Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
The science of chemistry, from the time of its renaissance in modern Europe, was founded upon old Greek thought; but I should like to illustrate, for purposes of future study and in order to avoid confusion, how a true thought may work along very well for a little while, and explain things admirably, and yet in view of new discoveries have to be either modified or even renounced perhaps. In such case the fault lies not in the true thought itself, but in a misunderstanding of its nature and scope. We shall illustrate this by referring to the atomic theory.
The Greeks had what they called their Atomistic philosophy, founded on the work of the philosophers Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, more particularly of the former two. As a matter of fact, Leucippus enunciated a theory of the cosmos, a cosmology, which was later developed by Democritus, who lived some forty or fifty years later.
This Atomistic School had great vogue in ancient times. Lucretius, the noble Roman philosopher and poet, in his didactic poem, On the Nature of Things, teaches in splendid fashion the same theory, although he himself was rather a disciple of Epicurus, than directly of Democritus. Epicurus himself was an atomistic philosopher, and whereas he derived the main principle of his theory from Democritus, yet he gave to his own philosophic and scientific ideas a somewhat individualistic turn.
All these thinkers, who taught more or less exactly the same basic thoughts with regard to physiology, as science was called then — the science of physis or "nature" — taught that behind all material manifestation, behind all that we can know or sense, and behind those things which we do not yet know or sense, lie indivisibles, which were in their view the fundamental units of being. Democritus called them atoms — atomoi, a Greek word meaning "indivisibles." They taught further that these indivisibles are practically infinite in number in the cosmos, and that they are incomputable, immeasurable by any method of mensuration in physical nature.
They said also that these "atoms" existed in a "void," which they called to kenon or emptiness; and that through their various movements and attractions, through an innate power of self-growth, through magnetic approaches or repulsions, their manifold movements and operations composed the world, the cosmos, which we see around us.
You have there the basis of the atomic theory of modern chemistry; you have there the basis of the nebular hypothesis, and of theories more or less running upon the nebular hypothesis of Laplace and of Herschel and of others. But to these words there have been given meanings quite different from those which Democritus implied in his usage of them.
What did Democritus mean by his atomoi and by his kenon or emptiness? He meant, first, spiritual monads, full and complete as entities, indivisible particles of substance containing in themselves the potentialities of all possible future development, self-moved, self-driven, as a man is by his character and the forces inherent in his spiritual and intellectual and physical natures.
As a man has his individual character by which he is impelled or motivated or driven to action, so the original meaning of Democritus in these respects was that the universe was composed of an infinite number of what modern philosophy — and Plato and Pythagoras also — calls monads, spiritual indivisible entities, the ultimates of being, self-conscious, spiritual monads.
Nor by his word kenon, or void, did he mean an utter emptiness, as we misconstrue that word. He meant the vast expanses of the spatial deeps, Space, in fact, which this infinite host of monads filled. He thus enunciated a theory truly majestic and, I may add, truly theosophical when properly understood.
Look at the notable difference between the misconstruing, on the one side, by modern philosophers, of his atoms and his void: dead, unimpulsed, and acting blindly; and, on the other side, self-living monads, indivisible spiritual entities, living in these spatial deeps, which by their attractions and repulsions and inwardly governed movements produce the cosmos which we see around us.
In the last century, chemistry was a science which had reached its ultimate, as was thought, and concerning which nothing more of revolutionary character could be known. Why, I remember, in my youth, that one of the foremost chemists of the day argued that the marvelous discoveries of modern chemical science have proved that there is nothing more to be discovered of a fundamental nature in the entire field of chemical research; all further discoveries will be simply an amplification of what is already known! Let us learn a much-needed lesson from this; it is unsafe ever to say that knowledge has an ultimate, that it has boundaries that can never be surpassed.
Then, as we all know, came the revolutionary discoveries in radioactivity, upsetting the whole of science, not indeed so far as the facts already discovered and proved, but insofar as the ideas and theories which made the science of that day are concerned; they indeed were completely upset.
Now it was this very discovery of radioactivity that, through a misunderstanding of the atomistic theory of Democritus, put this ancient Greek school of thought into the discard. When modern chemists discovered something of the nature of radiant matter, of radioactivity, such as in the two chemical elements, uranium and thorium, and found the different generations of so-called disintegrations which these two elements were shown to follow; and when it was further discovered that these investigations proved that the chemical elements were composed of corpuscles which were neither indestructible nor indivisible, then the name "atom," as misapplied by modern science, was indeed recognized as a misnomer. Perforce, the chemists of today are now seeking, in mind at least, if not in actual practice, for some other term which will more adequately describe this subtle something, this subtle element, which they feel, which they know, must exist within the confines of the atomic structure, but which they have not yet been able to demonstrate. And when they do find it, if they do, they shall then have reached not only into and beyond the confines of chemistry, as it is now understood, but will have gone into the very structure, into the very secrets, of mother nature, and they will have become true alchemists. Moreover, they will be coming a step nearer to the original idea in the minds of those ancient Greek philosophers who taught of the "atoms" and the "void."
