What is the real basis of universal ethics? This will be our subject for meditation, our object to bring forward one of the many aspects relative to this question.
To begin with, we want to lay stress on the words: basis, real basis of ethics. The existence and universal value of ethics is not called in question. The ethical law, the ethical commandment — speaking through the voice of conscience — is beyond any doubt. Are we not at every act, at every thought, at every impulse placed before the choice: this way, or that way?
Not a fraction of a second is lost, but the voice of our inner God tells us how we can and should live in accordance with our higher nature. But at the same time there is our lower nature, weak and cowardly, inclined to hide and steal away, tending to exalt and raise personality. And its voice, which so often sounds more powerful and persuasive than the still, small voice of the God within us, speaks of other possibilities, sounding more attractive to the lower man. Yet, though this voice may drown the other, never can it silence it.
Often we do not recognise this truth, but if we honestly look inwards, we realize that two voices are constantly speaking within us, for good or for evil; that at any time we can choose between two paths, the left-hand and the right-hand path.
This indeed is ethics: the power of distinguishing between high and low, between good and evil, between the voice of divinity and the other voice. He lives conformably to ethics, who is alive to the difference between his higher and his lower nature — and lives up to it.
This view can be traced in every religion, in every philosophical system, and indeed in the conviction of every normal man. The form in which it is clothed may vary, but in its essence it will always come to what, for want of a better definition, we may call the command of ethics: act, think, live in harmony with your divine nature.
If this is then the case, the question arises: what is the deepest foundation of this command?
It is obvious that this basis must not be looked for outside man. The religions and philosophies, which, it is true, know and respect this demand of ethics, but are of opinion that it arises from a command imposed upon us from the outside, lower the universal ethical nature of this demand to a prohibition. They think that in the last instance its basis is an arbitrary one. Arbitrariness of a God, it is true, but yet arbitrary. By saying so, however, they affect the root of ethics itself. Why should we obey a command laid upon us from without? From fear, from weakness, from a feeling of dependence, from thousands of motives, none of which, after all, has anything to do with real ethics.
No, the real basis of ethics must be looked for where we can find it: within the man who acts ethically.
In endeavoring to find the deepest basis, we first consider that man is the first thinking being that becomes conscious of this ethical command. In the planes below him, the animal, the vegetable, and the elemental kingdoms, there is no impulse of acting ethically. Ethics awake at once with the thinking faculty.
The Manasaputras, who brought us the thinking faculty, at the same time bestowed upon us the knowledge of good and evil. This is symbolized in the Paradise story, as the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which, in veiled words, implies the awakening of the higher thinking faculty. The thinking faculty is the instrument that makes ethical consciousness possible.
But it is not the basis, only the instrument. Where to find the real basis then?
Let us consider this a little further. We have seen that it must be possible to find the basis in every man. Besides we know that ethics has a universal meaning, that its command holds good for every being in whom the thinking faculty has awakened. Accordingly the basis we look for must be findable in every individual and at the same time span the universe entirely and completely. But how can the whole universe lie hidden, not partly but wholly in the individual?
The solution of this paradox is very simple. In the individual is all that is in the universe, because man and universe are inseparably one. There is no such thing as separateness. The individual is the universe and the universe reflects itself in the individual. Such is the real basis of universal ethics.
This also is the basis for understanding Jesus" words, which form the summary of ethics: "But I say unto you: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." It is on this basis that Jesus could say: "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another."
For divine love — called by Dr. de Purucker the cement of the universe — is an utterance of the inseparable unity of all things, which seem to be separate, but in their deepest essence are not.
Similarly Karman, which essentially is nothing but love and harmony, is only possible as a result of this deepest and most universal truth, holding good for both man and universe. In essence man and universe are one. Outwardly they are manifestations of a multiplicity of entities; inwardly, apart from the manifestation, in their inseparable unity they are That, which human words cannot describe.
This unity is the basis, the real basis, of universal ethics. It manifests itself in the workings of Karman, in the command of all-embracing Love, in the great Harmony of the Universe. Its witness is the secret voice in every living being, which will always place us before the choice: illusion or reality — the lower or the higher — hatred or love. The essence of all these opposites is forever the same. It all can be traced back to the basic choice: Maya, or the one-ness of That, which is also the essence of our inner divine nature.
The basis of universal Ethics is found in the identity of our divine Self with the great Self of the Universe.
Om, mani padme hum.
1. Presented before the European Convention of the Theosophical Society, held at Visingso, Sweden, August 1, 1938. Dr. Groot is Doctor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Utrecht, Holland. (return to text)