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Stoicism in the Esoteric Philosophy

 What Theosophists Have
In Common With Ancient Stoics
 
 
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
 


 
Marcus Aurelius and Robert Crosbie
 
 
 
The Yoga aphorisms of Patanjali say that desire and aversion are among the main “kleshas” or afflictions which challenge every candidate to divine wisdom.
 
Desire, say the Aphorisms, is the dwelling upon pleasure. Aversion is the dwelling upon pain. And the best way to eliminate the roots of these two kleshas is to create a mental state opposite to each of them, and to meditate upon eternal truth. [1]  
 
Indifference to pain and pleasure is also recommended by most classical thinkers in Western philosophy. And those ancient-time sages had the habit to live what they taught, and to teach what they lived.
 
Tradition holds that before being freed and becoming a philosopher on his own, the Greek slave Epictetus (55-135 C.E.) was physically hurt to the point of being permanently lamed by his Roman master. According to Celsus, when his master was twisting his leg, Epictetus only smiled and said, “You will break it”. And when the leg was finally broken his calm commentary was:
 
“I told you so.”
 
Stoicism, Platonism and other schools teach that happiness has no relation to pleasure. Instead, they say that happiness derives from having no anxiety, no fear and no ambition in the soul. As to pleasure, it is defined as having the same illusory substance as pain or suffering. 
 
Epictetus the Stoic taught:
 
“It is not poverty which produces sorrow, but desire; nor does wealth release from fear, but reason (the power of reasoning). If then you acquire this power of reasoning, you will neither desire wealth nor complain of poverty.” [2]
 
Porphyry, the neoplatonist, wrote that “the true philosopher (…), following nature and not vain opinions,  is self-sufficing in all things”. But he had to admit that - “no fool is satisfied with what he possesses”.[3]  
 
Students of philosophy must not expect outer reality to follow the track of their own desires and expectations. Effective learners accept things as they are and do their best, regardless of what may happen. They put their confidence on the law of Karma and Retribution. They are not led by appearances. They see all human beings as their brothers and sisters, and for them there is no difference between a prince and a beggar. One of the Raja Yogis who inspired the creation of the theosophical movement wrote, in a letter to a lay disciple:
 
“... In our sight an honest boot-black [is] as good as an honest king, and an immoral sweeper far higher and more excusable than an immoral Emperor...” 
 
As to the main idea of Stoicism, which recommends that we should act in a correct way regardless of personal pleasure or pain, the Mahatma wrote in the same letter:
 
“... Remember that the first requisite in even a simple fakir, is that he should have trained himself to remain as indifferent to moral pain as to physical suffering. Nothing can give US personal pain or pleasure.” [4]
 
There are good reasons for aspirants to the esoteric wisdom to develop a reasonable amount of indifference toward comfortable and uncomfortable conditions of life, and we can see that the work of H. P. Blavatsky in the 19th century was not an exception to this general rule.
 
The Old Lady had the stuff of a Stoic. She did not look for the easy way. Perhaps we might see an example about that. In a letter written in October 1884, an Adept-Teacher tells his lay disciple Alfred P. Sinnett that the enemies of the theosophical movement - with active support from dugpas and liars - aim at presenting false letters to attack the main founder of the movement. The Master says that these texts are “pretended letters alleged to have come from H.P.B.’s laboratory”, and they consist of “forged documents showing and confessing fraud and planning to repeat it”. The Adept-teacher explains that the false texts were made with an “enthusiastic help from the Dugpas - in Bhootan and the Vatican!” [5]
 
More false texts were created and used after HPB’s death, when Mr. Vsevolod Solovyov published a new generation of libels against the founder of the esoteric movement. Surprisingly, those old absurd forgeries have been published as authentic in 2003 by Mr. John Algeo, who then was one of the main leaders of the Adyar Theosophical Society in the USA. In 2013, “The Aquarian Theosophist” published the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”. The volume defends the original teachings and shows the lack of ethics and the falsehood of the editorial work developed by pseudo-esotericism.[6]   
 
Being attacked was naturally no exclusive privilege of HPB’s.
 
