OURSELVES AND THE ANCIENTS
G. de P. — Mr. Chairman: I should like to say a few words with regard to Brother G ___'s question. (1) I think the answers that have been given by others tonight were fine. But there is still an aspect of an answer that could be given, which I think is important. The question amounted to this, as I understand it: "What, after all, is the practical use, the pragmatical value, of a study of ancient times, ancient thought, ancient wisdom, ancient writing, ancient lore?" The answer is written all over the face of the question itself! Such study is educative, it is elevating, it is broadening. It broadens and enlarges our sympathies, which means our hearts; it enlightens and stimulates our minds; and these, I think, were among the reasons why H. P. B. — and we have followed her faithfully — made so much of this study. It is a corrective of egoisms, and heaven knows that mankind, which means you and me and all others, need few things so much as that!
Look at the parlous state of the nations of the world today, each people thinking itself superior to others; each nation preparing for another horror! Why? From a lack of the feeling of reverence for humanity. Humanity's glorious achievements in the past, as imbodied in the great writings and traditional works of human history: to these we turn and we see the annals of human genius written large therein. We learn that the Nordic, for instance, is in no wise the natural superior of any other civilized people, ancient or modern. Every race has been egoistic, and in the present almost more so than in the past!
Such study — the study of the monuments of human genius — broadens our minds, enlightens them, fills our hearts with sympathy, and enlarges their sympathies, teaches us to be wise in our own generation, teaches us of the glorious achievements of the past, reminds us that we are the children of that past, not merely the descendants of our distant forebears, but verily those forebears themselves now reincarnated in new races and peoples, those of the present.
The times of the world today are "out of joint," as Shakespeare says, simply because men have forgotten to read properly the lessons of the past. More than all else, that! Will you ask any university professor, or teacher in a high school, or in a school for boys and girls, why they teach history? Ask them what is the pragmatical value of knowing history. It is ancient times, it is traditional, it is imbodied in the old records. What is the practical value? And those wretched histories that we have, mostly the records of conquests, mostly by force of arms; and so little therein dealing with essential civilization, with what men and women did, with what men and women taught and achieved in the great arts and sciences of the civilizations of the past — even the feeble stuff we have and call "history" — why do we study it? To acquaint man with the doings of men. To acquaint us with the former doings of mankind. It is educative. I know nothing so humbling to egoisms, I know naught so stimulating to the wings of our higher imagination — that which brightens life and gives us intellectual and spiritual verities, and helps on our evolution. I know naught that works upon us in so sublime a manner as the realization that we men are all one, that the common human heart beats everywhere and through ail of history; has beaten as it now beats; and that men in past times have suffered as now they suffer; and that men in past times have produced flowers of human genius which broaden even our own lives today — because we are largely copyists, copyists out of the past, reading the records of bygone times.
"What is the value of studying the works of the ancients?" Some day we shall have history that will deal with the productions of the best in human character. We shall have histories of the rise as well as of the culmination, decline, and fall of art, of religion, of philosophy, of science, of the nature of the civilizations of the past; and we shall learn as even now we are slowly learning in parts, to the astonishment and the undoing of our favorite egoisms, that even the Romans, a relatively unimportant people except for their achievements in law and conquest: even they had such trifles as shorthand, houses heated with hot-water pipes, and other things, such as our modern glass window-panes, etc.; and we even have knowledge that the Romans had a glass that could be molded or wrought with the hammer.
The study of the literature and records of past civilizations shows us that it is the works of the human heart and of the human mind that count. Learning these, we diminish our own egoisms, learn reverence for the achievements of human genius, and likewise learn to look forwards into the future to doing even more grandly than the ancients did.
E. V. Savage — In regard to this question which so often arises as to the value or non-value of studying ancient religion, symbolism, and history (the idea in the questioner's mind being I believe, that what we need to do is to study ourselves and the circumstances that we find surrounding us at the present time, and that these things of past times do not concern us at all): I have been reading a modern scientific book in which the author draws attention to the mistake which modern scientists make when they try to show how small and insignificant man is in the universe by comparing him with the size of, for instance, Mount Everest; and they say that it would take more than four thousand men, standing one upon the other, to equal the height of Mount Everest. But the author points out that this gives an entirely erroneous idea, because man extends farther than the limits of his physical body.
Then I thought of the Theosophical conception that man is really consciousness; so I suppose that he actually extends, both in time and space, as far as his consciousness can go. So when we study the wisdom of the ancients as we can find it in history, symbolism, literature, etc., we are expanding our consciousness to embrace those of olden times. When we study the Rounds and Races, and the destiny of the human race in future aeons, we are expanding our consciousness into the future. When we study about the stars and the sun and other solar systems, we are expanding our consciousness out into space; and if other students in all parts of the world are engaged in like study, each one expanding his consciousness (which is himself) in space and time, these different consciousnesses must merge to a degree; and we shall gradually be doing away with that separateness which is the heresy of the present age.
1. In effect: Why are we so often urged to study the ancients, who are dead and gone? Why not concentrate on the present and the teachers of today? (return to text)