Chaos Reconsidered

Hugh H. Harrison

"Chaos is but order unperceived." I remember well when that idea first hit my head. It was in 1959. A good friend had invited me to join him in a visit to Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his Lambarene Hospital, located in an equatorial forest on the Ogowe River in what was then French Equatorial Africa.

Most of my three days there were spent watching the activity taking place on the large sand beach in front of the hospital. There was no access road, no helicopter landing pad at Lambarene — coming and going was by way of that great river, in craft that were mostly propelled by handheld paddles in crudely hollowed-out logs. I don't remember any motored boats, though I was told that provisions would arrive now and then by river steamer.

My first impression of the swarms of interacting African people on that beach was of utter chaos. I could perceive no pattern or purpose in the melee of unfamiliar sights and sounds that assaulted me. No one seemed to speak; all shouted strange African sounds totally foreign to my ears. No one seemed to move deliberately: all was lunging, leaping, bounding, hitting, embracing, running and cavorting; totally uninhibited.

By the end of the first day, however, I began to recognize certain of the hospital's male African nurses guiding patients and their swarming families (almost no one went to the hospital alone) to and from the beach and the hospital.

Next day, I recognized a fellow from the day before who was selling bananas and realized that this was his daily market. Another helped people land and launch their boats. Families met relatives, exclaiming and rejoicing. Some seemed to revel in the excitement and joined in, adding to the roiling activity. Others just wandered through the throng or sat nearby watching, much as our countrymen do in our large modern shopping malls.

Thus, over time, I was able to discern or attribute pattern and purpose to what I saw and heard; I was able to perceive the order that lay within the seeming chaos.

Recently I was recalling this experience to my wife and she pointed out that Chaos was also a word used in ancient lore to identify That from which forms are built. Later I found her comment confirmed in G. de Purucker's Fountain-Source of Occultism in which he said among other things:

We have then, first, Chaos as originally meaning the Boundless; and, as a later development, the conception of Chaos as the mighty womb of nature evolving from itself the germs and seeds in order to form and bring into being manifested worlds. . . .
Chaos, therefore, may be looked upon as an expanse of spirit-substance, every point of which is a consciousness center or monad . . . awaiting the time for awaking into a period of manifested kosmic life . . . and hence is identic with Space in its primordial state of abstract spirit-substance. — pp. 72-3

The activity of perception is essentially sense-data dependent. There were plenty of sense data available on the shores of the Ogowe River and I was able to perceive the order within the seeming chaos. "Chaos is but order unperceived," seems to hold up nicely in this example.

The original Chaos is before form and hence not capable of generating sense data. Without sense data there can be no perception. It may well be orderly, but since it is not subject to perception, the order of that Chaos would be unperceived.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1996/January 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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