THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 6, April, 1954
(Pages 247-251; Size: 15K)


[Part 9 of a 29-part series]

SO far as we recall, every revered teacher and sage has found it necessary, in his time, to lay bare the characteristic psychological weaknesses of the day. Though the teachings of the Buddha were essentially affirmative, it was yet unavoidable that their presentation would expose, by implication, the inadequacies of religious orthodoxy, and challenge, however "non-violently," Brahmin authority. Jesus, from the standpoint of the orthodox, was an upstart and a rebel, who likewise called attention to misuse of authority.

So with Madame Blavatsky. Her utterances were particularly fiery in denunciation of hypocrisy and pretentiousness in her time, a combination suggested by the word cant. One might almost think that H.P.B. was preoccupied with this term, so often does it occur in her articles and in her Key to Theosophy -- especially in all she wrote near the end of her life, after many years of experience in trying to "break the molds of men's minds."

Cant and hypocrisy, however, while often used as if synonymous, are not quite the same thing. By derivation cant has to do, first, with the preservation of ritualistic forms by incantation. Full-blown hypocrisy does often follow in the wake of cant, however, since the meaningless repetition of doctrine develops pretentiousness, a mistaken belief that one is possessed of special knowledge because he is able to pronounce properly certain terms. Webster's New Collegiate gives something of the story in the following definitions:

cant n. [Prob. fr. ONF. cant (F. chant) singing] 1. An affected, sing-song mode of speaking; a whine. 2. The expressions peculiar to, and generally understood only by, members of a particular sect, class, or occupation. ... 3. A mode of talking used merely out of convention; esp., the insincere use of phraseology.
The "posing" aspect of cant is further illuminated by Joseph Shipley, who finds an analogy with "the whining plea of the beggar, who indeed sometimes posed as a pilgrim -- much as young men sell subscriptions 'to pay their way through college'."

Thus, whenever men have paraded the appearance of virtue in order to gain respect or reward they have "canted." Cant is, then, a special way of arriving at hypocrisy, rather than the condition of hypocrisy itself. Cant is also a species of pride, or rather an alliance between simple egocentricity and a feeling of status or privilege growing out of one's apparently close association with virtuous people and groups. H.P.B. once wrote that "pride is the first enemy to itself, unwilling to have anyone praised in its presence, it falls foul of every rival and does not always come out victorious." So with cant, for it is the immediate Karma of the canting hypocrite to multiply the existence of rivals with every day. In the midst of this plenitude of rivalry, no one can "come out victorious" consistently.

H.P.B.'s emphasis upon the prime duty of theosophists to track to its lair this foe of the higher self is expressed succinctly in the Key to Theosophy (p. 48). She writes:

Our duty is to keep alive in man his spiritual intuitions. To oppose and counteract -- after due investigation and proof of its irrational nature -- bigotry in every form, religious, scientific, or social, and cant above all, whether as religious sectarianism or as belief in miracles or anything supernatural.
The implication here is that the spiritual intuition, upon which the man's philosophizing powers depend, is completely -- if only temporarily -- stultified by empty ritualism, by prideful associations, in the context of which one deludes himself into believing that he is one of the "especially chosen." In an article appearing in the Theosophist for May, 1883, H.P.B. comments on the evident sense of self-satisfaction which an English correspondent displayed in contrasting English "freedom" with the despotic censorship prevalent in Russia at that time. Here she implies that open authoritarianism is less confusing than a "tyranny of the consensus" -- the demand for conformity of opinion which arises from that complexity of compromises we call "conventionality." Here she wrote:
We prefer brutal sincerity and a frank avowal of despotism to sham protestations of liberty, and -- pharisaism. We would a thousand times rather submit to the iron-bound limitations of the Russian press-laws, of censorship, and an honestly open system of autocratism, than risk to trust to the treacherous promises of the deceptive fata morgana of English social and religious liberty, as exercised at present.

Freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and along with it social freedom, are simply delusions like all the rest; the will-o-the-wisps, the pit-falls prepared by the old generations to ensnare the new ones, the credulous and the innocent. "So far shalt thou go and no further!" says the terrible but honest genius of the Russian Press, pointing out with his finger to the boundaries prescribed by censorship; while the Englishman who sings so proudly....

"Britannia rules the waves,
The Britons never ne--ver, n-e-e-ve-er, will be slaves!"

--finds himself before he has hardly time to draw the last note, in the tight embrace of Public Opinion, the boa-constrictor-like Mrs. Grundy; who, after squeezing the breath out of him, coolly throws him right into the clutches of some other such "Trinity of Righteousness."

