Universal Brotherhood Path – August 1901

WHAT IS MAN? — A Student

There is hardly a more important question than this, for upon its answer depends the whole of our outlook upon life. It is true we cannot know man apart from the rest of Nature nor can we know Nature apart from man, but is it not evident from but a cursory glance at the thought of the world that, in spite of the multiplication of books and the spread of learning, man does not know himself, does not know what he is or his relation to Nature? May it not be that the reason for this is that in the search after knowledge almost the entire attention has been given to externals while the essentials have been overlooked or ignored?

The injunction of the Delphic Oracle has been echoed in every age, "Man Know Thyself!" The poet, Pope, wrote,

Man, know thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

But to faithfully pursue this study we must include God and the whole Universe, the whole of knowledge and that which transcends knowledge, and as man comes to know himself, his place in Nature, his powers and destiny, he will find that all wisdom and all power will be his. Once begin to investigate along the right lines and the whole of life becomes a marvel, filled with wondrous magic. No fairy tale or ancient myth or legend ever disclosed half the wonders that are contained in the daily life of man if he has but eyes to see them. Science truly has revealed marvels in the structure and exquisite working of the physical frame, in the color and beauty of outer Nature, yet these are but the external expression of the beauty and harmony of those inner realms of life of which science knows nothing or declares beyond its domain.

What we may make of our life today and what our outlook is for the future depend to a degree far greater than ordinarily imagined, upon the point of view, i.e., upon man's own knowledge and belief in regard to himself. The future destinies and fate of a nation are foreshadowed in its thought today, and from past history, its monuments, its architecture, art, music and social customs, as well as from its literature, one may read the prevailing ideas and know the estimate man in any age has placed upon life. How can a man act nobly who does not think nobly, who does not recognize nobility in his own nature? How can he do great deeds if all the time he thinks he is unworthy, a worm of the dust or a miserable sinner? Men who would do great deeds must have confidence in themselves. The stupendous monuments of antiquity, the mighty temples and pyramids, the great civilizations of the past with their art and literature that still remain to us were not the work of worms of the dust, nor of feeble-hearted miserable sinners, nor yet of the descendants of apes. And if our civilization is to continue and be one worthy of the name, able to stand beside and even rise above and crown the great civilizations of antiquity it must be built upon a true knowledge of man, and he must know himself as able to bring this about — not superficially or as the result of mere mechanical or mental ability, but in his deeper soul-nature with all its divine powers.

There is much philosophy hidden away in many proverbial sayings — As a man thinketh, so is he. For him who wears shoes the whole earth is leather-covered. All Nature appears colored to him who wears colored glasses. All the world smiles for him who has joy in his heart, but to him whose heart is heavy the mirth of others is mockery. One courageous man can inspire a whole army and change defeat into victory, but a pessimistic grumbler is like a plague spot spreading disease and infecting a whole neighborhood.

We see at once the truth of these statements, but does man think aright, are we looking through colored glasses or with clear open eyes at life around us, have we that knowledge and that trust which will enable us to be the one courageous man in the army? These questions are momentous and their answer all depends upon the answer we give to the vital question, "What is Man?"

Where shall we find an answer? There are three main positions taken in the modern world, each of which is a potent factor in the progress of the world. The conflict between Science and Religion, or what is in general included in these terms, has been long and bitter and their antagonistic views as to man have been seemingly irreconcilable. Much of the controversy has been due to the extreme positions taken, to the inability of each to recognize the other's point of view, and to the fact that neither would concede to the other the possession of at least partial truth. It has been the conflict over again of the two knights who seeing from opposite sides the hanging sign of an inn, the one declaring it gold, the other silver, entered into mortal combat to maintain the truth of his words. It behooves us then to take a comprehensive view and not neglect any factor in man's life.

Let us look for a moment at the main scientific and religious teachings now generally held in regard to man. One of the most generally accepted and most important teachings of modern science is that of the origin and evolution of man. But from the standpoint of science, if there were no other factors than those recognized by science, what would be the logical outcome of the conclusion as to man's origin? How can the man who believes his origin to have been a protoplasmic speck and that his end and that of the world on which he lives will be to be resolved again into primordial matter, how can he ever know the higher powers of the soul, or that wider life which is not bounded by space or time? Many a man has been helped to noble and heroic service through pride in his ancestry and the example of his forefathers' great deeds, and on the other hand many a one has sought to excuse his faults and vices and sunk deeper into sin under the plea of hereditary tendencies, as though he were not responsible. If we accept the views of the extreme evolutionists we at least cannot take much pride in our animal ancestry, though it may afford us plenty of excuse for the baser side of our nature. By what perversion of all that is beautiful and noble in life can our modern and scientific investigators have ever imagined or expected to prove that man is the result of mere physical evolution from the ape?

On the other hand what is the religious teaching most commonly given and accepted. It is that man was created by God, that he is the child of God and that God is his Father. But what do we also find as a corollary to this and which is often brought forward by those who refuse to believe blindly but who think? Is man then here without his free will or consent; and he who is born with evil tendencies into a world of evil, how is he responsible for his acts? If God made man and the Universe and all things, whence the evil; is God responsible for that also? And so we find it taught in many of the churches that man cannot rely on himself, that he is a miserable sinner and the child of sin, at the same time that he is taught that he is a child of God. And, too, some teach that although God made all men, yet only a few will be saved and the rest — children of God, though they be — will be everlastingly damned. Is the picture overdrawn? Many people may not personally believe these things, but they are taught, they are a vital part of the theology of the vastly greater portion of Christendom. And can these things be taught and believed in without affecting the thought and life of the people? But consider for a moment, let us take a common illustration from every-day life — if you needed to employ a man to accomplish an important work, would you take one who had no reliance on himself, who called himself a poor miserable workman? Yet this is the teaching of theology regarding man in the workshop of life.

