THEOSOPHY, Vol. 91, Summer 2003
(Pages 5-11; Size: 14K)


[Article number (23) in this Department]

Does philosophy offer sufficient vision for an ethical life?

What inspires ethical behavior? Sometimes called moral philosophy, ethics is culturally based, often looking for sustenance from some mixture of deific authority, scientific nature, and rational thought. At times, today's philosophers have asked, where is the wonder of ethics? Socrates and Plato are quoted widely that philosophy begins in wonder. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) in Modes of Thought (1938) noted, "And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding."

Does philosophy remove the mystery so thoroughly that we "unweave the rainbow," as poet John Keats claimed (1795-1821, Lamia)? Or is it more like John Milton's perpetual feast (Comus, 1634)? Francis Bacon (1561-1626) thought that a little philosophy creates atheists and that depth in philosophy brings us to religion -- with Ralph Waldo Emerson (essay on "Powers and Laws of Thought") prophesizing that philosophy will one day be taught by poets. The questions remain: How enduring is its sustenance? Is it solely an intellectual precursor to scientific exploration? Is it the breach in the status quo that lures the curious forward? Or is it the bridge between science and religion?

If ethical living is considered akin to the inner perfection we seek as well as how we relate to each other and the world, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) said of ethics that it would lead to a reverence for all life. The absence of this reverence causes many people to claim that philosophy is dead. Where, mournful philosophers ask, has the wonder gone? Does philosophy offer sufficient vision for an ethical life? Several students of theosophy ponder this question along diverse facets of inquiry:


Philosophy, literally meaning "love of wisdom," works in the realm of principles. A philosophical principle is a fundamental truth that can be applied to any situation in life. An example of a principle is the universality of the law of cycles. It does not say to do or not to do anything in particular, but provides a basis for action at any time and in any place.

A rule, or an entire code of behavior, is different. It is a statement of what one should or should not do in specific circumstances but does not provide the underlying basis of why one should or should not act in this way. It can be as minor as "say thank you when you receive a gift" to as major as "do not commit murder." These rules may help one to lead an outwardly ethical life, but they do not connect one to the underlying truth about life that makes such rules comprehensible and reasonable. Without such a basis, external forces are needed to reinforce the ethical behavior: fear of God, fear of hell, the promise of a heaven, the disapproval of one's peers, and so on.

The fundamental ideas of theosophy, however, are philosophical principles that offer a comprehensive, understandable and practical rationale for ethical action. Take the first fundamental idea of theosophy -- an eternal, boundless, indescribable principle that permeates all life, that is at the heart of all beings, making all of us united, inseparable. In essence, you and I and all beings are the same. Since we are all connected, any act I commit affects the whole. As I am a part of the whole, any act I commit affects myself as well. Therefore, to hurt another is to hurt myself. To help another is to help myself. This idea alone can serve as a proper basis for action. But there is more.

Take the second great idea of theosophy -- cycles. Everything returns: the minutes, the hours, the days, the years, the ages; the seasons; our heartbeat; our breathing. Karma, which means literally "action," is that same law of return applied to our behavior. Our deeds come back to us. Everything we experience, everything that happens to us -- the pleasant, the painful, the joyous, the sorrowful -- is a result of actions we ourselves have performed in the past. As the Buddha says, "The bygone wrongs bring forth sorrows and woes/The bygone right breeds bliss" (The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold). Do we want to avoid the painful and the sorrowful in the future? Then we must avoid committing any actions that will produce those effects; i.e., any acts that disrupt the whole of life, that cause harm to any other entity in the great ocean of being. Do we want to experience the pleasant and the joyful in the future? Then we must perform only those actions that will cause those results; i.e., any acts that bring succor and ease to our fellow creatures of the earth.

Another aspect of the eternal law of return is reincarnation. The soul returns again and again to life, each time taking up a new body and a new set of circumstances. If we have not experienced the karmic effects of a given act in one life, we most certainly will experience those effects in a subsequent incarnation. Karma is unerring, exact, and relentless.

These philosophical principles -- the one life, karma, and reincarnation -- provide a firm foundation for ethical action. Others may speak of rules. Others may speak of "oughts" and "ought nots." But philosophical principles are superior to these. Rules and human-made laws are rigid. They bind and encumber us. But philosophical principles are flexible. They can be applied to each and every situation in life. They free us.


What is philosophy anyway? It has always meant different things to different people. The love of or search for the wisdom of life is the closest meaning to the Greek words from which the word "philosophy" is derived. Other definitions -- for example, to understand the universe as a whole, to examine our moral responsibilities and social obligations, to explain the place of will and consciousness in the universe, to examine the values of truth, goodness and beauty, and so on -- still share the meaning that, no matter how one defines it, philosophy is a reflective and meditative activity.

