The Path – February 1894

WHAT PROOF HAVE WE? (1) — J. C. Keightley

Mr. Chairman, Friends: Before entering upon the question of the evening I shall ask your permission to make use, temporarily, of the pronouns "you" and "we". By the use of the pronoun "you" I shall for the moment designate persons outside the Theosophical Society, who might or might not be enquirers about, or interested in, the Eastern Teachings. By the use of the pronoun "we" I shall designate all members of the Theosophical Society, and I will beg you to remember that I recognize in reality no such distinction; that I make use of this nomenclature for the purposes of clear illustration only, and that experience has shown full well that there are many devoted Theosophists who have never heard that word, and many using the word who have not even grasped the outermost significance thereof.

The question of the evening is "What proof have we?" Now this question is being asked daily more and more, is pressing upon us from all sides. For this reason, before entering into any argument as to the nature of proof itself, I wish to examine into the bearing and the reason, in short the justification, of this question; I wish to see what reason there is in its being put to us at all. And above all it is necessary to know why it is put to us and who are the persons who bring it forward. For at the very outset of his entrance into the Theosophical forum (and by "forum" I mean that place wherein a man may speak of his convictions — and be heard), the Theosophist finds himself almost immediately confronted by this question of proof. Too often the question converts the forum into the arena; the place where the combat as if for life, or for that which is dearer than life, goes on. The rightfulness of this question naturally becomes our first concern. When we speak of our belief you press up to us demanding this proof. What right have you to make that demand? There are two things which constitute a man's right: first, there is his need of a thing — his real need; that constitutes a right in the eyes of any moral community; secondly, — and a bad second, — there are the rights of custom. Let us examine the lesser rights first, viz. — the rights of custom.

Are you accustomed, then, in your daily life to demand the proof of things before you can accept them? Do you demand proof of the purity of the water you drink, of the food you eat, of the financial investments you make? On all these depend health, life, immunity from care. Do you go to the root of each subject, examining each for yourself, or do you take the asseveration of one or another expert on the subject? You do examine, I know, but do you examine to the very root? No! What journeys, what expense, what knowledge would that not involve! Hence the custom has arisen of accepting the verdict of an expert number of our fellow beings upon such points: each such person is supposed to have examined more or less into the subject, though he may or may not have done so. Have you ever heard the story of the aged gentleman who determined to take nothing without absolute proof and who was therefore found at midnight still longing to partake of his early cup of coffee, usually taken before rising, because the busy chemist called in had not yet had time to decide whether milk, sugar, and coffee were pure? Would you not, then, be quite as belated in your daily life if you were to undertake to obtain unimpeachable proofs for yourselves? It has hence come about that you believe many an improbable thing without proof. You trust your friends, your wives, your societies, your churches, your scientists, yes, even your theologians, at times, without proof. It would be rare to find a man who would admit that he did not believe the world moves round the sun, and yet what proof has he of that? None. He has not even the knowledge necessary to obtain the real proof, that proof which is found alone in a man's own experience. In the same way he has accepted the presence of life, or lives, in the air and the water. He has accepted many a problem, many a discovery in this scientific age; he feels that to deny these would also make him a laughing-stock. And if we ask him "What proof have you of this or that?", he gives us in reply some well-known name. To such a point has this practice been carried that Prof. Tyndall said some years ago in the United States that in his belief the testimony of a number of veracious witnesses constituted ample proof. We can give you this, and the world-known names besides if you will, in support of Theosophy, but you would not accept; you probably would laugh at it. In our opinion you would be quite right in doing so. Nevertheless I point out to you that in thus meeting us at the outset with a demand for proof, you are setting up as a right that which you do not ask of any other department of the world's knowledge, except in a very few rare circumstances which I shall specify hereafter. To take up another point of the subject; not long ago I met a gentleman well-known in all English-speaking countries as a literary man of wide and varied accomplishment. He spoke to me of certain matters in which I felt deep interest. So deep indeed was this interest that later on I said to him "Can you give me any proof of what you advance?" What was his reply? It was this: "I did not ask you to believe the statements I was then putting forward, as matters of interest, of conversation, of what you please; I repeat, that I did not seek your belief, consequently you have no right to ask proof of them. Proof may only justly be asked of a man who is endeavoring to secure your adherence to what he puts forward".

