THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 10, August, 1953
(Pages 452-457; Size: 18K)


[Part 1 of a 29-part series]

THE English language -- as every language to some degree -- contains many terms useful in speaking of Theosophy. Any word which signifies or even implies the existence of a transcendent "Inner Man" is, or could be, a natural part of theosophic vocabulary, for the fundamental affirmation of Theosophy is that such an inner man exists -- the real Self in us all -- and that it can come to know more about itself.

Near the beginning of such a theosophical lexicon, for instance, is the word Altruism, derived from a root meaning simply "other people," and connoting "with regard for and devotion to, the interests of others as an ethical principle; as opposed to egoism or selfishness," according to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. The chief "puzzle" in regard to contemporary usage of this term lies in the fact that "altruism" is so often mentioned with overtones of derision. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon comes easily enough: self-styled altruists are suspect for the same reason that any man who proudly claims lofty motives can be seen to be much more interested in the impression he makes than in the supposed object of his devotion. Another reason why "altruism" is a term requiring careful handling is that the psychological scientists have unearthed a good deal of convincing evidence that numerous pseudo-"altruists," like the devotees of many a theology, throw themselves into "good works" in order to forget a responsibility to solve some crucial personal problems.

If the man thus focussing his attention "outward" were actually able to be inwardly concerned over those to whom he is presumably devoted, such criticism would not arise. But the fact is that many in this category have little of either love or understanding for their fellows, a buried struggle within themselves absorbing the real vitality of a life's meditation. When a psychologist claims that innumerable case histories show how neurotic patients fail to show sufficient interest in their own problems, he is not asserting that genuine concern for others is a neurotic symptom, but only that numerous "do-gooders" suffer a host of neurotic complexes.

Psychiatrist Karen Horney, in one of her latest works, Neurosis and Human Growth, clarifies this point, indicating the many times when a man or woman who endeavors to submerge himself in socially commendable activities is a rather incapable altruist, precisely because some of his own distortions of personality have not been faced and corrected. The "shirking of responsibility for self" she writes, "lowers the creative potential of the individual." The inner self is operating at low frequency, and "when the real self is 'locked out' and exiled, one's integrating power will be at a low ebb." These are the complications present in many average representations of "altruism," and must be granted. (Dr. Horney herself also grants "genuine elements besides the more obviously grandiose ones" as often being mixed into "self-sacrificial" behavior). The point is, though, that "love," in its deepest sense, and "sacrifice," in its merely literal sense, are not one and the same thing. Miss Horney further remarks concerning the neurotic "altruist":

His not being an active determining factor in his own life creates a deep feeling of uncertainty, no matter how much overlaid by compulsive rigidities. His not feeling his own feelings makes him un-alive, no matter how great his surface vivacity. His not assuming responsibility for himself robs him of true inner independence. In addition, the inactivity of his real self has a significant influence upon the course of the neurosis. It is a hopeful sign if energies, though unavailable for his personal life, are put into constructive efforts for others. Needless to say, such efforts can be and are made by well-integrated people. But those who interest us here show a striking discrepancy between seemingly limitless energies spent in the service of others and a lack of constructive interest or concern for their own personal lives.
Thus we have the puzzling phenomenon of the man who appears to be an "altruist" demanding a great deal of appreciation for his efforts. He does this because what he is really after is an improvement in his own self-esteem, currently at low ebb because of failure to face and solve some of his own problems and conflicts. Miss Horney continues:
... Varying with his temperament, his neurotic structure, and the situation, he may be charming, compliant, considerate, sensitive to wishes of others, available, helpful, sacrificing, understanding. It is but natural that he overrates what, in this or that way, he does for another person. He is oblivious to the fact that the latter may not at all like this kind of attention or generosity; he is unaware that there are strings attached to his offers; he omits from his consideration all the unpleasant traits he has. And so it all appears to him as the pure gold of friendliness, for which he could reasonably expect returns.
When H.P.B. suggested that the work of the Theosophical Society should be aimed at accomplishing a "brotherhood in actu and not merely in name," and also spoke of altruism as the quintessence of the theosophical life, she was not unaware of the hypocritical role which verbal altruism so often plays. Her Key to Theosophy excoriates those of the wealthy and privileged who pride themselves on their donations to the poor and their subscriptions to organized charities:
Where's the gratitude which your "millions of pounds" should have called forth, or the good feelings provoked by them? Do your helpless old men and women thank you for the workhouses; or your poor for the poisonously unhealthy dwellings in which they are allowed to breed new generations of diseased, scrofulous and rickety children, only to put money into the pockets of the insatiable Shylocks who own houses? Therefore it is that every sovereign of all those "millions," contributed by good and would-be charitable people, falls like a burning curse instead of a blessing on the poor whom it should relieve. We call this generating national Karma, and terrible will be its results on the day of reckoning.
Altruism, then like brotherhood, can exist "in name only," and there is a world of difference between this and altruism "in actu."

