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Metaphysics and Ethics


Tat tvam asi

 It is natural for us to make a firm distinction between our study and our application of Theosophy, between theory and practice. As a result, we contrast the capacities of the head and the heart, and assume that we seek and secure different kinds of nourishment from The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence. At the same time, we also know that Theosophy is essentially the Heart Doctrine, distinct from the head-learning with which our world abounds. What is more, the whole purpose of Theosophical discipline is to blend the head and the heart, to broaden our mental sympathies and to awaken and direct the intelligence of the heart. Does this simply mean that we need for conceptual clarity the dualistic view of the spiritual life as long as we remain as inwardly divided as we are, and that this dichotomy is made only so that it may be destroyed as we become rooted in the holiness that reflects an inner wholeness? It is certainly convenient to regard all conceptual distinctions and classifications as mere scaffoldings and to choose the best available at any particular stage of our growth. But in order to appreciate the distinctive significance of Theosophical classifications, we cannot merely regard them like the maps of early mariners, whose explorations needed as well as corrected their initial cartographical knowledge. We need, in fact, to acquire an entirely new and original view of the relation between true metaphysics and enduring ethics and to appreciate the profound epistemological nature and the peculiar therapeutic value of Theosophical statements as indicated in the First Item of The Secret Doctrine.

 Metaphysics, as normally understood, is speculative rather than gnostic and is often the product of the propensity to subsume existing knowledge under a complete system, an imposing pattern that is then ascribed to reality with a dogmatism that pretends to a certainty that it cannot possibly possess. It is in accord with cyclic law that this kind of metaphysical system- building is suspect today and has even led to an extremist and naively positivistic reaction among die-hard empiricists. Similarly, ethics, in the everyday sense, consists of injunctions and imperatives that are rarely susceptible of rational enquiry and are either endowed with spurious absoluteness or are regarded as relativist and subjectivist preferences, from which we choose as from a menu. Given the pretentious nature of ordinary metaphysics and conventional ethics, we can understand the insistence of Hume, the sceptical Scot of the eighteenth century, that metaphysical statements are a priori assertions that are incapable of verification, that we cannot logically derive any ethical imperatives either from them or from statements of fact, and that our ethical preferences cannot possess certainty or universality or freedom from arbitrariness. The metaphysical assertion that "X is true or must be true" cannot help us to answer the question "Why ought I to do Y?" It is indeed not surprising that the speculations of most metaphysicians do not give us a basis for moral conduct and moral growth, and that the injunctions of many conventional ethical codes do not have their basis in the moral and spiritual order of our law-governed cosmos.

 In Theosophical literature, however, every metaphysical statement has an ethical corollary and connotation, and every ethical injunction has a distinct metaphysical basis. It is impossible to grasp the force of any of the seven paramitas of The Voice of the Silence without a comprehension of the Three Fundamental Propositions regarding God, Nature and Man that underlie the order of reality intimated by the Stanzas of the Book of Dzyan, on which The Secret Doctrine is closely based. Theosophical literature assumes, as shown especially by Light on the Path, the truth and validity of the Socratic axiom "Knowledge is virtue." For example, to know, with the heart as well as the head, and to be fully aware that the sin and the shame of the world are verily our own must totally transform our actions as well as our attitudes in relation to all our fellow men and also to our own sins and lower self. We cannot rely on that which is not real, in an ultimate and philosophical sense. Theosophical ethics teaches the only possible reliance — on the Divine Ground of all Being and beyond — that is available to those who become aware of the degrees of reality in an ever-evolving universe that is itself only a relatively real emanation from the Eternal Reality. Our conduct consists of emanations that cannot but harm us and others if they are not emanated in the creative and impersonal manner and with the conscious control that marks the ceaseless process of cosmic emanations from a single source — Life of our life, Force of our force. Until we are free from the dire heresy of separateness (attavada), we cannot claim to have grasped the doctrine of samvriti or of the nidanas that teaches us about the origins of delusions and chains of causation. To know is to become, and to become is truly to know.

