THEOSOPHY, Vol. 53, No. 5, March, 1965
(Pages 132-136; Size: 15K)


[The implication of the title of The Secret Doctrine is twofold. First, no teaching or belief, however exalted, can convey truth directly to the inner consciousness of man; the essence of a true "doctrine" is discovered only when it serves as a catalytic agent within the egoic processes of the individual -- a "secret," until then, to be inwardly revealed.

The relationship of theosophical concepts to history, whether they are doctrinal or philosophical, can therefore be seen to parallel the primary psychological facts of "soul learning." In any age, when a doctrine is taken to be a truth, and when fanaticism compels lip service to exclusive group beliefs, the ideas of Theosophy seem buried and forgotten. We discover, however, that this is never entirely the case. The insistences of dogma and prejudice are like the snows which hide the promise of spring. But seeds survive beneath the snow and, even during the darkest centuries of Western history, there was heat and warmth enough under the surface to allow some of these seeds to germinate. In a sense, then, the history of the relationship between "heretics" and the "renaissance" is the history of every age.

Of the ten articles comprising the series, "Heretics and the Renaissance," the first seven are derived entirely from recognized historical sources; the remaining three consist solely of quotations from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, making, in effect, a review in the light of Theosophy of the main ideas dealt with earlier. The theosophical student who has assembled this material has done what H.P.B. spoke of doing in her Introduction to The Secret Doctrine --put together "a nosegay of culled flowers," adding only "the string that ties them." While the scholars whose works are drawn upon may not have had before them the full perspective of the Theosophical Movement, its "story" is nonetheless implicit, and by skillful collation is made to appear between the lines. Editors, THEOSOPHY]


[Part 2 of a 10-part series]

The Age of Ignorance commenced with the Christian system.
IT was among a population that was impressionable, emotional and superstitious, slowly awakening in the intellectual dawn, that orthodoxy and heterodoxy -- the forces of conservatism and progress -- were to fight the battle in which neither could win with permanent victory. It is a noteworthy fact, presaging the new form which modern civilization and enlightenment were to assume, that the heresies which were to shake the Church to its foundations were no longer as of old, mere speculative subtleties propounded by learned theologians and prelates in the gradual evolution of Christian doctrine. We have not to deal with scholars and prelates who filled the Church with the disputatious wrangles of their learning. Hierarchical organization was too perfect, and theological dogma too thoroughly petrified, to admit of this. Nor have we, for the most part, to deal with the growing classes, for the alliance between Church and State to keep the people in subjection had been handed down from the Roman Empire, and however much monarchs like John of England or Frederic II had to explain of ecclesiastical pretensions, they never dared to loosen the foundations on which rested their own prerogatives. As a rule heresy had to be thoroughly disseminated among the people before those of gentle blood would meddle with it, as was the case in Languedoc and Lombardy. The blows which brought real danger to the hierarchy came from obscure men, laboring among the poor and oppressed, who in their misery and degradation felt that the Church had failed in its mission, whether through the worldliness of its ministers or through defects in its doctrine. Among these they found ready and eager listeners, and the heresies which they taught divide themselves into two classes. On the one hand we have sectaries holding fast to all the essentials of Christianity, with anti-sacerdotalism as their mainspring, and on the other hand we have Manichaeans. (Lea I, 60-61.)

As the twelfth century drew to a close, the Church was approaching a crisis in its career. The vicissitudes of a hundred and fifty years, skillfully improved, had rendered it the mistress of Christendom. History records no such triumph of intellect over brute strength as that which, in an age of turmoil and battle, was wrested from the fierce warriors of the time by priests who had no material force at their command, and whose power was based alone on the souls and consciences of men. Over soul and conscience their empire was complete. No Christian could hope for salvation who was not in all things an obedient son of the Church, and who was not ready to take up arms in its defense; and, in a time when faith was a determining factor of conduct, this belief created a spiritual despotism which placed all things within reach of him who would yield it. (Lea I, 1.)

If the sectaries became sufficiently numerous to form a community of their own, cutting them off from the communion of the Church was of no avail; the keenest shafts of ecclesiastical censure rebounded harmless from their armor of conscientious belief. This naturally led to an animosity against them greater than that visited on the worst criminals. No matter how trivial may have been the original cause of schism, nor how pure and fervent might be the faith of the schismatics, the fact that they had refused to bend to authority, and had thus sought to divide the seamless garment of Christ, became an offense in comparison with which all other sins dwindled into insignificance, neutralizing all the virtues and all the devotion which men could possess. (Lea I, 211.)

The highest authorities in the Church admitted that its scandals were the cause if not the justification of heresy. The records of the time bear ample testimony to the rapine and violence, the flagrant crimes and defiant immorality of the princes of the Church. No more unexceptional witness as to the Church of the twelfth century can be had than St. Bernard, and he is never weary of denouncing the pride, the wickedness, the ambition, and the lust that reigned everywhere. (Lea I, 61; 13; 52.)