This I believe in the common tenet. Consequently, the Theosophist, young or old, educated or non-educated, wise in experience or just entering upon that experience, official or non-official, has an entire right to put forward his belief with all the eloquence and earnestness he can muster to the task without laying himself open to any charge of dogmatism, without giving you any right to demand his proofs. In order to be dogmatic he would have to make two assertions, (a)"These are the lines of my belief and I will never alter them, never enlarge them; they shall never grow fuller or wider than they now are. (b) I insist upon your accepting this present statement of mine as the only truth." If he has not unmistakably done these two things, he triumphantly escapes the charges of biased minds who see dogmatism in his earnestness and narrowness in his eloquent definition. I think if you will follow out these lines it will be plain to you that custom does not sanctify this demand so pressed upon Theosophists; no, not even that hallowed Custom which has been erected as a goddess in our midst but which changes her fashion and face with every year. Even the legal rule demands that the accuser, the challenger, shall prove his case.

In coming to a man's need of proof we touch upon deeper ground. I do not mean to say by this that the need is deep in every man; as we have in fact seen, it rarely is so. But let us suppose a man who has gone forth from all accustomed modes of thought, self-banished, as it were, from the normal realm of mind. Hungering for food, food for that man who is "the man that was and is and shall be, for whom the hour shall never strike", he comes and asks us "What proof have you of these things?" To his need we must perforce turn a compassionate ear. And yet, how little can we do; for, look you, we are not divided from him in thought, or heart, or experience by any will whatsoever of our own. It is the mere fact that we have touched what he has not touched, that we have seen where his eyes were closed, that we have heard while he listened to another voice, it is this fact which makes the difference between us. It is not a difference of higher or lower, of greater or lesser knowledge, of superiority or inferiority; it is simply the difference of experience, as colorless as the difference between rates of vibration; we have evolved to a different point, or by differing means, and our conclusions vary from his because the content of our consciousness varies from his. But in a moment, in the flash of an eye, he may see all his past by another light, by the inner light, and may find himself transported much further along the great evolutionary path than we ourselves now are. All our knowledge is relative, and where a point of time makes up the situation, another point of time may alter its uttermost foundation.

When, further, a man has a real need of anything in this world, what does he ordinarily do? Let us suppose that he wished to ask of a chemist, of the shoemaker at his awl or of the miner shut out from daylight and health in his pit; what would happen then? We can fancy him going to the miner and saying, "I want proof of the geological strata in which your ore lies; proof that yours is the proper method of excavating: proof that this ore which I see at the mouth of the pit has really been brought up by you and by no other and from the place which you describe". What is the answer? A jeer and a curse, perhaps. Or perhaps a question, "Are you a miner? If you be, come on down and see for yourself". And if you are not, a further jeer. So with the shoemaker. He shows you his finished article; but if you ask him to demonstrate to you that it was made precisely so and so, from the skinning of the dead beast and the tanning of the leather up to the final fashioning that fits for it the child's dainty foot, a stare of surprise will be the least and the most courteous reply you can expect. Or fancy yourself entering the laboratory of Crookes or of Tesla or Edison and demanding proofs of his latest discoveries. Let us again take the Artist, the Sculptor, or any earthly creator you may choose, into this conclave, and let us in fancy ask him for the much-sought-for proof. They may show us the finished thing; they may demonstrate all its parts; is that proof? No! No! How do we know that it was made as they say; by the methods they describe; with the materials they claim; under the conditions that they assert? We would have to obtain their formula, or what science calls their working hypothesis, we would have to take that home with us, and, securing just the same conditions, just the same materials, work out by their methods, duly prescribed, to their exact results. This being so, the first question they would ask of us is this, "Are you a man of my trade?"; and finding we were not, they too would turn aside from us with a more or less courteous putting-off as the case may be. It is clearly evident that every man who has attained, in any department of life, knows one primary thing, and that is, that no man can understand those results which are his proofs unless he also knows the working hypothesis and has experience of the trade.

