THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 3, January, 1940
(Pages 99-107; Size: 31K)
(Number 1 of an 8-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 8 articles have the same name.]



The whole issue of the quarrel between the profane and the esoteric sciences depends upon the belief in, and demonstration of, the existence of an astral body within the physical, the former independent of the latter. --The Secret Doctrine, 1888.
THE idea of a subtle body as both the formative and the surviving principle of the physical has been ignored in scientific thought for nearly three hundred years. From the time of Descartes until the coming of H. P. Blavatsky, the relation between mind and matter remained an enigma to scientists and philosophers alike, and is today except in the case of students of Theosophy. The Cartesian philosophy may be held responsible for the difficulties which have arisen out of the rigid separation of mind and matter, for the French philosopher established in Western tradition the habit of complete disregard for the metaphysical and scientific explanations of the ancients. Descartes was also the father of the mechanical view of nature, attempting to explain the movements of all particles of matter, as of organic bodies, according to mechanical laws of motion. Animals he held to be mere automata, and while he suggested that in man the "vital spirits" mediate between the soul and the body, in a manner suggested somewhat by modern Behavioristic theory, the influence of Cartesianism shows how easily both soul and Deity were eliminated from his philosophy. The avowed materialist, Lamettrie, who traced his doctrines to Descartes, maintained that the latter's account of the "soul" had been included in his writings to give them the appearance of Catholic orthodoxy, and that it was quite superfluous.(1)

Only the more acute of the contemporaries of Descartes realized that his theory of the formation and motions of bodies led straight to materialism; it led, in fact, back to the "fortuitous concourse of atoms" of the ancients, and forward to the "dead matter" and "blind force" of the nineteenth century. After centuries of scholastic vagary, the precise laws of motion formulated by Galileo, Kepler and Newton were a welcome change. Here was something definite, something demonstrable, and the incapacity of these laws to give an adequate account of the phenomena of organic life was overlooked in the enthusiastic acceptance of mathematical exactitude. Quantitative measurement was thought to be the universal key to knowledge of nature. Of the philosophers of Newton's time, only the Cambridge Platonists recognized the necessity of an intermediate plastic principle in man and nature. The failure of physics to accept the ancient doctrine of the universal Ether gave birth to the ridiculous phrase, "action at a distance," to account for the phenomena of gravitational attraction. The failure of modern psychology to accept the doctrine of the Astral Body is a principal reason why that would-be science merits its recent condemnation by the late William McDougall. Psychology, he wrote, "remains a chaos of dogmas and opinions diametrically opposed, a jangle of discordant schools and sects; a field exploited by quacks and charlatans of every sort, preying on the ignorance of a deeply interested public which knows not which way to turn for authoritative guidance."(2)

While admitting the great value of the mechanical principle in understanding the motions of physical bodies, the Cambridge Platonists maintained the existence of the Spirit of Nature. According to Dr. Henry More, this Spirit is "an incorporeal substance, without sense, diffused through the whole universe, exercising plastic power, producing those phenomena which cannot be explained mechanically."(3) Prof. J. A. Stewart summarizes the doctrine as given in More's Immortality of the Soul:

This plastic principle explains ... the growth of plants and embryos, and the instincts of animals, such as the nest-building instinct of the birds, the cocoon-spinning instinct of silk-worms. The Soul of man partakes in this plastic principle, and by means of it constructs for herself a body terrestrial, ærial, æthereal (i.e., celestial), according as the stage of her development has brought her into vital relation with the vehicle of earth, air, or æther....

