The Path – November 1891

THE IDEAL AND THE PRACTICAL — Pilgrim

It must be admitted that to be of any use in the world the ideal must be capable of being proved practical, but from this it does not follow that the self-dubbed practical people of today are the fittest judges of the practicability of any ideal theory; indeed, their very nature disqualifies them from judging of the wider fields of vision.

The charge of being unpractical is often made against the idealist who deals with the higher ethics by those who trudge along the well-worn track of daily duty, but though the latter may be incapable of soaring beyond the well-beaten way, the study of history in all departments of life might teach them that the visionary's dreams of one age may form the basis of practical work in the next. What good thing is there that the race has ever achieved that was not in the first instance shadowed forth by one whom the practical workers of his day regarded as an idealistic dreamer? The poets and prophets of all ages stand in advance of their time, but a modesty of demeanor in face of a revelation they are incapable of grasping would be a more appropriate attitude for the practical workers than the assumption of omniscience which their ignorant criticism implies.

It is also beside the point to dwell on the fact that the idealist's life may not be on a par with his teachings; it may indeed fail to come up to the level of the conscientious duty-performer without in the least detracting from the value of such teachings. And it must also be remembered that "man is not, according to any analogy, observation, or experience, a straight line. Would that he were, and that life, or progress, or development, or whatever we choose to call it, meant merely following one straight road or another. The whole question, the mighty problem, would be very easily solved then." Man's nature is as complex as the Universe of which he is the microcosm. To instance two of the parallel lines of advance, the awakening of his spiritual perception is quite as important a part of his development as the progress of his moral nature towards altruistic thought and action. But all the force of the nature is required to effect real advance on either plane. Alternate life-times may be so consumed, with the apparent result that the one or the other is taking precedence in the development of the individual man. It ill becomes any, therefore, to belittle the results that are being achieved because they may not be on the particular lines on which they themselves are advancing.

It is also a fact in Occultism that the attainment of knowledge as to the real facts of existence and the ultimate possibilities of the soul produce great Karmic results. "That is because it is impossible to give any attention to occultism without making a definite choice between what are familiarly called good and evil. The first step in occultism brings the student to the tree of knowledge. He must pluck and eat; he must choose. No longer is he capable of the indecision of ignorance. He goes on either on the good or on the evil path, And to step definitely and knowingly even but one step on either path, produces great Karmic results. The mass of men walk waveringly, uncertain as to the goal they aim at: their standard of life is indefinite; consequently their Karma operates in a confused manner. But when once the threshold of knowledge is reached the confusion begins to lessen, and consequently the Karmic results increase enormously, because all are acting in the same direction on all the different planes; for the occultist cannot be half-hearted, nor can he return when he has passed the threshold. These things are as impossible as that the man should become the child again. The individuality has approached the state of responsibility by reason of growth: it cannot recede from it." The outcome of all this is that the evil in the Occultist is more rapidly brought to the surface than in the case of ordinary men. This is of course due to the greater intensity of purpose in the former, and it also requires a greater intensity of purpose to rid himself of the evil, but while that process is going on it is only natural that the evil which lay deep seated in his nature, and which has been brought to the surface, should be very apparent to the eyes of men. The initiatory stages of occultism — that short cut to Perfection — may therefore easily appear to the eyes of the ignorant as a descent instead of an ascent.

A vivid illustration of the high ideality of a very material conception may be found in Mr. Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward. But to the majority of readers it will also stand as an illustration of the impracticability of an ideal theory. It must indeed be a trumpet call to action to one who can so shut his eyes to facts that he is capable of believing such an organization of Society as there pictured could by any possibility be realized by humanity as now constituted. Whether realizable or not, it should be to all of us a beautiful picture to which it is a delight to turn from the hideous reality of today. Though severed from all the spiritual aims that could alone give it great value, it is in some sort of way a vindication of the higher Socialism, the Socialism taught in the life of Jesus Christ, whose animating motives are love and charity, and whose end is justice — a contrast truly to the socialism whose animating motives are greed and envy and whose end is plunder!

Writing on (1) Christianity and Socialism in an article which breathes the atmosphere of sound common sense, and also that of an enthusiastic sympathy such as may well quicken the pulses of the reader with a like hope, Dean Plumptre points out that Socialism's real antagonist is not Christianity but the terrible culmination of Individualism which we are now reaching — individualism which finds its utterance in the question "May I not do what I will with mine own?," and which is summarized in the motto of universal competition, "Every man for himself and devil take the hindmost".