 In an illuminating passage in The Secret Doctrine on the Causes of Existence" and on the Buddhist concept of nidana and the Hindu concept of maya, H.P. Blavatsky said that science and religion, in trying to trace back the chain of causes and effects, jump to a condition of mental blankness much more quickly than is necessary,

for they ignore the metaphysical abstractions which are the only conceivable cause of physical concretions. These abstractions become more and more concrete as they approach our plane of existence, until finally they phenomenalise in the form of the material Universe, by a process of conversion of metaphysics into physics.

The Secret Doctrine, i 45    

 If we consider this even as a logical possibility, then clearly the knowledge of these metaphysical abstractions gained and given by trained Initiates is epistemologically prior to the external order of reality in the material universe. Such metaphysics, the product of intuitive apprehension and capable of patient verification by the extrasensory experiences of independently acting individuals, is different in kind from the speculative metaphysics of the ordinary variety and is more analogous to the methods of investigation of the greatest natural scientists. This is why we are told that

it is difficult to find a single speculation in Western metaphysics which has not been anticipated by Archaic Eastern philosophy. From Kant to Herbert Spencer, it is all a more or less distorted echo of the Dwaita, Adwaita, and Vedantic doctrines generally.

The Secret Doctrine, i 79    

 The very nature of Theosophical metaphysics is such that we cannot approach it merely with the head, independently of the heart. The purely ratiocinative and intellectualist approach to ordinary metaphysics is itself the result of "the inadequate distinctions made by the Jews, and now by our Western metaphysicians", so that "the philosophy of psychic, spiritual, and mental relations with man's physical functions is in almost. inextricable confusion". Our metaphysical conceptions are clearly conditioned by our own mental development and cannot have the absolute validity that we claim for them. This is especially true of the evolution of the GOD-IDEA. Hence, says Theosophy, for every thinker there will be a "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther", mapped out by his intellectual capacity.

 Outside of initiation, the ideals of contemporary religious thought must always have their wings clipped and remain unable to soar higher; for 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 Secret Doctrine, i 326    

 Not merely does modern metaphysics fall far short of the truth, but even its basic concepts and usages of terms like "Absolute", "Nature" and "matter" are shallower and cruder than their corresponding concepts propounded by the Theosophical Adepts. Initiation into Theosophical metaphysics is more than an intellectual or moral enterprise; it is a continuous spiritual exercise in the development of intuitive and cognitive capacities that are the highest available to men, a process that includes from the first a blending of the head and the heart through the interaction of viveka and vairagya, discrimination and detachment. Even our initial apprehension of a statement of Theosophical metaphysics involves an ethical as well as mental effort, just as even the smallest application of a Theosophical injunction to our moral life requires some degree of mental control and the deeper awareness, universal and impersonal in nature, that comes from our higher cognitive capacities. Moral growth, for a Theosophist, presupposes the silent worship of abstract or noumenal Nature, the only divine manifestation", that is "the one ennobling religion of Humanity.

 Despite its contempt for metaphysics and for ontology, materialistic science is honeycombed with metaphysical and contradictory implications, and even its "atoms" are "entified abstractions". "To make of Science an integral whole necessitates, indeed, the study of spiritual and psychic, as well as physical Nature." But although real science is inadmissible without metaphysics, and those scientists who trespass on the forbidden grounds of metaphysics, who lift the veil of matter and strain their eyes to see beyond, are "wise in their generation", H.P. Blavatsky declared towards the end of The Secret Doctrine that the man of exact science must realize that

he has no right to trespass on the grounds of metaphysics and psychology. His duty is to verify and to rectify all the facts that fall under his direct observation; to profit by the experiences and mistakes of the Past in endeavouring to trace the working of a certain concatenation of cause and effects, which, but only by its constant and unvarying repetition, may be called A LAW. . . . Any sideway path from this royal road becomes speculation.

The Secret Doctrine, ii 664    

 It is a sign of advance that scientists today are less given than their predecessors in the latter half of the nineteenth century to "metaphysical flights of fancy". Bad metaphysics is clearly worse than none. On the other hand, as modern psychology becomes less materialistic and as race evolution proceeds, a greater appreciation of the higher intuitive and cognitive capacities will emerge and may enable the most intuitive scientists to venture more effectively into metaphysics.

