Never does man meet the objective world face to face, never as an actual thing-in-itself does he see it; all he sees of life is its reflection in the mirror of his mind; all he knows of it are his sensations — sensations unified into perceptions, arriving at conceptions or ideas. Uncouth, indeed, is the vehicle which shapes our ideas, yet how stupendous in importance, how fraught with destiny!
Nothing available to man is more dynamic than a seasonable idea. The history of mankind is a history of ideas: creative ideas making for progress, reactionary ideas neutralizing progress, conflicting ideas resulting in war.
Old ideas usually outlive their usefulness, new ideas always meet with opposition; all ideas whether old or new, should be entertained with caution.
Man dislikes change and is suspicious of anything new. "The public," declares Ibsen, "doesn't require any new ideas; the public is best served by the good old-fashioned ideas it already has." Santayana, however, sees no permanence in "good old-fashioned ideas." He writes, "For an idea ever to become fashionable is ominous, since it must afterward be always old-fashioned." Ibsen is conservative. The good old Victorian days in which he lives are as comfortable as an easy chair; he would stop the clock and enjoy them. Not so with Santayana living amid the clash and confusion of the twentieth century. Fluid periods are incubators of ideas.
The Industrial Era diverted men's attention from culture to commerce, causing John Locke to bemoan the "constant decay of our ideas." It was a decline in the quality rather than in the quantity of ideas that gave him anxiety. Since his day new ideas have been more prolific than in any other period in history, but they have been of a commercial rather than of an ethical nature. "The crossroads of trade," writes Will Durant, "are the meeting place of ideas, the attrition ground of rival customs and beliefs; diversities beget conflict, comparison, thought; superstitions cancel one another, and reason begins."
Edison used to say that the more fantastic an idea the greater its probability of containing a germ of originality. In similar vein J. B. S. Haldane writes, "So many new ideas are at first sight strange and horrible though ultimately valuable that a very heavy responsibility rests upon those who would prevent their dissemination."
Embryo ideas are born in travail, and the midwife has no easy time. "I could not sleep," says Lincoln, "when I got on the hunt for a new idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over again, until I had put it in language plain enough,.as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me."
Another voice, stressing the value of new ideas, that of Richard Jeffries, should now be heard, "Let me exhort everyone to do their utmost to think outside and beyond our present circle of ideas. For every idea gained is a hundred years of slavery remitted."
Ideas are, in truth, forces vital in shaping human destiny. A man's behavior springs almost entirely from his ideas. We live in a world where thoughts are mightier than things, the spirit of a man stronger than his surroundings, the ideas in his mind more powerful than the tools in his hand. Man works his mind harder than he works his body. He works with ideas rather than with tools. He goes forth to labor under the idea of necessity, quits work with the idea of fatigue, eats to satisfy an idea of hunger, goes to the "movies" with an idea of entertainment, to church with an idea of worship, to bed with an idea of sleep. He is angered by an idea that infuriates him, worried by an idea of uncertainty. He nurses a grouch under an idea of injustice, studies with an idea of culture, dresses with an idea of comfort. Pleasurable ideas cause his face to flush, ideas of fear turn it white. Ideas of poverty oppress him. Ideas dictate all his actions, all his emotions. All he sees around him are ideas in concrete form, all he hears are ideas expressed in sound, all he is conscious of are the ideas that exercise his mind.
Ideas of this type have little creative value. They awaken no enthusiasm. Virtue has gone out of them. They neither enrich nor impoverish a man's life, nor add to his stature. He does not possess such ideas, they possess him; rather, they obsess him, prodding him along the conventional road of least resistance, streamlining his life, as it were, after patterns prescribed by society.
Ideas are mere dreams until they have their counterpart in objective life; when manipulated by human mind and muscle, framed in steel or concrete, inscribed on parchment, or crystallized in character they attain full stature and permanent place. The union of a grand idea with a strong personality makes history. From an original idea others may be carved without diminishing its value, as from a fire other fires may be kindled without decreasing its heat. Original ideas are not fabricated in the laboratory of the human brain. Dowered with dynamic power — the hallmark of their authenticity — they come unheralded, like a bolt from the blue to the man whose spirit has prepared him for their reception.
A creative idea comes with the force of a revelation. Originality leaps out of it, publishing its worth. It guides men into brand new enterprises, making explorers, pioneers, inventors, iconoclasts, and reformers. Under the impulsion of a creative idea Albert Schweitzer renounces the world to establish a world of his own in darkest Africa where David Livingston, under a similar creative impulse, had immortalized his life. By creative ideas Gandhi enriched the life of India, paving her way to independence.
Such men as Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi are said to have been born a hundred years ahead of their time. These men, however, are prophets, and a prophet needs must be ahead of his generation. Sir Oliver Lodge suggests, "It is possible that the human race is quite incompetent to receive a really great idea the first time it is offered." History confirms the truth of his remark. A great idea must gestate in the womb of the race before it may come to birth, and the greater the idea the longer its period of gestation. The idea of the Messiah was gestating in Jewish minds centuries before the Great Galilean appeared; and the ideas he offered have for two thousand years been incubating in the mind of man. Even now humanity does not appear ready to accept them. The idea of Female Suffrage was abroad in the world long before Susan B. Anthony was born to secure its ratification. By this token, the idea of the abolition of war, now gestating in the mind of humanity, will in due course sound the death-knell of war.