The separation of the genuinely ethical spirit from stylized descriptions of supposed moral conduct takes us far back into past history. For moderns, medieval Christianity is a dramatic example of this separation, carried to an extreme and reaching its apotheosis in Torquemada's Inquisition. With the Holy Office, any action theoretically designed to "save souls" was altruistic. Deviation of thought from orthodoxy was a heinous crime, whereas burning and torturing at the stake became entirely justifiable. But neither Christianity nor any single religious tradition can be held accountable for the distortion and misuse of the altruism concept. Whenever a man sees either good or evil as inherent in words or deeds, he has acquired a split morality and is a potential hypocrite -- at least for all those who see, with the ancients, that nobility is a psychological and not a factual affair.

Joseph Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins gives a rather more interesting and informative discussion of altruism than that supplied by Webster:

The Fr. expression, le bien d'autrui, the right of another, was shortened in legal phrase to l'autrui. The philosopher Comte took this shorter term (possibly from the It. form altrui, from L. alteri, to another) and coined the noun altruisme -- translated into Eng. as altruism. Comte opposed it to egoism, from L. ego, I. Egoism is the general philosophical point of view; egotism (the same word, with the t added to separate the vowels) has come to be used for a more personal selfishness, a conceit, a too frequent using of the word I.
Le bien d'autrui had its origination as a philosophical and ethical concern for what H.P.B. calls the "slightest invasion" of another's right. What, in terms of altruism, are the fundamental rights of man? Behind all conceptions of political liberty and economic security is the right of man to be interpreted, first, even if only tentatively, according to his own philosophy and standard of values. Unless we are able to attempt this, eager to find, in anyone, a portion of ourselves -- unless understanding can bridge the gap between greatly different versions of proper opinion and conduct -- we are "altruists" in name only.

Therefore it is that one of the foci for effort in the Theosophical Movement of present and future lies in reinterpreting and revivifying the higher altruism of Buddhi-Manasic understanding. The basis of the Theosophical Society encouraged a friendly comparative study of unfamiliar religious beliefs. And this modulus clearly can be extended to include an attempt to understand sympathetically every opinion or form of conduct divergent from prevailing norms.

An interesting question presents itself to those who have been steeped in H. P. Blavatsky's writings. Namely, can a "materialist" or an orthodox religionist be an altruist? H.P.B. certainly insists upon recognizing that the doctrine of irresponsibility, whether appearing under the heading of "cosmogenesis in chaos," or under the heading of "salvation by special intervention," militates against altruism -- the latter depending upon a strong feeling of individual responsibility. The answer, here, as always, must be that ships flying all manner of flags can have sound bottoms, but that, in matters of religion or militant "all-denying" skepticism, some flags flap so wildly that they tangle with the sails.

When a person has a Program for helping others, this is not necessarily so good. Like the quality of mercy, the quality of altruism cannot be reached by straining. When one does have a "program" for rendering assistance, it is often the success of the program itself which becomes uppermost in mind, and perhaps in the light of this psychological sequence we are best able to understand why so many "charities" go awry. Another interesting aspect of the weakness accompanying organized charity programs is the way in which folk are easily bilked by men representing spurious causes. So eager are we to participate (tax deductibly) in something which can salve our feelings of guilt for much irresponsibility during the past, that we often become easy dupes.

