during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and such to a certain extent is likewise the case with our civilization today.
The Roman historians of the centuries following the opening of the Christian era tell us that religion and philosophy were so degenerate then, and scientific inquiry and discovery had so nearly ceased, that the ordinary run of men then sought for truth and guidance by running to consult fortune-tellers, often of dubious reputation, and real or pretended astrologers — astrologers in this period of Roman civilization being the so-called Chaldeans and Babylonians. They did as experience and history show people will always do when they are at an utter loss and have come to an unknown turning in the road: they ran to speculation and games of chance — to the many forms of divination, for instance. The old and in many ways highly ethical and majestic state-religion of their forefathers was nearly extinct, while the new religion of twin-birth in Alexandria and Judea was steadily spreading its power and influence over the Roman Empire. It was to be many long centuries yet before the rays of the rising sun of knowledge were to shine anew over those highly civilized lands bordering the European inland sea. History shows us that those rays began to illuminate European intellects only about the fourteenth century, some little time before Christopher Columbus rediscovered the New World in the West.
What does Ammianus Marcellinus of the fifth century, for instance, tell us of the methods pursued by the people of his own time in their search for spiritual and mental anchorage and guidance? They hunted for truth and direction in goblets filled with water; they divined by means of a ring attached to a string and held over the top of a goblet; and if, due to the quivering of the hand, the ring touched the rim of the vessel, thus making a sound, they drew weighty conclusions from certain rules of alleged interpretation. The choice of a husband or of a wife was often thus determined; or investments were made or not made thereby; or this or that or some other course in life was followed or abandoned. Palmistry was another popular method of divining truth and the future; or astrologers also were consulted.
The Roman senate, and in later times the Roman emperors, frequently passed laws or issued imperial rescripts directed against the practice of the then prevailing method of astrological divination, the practitioners of it being at repeated intervals expelled from Roman territory. All this official supervision and interference took place, not because the great majority of educated men doubted the reality of a genuine science of astrology, but because great seers or sages no longer moved publicly among the people and taught it publicly, and the true science had degenerated into a merely pseudo-art practiced as a means of gaining influence and position, or as an easy method of obtaining a livelihood. It is indeed small wonder that the Roman state took stringent measures of precaution and often of repression, because frequently unhappy and sometimes fatal consequences ensued, and the running after the will-o'-the-wisps of fortune was seen to be to the detriment of public morals and individual welfare and happiness. People lost their fortunes from following astrological advice; some committed suicide, or even murder, and other crimes; others went mad; some joined political secret societies banded together against the general policy of the empire or against powerful political influences. The Romans, while exceedingly tolerant in all matters of religion as such, or even social affairs, were always very jealous of secret political organizations, against which they invariably proceeded with relentless energy and with all the instruments of repression that the Roman laws put into their hands.
There were many ways of running after psychic adventures during the dissolution of the Roman Empire. One of the most commonly practiced and severely punished by the State, because of its highly detrimental effect on the ethical and spiritual fiber of men, was necromancy or communion with the shades of the dead. This took a number of forms, some too revolting even to mention.
The poets and historians of Greece and Rome refer to these various practices, and did so from remote ages. Homer in his Odyssey (Bk. XI, vv. 30-224), describes the evocation by Odysseus of various persons from the infernal regions and his communing with these ghosts, these astral simulacra and reliquiae of dead men, remaining in the lowest regions of the astral light.
Ovid, Vergil, Lucan, and many more touch upon these unpleasant themes. Lucan in his Pharsalia (Bk. VI) gives a graphic description of the then common beliefs of the Graeco-Roman world in the power of the Thessalian witches of "bringing down the moon from heaven to earth" by means of unholy incantations, and their necromantic intercourse and practices with the shades of the dead, and describes how Sextus, the son of Pompey, driven by fear, goes to the witch Erictha in order to learn the outcome of the war then waging.
The common idea among the Mediterranean peoples that the Thessalian witches could "bring down the moon," has always seemed utter nonsense to European classical scholars. However, anyone who has some intuitive knowledge of esoteric symbology will know something at least of the role that the moon plays in the economy of nature, and of how her emanations and influences and her functions can be to some extent modified by the masterful will of even a human magician — of the "left-hand," of course.
People are hunting today, even as they did in the time of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, for spiritual guidance, for intellectual truth, and for mental and spiritual peace; and one notices everywhere, just as in the days of the degenerate Roman Imperium, advertisements of fortune-tellers and of diviners, of astrologers, and what not. Methods of divination have always had an appeal for people in times of trouble and when nobler resources failed them. Perhaps the Bible is consulted at such times, or it may be divination by means of opening a book, or even a newspaper, or by numerology. The book or paper is taken, the eyes are shut for a moment, the finger placed at seeming random on some part of the page, and the word or general sense of the sentence touched are supposed to be a guide — if only it could be interpreted correctly! All these ways are specific types of divination, so called, which still has almost innumerable forms.
In ancient times, however, when the Esoteric Tradition still exerted influence over the minds and hearts of men, there were true methods of arriving at some knowledge of the future, but always such methods took a legitimate and proper form, were recognized and approved of by the state, and were placed under the control of the wisest and noblest men of the commonwealth. It has been the fashion in Europe since the final downfall of Greek civilization to ridicule the Greek oracles and their pronouncements, such as those of Apollo at Delphi, or of Trophonius, also in Greece, which in their prime were for ages highly revered by all.
Is it conceivable that one of the most intellectual and naturally skeptical peoples in historic times should send solemn embassies of state to consult these oracles, unless through the centuries the minds and hearts of those keenly alert Greeks had been trained by experience and by conviction to believe that what the oracles had told them, in times of stress and solemn supplication to the gods, was based on truth, and that they did wisely in doing their best to understand and follow the oracular responses when received?
These oracles invariably gave their answers in symbolic language and in indirect form. The famous answer given by the Oracle of Apollo to an embassy sent by Croesus, King of Lydia, will illustrate the point. King Croesus of Lydia was greatly disturbed by the movements, political and military, of Persia, then a mighty realm to the east of Lydia. The Persians were an aggressive people, highly intelligent, civilized, and ambitious, as such people always are in their prime. The question put to the Oracle in substance was this: "Shall King Croesus, in order to protect his own empire and people against the possible danger of a Persian invasion, make war upon the king and kingdom of the Persians?" In substance the answer came: "If King Croesus wars on the Persians, King Croesus will destroy a mighty empire."
