To the Man in the Street
Belief Is the Yardstick By Which
We Measure the Importance of Events
Unless Theosophy has something definite to offer to the man in the street it may as well disappear from the field of human interest. If its mission is only to coteries of learning or curiosity it is unworthy the devotion of those who promulgate and defend it. If it is inadequate to any need of humanity, if it retires baffled before any problem of fate and fortune, if it fails to make life better worth living and death better worth dying, its advocates may admit that they have misdirected their energies and dedicated their lives amiss.
But it is to the man in the street that Theosophy makes its chief appeal. It is to the masses of humanity - not to the few nor the elect - that its chief gifts are offered. It invites to its study all who would see an orderly law of life in the place of chaotic chance, all who would recognize the operations of an absolute justice dominant over human affairs, all who would enter consciously into an individual existence whose immensities are not limited by death or change.
In protesting against the binding power of creeds we must not overlook the effect of belief upon action and upon character. Every deed of our lives is governed by our conceptions of self interest, although those conceptions may be as lofty as they are often debased. The toiler among the poor is actuated by an exalted sense of self-interest that demands service and compassion. The burglar believes that he will benefit by his theft. Cruelty, greed, and passion all are honest in so far as they are interpretations, or rather misinterpretations, of self-interest. According to our readings of life, of time, and of divine law, so will be our actions. Belief governs conduct. It is the yardstick by which we measure the import of events and their value to ourselves. An hour of sunshine is the life of a gnat, a cloud is its tragedy, a drop of rain its extinction. A span of minutes is its standard of values.
It would seem then that religion, which is only another name for philosophy, is actually a standard of values. A religious belief is a yardstick by which we measure the import of events. If we conceive of human life as bounded by birth and by death, with nothingness before and annihilation after, it is obvious that all the events of that life will seem large in inverse proportion to the brevity of the period. A child cries for a broken toy because its conception of life is so narrow as to make the tiny mishap seem a tragedy. Its standard of values is inadequate. Enlarge our time conceptions of life and we dwarf the relative magnitudes of its events and completely change our angle of vision.
In the same way a religious or philosophic conception may change our entire estimate of self-interest. If we accept the idea of a perpetual and conscious individual life, we must at once rearrange our computations of value. If we believe that the perpetual and conscious individual life is governed by a precise law of cause and effect we shall be tranquil under the disabilities that we shall know to be self-created, and we shall be hopeful of a future in which there will be fewer seeds of ill to fructify.
If we recognize the unity of the life that sweeps through the universe we shall be careful to injure none of its manifestations, and we shall recognize that fraternity is not merely a sentiment but a compelling law that cannot be thwarted. And if we perceive the dominance of an unchanging and resistless law that moves inexorably towards its goal we shall have learned to cast out fear from our hearts. All these things are practical achievements. There is no one whom they do not concern. They come within the scope of the average human intellect. And they give to life a confidence, a strength, and a tranquility that can come from no other source.
Therefore it is evident that every man has some kind of a philosophy of life, even though it be unformulated, even though he be unaware of its existence. Every man without exception is trying to be happy, and his life is governed by some policy that he believes will conduce to his happiness. Every man has some time standard, usually the duration of his own life, or even the duration of his youth, by which he measures the importance of the things that happen to him.
Theosophy thus makes a double appeal to the average man. It tries to show him how he may acquire a true and a permanent happiness. And it tries to furnish him with a new time standard so that he may revise the relative values of his daily experiences. But Theosophy seeks to achieve its end, not by the imposition of dogmas nor by the weight of spiritual authority. It asks only for a courageous facing of known facts and for the inferences logically to be drawn from those facts. In other words, it appeals only to universal knowledge and to the reasoning faculty.
Let us then take the two groups of facts most apparent to us, that is to say the facts of consciousness and the facts of experience. It is obvious that consciousness and character are being continually changed by events of experience. Every event that befalls us adds somewhat to the knowledge that governs our future actions. In other words it changes our character, however slightly. And every such change increases our happiness, or detracts from it. So true is this that every man has made for himself a certain classification of the things that he must not do because they bring unhappiness, and of the things that he ought to do because they bring happiness. He may be wholly wrong in his judgment, he may have based it upon ignorance, but at least he has attempted to reach a judgment, and to discriminate between the things that are good for him and the things that are had for him.
And every experience whether good or evil has changed his character. It is then evident that nature is trying to teach him something, that inasmuch as his character is being constantly changed by experience there must be somewhere in the great mind of nature a destination, a plan, an intention. If we see the foundations and the framework of an unfinished house we know them for exactly what they are, and we may even foresee the ultimate form and appearance of the house when the builder shall have finished his work. We know that somewhere there is an architect’s plan, a blue print, that there is purpose and design behind every hammer stroke, that there is no detail too insignificant to find its place. The acorn bursting in the ground is the prediction of the oak tree.
Wherever there is motion or change there also there must be intention, a destination, and an architect’s plan. Theosophy asks the average man to look at the changes in his own character, at the praise and blame of conscience which bring happiness and unhappiness, and so to ask himself what is the intention of evolutionary nature toward him, what is it that nature would have him be. In other words, what is the architect’s plan of this unfinished human house. Surely there can be no other question so practical as this.
