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ESOTERICISM AND MODERN THOUGHT
The idea of hidden knowledge—Poverty of human imagination—Difficulty of formulating desires—An Indian tale—Legend of Solomon—Legend of the Holy Grail —Idea of buried treasure—Different relation to the Unknown—Extension of the limits of knowledge—" Magical " knowledge—The level of ordinary knowledge—Cognitive value of " mystical " states—Identity of mystical experiences—Mysticism and hidden knowledge—Inner circle of humanity—Analogy between mankind and man—Brain—cells—Idea of evolution in modern thought—Hypothesis that has become a theory—Confusion of evolution of varieties with evolution of species—Various possible meanings of evolution—Evolution and transformation—Religion of Mysteries—What was given by initiation—Drama of Christ as a Mystery—Idea of inner circle and modern thought —" Prehistoric " epoch—" Savages "—Preservation of knowledge—Content of the idea of esotericism—Schools—Artificial cultivation of civilisations—Approach to esoteric circle—Religion, philosophy, science and art—Pseudo-ways and pseudo-truths—Different levels of men—Successive civilisations— Principle of barbarism and principle of civilisation—Modern culture—Parallel growth of barbarism and culture—Victory of barbarism —Position of inner circle—" Plan " of Nature—Mimicry—" Protective resemblance " —The old theory of mimicry—Latest explanations of mimicry—Inconsistency of scientific theories—" Theatricalness "—" Fashion " in Nature—The " Great Laboratory "—Self-evolving forms—The first humanity— Adam and Eve—Animals and men—First cultures—Experience of mistakes—Social organisms—Animal-plants—Individual man and masses—Myth of the Great Flood—The Tower of Babel—Sodom and Gomorrah and the ten righteous men—Myths of non-human races—Ants and bees and their " evolution "—Cause of downfall of former races of self- evolving beings—Realisation of socialistic order—Loss of connection with the laws of Nature—Automatism—Civilisation of termites—Sacrifice of intelligence—" Evolution " and modern dogmatism—The psychological method.
THE idea of a knowledge which surpasses all ordinary human knowledge, and is inaccessible to ordinary people, but which exists somewhere and belongs to somebody, permeates the whole history of the thought of mankind from the most remote periods. And according to certain memorials of the past a knowledge quite different from ours formed the essence and content of human thought at those times when, according to other opinions, man differed very little, or did not differ at all, from animals.
"Hidden knowledge" is therefore sometimes called "ancient knowledge". But of course this does not explain anything. It must, however, be noted that all religions, all myths, all beliefs, all popular heroic legends of all peoples and all countries are based on the recognition of the existence sometime and somewhere of a knowledge far superior to the knowledge which we possess or can possess. And to a considerable degree the content of all religions and myths consists of symbolic forms which represent attempts to transmit the idea of this hidden knowledge.
On the other hand, nothing demonstrates so clearly the weakness of human thought or human imagination as existing ideas as to the content of hidden knowledge. The word, the concept, the idea, the expectation, exist, but there are no definite concrete forms of percept connected with this idea. And the idea itself has very often to be dug out with great difficulty from beneath mountains of lies, both intentional and unintentional, from deception and self-deception and from naive attempts to present in intelligible forms adopted from ordinary life that which in its very nature can have no resemblance to them.
The work of finding traces of ancient or hidden knowledge, or even hints of its existence, resembles the work of archæologists looking for traces of some ancient forgotten civilisation and finding them buried beneath several strata of cemeteries left by peoples who have since lived in that place, separated possibly by thousands of years and unaware of one another's existence.
But on every occasion that an investigator comes upon the attempts to express in one way or another the content of hidden knowledge he invariably sees the same thing, namely, the striking poverty of human imagination in the face of this idea.
Humanity in the face of the idea of hidden knowledge reminds one of the people in fairy-tales who are promised by some goddess, fairy or magician that they will be given whatever they want on condition that they say exactly what they want. And usually in fairy-tales people do not know what to ask for. In some cases the fairy or magician offers to grant as many as three wishes, but even this is of no use. In all fairy-tales of all periods and peoples, men get hopelessly lost when confronted with the question of what they want, and what they would like to have. They are quite unable to determine and formulate their wish. Either at that minute they remember only some small unimportant desire, or they express several contradictory wishes, which cancel one another; or else, as in the fairy-tale of "The Fisherman and the Fish", they are not able to keep within the bounds of possible things and, always wishing for more and more, they end by attempting to subjugate higher forces, not being conscious of the poverty of their own powers and capacities. And so again they fall, again they lose all that they have acquired, because they themselves do not clearly know what they want.