If the answer had been a simple affirmative or negative, there would have been involved into the situation a direct and positive interference by divine power — according to Greek ideas — in human affairs; for the fundamental religious and philosophical principle of all ancient conduct was that man must work out his own destiny for his own weal or woe, and by the gifts which he has. The gods never interfere in the exercise of man's free will except as helpers to better things for the common good, when man himself has first acted in that direction. Hercules would not help the wagoner to pull his cart out of the ditch into which the wagoner's carelessness had let it roll, until the man himself first put his own shoulder to the wheel and shoved with all his strength. Thus was it left to King Croesus himself to decide what course he ought to follow: a course of self-seeking in imperial aggrandizement, or one for the common good of all concerned; depending solely upon his own sense and intuition of what was right to do and wrong to follow. This is the foundation of all morals. The oracle nevertheless gave an answer, and in answering spoke the truth, thus including a solemn warning combined with a reaffirming of the moral law in its response to the Lydian embassy. King Croesus decided to make war on the Persians and their King Cyrus; and King Croesus lost his own kingdom: he destroyed in very truth a mighty empire!
No one among the ancient Greek philosophers supposed that Apollo, god of the sun, stood somewhere invisible in personal form and dictated his answer in unclear words to the priestess, the pythoness, who sat awaiting the inspiration on a tripod, and who conveyed the words thus received to the stately embassy of Croesus. The idea was that even as there always have been great seers, so also can any normal human being, by purity of life, by aspiration and by study, so clarify and purify the inner man, that the solar ray — that part of us which the Greeks said is a part of the spiritual sun — may convey truth to the receptive mind of the seer. In earlier days, the priestess of Apollo was always a young virgin, but in later times, during a certain war, the oracle at Delphi was defiled, and ever afterwards the oracle was represented by an elderly woman of spotless life.
As long as the oracles in Greece functioned, they never failed the inquirers who questioned them, whether these were states or individuals; and the Greeks thus had a sure source of spiritual help, and a never-failing intellectual support, as long as they themselves sought an answer that was not a response to aggressive human selfishness. If the matter were of public import, the interpretations of the answers were frequently entrusted to the noblest and wisest in the state.
With the closing of the Mystery schools spiritual night descended over the Occident. Their degeneracy had been steadily increasing for several centuries before this event, and their formal abandonment was contemporaneous with the downfall of the old Roman Empire. Men in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean had become involved more and more in selfishness and the affairs of the material world. This had brought about the loss of the inner union or contact with the spiritual consciousness, which the Mysteries had been originally established to support and bulwark.
This closing of the Mystery schools and the consequent abandonment of their rites and formal initiations that in a very late and degenerate age still took place, occurred in the sixth century by a decree of the Emperor Justinian. There would seem to be little doubt that Justinian's action was consequent upon a petition presented by the then feeble band of pagan philosophers who felt that the Mysteries had become so degenerate that it was better to bring about their cessation by their own act than to allow them to continue to become worse.
The epochs and episodes of European history that ensued after the downfall of the Roman Empire, and the religious ideas which then began to appear and spread apace with the coming of the Dark Ages — in fact, leading to those Dark Ages and very largely responsible for them — is a subject of general knowledge. Nevertheless, even in an era of crumbling spiritual and intellectual ideas, and the consequent bewilderment which men then feel, it would be historically inaccurate to suppose that the eternally inquisitive and searching mind of man brings forth no new ideas and finds no new bases of thought to provide some kind of intellectual anchorage. As a matter of fact, such periods of transition are always marked by unusual and often vigorous forms of mental activity, precisely as we see it all over the world in our own era of transition, involving as it does the dissolution of former principles of thought and conduct and the novelties both spiritual and intellectual which are perceptible today at every turn.
In addition to the new religious ideas which were then gaining wide vogue in the entire Graeco-Roman world, there was an almost bewildering influx of "new" thoughts and "new movements," not solely of a religious character but also philosophical, mystical, and even scientific. A certain part of this influx of novel ideas pertained to scientific investigation, such as the astronomical notions derived mostly from Claudius Ptolemy, the Alexandrian astronomer-astrologer and mathematician, who flourished in the second century of the Christian era. He wrote what was at the time considered to be a remarkable book, called He Megale Syntaxis, "The Great Composition" — a complete outline of astronomy, which work the Arabs later took over distorting its title as Almagest.
Part of Ptolemy's work — and a far larger part than has been commonly recognized by modern scholars — was based on astronomical and astrological ideas taken over from the Mesopotamian regions, Babylonia and Assyria, in addition to scientific improvements and elaborations that Ptolemy himself introduced on the basis of astronomical and astrological science as it was taught in Greece and Rome. Ptolemy, having in mind the psychological and intellectual characteristics of the Greek and Roman worlds, more critical and intellectual in temperament than mystical, wrote down and reshaped and veiled much that it is quite likely that he himself as a truly profound mind clearly understood, but was reluctant to have pass current under his name among peoples untrained in the method of mystical thinking, for ages so popular in the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris.
These ancient Babylonian astronomer-astrologers taught that the universe is composed of interlocking or interacting spheres of different degrees of ethereality from the spiritual to the material, and that these hierarchies could be envisaged under the figure of a ladder of existence. This ladder consists of ten degrees of steps ranging from earth, or the grossest matter known, upwards and inwards to the tenth or most ethereal degree, or, more accurately speaking, the all-inclosing ocean of Space — the Primum Mobile, "the first movable."
These ten degrees, forming the aggregated hierarchies of our own home-universe, were set forth by these ancient astrological-astronomers somewhat after the following manner: first and lowest, Earth; next, the sphere of Water; then that of Air; then Fire — these being the four common Elements universally recognized in the ancient world as the basis of a complete hierarchy of ten degrees, the six higher degrees usually being left unnamed, except that the fifth from the bottom was frequently called Aether — otherwise the Quintessence or "Fifth Essence."