And as soon as we recognize that there is a plan, that we ourselves are uncompleted structures, we see at once that the limits of one earth life are pitifully inadequate for its completion. And it is a plan that can be completed nowhere else but on earth, since it concerns itself mainly with our bearing toward our fellow men. We have been born with certain characters, that is to say with certain tendencies in our bearing toward others. As we live through our lives these characters have been gradually changing by experience. Since experience is thus obviously the only factor in a change of character it is evident that the character with which we are born must have been fashioned at some time by experiences of the same nature as those that are now changing it. And since it is equally evident that our characters are still unfinished structures, far short of nature’s design, the process of experiencing must be continued, and continued under like conditions to the present, that is to say, by human contact under earth conditions. And so we reach what may be called the central Theosophic tenet, that all evolution has a destination, and that it proceeds toward that destination through a process of reembodiment or reincarnation in which the law of ethical cause and effect holds sway: “Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.” And in this there is no dogma, no authority, no supernatural revelation. It is simply an irresistible deduction from obvious facts.
Now it would be possible to argue at great length in support of the contentions (1) that there is one, Universal Life sweeping through all the kingdoms of nature and that we ourselves are expressions of that One Life and separated from one another only by the illusions of the selfish personality. (2) That the method of evolution is through constant re-embodiments or reincarnations which are knit together by the law of cause and effect, such law assuming an ethical aspect in human evolution and producing such circumstances in each earth life as have been earned by the thoughts and acts of the lives that preceded it. (3) That all evolutionary movements are regulated by a precise and cyclic law, and that nowhere in the universe or in human life can there be such a thing as chance or a permanent injustice. It would be easy to show that these great postulates have been the basis of every religion that the world has ever known and that they are commended alike by reason and by experience. But the present object is not to argue about these things but merely to state them, to leave them for consideration, and to suggest the effect that they must have upon the lives of those who accept them as truths.
The effect must be an immense and a radical one. In the first place they will change all our conceptions of time and therefore of the relative values of the events that move in time. Instead of imagining ourselves as coming at birth from an impenetrable darkness, with darkness for our destination, we shall now see ourselves as being’s that have lived forever, and who will live forever, and in whom consciousness can never be extinguished even for a moment.
The memory of the brain may fail to bridge the abysses of time, but somewhere within the depths of our being, or rather upon its heights, we shall recognize the existence of a soul in which all memories of the past are stored, all knowledge and all power, and that nothing hides us from that radiance except the self-imposed limitations of personality and the love of self. In the presence of such a realization what room can there be for the paltry ambitions, greeds, fears, and griefs that now fill our tortured lives? Against that stupendous background of time all these things sink into insignificance and to their true values. They seemed large only when we viewed them against a background of a few score years, only when we measured them by the false standards of a few score years. Look at them now against the background of a conscious eternity and forever they lose their power to wound. At last we learn the true value of events, and we are lifted by that new wisdom beyond the reach of personal sorrow. We are no longer as children who cry over broken toys.
But the Theosophic philosophy will do more than this. The light of law will lift us forever beyond the reach of fear, because we shall know that a cruel or indifferent chance has no part nor lot in our fortunes, that we are masters of our fate and the captain of our soul.
And how pitifully, how abjectly, we now cringe before our fears. We are afraid of poverty, afraid of death, afraid of disease. We imagine ourselves as fortified citadels besieged by a pitiless and hostile nature. Terrors lie in wait for us in the dark places of life, and every corner has a foe. A perpetual paralysis of fear destroys our strength and hides the sunlight by its baleful shadows.
And how needless it all is! With what new confidence we move forward in the light of a law that is merciful because it is just, that declares its presence in the least of the events of our lives, that holds the universe in its grasp for the sake of the human soul, that inflicts pleasure and pain for no other purpose than to point out the only road that leads to happiness. This is no philosophy for the elect. It demands no large learning for its comprehension. It owes nothing to authority or to revelation. Its appeal is to every human being whose eyes are open to the facts of his own life, who can take but one step from the seen to the unseen.
Are we apprehensive that the adoption of a spiritual philosophy will militate against what we call our “success in life?” It would indeed be strange if ignorance were more profitable than knowledge, if weakness were a larger advantage than strength. The greatest of all success in life is reserved for those who know what life is, its origin, purpose, laws and destiny. Strength in our life work comes to those who ally themselves with nature, not to those who resist her: to those who keep her laws, not to those who violate them.
To the Man in the Street
The above article was first published at “Theosophy” magazine, Los Angeles, in its March 1913 edition, pp. 169-173. It had no indication as to its author. The text was twice reproduced at “The Aquarian Theosophist”: in its ULT-Birthday Special Issue of February 2006, and in the edition of May 2013.
In September 2016, after a careful analysis of the state of the esoteric movement worldwide, a group of students decided to form the Independent Lodge of Theosophists, whose priorities include the building of a better future in the different dimensions of life.
E-Theosophy e-group offers a regular study of the classic, intercultural theosophy taught by Helena P. Blavatsky (photo).