The question is can philosophical principles give a sufficient vision and consistent basis for ethical action considering all the complexities that 21st century life entangles us in? If a philosophy has a universal outlook, is based upon principles of wholeness and oneness, and shows that we are all in it together and that "my" actions affect the whole and I either aid or hinder the evolutionary process according to them, then principles of right action can be derived (that is, if your end in view is to do the greatest good and cause the least harm). Yet principles and knowing how to apply them (that is, knowing what to do in a given situation) are two entirely different things. Sometimes there are no perfect choices, and all we can do is make sure our motives are pure and do what seems best. Also, each of us often functions at times from two disparate sets of impulses, which are sometimes in direct conflict. This is the archetypal dichotomy between "what I want in my picture" and what is fair and good for the larger picture that includes others.

Philosophy (no matter how reflective of the way the universe works, our place in the scheme of things, and how our thought and action affects life in part and as a whole) is by itself inadequate. A person must evoke the will from within to be able to act in consonance with those expressed principles. We must find those principles within. Experience tells us that this is easier said than done. Why? Because each of us carries a load of habitual and often unconscious baggage with us. We might call this the personality's core ideas concerning who we are, what is important in life, what we are capable of achieving, what are our best interests, what we deserve in life, and so on. This is the philosophy of the personality based on past thought and action. It is made up of our personal desires, habits, psychic tendencies, heredity, education (religious and secular), likes, dislikes, fears, fantasies, etc. Of course, these can be positive as well as negative. If we see these for what they are, we can transform and transcend them in order to become reflectors of and embrace fully that visionary philosophy held in our mind's eye.

A philosophy that has the breadth to couch our fullest understanding and can also act as a catalyst for our higher aspirations can aid us in this process and help keep vital a working vision for an ethical life.


Ethics are those guides that delineate the difference between right and wrong. Who or what establishes these guides? Are they the same for everyone? Or, are they arbitrary codes based on convenience? They have been said to be synonymous with morality, but what is morality? Theosophical morality is that which is beneficial to the whole of life. It transcends external differences, even in philosophy. It recognizes universal brotherhood as the highest expression of ethical behavior. Implied herein is the Platonic idea of the good. The idea that all are potentially the same at their center with a transcendent consciousness in space and time that pervades the universe.

This view provides the metaphysical dynamics necessary for understanding the causal side of action. Without these dynamics, the theologians may infer that we are fundamentally irresponsible -- that we are creatures of a god whose mercies are needed to save us from our inherent tendencies to sin. And to materialists, we may be creatures of random cosmic happenings, and our rational allegiance, only to the principles of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Truly ethical behavior, based on the unity of life, is that which acts with an equal-minded attitude from first principles. This means thinking and acting without self-interest or partiality and with the reasoned conviction that the causes we set in motion will manifest according to universal law and return to the center from which they began.

Everyone expresses a philosophy consciously or otherwise. Much of this can be discerned from one's habits and ideals, which reflect one's sense of purpose in life, how universal law binds it, and why. Humans are thinking beings with choice and, as such, are responsible for all thoughts and actions. These thoughts and actions affect the quality of life on the inner planes through the medium of the astral light. This, in turn, acts as a reservoir of all thought and influences all beings, depending on varying degrees of passivity.

While the metaphysics explains the occult laws at work, the philosophical attitude is embraced in the "six glorious virtues," described by Robert Crosbie (1849-1919, Friendly Philosopher). These virtues (comparable in varying numbers with the Buddhist's paramitas, or perfections, which are also found in HPB's Voice of the Silence and the Advaiti Hindu's shad-sampat) include perfect mastery over the mind (the seat of emotions and desires), mastery over bodily acts, etc. -- particularly what in other systems may be called discipline or described as harmony in word and act -- in other words, moral ethics.

Crosbie notes one "last accomplishment" that is required, adding "an intense desire for liberation from conditioned existence, and for transformation into the One Life." Why link virtue to the unity of life? Perhaps philosophy is a process that moves us toward divineness, well-stated by Hierocles of Alexandria, a Neoplatonist who led the Alexandrian school between 415 and 450 CE: "Philosophy is the purification and perfection of human life." He further explains that it is purification, because philosophy delivers it "from material irrationality and the mortal body," and perfection, "in consequence of being the resumption of our proper felicity and a re-ascent to the divine likeness." To effect these two is the province of virtue and truth, he adds; the former exterminates the immoderation of the passions; and the latter introduces the divine form to those who are naturally adapted to its reception (Thomas Taylor, introduction to The Works of Plato).

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