One of the main objects in convoking the great Council of Lateran, in 1215, was the correction of the prevailing vices of the clergy, and it adopted numerous canons looking to the suppression of the chief abuses, but in vain. Those abuses were too deeply rooted, and four years later Honorius II, in an Encyclical addressed to all the prelates of Christendom, says that he has waited to see the result. He finds the evils of the Church increasing rather than diminishing. The ministers of the altar, worse than beasts wallowing in their dung, glory in their sins as in Sodom. They are a snare and a destruction to the people. Many prelates consume the property committed to their trust and scatter the stores of the sanctuary throughout the public places; they promote the unworthy, waste revenues of the Church on the wicked, and convert churches into conventicles of their kind. Monks and nuns throw off the yoke, break their chains, and render themselves contemptible as dung. "Thus it is that heresies flourish. Let each of you gird his sword to his thigh and spare not his brother and his nearest of kindred." What was accomplished by this earnest exhortation may be estimated from the description which Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, gave of the Church in the presence of Innocent IV and his cardinals in 1250. The details can well be spared, but they are summed up in his assertion that the clergy were a source of pollution to the whole earth; they were antichrists and devils masquerading as angels of light, who made the house of prayer a den of robbers. When the earnest inquisitor of Passau, about 1260, undertook to explain the stubbornness of the heresy which he was vainly endeavoring to suppress, he did so by drawing up a list of the crimes prevalent among the clergy, which is awful in the completeness of its details. A church such as he describes was an unmitigated curse, politically, socially, and morally. (Lea I, 53-4.)

Nothing that the heretics could invent was likely to be more appalling than the reality as stated by the most resolute champions of the Church. Not many controversialists, indeed, were capable of the frank assurance of the learned author of the tract which passes under the name of Peter of Pilichdorf, in answering the arguments of the heretics, that the Catholic priests were fornicators and usurers and drunkards and dicers and forgers, by boldly saying, "What then? They are none the less priests, and the worst of men who is a priest is worthier than the most holy layman. Was not Judas Iscariot, on account of his apostleship, worthier than Nathaniel, though less holy?" (Lea I, 62.)

The Church, so far removed from its ideal and so derelict in its duties, found itself, somewhat unexpectedly, confronted by new dangers and threatened in the very citadel of its power. Just as its triumph over king and kaiser was complete, a new enemy arose in the awakened consciousness of man. The dense ignorance of the tenth century had begun in the eleventh to yield to the first faint pulsations of intellectual movement. Early in the twelfth century that movement already shows in its gathering force the promise of the development which was to render Europe the home of art and science, of learning, of culture, and civilization. The stagnation of the human mind could not thus be broken without leading to inquiry and doubt. When man began to reason and to ask questions, to criticize and to speculate on forbidden topics, it was not possible for them to avoid seeing how woeful was the contrast between the teaching and the practice of the Church, and how little correspondence existed between religion and ritual, between the lives of the monk and priest and the profession of their vows. Even the blind reverence which for generations had been felt for the utterances of the Church began to be shaken. (Lea I, 57.)

The blatant impudence of the traffic in absolutions exceeds belief. Every crime "even to the rape of God's mother if that were possible" had its authorized tariff payable at Rome. Poisoning was absolved for eleven ducats and six livres tournois. Incest was priced at thirty-six livres and three ducats. Perjury as seven livres, three carlines. Murder (if not by poison) was less expensive. For one ducat, four livres, eight carlines a son might purchase the privilege of parricide, and so through the whole calendar of crimes. Outside the pale of this so-called "Church" was certain and eternal damnation. For centuries the axiom Extra ecclesiam nulla salus was the source of unutterable woe to humanity. (Bayley, pp. 198-9; see also notes on these pages, p. 258.)

Few as were the assailants as yet, and intermittent as were their attacks, the very number of the defenders and the vigor of the defence show the danger which was recognized as dwelling in the spirit of inquiry which had at last been partially aroused from its long slumber. (Lea I, 58.)

That spirit had received a powerful impulse from the school of Toledo, whither adventurous scholars flocked as to the fountain where they could obtain long draughts of Arabic, Grecian, and Jewish lore. The works of Aristotle and Ptolemy, of Abubekr, Avicenna and Alfarabi, and finally those of Averrhoes, were rendered into Latin, and were copied with incredible zeal in all lands of Christendom. The Crusaders, too, brought home with them fragmentary remains of ancient thought which met with an equally warm reception. Even more menacing to the Church was the revival of Civil Law. The ardor with which it came, by the middle of the twelfth century, to be studied in all the great centers of learning is incontestable, and men found to their surprise that there was a system of jurisprudence of wonderful symmetry and subtle adjustment of right, immeasurably superior to the clumsy and confused canon law and the barbarous feudal customs, while drawing its authority from immutable justice as represented by the sovereign, and not from canon or decretal, from pope or council, or even from Holy Writ. (Lea I, 59.)

* * *

Sources used in this installment: Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, Vol. I; Harold Bayley, A New Light on the Renaissance (J. M. Dent, London, 1909).

(To be continued)

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