The teaching of theosophy is that everything actually is more or less radioactive, that is, that everything has at its heart or core an innate force which is its character, a force of a particular kind or quality. It is the pouring forth of these forces, each of its own individual quality, which produces the various phenomena of nature. It is in the radioactivity emanating from the core of the atom that come all the forces and matters which build our physical universe, through the passage from the invisible to the visible, and vice versa — a mystery, wonderful, imagination-provoking, and of the deepest interest to any thoughtful student of the physical structure of the world in which we live. It is these forces, passing from the invisible into the visible, which infill the cosmos with its energies, and which in consequence give our body its life and vitality, which vitalize the cells of which the body is composed, constructed as they are of these radioactive atoms.
The scientists have stumbled, it is true, almost by chance upon a few elements only whose radioactivity can be traced and measured with some degree of approximation of accuracy; but already our chemists and physicists are beginning to realize that there is no easy explanation of the fact that only a few elements in the great body of material compounds should be radioactive.
The theosophical view, it would seem obvious then, is not on all fours with radioactive theories of modern science, which appear to be limited mainly to the phases of explosive and disruptive energy of a certain few chemical elements. To the theosophist radiation is a term of wide and universal application, of which the scientific visioning of radioactivity as a disintegration process is but one small corner.
Today our chemists are talking about the transmutation of elements as well as of metals. Some have already claimed to have transformed one element into another. But nature, when left to herself, has demonstrated in the disintegration products of the two particular metals, uranium and thorium, that by her own alchemical processes she can transmute these two elements into another element — that of lead.
Uranium has a disintegrating genealogy, if we may so call it, of fourteen steps or stages between uranium at the beginning and lead at the end, each such stage formed by the subatomic particles expelled from the nucleus of the uranium atom. The other element, thorium, has also a disintegrating genealogy of twelve steps between thorium at the beginning and lead at the end.
But note here a most interesting fact. Lead derived from uranium has a lower atomic weight than ordinary lead; while the lead derived from thorium has a higher atomic weight than ordinary lead; and it is now supposed that ordinary chemical or commercial lead is actually a product of the mixture of the other two, the lead from the uranium-base and the lead from the thorium-base.
Is not this extremely interesting? All these three varieties of lead are chemically identical, physically identical, spectroscopically identical. By the three main tests known they prove themselves to be lead; and yet we know that they are different — different in atomic weights. Look at the immense scope of thought, the avenues of speculation, that this situation opens up — just this one illustration!
It is now known that the atoms of these elements have an average life of an immensely long period, while some of their so-called disintegration products have an average life of an infinitesimal compass of human time. Take the element uranium, for instance: the uranium atom, it is estimated, has an average life period of eight billion years; while the various disintegration products into which the uranium atom breaks up or rather which it expels from its heart, according to Professor Frederick Soddy (1), have widely varying average life periods. One of these disintegration products, called radium c, has an average life period of one millionth of a second.
It has been discovered in the same way, by the exceedingly delicate methods now followed in alchemical science — which is what our modern science is fast becoming — that the thorium atom has an average life period of twenty-five billion years; while one of its disintegration products, thorium c, has an average life period of one hundred billionth of a second.
Let us make a few philosophical deductions from these facts. What do we mean by time? We mean by time the expression of the human consciousness's realization of the passage through it of the various procedures which happen around the thinking entity and affect its understanding. Time, in other words, is merely our conception or mental representation of the different stages of duration. Consequently, if we had another order of understanding, if our conception of time belonged to some titanic intellect to whom we on our globe here would seem as infinitesimal entities — much as the inhabitants of an electron of an atom appear to us — then, under those circumstances, to such a titanic intellect, the entire life cycle of our solar system would perhaps be a millionth of one of their seconds of time, or a billionth, or even a trillionth of such a second! Time, in brief, is an illusion — an old thought — "illusion" not meaning something that does not exist, but meaning something that is not properly understood by us or reduced to such terms that our consciousness can take it in and understand it.
Our modern scientists talk very much of vibrations, and they give the vibrational rates of various kinds of waves, such as electric waves, and heat waves, and light waves, and ultraviolet rays, and of X rays; and there are multitudes of others. These researchers are now beginning to get a truer knowledge of what these rays really are. They are now more and more, as time passes, inclining towards the ancient theosophical teaching that these "rays" are not mere movements in or of a hypothetical ether. Movement per se is nothing because it is an abstraction. There can be no movement without a thing that moves. It is the moving thing that provides what we call movement. Similarly there can be no vibrations without something which vibrates.