Then, leaving the sphere of Earth, came the sphere of the Moon; then that of Mercury; then Venus; then that of the Sun; then the sphere of Mars; then Jupiter; then that of Saturn; next the eighth, or the sphere of the "Fixed Stars"; the ninth they called the Empyrean — the cosmic sphere in which move the Wandering Stars or comets, and in which the nebulae are seen; then the tenth and last was the Primum Mobile, surrounding as with a crystalline shell the entire universe as just enumerated. The word "crystalline" did not mean real crystal or glass, as it sometimes has been misunderstood; but the reference is to the transparency or translucency of interstellar space, the surrounding ether. This cosmic hierarchy, which was considered to include everything that the spacial reaches imbody, the ancient Mesopotamian sages said was itself contained in the limitless and surrounding "Waters of Space" — in other words, Infinitude.
Far later during the European Dark Ages, the medievalists, who drew their astronomy from Ptolemy's great work, likewise taught that there were ten interlocking and interpenetrating spheres which in their aggregate compose our cosmic universe. They did not fully understand Ptolemy, however; and moreover, their ideas regarding cosmogony and its structure and operations were largely influenced by the misunderstood concept of the first chapter of the Hebrew Genesis and the notions of the early Church Fathers. Nevertheless, in their conception of this tenfold Universe, the medievalists retained a fundamental and vastly important principle of the archaic astronomical teaching of the Esoteric Tradition.
It is probably true that only those who have investigated the matter with thoroughness can appreciate how greatly the Graeco-Roman world was a true intellectual melting-pot of many different religions and philosophies at the time when Christianity arose. Ideas, systems of thought, and doctrinal tendencies had so far permeated all strata of society, that the great cities around the Mediterranean like Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Carthage, Rome, and others, were like great intellectual markets, wherein ideas jostled each other — ideas often of the most disparate character, so that Indian thought brushed elbow with Druidic, and teachings even of the North Germanic peoples strove for place and power with other equally profound notions coming out of Syria, Persia, and elsewhere.
No more fascinating picture could be presented than that which the Graeco-Roman world offered at that time of the manner in which the turning of the wheel of thought and human destiny acts in its unceasing revolutions. For ages nations remain relatively separated from each other, receiving but small and apparently unimportant infiltrations from outside; then as the wheel continues its turning, new life comes in flood, sweeping down barriers between peoples, mixing and reforming, so that once separated peoples, jealous of national characteristics and power, become melted into larger racial units.
Yet everything passes. An expansion of human thought and an enlargement of political frontiers might have involved all of what is now the nations of Europe, had the onflowing course of time and events and the bright promise, which seemed to have dawned at about the time of the foundation of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar and Octavian, not been checked in some as yet but obscurely understood manner. But instead of a continued ascent toward greater things, the course of destiny took a distinctly downward path, culminating in the deep and intellectually obscure valley of the Dark Ages, in which thenceforth there remained but vague memories, half-forgotten recollections of the glory that was Greece, and the political splendor that was Rome.
The profound religious and philosophical ideas current in the Graeco-Roman world when Octavian lived were now nearly passed away; but feeble rivulets of the once mighty river of human thought still flowed on, giving to the Dark Ages such spiritual inspiration and stimulating thought as human minds could then receive. Here and there could still be perceived flickerings of what was once a great light, which flickerings became the seeds of the later intellectual awakening in Europe called the Renaissance. This awakening was later enormously aided by the rediscovery of some of the grandest works of Greek literature after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and the consequent dispersal of the contents of libraries over the intellectually darkened West. Thenceforward human thought began to strive anew to burst the bonds of dead-letter and cramping dogma; and bitter indeed the struggle later became.
The human race, or portions of it, may at times in its evolutionary journey pass downward into the valleys of obscuration both spiritual and intellectual; nevertheless humanity is watched over and guided, strictly according to karmic laws and justice, by men of advanced evolutionary unfoldment, whose work it is to instill into human consciousness from time to time ideas not only of natural verities but of spiritual and ethical worth. Humanity is at no time abandoned by these elder brothers, for even in the darkest epochs of human history individuals are selected, because of innate spiritual and intellectual capacity, and often unknown to themselves are occultly inspired. Likewise, from time to time when the ages become ripe for it, special messengers are sent forth from the great Brotherhood who strike anew the old, old strings of human inspiration and thought, and who thus become the publicly active teachers and saviors of the human race.
Often again, epoch-making ideas or brilliant suggestions are deliberately, and with noble humanitarian purpose, set floating in human minds, these ideas passing ofttimes like wildfire from brain to brain; and thus unusual men are set intellectually aflame and become themselves helpers or inspirers of others. Newer ideas forming the basis of later and more important discoveries in Europe thus appeared at different times in the Middle Ages. Examples were the theories and studies of Nikolaus Krebs of the fifteenth century, and of Pico Count de Mirandola of the sixteenth century, and especially the cosmological and astronomical notions of Copernicus. These new ideas and the literary works which they gave birth to aroused a vast deal of antagonism on the part of the authorities, ecclesiastical and civil alike, in European countries. Indeed, the men who adopted these new ideas, followed later by the unfortunate Galileo and a rapidly increasing host of thinkers, suffered the all too common fate of pioneers in human thought; but as is always the case when truth is with them, their ideas and their work finally prevailed.
Nikolaus Krebs was born at Kues, near Trier, Germany, in 1401 and died in 1464. This son of a poor boatman was a remarkable man, who later was made a cardinal of the Church of Rome, and called, from the town of his birth, Cardinal de Cusa. His extraordinary genius in investigation, and in what was then broad-minded and courageous exploration of the mysteries of nature, and of the inspirations of his own inner being, brought upon him charges of heresy including that of pantheism; and it is likely that only the personal friendship of three popes, who seemed to stand in reverential awe of the genius of this great man, saved him from the fate which later befell Giordano Bruno, and still later, but in less degree, Galileo.