The Soul, by means of her plastic power, moulds the vehicle -- earth, air, or æther -- to any form she pleases; but having been first habituated to the human shape in the terrestrial body, she naturally moulds the ærial and celestial vehicles to the same shape. That is why ghosts (in whom More is a firm believer), being the Souls of the departed in their ærial bodies, are easily recognized by their features, when they return to the scenes of their terrestrial life.(4)

But these ideas were not accepted by the "natural philosophers," as the scientists of More's day regarded themselves; or if accepted they were not permitted to intrude into the scientific writings of the time. Newton cautiously revealed his private opinion in correspondence, saying in a letter to Bentley, "It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter, without mutual contact, as it must do if gravitation, in the sense of Epicurus, be essential and inherent in it...."(5) It would have been well if Newton had made a forceful declaration of this idea before the world, but, as H.P.B. remarks, "it is from that theory of Newton's of a universal void -- taught, if not believed in by himself, -- that dates the immense scorn now shown by modern for ancient physics."(6)

With respect to physics and biology, the metaphysics of Descartes established the principles later adopted by the mechanists and positivists of modern materialism. The modern forms of speculative idealism also have their foundation in the Cartesian philosophy, taking the axiom, Cogito, ergo sum, as the starting point of rational inquiry. Although Descartes exempted from logical analysis the moral and religious problems on which the Church was supposed to be the sole authority, this restriction was soon forgotten in the triumphant course of rationalism. The Cartesian method in philosophy was, in effect, a denial that there exists a body of knowledge possessed by some men -- the kind of knowledge theosophists call "the accumulated Wisdom of the ages." The only experience men of the West had had with such a supposed "body of knowledge" was in their contact with the dogmatic theology and irrational revelation of Christianity. The reason which rightly condemned Christian revelation as an avenue to truth, wrongly supposed that the logical speculations of individuals are therefore the only possible source of knowledge. Thus Cartesianism mechanized the view of nature and intellectualized the view of truth. This is not to make of Descartes the "personal devil" of modern scientific materialism and of philosophic relativism, but rather to suggest the consequences of ideas which were a clear and brilliant articulation of the tendencies of his time. The immediate popularity gained by the Cartesian philosophy shows its functions in crystallizing and organizing the half-formed opinions of his contemporaries.

It is difficult for one educated solely in modern theories of physiology and psychology to realize how widespread was the idea of an inner, subtle body among the peoples of antiquity. The evidences of this belief are now embedded in learned volumes of anthropology, where they are disposed of as "animistic" superstitions. However, one has only to inspect such works as Tylor's Primitive Culture to see that the astral body, in one or another of its aspects, is justly said to be a universal conception. In the words of a recent writer: "Apart from the refinements of philosophers and theologians, we find the popular beliefs of all races and of all ages surprisingly alike. Wherever we turn -- to Bantu Africa, to the Indians of North America, to the pages of Homer and Dante, or to the folklore of China and Italy and Scotland -- everywhere we find the soul regarded as a kind of airy, filmy double of the body."(7) H.P.B. says, "it is shown in every ancient scripture and Cosmogony that man evolved primarily as a luminous incorporeal form, over which, like the molten brass round the clay model of the sculptor, the physical frame of his body was built by, through, and from, the lower forms and types of animal terrestrial life."(8)

The mythological literature of ancient Greece shows that at the very birth of modern civilization, the astral body was regarded as the mortal aspect of the soul. This conception passed naturally into the doctrines of the early Greek philosophers, who were well aware of the ease with which metaphysical conceptions are stated in mythological terms. Strabo said, "the first historians and philosophers of nature were writers of myths." Aristotle, while calling Thales the founder of the school of philosophy which inquires into the material cause of things, added, "some think that the ancients, who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, held a similar view of nature." Plato showed the value of the myth as a vehicle for abstract truths, and it is evident that he saw the underlying unity of myth and philosophy.(9)

The Greek teachings respecting the soul and the body came from India. More than a century ago the orientalist, H. T. Colebrook, noted the similarity of teachings among the Greeks and Indians. Both, he observes, taught the doctrine of metempsychosis. "They agree, likewise, in distinguishing the sensitive material organ from the rational and conscious living soul, the Thumos and Phren of Pythagoras, -- one existing with the body, the other immortal. Like the Hindoo, Pythagoras, with the Greek philosophers, assigned a subtle aerial clothing to the soul, apart from the corporeal part, and a grosser clothing to it when united to the body."(10) Colebrook remarks that inasmuch as "a greater degree of similarity exists between the Indian doctrine, and that of the earlier than the later Greeks," he is disposed to conclude that "the Indians were in this instance teachers rather than learners." Among modern authorities, this is the view of Gomperz and Macdonell.