What I am coming to is this. In order to have your proof, you must work for it. In all this great universe there is no proof obtainable except by work; whether work of the body; work of the eye; work of the mind, that great overseer which sums up the results of all other classes of work; work there must be or proof there is none. And, speaking for myself, I honor, I may say I revere, the man or woman strong enough, patient enough, determined enough to get proof. For the only proof lies in man's own experience. There is no other that does not melt away like the hoar frost on the mountain, like the foam dashed from the turbulent sea.

It thus comes about that the attitude of the Theosophist, or indeed of any really thinking person, is the attitude imposed by Nature herself. To know a thing you must be it; you must have experience of it. When the Theosophist quotes from the Christian Bible those most occult words, "Lead the life if ye would know the doctrine", he is not putting you off because of any lack of proof of his own, because of any want of power of speech or eloquence, because he cannot point out the work, the method of work, or the way. No; he is uttering one of the eternal verities, and great Nature herself sustains him. Experience you must have, before you know a thing in its depth and breadth and length. In matters of the mind this experience may be purely mental, as in matters of sympathy; but mental experience in certain souls is at once the most objective and most evident of all experiences. Hence when you ask us for proof we know well that you are asking what you ask of very few. We know well that you rarely put your theologians or scientists or great artisans or inventors or mechanics or laborers — no, not even your statesmen or your women — to this test. Nevertheless, the true Theosophist, recognizing that he is in part his brother's keeper, will not return the answer of Cain, who cried "Am I my brother's keeper?", but, on the contrary, he will meet you with a fact in nature — the fact that you must work for your proof even as he worked, and that without such work the facts which he may offer will never become an integral part of your experience, will never be accepted by the thinking man within you as a truth in which he has part.

And now let me ask, What is proof? In Western lands there is a maxim, "The law is common sense." Let us, then, have recourse to this embodied common sense in order to make out our reply. Last week I asked one of the ablest barristers in London for a definition of proof. After a little puzzlement he said that the best reply he could make me would be that proof was "evidence sufficient to satisfy the Court." That sounds well; but Courts vary. There are some inquirers who assert that the production of phenomena would be sufficient proof of all the teachings of the East. This reminds us of the tale of the two Rabbis, the first of whom was endeavoring to prove to the second that he knew more of the Supreme Being than his friend. In proof of this the learned Rabbi No. 1 offered to cause the walls of the temple where they sat to fall down. The second Rabbi placidly remarked: "Friend, that would prove that thou didst indeed know how to cause walls to fall down, but it would prove nothing else." Moreover, a law of the human mind very often commented upon would render such phenomena valueless. I am again reminded of another tale, the newest parrot story as imported from America (with the profanity discreetly left out, for the parrot not being intentionally, or, as we may say, consciously, profane, I think this little attention is due to him in a Theosophical Lodge). My parrot lived in a shop of a seller of fireworks, and was used to seeing very brilliant specimens of coruscations set off for the benefit of intending purchasers. These gave him great delight. In fact, he became quite hardened to them and began to regard them with an air of cynical and accustomed habit. One day, however, the shop blew up; the parrot found himself landed in a distant and barren field, minus his feathers (for he did not take his wardrobe with him on that rapid journey). Scratching his naked head with his bleeding claw, he exclaimed: "Ain't it wonderful! What will happen next?" This attitude is that of the phenomena seeker who, witnessing more and more, desires the repetition of the same experience over and over, but a little stronger each time; as witness the Spiritualists, who with all their remarkable phenomena have built up no real philosophy. But I will not take up your time by enlarging further upon this head, but shall be happy if anything I may have said will serve as a text which you can follow out in your own mind. And to those to whom the whole discourse may appear dull I would offer a prescription embodied in two of George Herbert's most exquisite lines addressed to the Church-goer:

"And, if the preacher weary,
God takes the text and preaches patience."

I am quite sure if you learn patience, Sovereign Patience, from my discourse, you will have learned a virtue greater than any I have within my gift.