Cardinal de Cusa has often been called a "Reformer before the Reformation," this statement being both graphic and true. He anticipated, in many if not all of its essentials, the later discovery of Copernicus in astronomy, as regards the sphericity of the earth as a planetary body and its orbital path around the sun; and he also did no small pioneer work in popularizing such ancient Greek learning and thought as then existed in more or less imperfect Latin translations of older dates. In his book, De docta ignorantia, are found the following passages:
The world may not be, possibly, absolutely boundless, yet no one is able to figurate it as finite, because human reason refuses to give it limits. . . . Just as our earth cannot be in the center of the universe, as is supposed, no more can the sphere of the fixed stars be that center. . . . Therefore the world is like an immense machine, having its center everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. . . . Hence, because the earth is not at the center, it cannot be motionless . . . and although it is much smaller than the sun, it should not be concluded from this that it is more vile. . . . We cannot see whether its inhabitants are superior to those who dwell nearer to the sun, or in the other stars, for sidereal space cannot be destitute of inhabitants. . . . The earth is, most probably, one of the smallest globes, yet it is the cradle of intelligent beings, noble and perfect in a sense. — II.11-12
In the same work, this great man anticipated the ideas and teaching of Copernicus and Galileo, stating in the clearest words that the earth is not the center of the universe, and that just because the earth is not at the center of the world, therefore it is in motion. He also went beyond both Copernicus and Galileo in his declaration that not even the mighty sphere of the "fixed stars" is in the center of the universe, for that "center" is "everywhere."
This famous German philosopher and theologian, Nikolaus de Cusa, was a soul born into earth-life centuries before his "proper" intellectual period, and he was made to suffer for his attempts to enlighten the then prevailing spiritual and intellectual gloom. Such seems to be the lamentable fate of all who come before their natural time — whether by choice, or otherwise!
More than one student of this great man's work has wondered if there were not in the life of this medieval thinker an inner genius or daimon who guided his thoughts in such directions that the inner doors of his own being were thereby opened. In a period of European history when the earth was thought to be flat and immovable and the center and only center of the universe, and when the sun and the moon and stars and other celestial bodies were supposed to revolve around it, this man, a Roman cardinal, taught the sphericity and rotation of our earth! He taught that this earth was not the only globe in sidereal space to give birth to intelligent beings; and other things now accepted as common knowledge found in every elementary school. His knowledge of natural truths probably came to him from reading what remained of the works of the ancient Pythagorean and possibly Neoplatonic thinkers and scientists.
Some two hundred years after Nikolaus Krebs, the Frenchman Blaise Pascal wrote:
Let man not stop in contemplation of simply the objects which surround him. Let him contemplate Universal nature in its high and full majesty. Let him consider that dazzling luminary, situated like an eternal lamp, in order to illuminate the universe. Let the earth seem to him to be a mere point by comparison with the vast circle that this star describes; and let him stand amazed in reflecting that this vast circle itself is but a point, very small with regard to that which the stars that sweep around the firmament embrace. But should our vision stop there, then let our imagination pass beyond it. Imagination, again, sooner grows weary than nature does in furnishing still larger bounds. All that we see of the world is but an imperceptible spot [point] within the ample bosom of nature. No idea can approach the sweep of its spaces. We may expand our conceptions to our utmost: and we give birth to atoms in size only. Nature is an infinite sphere, of which the Center is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. . . . — Pensees, ch. xxii
It is thus that another great man attempts to describe — Infinity! Even here, one discerns the crippling effect of the then prevalent geocentric theory of nature; and yet the fine figure of speech with which Pascal closes this passage, probably drawn from Krebs, is virile with the suggestion that though Pascal may have openly conformed to the geocentric idea, his intuition rejected it as an astronomical truth.
This idea that the divine has its center everywhere and a limiting circumference nowhere is a very ancient one, taught not only by the Pythagorean philosophers in ancient Greece, but was in the background of the teaching of all the great philosophers. Plotinus, the Neoplatonist, held likewise that:
The Highest of all is ubiquitous yet nowhere in particular. Furthermore, the highest Divine is at once everywhere in its fulness for it is the "everywhere" itself, and, furthermore, all manner of being. The highest Divine must never be thought as being in the everywhere, but itself is the everywhere as well as the origin and source of all other beings and things in their unending residence in the everywhere. — Enneads, "Free Will and Individual Will," VI.viii.16
This conception shows why each one such spiritual center or monad is in its inmost the central point of the boundless All, having its center of centers everywhere.
No longer did the advancing knowledge concerning astronomical truths permit the teaching that our physical earth is the only center of the boundless universe, and that all the planets, the sun, and the moon, and the stars also, circle around our earth in concentric spheres. These newer teachers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of European history harked back to the old doctrine of Pythagoras and his school, and often to the Neoplatonists, whence these medieval Europeans drew as from a perennial fountain of wisdom and knowledge. The newer science now taught that the sun is the center of our solar system, and that the planets revolve around this central sun, and that the earth is one of these planets so revolving.
These innovators were treated rather badly. When Columbus appeared before the doctors of the University of Salamanca and argued his case that the world was spherical and that there must exist continents beyond the Western Sea, he was told in substance: "You are wrong. It is impossible; the Bible does not teach it, and the Bible contains the truth of God." The Fathers of the Church knew of this fantastic doctrine of a spherical earth, but they deliberately rejected it. "Turn to Lactantius, for instance," they said, "and you will see what he has to say of Pythagoras and his teaching."
Lactantius' squabbling irony reads funnily today. Speaking of Pythagoras, he calls him "an old fool who taught old wives' fables," such as metempsychosis and the sphericity of the earth, and the heliocentric character of our solar system. He delivers himself of the following spiteful invective:
That old fool invented fables for credulous babies, as some old women do who have nothing else to do! . . . The folly of this foolish old fellow ought to be laughed to scorn! . . .
How can people believe that there are antipodes under our feet? Do they say anything deserving of attention at all? Is there anybody so senseless as to believe that there are men living on the under side of the earth, whose feet thus are higher than their heads? Or that the things which with us grow upright, with them hang head downwards? That the crops and trees grow downwards? That rains, and snows, and hail, fall upwards to the surface of the earth? . . . These people thought that the earth is round like a ball . . . and that it has mountains, extends plains, and contains level seas, under our feet on the opposite side of the earth: and, if so, it follows that all parts of such an earth would be inhabited by men and beasts. Thus the rotundity of the earth leads to the idiotic idea of those antipodes hanging downwards! . . . I am absolutely at a loss to know what to say about such people, who, after having erred in one thing, consistently persevere in their preposterous folly, and defend one vain and false notion by another; but perhaps they do it as a joke, or purposely and knowingly defend lies for the purpose of showing their ingenuity in defending falsehoods. But I should be able to prove by many arguments that it is utterly impossible for the sky to be underneath the earth, were it not that this my book must now come to an end. — The Divine Institutes, Bk. III, chs. 18, 24
Alas! Why did not the self-satisfied and egoistic Lactantius give us of his own arguments? Surely they would be interesting reading today!
