THEOSOPHY, Vol. 37, No. 9, July, 1949
(Pages 419-422; Size: 11K)
(Number 15 of a 15-part series)

MIND OF THE AGE

XV: THE DOGMA OF ENVIRONMENT

ONE of the widespread dogmas of the present day is that men cannot improve themselves unless their environments are altered. In Theosophical terms this is a dogma to be opposed and countered, not because it is false -- for in one sense it is true -- but because belief in the supreme importance of environment is used in specific situations to persuade us that material change must precede efforts to replace a prevailing philosophy or psychology.

The truth behind the dogma of environment is that only by offering a better environment can we hope to help any person. No man can spiritually regenerate another: he can only offer him opportunities or contexts in which to seek his own regeneration. Of the many kinds of environment, the most important is that of the mind, and the theosophist proceeds upon the assumption that men live primarily in their minds.

There are multiple reasons why a material environment has come to seem so all-important. If man is not free to develop the economic life he wishes, the reaction will be over-concentration, at some later date, on his economic freedom and well being. In medieval times, men were not encouraged to think about the improvement of social conditions, for any change in the status quo would have been detrimental to the wielders of temporal power -- and would also undermine the psychology of accepting the clergy's decrees as to the order of existence. Not only because of acute physical needs caused by disproportion of wealth, but also because religious dogma had long fostered an apathy to economic injustice, the energies released by the Renaissance eventually directed thought into lines of revolutionary, economic change.

The final appeal of all revolutionary movements which promise complete changes in social conditions is in their promise to offer human beings a new or more fruitful context for coming to satisfactory terms with life's experiences. But the first appeal is the appeal of free thought on a subject formerly excluded from debate.

Applying the three fundamental propositions of Theosophical philosophy, we can understand, from a metaphysical viewpoint, why it is natural for man, even as a spiritual being, to devote much time and energy to "material environment." The first fundamental proposition, as a base for every idea of synthesis or integration, suggests that we should integrate all departments of our lives around some central unity. For example, our economic life should be brought into harmony with our mental life. If our mental life reaches above our present economic condition, we naturally seek to bring our environment into alignment with our ideals. So, whether we think socialist thoughts, or capitalist thoughts, or theocratic thoughts, we will inevitably give these thoughts concrete expression. They should be given concrete expression. "The end of a man," wrote Carlyle, "is an action and not a thought, though it were the noblest." (This, of course, is one reason why we cannot fight any political ism effectively as long as we attack it at the political level.)

The second fundamental proposition suggests that in all human beings is a capacity to achieve understanding of Law. We desire to understand all natural laws, for we usually try to think in orderly patterns; in other words, we wish to render our lives predictable. Since the essential elements of economy are much easier to grasp than those of philosophy or religion, we are often tempted to begin our search for law and order by planning our economic life well enough so that our relationship to it, at least, will be predictable. Even our dangerous desire for security is derived from a basic need: we seek to find the perfect physical environment because it is a tangible goal, and because a perfect physical environment would establish around us one context we could understand and control.

The third fundamental proposition of Theosophy indicates that we eventually must have all the elements of our economic lives under control, in exactly the same way that we must, as souls in evolution, come to a mastery of our relationships with all lesser degrees of living beings. Our economic life, like the Elemental realm, has to be brought into line.

Thus, behind the dogma of environment, as beneath every crystallized materialism, was once some prompting of genuine concern for the soul. Surety or security is the indispensable foundation for man's personal life and, not knowing exactly what to expect of human nature, man seeks the minimum certainty of stable material surroundings. We want to be able to plan our lives, and our first recourse is to a planned economy.

These considerations, while encouraging us to view sympathetically our economic fanatics, and to recognize a partial kinship with them, also reveal why the philosopher may be the best economist. We cannot improve others unless we offer them a better environment (a more hopeful view of themselves, for example), and we cannot improve ourselves except by making the most of the environment we have. In this connection, the theosophist can appreciate John Steinbeck's introduction of the interesting characters in Tortilla Flat: "They are," he wrote, "people who merge successfully with their habitat. In man this is called philosophy, and it is a fine thing." Merging successfully with one's habitat requires, as we know, definite psychological discipline, since in the whole course of social experimentation throughout history no habitat has failed to disclose certain disadvantages and difficulties.

The essence of Buddha's philosophy is that men can find security only by preparing themselves for every deprivation, and then realizing that deprivation itself is of no great significance. The real man -- the universal man -- remains, whatever happens to the five-sensed man. This doctrine alone, Buddha would say, will enable a man to merge successfully with his habitat, because it will keep him from being frightened by untoward events. An interesting corollary of Buddha's "renunciation of the world" was his desire to constantly simplify the environment in which he and his disciples lived. At this point we come to a clear synthesis of the aims of "devotees of the simple life" and the purposes of philosophers or mystics. While a great many men of hermit-temper unquestionably sought Escape in their removal from economic complications, others may have been seeking the same thing that Buddha sought, that is, mastery of the soul's environment. The simpler the environment, the more readily is it mastered -- the process of simplification being itself a form of mastery.

Thoreau was happier at Walden than he would have been in New York, or, for that matter, in Boston. His environment was simple enough to allow him to "merge" with it. (And if the Concord philosopher would have been out of place in the New York or London of his day, envision him in modern Chicago or Los Angeles!) How can a person who lives in an infinitely complicated industrial economy -- where even agriculture is practical only on a big-business scale -- integrate himself with his habitat? Obviously, one needs even more psychological discipline and patience today than Thoreau did a scant hundred years ago, to feel that he fully understands and has a place in the conditions surrounding him.

With the passage of each year, small groups, such as the cooperatives, increasingly demand a return to the soil -- the simplest, perhaps, of all environments. Those responsible for education among the cooperators have learned what discipline is mandatory for the children, and something about how to teach it. An integral community is therefore possible. But the present population of the earth and the unequal distribution of wealth will not allow any immediate return to village or farm standards. The average man will continue to find himself immersed in one or another gigantic commercial undertaking of which he has no full understanding. This is the real danger of our economy in this century, and one that can not be overcome by any new socialistic ownership of production. It is the accrued karma of man's efforts to change environments without fathoming their cause.

In this context the theosophist must point to another kind of necessary environmental change -- a change of mental atmosphere -- so that eventually the machinery of civilization may stop encroaching upon the morally free individual. If there is a moral law of compensation in nature, "karma" will allow each man to merge intelligently with his environment, provided, first, that he recognizes -- together with Buddha and all Theosophists -- that no environment itself is of supreme importance, and, secondly, that he devotes himself sedulously to the simplification of his own life.

The Theosophist who recognizes that he may improve others' conditions only by offering them ideas which will enlarge their mental environment knows also that he can never improve himself except by disregarding entirely the apparent disadvantages of his outer environment, and by altering his attitudes of mind. When we view other people, environment -- and especially mental environment -- must be allowed for, but when we view ourselves, we must successfully disbelieve that any alteration of external condition can improve our moral capacity.


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