The Theosophical Forum – December 1940


Under the head of "Penguin Books," these publishers are bringing out a series of low-price reprints Mr. Stapledon's book, "First and Last Men" has thus been reprinted; the present two volumes were written specially for the series.

As indicated by his title, the author uses the word "philosophy," not for a barren intellectual discipline, but in a sense akin to its original and etymological meaning. Philosophy is a way of life; it must seek an answer to such questions as, Shall I live forever? What am I? Is there a God? What ought we to do with our lives? And, since the question of immortality or survival seems the central problem, he devotes thereto his next chapter.

Mr. Stapledon has a tidy mind and is commendably lucid and concise; his meaning is not obscured by verbiage or terms and phrases unfamiliar to the non-philosophical reader. In enumerating the arguments for and against survival, he recognises that the first requisite is to state the question accurately, and shows that this is not done by the average inquirer. This vagueness in stating the question renders it impossible to give either a positive or a negative answer. To do so, we must first answer a number of other questions. Do we mean immortality or survival? What is meant by "I'? What is the nature of selfhood? What is the relation of mind and body?

Do we envision a time-sequence, as here on earth, or will our present conceptions of time, space, and other things, prove not to be universals but merely peculiar to our earthly existence, and therefore not applicable to the afterlife? Is our condition to be a repetition of earthly experience, or a static condition, or a progressive condition?

Hence the answer has to be deferred until these questions have been considered in his other chapters. We see that no single problem can be settled by considering it in isolation. Our knowledge must be comprehensive; in default of which our reasoning is based on false premises, and our questions involve implications contrary to fact, and are therefore unanswerable.

We see here what an advantage is gained by those who approach these problems in the light of the teachings of Theosophy. It is true there are some people who, when Theosophy is presented to them, insist that its doctrines shall be validated by some familiar process which in their minds amounts alone to demonstration, and without which a doctrine is a mere article of faith and may be disregarded. But in books of this kind we see that much discussion and reasoning leads up at last to a cautious and tentative admission of doctrines which, to a Theosophist, are presented at the outset. For instance, the author cites the views of C. D. Broad regarding the evidence of survival offered by Spiritualists. This evidence, says Broad, is not sufficient to establish the survival of the deceased personality, but does prove the survival of something which he calls a "psychic factor." Now Theosophists are taught from the beginning that man is compounded of different principles, and the nature of each of these, together with its destination after the death of the body, is fully explained. Thus the Theosophist starts with a map of the country in his hand, instead of having to wander about, stopping at every cross-road, compass in hand, until he either loses his way or finds it by accident after much tribulation. A study of philosophy should certainly include a sufficient acquaintance with the systems of ancient India, which go so fully into the composite nature of man and the various states in which human beings exist after physical decease.

What is it that survives? The ordinary man is not interested in mere survival; he wants to know if he survives. To answer this we must have some knowledge of what is meant by true and false personality, of the Self and its vestures, of the dual nature of man while still in the body, and many other such questions. Also it is futile to argue as though man is merely an immortal essence in a mortal body, and that he passes at once from his present state to "the other world." The infinite complexity and amplitude of the mere physical universe, with its countless orbs, should suffice to suggest a similar plenitude and variety in other parts of the universe.

In all processes of reasoning we must inevitably assume certain things as "given," and which we must therefore not try to prove. This being so, why not begin by assuming survival? If we do not assume this, it is pertinent to ask, Then what shall we assume? Careful examination, such as we find in this book, will show that those who argue against immortality, or those who posit the question pro and con, assume quite as many unprovable or unwarrantable things as they can accuse their opponents of assuming. And if it be found that the assumption of survival makes sense out of life, while the contrary assumption makes nonsense or perplexity, what more in the way of demonstration can be asked?

After considering various arguments for survival, the author glances at arguments against, and finds them in general trifling and futile. The alleged overcrowding of the "other world'! No wonder the author complains that this generation has neglected the power of constructive imagination. Yet even in this world an overcrowded omnibus may have an upper deck, and we imagine it was Jesus who said there were many mansions in his Father's house. Besides, as we are admittedly not speaking of physical bodies, we cannot venture to dogmatize as to the methods by which disimbodied souls may be warehoused in the "other world." The objection that there can be no survival because the mind is dependent on the body, is either an indirect begging of the question, or it is reasoning from a mere dogma.

The author concludes that the problem cannot be solved in the present state of human knowledge, as it depends on so many other problems which must be solved first. "Is there perhaps," he asks, "some other kind of knowledge, which is not subject to the disabilities of intellect, and which apprehends and enters into its object intuitively?"

We must content ourselves with a mere enumeration of the chapter headings in the rest of these volumes: Mind and Body, the External World and I, Reasoning, the Scope and Limitations of Reason, Ethics, Personality, Community, Social Change, Metaphysics. The result is summed up in "The Practical Upshot." Here the conditions of the world are reviewed. Science is transforming the world. (Or is it that some more potent underlying influence is transforming science and everything else as well?) The economic motive in civilization has run to seed; and, despite of wild theories, we must look to some more equitable distribution of material goods. The East seems destined to play a greater part in the future. We have lost faith in intangible values; man has risen by the "critical and imaginative intelligence and the capacity for community," but these powers are declining in scope and even coming into disrepute.

This is certainly a good diagnosis of the patient's ailment; and it is true enough that an accurate diagnosis is a necessary preliminary to a cure. And there are such diagnoses in plenty today. But more is needed.

Whence is the source by which humanity progresses on its march through the cycles of its evolution? Before we can answer this we must see what we understand by evolution. Evolution is commonly viewed merely as process, though by a strange confusion of thought that process is in some way spoken of as if it were also cause. What is called the materialistic view, or what we might perhaps call the one-plane view, presents us with a picture of a machine moving itself, or generating the power which moves it. The history of humanity becomes a succession of linked cause-effects, running in what science calls a closed system, without interference from without itself. Such a machine could only run down by the gradual frittering away of energy never renewed. Humanity is to be saved by intelligence and imagination, and is at the same time expected to create these powers. It is just the same doctrine as that by which the human organism is supposed to create those hormones by whose power it is actuated. All logic and analogy demand that evolution, progress, demand a continually renewed access of power from without the "closed system." A study of history reveals that progress is achieved by the work of inspired individuals who appear from time to time and initiate mighty tidal waves of renewal. The doctrine of reincarnation teaches us that there is a constant accession of human egos enriched, ennobled, made potent, by their own past experience. It is not inconsistent with any doctrine of evolution that there should exist human beings who have evolved beyond the level of the common human attainment; and Theosophy teaches that these perfected human beings now discharge their role of inspiring humanity from behind the scenes. Study history without prejudice, and you shall find ample proof of their existence and their work in all ages and climes.

It is they who have inspired the Theosophical movement, and we can best help humanity by spreading the knowledge of that marvelous all-embracing philosophy which they have made accessible to us; for without it life must remain an insoluble enigma, without purpose or hope.


1. Philosophy and Living, by Olaf Stapledon, M A, Ph D Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England 1939 2 volumes, each 6d. (return to text)

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