The Homeric poems distinguish between the physical body and the psyche or astral soul. Upon the death of the body, the psyche speeds to Hades where it has a shadowy existence, "destitute even of the attribute of self-consciousness."(11) It is evident that this doctrine relates to the animal soul, or Kama-Rupa. The destiny of the higher soul, the reincarnating ego, was known to initiates of the Mystery Schools and taught in allegorical form by poets like Pindar and Empedocles, and by Plato in the dialogues and myths. Even in the exoteric and popular Homeric poems, there are hints of the true doctrine of immortality. In the eleventh book of the Odyssey, Odysseus tells Alcinoüs how he met the Shade of Heracles in Hades:

            ....the strength of Heracles
I gazed on, a mere shadowy counterfeit
(He, the true form, among the gods of ease,
Wed to fair-ankled Hebe, still doth sit,
Feasting). While round him the dead phantoms flit....
The Heracles of the underworld was but the "shadow," the Shade, of the true Heracles who had become an immortal god on Olympus. Few Greeks, however, realized that the "Gods" were in one of their many meanings the highest aspect of human beings. This was the teaching of Plato. As Thomas Taylor explains in his Introduction to the Timaeus, "Every pure intellect is, according to the Platonic philosophy, a god, according to union; ... even the souls of the most exalted men are gods according to similitude; while in the meantime super-essential natures only are primarily and properly gods."(12)

The great Neoplatonist, Plotinus, makes interesting use of this passage from the Odyssey, indicating its bearing on the question of immortality and the different kinds of memory. He shows that the Shade of Hercules in Hades has memory only of the events of earth-life, and is lacking in moral judgment. The Shade relates to Odysseus the woes of his great "Labors" undertaken on earth; but, Plotinus asks, What would the other Hercules say -- the real man, or soul of Hercules, freed and separated from the image in Hades? Showing that the highest part of man's nature is unconcerned with particular memories of earthly events -- that, "even in our own world, indeed, it is a fine thing to release oneself from human pre-occupations" -- Plotinus speaks of that state called the "Intelligible world," which is still higher than the heavenly regions (Devachan). "Hercules (in Heaven) may well vaunt his valor; but even this valor seems to him trifling when he has arrived at a region still holier than heaven, when he dwells in the intelligible world, when he has risen over Hercules himself by the force manifested in those struggles which are characteristic of veritable sages."(13)

The chief reason why modern translators have so much difficulty in understanding the ancients, and why Theosophists despair of really knowing the Greek philosophers except through H.P.B., is that scholars lack the profound knowledge of psychology such as Plotinus displays, and on which the teachings of the ancient initiates were based. One need only turn to the section of The Key to Theosophy where H.P.B. discusses the Greek teachings to appreciate this difficulty. Several Greek words, each capable of more than one meaning and interpretation, we translate by the single term, soul. The same difficulty is noted in the Key in the sub-section, "Definite Words for Definite Things." H.P.B. had to create her word-values as she went along, there being no counterparts for the subtleties of the ancient philosophy in English -- the tongue of the unphilosophical, fighting, trading West. But our Greek scholars are not capable of so incarnating ancient wisdom in a modern tongue. By psyche, the Greeks meant the human soul, or lower Manas. This is rendered simply as "soul" in English -- a wholly inadequate translation when left unqualified. As H.P.B. says: "By the word soul, neither Democritus nor the other philosophers understood the nous or pneuma, the divine immaterial soul, but the psychè, or astral body; that which Plato always terms the second mortal soul."(14) And "even Epicurus, the model Atheist and materialist, knew and believed so much in the ancient Wisdom that he taught that the Soul (entirely distinct from immortal Spirit when the former is enshrined latent in it, as it is in every atomic speck), was composed of a fine, tender essence, formed from the smoothest, roundest, and finest atoms."(15) Not until Theosophy is understood in our modern universities will the spirit of Greek philosophy be grasped.