Allan Keller, a New York World-Telegram staff writer, recently told of the rapidly growing business of fake charity organizations which, taking advantage of "the Christmas spirit," wheedle untold millions of dollars each year from unwary individuals. Defending the "legitimate charities that are making their regular appeals for public support" at Christmas time, this article warns against "charity hustlers and racketeers who ask for everything from pennies to hundreds of dollars." Keller continues:

For every Christmas carol that is sung, and every holiday story that is told to the children, there are five or ten slick artists with glib tongues who are making sure that Santa doesn't pass them by.

"Gimme a quarter" and "Don't you want to be one of those backing this worthwhile enterprise with a real gift?" are cut from the same cloth. The pattern is identical; only the size differs with the person who has been marked down as a sucker.

Experts in welfare circles guess that despite all warnings New Yorkers will donate more than $10,000,000 -- the figure may be much higher because most people don't like to admit they have been "taken" -- before the new year rolls around.

Most of the money will go in driblets to individuals using authentic-looking letterheads or to solicitors who talk blandly of camps for kids, outings for the underprivileged, parties, dinners and entertainments that just never seem to materialize.

In discussing the dangers and evils of organized charity, and the giving of money through third persons, H. P. Blavatsky had the following suggestions to offer:
Act individually and not collectively ... The Theosophical ideas of charity mean personal exertion for others; personal mercy and kindness; personal interest in the welfare of those who suffer; personal sympathy, forethought and assistance in their troubles or needs. We Theosophists do not believe in giving money through other people's hands or organizations. We believe in giving to the money a thousand-fold greater power and effectiveness by our personal contact and sympathy with those who need it. We believe in relieving the starvation of the soul, as much if not more than the emptiness of the stomach; for gratitude does more good to the man who feels it, than to him for whom it is felt.
The word "uplift" has definitely become a word of derision, and immediately calls to mind a bevy of busybodies intruding in many aspects of community life -- ostensibly for the good of humanity, but actually in attempts to assuage their own loneliness and lack of self-reliance. What this word could mean is something so different that what has been said concerning "altruism" is both paralleled and thrown into sharper relief. The Theosophist, for instance, could refer "uplift" to H.P.B.'s statements in the Key concerning the duty of Theosophists to seek to improve the environment of unfortunates living in ignorance and misery. "True evolution teaches us," she writes in a passage so often quoted, "that by altering the surroundings of the organism we can alter and improve the organism; and in the strictest sense this is true with regard to man."

Why then is it that we so often, so easily and spontaneously, are pained by the word "uplift"? Perhaps because many of those with whom we associate "uplift" work pride themselves on being altruists: pride is a difficult foe to conquer, resourceful and persistent. One cannot be an altruist and prideful both, for pride means preoccupation with self and altruism means concern for others. There is, we may well suspect, something subtle and mysterious about the "higher" altruism. Altruism is not a matter of specific deeds, nor is it an ideal. Regarded as an idea, it becomes identified with conventional conceptions of virtue, and this is also misleading. Apparently, whenever man regards altruism as a virtue he loses part of its real meaning. As Judge wrote, "Altruism is not so much an ideal as a matter of practice."

Another hidden question about "concern for others" is whether the "concern" is positive or negative in nature. Some are interested in troubles and sufferings to divert their attention from their own, and these may easily accept the whole of human existence as a "misery-go-round." One who has an affirmative philosophy of life, though, an orientation which suggests the possibility of a better world which may be brought to birth, brings a rich gift to all whom he contacts, though he never meddles in the personal problems of another. The greatest of all gifts of this sort, in the opinion of Theosophists, is that of a philosophy showing infinite potentialities for human progress during the whole cycle of manvantaric evolution.

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[Absolute. Religion. Absolve. Dissolution.
Anarchistic. Totalitarian. Abstract. Motion.]
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