Many people are interested in what some branches of religio-philosophy have named the "Adversary." The human heart realizes that at the bottom of this theological doctrine there is a fact of deep meaning. There is in the universe opposition, and that is the keynote of the meaning of the Hebrew word Shatan, the Adversary, an opponent; or of the Greek and Latin word diabolos, from which we have the German Teufel, the French Diahle, the Italian Dia-volo, and the English Devil. These variations of spelling and pronunciation on the original term were the products of different peoples, the original term from which they all derived undoubtedly having been the Greek word diabolos — meaning "the Accuser," and hence "the Adversary." The thought behind the word imbodies the idea of an accuser or an adversary. How grossly this wonderful philosophic and religious idea has been distorted to become a mere anthropomorphic or human-like personification of opposition in nature, opposition which in truth may be and indeed is most beneficial and helpful, or opposition which may be on the other hand, malign and evil.
That is the keynote of the doctrine; and hence, using words to explain a great cosmic reality, the Hebrew said the "opponent," the "adversary," and the nimble-minded Greek spoke of the "accuser." Why? There is no such actual cosmic individual acting as an adversary of men or of the Gods; for the "accuser," the "adversary," the "opponent," is in actual fact, so far as men are concerned, our own weaknesses, evil doings, evil thoughts, evil emotions which some day sooner or later spring up in our path to face us, and facing us, accuse us, as it were, point us out as the evil-doer. They, our own former selves, have now become the adversaries and accusers of the present self.
In nature and in human nature, the early Christians personified this and spoke of the diabolos or Satan, for to them it was a very real thing.
But mark how amazingly and marvelously every truth becomes capable of teaching us wondrous things, for the adversary becomes in reality a most valuable teacher; we learn by the faults of the past, not only to avoid them in the future, but to become stronger than they in the future. The adversary therefore becomes the instructor; the faults learned and overcome and surmounted thus prove themselves to be our guides and teachers — in other words former stumbling-blocks when surmounted become stepping-stones to higher things.
Following this idea in one more but parallel significant meaning, it was always stated by the ancient mystics and occultists that the name of the teacher, of the Savior, is the Adversary. He will not allow the neophyte to pass upwards until that neophyte has proved his worth, until he has learned the key-words, the pass-words which mean primarily, self-conquest. Thus were the ancient teachers always called Nagas or serpents of wisdom. Thus was likewise the opposing power in nature, whether divine or malign, spoken of as a Naga, a serpent in the Garden of Eden or a Serpent of Wisdom.
A Christian teaching in the New Testament coming from supposedly inspired intelligences, tells us to worship the serpent. How graphic is the injunction: "Be ye wise as the serpent, and as harmless as the dove." For such are the grand Adepts, all the Buddhas and Christs, the pitiful, sorrowing ones, sorrowing for mankind's ignorance.
We learn from our weaknesses to mount to higher things. Our weaknesses themselves become our teachers; and once we have learned their lessons, it is then no longer needful to turn to them for instruction. So we say then that they become evil instructors, for we have already learned much and mounted higher through their help. We are not only wasting time, but we are doing wrong to be affected by the thoughts and feelings and counter-emotions of the past. It is our duty to pass to higher things, to challenge the new opponents, the new accusers. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." The door opens. The adversary, the opponent for the nonce says, "Who are you?" If you give the right answer you pass; the wrong answer, the door is closed against you, because it is so in reality. You cannot take a step onwards and upwards until you know the passwords which are parts of yourself, in other words until you have the will and the intelligence to do right. You yourself then, in such instance, become yourself the adversary, the so-called Satan. You must conquer yourself, this part of yourself, in order to go higher. Therefore we learn on the stepping-stones of our former selves to become new selves. Our best selves are an ideal before us to mount upon and to build with. Our present selves in their turn some day will pass and we shall meet the Spirit, the divine Self of the future, and it too will ask us: "Who art thou? Give the password." And the password is knowledge, is wisdom, is altruism, the great treasury of long-past spiritual experience. Be ye wise as the serpent, but innocent and harmless as the dove. This is a most beautiful and profound allegory. No wonder it has been adopted by race after race of humankind, in different parts of the world.
One aspect of the adversary is our present self. Shall we overcome the present self, the adversary which prevents our going higher because it is not higher, it is simply a self? If we do, then we have given the password and we ascend, we pass the portals of wisdom. The adversary is no longer a tyrant. No longer is the initiator examining our spiritual and intellectual and moral credentials, our own self, our own inspiration. The adversary becomes the divine friend, the Savior of all men, the serpent of wisdom.
It is a beautiful allegory pregnant with meaning. Even the poets of relatively modern times have caught the idea. Milton, for instance, describes the fall of Satan or Lucifer, according to Christian theory, one of the highest of the angels who "fell." The same idea with a new angle of vision to it, a new twist of thought. The angel climbs upward within the celestial spheres, self-redeemed. The self, the main adversary, whether it be of god or of man or one of the innumerable hierarchies of living beings in human nature, for each one there is an adversary, itself or himself. And yet, so compassionately is nature constructed, that out of our faults we learn better things. From ugliness we learn beauty. From weakness surmounted is born our new strength. From the unholy do we advance to holiness. What was once the opposition, the adversary, when we challenge it with courage and take the kingdom of heaven with strength, becomes the Savior, the Initiator.
So with our own selves. Have you ever thought that a fault overcome becomes a new strength in your character; that a temptation surmounted has given you more power, for you have done it through exercise of your will? Your will has become stronger. The pity for others within you has become keener. Your vision becomes more luminous, a far-seeing clairvoyance. It is experience which makes us think. It is experience which gives us growth. It is this experience which is the adversary, the accuser.
All peoples have taught of opposition in the universe, and they taught beautifully of it. The essential idea is the same over the earth. So when we look upon this Opposer, under whatever multitude of myriads of guises in which we meet it, whether of divine character or of malign, the principle behind all is the same. To us humans it becomes demoniac and malign if we weakly succumb. We have forgotten the challenge of our own soul. On the other hand, when we use our will to achieve and take our selves in hand for training, we become strong because we become more universal. Our vision is no longer restricted to ourselves, and therefore raises itself proportionately towards the divine. That is why the divine is always spoken of as being divine, and the immensely constricted and therefore selfish as always being evil, because the small thinks but for itself and opposes the world to gain a tiny kingdom of the lower self, setting its power against the universe and thereby becoming so much evil, like the seeds of a disease in the human body. When that seed of disturbance is cast out, as happily it may be, health and universal peace in the body, returns. There is the idea. The more we become universal, the higher we are. The closer we approach to the divine which is universal, the higher we are. To quote again a Christian thought of great depth and wondrous beauty: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" There you have the companionship of the divine, if you will take by your inner strength, for here within us is its tabernacle, its temple, in the human heart.
(From Sunrise magazine, June 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)