In a jocular form this idea of the difficulty of formulating desires and of men's rare success in it is set forth in an Indian tale:
A beggar, who was born blind, led a single life, and lived upon the charity of his neighbours, was long and incessantly assailing a particular deity with his prayers. The latter was at last moved by this continual devotion, but fearing that his votary might not be easily satisfied, took care to bind him by an oath to ask for no more than a single blessing.
It puzzled the beggar for a long while, but his professional ingenuity at last came to his aid.
"I hasten to obey the behest, generous Lord I" quoth he, "and this solitary boon is all I ask at thy hands, namely, that I should live to see the grand-child of my grand-child playing in a seven-storied palace and helped by a train of attendants to his meal of milk and rice, out of a golden cup." And he concluded by expressing his hope that he had not exceeded the limit of a single wish vouchsafed to him.
The deity saw that he had been fairly done, for though single in form, the boon asked for comprised the manifold blessings of health, wealth, long life, restoration of sight, marriage and progeny. For very admiration of his devotee's astuteness and consummate tact, if not in fulfilment of his plighted word, the deity felt bound to grant him all he asked for.
In the legend of Solomon (I Kings, 3, 5—15) we find an explanation of these tales, an explanation of what it is that men can receive if they only know what to wish for.
In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, Ask what I shall give thee.
And Solomon said ... I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or how to come in.
And thy servant is in the midst of thy people ...
Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad ...
And the speech pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing.
And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies ; but hast asked for thyself understanding ...
Behold, I have done according to thy words; lo, I have given thee a wise and understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.
And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches and honour ... and I will lengthen thy days.
The idea of hidden knowledge and the possibility of finding it after a long and arduous search is the content of the legend of the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank (or the platter from which Christ ate) at the Last Supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ's blood, was according to a mediæval legend brought to England. To those who saw it the Grail gave immortality and eternal youth. But it had to be guarded only by people perfectly pure in heart. If anyone approached it who was not pure enough, the Grail disappeared. On this followed the legend of the quest of the Holy Grail by chaste knights. Only the three knights of King Arthur succeeded in seeing the Grail.
Many tales and myths, those of the Golden Fleece, the Fire-Bird (of Russian folklore), Aladdin's lamp, and those about secret riches and treasures guarded by dragons or other monsters, serve to express the relation of man to hidden knowledge.
The "philosopher's stone" of alchemists also symbolised hidden knowledge.
All views on life are divided into two categories on this point. There are conceptions of the world which are entirely based on the idea that we live in a house in which there is some secret, some buried treasure, some hidden store of precious things, which somebody at some time may find and which occasionally has in fact been found. And then from this point of view, the whole aim and the whole meaning of life consist in the search for this treasure, because without it all the rest has no value. And there are other theories and systems in which there is no idea of "treasure-trove", for which all alike is visible and clear, or all alike invisible and obscure.
If in our time theories of the latter kind, that is, those which deny the possibility of hidden knowledge, have become predominant, we must not forget that they have become so only very recently and only among a small, although a very noisy, part of humanity. The very great majority of people still believe in "fairy-tales" and believe that there are moments when fairy-tales become reality.
But it is man's misfortune that at those moments at which something new and unknown becomes possible he does not know what he wants, and the opportunity which suddenly appeared as suddenly disappears.
Man is conscious of being surrounded by the wall of the Unknown, and at the same time he believes that he can get through the wall and that others have got through it; but he cannot imagine, or imagines very vaguely, what there may be behind this wall. He does not know what he would like to find there or what it means to possess knowledge. It does not even occur to him that a man can be in different relations to the Unknown.
The Unknown is not known. But the Unknown may be of different kinds, just as it is in ordinary life. A man may not have precise knowledge of a particular thing, but he may think and make judgements and suppositions about it, he may conjecture and foresee it to such a degree of correctness and accuracy that his actions and expectations in relation to what is unknown in the particular case may be almost right. In exactly the same way, in regard to the Great Unknown, a man may be in different relations to it; he may make more correct or less correct suppositions about it, or he may make no suppositions at all, or he may even altogether forget about the very existence of the Unknown. In the latter cases, when he makes no suppositions or forgets about the existence of the Unknown, then even what was possible in other cases, that is, the accidental coincidence of conjectures or speculations with the unknown reality, becomes impossible.
