Setting the Stage
An introduction to the "Body of Knowledge" known as Theosophy
Part 115 - The Lost Canon
THEOSOPHY, Vol. 27, No. 3, January, 1939
(Pages 129-132; Size: 10K)
IF "ideas rule the world," the causative factors of any national or cultural development can be laid bare only by examining the ruling ideas which have brought it about. Indeed, the really great books on the history of European civilization are works which seek to make clear the evolution of ideas. In the last century, some of these were Lecky's Rationalism in Europe and the History of European Morals, Draper's Intellectual Development of Europe and his Conflict between Religion and Science, Lange's History of Materialism, Taine's History of English Literature, and Andrew D. White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology. A more recent work of the same character is The Making of the Modern Mind by John Randall. Texts dealing with particular aspects of the evolution of the race-mind in the West include William Dampier's History of Science, E. A. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, and Reason and Nature, by Morris Cohen.
One who desires to obtain a comprehensive view of the "genealogy" of the issues, political, ethical, and religious, which today are disturbing modern society to its very foundations would do well to browse a little in these books, while keeping constantly in mind the perspectives afforded by Theosophical philosophy. Collectively, they might be regarded as representative of the best in recent and present-day thought, offering a connected panoramic view of the large area through which the Theosophical Movement has moved, and is moving. Their value is chiefly descriptive, rarely conclusive, and for this reason such books can be of little service to one who has not become saturated with the living spirit of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. The works of H.P.B. are of an entirely different order from any contemporary writings. H.P.B. brought to the western mind a scale of values, while the historians of ideas can only present the raw material of ethics and philosophy. The key to the study of history, and therefore, to an understanding of modern thought, is to be found in a few lines in The Secret Doctrine:
. . . idealistic as well as realistic thinkers, and even free-thinkers, are but the outcome and the natural product of their respective environments and periods. The ideals of both are only the necessary results of their temperaments, and the outcome of that phase of intellectual progress to which a nation, in its collectivity, has attained. (I, 326-7.)
The uninitiated philosophers, H.P.B. points out, cannot rise above the limits set by their Karma as members of their race or nation. What is "initiation," unless it be the study of Theosophy, that confirmation in spiritual knowledge that enables its possessor to evaluate in terms of eternal and absolute first principles the ideas and ideals of any age?
Now, fifty years after the publication of The Secret Doctrine, it is interesting to find those evaluations placed by H.P.B. upon the thought of her time appearing in contemporary philosophical criticism. Take, for example, the closing words of the work by Dr. Edwin A. Burtt, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. He says:
An adequate cosmology will only begin to be written when an adequate philosophy of mind has appeared, and such a philosophy of mind must provide full satisfaction both for the motives of the behaviorists who wish to make mind material for experimental manipulation and exact measurement, and for the motives of idealists who wish to see the startling difference between a universe without mind and a universe organized into a living and sensitive unity through mind properly accounted for. I hope some readers of these pages will catch glimmerings how this seemingly impossible reconciliation is to be brought about. For myself I must admit that, as yet, it is beyond me, and only insist that whatever may turn out to be the solution, an indispensable part of its foundation will be clear historical insight into the antecedents of our present thought-world. If the volume in hand has aided somewhat in the clarification of these it has fulfilled its modest pretensions.
Dr. Burtt is doubtless familiar with The Bhagavad-Gita. One wonders if in these words of his he might discern the voices of both Arjuna and Duryodhana. The forces of idealism in modern thought are indeed "insufficient" -- unable to provide the synthesis this true philosopher recognizes as necessary. Yet, Arjuna-like, he strives that the issues may become clear. The great value of Dr. Burtt's book is in its demonstration that materialism, or "mechanism," is by no means a necessary consequence of the known laws of physical science. He shows that the deterministic assumption of science is completely lacking in philosophic basis, and was adopted chiefly because the empiricists or "practical" men of science are absurdly ignorant of metaphysics. With this broad criticism of modern thought, compare a passage taken from "The Synthesis of Occult Science":
The present age is as deficient in philosophy as was the age of Plato in knowledge of Science. It follows, therefore, that while the Secret Doctrine apprehends equally both philosophy and science, in addressing itself to the thought of an age it must recognize here, as it does everywhere, the law of cycles that rules in the intellectual development of a race no less than in the revolution of suns and worlds, and so address the times from that plane of thought that is in the ascendant because it is the thought-form of the age, that the great majority of readers are likely to overlook the broad synthesis and so miss the philosophy of the Secret Doctrine. . . .
The time must presently come when the really advanced thinkers of the age will be compelled to lay by their indifference and their scorn and conceit, and follow the lines of philosophical investigation laid down in the Secret Doctrine. Very few seem yet to have realized how ample are these resources, because it involves a process of thought almost unknown to the present age of empiricism and induction. It is a revelation from archaic ages, indestructible and eternal, yet capable of being obscured and lost; capable of being again and again reborn, or like man himself -- reincarnated.
Thinkers like Dr. Burtt, and Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, may be regarded as forerunners of this change, predicted so long ago as 1892. The latter, in his revolutionary book, The Higher Learning in America, outlines a definite program of education to correct the grave errors in contemporary ideas which the analysis of Dr. Burtt has exposed to view. Dr. Hutchins challenges the conceit of present intellectual dogmas, openly ridiculing the "advanced thinkers" who suppose that the philosophers of old can contribute nothing to the solution of modern problems. The book is an example of sustained and aggressive brilliance, born from the reincarnated spirit of classicism. It is as though Plato and Aristotle had returned among us, to call us to account: Plato, because our appreciation of him is merely "literary," and Aristotle because of the abuses in education and science committed in his name. To Dr. Hutchins metaphysics means the highest knowledge, the study of first principles, and the organization of all other knowledge in terms of philosophical synthesis.
Fifteen hundred years ago, in Alexandria, Plato and Aristotle served the eclectic philosophers of that day, the former providing the content, the latter the form. And, as H.P.B. says, it was this combination of true philosophy and disciplined analysis which mercilessly revealed the irrationality of Christian dogma, the purloined tenets of pagan creeds in Catholic garb. But in those days it was the forces of Arjuna which were insufficient: there were not enough theosophists to breast the rising tide of ignorance and sectarian hate. Today, the eclectics again arise to do battle, this time with the dogmas of Materialism. Their work, by its very nature, is deeply akin to the Cause of the Theosophical Movement, and its far-reaching implications should be understood by all students who have natural aptitudes in this direction. For, nota bene, pure Theosophy is the ensouling essence of all such efforts, whether evident or not to their protagonists. Theosophists possess the lost canon of truth, of intellectual and moral values; through their constructive and critical thought, individually and collectively, movements in the world which strive for freedom of mind and soul will derive strong and enduring support. Theosophists, working thus, will be entitled to regard themselves as true disciples of Those whom in the fourth century Synesius called "the sacred tribe of heroes" -- "established here in order that this terrene abode may not be left destitute of a better nature."