The Path – April 1888

PARTISANSHIP IN THEOSOPHY — Alexander Fullerton

(A PAPER READ BEFORE THE ARYAN T. S. OF NEW YORK, MARCH 20TH, 1888.)

Theosophy is both a Philosophy and a Religion, and hence springs from the intellectual faculties which nourish thought and from the emotional faculties which nourish piety. The same fact holds of Theology. It, too, is a combination of a theory of the mind with an aspiration of the heart, the theory expounding the human and the Divine, and the aspiration impelling the human to the Divine. Theosophy and Theology are alike, then, in uniting a mental system with a spiritual impulse, and in deriving them from identical constituents of human nature. Moreover, it might be shown that there is a parallelism in their claim to exposition from authority, in their assertion that things seen are temporal while the things which are not seen are eternal, in their avowal that light comes only to those who seek it with singleness of heart, and in their aim to uplift humanity through the consoling, inspiring, invigorating influences of those who generously teach, prompt, strengthen their kind.

With so much that is common to these systems in their nature, structure, and purpose, one may very naturally infer, some likeness in their dangers, if not in their history; and it is therefore in no way surprising that the brief career of Western Theosophy should have already exhibited some of the traits which have been conspicuous in the far longer course of its sister. Missionary zeal, devoted labor, uncounting sacrifice, the moulding power of conviction, — all are there; but so, too, do we see at times a spirit of assertion, natural perhaps to the devotee, though inconsonant with the philosophy he champions. In its full development, a development reached in the embittered contests over doctrinal questions in the Christian Church, this spirit became so acrimonious and so virulent, so relentless, uncompromising, and savage, that the accepted term for extreme party-hatred is "odium theologicum," a term which for all time should warn the disputatious and cool the eager. No such development has been attained in Theosophy; it hardly ever can be. Two facts may be relied upon for its restraint. One is that the higher plateaux of spiritual achievement are only gained as the mounting soul expands its sense of brotherhood, toleration, and good-will, pari passu with which goes on an atrophy of self-insistence and of all traits making vindictiveness possible. The other is that Theosophy, having no visible hierarchical system, offers no external rewards to partisans, — no mitres, no professorships, no prelatical thrones to tempt ambition and compensate zeal. From controversies like the Arian, and from persecutions like the Papal, we are therefore free.

And yet no discreet Theosophist can say that there are not symptoms of the disease and a consequent need of treatment. Sometimes in literature, sometimes in the Theosophical Society, sometimes in private speech or act, we see an attitude expressing a state of mind which may fitly be called partisan. And just so far as it is really so, and just as far as its principle, if logically carried out, would result in some measure of repression, does it embody inchoately a Theosophical Ignatius Loyola. And, conversely, if such an inchoate monster is to be effectually slain, it will be by destroying the source from which comes his vitality.

First let us look at some manifestations of the partisan spirit, and then inspect the cause through the killing of which they too will die. Perhaps we cannot do better than take the departments already referred to.

1. Literature. In the explication of any doctrine, especially of any doctrine at variance from that generally held, there of necessity come efforts to show its conformity with admitted facts and that this conformity is not found elsewhere. Both efforts exact argument, and both meet response. Then comes rejoinder, probably excitement, possibly warfare. The argument and the rejoinder are right, the excitement and the warfare wrong. That they are theosophically wrong will appear later on; that they are philosophically wrong may be evidenced now. Coolness is the attribute of him who is sure of his footing, and of him who knows that to allow perturbation through anger is to give advantage to an opponent: dispassionateness belongs to him who knows that opinion is fallible, that truth has many aspects, that no sincere seeker can be wholly wrong, and that there is common ground beneath contentions; calmness marks him who feels that controversies should be impersonal, that right may be trusted to vindicate itself in time, that spectators are repelled by bitter speech. But is it certain that these facts have always had recognition in our polemics? How as to Theosophical treatment of contemporary science? I have been pained, annoyed, revolted even, at the tone of malignant contempt assumed in part of our best literature towards scientific men and books. It may be that they have stopped short of nature's deepest meanings and have attributed to matter the potency which is spirit's; but their learning, their patient search, their tireless determination to fathom facts, their utter self-abnegation when a truth is to be exhumed or a law disclosed, and the countless, immeasurable, priceless blessings with which they have enriched and prolonged the life of man, it is ungenerous to question and senseless to deny. They may be at times dogmatic. But if dogmatism is unseemly in physical science, is it less so in metaphysical science? If curt contempt is the Occultist's portion from the Professor, is stinging speech the Occultist's best reply? What difference is there in principle between arrogance in the realm of matter and arrogance in the realm of mind?

In less pronounced colors the partisan spirit has sometimes tinged the treatment of Theosophic doctrine. It is understood that the discussion of whether man's nature is susceptible of a four-fold or a seven-fold division has not been without an infusion of gall. No one will claim that comparison of views on exoteric Christendom has always been conducted with judicial placidity. Take, too, the matter of vegetarianism. To say that to certain people, for certain purposes, and at certain times a purely vegetable diet is essential, is to take a defensible, nay, a demonstrable, position. But to say that the killing of animals is minor murder, that beef constitutes an impassible barrier to beatitude, and that the use of vegetables is a dictate of morals, like truth, or honor, or honesty, is really to distort fact into phantasy and to bring ridicule upon religion. Even more than this: by leveling, like the scientist, spiritual matters to a physical basis, it exemplifies the old proverb of the meeting of extremes, for it is as gross materialism to condition the soul's functions upon the stomach as to condition them upon the brain. Almost the first remark once made to me by a warm Theosophist was, "I trust you are a vegetarian." The tone of suspense, of anxiety, of foreboding implied that otherwise my case was hopeless. So in certain Theosophic articles we are told that, if spiritually stationary, it is because we are not leading "the life," and that "the life" cannot be led if we eat meat. Surely this is the note of a partisan. It recalls the ecclesiastical threat that our souls cannot be quickened till our bodies have been baptized.

