A recent book, Years of the Modern, edited by John W. Chase, and written by twelve eminent Americans (but more than eighty had something to do with its preparation) has this for its theme: That we in our modern civilization are in a state of crisis. How did we get there? How can we get out? The situation seemed to call for "a creative inventory of our times," to the end that "man may face the future with greater awareness and perhaps with greater confidence."
Whatever may be our impressions as we view the panorama of our civilization, we know that there must be somewhere a wisdom that can throw light on the gravest problems. This wisdom belongs in the modern picture just as surely as do the atom bombs, television, space rockets and supersonic flight.
The authors of Years of the Modern speak of awareness, and they speak of confidence. Yet what is it that sustains us on the long and intricate career we call life, if it is not an instinctive, even though sometimes unconscious, trust in an underlying wholeness that will not let us down? Whatever humanity may be going through now, at least it is on the march. We have suffered and we know we are "in for it," but we are all in it together. And whether we realize it or not, this wisdom about life that is to be found at the heart of every world-religion, and has existed in the world from the most ancient times, is already half within our grasp, because it is the primitive truth about nature, which includes human and all other beings and the universe in which they live.
This wisdom lies like a sweet kernel at the heart of life, containing the real food to which we may penetrate when we are tired of the husks. Its effect in the world is to keep alive in man his spiritual intuitions, and its influence is always to give the upward impulse to the human heart, and turn it toward the essentials. When humanity, through its three great channels of express — Science, Philosophy, and Religion — makes this wisdom a part of daily life, the character of our thinking will be changed, we shall experience peace, learn what love really is, and be saved from great dangers.
The world of the 1950's has elements of hope never before realized. It is a swift-moving world, there is no time to vegetate. Its eyes are turned to the future, to outer space, which in itself has enlarged the scope of our thinking. The general mood, therefore, is one that is ready for anything, alert for the unexpected, whether it be in the realm of atomic energy, possible communication with other planets, new statements of old theories, or what not.
There is increasing perfection in technical skills, so that even to qualify as an infantryman in the regular army requires some measure of intellectual attainment. There is an amazing abundance of labor-saving tools being poured forth in a perfect spate of ingenuity. This makes for a peculiar situation. It would be expecting too much of human nature to be surprised that this wealth of gadgets distracts the multitude from some of the finer things of mind and heart, and fixes the consciousness upon material objects. We used to think that when we were emancipated from old-fashioned drudgery there would then be time for the cultivation of the mind and the higher sensibilities; the disciplines of the physical life would be replaced by the disciplines of the intellectual life. It may be that this is actually taking place with a vast number of individuals, but with multitudes of others the leisure thus gained is encroached upon by a host of brilliant non-essentials which keep the soul and mind in a sort of daze from which it will be difficult to recover.
On the mental-emotional plane we notice a different mood: there is less sentiment, more analytical study of mental attitudes and trends; there is psychiatry, there is psychoanalysis — partly discredited, and giving place to more skilled methods of psycho-therapy. There is psychosomatic medicine, which takes into account the influence of the mind on the bodily functions. In the teeming thought-life we find millions ready to follow will-o'-the-wisps of "glamorous misinformation," along lines of new economic experiments, pseudo-philosophic or mystic cults that offer strange powers for a price, and often lead to moral deterioration through dabbling in the psychic world and cultivating the emotional and personal aspects of the nature. And there is hypnotism — a modern form of sorcery.
Against all this, we find the idea of human brotherhood developing in the very general participation in welfare work, so that even the poorest among us can drop our coin into a "March of Dimes"; and we are all conscious of the many relief projects. The general trend towards organization in various groups, one of the chief characteristics of our age, can be a very great power either for good or for evil. We find much open-mindedness and readiness to accept new ideas, and this again is a field for both good and evil forces. In short, it is an age in which the scales can be turned either upward or downward.
So much for a very general view of our era: swift-moving, brilliant, highly developed in scientific achievement, rich in promising aspects — and yet lacking in real spiritual knowledge of the reasons for its very existence, of the origin and destiny that bound its horizons. Compared to our inadequate conceptions, how mature are the teachings of the ancient philosophers, who had the over-all picture. They had the knowledge of far-flung time-periods, of the succession of races, of the cycles that marked the birth, rise, and decline of nations — they knew what was going on behind the scenes in the eternal human drama. Thinking along this line it would seem that humanity is now going through a cycle of materiality, heavy and gross compared to some former ages it has been through, but less gross than some it has seen. At the same time humanity is growing perceptibly, and is developing the more subtle powers of the mind and psychological nature. The danger lies in our not understanding the true character of these changes and these powers.
There are many aspects of our modern life that show the results of this preoccupation with mental phenomena. Plays and novels are frequently psychological studies, and many bring in the "supernatural." In the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) we find the following:
Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defense of peace must be constructed.
An unusual declaration, showing that at times we do return to the ancient wisdom about life. For those systems taught this very thing: that the impulses arising in the causal worlds, the invisible worlds of thought, imagination and feeling, moved out ultimately onto the plane of action. The place to correct the trend was at the source.
We can learn much about our modern world by studying the history of the ancient world: the rise and fall of nations — Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome — and what were the factors in their rise and their fall. What we need, in this "time of the breaking of nations," is not more apprehension, not more "jitters," but more understanding. After all, it is the individual soul that matters. The civilization is but the vehicle of experience of the souls that make it up. The secret of decay in civilizations when the limit of materiality is reached is always the same: the civilization is outwardly at its most brilliant, but hard and hollow because it has exhausted its spiritual possibilities, and the sweet kernel has been consumed. It is like Shakespeare's "fair flower," which, "being once displayed, doth fall that very hour." But as the material fabric begins to break up, there is room once more for the spiritual to manifest itself in many golden threads that are already being woven within it.
Other races, other nations, have lived by teachings that may well be applied to our own situation. One of these is that civilizations, and the individuals that compose them, as well as the planets on which those civilizations flourish, come under the universal law of alternate manifestation and rest. They disintegrate and disappear from view, but always return to continue their drama of experience. These peoples could also tell us why it is that the human family must go through periodic crises of confusion and upheaval, which are really the aggregate of consequences from former acts of individuals as well as of peoples as a whole.
It was teachings such as these that passed from the sages of old Egypt to the great minds of the younger lands of Greece and Rome: Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Ovid, and many others. The same beliefs were found among the Druids of Western Europe and the islands, and in the old civilizations of Peru and Mexico. They are in the Kabbalah of the Jews, and are to this day held by most of the oriental peoples, and by many of the Indian tribes of the Americas, while they are not absent from the writings of Origen and others of the early Christian Fathers. Moreover, in these days of the adolescent West we find our own leading thinkers feeling their way back to these sources of truth, in noble conceptions of individual responsibility and of "plan and purpose in the universe."
We want to improve the quality of our modern life. We want to build up in the general consciousness an internal strength — not only a philosophy, but a sensitiveness to inner promptings that will lead us in the path of mutual solidarity and will enable us to meet with calmness and understanding whatever the years to come may have in store, in this age that has been described as "gravid with destiny."
(From Sunrise magazine, August 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)