The theological doctors of Salamanca were not alone in their mistaken and fantastic ideas. The entire Christian world held the same notions, with the exceptions of the few who were courageous enough openly to state their faith, and perhaps many others who lacked the courage to confess their beliefs. What did Martin Luther have to say of his contemporary, Copernicus?
There was mention of a new astrologer who tries to show that the earth moves, and not the heavens, the sun and the moon. . . . Everyone who hankers after being thought clever forthwith devises some new-fangled system, which of course is considered to be the very best of all systems. This fool desires to overthrow the entire system of astronomy; but Holy Writ tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. — Table Talks (Tischreden), Vol. 4, no. 4638
Even when Galileo, in the first third of the seventeenth century, appeared before his ecclesiastical examiners and set forth his theories of the nature of the universe, and of how the earth is not the center of the universe, and that the sun and the stars and the moon do not arise in the east in the morning, pass over our heads during the day, and set in the west in the evening, thus partaking of the supposed revolving sphere of the heavens moving around the immovable earth, his theories — which were those of Copernicus, and others which Galileo had accepted — were condemned as heretical, contrary to "faith," and therefore untrue. These judges of Galileo were no doubt earnest and thoughtful men, doing what they believed to be the best for the welfare of their fellows; but belief and good intentions are no guarantees that men possess truth: for men must have knowledge, men must know truth. These cardinals in solemn conclave assembled declared:
That the earth is not the center of the Universe, and that it moves even with a daily rotation, is indeed an absurd proposition, and is false in philosophy; and theologically considered, at the least is erroneous in Faith. — Decree of Cardinals for the Holy Office, June 22, 1633
Karma makes short work of human ignorance and of human pride, the offspring of ignorance. Galileo was right from the astronomical standpoint, which is the standpoint of visible nature, and he taught what the ancient Pythagorean sages taught, as he understood it; for Galileo, despite his inquisitive mental apparatus, was no initiate as many of the Pythagorean sages were.
As a matter of historical interest, it was only in 1757, on the eleventh of May, that Pope Benedict XIV signified his consent to expunge the clause of the decree of March 5, 1616, which prohibited all books teaching that the sun is stationary and that the earth revolved around it. Again, it was only on September 11, 1822, that the College of Cardinals of the Inquisition agreed to permit the printing and publication of works at Rome teaching the Copernican or modern system of astronomy, and this decree was ratified by Pope Pius VII on September 25 of that year. Yet it was not until 1835 that Galileo's prohibited works were removed formally from the Index.
The advancing science of European civilization in time broke down the self-sufficient religious and quasi-mystical egoism of our forefathers of the Dark and later Medieval periods, and there then succeeded the equivalently self-sufficient egoism of the newborn spirit of discovery and research. It is true that from that fateful day, when the solemn conclave of cardinals and bishops officially condemned Galileo's teachings as false, up to the time of Laplace, the great French astronomer, wonderful strides were made in knowledge of the physical universe. But concurrently there ensued a progressive losing of the intuitive sense of the existence of inner and spiritual worlds, and hence to the certain extent also, a loss of spiritual values, so that there began to grow in the minds of men a narrow materialism which reached its culmination in our own age in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
But this materialism, which then waxed so strong and widespread in its influence over men's souls, met and underwent a totally unexpected series of intellectual shocks brought about by newly discovered truths of nature, which were almost wholly the discoveries of scientific men who had suddenly begun to obtain new and dazzling insights into hitherto unsuspected verities lying behind nature's physical veil.
It would, of course, be an exceedingly interesting study, having both its pathos and its diversions, to trace the gradual opening and expansion of European intellect from the downfall of the Graeco-Roman civilization to the Renaissance in Europe, and this onwards to the time when European activity took a definitely scientific and in many respects a materialistic turn — let us say the age of Newton and his immediate predecessors. But we can point merely to the manner in which the great turning wheel of human thought, and therefore of human destiny, has taken place through the revolving centuries.
It was to a strangely self-complacent world that H. P. Blavatsky came in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Western world was divided into two camps, each regarding the other with deep distrust because of the conflict between religion and science which had been waged for the previous two hundred and fifty years. The religious camp, with its many factions, each suspicious of all others yet united against the common foe, was haughtily nursing the deep wounds received in the long struggle, yet refusing to recognize the case as it stood; on the other hand were ranged the scientific forces, equally arrogant, and swollen with steadily mounting pride over their supposed victory. Although neither camp officially made advances toward the other, at least a species of neutrality had been tacitly made.
The way had been, to certain extent, prepared for the coming of H. P. Blavatsky, because of the introduction into the thought-life of the West of some of the great philosophical, religious, and mystical thought of the Orient. Such men as the Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron and the English orientalist, Sir William Jones, and their many later followers, especially in Germany, had, through the introduction of Oriental studies in the universities and the publication of some driblets of this ancient Oriental learning, brought into the consciousness of the Western world a realization, albeit feeble, of the fact that the great religious systems and philosophical schools of other parts of the world, outside of Greece and Rome, contained a message of genuine spiritual and intellectual import, which could no longer be ignored on the frivolous grounds that it was "polytheistic nonsense" or "irreligious heathenism."
Everywhere rapidly-growing groups of thoughtful men and women who had become deeply interested in religious and philosophical matters, zealously labored in these new fields, uncovering what was to the West novel proofs and examples of the fertility of human philosophical and religious genius wherever found on the globe. Moreover, other far less socially "respectable" movements were taking birth, such as what later came to be called "New Thought," or the peculiarities of the then different sects of the "Deniers"; and last, the perhaps hundreds of thousands of men and women who had become fascinated by the claims of the Spiritists and the phenomenal occurrences which took place in their circles.
