THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 1, November, 1952
(Pages 25-28; Size: 12K)
(Number 13 of a 20-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 20 articles have the same name.]


THE short sections in the Key on "sacrifice" and "charity" in "Practical Theosophy" provide, by implication, some subtle definitions of these words which may further aid the student in orienting the Theosophic philosophy in relation to both conventional religion and conventional materialism. First, however, these same sections serve as reminders that the relationship between Theosophy, Science and Religion has altered in many ways since the Key was written.

In 1875, verbal devotion to the principle of altruism was not the endlessly reiterated pulpit theme it is today, although the liberal faiths were then tending toward a more humanitarian interpretation of the crucifixion -- one in which was found a symbolical meaning, a self-sacrificial example, implying that the motivations which inspired Jesus of Nazareth could and should inspire others also. The Theosophist did share a devotion to "altruism" with many Socialists and social reformers, the psychological introduction of Annie Besant to the Theosophical Movement being precisely upon this common ground of idealism. But the orthodox religions had barely begun to be apologetic about their ecstasies of preparation for purely personal soul-security in after life.

While it is difficult to estimate the extent to which the Theosophical Society served as a fulcrum for changing the verbal orientation of Christianity in the direction of humanitarianism, certain it is that "altruism" finally became the professed objective of both orthodox and liberal religious groups. In fact, the swinging arc of change carried so far that the words "self-sacrifice" and "altruism" have at times become almost odious by incantation, and by association with certain smugnesses of pretension. And, as "altruism" was taken up by the Churches, the Agnostics and materialists began, quite naturally, to have less and less use for the term. The modern psychologist or socialist who dislikes and suspects all claims to nobility on the ground of "self-sacrifice" is reacting quite understandably against the insincerity which often accompanies such protestations. And they have a point, perhaps: Is any pretense more reprehensible than that which lays claim to a quality which only the holiest Buddhas have earned the right to define? How many more are content with that insidious double morality which allows them to pretend that they "live only to do good to others," while yet seeking everything for enhancement of their public reputation or self-esteem?

H.P.B.'s definition of self-sacrifice, however, is a unique one, again demonstrating how often the opposing partisans of religion and science are both equidistant from each other and from the Theosophical orientation. When H.P.B. writes that a willingness to give "to others more than to oneself is a higher standard than that of love and justice," she supplements this by the following remarks:

We say, however, that self-sacrifice has to be performed with discrimination; and such a self-abandonment, if made without justice, or blindly, regardless of subsequent results, may often prove not only made in vain, but harmful. One of the fundamental rules of Theosophy is, justice to oneself -- viewed as a unit of collective humanity, not as a personal self-justice, not more but not less than to others; unless, indeed, by the sacrifice of the one self we can benefit the many.
Altruism, in other words, is in no sense to be considered a virtue, Theosophically speaking. The moment one claims it a virtue -- a stage of advancement to which one can climb -- he has unwittingly allowed a sublime principle of motivation to be materialized into an objective, and when we materialize profound aspirations or motivations these are immediately regarded as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. Altruism is not, cannot, be considered an end in itself, but is rather, perhaps, that attitude of mind which allows us to seek to accomplish the greatest good one is capable of perceiving. There is no true virtue, for instance, in sacrificing one's own needs for the desires of another, providing that the needs are truly needs and the desires are but personal desires. Many are those who have been given too much in the way of wealth, attention and affection, etc., and have consequently suffered from receiving these "gifts given out of season."

H.P.B. points to the principle of altruism, but in such a way as to attempt to discourage all readers of The Key to Theosophy from ever stopping to think about whether they are sufficiently "altruistic." Altruism may be the quintessence of motivation, which even the least can practice in degree, yet remains a quality which pervades the entire nature of none but the greatest sages. "Altruism," writes H.P.B., "is an integral part of self-development." In other words, capacity for self-sacrifice is the very power which can build freedom for the soul, since, unless one is freed from excessive concern with self, he has neither the strength nor the vision which distinguishes the "free" man from the man dependent. Then, too, none can learn to be "psychologist," even in the modern sense of the word, unless he can rid himself of self-preoccupation long enough to look into those mysteries of human relationship which need penetration.

Altruism, clearly, is not something "attained," it is practiced. It is not a state into which man enters, but a method of understanding all states and conditions:

We have to discriminate. A man has no right to starve himself to death that another man may have food, unless the life of that man is obviously more useful to the many than is his own life. But it is his duty to sacrifice his own comfort, and to work for others if they are unable to work for themselves. It is his duty to give all that which is wholly his own and can benefit no one but himself if he selfishly keeps it from others. Theosophy teaches self-abnegation, but does not teach rash and useless self-sacrifice, nor does it justify fanaticism.
The last sentence poses an intriguing problem. Why is it that the self-styled altruists are so often "fanatics?" Once again, it is by a wealth of firsthand, practical experience that modern psychologists establish the frequency of this correlation and develop a propensity for rolling their eyes heavenward if Theosophists or other "soul-believers" talk "self-sacrifice" and "altruism" as if these were beliefs one could somehow convert into possessions by professing them. Perhaps altruism is like the principle, Atma, itself, not to be considered as confined within any form; the man who pretends to have acquired some special hold on that principle needs indeed to develop a blind fanaticism in order to sustain the belief.

Another important qualification is suggested by the statement that "it is his [the Theosophist's] duty to sacrifice his own comfort, and to work for others if they are unable to work for themselves." (Italics ours.) In terms of soul evolution, each one must learn to "work for himself," and will in time, yet there are many occasions and situations which leave men prostrated with one or another form of temporary helplessness. It is at these times that such men definitely need an affirmation of the brotherhood of man, since their own leanings toward the higher life can find, during their helplessness, no focus for application. To withhold a helping hand from those who truly need it must be one of the deadliest sins, indeed. Those who need help, by being in that worst of all positions where they cannot help themselves, are also in a position where they cannot help others, and are thus temporarily unable to rekindle their own fires of brotherly motivation. It is doubtful, however, if one can often have the right to regard himself as being in this predicament -- and, if actually in such case, would probably not be able to regard much of anything, one way or another. Speaking of the members of the Society in general, H.P.B. writes that, "No man has a right to say that he can do nothing for others, on any pretext whatever." Conversely, can one ever say that he can do nothing for himself?

The synthesizing point in philosophy for both "self-sacrifice" and "charity" is emphasis upon the self-realization of altruism. "Good works," in other words, will never be quite "good" enough if they are performed somewhat mechanically according to the dictates of doctrine or custom. Theosophists are enjoined by H.P.B. to transcend the mere ritualistic flow of kindly actions, and, as a corollary, to distrust the adequacy of benevolent institutions for ameliorating suffering:

Act individually and not collectively; follow the Northern Buddhist precepts: "Never put food into the mouth of the hungry by the hand of another"; "Never let the shadow of thy neighbour (a third person) come between thyself and the object of thy bounty"; "Never give the Sun time to dry a tear before thou hast wiped it." Again "Never give money to the needy, or food to the priest, who begs at thy door, through thy servants, lest thy money should diminish gratitude, and thy food turn to gall."

But how can this be applied practically?

The Theosophical ideas of charity mean personal exertion for others; personal sympathy, forethought and assistance in their troubles or needs.

We cannot, on this basis, contrive to make a Theosophical dogma out of "goodness." The quality of Sattva represents but the impressions made upon the human instrument by the thoughts and actions of the enlightened soul, and if the soul becomes content with this Sattvic vehicle, enlightenment may fade to the rosy glow of kindly emotionalism, suffused in which the capacity for good judgment often lapses into quiescence.

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