Universal Brotherhood Path – March 1903


A man is known by the company he keeps — by the God, or gods, he serves. In the Gita we read: "Those who devote themselves to the gods go to the gods; the worshipers of the pitris go to the pitris; those who worship the evil spirits go to them, and my worshipers come to me." Likewise we read in our Scriptures: "Know ye not that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness." And while it is true that our highest ideal, or the divinity we worship, is an index of what we are, it is no less true that the object of our worship has a reflex action on ourselves, and either degrades us or exalts us.

If we are devoted to the outward we become outward; if we are devoted to the conventional we become conventional; and as we are devoted to the real we become real. This thought is at the basis of all religions. Religion is a cultus, or system and practice of cultivating or developing certain qualities.

The national life of a people is the outcome of what that people really worships, what it thinks highest, noblest, and most desirable. We read in the Old Testament of how the Jews often turned from the worship of the true God and fell into idolatry. To be idolaters it is not necessary for us to make for ourselves images of wood or stone. Is there not in this and in other lands today, a very wide-spread and deep-seated idolatry? How often are men and women bondslaves of custom! How often do they bow down to the outward or to the conventional, and give to that the homage they should give only to the True and the Real!

In ancient times the images used were supposed to represent or symbolize some phase, aspect, or quality of the divine. But can we give those in our day who worship fame, money, power, or pleasure any credit for regarding these things as aiding in any way to the contemplation or practice of the divine life? Of the various forms of false worship, of idolatry, which are so common, we speak now only of that which is known as the "conventional." It may be difficult to define clearly what we mean by the term conventional, but we are daily coming into contact with it, and we know what it means. The dictionaries define it as, "Something growing out of tacit agreement, or custom." From this it is plain that a thing may be conventional and real at the same time. Yet it is not truly real to him who acts or judges from no higher ground than that of custom. Our form of faith may be quite true in itself, and yet very untrue, very conventional to us if we have no higher ground for holding it than that of custom, or the conventional. We here use the word conventional not so much in its dictionary sense, in which it is equivalent to custom, as in the ordinary acceptation, which regards what is conventional as opposed to what is real or natural.

Although it is not directly a question of distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong, or between what is natural and what is unnatural, yet all questions relating to the real and the conventional have to do with truth as opposed to mere appearance. Therefore we shall find that all our judgments, as to whether or not certain things are conventional, if carefully followed to their source, will bring us into the domain of ethics. It may seem to have little to do with ethics, what used to be conventional in the matter of dress, such as the wearing of tight, high-heeled boots, or wasp-waisted dresses, but if we ask ourselves the ultimate ground for condemning such things we shall see that it is because of their producing results known to be evil. They injure health, they mar beauty, and we rightly judge that to be wrong which injures the body in which we dwell. Consequently, we can see that the severity of our condemnation of anything conventional, and also the nature of the things we thus judge, will depend on our own relation to Truth; just as our discernment of and dislike to a foul smell will very much depend on the kind of atmosphere we have been accustomed to breathe.

But does this diversity of judgment in regard to the conventional imply a corresponding diversity in the law of right by which we judge? Or is the principle of right the same in all men, the difference in the exercise of that principle being caused by surrounding obstacles which hinder its free operation? This is a fundamental question relating to the whole of life. What sort of a building would be the result if the mason's square differed in the hands of each workman who used it, instead of being a sure and certain thing, neither more nor less than an angle of ninety degrees? What the square is to the builder that the law of right and truth is to us as builders of our own character, and of the life of the world, the temple of humanity.

Or, to put the matter in another form. Can we depend upon the conscience, the voice of moral law within us? Is conscience the same in all men? Can the conscience be educated? Is there a real and distinct line of demarcation between the conventional and the real? In popular speech it is often said, such a person "has no conscience," a much worse thing, surely, than a poorly educated conscience! I think it is Kant who says: " Two things appear to me as palpably infinite, the expanse of the heavens, and the sense of right and wrong in man." But, as is well known, philosophers as well as ordinary thinkers have differed on this most important question — the absoluteness of the law of right, and the authority of conscience. Even self-assertive Theosophists have held that right and wrong are not essentially different things, but varying degrees of the same thing.

