THEOSOPHY, Vol. 24, No. 1, November, 1935
(Pages 1-8; Size: 22K)
(Number 2 of a 7-part series)
PRECURSORS OF H.P.B.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
IN the Library at Concord, Massachusetts, there stands a bust of the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The face of this bust is asymmetrical. That is to say, if the face is viewed from two different angles, it presents the appearance of two different men.
This physical characteristic seems to permeate the whole of Emerson's nature. If we look at his mind from two different angles it, too, seems to belong to two different men. On the one side we see the shrewdness and analytical quality of the West; on the other side the calmness and meditative quality of the East. At one moment the poet, the dreamer is present; at the next moment the shrewd Yankee who sold his apples in the Concord market and saw to it that they brought the highest price. His religious views present the same characteristic. Today he seems to be a devout Christian; tomorrow an equally devout Buddhist or Brahmin. He is, in other words, a living example of that law which he so consistently taught throughout his life -- the law of opposites. Everything in the Universe, he says, is dual; everything has its opposite. And it requires the union of these two opposites to make the perfect whole.
And so, taking him at his word, we must unite the two seeming opposites in Emerson's nature if we would understand the man as a whole. When we have done this, we will see that his description of Plato is in reality an excellent description of himself:"The unity of Asia and the detail of Europe are in his brain. Metaphysics and natural philosophy expressed the genius of Europe; he substructs the religion of Asia as the base. In short, a balanced soul was born, perceptive of the two elements." -- Plato: the Philosopher.But even to regard Emerson as a whole is not enough. In order to really understand him, we must look at him as a part of a still larger whole. His philosophy must be considered in its relation to that complete system of thought known as Theosophy; his life-work must be considered in its relation to the Theosophical Movement.
Considering the fact that Emerson never called himself a Theosophist, and that his life was well-nigh spent before the Theosophical Movement of the last century was publicly launched, what right have we to presume that his work was in any way connected with Theosophy? H. P. Blavatsky herself answers the question. In an article written in 1890 she says:"Thousands of men and women who belong to no church, sect or society, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, are yet virtually members of that Silent Brotherhood the units of which often do not know each other, belonging as they do to nations far and wide apart, yet each of whom carries on his brow the mark of the mysterious Karmic seal -- the seal that makes of him or her a member of the Brotherhood of the Elect of Thought. Having failed to satisfy their aspirations in their respective orthodox faiths, they have severed themselves from their Churches in soul when not in body, and are devoting the rest of their lives to the worship of loftier and purer ideals than any intellectual speculation can give them....Carrying in the silent shrine of their soul the same grand ideals as all mystics do, they are in truth Theosophists de facto if not de jure."And so, taking H.P.B.'s own words as our standard of judgment, we can easily see that Emerson, as well as many others not calling themselves Theosophists, were in reality forging some of those invisible links that connected the Theosophical Movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. Let us remember that the Messengers sent out periodically in the last quarter of every century westward had appeared that time in vain. St. Germain and Cagliostro went down into history as clever charlatans. The only man whose powers and knowledge could have been easily tested by exact science -- Friedrich Anton Mesmer -- had been hooted from the scientific arena by the greatest "scholars" of Europe. Therefore it was left to men other than professed Theosophists to carry on the work of the Theosophical Movement of the 18th century and to plough the ground for the Messenger of the 19th.
Emerson must have had an intuitive perception that his work was to plough the field for one greater than himself, for as early as 1838 he addressed the Senior Class of Divinity College in Cambridge with these pregnant words."I look to that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those Eastern men, to speak in the West also. I look for the new Teacher, who shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that Duty is one thing with science, with Beauty and with Joy."The bond that unites Emerson with Theosophy and the Theosophical Movement is the same bond that unites Theosophists, wherever and however situated. It is the bond of similarity of aim, purpose and teaching. Emerson's aim and purpose were the same as the three Objects of the Theosophical Society. He constantly reiterated the Brotherhood of man and nature. He always encouraged the study of comparative religions, sciences and philosophies, and followed himself the advice he gave to others along this line. He continually pointed to the spiritual powers latent in man and urged their development.
The method used by Emerson in expounding his own philosophy and that used by H.P.B. in writing her Secret Doctrine were curiously similar. Both disclaimed any authority for statements made. Both tried to arouse the intuitive perception of their readers. Both used the method of analogy, correspondence and symbols.
The three Fundamental Propositions which form the basis of Theosophy were also the basis of Emerson's philosophy. His doctrine was that of Unity in diversity and he proclaimed the presence of the One Life in the whole of Nature. He considered Polarity, or the Law of action and reaction as the fundamental Law of the Universe. He pointed to the presence of the God within man himself, and urged "self-induced and self-devised efforts" as the only means by which man's evolution can proceed.