In this incapacity of man to imagine what exists beyond the wall of the known and the possible lies his chief tragedy, and in this, as has already been said, lies the reason why so much remains hidden from him and why there are so many questions to which he can never find the answer.
In the history of human thought there are many attempts to define the limits of possible knowledge. But there are no interesting attempts to conceive what the extension of these limits would mean and where it would necessarily lead.
Such an assertion may seem an intentional paradox. People clamour so loudly and so often about the unlimited possibilities of knowledge, about the immense horizons opening before science, and so forth, but in actual fact all these "unlimited possibilities" are limited by the five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste—plus the capacity of reasoning and comparing—beyond which a man can never go.
We do not take sufficient account of this circumstance or forget about it, and this explains why we are at a loss when we want to define "ordinary knowledge", "possible knowledge" and "hidden knowledge", or the differences between them.
In all myths and fairy-tales of all times we find the idea of "magic", "witchcraft" and "sorcery", which, as we come nearer to our own period, take the form of "spiritualism", "occultism" and the like. But even people who believe in these words understand very imperfectly what they really mean and in what respect the knowledge of a "magician" or an "occultist" differs from the knowledge of an ordinary man; and therefore all attempts to create a theory of magical knowledge end in failure. The result is always something indefinite and, though impossible, not fantastic, because the "magician" usually appears as an ordinary man endowed with some exaggerated faculties in one direction. And the exaggeration of anything on already long-known lines cannot create anything fantastic.
Even if "miraculous" knowledge is an approach to knowledge of the Unknown, people do not know how to approach the miraculous. In this they are greatly hindered by the interference of "pseudo-occult" literature, which often strives to abolish the divisions mentioned above and prove the unity of scientific and "occult" knowledge. Thus in such literature one often finds assertions that "magic" or "magical" knowledge is nothing but knowledge which is in advance of its time. For instance, it is said that some mediæval monks may have had some knowledge of electricity. For their times this was "magic". For us it has ceased to be magic. And what may appear magic for us would cease to be magic for future generations.
Such an assertion is quite arbitrary, and, in destroying the necessary divisions, it prevents us finding and establishing a right attitude towards facts. Magical or occult knowledge is knowledge based upon senses which surpass our five senses and upon a capacity for thinking which surpasses ordinary thinking, but it is knowledge translated into ordinary logical language, if that is possible or in son far as it is possible.
In speaking of ordinary knowledge, it is necessary to repeat once more that, though the content of knowledge is not constant, that is, though it changes and grows, it always grows along definite and strictly fixed lines. All scientific methods, all apparatus, all instruments and appliances, are nothing but an improvement upon and a broadening of the "five senses", whereas mathematics and all possible calculations are nothing but the broadening of the ordinary capacity of comparison, judgement and the drawing of conclusions. But at the same time some mathematical constructions go as far beyond the realm of ordinary knowledge as to lose any connection with it. Mathematics finds such relations of magnitudes or relations of relations as have no equivalents in the physical world we observe. But we are unable to make use of these mathematical attainments, because in all our observations and reasonings we are bound by the "five senses" and the laws of logic.
In every historical period human knowledge, that is to say, "ordinary knowledge" or the "known", the "accepted" knowledge, embraced a definite cycle of observations and the deductions made from them. As time went on this cycle grew larger but, if it may be so expressed, it always remained on the same plane. It never rose above it.
Believing in the possibility and existence of "hidden knowledge", people always ascribed new properties to it, always regarded it as rising above the plane of ordinary knowledge and stretching beyond the limits of the "five senses". This is the true meaning of "hidden knowledge", of magic, of miraculous knowledge and so on. If we take away from hidden knowledge the idea that it goes beyond the five senses, it will lose all meaning and importance.
If, taking all this into consideration, we make a survey of the history of human thought in its relation to the Miraculous, we may find material for ascertaining the possible content of the Unknown. This should be possible because, in spite of all the poverty of its imagination and the divergence of its attempts, humanity has guessed some things correctly.
Excerpted from A New Model of the Universe by P.D Ouspensky. Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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