The Theosophical Forum – January 1942

A NEW STUDY OF MAN (1) — Charles J. Ryan

This remarkable work is another sign of the gradual progress of modern thought toward a more idealistic and, in a sense, a more spiritual view of the universe than the scientifically materialistic one of the nineteenth century. The author, Sir Charles Sherrington, O. M, etc, is a distinguished scientist, said to be the foremost British physiologist, and his handling of the subject reveals the possession of that rare combination, the sensitive vision of the poet and the technical knowledge of a trained expert.

Though the study of physiology has led many of its votaries toward materialism and skepticism Sir Charles is no crude materialist — and in many respects he takes the Theosophical point of view. He insists on the underlying unity of the Cosmos, and denies that the mind is a "secretion of the brain" or that it is made of electric particles or even connected with the relativist quantum of action. It cannot be "energy" because it does not obey the laws of energy. We feel that his liberal outlook suggests that if he studied the Esoteric philosophy he would find the clues to many of his problems.

As a starting point Sir Charles takes a notable sixteenth-century treatise entitled De Abditis Rerum Causis (On the Hidden Causes of Things) by Dr Jean Fernel, physician to King Henri II of France. Dr Fernel had a powerful and critical mind and although his thinking was dominated by the religious atmosphere of his age he was a keen reasoner. His book appeared in 1598, when faith in the unseen was strong, and he naturally believed that "living things have souls, dead ones none." This complete dualism is not the modern view in which the notion of a definite separation between the animate and the inanimate scarcely exists, and much of the author's argument is devoted to the rebuttal of a crude dualism in nature. Here Sir Charles is in agreement with the Ancient Wisdom, though Theosophy carries the argument farther. H. P. Blavatsky writes:

. . . chemical science may well say that there is no difference between the matter which composes the ox and that which forms man. But the Occult doctrine is far more explicit. It says: — Not only the chemical compounds are the same, but the same infinitesimal invisible lives compose the atoms of the bodies of the mountain and the daisy, of man and the ant, of the elephant, and of the tree which shelters him from the sun. Each particle — whether you call it organic or inorganic — is a life. . . .The Secret Doctrine, I, 261

Sir Charles Sherrington's study contains many fascinatingly interesting though decidedly disquieting delineations of the marvelous workings of Nature in her incessant efforts to produce living creatures in overwhelming profusion. As he says, it is not easy to understand how a Benevolent and All-Powerful Designer can have "created" or even tolerated the ingenious and seemingly guided processes of reproduction and sustenance which produce horrifying tragedies on an enormous scale, especially those in which men and the higher animals are slowly and painfully destroyed by inferior creatures. For instance, in India alone about 1,200,000 human beings die of malaria annually, infected by the microscopic plasmodium malariae, and many more suffer intensely from the disease. The author holds the reader spellbound by his vivid description of the almost unbelievably complex and painstaking methods by which this venemous speck and many other equally lowly pests destroy the higher forms of life wholesale. In these cases, he says:

Life's prize is given to the aggressive and inferior life, destructive of other lives at the expense of suffering in them, and, sad as it may seem to us, suffering in proportion as they are lives high in life's scale.

Of course, numerous examples exist in which the same marvelous ingenuity and apparent "design" are employed for benevolent and constructive purposes, but on the other hand the examples of destructive "devilish ingenuity" such as those he describes are "an almost countless many."

Theosophists should know these things, for to many intelligent people they stand as irresistible arguments for the materialistic denial of all spiritual possibilities in the universe. Sir Charles, however, while fully appreciating the difficulties of the case, has not let his judgment be overwhelmed by the superficial appearance of an utterly ruthless Nature, "red in tooth and claw"; and of course a knowledge of the fundamental principles of Theosophy eliminates the necessity of resorting to the hopelessness of pessimism or the sophistries of materialism.

In Eastern philosophy the cosmos is an Ever-Becoming, an eternal process of approach which can be well illustrated by the mathematical "paradox," the asymptote, which always approaches but never arrives, and yet which is not a juggle or trick of numbers or lines. May we not believe that a certain measure of suffering is absolutely necessary, under present conditions, for progress? Are not pain and pleasure merely a "pair of opposites," contrasting poles or aspects of an infinitely higher sensation? Are they not temporary measures for the training of the Ego?

