Some people say: "It is useless and foolish to go back to the ancients in our search for truth: only the new has value for our age." Or they say: "Let us turn our faces to the future, and leave the dead past to bury its own decay and its moldering bones!" Such people are still under the influence of the notion of our forefathers that all there is to know of importance is the dying past of the European countries, and that all future knowledge worthwhile is to be had in investigating physical nature in order to discover still other hid forces for practical utilitarian use by man. Their minds are enchained by the scientific myth that man has only recently, comparatively speaking, evolved from an ape-ancestor, or from a semi-animal ancestor common to both man and the apes, which passed the halcyon times of its freedom from any moral or intellectual responsibility in chewing fruit and insects in its intervals of swinging from branch to branch in some tropical forest-tree. Therefore, all our future is in what is to come; the past holds nothing of worth; and hence it is a huge waste of time to study otherwise than in the more or less academic manner of the archeologist.
What folly! All the facts of history, and also of science, point with increase of emphasis as fresh discoveries are accumulated to the fact that the origins of the human race run far back into the night of time; and that, for all we know to the contrary, these dark chambers of the now forgotten past may actually, should they ever be opened again, reveal that that long past saw grand and mighty civilizations covering the earth on continents formerly existing where now the present oceans roll their melancholy waves.
In architecture and engineering, in art, in philosophy, religion and science, we find ancient thought lying there, the foundation of our own civilization and thinking, and the as yet unrecognized inspiration by heritage and transmission of the best that we have.
Where have we built anything which in magnitude of fine, technical engineering, in grandeur of conception and in wonder of execution, is comparable with the Great Pyramid of Egypt? So stupendous in its colossal pile, so finely orientated to astronomical points, so accurate in the laying of its masonry, so magnificent in the ideal conception which gave it birth, that our modern engineers and scholars stand before it in amazement, and frankly say that were the utmost resources of modern engineering skill brought to bear upon a similar work, we could not improve upon it, or barely even equal it.
How about the Angkor Wat in Cambodia? And the gigantic and astonishing megalithic monuments in Peru and Central America — yes, even the remarkable archaic structures that still exist in Yucatan and in parts of Mexico, and in other parts of the world? How about the beautiful temple of Boro-Budur in Java — a relatively recent mass of apparently solid masonry, standing in wondrous beauty after the lapse of centuries; and despite the destructive and corroding influences of earthquakes and weathering, literally covered with a wealth of carving, in places like lace-work in stone, so delicately done that it looks as if the work had been picked out with a needle?
How about the marvelous temple of Karnak in Thebes, Egypt — quite recent from an archeological standpoint — of which today but portals, columns and pylons in a more or less ruined state remain, but the ensemble of which still strikes the observer with awe? As a modern author graphically said: "They built, these ancients, like giants, and they finished like jewelers!"
We are proud of our own glass; but the Romans had glass which could be molded, so Roman writers have reported, into any desired shape with hammer or mallet. The Mediterranean nations of southern Europe likewise had in ancient times a method of hardening copper so that, if we may trust ancient reports, it had the temper and took the edge of our good steel.
We heat our houses by means of hot water or hot air; but so did the Romans in the days of Cicero. We use the microscope and the telescope and are justly proud of our skill; but we also know that the Babylonians, for instance, carved gems with designs so fine that the naked eye cannot discern these with any clearness whatsoever, and we must use a microscope or magnifying-glass in order to see clearly the line-work. How did they do this, if they had no magnifying facilities? Were their eyes so much more powerful than ours? That supposition is absurd. What then can we conclude but that they did have some kind of magnifying apparatus, of glass or other material? How is it that the ancient astronomers are said to have known not merely of other planets, which indeed the naked eye could see in most cases, but also are stated by certain scholars to have known of their moons, which latter fact we with our improved astronomical instruments have known only for a few score of years? We read in ancient works that the Emperor Nero used a magnifying-glass — what we would call an opera-glass — in order to watch the spectacles in the Roman theaters; and legend states that he used this in order to watch the burning of Rome.
How about shorthand? The speeches of Cicero given in the Roman Forum and elsewhere were taken down in shorthand by his freedman and beloved Tiro, who later also became his biographer. How long have we employed this most useful means of perpetuating the exact words of human discourse?
We are also told that lightning-rods were placed on the Temple of Janus in Rome by Numa, one of the earliest and wisest of the Roman kings, who lived according to tradition centuries before the formation of the Republic.
Again, Vimanas, or flying machines, are found mentioned in very ancient Sanskrit writings, as in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two greatest epic poems of India.
How about the canon of proportion in art used by the ancient Greeks? Compare their exquisite and inspired art with our own, and then turn to our more modern artistic vagaries, such as cubism and futurism, that make one think that he is crazily seeing into the astral when he tries to understand what his eye is plagued with. What is, indeed, the fundamental canon that the majority of our artists and technicians follow today, not merely in architecture, but in sculpture also? The Greek canon as we understand it.
How about the heliocentric system, which tells us that the sun is at the center of his realms, that the planets circle around the sun, each in its own orbit, and that the earth is a sphere poised in space as a planetary body? It took European thinkers and discoverers a long time, in the face of great persecution and at the cost of the lives of not a few great men, to bring their less intuitive and more unthinking fellows to a recognition of this fact of Nature; but the greatest among the ancient Greeks taught it all — Pythagoras, Philolaus, Ekphantos, Hiketas, Heraklides, Aristarchos, and many more. Others would have taught it openly had it not been that the heliocentric system was a teaching confined to the Mysteries, and that only a few dared to do more than hint at it.
In the same way there are people who, ignorant of the mystic background of esoteric wisdom, say that it is nothing but old and outworn theories of religion, popular five hundred or five thousand years ago. They forget that behind the outward garments of the world's great religions and philosophies the esoteric message was identic, although every people in ancient times, such as the Greeks, Hindus, Persians, Egyptians and Babylonians used different tongues, different phrases, and in many cases different symbols of speech. For this esoteric doctrine, this body of teachings, which was divulged at cyclical intervals, is the common property of mankind.
(From Sunrise magazine, April 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)