THEOSOPHY, Vol. 43, No. 12, October, 1955
(Pages 541-545; Size: 16K)


[Part 27 of a 29-part series]

THE word progress, simple in meaning and innocuous though it may seem, brings into focus a number of important philosophic and ethical issues of particular interest to the Theosophical student. To begin with, we have the puzzle occasioned by such statements as the following from the writings of Robert Crosbie -- an emphatic remark that "the assumption that Theosophy is a system of progressive religion can only proceed from ignorance of the facts and a false conception which can only lead to confusion on the part of any student." "If there is such a knowledge as the Wisdom-Religion," Mr. Crosbie continues, "it is the result of the observation and experience of the Masters of Wisdom, and as such stands for itself; it can neither be enlarged nor improved upon by its students."

One difficulty with this emphasis arises when the student seeks adequate terms for representing the obvious truth that each inquirer is constantly discovering more Theosophy for himself each day, and attempting to utilize a more satisfactory philosophical vocabulary to express it. For the individual, Theosophy is certainly "progressive" and, so far as the cyclic representation of the central doctrines by Adept teachers and sages is concerned, one may also expect to encounter greater subtlety and involvement of philosophy whenever those who may listen and learn evidence a higher degree of manasic awareness. H.P.B.'s own Theosophical writings, for instance, are certainly "progressive" in this sense; the general allusions and statements in Isis Unveiled are expanded a hundredfold in portions of The Secret Doctrine and, as readers of this series will have noted, the choice and use of terms such as "metempsychosis" and "reincarnation" underwent clearly definable transitions, governed in large part by the needs of the immediate occasion.

Robert Crosbie's emphasis upon the fact that Theosophy is not progressive, on the other hand, is a necessary one for those to whom the "progressive" designation would imply that all theosophical writings are tentative and speculative -- and that "improvement" of the original teachings is to be expected with each generation. The concept of a gnosis, a genuine Wisdom-Religion, is part of the highest faith of the Theosophist, and if one can hold no belief in Eternal Verities, he can hold no firm faith in anything. Mr. Crosbie's original letter to a student -- from which the editorial quoted was subsequently taken -- goes on to mention the many "self-acclaimed leaders of societies who are very prominent in the public eye, and who proclaim and issue their own ideas, interpretations, and speculations as Theosophy pure and simple; one would expect from such exponents the false and misleading idea that 'Theosophy is a progressive system of religion,' for such a statement beclouds the facts, and serves to draw attention to their own lucubrations as 'progressed' Theosophy, and to themselves as having progressed farther and as knowing more than the original Teachers." At the root of the dilemma under discussion, then, quite clearly, is the same distinction as that appearing between individuality and personality, for unless it is possible to see that there is a permanent perspective for the higher ego, and truths which do not vary with idiosyncrasies of time, place and circumstances, the nature of impermanent idiosyncrasies -- in terms of their residence in the personality -- cannot be adequately grasped.

In the development of Western philosophy and science, the word progress has a fascinating, if confusing, history. In assessing its various stages of usage, one must begin with the realization that any essential form of intellectual progress was discouraged by medieval theologians. If man does not grow by self-induced efforts toward realization of the good and the true, his only concern must be to escape from evil. No philosopher was encouraged to develop any new hypotheses in the process of self-revelation, for all revelation was authoritatively set forth in church doctrine. Thus, in the subsequent revolution that freed men's minds from dependence upon a static conception of man's nature, the idea of progress became identified with all the more hopeful views of humanly controlled destiny. Carl Becker's illuminating Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers generates sympathy for revolutionary forerunners such as Condorcet, for the great "new" dream was that heaven could and would be built on earth -- by men. The plea to the masses was that they stop foolish attempts at placating a non-existent God, and cooperate with the work of eradicating social injustice. Optimism was expressed through the belief that the Process of History would inevitably work toward improvement with the passage of time.

Two hundred years later, however, the masses had come to believe more than Condorcet intended -- that since History was going to build a better future by itself, all one had to do was sit back and wait -- meanwhile voicing bitter complaints against those who resisted changes favorable to the majority. Finally -- and this is the central theme of José Ortega's Revolt of the Masses -- the propagandized "working man" became convinced that History, Science and Society owed him a living of his liking. In this soil the seeds of revolutionary doctrines were successfully planted. And the character of the seeds was strongly influenced by the soil, for Marx, originally an idealist, came more and more to rely upon resentment against the status quo to achieve a more equitable distribution of goods and privileges, and less and less upon the awakening of the idealistic promptings of other individuals. The dream of revolution, violent revolution, was the dream of controlling the "historical process" by force. Finally, in turn -- though one cannot help but feel sympathy for much in the progressive view of history -- this reaction led to its own special brand of oversimplification and confusion among nearly all socialists, whether they called themselves "evolutionary" or "revolutionary." The development is ably summarized by Arthur Ekirch in The Idea of Progress in America (1944). Dr. Ekirch writes:

Through the course of its long and important history the idea of progress has been defined and interpreted in various ways. This idea that "civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction" has been compared with the concepts of Fate, Providence, or personal immortality. Like those ideas it is believed in not because it is held to be good or bad, nor because it is considered to be true or false. In the words of J. B. Bury, the leading historian of the concept of progress, "belief in it is an act of faith." Bury accordingly included progress among those ideas not dependent for their fulfillment upon man's will. And in this opinion he was supported by many of the European philosophers of the concept.
So here we have the other extreme. Human "progress" is not only possible -- contrary to the theological view -- but inevitable. On this view the fulfilment of man becomes a quantitative rather than a qualitative process, and this may imply, in turn, that one can wait for "science" to improve his condition. Evolution, rather than being self-directed, becomes a kind of escalator, the rate of ascent being determined by the improvement of the social organism. This habit of thinking, of course, leads to passivity, and in the twentieth century may be held accountable for the indifference with which so many, in all countries, have viewed the trend towards establishment of totalitarian controls. "What can one person do?" seems a particularly excusable sentiment if the whole climate of opinion favors tightly organized, efficient "social planning."

On the other hand, "progressive" aspirants to leadership have found a ready-to-hand justification for "ends justify the means" programs. Thus "progressive" movements have often become casuistically revolutionary. By way of political terminology, a "progressive" finally became a person who believed that, just as the individual is simply a facet of the mass, so is the present but an episode on the road to a better future. But when a man begins to think chiefly in terms of "historical process," and neglects the philosophical consideration of ethical value, he can easily subvert the rights of individual conscience and the whole cause of civil liberties on the ground that "Society" will be improved by a judicious application of compulsion in working social transformation. Then, as Dwight Macdonald puts it in his penetrating essay, The Root is Man, "The starting point becomes the State," rather than man himself. Macdonald then continues:

What is not generally understood is that the traditional Progressive approach, taking History as the starting-point and thinking in terms of mass political parties, bases itself on this same alienation of man which it thinks it is combating. It puts the individual into the same powerless, alienated role vis-à-vis the party or the trade union as the manipulators of the modern State do, except that the slogans are different. The current failure of the European masses to get excited about socialist slogans and programs indicates that the masses are, as Rosa Luxemburg constantly and rightly insisted, much smarter and more "advanced" than their intellectual leaders. The brutal fact is that the man in the street everywhere is quite simply bored with socialism, as expounded by the Socialist, Stalinist, and Trotskyist epigones of Marx, that he suspects it is just a lot of stale platitudes which either have no particular meaning (Socialists, Trotskyists, British Labor Party), or else a sinister one (Stalinists). Above all, he feels that there is no interest in it for him, as an individual human being -- that he is as powerless and manipulated vis-à-vis his socialist mass-organization as he is towards his capitalistic employers and their social and legal institutions.

Those who build their political philosophy on the idea of progress tend to justify the Means by the End, the Present by the Future, the Here by the There. The progressive can swallow war as a Means to the End, peace; he can overlook the unsatisfactory Present by fixing his eyes on a distant and perfect Future, as in the case of the USSR; he can justify the loss of the individual's freedom Here as necessary to a workable organization of society There. He is able to perform these considerable feats of abstract thinking because he, who makes so free with the charge of "metaphysician" and "Utopian," is actually the arch-metaphysician of our time, quite prepared to sacrifice indefinitely and on the most grandiose scale the real, material, concrete interests of living human beings on the altar of a metaphysical concept of Progress which he assumes (again metaphysically) is the "real essence" of history.

For all these reasons it can be seen that theosophical opposition to callow definitions of "progressivism" has manifold justification. Not only have numerous original sparks of political idealism been subverted by the rationalization that the present may be justly sacrificed to the future, the individual to the blueprint of a supposedly better social order, but the true meaning of art has been effectively obscured. Though the question of man's love for past great art produced in a "primitive" socio-economic order, occasionally bothered Karl Marx, both he and his followers had categorically rejected the possibility that the most important realities were psychological and individual. Great art expresses eternal verities of the spirit, and may flow from the single genius of a man who transcends the economic and political conditions of his time -- simply by living beyond them, paying relatively little attention.

It is at this point, perhaps, that the insistence by H.P.B. that Theosophy be not considered simply a "progressive system of religion" can be best appreciated. Improvements of the social structure -- always in order and always worth working for -- are nevertheless sound only to the degree that they are based upon a view of man which respects the need for self-induced and self-devised efforts on the part of each individual. True art, genuine civil liberties, and symbolic religion have a close kinship, for unless it be recognized that the most important work of man is his own psychological evolution, society will be controlled by casuist leaders and passive followers. Right becomes might, or -- little better -- simply the echo of millions of people who say the same things because this is easier than original thinking.

The teachings of Theosophy are certainly oriented around the "idea of progress," but this is recognized in Theosophy as meaning progress of the soul. The reality of the soul, however, and all those doctrines, religious symbols, arts, and philosophies which allow the reality of the soul to be more clearly realized, have a timeless value. There is in man a natural longing for belief in that which is permanent, enduring. Progress is not, of course, to end with such realization, but rather may be regarded as truly beginning when eternal verities are recognized and correctly identified.

Next article:
[Radical. Radicalism. Ideology.
Radical Person. Progressive Person.
Going to the Roots of Every Question.
Moral, Political, Economic, Religious, or Ethical.
Individual Conscience and Sensibility.
What One Wants to Happen. What is Actually Happening.
Thinking in Collective terms. The Dual Nature of Man.
Society. History. The Working Class. The Status Quo.
Being a Radical From Theosophical Points of View.
The Theosophical Movement and Radicalism.
Thomas Paine Was a Radical in the Theosophic Sense.
Tools of Philosophy. Open-Hearted Quest For Truth.
Societal and Economic Disequilibrium. Violent Factionalism.
Political Radicalism. Karl Marx. Socialism and Communism.
The Connection Between Ideal Mysticism and Ideal Radicalism.
The Eternal Significance of the Three Basic Theosophical Propositions.
The Core of Every Inspired Philosophy and Religion.
A True Theosophical Philosopher is a Genuine Radical.
Impartial, Understanding, and Sympathetic.
The Ally of Honest Science and Honest Religion Alike.]
[Part 28 of a 29-part series]

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