Since our objective world is but a reflex of the spiritual world, so that what appears to be two worlds is actually one, what we call the Law of Evolution must be the law of man's entire nature — the law not only of his physical life but of his consciousness. Could man cease to evolve he would die mentally and spiritually. Evolution involves new experiences, and new experiences necessitate new ideas. Happiness and prosperity are conditioned by receptiveness to constructive ideas.
None of man's ideas can possibly be perfect, yet this imperfection is to him a blessing in disguise, for by replacing crude ideas with better ones he makes progress. The turbulence in his mind aroused by conflicting ideas is the cause of all his disquietude. A sense of well-being is gained by harmonizing them.
Turning for a moment to Nature, we find that the germ and life-pattern of plants and flowers exist within the seed, and develop from within. Likewise all that is real and self-existent in man exists within himself, and develops from within. As Le Conte declares, "We build our ideals and they in turn build us."
This great principle was first formulated by Plato in his Archetypal Ideas, later by Swedenborg in his Law of Correspondences, and enjoys the rare distinction of being endorsed by all philosophers. It means that man's inner state of consciousness determines and shapes his outer life; and vice versa, whatever exists in his outer environment was shaped and developed in accordance with the prototype or thought-pattern dominating his mind. If one's worldly affairs are in a state of confusion, it is because one's thought-life made such confusion inevitable. That which is without always corresponds with that which is within. Conflict in outer life always stems from conflict in the soul.
One untutored in philosophy may protest and say, "My mind is in turmoil because my worldly affairs are in a state of pandemonium. If my personal affairs were satisfactory I would have an easy mind." This is putting the cart before the horse. Granted, one's worldly affairs react on the mind, making it either anxious or carefree; nevertheless, life, and all the affairs of life, develop from within and stream outward. Worldly riches do not fortify the mind, do not give a contented mind; they are the product of a creative mind — the effect, not the cause.
One whose personal affairs are unsatisfactory may tinker with them as long as he likes; they will get worse rather than better. The time-worn grooves of thought-force are against him. Not until he makes a radical change in his thought-process is there any possibility of improvement. He should build into the texture of his mind new ideas, creative ideas, ideas of confidence and prosperity which will uproot the old depressive ideas. Such ideas built within himself will in due course entirely rebuild his outer environment.
Man's life is entirely dominated by the idea he forms of himself. If he thinks anything to be impossible, to him it is impossible. By thinking of his limitations he becomes enslaved by them. If he regards himself as a self-contained person, independent of his divine heritage and dependent entirely on himself, feelings of insecurity will at times sweep over him; the futility of life will oppress him, while the passing years will overwhelm him by a sense of personal inadequacy. If on the other hand he cherishes the conviction that his life is in vital contact with the spiritual and cosmic forces, which are incessantly pouring into the universe for the help of man, this idea makes of his life a channel wherein that power flows.
Man is himself an idea in the Mind of his Creator — a divine idea embodied in flesh and blood. An idea in the Creator's Mind must of necessity be perfect — for Omniscience cannot possibly entertain any idea of imperfection; and since the Divine Mind is unchangeable, man cannot possibly lose his potential perfection. "How do I know that the universe is coming to full perfection through life?" asks Lao Tzu, and answers, "The answer is in life itself." Potential perfection inheres in every living thing. The bird in the egg and the oak in the acorn are potentially perfect. Cosmic life impels the egg to express its potential perfection by developing into a beautiful bird; it impels the acorn to express its potential perfection by growing into a sturdy oak. Cosmic life creates in man a tendency to follow their example. With his freedom it does not interfere; it does not coerce, it enjoins man to express his potential perfection by developing into a Godlike being. The acorn grows by drawing from its environment the moisture, air and heat necessary to its development; man develops in a similar way. From the physical world he draws food, clothing and shelter, essential to his physical life. Likewise from the spiritual world he may draw the soul-force essential to his spiritual nature.
Although man lives in a physical universe, every day of his life he is actuated by ideas that originate in spiritual spheres. Ideas of love, faith, honor, self-sacrifice, for example, are pure spiritual concepts. If a man were merely a creature of the dust, destined for annihilation, self-interest would exclude such ideas from his mind; yet never a day passes in the life of any person in which he is not actuated by ideas alien to self-interest. Though living on earth he is moved by influences not of earth. Let him deny the idea of immortality, his conduct will belie him, as it is largely regulated by immortal standards. Strange inconsistency! Man questions the reality of the spiritual world, perchance, stoutly denies it, and forthwith attempts to conduct himself as a spiritual being should.
The Lord of Creation scatters His ideas in infinite profusion. Many of them are like distant stars traveling toward us, far beyond the reach of powerful telescopes, whose light reveals their approach; so divine ideas beyond the soul's grasp announce their reality by the impressions they create. Such impressions have power, as Wordsworth so eloquently pens it in his Intimations of Immortality:
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never:
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man, nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather,
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Yet the noblest of our race react to these impressions only in a crude and faulty way. Never did an artist succeed in painting on canvas the divine impressions which the Great Artist gave him. His best picture is always the next. Our most brilliant genius in poetry, literature, or art always fails to materialize the divine vision that entranced him. Aspiration, not achievement, is the law of life.
The Divine Spirit conceives an idea clothed in such perfection that the human mind is able to grasp only an imperfect impression of it. Enamoured of such a treasure, the soul wrestles with the mind vainly trying to give it earthly form and shape, but the mind is inadequate to the task; yet, as Browning says:
The high that proved too high, the heroic for
earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself
in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that He heard it once: we shall hear it by-and-by.
(From Sunrise magazine, February 1953; copyright © 1953 Theosophical University Press)