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Ethics and Theosophy

While most members of the various theosophical societies accept without question the ethic principles articulated by their religion, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., some theosophists have attempted to derive ethical principles from more basic assumptions about the nature of the world and the nature of human beings in the world. These assumptions are sometimes called “ordering principles.” One list of them, developed at a workshop of several members of The Theosophical Society in America, is as follows:

Unity, Oneness, Holism

Polarity of Consciousness and Matter

Order, Lawfulness in the Universe<

Harmony and a Septenary Harmonic Principle

Cycles, the Cyclic Nature of Manifestation

Teleology, Purpose

Spiritual Perfectability

Theosophical ethics follow logically from these principles.

The most basic principle of the theosophical world view is that there is One Reality underlying, as it were, the obvious plurality of the manifested universe. This is articulated by Helena P. BLAVATSKY in the first of her Three Fundamental Propositions: “[There is an] Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable PRINCIPLE on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude” (SD I:14). She terms it “Be-ness” rather than “Being” since, she says that it “is beyond all thought or speculation” (idem.). This unity could also be described as “holism,” using the term coined by Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) and used in the title of his book Holism and Evolution (1926; 3rd ed. 1936) in which he described both EVOLUTION and politics as a series of increasingly comprehensive integrations. That is, the Unity is not a uniformity, but an integrated whole.

This Unity manifests, as described by Annie Besant in A Study in Consciousness, as a polarity between Life and Form or Consciousness and Matter; that is, all manifested forms have a kind of life, however dim; all material forms have consciousness, even though it be very limited in such things as minerals and plants. These are two poles of the One reality, not separate things. In Chinese thought, these are identified as yang (heavenly) and yin (earthly) forces.

And it is obvious that the universe manifests order or lawfulness. That is to say, we live in a cosmos, not a chaos. Plato suggested this when he said “God geometrizes.” But Blavatsky stated that nature works “from within outwards.” It is this principle which enable us to control our behavior, as Annie Besant points out in her book Thought Powers: Its Control and Culture (1903, several reprints; Quest ed., 1966 with several reprints). It is our thought, in other words, which causes our physical action. The order, according to theosophical teachings, manifests on seven planes of nature, the lowest or most dense being the physical. By the law of analogy, however, what occurs on one plane affects the others in a harmonic relation. This may be seen, for example, in psychosomatic medicine.

It is well known that nature works in a cyclic manner, e.g., that there are cycles of activity and rest. Hinduism identifies these as manifestation (or srsti) and withdrawal (or PRALAYA); in humans as waking activity and sleep, etc.); and in nature as cycles of oxygen and carbon dioxide (e.g., oxygen, which is inhaled by animals and humans, is breathed out in the form of carbon dioxide, which is absorbed by plants and exuded by them as oxygen, etc.).

Finally, THEOSOPHY, by contrast with the Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) theory of evolution, states that the universe is not the result of chance, nor is evolution the result of a series of fortuitous accidents and “survival of the fittest,” but is guided by superior beings (nature spirits, devas, gods) and is unfolding latent powers toward a goal of perfection. In other words, it is teleological; it is, as it were, “going somewhere.” This shows as an increasing manifestation of our inherent spirituality.

The ethical principle which derives from the first of the Ordering Principles is brotherhood. In other words, brotherhood (which includes a compassionate attitude toward animals and plants as well as toward other humans) is a fact in nature, unfortunately not presently realized by most humans, as indicated, for example, by the presence of racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice as well as war. That is why brotherhood was chosen as the First Object of The Theosophical Society. It is an ethical ideal toward which all theosophists strive. But brotherhood is actually a fact in nature based on the one life which we all share. When we ignore that ethical principle, the reaction (called in Sanskrit the law of KARMA) causes us unpleasantness, sometimes pain and suffering.

One of the ethical principles which derives from the polarity of consciousness and matter is that whatever we think and feel affects both ourselves and others both mentally (through telepathy and by virtue of the fact that we share one life) and bodily. Therefore, we should always strive to have kind thoughts toward others, attempting to lift their spirits when they feel sad and attempting to avoid burdening them with unpleasant thoughts (which they often absorb unconsciously). It also means that Nature works from within outwards, so that if we hope to improve the world physically we will have to start by improving our thoughts and feelings. One way many theosophists try to do this is by a routine of daily MEDITATION.

Since we live in an orderly, lawful universe, it follows that there are no such things as “miracles,” usually conceived as interventions into the normal causal order of things. But it also follows from that principle that we know that our ethical behavior will have a beneficial effect, both on ourselves and others, even though it may not be immediately apparent. In other words, being good makes sense, even understood selfishly. We also know that thoughts of prejudice and feelings of anger, for example, will have a detrimental effect both on ourselves and others. Since war often arises from prejudice (as well as from a desire to extend one’s territory or from economic motives), the world ought to become a more peaceful place if our thinking and feeling were helpful and loving rather than critical and suspicious — or even hateful. The same follows from the next Ordering Principle, harmony, sometimes stated as “the octave principle.” All actions affect us not only on the physical level, but resonate on deeper levels of our being as well, especially emotional and mental. In other words, if one wants to become a beautiful person, one must have beautiful thoughts and feelings as well as ethical actions.

One of the implications of the cyclic principle is the idea of REINCARNATION. And the ethical implication of that is that one cannot escape the consequences of one’s harmful actions, since those consequences will return — whether later in one’s present life or in a subsequent life. But it also follows that we can work for a more pleasant future life by leading a helpful, brotherly life now. That may be putting it in a selfish way, but most people are motivated by selfishness at present, so it is a rather normal way of looking at things. Further, reincarnation is understood theosophically in terms of evolution, hence if we desire a more favorable situation in life, we will have to act ethically now in such a way as to cause us to have that favorable future. But teleology also means that evolution is, as stated above “going somewhere,” so if we hope to evolve along with the rest of humanity — however slowly it may seem to be at present — we must act ethically so as to enable us to evolve with them. From the theosophical point of view, we are more than our physical bodies; we are essentially spiritual beings. Therefore, our actions can either promote the unfoldment of our spiritual potential or retard it. And since spirituality is synonymous with ethics, ethical behavior is the only way we can hasten that unfoldment. Being self-centered and selfish, therefore, is detrimental to ourselves in the final analysis and makes no sense from a theosophical point of view.

It will be seen from the above discussion that ethics, according to theosophy, are not something imposed on us from without — perhaps by religious authorities — but arise naturally from an understanding of who we are and what are the basic principles of the universe we live in.


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