The net of destiny, woven from the threads of heredity, environment and family traditions, was tightly drawn around Ralph Waldo Emerson from the day of his birth. His family Karma was interwoven with the Church, for most of his forefathers, from the very first one who landed on American shores, were clergymen, of one denomination or another. He was born in the Parish House of the First Unitarian Church in Boston, where his father was minister. His formative years were filled with a struggle between the call of the Church and his family expectations on the one hand, and his own inner convictions on the other. The dictates of family duty led him finally into a luke-warm adoption of the ministerial profession, where he hoped to achieve the substance by practicing the form. His inner conviction finally triumphed, and he severed his connection with the Church. His rebellion against Christianity as it was taught and practised in the Churches was openly and fearlessly expressed to the Senior Class of Divinity College:"Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but the exaggeration of the personal, the ritual. It dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. By this monarchy of a Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the injurer of man."As the worship of the personality of Jesus was decried by Emerson, it is not surprising to find him opposed to the idea of a personal God. He revolted against the dual concept of God as presented by Paley and Calvin, and recorded in his Journals his reverence of the Oriental conception of the impersonality of Brahma(1). To Emerson, God was"...not a relation, or a part, but the whole. Being is the vast Affirmative, swallowing up all relations, parts and times within Itself."Emerson's concept of God is thus seen to be identical with the Theosophical concept, which denies a personality to the Universal Principle, the Root of all, from which all proceeds, and into which all will finally be re-absorbed. The Theosophist finds God in every atom of the Cosmos, visible and invisible. It is Law itself, and consequently admits of no miracle. As Emerson says:"The word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian Churches, gives a false impression. It is Monster!"As Emerson's God was no Person outside of man, the futility of prayerwas apparent to him. He says:"Men's prayers are a disease of the will. Prayer that craves a particular commodity is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is theft and meanness. It supposes dualism and not Unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is one with God, he will not beg. He will then see all prayer in action."Every Theosophist recognizes the absurdity of addressing a verbal prayer to an Absolute Principle. But every Theosophist knows the efficacy of what might be called Will-Prayer, addressed not to an outside God, but to the "Father" within himself. "Pray not -- but act" is the Theosophist's prayer. And where is the Theosophist who would not applaud Emerson's advice to the Divinity students on that afternoon in July when he told them to "dare to love God without a mediator or veil" and to "acquaint themselves first-hand with Deity?"
Creeds and sects were viewed in their true light by Emerson -- as separative and destructive to the true purpose of religion. A creed was to him a "disease of the intellect", a sect "an inelegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking." He said that a really wise man would refuse to belong to any creed or sect, as these were only "Unthinking Corporations".
Emerson's religious revolt was always against the narrowness and bigotry of churches and creeds, his aim to present the Unity of all religions and the Brotherhood of man, irrespective of race, creed, color or religious affiliations. He felt that behind all religions there must be a common source from which all had sprung, a common basis in which all could be united. He says:"The accepted Christianity of the mob of churches is now, as always, a caricature of the real. The heart of Christianity is the heart of all philosophies. Can any one doubt that if the noblest saint among the Buddhists, the noblest Mahometan, the highest Stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian, Confucius in China, Spinoza in Holland, could somewhere meet and converse together, they would all find themselves of one religion? And all would find themselves denounced by their sects, and sustained by those believed adversaries of their sects?"He believed that there was an "obscure and slender thread" that ran through all religions, philosophies and mythologies, tying them together. If he had lived a few years longer he would have found that "obscure and slender thread" in the string that H.P.B. used to tie together the "nosegay of culled flowers" which she brought to the Western world.
But that "thread" had not yet become visible during Emerson's years of search. Therefore, having failed to find it in the West, he turned to the ancient East for inspiration and guidance. As he says in "The American Scholar":"When the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, -- we repair to the lamps that were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak."Having kindled his own torch at the flame of Eastern lamps, he held it aloft so that his own people might see the dangerous waters into whichthe bark of Western civilization was slowly but surely drifting, and turn their prow toward the East. He boldly rebuked the men of his time for wasting their strength and energy in riding, hunting and brandy-drinking, as well as for the solemn gravity with which they viewed the absurd follies they called life. He pointed to "Orientalism" as the only remedy for their "musty, self-conceited lives." He feared that his advice might shock some of them, but assured them that in the doctrines of the ancient East they would find "a thunder never heard before, a light never seen before, a power that trifles with time and space."