To this all-important question at least three different answers have been given. Those philosophers who deny that there are any innate ideas, who deny the intuitional, resolve conscience into the conventional. They say that we classify certain things as right or wrong from custom and experience. They point to such questions as that of marriage with a deceased wife's sister and say: " Here we find opposing views held by people of the same religion; does this not show the unreliability of conscience? "

The other great school of philosophers, known as the intuitional, holds that there are certain ideas which are necessary, and not a matter of experience, such as that two and two make four, and the sense of right and wrong in man. All Theosophists really belong to this school, from their distinction between the real and the transitory nature of certain principles in men and in the universe. And Theosophy brings a light to philosophers of this school which is much needed, and which should be very welcome. This may be seen from the fact that intuitional philosophers are split up into two parties on this question of the conscience. One party holds that conscience can be educated, and the other party denies it. Dr. Whewell says, "we must labor to enlighten and instruct the conscience." Reid, in his Active Powers, says: "The conscience is an original power of the mind, yet it is only when we come to years of understanding and reflection that it judges correctly." Professor Birks of Cambridge is of the same opinion. While Kant, on the other hand, maintains that there is no such thing as an erring conscience; he says, "An erring conscience is a chimera." Professor Calderwood of Edinburgh holds with Kant, and maintains that to speak of educating conscience is an absurdity. He says we should never fall into this mistake if we were careful in discriminating between these three things: Conscience, properly so called, the moral judgments, and the moral sentiments, all of which are usually classed under one name. If we say that conscience must be educated we confess that it is deficient as a moral standard. What then is the moral standard, the supreme authority? If we say that a yardstick is long or short we suppose some standard of measure, but that supreme authority which tests all others must itself be absolutely correct. If the conscience be wrong we suppose a higher something which can judge it, but if the conscience be the absolute law of right manifesting in man, it judges all things else, and cannot itself be judged by any.

How is it then that people differ, honestly differ, in what they call the exercise of their conscience? One man says: "To do so and so would be against my conscience." While another man, equally honest, affirms that his conscience directs him differently. Their moral judgments differ, but the moral judgments are not the conscience.

It is remarkable that the Bible, while it speaks of the conscience as sometimes being seared as with a hot iron, and a conscience purged from dead works, etc., never says that the conscience fails in its moral power — never calls right wrong, and wrong right. And those who have read Bunyan will remember how he makes Mr. Recorder (the conscience) to suffer many things. Diabolus builds a wall and darkens his light, but never can do more than silence his voice for a time. Mr. Recorder now and then speaks in a voice of thunder which makes all Mansoul shake.

The moral judgments depend on many circumstances, just as the light from the sun that shines in a room depends on the color of the glass in the window, its freedom from dust, and many other things. Men may so darken the window of the soul that the moral judgments will be like the pure light after going through an atmosphere of fog or smoke. Hence the Scripture says: If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! For then the conventional, to that man, has become as the real. He calls sweet bitter, and bitter sweet. He has descended into a pit, the sides of which, even hope itself, can hardly climb.

Owing to the distinction just pointed out not being clearly kept in view we find some writers suggesting that there may be a twofold moral character in the same action, since "all the schools teach that a person may mistake his duty, and do what is wrong sincerely believing it to be right." Therefore it is held that "an action may be right in one sense, and wrong in another."

It is here that the teaching of Theosophy as to the nature of man proves of such great value. For Theosophy, by clearly pointing out the different elements or principles in man, and showing us how the higher mind seeks to lift up and redeem the lower nature — by this Theosophy resolves the perplexities and difficulties of the schools. Conscience is the voice, or the radiance of the higher self, or the God in us. The moral judgments are the combined result of this higher voice and the promptings of the partially enlightened lower nature. The needle points to the north but there may be bars of iron, or other substances near it, on the right hand or the left, and these will sensibly deflect the needle. Even so, many things deflect our moral judgments, but the pole-star is unmoved.