Returning to the antagonism discussed by the author between the medieval belief in a world "devised by a loving Father from every nook and corner," and the modern "unhalting and blood-stained conflict systematically permeating the field of Nature," perhaps Man is far more responsible than "blind Nature" for the plagues which pursue him so relentlessly? According to the Ancient Teaching:

Eastern wisdom teaches that spirit [the Monad] has to pass through the ordeal of incarnation and life, and be baptised with matter before it can reach experience and knowledge. After which only it receives the baptism of soul, or self-consciousness, and may return to its original condition of a god, plus experience, ending with omniscience. (2)

But the outer Man "whose intelligence makes him the one free agent in Nature" (H. P. Blavatsky) has been impelled by selfishness, passion, and false ambitions to pit his personal will against the Cosmic harmonies, and in relation to man-made or man-attracted plagues, Sir Charles perhaps unwittingly provides us with a very significant argument. It seems that the malaria parasite, which according to his statement affects nearly one-third of the Earth's human population is apparently no older than the human race to which it is so closely attached. He writes:

Evolution has adapted it [the parasite] complexly, delicately and effectively to kill other lives. Since it requires man for its slaughter it would seem an evolution of recent date. Its hideous cycle has overcome with "ingenuity" great obstacles to perpetuate itself.

But as Dr de Purucker has so often pointed out, not only the evil fortunes of man and the cosmos, but progress through experience are actuated by the conflict of wills among the constituent Monads, and that when the disturbing causes are worn out, as it were, the cycles of time will restore all things to harmony, or at least to the utmost harmony possible in this period of the Ever-Becoming. Sir Charles Sherrington envisions something like this when he writes:

Our world we recognize today as a world in making and ourselves as a part of it likewise in the course of making. Our present is not only not static, its very motion is a motion which will tomorrow not repeat today. Our planetary islet is unfinished even as those island universes which the astronomer tells us are at various stages of becoming. . . .Living things are all the time busy becoming something other than what they are. And this, our mind with the rest. It is being made along with the planet's making. We do not know that it will ever be finished — p. 169

While the author feels compelled to be at least temporarily satisfied with the chemical and physical explanation of life, he clearly realizes that the problem of mind is still an impenetrable mystery to science, and that the connection between mind and brain is unknown. This reviewer at least is impressed with the idea that the author cannot escape the haunting suggestion that the most primitive forms of life, brainless and seemingly nerveless seek their food as if they had a modicum of mind, including deliberate choice, and the capacity to learn. This, of course, is fatal to materialism as H P Blavatsky shows in her invaluable "Psychic and Noetic Action" in Studies in Occultism III, which readers of Sir Charles Sherrington's Man on his Nature would find very enlightening on many of the problems he brings up.

 Sir Charles Sherrington pays great attention to the apparent disconnection between mind and body, and decides that mind and energy are not convertible terms, and the brain is only "an organ of liaison [a connecting link] between energy and mind, but not a converter of energy into mind or vice versa" (p. 318). That is, Man is a temporary association of mind with a matter-brain which is a form of energy. This coupling is as mysterious as "matter" itself, now regarded in physics as a unity of seeming incompatibles — substantial particles and immaterial waves — a paradox which, as the author says "is accepted as an assumption and left unaccounted for," yet mind has an independent power of controlling our conduct. If modern scientists studied the Esoteric Teachings they would find that the links which unite mind and body were discovered ages ago in the so-called astral or etheric intermediary body; but if their own methods are preferred we commend Dr Gustaf Stromberg's scientific treatment of this crucial problem in his The Soul of the Universe. Among other points he shows that "chemistry" does not explain how memory can be carried through an ever-changing succession of brain cells without some "immaterial" (non-physical) and permanent structure to preserve it.

Sir Charles Sherrington concludes that "Mind, as we know it, is never any other than embodied mind," meaning, presumably, embodied in physical matter, and he seems to penetrate no farther into the higher states of consciousness than the mind, we hear no clear intimation of spirit. But his definition of mind is impressive:

Invisible, intangible, it is a thing not even in outline, it is not a "thing." It remains without sensual confirmation and remains without it for ever. Stripped to nakedness there remains to it but itself. What then does that amount to? All that counts in life. Desire, zest, truth, love, knowledge, "values," and seeking metaphor to eke out expression, hell s depth and heaven's utmost height.

