The Path – May 1895

A BASIS FOR ETHICS — Katharine Hillard

One of the books which were most read and talked of last year was Mr. Kidd's work on Social Evolution. His theory, expressed in the fewest possible words, was that in nature we could find no basis for ethics, that the keynote of natural and of human progress was self-interest, as shown in the struggle for existence, that this might and does become an enlightened self-interest and make for the preservation of the species in the end, but for the origin of true altruism we must look to something outside man and the physical universe, an impulse towards doing good to others which could only spring from a divine and what Mr. Kidd calls "an ultra-rational sanction", in a word, some religious conviction.

Close upon the heels of Mr. Kidd's book came Drummond's The Ascent of Man, marked by all the fascinations of easy and brilliant style for which this author is so noted, and equally characterized by his well-known fancifulness and tendency to run off the track of scientific thought into the boggy wilderness of the fantastic. Mr. Drummond says of Kidd's theory (and I think the objection is well-taken), "Practically, as a vindication of the dynamic power of the religious factor in the Evolution of Mankind, nothing could be more convincing. But as an apologetic it only accentuates a weakness which scientific theology never felt more keenly than at the present hour. . . Does not Mr. Kidd perceive that anyone possessed of reason enough to encounter his dilemma, either in the sphere of thought or of conduct, will also have reason enough to reject any 'ultra-rational' solution? That is, if our mind is of a character to be convinced, with Mr. Kidd, that altruism does not belong to human nature, but is foisted upon it, as it were, by some outside religious sentiment, will not that mind naturally repudiate the idea that any such God outside the machine can exist?" And furthermore Mr. Drummond remarks: "The first essential of a working religion is that it shall be congruous with Man; the second, that it shall be congruous with Nature. Whatever its sanctions, its forces must not be abnormal, but reinforcements and higher potentialities of those forces which from eternity have shaped the progress of the world."

In all probability, most of us would not interpret this sentence as Mr. Drummond would, but from either point of view it is an admirable statement. His own theory, as distinguished from Mr. Kidd's, is briefly this: That we find the germ of altruism in the struggle for the existence of others, as shown primarily in the maternal instincts of animals, which develop in some orders into the display of affectionate and protective impulses and actions in the father also, and finally into those associations for mutual protection which have for their object the preservation of the species rather than of the individual. In fact, he is rather inclined to agree with Prof. Mantegazza of Italy, another charming but not very trustworthy writer, who expounds the optimistic doctrine that "the whole of nature is one hymn of love". But is not this very association to which Drummond refers, an action prompted rather by fear of a common enemy than any desire to assist in the preservation of other lives? In that very valuable little book on The Evolution of Sex by Geddes and Thomson, its authors seem to have taken the desirable middle course by affirming with Littre, Leconte, and others, "the coexistence of twin streams of egoism and altruism which often merge for a space without losing their distinctness, and are traceable to a common origin in the simplest forms of life. . . . There are two divergent lines of emotional and practical activity — hunger, self-regarding egoism, on the one hand; love, other-regarding altruism, on the other. . . . The actual path of progress is represented by action and reaction between the two complementary functions, the mingling becoming more and more intricate." And the diagram our authors give to illustrate their idea is, curiously enough, in the figure of the caduceus, used, too, as you will remember, by Prof. Crookes.

Here we have, then, the theories of three different thinkers as to the basis of ethics; Mr. Kidd placing it altogether outside of human nature and human reason; Prof. Geddes finding it in the twin stream of egoism and altruism whose sources are in the nutritive and reproductive functions of the body; and Prof. Drummond adding to this the theological conception of the assistance of a personal God. He says, however, as I have already stated, that the first essential of a working religion is that it shall be congruous with man; its second, that it shall be congruous with nature. Strangely enough, this theologian seems to entirely overlook the fact that in the spiritual oneness of man and nature should we seek the true basis of ethics, an idea faintly shadowed forth in the "ideal unity" which stands at the top of Prof. Geddes's diagram.