 It is, therefore, necessary for students of Theosophy to see the fundamental difference between what goes by the name of metaphysics and has rightly become suspect today, and the "metaphysics, pure and simple", with which The Secret Doctrine is concerned. We cannot, however, grasp the metaphysics given in Theosophical teachings unless we perceive its close and inseparable connection with Theosophical ethics. We are told in The Secret Doctrine that the "highly philosophical and metaphysical Aryans" were the authors of "the most perfect philosophical systems of transcendental psychology" and of "a moral code (Buddhism), proclaimed by Max Müuller the most perfect on earth". Without a proper understanding of Theosophical psychology and the teachings regarding the nature and constitution of man and the working of karmic law, we cannot appreciate the metaphysical basis of Theosophical ethics or the ethical significance of Theosophical metaphysics. Hence the importance of a careful study and application, from the first, of the Ten Items from Isis Unveiled or the Propositions of Oriental Psychology, and of the Aphorisms on Karma by W.Q. Judge. Until this is done, we cannot begin to see the ethical import of the statements in The Secret Doctrine or the metaphysical basis of the statements in The Voice of the Silence and Light on the Path.

 We are told explicitly in The Secret Doctrine that "to make the workings of Karma, in the periodical renovations of the Universe, more evident and intelligible to the student when he arrives at the origin and evolution of man, he has now to examine with us the esoteric bearing of the Karmic Cycles upon Universal Ethics". Our ethical progress depends on an increasing awareness of the "cycles of matter" and the "cycles of spiritual evolution", and of racial, national and individual cycles. The kernel of Theosophical ethics is contained in the statement that "there are external and internal conditions which affect the determination of our will upon our actions, and it is in our power to follow either of the two". This contains a great metaphysical and psychological truth, which is illuminated by the seminal article on "Psychic and Noetic Action", written, late in life, by H.P. Blavatsky, the Magus-Teacher of the 1875 cycle.

 Theosophical ethics is in the end no easier to understand properly than Theosophical metaphysics. It can no more be grasped by the mentally lazy than Theosophical metaphysics can be comprehended by the morally obtuse. There is nothing namby-pamby about Theosophical ethics and it is as fundamentally different from conventional ethics as Theosophical metaphysics is from conventional metaphysics. Just as modern metaphysics is a shadowy distortion of archaic metaphysics, modern ethics is a sad vulgarization of the archaic ethics taught by the early religious Teachers of humanity. It is to be welcomed that more and more questioning people today are less and less prepared to accept blindly conventional ethical codes merely because they are traced back to so-called scriptural revelations, just as they have little use for the metaphysical speculations of even the formidable minds of the past. If the ethical nihilism of today is even more repugnant to the Theosophist than sterile positivism, he would do well to regard both as the karmic price we have to pay for the moral and metaphysical dogmatism of the past.

 Although we may talk of Theosophical metaphysics and Theosophical ethics, and classify texts broadly under these heads, we must get beyond the conventional distinction between metaphysical and ethical statements and grasp central concepts, such as Dharma and Karma, which are protean in scope and profound in content, and incapable of being regarded as purely metaphysical or exclusively ethical. It is significant that the supposedly anti-metaphysical and superbly moral teaching of the Buddha was centred in the complex concept of Dharma rather than in Brahman or moksha, in the stern law of moral compensation and universal causality, rather than in a conception of infinite Deity constructed by the finite mind of man or in any notion of salvation or redemption which caters to the spiritual selfishness of the individual.

 In the European tradition, a natural reaction to theocentric systems of thought was the Cartesian affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in relation to knowledge and the later Kantian proclamation of the autonomy of the individual in relation to morality. The Theosophist, however, holds to the Pythagorean and ancient Eastern maxim that man is the mirror and microcosm of the macrocosm. It is in this context that he must evolve from egoism to egoity, from personal self-love to individual self- consciousness, which is impossible without a heart-understanding of the Law of Universal Unity and Moral Retribution. The close connection between metaphysics and ethics in Theosophy is ultimately based on the workings of Universal Law, which affects the exact and occult correspondences between the constituents of man and of the cosmos. This ancient doctrine of correspondences has been ignored by modern metaphysicians and moralists, but it was known to modern mystics and poets from Boehme to Swedenborg, Blake to Baudelaire.

Hermes, May 1975
by Raghavan Iyer

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