Since, then, we find that phenomena are not proof, the nature of proof still remains unexplained. What proof does the Law offer? In almost all cases witnesses come forward and detail the narrative which Court and Jury hear. Take, for example, a murder case. Is the murder shown? No! Is it described? Not always. A tale is told by more or fewer witnesses. Told to whom? To what? To the minds of the Jurymen and the Court, and the Mind, the eternal witness, hears, weighs, sums up, judges, condemns or sets free. Here, then, we have the Law. The oracular embodied common-sense of the land recognizes that proof is subjective and not objective, and that the mind of man is the sole arbiter, the sole judge, and that the evidence upon which he makes up his verdict is evidence cognizable by the mind of man alone, valid to him alone; that mind is indeed the power behind the throne For, mark you, if the minds of the Jury differ in any case, the Jurymen in the minority who have not seen the case from the standpoint of the majority acquire no condemnation therefor. They are not reproached — not justly reproached, at all events, because they have not seen the case as others do and have not derived the same conclusions from the same evidence. All that is said is that their minds have not acted upon the evidence normal to the majority. And yet even in the history of the Law these minorities have proved to be right with the passage of time. Innocent men have been hung on the verdict of a majority. Take another point: the Law itself recognizes the constitutional inability of two or more minds to see an event alike. Bribed and perjured witnesses always tell the tale exactly alike; by this peculiarity the Law recognizes them. Veracious witnesses, being so many different minds, have each seen a different side of the occurrence. And in this cause we have the Law itself unconsciously acknowledging that every mind is at a different standpoint of evolution from every other. In this lies the reason why each person must gain his own proof through his own experience. To what, now, do these facts lead us? To this: in this highly civilized day, in our very Christian countries, you will take the life of your fellow-beings on subjective proof when you will not for one instant receive the same as valid at the hands of your fellow Theosophists.

If, then, the Theosophist chose, as I doubt not he would choose, to disregard the peremptory nature of this demand for proof and the fact that it is seldom asked except for argumentative purposes, which, as everyone knows, end in mere contention; if he chose, I say, to give serious attention to the question, his natural reply would be this: What is that for which you demand proof? Is it for the whole bulk of Theosophic teaching? Is it for the existence of Masters? Is it for the reality of phenomena? Now of the latter question I think we have already disposed, but there is one thing more which might be said, and it is this: If you are not yourself master to some extent of the laws lying behind nature, or operating through nature, you do not know whether any phenomena which may be produced before you consist in (A) mere mesmeric or hypnotic phenomena causing you to see what has no temporary existence at all, or (B) the actual phenomena in which something has been created by the use of occult or hidden Law, which something did not exist in objective form at all before. It is thus clear that only to the Adept, who needs it not, can valid proof of this kind be given, and that those who ask for it are ignorant in the deepest sense of ignorance. To be ignorant and to know it is a depth; but to be ignorant and not to know it is a greater depth still. Now again, as to proof, as to the existence of a Great Lodge or Hierarchy of Wise Beings. On this I purposely touch very lightly: and I may say, indeed, that if any one came to me saying that I had published my belief in Theosophical teachings and were to ask "Have you any proof?" I should reply: "For myself? Yes! Certainly I have proof. For you? No! For you I have none at all." You would mistake if you were to call this pride on my part. The reply would arise wholly from the knowledge that no man can in any sense be the savior of another man. Each man must arise and must get his own proof, with the help, perhaps, if he be working, of his fellow-workmen. But of proof as to the existence of the Elder Brothers of the race, I may permit myself to make one very common-sense remark, as it appears to me. Reverse the case. Say that I am living in Thibet and that I am asked as to the existence of certain living, very prominent, very highly evolved and able men, residents of America, but who have been known to visit other lands. I tell the Thibetans of these men; they ask for proof of their existence. I show pictures. They are not proof. I show letters. They are not proof. I call upon other men and women who have seen them to testify. Their word too is denied. I point to the religious and other books of America to show that a knowledge of these men has existed for a long period of time. This too is not proof. I call upon our learned men, who admit that the existence of such highly evolved men was always part of the belief of the residents of the country. My Thibetans shrug their shoulders at this mass of testimony and remain unconvinced. And any one of you, if you were standing by me, would no doubt say to me, "In heaven's name why not leave them to their ignorance?" Now this is precisely what I should do; in fact, I should never have proceeded so far as this imaginary picture points out. And why? Because it is part of my experience that no one gets any living proof that way, and I should not waste my time in attempting the impossible. It is not that I know more than the supposed inquirer. It is that the content of my consciousness is not the content of his consciousness and never can become so by any effort of mine. He will have to live and work and get the proof himself, as I did, if I have it at all. And when we add to this fact, that the proof of a man's being a Mahatma or Great Soul has to do with the interior and mysterious processes of the soul itself; that the soul alone recognizes the Great Soul; that such a Being is first met upon the plane of soul, and there only at first; I think you will concede that this subject of proof becomes a very difficult one, and that you must be content to leave me to what you may, if you please, call my delusions; or else you may accept the working hypothesis of living the life if you would know the doctrine, and work out thereby the matter to its ultimate conclusion. For other means than life and work there are none. Other proof of the existence of Great Souls, mastering the bodies in which they dwell, having communion with mankind travailing in pain on the one hand, and with the great boundless freedom of spirit on the other; other proof, I say, than that your soul first touches Their souls, there is none. There never will be any other proof until you have first mastered that truth and have learned to know the intangible eternal presences by a proof more sure than the presence of evanescent form.