This could not have been written by a materialist at heart and when Sir Charles says that growth, the main characteristic of life, can be explained by "chemistry" we have his word that he is not identifying Mind with chemical reactions or any other form of energy. We believe, however, that no scientist would pretend to know what chemical activity is in its ultimate reaches. More than fifty years ago, when chemistry was very limited, H. P. Blavatsky wrote:

Chemistry and physiology are the two great magicians of the future who are destined to open the eyes of mankind to the great physical truths. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 261

But she looked forward to a very different chemistry and physics from the mechanistic one of the nineteenth century which was largely based on the old "hard billiard ball" theories of the atom. And in physiology and biology she was looking to a future when a truly philosophic and spiritual science will abandon the naive concept that man with his innate and godlike powers is nothing but a physical organism, here today and gone tomorrow, "a monkey shaved."

We have enjoyed Sir Charles's optimistic anticipations of the future of humanity, but they are limited by the usual negations of what is wrongly called the "supernatural." He shows no awareness of the existence of supersensuous planes of Nature where conscious beings exist, higher as well as lower than ourselves. The elementary facts about these subtil conditions of being — etheric, as Sir Oliver Lodge called them — are ignored even by those scientists who claim to believe in a future life and yet make no effort to discover where it will be spent. Even a limited knowledge of the existence of an inner world changes our mental center of gravity and our outlook upon the future of humanity. We agree with Sir Charles that a crude "anthropomorphic" outlook on Nature and a belief in a pseudo-"magical" interpretation should be rejected, and that Nature is a Harmony, a Whole, and free from the element of "lurid drama" to which he objects. If by "magic" he means a defiance of natural law by a man or by a Personal Deity, who perform "miracles," again we agree, and more, we assert that this is the Theosophical teaching. We need not confuse such pseudo-magic and superstition with true magic or even with the marvelous, both of which are strictly governed by natural law. But who knows the limits of natural law? And when science discovers that certain teachings of Theosophy, at present regarded as heretical, are perfectly "natural" even if "occult" in some cases, it will simply have to widen its doors, as has already been accomplished in certain directions.

The Ancient Wisdom teaches that

. . . the daring explorer, who would probe the inmost secrets of Nature, must transcend the narrow limitations of sense . . . he must develop faculties which are absolutely dormant — save in a few rare and exceptional cases. . . . — The Secret Doctrine, I, 477-8

Sir Charles may not be prepared to accept such a possibility, but we can afford to wait till time proves its truth, notwithstanding his confidence that "To-day knowledge views the natural scene wide-eyed"!

The author discards the popular idea of survival because it implies a "supernatural or magical" break-up of the body-mind combination at death which he calls a crude and infantile relic of Dualism. We certainly agree that mind — or rather spirit — needs a bodily "vehicle" to contact the matter in which it is imbodied, but this principle applies to other kinds of substance than gross physical matter. When the energy-body perishes the consciousness of the Real Man falls back upon its more subtil bodies or vehicles for contact with the "ethereal" conditions in which it then functions, magic or no magic!

The author analyses the increasing domination of man's higher nature in a very encouraging manner, though, of course, from the "regular" standpoint of the evolutionists. Early competitive and predatory strife was gradually modified by co-operation, and as mankind unfolded the qualities of pity, compassion and self-sacrifice the predatory form of living became more and more a curse. As "human life has among its privileges that of pre-eminence in pain" this sensitiveness brought increasing altruism and "a decenter-ing of the self and an admitting of certain "otherness" to interest on a par with the self's own"; in plain language an unselfish consciousness of universal brotherhood. Sir Charles adds the beautiful thought:

A great gift — some might say divine — comes to the "self when, perceiving certain suffering external to itself it so reacts to it that that suffering becomes its own, and is shared even as a "feeling." That gift is a gift, it would seem, uniquely human. It allots to human life a place unique among lives.

Well, we may ask, is the holder of this "divine gift" to perish for ever like the beasts of the field? Has "Nature" taken infinite pains to produce such a unique being merely to fling it away like a crushed flower? He quotes the verse:

"None can usurp this height," returned the Shade, "
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are miseries, and will not let them rest."

"Will not let them rest"! Surely this is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, the Great Renunciation of self for others" sake, the highest ideal of Theosophy!


1. Man on his Nature, by Sir Charles Sherrington (The Gifford Lectures, 1937-8) New York The Macmillan Co, and Cambridge University Press, England, 413 pp., $3.75 (return to text)

2. From "The Origin of Evil" by H. P. Blavatsky, Lucifer, October, 1887. Reprinted in Theosophical University pamphlet Good and Evil. (return to text)

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