Each one of these so-called waves, according to theosophy, is the activity of some minute entity, some infinitesimal body. Never mind at the moment whether it be a low body or a high, the point is that the moving or vibration is produced by the action of some entity. These minute bodies vibrate or revolve, as the case may be, at a rate which we can estimate, but which is beyond human imagination to conceive or fully to follow with the brain-mind.
For instance, as given by our physicists, the vibrations of electric waves range up to three thousand billions a second. These are the lowest, the grossest, and the most material of the five kinds of vibrating forces given in the list below. In order to facilitate an understanding of these unfigurable numerical quantities, I subjoin them in columnar form:
The X rays, as you probably know, are chemical light phenomena produced by the [[gamma]]-rays of uranium and thorium. There are three so-called rays given off by the atoms of these elements in their disintegration. First, there is the alpha-ray, which is the proton or a part of the proton of the atom. Its penetrating power is but small, yet in it resides most of the radioactivity and most of the chemical and physical properties which the atoms of these two chemical elements exhibit.
The second class of rays are the beta-rays, which are electrons or perhaps atomic planets expelled from the atom. Their penetrating power is stronger than is that of the alpha-rays.
Then come the third class, the gamma-rays, which are, or which give off, the X rays. Now, we may, if we follow the chemists' terminology, call these three classes of radiating force "rays"; but, as I have just said, they are — or most of them are — actually particles expelled from the atom, and it is their passage through intervening matter which produces the phenomena of light, which has caused them to be called rays.
These various forces which impel these various matters to action are derived from the monads more or less awakened and dwelling in these various matters as their inspiring and directing consciousnesses — because that is what matter is fundamentally, according to the ancient wisdom: sleeping monads, sleeping consciousness centers, sleeping spiritual atoms. Each physical atom is the atomic vehicle of its monad; and each atom is composed of similar monads of another lower order, evolutionally speaking. The atom thus forms in its unity the vehicle of the more awakened monad controlling it, which is, so to say, the god of its little atomic cosmos.
Throughout all the vast reaches of the cosmic hierarchy exist these monads in various stages of sleeping and awakening, so that we have the highest, the most awakened (for that hierarchy), and then the intermediate stages, down to the lowest steps of that hierarchical scale.
What is man, after all, but a monad more or less awakened? He indeed, in his present stage of evolution, may be considered as sleeping to monads higher than he; but as compared with the sleeping monads, the sleeping spiritual atoms or consciousness centers which form the material framework and substance of the physical cosmos, he walks like a god. His impulses, thoughts, and emotions, his ideals, aspirations, and instinctive reachings out to higher and nobler things, as well as the vibrations emanating from the different vehicles of his psychological organism in which he lives and works, affect not merely the matter of his own body, but electrically, magnetically, affect likewise the entire physical, mental, and spiritual sphere surrounding him, as far as those human vibrations of his can and do reach.
These spiritual consciousness centers in themselves are absolutely and fully awakened; but those which form the lowest steps of the cosmic hierarchies are in the present stage of evolution passing through the 'sleeping' phase of their long developmentary pilgrimage. They themselves, in the core of their being, are always fully awake in their own monadic sphere, but their vehicles, their lowest 'selves,' are not spiritually awakened to and on this our present plane.
Thus you can see why we say that consciousness is matter, and matter is consciousness; not in the old materialistic view but in the meaning of the ancient wisdom — that there is life, or rather that there are lives, everywhere, throughout illimitable space and duration, always working, never inactive or still in the sense of the ceasing of these operations of the universe during the evolutional time periods, cosmic, atomic, or intermediate.
Every minutest speck of even physical matter that surrounds us is built of these sleeping monads, entities of spiritual nature at their core or heart, but spiritually sleeping on this plane, embryos as it were, whose destiny it is to develop into full-grown, self-conscious gods, the inspiring geniuses of future new cosmoi, of universes to follow ours in duration.
It is in the very small that we must seek for the unriddling of the riddle of the origination of life, as well as in the macrocosmic. The physical atom of chemistry has been likened to a miniature solar system, consisting of a protonic center, which is the nucleus or the atomic sun, more minute but vastly more massive than the smaller bodies circling with vertiginous rapidity around that central nucleus, the electrons. And through the open doors of these electrons and protons, we may see still newer and subatomic universes into which our inquiring minds may penetrate, as further knowledge comes to us.
An atom, like everything else, has its life cycle, and at its end follows a course of slow disintegration or decay. We know that this is the case with radioactive bodies, such as uranium and thorium; and that with this disintegration of the structure of the atom, the nature of the atom changes — this process of decay actually being a transmutation of elementary chemical substance.