Regardless of time and place, every truth-seeker has been and will be tested in one way or another, in proportion to his own degree of learning. The Mahatma explains:  
 
“It has ever been thus. Those who have watched mankind through the centuries of this cycle, have constantly seen the details of this death-struggle between Truth and Error repeating themselves. Some of you Theosophists are now only wounded in your ‘honour’ or your purses, but those who held the lamp in preceding generations paid the penalty of their lives for their knowledge.” [7]
 
An active loyalty to his teachers and co-workers, a courage to defend them, a respect for Truth and the growing development of Vairagya or detachment are essential landmarks for the learner - along the road to occult knowledge. 
 
Detachment delivers the truth-seeker from wishful-thinking. The absence of personal desire, aversion, ambition and fear, liberates our attention from all kinds of conscious or unconscious, pleasant or unpleasant expectations. That allows us to live each moment as a complete event, and to use it as an opportunity to plant better karmic conditions for the future.  
 
Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.) wrote in his Meditations:   
 
“If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which thou utterest, thou wilt live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.” [8]
 
In a modern version of Epictetus’ discourses, made by Sharon Lebell, we can read:
 
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
 
And a few paragraphs later: 
 
“Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours. If you do this, you will be impervious to coercion and no one can ever hold you back.” [9]
 
Each time we pay too much attention to things which do not depend on us, we abandon those things and realities which actually need our action. We must keep to our task and not worry about other people’s doings. But how can we decide what to do and what not to do, if the Roman thinker Terence correctly taught that “All things human concern me”? 
 
In fact, Terence was right in the sense that each thing in the universe is connected to everything else. One of the Mahatmas wrote: “Nature has linked all parts of her Empire together by subtle threads of magnetic sympathy.” [10] We are linked to all human beings and to the whole universe. We interact with all of it, but not all of it is under our direct responsibility. Seeing, defining and fulfilling our direct duty is of utmost importance. This duty - our karma and dharma -   is both local and global. It has short term and long term dimensions. If we call ourselves theosophists, our dharma includes building the nucleus of a universal brotherhood which must have a sincere respect for the teachings and the teachers of the Eternal Wisdom.
 
In a paragraph showing the common ground between Stoicism and Esoteric Philosophy, Robert Crosbie writes:
 
‘We meet our karma in our daily duties’, is a good saying to bear in mind, and in the performance of those duties come our tests. We should therefore do what we have to do, simply as duties, regardless of whether that performance brings us praise or blame. All the energy would, then, be expended in the performance of duties, and there would be nothing left for the personal idea to subsist upon.” [11]
 
Epictetus says:
 
“Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. Therefore even death is no big deal in and of itself. It is our notion of death, our idea that is terrible, that terrifies us. (...) We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” [12]   
 
And Robert Crosbie adds, striking the same chord: 
 
“All you can do is the best you can under existing circumstances, and that is the very thing you should do, dismissing from your mind all thought of those things which are not as you would have them. Your studies and your efforts are futile if you are disturbed inwardly. The first thing then is to get calmness, and that can be reached by taking the firm position that nothing can really injure you, and that you are brave enough and strong enough to endure anything; also that all is necessary for your training.”
 
According to Crosbie, the theosophical work invites us to go beyond our personalities:
 
“…One has to grow into that state where he seeks nothing for himself, but takes whatever comes to pass as the thing he most desired. There is no room for personal desire in this.”  [13]
 
Among the daily tools for the development of indifference toward personal pain or pleasure are:
 
* philosophical studies;
 
* meditation on universal truths;
 
* self-observation from the point of view of the higher self;
 
* altruistic work and efforts.
 