It was on the whole, however, to a frigidly unsympathetic world that H. P. Blavatsky brought her message: a world contemptuous of all that was "new" or unknown, because so perfectly self-assured in its convictions. Here comes a woman of middle age, knowing little or nothing of the jargon of the schools, and though a gentlewoman to her finger-tips both by birth and breeding, yet markedly unconventional to Western eyes, joining, at least to a certain degree, the Spiritists, partly in order to show them the real facts behind the phenomena that they were so zealously studying. When rejected by them because of her lack of spiritistic "orthodoxy," and because her truths were too unwelcome to be received and too profound to be easily understood, H. P. Blavatsky founded a society through which she immediately proceeded to pour into the Western mind a stream of what seemed to the average Occidental an almost incomprehensible medley of "heathenish" ideas combined with the then last word in modern science. Most unwelcome of all, perhaps, was her insistent affirmation that there exists in the world a majestic Brotherhood of great men, true sages and seers, whose life and entire work are devoted to watching over the spiritual and intellectual destiny of men. It is small wonder that H.P.B. was not only misunderstood but in some cases heartlessly and perseveringly pursued with invective and libel.
She succeeded in accomplishing her mission and wrought what really was a marvel. She not only broke through the hardest substance known to man — the human mind — but the breach once made and the Theosophical Society once founded, she achieved what history will someday recognize to be the fact, the diversion of the heavy and powerful stream of Western thought, then running downwards, into a new orientation or direction.
One may well ask, just what did H. P. Blavatsky do in order to give her message initial currency in a world divided between religious dogmatism and scientific materialism? She drove her wedges of thought into any logical opening that offered itself and that promised to widen into paths fit for her message. By every means possible she made her message known. The newspapers began to print columns of chit-chat about her personality; she and her message were written about and talked about and gossiped about, although there is no doubt at all, as is proved by the written records of those who knew her best, that her sensitive mind and heart suffered greatly at times from the grotesque and often parodied misunderstanding on the part of the newspapers and the general public. But the main thing was adoing: her message was going out to all and sundry, entering receptive minds everywhere, and was thus beginning to be recognized for what it was. She laid all her talents, all her intellectual and psychological powers, indeed all her life, on the altar of her work.
This message was a religious one, a philosophical one, a scientific one: it was her message indeed, yet not hers. She was the messenger, but she neither invented it nor syncretized it haphazard and piecemeal from the reading of articles in encyclopedias and reference books dealing with the world's great religions and philosophies. Such an idea is ludicrous to the scholar who knows her history and the work she did, and one has but to look at the articles in such encyclopedias as then existed to recognize that she would have found very little indeed in those works in any wise akin to the majestic system of universal and incomparable profound truths that she so widely disseminated. It is only in fairly recent years that Western scholarship has come to know somewhat of the deeper reaches of the profound religions and philosophies of the archaic world and of the Orient.
The Esoteric Tradition is not solely of Indian or Hindu origin, as might be presumed. The wisdom-religion of antiquity was at one time the universally diffused and accepted belief or religion-philosophy-science of the human race, and its remnants may still be found by research imbodied in every great religion and philosophy which the literatures of the world contain. It is no more Oriental than it is Occidental, no more Northern than it is Southern, no more Chinese than Druidic, no more Greek or Roman than it is Hindu; and it was as devotedly studied among the Mayas and the Aztecs and Peruvians of ancient times as it had been in China or the forests of Northern Europe. Even the so-called savage tribes as they are found today, descendants of once mighty and civilized sires, have their carefully treasured traditions of a far-distant past.
In Isis Unveiled, H. P. Blavatsky's first work of monumental size, she took pains to show the once-universal diffusion of the ancient wisdom in every land and among every people, using material that was then at hand for her work in illustration and elaboration; whereas in her still greater work, The Secret Doctrine, her literary labors in illustration and proof and the elaboration thereof were largely based upon the majestic religions and philosophies of Hindustan.
To say that this great soul, with a mind untrained in technical philosophical, religious, scientific, and linguistic studies, could have invented this majestic system based on the recondite truths of nature as found evidenced in the world's religions and philosophies, is an incredible supposition. Her teachers and the inspirers of her great work were two of the members of the Great Brotherhood who took the karmic responsibility upon their shoulders for the sending out of a new spiritual and intellectual message to mankind, which, by virtue of its innate vigor and the persuasive power of its teachings, would induce men to think toward sublime and lofty ends.
It is a matter of far-reaching import in any wise to affect the thoughts and feelings and thereby the lives of others, for in so doing we set in motion causes, which, thus awakened, are sleepless and Argus-eyed, and dog the footsteps for weal or woe of him who has thus acted. He who thus involves himself by that fact becomes bound to those others, and cannot free himself from these bonds until he himself has undergone all the consequences flowing forth from the original cause or causes. Thus the sublime work of the Great Brotherhood is a constant laboring in the cause of all that lives, helping and stimulating spiritual and intellectual attributes and qualities wherever they are found.
When H. P. Blavatsky came with her message, a new impulse was forced at high pressure into the thought-atmosphere of the world. Attention was attracted by the work of the Theosophical Society to other sources of inspiring thought: to lofty philosophies, to profound and inspiring religions. New words imbodying grand ideas entered into the language of the West. The truth of the teaching of reincarnation began to insinuate itself into human understanding and to percolate into all departments of human society, so that today it has become common knowledge — as far as it is understood — and is frequently met with in literature and in drama, in picture and in sermon.
The veil was lifting; truly magical things were about to happen in all lines of research where the inquisitive intellect of men commenced to discern and to intuit what up to that time had not been considered possible — new and unguessed fields and realms of the physical sphere. The world was suddenly startled by hearing of the work of Crookes, Becquerel, Roentgen, and others in "radiant matter," leading to the discovery of x-rays — a most unsettling revelation to the cocksure materialism of the time, proving the existence of an interior world. Following this came the work of the Curies, Rutherford, Soddy, and of others. Radium was discovered. Men's thoughts took a new turn.