Now each of these protonic nuclei is a body, a corpuscle of positive electricity, and each of the electrons is a corpuscle or minute body of negative electricity. This means that the entire material framework of the universe is reduced to electrical charges of opposite polarity. When these charges neutralize each other we have material stability, or better, atomic stability. And I might say in passing that it would seem probable that by changing the polarity, not merely of any atom, but of any particular mass of atoms, which is the same as saying of any particular aggregate of electrical charges, thereby you change all the physical and chemical properties of such mass; and if this takes place you may see matters behave in a very extraordinary manner.
Just as the atom has been likened to a miniature solar system, so in its turn may the solar system with its sun and planets be likened to an atom of cosmic dimensions. This seductive idea but repeats an old Hindu teaching concerning the "Atom or Egg of Brahma."
It is the teaching of theosophy that the universe, being one self-contained organism, follows one line of fundamental action, and that any operation within it is felt throughout its whole; and that as these operations are many, they must affect every particle, every corpuscle, in a similar manner; and therefore that nature repeats herself in the small as in the great — in the atom as in the cosmos.
We see therein the religious, the scientific, and the philosophical rationale of the law of analogy and why this powerful and ancient instrument of human thought is a true one.
The atom, then, is a miniature of what the solar system is, even as man, in a spiritual and psychological sense, is a miniature spiritual-psychological atom. Now then, atom as well as cosmos, physical atom as well as physical solar system, are alike formed of smaller entities. So numerous are these latter that they are wholly incomputable by any physical or human standards of mensuration. And just as the number of atoms themselves is infinite, so there are innumerable cosmic atoms — other universes outside of ours, formed more or less as ours is, differing among themselves as the leaves of a tree or as men differ, no two being identical and yet all belonging to the same family or order of entities, and thus, in this sense, showing a groundwork of similarity approaching identity.
It is impossible to figurate in imagination the vast numbers of entities both great and small that infill the universe. Speaking of electrons and protons, Professor W. M. Thornton in an article titled: "What is Electricity?" wrote as follows:
In order to make the electrons in a drop of water just visible to the naked eye it would be necessary to magnify the drop to 100 times the volume of the earth, and it has been said that if we could place all the protons in the earth together so that no hollow cavity existed, they could be packed into a handbag, which would then weigh 6000 trillion tons. — p. 674 (Faraday Lecture given in Glasgow, Scotland on February 7,1927 and published in full in the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, vol. 65, London; see also The Pharmaceutical Journal of London)
Remember that these incomputable hosts of electrons are in reality, small entities; or we may say that there are minute or infinitesimal lives inhabiting the atoms. Why not? Why should not the electrons, the atomic planets circling around their atomic sun, bear sensitive and conscious, thinking and intelligent and self-conscious creatures, even as our planet, one of the cosmic electrons of our solar system, bears us in similar fashion around our own central luminary. Who would dispute the noble conception that even on these atomic electrons there may exist inhabitants or living entities of infinitesimal kind: living, thinking, feeling entities, each of its kind, each of its own genus, so to say, each following its own destiny, its own upward line of evolution, and thereby repeating the law of universal nature.
As we raise our eyes skyward and realize that this so-called dome of space surrounds us on all sides, all that we see seems so great and large to us. But pause a moment, and realize that we judge through and from the nature of our own limited consciousness and interpret only by our own powers of undeveloped understanding.
From such thoughts we may perhaps intuit that to these minute, these infinitesimal, entities which may inhabit the atomic spaces of our bodies, the skyey spaces in their cosmos may be as large and as grand as our own cosmic spaces are to us; and furthermore, that our entire physical galaxy — which is all that is comprised within the bounds of our Milky Way — may be but a molecule of some entity still more incomprehensibly vast and beyond the reaches of our most ambitious imagination. Who dare say that our solar system is not in the mental purview of some entity still more vastly grand, itself but an atom! All is relative.
Our earth is a planet circling around the sun — therefore one of our solar system's electrons. Our sun is the protonic aggregate of our solar system — a uni-nuclear system because we have but one sun; yet we know from astronomical study that some solar systems evidently have two or perhaps more suns, in each and all cases composed of the protons forming them, and in which reside the mass and the radioactivity of each such system.
Our solar system therefore being a cosmic atom, then the molecule to which it belongs, following analogical reasoning, is all other suns and systems that are encompassed within the encircling zone of the Milky Way; while the other vast universes out in the spaces beyond ours, in their turn are molecules, and thus form the incomparably larger aggregate corpus of some Entity still more incomprehensibly vast!
Consciousness is incommensurable. It cannot be measured by any physical methods of mensuration. We can know consciousness only by consciousness, for it approaches the ultimate mystery of the universe. Hence, size, volume, bulk of physical matters or matter, do not control either its nature or its field of action. It is where it is and it can manifest everywhere.
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1. Formerly professor of chemistry at the universities of Oxford and Aberdeen; retired 1936. See his 4th edition, revised and enlarged, of The Interpretation of Radium and the Structure of the Atom, 1922. (return to text)