There are so many false notions prevalent about Socialism that his description is worth repeating. "The ideal of Socialism", he writes, "is just the opposite of this (Individualism). It assumes as the result of experience that there is in every man, either inherent in his nature or as the result of the environment by which his character has been fashioned, an evil selfishness which needs control; that the struggle for existence implies a fierce warfare of class with class and man with man — bellum omnium contra omnes — and is productive of an immense amount of evil. It holds that it is the function of the State to moderate this warfare and to remedy these evils. It insists on the principle that the rights of the individual are subordinate to the well-being of the whole Society; that right to freedom of action and to property is the creation of the State, and may therefore be limited and controlled by it. Even the Socialist theories which postulate the natural rights of man both to freedom and to a share of the land look to the collective action of Society as the means of asserting and perpetuating them. It lies in the nature of things that this may be the ideal of any form of government — Monarchic, Aristocratic, Democratic. It is found in the theocracy of Israel under its judges or its kings. It may be represented in ideal pictures of a patriot king, such as we find in Dante's De Monarchia, Fenelon's Telhnaque, or Ken's Edmund, or of government by the wisest, as in Plato's Republic, the Utopia of Sir T. More, the New Atlantis of Bacon. The language of the late Emperor Frederick in his rescript to his Chancellor was altogether that of one who desired to be a patriotic, and therefore Socialist, King; ready to "support every movement towards furthering the economical prosperity of every class of society and reconciling their conflicting interests".

But to return to Mr. Bellamy's book. An Utopia where every desire of the senses should receive instant gratification is an ideal which will no doubt satisfy many men. To the poor of this world who are able to satisfy so few of their desires, it may indeed seem an Eldorado, but even granted that state to be attained which Mr. Bellamy so ably pictures, what advance towards any permanent bliss will man have made? Life must still be a struggle, blinded with ignorance and bounded by the grave. There will still remain the whole vast infinitude between the unrest of conditioned existence and the Nirvana of pure Being, between the pain-goaded and pain-causing struggles of man and the unutterable Peace of God. "Teach the people", says one who stands on the very threshold of that Peace of God, or who, indeed, may have renounced it in order more effectually to succour Humanity, "teach the people to see that life on this earth, even the happiest, is but a burden and an illusion". While the solution, one by one, of the varied problems of the hidden life may be practically attained by every individual, the Socialistic dream of material perfection, though it may become practical in some modified form to the Humanity of a far-off future, remains today in the realm of the beautiful ideals that are utterly impracticable.

While no real comparison can be made between the fanciful story we have been discussing and a great ethical work, it is a satisfaction to turn to such a book as Dr. Buck's Study of Man and the Way to Health. Though it may not be given to man to mould outward circumstance in accordance with his ideas of divine justice, the betterment of his own inner nature, the conquest of self, and the gradual enlargement of his sympathy are in the highest degree practical.

The Study of Man is undoubtedly a valuable addition to the Theosophical literature of the age, inasmuch as, while barely mentioning the word Theosophy and hinting only in a vague way at the fundamental doctrines of Karma and reincarnation, it yet appeals to the general reader, and more particularly to the scientific one, in terms which, if the train of thought suggested be carried out, are likely to lead to some apprehension of the divine Wisdom, which alone can offer to men, capable of reason, any adequate explanation of the mystery of existence.

It is, however, in some ways a disappointing book to lay down, particularly after the expectations raised by the laudatory notices with which it was ushered in. Perhaps too much stress must not be laid on the fact that for the general reader — indeed for all save those who are versed in the medical science of the day, many passages in the book would require further analysis to render them intelligible. But this, after all, is a minor point.

All able exposition of ethical doctrine must doubtless find readers whom it will benefit, but for those who only respond when the highest key is struck this book must be considered a failure.

To inculcate the love of one's neighbor, or, in a word, Altruism, has been one of the objects of all teachers of morality, and only praise can follow the perusal of any work devoted to such an end. But some efficient cause must exist. Without the highest sanction Altruism is impossible. "No man can be good without God", writes Seneca in his 14th Epistle; "God is nigh unto thee, He is with thee, He is within thee. If thou shalt see a man unappalled by dangers, untouched by illicit desires, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of tempests, looking on men as from a higher place, on gods as from an equal place, will there not enter into thee a reverence for such a one? Wilt thou not say, there is here something greater, something higher than can be believed to be of mere kin to the mortal body in which we behold him with our eyes? And such there is: that power within him
hath come from God."

(To be concluded.)
FOOTNOTE:
1. "Christianity and Socialism" by E. H. Plumptre, Dean of Wells, in the Contemporary Review of November, 1889. It argues well for the Church of England to find in its ranks so worthy a successor of such Christian Socialists as Robertson, Maurice, and Kingsley. (return to text)


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