H. P. Blavatsky cast into the world the seeds of thought of the Message that she was sent to bring; and thereafter, in the inner silences of men's minds and hearts, those seeds took root and grew. Like the plant that will burst the rock, so did these seeds of thought sown by her strike deep roots into human souls, breaking the adamantine hardness of custom and prejudice. Part of her mission she described as that of being a breaker of "the molds of mind." Since her time all departments of human thought have moved with startling rapidity along the lines of thought that she laid down, and in the direction toward which she pointed with emphatic gesture. The scientific speculations and teachings and hypotheses which exist today were in large part unknown in 1891 when she passed on. In her great work The Secret Doctrine, all the latest discoveries of modern science are outlined, and in some cases even sketched in detail.
Let us briefly consider some of the scientific ideas then popular. The materialists, the dominant school, said that the world was made of dead, insensate, and unensouled matter, and that this matter is composed of various chemical elements — which in turn were shown to be composed of atoms. Those atoms were considered to be indivisible, hard little bodies, which therefore were practically eternal.
Sir Isaac Newton spoke of the atoms as being merely ultimate particles of physical matter, and nothing more:
Solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles . . . so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation. — Opticks
The Greek Atomists taught that the ultimate particles of life and of cosmic being are "indivisibles." Therefore they gave to these indivisibles the appellation of atomoi, a Greek word meaning things that cannot be divided. The theosophical meaning of the term is that these are spiritual atoms, the consciousness-centers of things, or cosmic spiritual sparks. Pythagoras termed them monads, signifying spiritual unitary individualities, which de facto are indivisible, everlasting — at least for the time-period of a solar manvantara.
Although the prevailing scientific view of nature in the middle and later years of the nineteenth century was predominantly if not wholly materialistic, nevertheless a number of great men voiced their objections, occasionally in no uncertain language. Thomas Henry Huxley, the eminent English biologist and chemist, was so disgusted, although a fervent Darwinist himself, with the materialistic chemical theories of his day, that he wrote in one of his essays the following:
I must make a confession, even if it be humiliating. I have never been able to form the slightest conception of those "forces" which the Materialists talk about, as if they had samples of them many years in bottle. . . . by the hypothesis, the forces are not matter; and thus all that is of any particular consequence in the world turns out to be not matter on the Materialists's own showing. Let it not be supposed that I am casting a doubt upon the propriety of the employment of the terms "atom" and "force," as they stand among the working hypotheses of physical science. As formulae which can be applied, with perfect precision and great convenience, in the interpretation of nature, their value is incalculable; but, as real entities, having an objective existence, an indivisible particle which nevertheless occupies space is surely inconceivable; and with respect to the operation of that atom, where it is not, by the aid of a "force" resident in nothingness, I am as little able to imagine it as I fancy anyone else is. — "Science and Morals," 1886
In those days, everything was supposed to be dead matter and nothing else; but yet in some mysterious way, which nobody could understand, there were certain "forces" in the universe which were continuously operative likewise, and which worked upon and moved the "matter." To the question: Whence came these forces? The answer was, "We do not know; but as matter is the only substantial thing in the universe, they must arise out of matter in some way unknown to us. Let us then call them "modes of motion." Are the forces then matter? Answer: "No, because they move matter." Are the forces then different from matter? Answer: "No, because they arise out of matter." No wonder that men of penetrating intellect revolted from these obvious contradictions. But so great was the influence at the time of the materialistic conception of things, that only a few brave and intuitive souls ventured to question these scientific dogmas.
As Plato expressed it some twenty-five centuries ago, in words which were as descriptive of materialistic fortuity in his time as they are true today:
They mean to say that fire and water, and earth and air, all exist by nature and chance, and not by art [plan], and that as to the bodies which come next in order — earth and sun, and moon, and stars — they are created [formed] by the help of these inanimate existences, and that they are severally moved by chance and some inherent influence according to certain affinities of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and other chance admixtures of opposites which have united of necessity, and that on this manner the whole heaven has been created [formed], and all that is in the heaven, including animals and all plants, and that all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any god, or from art [plan], but as I was saying, by nature and chance only. . . . and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature. . . . — Laws X:889
Plotinus also rejects this materialistic naturalism, on the same grounds that are familiar to modern thinkers:
The most irrational theory of all is that an aggregation of molecules should produce life, that elements without intelligence should produce intelligence. — Enneads IV.vii.2
We now recognize that the atom itself is "mostly holes," miscalled "empty space"; and for all that we know, the protons and electrons and neutrons and positrons, etc., which compose the atom are themselves composed of particles or "wavicles" — still more minute. If so, are these still minuter particles in their turn again simply divisibles? Where shall one stop in following such a conception of the nature of substance?
One scientific dictum — which also is a theosophical teaching — is that force and matter are essentially one; that what we call matter is equilibrated or crystallized force or forces; and, vice versa, that what we call force may be called liberated or etherealized matter — one of the many forms of "radiation." Gone is the old idea, which European thinkers have held for hundreds of years, that there are certain absolutes existing cheek by jowl with each other in the universe, and yet in some unaccountable way blending together and making the universe as we see it.
Two more such "absolutes" were considered to be time and space. For ages it was thought in the West that there actually is an entity called "time," quite distinct if not utterly apart from matter and from force. Sir Isaac Newton wrote:
Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself flows in virtue of its own nature uniformly and without reference to any external object. — Principia, Definitions, Scholium, I
He thus makes of time an absolute something or entity, independent in its own essential existence of everything else, per se independent of space, of force, of substance. Now what does he say about space?
Absolute space, by virtue of its own nature and without reference to any external object, always remains the same and is immovable. — Op. cit., II
Today such an ascription of independent existence or entification to space and to time is rejected by a rapidly-growing body of scientific and philosophical thinkers. The new idea about space and time as being two aspects of a continuum containing both, is largely due to the labors of Dr. Albert Einstein, although the idea is not a radically new one, and was accepted by one or more of the philosophers of ancient Greece. Everybody knows that it is impossible to divorce space and its substances from time and its movement, because it is impossible to conceive of duration apart from things which endure, or on the other hand, it is impossible to conceive of space without duration in which it exists; so that the two ideas are radically interwoven in human consciousness.
Any force in operation proceeds inseparably both in and from time, and in and from space, and does this concurrently. "Time-space" or "space-time" is just this conception, that time, and space or matter, and force, are all three one thing, or one event manifesting itself in triadic manner: one aspect being duration or time, another aspect being the force or energy of it, and the other aspect being the matter or space of it. But all three are one fundamentally — much like the various triads or trinities of ancient mystical religious thought.