Or, again, the proof asked may be that of certain fundamental propositions of Theosophy, such as those laid down in the Secret Doctrine. These are first, the existence of a boundless, eternal Principle of life; second, the universality of the law of periodicity, or Karma; third, the spiritual identity of all souls with the Over-soul. Such proof can be sought, and can, so far as my own experience goes, be found in every department of life. I admit that in this so-called scientific age the merest weaklings are so inflated with the rabies of science that they think they must have scientific proof of everything, and hence would deny what maybe called proof by analogy. Science herself, laboriously great but often true, treats us no better. But permit me to take a case in point, an illustration from a lecture recently delivered in this hall on what are called "The Lives." In that lecture it was shown that science demonstrated certain action and reaction always taking place in the unit, as it is called, of protoplasmic matter. It was also shown that this series of action and reaction was precisely the same as those given in the Secret Doctrine relative to the action of the life-principle in regard to the Solar systems, worlds, man, and even the constituent cells of his body. Now, as I say, science would refuse us the right to this proof by analogy. But let us see if we cannot wrest it from her own utterance. For what says science further, after postulating this unit of protoplasm and definite actions and reactions taking place? Science shows at once this fact, that the whole visible universe is built up of a series of just such units. In this conclusion, then, she herself gives us that proof in regard to the universe to which we have laid claim. Or take another case. In the same lecture it was said that protoplasm, the basis of all life, was built up of certain well-defined chemical constituents, but that if you put those constituents together in their exact proportions, living protoplasm would not result. What would be absent? Life would be absent. The scientist claims that there is no such thing as life per se, life in itself. But may we not fairly claim that if the absence of life or motion prevents this chemical structure so carefully builded up after the living-model, from being alive, it is a fair conclusion that there is a something called Life whose absence makes the difference between a living thing and a dead thing, as science uses the terms "life" and "death." I speak advisedly of the terminology of science, for to the Theosophist Life and a change in the modes of Life alone are known.

