THEOSOPHY, Vol. 45, No. 5, March, 1957 (Pages 226-230; Size: 14K)
MORALITY AND NATURAL LAW
THE idea of Karma plays a significant role in the history of philosophical religion. Though relatively unknown in Western history, Greek personifications of Justice, Necessity, and Retribution -- as well as the Christian "Providence" -- reflect the ancient conception of Karma.
Morality and Natural Law are fundamental aspects of Karma; both have been the substantial foundation of our civilization, though both have been in profound question. The criteria of morality have altered radically many times, and presently the compulsions to what is presumed to be culturally or socially "righteous behavior" are relaxing. The same applies in another way to the conception of Natural Law. Our whole theory of jurisprudence, our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, refer to the idea of "natural" law. Yet, whether there is such a thing as Natural Law in the larger philosophic sense that the Deists of the eighteenth century proposed, is also in question.
We can be reasonably accurate when we propose that morality represents those forms of behavior which are regarded as "righteous" without being examined. The dictionary says that morality has to do with those activities which are established as illustrating the difference between right and wrong. That is, we inherit our morality.
Morality is endowed with yet another meaning when we say "moral philosophy," but then what we really mean is "ethics" or "ethical theory." Making this distinction will be helpful, since we know that many people have conceptions about right and wrong without ever determining why, but simply accepting them. To most psychologists, the thing called "conscience" is some kind of an overlay of impressions and prohibitions of musts and oughts and don'ts which society has imprinted on the sensibilities of people, so that there is no standard of right and wrong except what people think and are taught to believe.
Now, where does morality come from? To answer this question we probably need to admit or postulate that there are those men whose conceptions of good and evil do not derive from indoctrination or habit or custom or mode or social pressure, or any other external pressure or influence. Such men are rare; often they are rebels; they are heretics, nonconformists -- those who arrive at a conviction of what is right independently of popular opinions on the subject. In consequence, they are often the cause of unpleasantness by arousing antagonism because they do not do what everyone else does, and thus they become a reproach to the majority. But this depends upon the quality of the individual, the character of the times, and his appeal to the susceptibility of the rest of the world to such adventurous suggestion. Perhaps this is one of the basic reasons why great religious teachers often suffer persecution. The searching character of their investigation into the subject of what is right and wrong, their endeavor to introduce ethics, as distinguished from morality, prove disturbing, since people's self-esteem is often dependent upon their considering themselves righteous. And when they are shown that they are merely imitating their ancestors, and that manifest injustices are a consequence of what they do -- this is painful. One who makes such disclosures is, or is regarded as, an enemy to society. Hence Socrates was ordered to drink the hemlock because he was an ethical philosopher, and not an advocate of traditional morality.
But where does original thinking on the subject of right and wrong come from? Theosophy proposes that the ground of universal brotherhood is an identity of being in essence, and it pursues this idea by pointing to the fact that all men have in common the quality of self-consciousness, which is the root of our identity. How, then, account for differences? If we can explain the differences among people, then we are in some measure moved to tolerance -- or something better than tolerance, since tolerance easily becomes mere sentiment. Comprehension, however, replaces sentiment with understanding. When we know why people do things, or when we understand the forces behind their behavior -- whether they are actuated by delusions or by inadequate reasoning -- we at least understand them, and so do not regard their action as a diabolical intrusion upon the harmony of our lives. We are willing to enter in, to identify ourselves with them, seeing the processes which explain what they do. Understanding is basic in all questions of ethics, and in respect to social or moral ideals.
The theosophical conception of "differences" is ultimately rooted in the doctrine of reincarnation. This does not supply a final answer, since all final answers are reserved for ultimate knowledge; but reincarnation gives an explanation of tendencies of character, and of those misfortunes that seem so impossible to explain unless we are to recognize that there is a basic order in the universe, an ethical law of causation. If we account for our own problems, characteristics, tendencies, in the light of a principle, a law of nature such as reincarnation purports to be, then we have an element of reconciliation in our response to what happens to us. We can't be bitter over what we can account for rationally, we are not outraged by the world, and we don't accumulate hostility toward nature. Some people may exercise more self-control than others; some people may try to understand more than others; some people may develop more compassion than others, but these differences simply represent the degree of human evolution from an egoic or moral point of view.