There is, therefore, much need for education that will enable us to subordinate the various other powers of our nature to the Voice of Truth. Only then can we hear the Voice of Truth — "The Voice of the Silence" — with anything like distinctness. Then we may hope to escape from the enthralment of the conventional, when the real speaks to us in tones that cannot be mistaken.

As the conscience has its origin in Supreme Truth, or is that thread of light interiorly connecting us with the Infinite Sun, so the conventional has its origin in influences which operate through the will, making the moral judgments faulty or impure, and finally discarding even these, and setting up the image of the outward, or conventional that the mind may bow down to that. This is in the deepest sense idolatry, the very essence of all idolatry, for it is putting the "man of sin" in the place of the Most High.

As a rule the conventional has grown with what we call, "the advance of civilization." It is among the "civilized" peoples of the world, chiefly, that we usually find men bowed down under the heavy weight of the conventional. So much has the light in some people become darkness that their notion of civilization is narrowed down to the conventional itself! But, can that be called a true civilization or refinement which tends to sever us from the real, and to reduce us to mere shadows of men?

Rather, should we say, that civilization can never become truly civilized — can never truly advance to the real and lasting improvement of the race, until a spirit of burning and of purifying casts out or consumes all shams, hypocrisies, and all that is merely conventional.

The story of the conventional, rather than the real, is decidedly fostered by that "want of backbone," that lack of individuality which Tennyson speaks of — "The individual withers, and the world is more and more." The worship of fashion, of authority, of the conventional, is largely owing to lack of individuality, and its tendency is to kill out whatever little there may be in us. One of the great leaders of thought, Stopford Brooke, speaking of the world spirit, says:

The spirit of the world when it is Conventional — and when is it not? — tends to reduce all men and women to one pattern, to level the landscape of humanity to a dead plain, to clip all the trees that are growing freely, of their divine vitality, into pollards, to wear all individuality down into uniformity. There must be nothing original — in the world's language — eccentric, erratic; men must desire nothing strongly, think nothing which the generality do not think, have no strongly outlined character. The influence of society must be collective, it must reject as a portion of its influence any marked individuality. We must all dress the same way, read the same books, talk the same things, and when we change, change altogether, like Wordsworth's cloud, " which moveth altogether if it moves at all." Society must not be affronted by originality. Level everybody, and then let us collectively advance, but no one must leave the ranks, or step to the front."

A close study of the power of the conventional in the time of Socrates, in the days of Christ, and in the present will reveal some of the startling points of similarity.

It would be an endless, and perhaps not very profitable, task to point out the different forms which the conventional assumes in the manners or customs of society, leading people — not like asses, for that animal will sometimes stoutly maintain its own way — but leading them as the magnet leads the iron, to all kinds of things with the most unreasoning readiness. Besides, it is surely the best way to condemn, and correct all such, for us to set forth great life-principles, as did Christ, when he declared his mission to be not that of a divider or judge, but a declarer of Truth and an expounder of vital laws by which men should judge themselves.

Nowhere in life does the conventional work more injuriously than in the domain of theology, or our creedal religion. There we find that self-interest, established usage, fashion, mental inertia — all severally or unitedly agree to crush out the real, to overmaster the supremacy of conscience — to make man a mere atom, a particle of vapor in that cloud that "moveth altogether if it move at all."

To overcome the sway of the conventional we should look to what is highest and live as closely to that as possible. The more we are devoted to the real the less influence will the outward and the conventional exercise over us. Emerson says:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.

When for years or generations we have made it our aim, our very religion, to live in the real and according to it, and to shun all forms of hollow-hearted conventionality, then, indeed, will the aspect of the world assume a new character. Then will many a valley be exalted, and many a crooked thing made straight. Then may we "ring in the love of truth and right, the common love of good."

Universal Brotherhood Path

Theosophical University Press Online Edition