Again, in another section of the Key, H.P.B. further excoriates English habitudes of mind, recognizing that, precisely because the English had the best apparent grounds for intellectual pride, so was the danger of practicing cant the greatest:
The profession of a truth is not yet the enactment of it; and the more beautiful and grand it sounds, the more loudly virtue or duty is talked about instead of being acted upon, the more forcibly it will always remind one of the Dead Sea fruit. Cant is the most loathsome of all vices; and cant is the most prominent feature of the greatest Protestant country of this century -- England.
By all these observations, the student is led to reflect, much in the manner of the modern psychiatrist, upon the nature of the person who possesses genuine mental health, in contrast to the wide range of common mental and psychic unbalances. Honesty is seen not as a mere personal virtue, but the only bedrock upon which a healthy society can be formed. For the presence of cant corrupts both religion and politics and, as H.P.B. indicated, can easily also corrupt the perspectives of nominal Theosophists. Those who became prideful of their familiarity with Sanskrit nomenclature, or with the details of ancient lore presented in Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and Secret Doctrine, found it all too easy to pose as the possessors of a noble wisdom -- when all they really possessed was the capacity to chant its phraseology. We see here an all-sufficient reason for the grounding of the T.S. upon its cosmopolitan base, the prime heresy of the Society being any campaign to advance one's own particular beliefs at the expense of others -- in other words, the attempt to establish an orthodoxy of which one could then be the awe-inspiring custodian.

Teachers of religious and philosophical truths, especially when committed to setting these in written form, thus run a staggering risk. Whoever reads their presentations of "doctrines" is thereby able to misuse them, by claiming a specially derived ability to represent them correctly to others. In this context we can see the profound logic of H.P.B.'s frequent remarks to the effect that "frank materialists" were far better for the Society than those members who had a penchant for believing themselves among the especial elect. The materialist, at least, realized that his own opinions must stand their ground on an open field against all comers; those of sectarian leanings felt that the battle for truth had already been won, and themselves declared victorious by higher authority. Thus were the names of H.P.B. and her Adept teachers misused, politicalized, and made to serve ignoble ends. Therefore H. P. Blavatsky's definition of a genuine theosophist describes one who has "an inspiration of his own to solve the universal problems," and who, in the arena of debate and opinion, recognizes that truths new to him may be found in any one of a thousand unlikely places. One may learn, she said, even from those whose conclusions seem diametrically opposed to the tenor of one's own beliefs and, further, that others may benefit from the very philosophy which seems, to many students, adverse.

This is true catholicity, in Webster's sense of "comprehensive sympathies and understanding, liberal." But note what has happened to the word Catholic. Exactly the same thing, we see, that happened to the meaning of "incantation." As priests and self-styled representatives of the "one true Christianity" claimed to be the only rightful historical heirs of the teachings of Jesus, they gravitated towards totalitarianism, and thus inclined also toward the doctrine of apostolic succession. In this sense the Anglican Church was but a rival Catholicism, also claiming a direct descent from God and the son of God. Catholicism itself finally became a rigid system, thus effectively reversing the original meaning.

We may conclude, then, that whenever a man is inclined to "chant," to repeat in exactly the same way, a form in which philosophic ideas have been clothed, without thinking them through independently, he is making the duty of all Theosophists harder to fulfill. If he contends, perchance, that Theosophy, as he understands it, is the "whole truth," with all other conceptions representing but degrees of error, he has lost the breadth of spirit which characterized H.P.B.'s "Theosophical Movement." This, clearly, is an important phase of the story of the failure of the Theosophists of the last century; Theosophic intent may be similarly obscured in our own time by any who claim virtue because they supposedly possess esoteric knowledge. For such an attitude renders one insensitive to the spirit of philosophy.

Having noted all these discouraging things about the danger of cant, we can turn, finally, to another word of opposite psychological orientation among the "C's" -- compassion. When one's mind is in the state of cant it is fixed upon self, and is unresponsive to the thoughts, aspirations, and needs of other people. The man who "cants," further, is apt to become a cynic, whereas the man of compassion is not interested in measuring his supposed superior status against the inferior status of others, and instead examines sympathetically other beliefs and modes of conduct. The Buddhas and Christs "of compassion" were men who, somewhere along the lonely trails of soul, had learned to despise cant -- within themselves first of all -- and therefore developed that precious sort of integrity which banishes forever the thought of rivalry and spiritual status. Not once did either Buddha or Christ speak of their virtues, but instead declared the capacity of each individual to arrive at virtue in his own way, and in his own karmic time.

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:


I ask for no more than your conclusions on the great matters of human life and destiny. Let me know them, and I shall not trouble you to set out the arguments. I can myself supply them. Our desires attract supporting reasons as a magnet the iron filings. You will say, 'Then you are yourself prejudiced.' I fear most certainly. Yet there is a limit. We shall none of us be easily persuaded that we can believe the outrageously absurd because it takes our fancy. We must endeavour to proceed warily, and with what detachment we can muster. We should aim, I venture to think, now and always, at a conclusion, if such there be, which will satisfy the whole of our nature. And for two reasons. It is neither sensible nor scientific to take a part for the whole. 'The nature of man is his whole nature,' said Pascal. I accept that position. 


Next article:
[Devotion. Reverence. Self-Reliance.
Independence. Vote. Vow. Votary.
Solemn Pledge. Doom. Fidelity.
Faithful. Cooperate. Collaborate.]
[Part 10 of a 29-part series]

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