The physical body exists; it is matter; it is force; it lives in time; and yet you cannot separate from the physical body, either in thought or in actuality, the matter of it, or the force of it, or the time-element of it, because the combination of these three as a single unit — time-force-space — in any particular phase of manifestation of it, is that body.
The universe is in exactly the same case: it is time-space-force or space-force-time. Therefore anything whatsoever is an event of time-space-force — a passing phase, in which time, matter or space, and force, are each one involved as an aspect of the triune whole. But behind time, force, space, there is That — the Reality.
Precisely because of these transitory or ever-flowing series of events, which are in constant flux and change from predecessor to successor, did the Esoteric Philosophy speak of the entire manifested universe, and therefore of all entities or component parts of it, as being maya — or illusion. The profound import of this teaching of the illusory and transitory nature of all manifested beings has not yet been recognized.
The relativity theory of Dr. Albert Einstein brought about a revolution in modern scientific thought, but when first enunciated the theory was not widely accepted, which was to be expected. Relativity is not the doctrine that nothing in the universe is other than relative. In other words, that there is no eternally real or fundamental background of unchanging reality. Its fundamental postulate is that this universe is composed of relatives: everything being relative to every other thing, yet all working together; that there is no thing "absolute," that is to say, wholly independent of other relative things, as was formerly taught — neither what is commonly called space, nor time, nor matter, nor forces. All these are the macrocosmic "events," to use the relativists' own technical word: the forms which a relative universe assumes at certain times and places as it passes through, or perhaps more accurately as it itself forms, the "space-time continuum."
However, the relativists unfortunately are still bound by the conception that the physical world is the only world there is, i.e. no inner and spiritual worlds on the one hand, and no worlds more material than ours on the other hand. The theory of relativity is founded on unquestionable points of truth, but the deductions drawn by many relativist speculators appear to be "brain-mind" constructions or fantasies.
There are some seven points of thought in this relativist theory which seem to be practically the same as the teachings of theosophy:
1. That all things and beings are relative to all other things and beings, and that nothing is absolute — i.e. existing as an absolute entification separate from all other things and beings in the entirety of the universe.
2. That force and matter are fundamentally one thing; or as theosophy would add, two macrocosmic forms of phenomena of the underlying, eternally causal and vivifying Reality: Cosmic Life.
3. That force and matter are granular or corpuscular or atomic — both being manifested and differentiated forms of the same underlying essential reality.
4. That nature in its forms of manifestation is illusory to us. In other words, we do not see the universe as it is, because our senses are imperfect receiving instruments and therefore inadequate reporters.
5. That our universe is not infinite or boundless, but only one of innumerable other universes; that it is rounded in conformation, which, because of its self-contained nature and the global activities of its forces, is the so-called curved space of Dr. Einstein — this signifying that all movement in it, reduced to the last analysis, must necessarily pursue lines or pathways within that rounded universe which follow the general conformation of the universe.
6. That time, space, matter, and force, are not singular and individual absolutes in themselves, but that all are relative, interdependent and interlocked, and all of them manifestations of the limitless cosmic life.
7. Because our universe is rounded in conformation; because it is filled full of countless forms of forces all at work; and because force is substantial, force and matter being fundamentally one and inseparable by nature — therefore all the many forms of force or energy follow pathways or lines of least resistance. In other words, force cannot leave matter nor matter divorce itself from force, both being essentially one. Hence, all pathways of force or energy, or lines of least resistance, follow curved paths, because the universe itself is of rounded or global type — force thus returning into itself after following its courses. Nevertheless, force of higher forms, of kinds not imbodied or englobed in physical matter, could and must have intercosmic circulations, which are the bonds of the universe with the boundless space surrounding our own home-universe, and are the links between our own home-universe and other universes. Although the forces in the universe of necessity follow in operations the conformation of such universe, nevertheless it is the universe itself which is the product of or built of and from these forces, and not vice versa.
Ultramodern science is far more open-minded than was the science of a generation ago, when too many men actually insisted upon reading into nature what they wanted to find there. Preconception and prejudice too frequently represented the state of mind with which a large number of scientists then greeted any new fact of nature or any new discovery that was brought to their attention; and the supporters of every such new fact or discovery had to fight a desperate battle for recognition before it was acknowledged as even a possibility. This was human nature then, as it is human nature now. If the facts did not conform to accepted theories, heaven help the facts!
Today science is everything to men, a goddess by whom they swear, and whose oracles are becoming the code of conduct by which they live. Today men do not refer everything back to accepted religious statements as our more pious forebears did. Yet in some respects a more truly religious spirit is finding its silent way into men's minds and hearts. Having overthrown the old standards both of thought and conduct, humanity is desperately searching for new ones. Men, both individually and collectively, are becoming more inwardly critical and not so outwardly dogmatic. They are searching as they never have searched before, for some foundation in religious thinking which will give to them peace and hope.
Science is becoming philosophical; indeed an inadequate word in a sense, because to Western ears it implies merely dry reasonings and dusty volumes of almost empty verbiage. Science actually is becoming metaphysical and mystical. The cogitations and literary studies of the great modern scientific mathematicians are as truly metaphysical as are a vast number of the philosophical and religious ideas which have survived through many ages the most exacting intellectual probing and the loftiest spiritual investigation.
The affairs and pursuits of men are, in the last analysis, the manifestations of the thoughts and ideals of men, which always follow three distinct characteristic types: a religious era, always followed by a scientific era, then a philosophical era — and thus the wheel of life turns continuously around. H. P. Blavatsky came to do her great work in a scientific era, and therefore her books were largely shaped to breaking the scientific molds in the thoughts of men, although obviously she dealt with great philosophical and religious questions likewise. The philosophical era that was due to come is now beginning. Science is becoming decidedly philosophical. There is a growing understanding of nature, not of the physical sphere alone, but intimations of the existence of vast reaches of worlds existing in the universal cosmos. If it proceeds steadily forwards and is not halted in its stride by the outbreak of some karmically cataclysmic disaster, science is on the brink of wonderful discoveries.