Going thus rapidly over the whole ground of proof, what I would finally suggest to my fellow Theosophists is this: The proof that is wanted is proof of the great spiritual side of life and that which in all directions underlies the visible and material. Now the proofs of life are everywhere. They are found in all occupations, in all departments of life, in all sciences, in all arts; they are best found in the beings of whom life itself is composed. Take, for instance, the question of evolution, that great moot-point which is said to have been the chief among the discoveries (re-discoveries I should call them) of this century. You may find it everywhere. You may find it in statecraft, in the tendency away from warfare and towards arbitration. You may find it in the trades, in the tendency away from monopoly and towards cooperation; yes, even in the limited co-operation of monopolists, which is its most dangerous form. You may find it in education; in the tendency, growing greater every hour, to give the same advantages to both sexes. You may find it in theology, in that these later days have seen the study of comparative theology, in part adopted, in place of that method where a man learned only his own form of belief and, at most, the best argument of other schools, in order to be able to refute. You may find it in the industrial life of cities; in the custom, growing daily greater, of embracing the sale of all manner of goods in one shop, instead of employing that shop as a place where only one species of goods could be obtained. You will find it in the drama, which, opening at the beginning of the century with the statuesque method of the Greek stage, and passing through the romantic, the melodramatic or intensely real, the ideal (as in some plays of Tennyson and others of his school), has finally culminated at the close of the century in a school of playwrights who show all the situations of life arising out of and caused by the complexities of character of that thing painfully created, life after life by man: I mean, the heart of man itself. That heart has built up the whole of life about us. It is responsible for all the strange alternations, struggles, differences, and tragedies of life. The latter-day dramatist has seen it; the prophetic seer has sung it for centuries also. If you turn to music, if you turn to painting, evolution is still plainly discerned. If, then, Theosophists wish to point out such proof relative to the ancient Eastern beliefs as may serve as sufficient basis for a man to begin to work upon, let them turn to the various departments of life and demonstrate the first faint clues of greater riddles in them. Not a mother among her children, not a workman by his bench, not a photographer spreading his film ready for the transforming fingers of the light to create some radiant image and cast it out of space upon the glass, not any man or any woman working- anywhere but can bring- some material from his or her place of life with which to build broad and wide the base of this universal temple which we can and will raise to the skies. Do not look abroad in things unknown to you for proof; seek that proof of the building spirit, the living spirit, the unseen all-powerful workman, in the Life of which you are part; and having discerned Him behind his customary mask, bring to us the faithful image of that which you have seen. The mother, observing the birth of character with the child, watchful of the development of the mere animal mind, joyous discerner of the first unfolding of the immortal soul, can put together argument for Reincarnation, for the belief that the strong character already shown in infancy — character dissimilar to that of all the ancestry perhaps — has been moulded by many a prior life. In the inter-correlation of forces, the behavior of energy, its conservation and interaction, the scientist can find still other proof. When the microscopist can find no bacteria present in a speck of matter placed under his most powerful lens, the photographer, preparing a plate sensitized to the action of the rays of the ultra-violet only- — the unseen rays whose action and existence can only be demonstrated by chemistry — the photographer, I say, photographing by these rays, produces pictures of living and moving bacteria to which the wonder-revealing lens was blind. The astral ray revealing the lower astral forms — is it not a fitting sequence? And H. P. Blavatsky said that the greatest proof of occult theory would be found along biological and chemical lines. The schoolboy reads in his Natural Philosophy the first law of motion: "Action and reaction are equal and opposite in direction." It is true of emotion as well. And it reveals the Law of Karma. H. P. Blavatsky pointed out the path. We should each seek to give our own proofs. No more is needed. No more can be asked. The proofs lie within yourselves; your daily acts fecundate them, your lives are their heralds. You have but to speak them. There is not one of us from whom all the rest may not learn something of proof, were that proof but brought before them. And is it not a duty which we owe to our belief, to demonstrate the real amplitude of its base?

Or perhaps it is proof of our ideals that men ask. What kind of proof, think you, would hold good of an ideal? I can conceive no other proof than its action upon the life. Were I asked, "Who are these men who have attained in ever so small measure to some proof of these great truths?" I would make answer thus: They are those who have looked upon a far star beyond the tern pest. They are those who have worked and toiled and waited, who being crushed have arisen, who having fallen have struggled and have arisen again and again. They are those who have done this for the sole and pure sake of the realization of an ideal which assures them that the salvation of one is inextricably bound up in the salvation of all. They are those who have seen the mighty image of Unity and Harmony far beyond the contemplation of the mere mortal mind, and who work on towards it regardless of themselves, caught up in the glory of that immortal ideal. For the proof of a man is his life. The proof of an Ideal is its life in the soul.


1. Address to Blavatsky T. S., London, by Mrs. J. C. Keightley. (return to text)

The Path