If we are to have a morality which is better than custom, then, we are invited to re-examine what we regard as good and evil, right and wrong. We must question our tendency to condemn others, for each individual is a soul in evolution who brings with him a certain psycho-moral heritage, as well as a physical heritage, from his parents. Moral law is natural law. Yet we inherit the traditional Christian conception of the origin of things, which is plainly at odds with the scientific conception. The ancient Greeks, the philosophers who antedated the Christian epoch, regarded the whole universe as a kind of living atom. They saw life everywhere. And it was not until the establishment of the Christian system with Jehovah as the unique "Creator" who, it was said, made everything out of nothing, that this conception of a vital, breathing universe died out, and matter became the source of evil. Bodies were considered sinful; ideas of "original sin" suggested the false and ignorant asceticism of the priests of the Christian religion, and all this cast a shadow on men's views of Nature. It is fair to say that before modern science was born in the seventeenth century, there was no longer nature alive and breathing, but only the raw material which the Creator had marked with his will.
This view of matter was inherited by modern physics -- matter, inert of itself, was acted upon by external forces such as gravitation. The theologians preferred to have all vigor, all enterprise, all intelligence, the private possession of God. So when we seek for a conception of natural law which embodies a moral principle, we have no precedent for it in physics. In fact, physics is alien to any conception of morality, because of the origins of these physical ideas. Galileo and men like him kept still; they specialized in matter and its motions. Descartes refused to accept the Copernican theory, apparently because of the dangers of interfering with the teachings of Church doctrine. Not until about 1820 were the Copernican books removed from the Index Expurgatorius. Thus the shadow of this restriction of free thought placed an indelible stamp upon the growth of modern science, and all concepts of law emerged with complete moral neutrality, limited to the subject of matter and its motions.
Meanwhile a great political revolution was taking place on parallel lines. While the slogans of the French Revolution -- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity -- were activating the moral sense of mankind, there was this other influence which was to withdraw inspiration, so far as scientific authority was concerned, from the great ethical spirit of revolution. Yet people needed to feel that the basis of their philosophy was underwritten in Nature, and hence the "anti-scientific" conception of the eighteenth century Deists was formulated: The individual is a natural man, he has natural rights; those natural rights must be approximated in the social compact. Such a social compact announces the integrity of the individual, the inviolability of his private rights, as embodied, for example, in our American Constitution.
Today we are more sensible of the mystic factors, but without much sense of orientation in the direction of what is right and what is wrong, either in private terms of morality or in the larger terms of social and political relationships. We are puzzled, uncertain, and anxious. And in a period of anxiety many men return to the "tried" and what they hope is the "true." They become fearful of daring, fearful of originality, fearful of experimentation, and cling to the old -- however battered, worn, and patently inadequate. They want something they "know." Could we better define the temper of modern times, with its growing scepticism and loss of courage and faith?
This diagnosis makes peculiarly pertinent the inquiry of Theosophy into the nature of the universe, because all ethical views must arise from what we think the individual is. All sense of how justice may become possible arises from what we believe about the origin and the destiny of the human individual. When we have the concept of reincarnation, in which all units of life are intelligent, we find a radical departure from the theological view in which units are creations, not self-existent intelligences; or, as science holds, material existences which have evolved by processes, mysterious and marvelous, from the primordial slime.
At the foundation of theosophical conceptions of cosmology, of the world, of origins, is an idea very different from either the theological or the scientific view. Theosophy finds the origin of everything in a fundamental Mind principle which is all pervasive. In other words, instead of matter being the primary reality, it is the secondary reality; it is the illusory effect of intelligences in motion; Intelligence is the real. Intelligence represents entities at work. The units of intelligence we may call -- agreeably to the system of Leibniz -- Monads, units of consciousness, centers of perception. And the infinite diversity of the world is in the infinite diversity of degrees of illumination of these Monads. Every form in the world is made up of Life, or Monads.
The Monad is triune -- a triad of Self, Wisdom, and Active Intelligence. According to Theosophy, this is the reincarnating being. When this higher trinity, or triad, attaches to a lower organization, we have "incarnation." The result of this is a reciprocation, an illumination of the body and the psychic intelligence by the soul, and an extension of the avenues of perception of the soul by the sense-organs, the opening up to the individual of a vast panorama of physical and psychic experiences from which wisdom ultimately may be gained. Theosophy proposes, then, a basically psychological account of what is real, and of the roots of ethics and morality.
The general decline of dogmatic "denial" has not come so much from a great rational awakening as from an all-pervasive anxiety that our society is coming "unstuck"; the glue that has given us a sense of optimism and onward-looking spirit is dissolving under the impact of the multiple disasters that have overtaken our times. But whatever the cause, the fact that our conceptions of morality are in flux and are also going the way of old ideas -- these things give us a kind of freedom to think for ourselves that has not occurred in many generations. There is today a glorious opportunity to be free of preconception, to give the wisdom known as Theosophy an impartial examination. We have exhausted manifold experiences and alternatives in a very short period, so that, like the Ancient Mariner, we are "sadder and wiser men." We have a peculiar opportunity at present to open the questions of ethics and morality and natural law, and to look at the Theosophical teachings on these subjects with free minds.
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