While facing challenges, one must keep “a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection, which the secret science depicts”. One of the best-known passages in the Mahatma Letters, which perhaps can be seen as “the discipleship in a nutshell”, has a strong Stoic flavour in it:
 
“... My first duty is to my Master. And duty, let me tell you, is for us, stronger than any friendship or even love; as without this abiding principle which is the indestructible cement that has held together for so many milleniums, the scattered custodians of nature’s grand secrets - our Brotherhood, nay, our doctrine itself - would have crumbled long ago into unrecognizable atoms.” [14]
 
And a few sentences later the Master recommends some fundamental principles which students could well read once and again as if they were part of a poem:
 
“A great design has never been snatched at once. You were told, however, that the path to Occult Sciences has to be trodden laboriously and crossed at the danger of life; that every new step in it leading to the final goal, is surrounded by pit-falls and cruel thorns; that the pilgrim who ventures upon it is made first to confront and conquer the thousand and one furies [15] who keep watch over its adamantine gates and entrance - furies called Doubt, Skepticism, Scorn, Ridicule, Envy and finally Temptation - especially the latter; and that he, who would see beyond had to first destroy this living wall; that he must be possessed of a heart and soul clad in steel, and of an iron, never failing determination and yet be meek and gentle, humble and have shut out from his heart every human passion, that leads to evil.”
 
As the years and decades pass by in the lives of practical students, worldly illusions gradually lose their power to control consciousness. Then students can really devote their lives to lay discipleship. Yet one of the first lessons they will learn consists of seeing how difficult it is to take each new step ahead.
 
And there are hundreds, thousands of steps to take. Each of them brings about one or several unexpected tests which have to be faced and conquered. But there is nothing wrong about the difficulties: a great design has never been snatched at once.
 
The practical student gradually liberates himself from both laziness and hurry, from tamas and rajas. Across millenia, his inner decision to Learn will be transferred from one body to another, from one lifetime to the next. He will be able to feel, think, and see long term. And this will render him more and more indifferent to outer or personal pleasure and pain.
 
NOTES:
 
[1]The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali”, an interpretation by William Q. Judge, Theosophy Co., India, reprinted 1984, 74 pp., see pages 21-22, aphorisms II-3 through II-11. The book is available in our associated websites.
 
[2]Enchiridion”, Epictetus, Dover Thrift Editions, USA, 2004, 56 pp., see aphorism XXV, p. 28. As to the episode of Epictetus’ life when he was still a slave, see “Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius”, Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago-London-Toronto-Tokyo, 1952-1978, 310 pp., p. 101.
 
[3]Porphyry’s Letter to his Wife Marcella”, translated by Alice Zimmern, Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, USA, 1986, 59 pp.,  see p. 55.
 
[4]The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, facsimile edition, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, California, USA, 1992, 493 pp. and plus, see Letter XXIX. These two sentences are respectively on pages 223 and 224. 
 
[5] See “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter LV, p. 322. 
 
[6]The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”, Carlos Cardoso Aveline, The Aquarian Theosophist, Portugal, 2013, 255 pp.
 
[7]The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, same Letter LV, same p. 322. 
 
[8]The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius”, in “Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius”, Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago-London-Toronto-Tokyo, 1952, 1978, 310 pp., see p. 262, Book Three, paragraph 12.
 
[9]The Art of Living”, Epictetus, a new interpretation by Sharon Lebell, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 113 pp., see pp. 3-4. 
 
[10]The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, transcribed by A. T. Barker, facsimile edition, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, CA, 1992, 493 pp., see Letter XLV, p. 267.  
 
[11]The Friendly Philosopher”, Robert Crosbie, The Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, 1945, 415 pp., see p. 22.
 
[12]The Art of Living”, Epictetus, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, p. 10. 
 
[13] The two quotations in the few lines above are from “The Friendly Philosopher”, by Robert Crosbie, pp. 11 and 96, respectively.
 
[14]The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter LXII, p. 351.  
 
[15] Furies: Karmic instruments, especially at the emotional level.  In Roman Classical Mythology, furies are female divinities; the daughters of Gaea who punished crimes at the instigation of the victims; initially there was an indefinite number of them.  
 
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An initial version of the above article was first published in “The Aquarian Theosophist”, August 2005 edition, supplement, p. 01.
 
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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.  
 
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Stoicism in the Esoteric Philosophy




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