Emerson's interest in the East appears very early in his life. He began jotting down his thoughts in his Journals at the age of sixteen, and one soon comes upon references to India. By the time he was nineteen he was already reading translations of Indian texts and writing poetry of a decidedly Eastern character. In his twenty-seventh year the central idea of his poem Brahma appeared in his Journal, and that same year he wrote:"There is nothing for me but to read the Vedas. It contains every religious sentiment, all the grand ethics which visit each noble poetic mind."Emerson possessed one of the first copies of the Bhagavad-Gita sent to this country. In regard to this book he says:"It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and another climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us."He called the Zoroastrian, Indian and Persian Scriptures "majestic, and more to our daily purpose than this year's almanac or this day's paper." His admiration of Buddhism is seen in his comparison of it with Transcendentalism. Buddhism, he says,"...is the necessary or structural action of the human mind. Buddhism read literally, the Tenet of Fate, Worship of Morals, or the Tenet of Freedom, are the unalterable originals in all the wide varieties of geography, language and intelligence of the human tribes."The inspiration of Emerson's philosophy has often been traced to Plato, and Emerson's own statement that "out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men" has been taken to mean that Emerson considered Plato as the original and central sun of philosophical thought. On the contrary, Plato was to him only the focal point in which the spiritual and intellectual rays of the East met and converged. As every Theosophist knows, Plato's teachings were merely reiterations of truths uttered centuries before by such sages as Vyasa, Kapila and Patanjali, and the Platonic philosophy was merely a compendium of ancient systems. Emerson says in his Essay on Plato:"Plato, in Egypt and in Eastern pilgrimages, imbibed the idea of one Deity in which all things are absorbed. Having paid his homage to the Illimitable, he then stood erect, and for the human race affirmed: 'All things are knowable!' That is, the Asia in his mind was first heartily honored....The unity of Asia and the detail of Europe Plato came to join, and, by contrast, to enhance the energy of each."As the teachings of Plato were closely associated in the mind of Emerson with those of the ancient East, so also was the relationship between the purely Platonic teachings and those of the later Neo-Platonists clearly recognized. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, admitted that the doctrines taught in the Alexandrian School were the original esoteric doctrines of Plato, and Porphyry has shown the philosophy of Plato as having been taught and illustrated in the Mysteries. When we stop to consider the fact that one of the most important missions of the present Theosophical Movement is to revive the work commenced by Ammonius Saccas, the efforts of Emerson along this line assume a deeper significance. For it was largely due to his efforts that the mind of the American people was led to a reconsideration of the teachings of Neo-Platonism and Platonism, and through them back to the doctrines of the ancient East.
And so, in considering Emerson's life-work in its relation to the Theosophical Movement, we can see that he forged three important cyclical links in preparation of the fourth.
He helped to re-establish the five thousand year cycle by bringing back the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. He linked that cycle with the twenty-five hundred year cycle by turning the mind of the West back to Plato and the Buddha, and showing the connection of their teachings with the more ancient ones of Krishna. Through calling attention to the work of the Alexandrian School, he strengthened the fifteen hundred year cycle -- the cycle of reincarnation. Uniting these three links into a chain of perfect continuity, he paved the way for the Teacher in whom all three cycles converged -- H. P. Blavatsky, the Messenger of 1875.
COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:
THE MANIFESTATIONS OF GENIUS
Genius, as Coleridge defined it, is certainly -- to every outward appearance, at least -- "the faculty of growth"; yet to the inward intuition of man, it is a question whether it is genius -- an abnormal aptitude of mind -- that develops and grows, or the physical brain, its vehicle, which becomes through some mysterious process fitter to receive and manifest from within outwardly the innate and divine nature of man's over-soul. Perchance, in their unsophisticated wisdom, the philosophers of old were nearer the truth than are our modern wiseacres, when they endowed man with a tutelar deity, a Spirit whom they called genius. The substance of this entity, to say nothing of its essence -- observe the distinction, reader, -- and the presence of both, manifests itself according to the organism of the person it informs. As Shakespeare says of the genius of great men -- what we perceive of his substance "is not here"--"For what you see is but the smallest part...This is precisely what the Esoteric philosophy teaches. The flame of genius is lit by no anthropomorphic hand save that of one's own Spirit. It is the very nature of the Spiritual Entity itself, of our Ego, which keeps on weaving new life-woofs into the web of reincarnation on the loom of time, from the beginnings to the ends of the great Life-Cycle. This it is that asserts itself stronger than in the average man, through its personality; so that what we call "the manifestations of genius" in a person, are only the more or less successful efforts of that EGO to assert itself on the outward plane of its objective form -- the man of clay -- in the matter-of-fact, daily life of the latter. -- H.P.B.
But were the whole frame here,
It is of such a spacious, lofty pitch,
Your roof were not sufficient to contain it..."
Precursors of H.P.B.
The Three Fundamental Concepts of Emerson's Philosophy
(Part 3 of 7)
ONE (1) FOOTNOTE LISTED BELOW:
COMPILER'S NOTE: I added this footnote; it was not in the article. If it doesn't paint an accurate enough picture, or is incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot it and point it out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.
(1) "Brahma" is the impersonal Absolute principle in the Universe, the ALL.
Back to text.