The Theosophist would maintain that the problems continually confronting the evolutionist will only be solved when the triple nature of man's evolution is fully recognized, and he is treated as a being unfolding in three directions, the physical, the psychical or mental, and the spiritual. To look for the origin of soul-functions among the organs of the body is like trying to trace the source of a mountain streamlet to a salt-marsh. Those animal instincts called altruistic reach out a very little way and in a very few directions, and even these would be classed by the Theosophist as belonging to that "animal soul" which birds and beasts share with human beings. Side by side, then, with the evolution of the body must run the evolution of the soul, and as the spiritual is always the same, and only its medium develops, it may be figured as the staff of the caduceus around which the twin serpents wreathe their coils. The sensations of the body arise in the body and govern its acts; the emotions of the soul, the thoughts of the mind, belong to the other side of the double nature; but both, as well as all the universe, live and move and have their being in the great ocean of Spirit.

To become convinced that we are all descended from a common ancestral form can never make a very deep impression upon our hearts; a brotherhood based upon so remote and so purely physical a relationship will hardly affect the behavior of man to man. But once get rid of the heresy of the belief in the separateness of soul or self from the One Universal, infinite Self, and the command to love thy brother as thyself seems to appeal to the heart of all, and we have a basis of ethics, not founded on the transient and illusory side of man's nature, but on the true and the real. If mankind is one great organism, as we believe it to be, built up of countless individual lives as our bodies are built up of countless individual cells, how evident it becomes that the welfare of one is the welfare of all, and that an injury to the least of these must have its reactionary effect upon the whole system. This idea is beautifully set forth in Mr. Coryn's admirable essay on Prana. "Before evolution began," he says, "one soul . . . shot itself out into the rays we call men, a duality in consciousness of the material and the spiritual. All men follow diverse paths, and go through diverse paths and rough places, that this soul in them may perfect itself in all experiences. . . . Humanity is one Self. At the beginning it was one; it now seems many, but at the end, when the minds of men are tuned together (a process already indicated by the growing sensitivity of many to the unspoken thoughts and feelings of others), humanity will be one vast organism in perfect harmony, and every unit, still thinking itself a unit, will yet feel with every other, giving, nevertheless, its individual color to all it takes into its consciousness. . . . Except by assuming the reality of this one life in us all, there is no possible means of accounting for sympathy with pain. . . . Every feeling of sympathy", concludes Mr. Coryn, "is absolute proof of one life-spirit in men . . . And this is not a mere metaphysical idea, but it is the only guide of life worth having."

If we take, then, our unity in Spirit as an actual and living fact, we shall find an ethical system based upon it to be equally congruous with nature and man, thus fulfilling Prof. Drummond's ideal of "a working religion". For even the man who from the dictates of "an enlightened self-interest" endeavors to fill his part in the world to the best of his ability, contributes something to the elevation of the race. For that depends, of course, upon the perfecting of the individual, and every effort, however small, in the direction of right raises the general average of humanity. Such a person works only upon the lower planes, but the impulse towards the higher will gradually impel him onwards, till in some succeeding incarnation he shall work from the plane of soul rather than from that of body.

Nor should the sympathy that springs from our true unity cause us only to feel with another's pain; it should make us also rejoice in another's happiness. Their joy should be our joy as well as their sorrow our sorrow, and if we can only think of all mankind as one, then the thought of the many parts of that great Unit that are happy and prosperous and free from pain should do something to cheer us when we are lonely or sad or suffering. Some of us are having a good time; let us fix our mind on those that rejoice, and not on a temporary ache in a little finger. Jonathan Edwards thought that part of the happiness of the saints in heaven was made up of their contemplation of the miseries of the damned. Our "working religion" would teach that could the souls in hell bring themselves to realize the happiness of the souls in heaven, they would be no longer among the damned, but the flames that beset them would turn to fragrant roses, wet with the dews of Paradise.

The basis for ethics, then, given by Theosophy, is the idea of universal brotherhood founded upon the conviction of our spiritual unity, and therefore having its impulse from within rather than from without, the cultivation of right thought, that from it may spring spontaneously right speech and right action, and thus, in a sense far deeper than is dreamed of by the churches, the promise of Jesus shall be fulfilled: "Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you".

The Path