2. The Theosophical Society. This has not as yet been split asunder into sects. But it easily might be if either of the two sect-producing fortes is allowed to work. One of these is the recognition of a body of dogmas, adhesion to which distinguishes orthodox believers from dissenters. The other is unthinking servitude to a spiritual leader. Both forces may be studied in Church History. Theosophy discountenances both. It distinctly states that Truth is One, and that apprehension of it will become so only as interior vision escapes the perturbing influence of self-assertion; also that Truth has no value except as realized within, any formal, undiscriminating, thoughtless clinging to a system or a man being absolutely worthless. This sternly individual process of enlightenment precludes the sect idea, for it insists that each man must develop on his own lines, and it forbids an objective measure by which all are to be gauged. There have been times when the cries "I am of Paul" and "I of Apollos" have neared an utterance in the Society, and those are the times when the teachings of the Founders should be re-memorized and the records of Church History re-read.

It may be, too, that broad reaches of Theosophic thought, deep experience of Theosophic moulding, rich perception of Theosophic future, have not saved from a somewhat narrow estimate of the Theosophic mission. The profundity and abstractness of Occultism create at first a very natural supposition that its appeal is only to the higher classes. Two facts at once rebut this, — the welcome it receives among the lowly, and the obvious working of Karma in the distribution of social status. Yet the supposition recurs; and if some of our ablest brethren have felt their sympathies limited or their energies curtailed, it may be because of a certain clannishness, a certain partisanship, which they would eject at once if they so read it.

Clearer than daylight is the truth that any factious organization, any covetousness for office, any effort to carry personal preferences through force of votes, is as incompatible with sincere devotion to the Society as with sincere devotion to a Church. And so would be any action, spirit, policy, aiming to use the Body as an agency for a member, the whole for the purposes of a part.

3. Private speech or act. The possibilities here have been largely indicated above. Yet it is entirely conceivable that the most hospitable thinkers among us are not wholly beyond a start at the presentation of new truth, a suspicion that it is unorthodox because unfamiliar. There is required a very wide training outside of Theosophy to secure full acceptance of some very elemental maxims. For instance: The novelty of a thought is no presumption against its correctness; Propositions are not strengthened by their appearance in print; Affirmations by great names do not dispense from judgment the humblest learner; Self-respect requires the confession, not the maintenance, of mistake. In the onward course of an Occultist any one of these maxims may often need recall; for prejudice is a long-lived influence, swaying sentiment pro or con, vitalizing the instinct of party vindication or of personal consistency.

Nor are we private thinkers safe from yet another pitfall, — race prepossession. Much proper discussion goes on over the comparative merits of the Orient and the West. When any one of us has assigned to each what he conceives its due, it is still possible for a partisan spirit to arise. For warm appreciation may be unqualified; it may refuse to allow error or may always condone it. The services of either section may seem so vast as to make criticism impertinent and discrimination a sacrilege. It is just here that the motto of the Society comes in, — "There is no religion higher than Truth." There is no record so shining, no name so eminent, no position so dignified, as to screen from the application of impartial tests. And it would be a sorry day for the Theosophic cause if the concession was ever made that a hemisphere, a race, a class, a man, or a book, was exempt from respectful, but self-respecting, analysis.

Every form of partisanship, however and wherever displayed, and whether by a Theologian or a Theosophist, is traceable ultimately to one single source, — a conviction of infallibility. When any man is dogmatic or sectional, it is because he knows himself to be right. Caution comes from doubt. But no man can really know himself to be right. To infallibility there is one essential pre-requisite, — Omniscience. Approaching it there may be a state so closely allied with the Divine, so dissociated from fleshly bonds that the spiritual eye sees Truth without a medium, without an error. And it may be remarked, in passing, that in such a state all contradictions will vanish and all eyes perceive alike; from which fact follows the consequence that, during our era of controversies and of combats, no such state can have been attained. Nor can it ever be attained during incarnations.

Inevitably the ties of matter bind and confine the spirit's range; the vision is not cloudless or serene; influences from the flesh pervert, distort the mind. No man sees truth absolutely, but only as its light is colored by his constitutional environment. Oliver Wendell Holmes has aptly stated this with an illustration from chemistry. We cannot, he says, get the pure article, for that is combined in the mind with our personal qualities: what we get is the Smithate of Truth or the Brownate of Truth. But every dogmatist, every partisan, assumes virtually the reverse. He really claims, in the particular topic, to be free from error, to have a right to his own way because that way is in itself right, — in other words, to be infallible. Philosophy and the deeper consciousness unite to nullify that claim.

Partisanship in Theosophy is untheosophic. It is this not merely because it contravenes the doctrine of Fraternity, jeopardizes the existence and the expansion of the Society, invites all the evils which ecclesiasticism might teach to shun, disappoints the hopes of those who thought to find a refuge from the strife of creeds, and paralyzes the functions of the Higher self; but because it impugns the conviction that there is no monopoly of truth to race or caste or man, and because it falsifies the law that we advance only as we abate selfhood and increase docility. Any man can tell whether he is guilty of it by inquiring whether his opinions are soluble. If they are not, he may be a student or a sciolist or a dilettante, but not a disciple, not a Theosophist. And if at any time, for any purpose, or with any motive, he feels the impatient spirit rise within him, he may know that its root is a consciousness of infallibility arid that its perfected fruit would be a devastation of mankind.


The Path

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