But there are other factors in the lives of men, which, although unrecognized by either Science or Religion, nevertheless play an important part. In other words man is more than scientific theories acknowledge him to be, and nobler and better than is taught by theological dogmas.

There is, however, another, the most ancient and the newest teaching in regard to man, one which is permeating the whole thought-life of humanity, throwing new light upon the problems of science and awaking in men's hearts a deeper religious sense, broadening the whole outlook, giving a new meaning and a new hope to life. This new teaching is Theosophy. It is new because it is being again taught after having been forgotten for ages, yet it is as old as the Human Race, and there is not a single fact in science that it does not include nor any need of the heart that it does not satisfy. A wider and more comprehensive evolutionary theory was taught and demonstrated ages ago, and the teaching that man is divine and that God is our Father has been given to every race that has ever existed.

Let us look a little more closely at man's nature. We shall find it very complex and related to all else in the Universe. There is in it something of the shining of the sun and the mysterious glimmering of the stars as well as the heaviness and blackness of earth; all the elements — the all penetrating ether, the fire, air, water and earth, all have part in his being; in him are to be found in varying development, the characteristics of all the kingdoms of Nature, the mineral with its crystal gems, its earths and rocks, the plant world with its flowers and fruits, its grasses and shrubs and trees, while from the animal kingdom each species gives its distinctive characteristic to man, the lion, the fox, the wolf, the elephant, the horse, the ox, and — that our scientific friends may not feel that their opinion is entirely without weight — the monkey. And the birds, too, give of their natures to man — the eagle, the peacock, the dove.

It is not only modern science which teaches this but the ancients long ago proclaimed these truths concerning the nature of man. The stone, they said, becomes a plant, the plant an animal, the animal a man. But they did not stop there as science does: man, they knew and taught, becomes a God — one with the Father in Heaven.

But there is one great phase of man's and Nature's life that modern science does not touch. Science has deciphered but a few chapters out of the book of life, and these begin in the middle of the story. Both the opening and the closing chapters are to it unknown and sealed, for it has concerned itself only with the outer appearances of things. It has recorded a few of the phenomena of life, but one has only to turn to the many conflicting opinions of the greatest scientists to realize how little they truly know of the underlying causes or the purpose of existence. And what these unknown and sealed chapters are it is part of the mission of Theosophy to make known and to unseal.

Man is more than the product of physical evolution; that which is really man is divine. In him the two natures meet. Nature has slowly fashioned for him a body through which he can express his divine powers, she has built for him a temple and she gives it into his charge with all its wonderful powers that he may still further beautify it or degrade it, for its further evolution depends upon his conscious will and effort.

From what source are man's highest aspirations, the power that moves him to noble and heroic deeds, and the power of compassion that prompts him to self-sacrifice? There is no explanation of these except that given by Theosophy and by all the great Teachers, that man is divine, a son of God. A very simple line of reasoning and investigation will show that man is more than an evolution from below, and that his lower nature is an instrument for his use and is not his real self. The very fact that a man can to a greater or less degree control his body, that he can restrain his passions and appetites, that he can direct his mind, shows that he is other than these and stands above them all, and in his moments of perfect aspiration he knows his power is that of God.

Life is a great cycle, the soul descends into matter and clothes itself in garments of ever increasing density until the mineral, the outermost kingdom of Nature is built. Then begins the return journey, the refining of the garments of the soul, the ascent through all the kingdoms of Nature until the human is reached, and then, beyond, the climbing to the height of divinity and Godlike power. And when these heights of blessedness are reached the soul again goes forth for new experience, to build new worlds, to help those others who may have lost their way.

This is Theosophy's answer to the question, "What is Man?" Man is the soul — in essence divine, Godlike, a son of God; and the soul itself, of its own will, acting in accord with the supreme law which is but the expression of its own divine nature, starts forth on its pilgrimage and journeys through the cycles of being.

But what of the problem of evil? The answer to this each man can, if he will, find for himself, if he will but look into the recesses of his heart and life, Man has two natures and it is because of the presence in him of the divine, because he is divine, that he has free will and the power of choice and is himself responsible for the evil that is in the world. But so also has he the power to rise above the evil, to transmute it and turn it to good. In essence he is divine, but in his cyclic journey he has clothed himself with matter. This indeed is a part of the purpose of his journey that he shall ever raise up the material world to greater and greater heights. But in so doing, because of his Godlike power of will and choice, he has taken upon himself the nature of the material world and gradually has forgotten his own divinity. And so it is that ever a struggle goes on, and as age after age passes there come great teachers to remind him of his royal descent and to arouse him that he may redeem and free himself from the chains which he has woven about himself.

As Goethe said, "There are two natures struggling in my breast." But which of these am I, which is the real true man? We can identify ourselves more and more with either, we can claim kinship either with the beast or the god, and as we answer this question, "What is Man?" so do we sow a harvest of joy or of pain, so do we prepare the way for the progress and happiness of mankind or its degradation and ruin.

Man can make himself what he will.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition