THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 12, October, 1953
(Pages 544-547; Size: 12K)

WORD PUZZLES

[Part 3 of a 29-part series]

SO far, in this series of notes upon word meanings and usages, we are led repeatedly to a peculiar observation -- that words in the Theosophist's lexicon are apt to have developed a duality of meaning, according to time, place and usage. "Altruism," "absolute" and "abstract" are good examples, since when used by the Theosophist's detractors they carry with them a tone of disdain, and when used by the Theosophist, in the sense intended by H.P.B., serve oppositely -- as affirmations of the existence of the higher Self within the body of physical man. Ormuzd and Ahriman are not only always with us -- they live, so to speak, even in our habits and connotations of speech. Words, like philosophical teachings, often have esoteric meanings which vie, within the consciousness of man, with their distorted counterparts.

Such observations impel one to wonder if all human speech does not indeed have two dimensions. A word or a phrase is of itself equivocal or bifocal, and contains no clear meaning until vitalized by the thought-current of a rational man. Wandering at random among the "A's," for instance, and pausing over the term "academy," we find that this word, most often now found affixed to military boarding schools, first came into use in reference to Plato and his disciples. Plato held symposia in a grove of trees near Athens, known as the Academia. But Plato, unlike instructors in the military schools of our day, did not seek to impart specific learning so much as he endeavored to awaken the evaluative capacities of his students. The symposium of Plato's academy was an occasion for free thought, in contradistinction to all rigid lines of indoctrination.

There are, of course, a few notable exceptions to the prevailing authoritarian connotations of "academy," as in the case of the New York Academy of Science, which is at least theoretically based upon a desire to encourage synthesis of evaluative thinking rather than indoctrination. Usually, however, it is the authoritarian definition of academy which comes first to mind. Thus, while a man may respect his universities and send them his children for the obtaining of a "liberal" education, whenever the word academic is heard or employed it is felt to be synonymous with the trappings of intellectual authority. An academician, moreover, is a dull fellow, we feel, secure in the speaking of his own special language and caring little about the problems, moral or otherwise, of the workaday world.

If the original Platonic usage of academy were still current, however, our professors and teachers would be more likely to consider themselves as discussion leaders and companions than as authoritative instructors. And an important discipline could yet be undertaken by the university, if it were a discipline enjoined, through example, by those who insist upon conversing only with carefully formed sentences and well-rounded ideas. Historically, then, a too formalized employment of intellectual discipline leads to a reaction against all intellectuality, encouraging such oft-repeated sentiments as "I don't care much for these intellectuals; give me a man with a good heart."

When Plato selected the grove known as the Academia, utilizing its leafy arbors to shelter Pythagorean discourse, he found it already named in mythology. As one word-origin expert describes it, the Academia received its name from a farmer named Academus who, in a famous legend, showed the twin brothers Castor and Pollux where to look for their kidnapped sister, Helen of Troy. As a farmer, perhaps, Academus represents that unobtrusive knowingness which many associate with "qualities of heart," as opposed to spectacular accomplishments of the intellect. Meanwhile Castor and Pollux are, as H.P.B. explained, in turn symbols of the dual nature of man -- Castor representing the lower psychological self, and Pollux representing that aspect of mind which received its spark from Zeus, King of the Gods.

When Pollux found his brother dying, he willingly sacrificed his own membership in a "divine race" in order to bestow upon his stricken twin a semi-immortality; he agreed to share his brother's fate in all things, and thus, according to H.P.B. "must pass half his existence underground, and the other half (only) in the golden heavenly abodes." Thus, through the spirit of sacrifice, Castor, as well as Pollux, became semi-divine. Yet for them to fulfill their functions as helpers of humankind they needed to recognize kinship with those of humbler origin. Descending into the affairs of men in a search for Helen (perhaps herself symbolizing that higher spiritual intuition which simple men may share, at least at times, with Gods), they received and appreciated wisdom of a necessary earthly sort, as proffered by Academus. We may wonder, then, if Plato did not find his grove by a "natural karma" -- a grove appropriately named to signify his attempts to synthesize divine and human thought through the agency of philosophy.

Incidentally, just as Plato was a special sort of "academician," so was he also a special sort of "agnostic," so far as modern usage of the latter word is concerned. While it was Thomas Huxley who added "agnostic" to the English vocabulary, and although Huxley coined the word as a means of expressing the views of one who doubted that direct knowledge could be gained by mystical means, we find Saint Paul using agnostic in a different sense. In Acts 17:23, Paul speaks, mystically, of the altar to the "unknown God" (agnostico theo). Here the implication is that those who believe that the deific principle must necessarily be beyond the grasp of the corporeal mind come closest to its realization, and the sentiment is the same as that expressed in the Upanishads. Huxley actually had something in common, then, with the Vedic philosophers, and with Plato -- who felt that it is best to not approach the more recondite mysteries by asserted definitions and instructions, but rather, suggestively, through myth and allegory. Yet Plato certainly made much of the discipline of logic, and the Socratic search for values is one in which rational processes of thought are clarified. It is only on the subject of the Good and the Gods that Plato leans toward vague allusions, forsaking definitive "arguments."

"I invented the title of agnostic," wrote Huxley. "It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of church history, who professed to know so very much." Thus it is revealed that Huxley and all the other skeptics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who disliked the connotations of gnosticism were principally protesting the extravagance of certain specific claims to personal knowledge. Ideally, it would seem to us, the word agnostic should be much more carefully removed from proximity to the term skepticism than is the case in most modern usage. For the agnostic may be sure that a higher knowledge and wisdom exists, but is not presumptuous enough to claim that he has attained or may possess all of it; he is perhaps too much aware of his incapacity to define and circumscribe it. While medieval philosophers discuss "God" with assurance, and "God's wisdom" with only a slightly less pontifical air, the Platonic philosophers recognized that revelations from the deity within -- since they come in a language different from that of the pure intellect -- cannot be conveyed in doctrinal terms.

But neither Saint Paul nor Plato was a skeptic. Neither doubted the existence of truth, nor the ultimate capacity of man to apprehend and assimilate that truth, while they did doubt the personal claims of religious votaries to complete mastery of ultimate subjects. An always helpful "agnostic" quality of mind, then, could be argued to be that mental orientation which neither doubts nor accepts, but rather manages to forever retain a mood of what H.P.B. called "attentive expectancy." Doubt, or skepticism, actually spoils the more noble and refined aspect of agnosticism, for doubt is another sort of state of mind entirely -- one wherein it is expected that something will be found wrong with the ideas or doctrines one is considering. Finally, then, it could even be said that the highest way to approach the gnosis is through Platonic agnosticism.

The Theosophist, following in this tradition, attempts the orientation of Socrates, who never doubted the Gods nor his own ultimate capacity to converse with them, but did doubt, and that perpetually, the claim that either the State of Athens or he, himself, could reveal definite "godlike" wisdom to anyone else. Nonetheless, one needs, for philosophical discussion, that preciseness of language and conceptual structure which is characteristic of both Socrates and Plato. Thus, he can find a real respect for the word "academic" -- when used properly. The niceties of logic are sometimes more than just niceties, and play an important role in helping each to rid himself of false or limited conceptions.


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 very nature and design of religion, if I may so express it, prove, even to demonstration, that it must be free from every thing of mystery, and unincumbered with every thing that is mysterious. Religion, considered as a duty, is incumbent upon every living soul alike, and, therefore, must be on a level to the understanding and comprehension of all. Man does not learn religion as he learns the secrets and mysteries of a trade. He learns the theory of religion by reflection. It arises out of the action of his own mind upon the things which he sees, or upon what he may happen to hear or to read, and the practice joins itself thereto. 


--THOMAS PAINE

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WORD PUZZLES
[Asceticism. Ascetic.
Athleticism. Education.]
[Part 4 of a 29-part series]

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