The doctrine of the astral soul is found in Plato principally in the myths. In the Phaedrus the soul is symbolized by a charioteer and his two winged horses harnessed together. Plato, H.P.B. explains, "represents the psychical nature as composite and two-fold; the thumos, or epithumetic part, formed from the substances of the world of phenomena; and the thumoeides, the essence of which is linked to the eternal world."(16) The difference between the Gods and men lies in the fact that both the horses of the Gods are obedient to the dictates of the charioteer, while, with men, one of the animals is of "evil stock and himself evil." This horse represents "our more intimate astral, or inner man, who is but too often the evil genius of the embodied entity called man."(17) As Plato puts it:

The Chariots of the Gods, going evenly and being always obedient to the hand of the Charioteer, accomplish their journey easily; but the other Chariots hardly, with great labour, for the Horse which is by nature froward is as a weight, and ever inclineth towards the Earth, and, except the Charioteer hath brought him into subjection, draweth the chariot down. Herein standeth the cause to the Soul of trouble and trial exceeding great and sore which are prepared for her.(18)
The astral body is also mentioned in the Timaeus myth, where Plato describes the work of the "God" (the Universal Nous or Mind[19]) in establishing the Universe, which is "One Living Creature, which hath in itself all living creatures mortal and immortal."
Of those which are divine He himself is the Maker; but the creation of those which are mortal he appointed unto His own offspring, to be their work; and they following His example, when they had received of him the immortal principle of the Soul, thereafter fashioned round about her this mortal body, and gave it all unto her to be her vehicle; and, moreover, they constructed another kind of Soul, and put it also into the Body, to wit the Mortal Soul which hath in itself passions terrible, of necessity inherent -- first, Pleasure, evil's best bait, then Pains that banish good things, also Confidence and Fear, two heedless counsellors, and Wrath hard to entreat, and Hope easily led astray. These did they mix with Sense that lacketh Reason, and Love that dareth all, and so builded the mortal kind of Soul.
Earlier in the Timaeus myth Plato says: "Out of that fire which hath not the power of burning, but is able to give gentle light -- that light, to wit, which belongeth to day -- they [the Gods] contrived and made a body; for the pure fire, twin-born therewith, which is in us they did cause to flow through the eyes...." This body is called the "carriage" of the Head which, sphere-like, is the "divinest of our parts." Elsewhere he tells how the Demiurge forms souls of three qualities from the basic "soul-stuff" of the Universe, allotting to each soul a star as its "chariot." Toward the end of the myth Plato describes the respective natures of the three Souls in man: there is "the immortal principle of the Soul," the "Mortal Soul" of the passions, and the "Appetitive Soul" which is the organ of the instincts, and that through which we receive the Oracles of Dreams. This seems to be a threefold division of Manas, Kama, and the Astral body.

Plato's description in the Gorgias myth of the fate of the mortal soul is explained by H.P.B.:

Socrates narrates to Callicles that this mortal soul retains all the characteristics of the body after the death of the latter; so much so, indeed, that a man marked with the whip will have his astral body "full of the prints and scars." The astral spirit is a faithful duplicate of the body, both in a physical and spiritual sense. The Divine, the highest and immortal spirit, can be neither punished nor rewarded. To maintain such a doctrine would be at the same time absurd and blasphemous, for it is not merely a flame lit at the central and inexhaustible fountain of light, but actually a portion of it, and of identical essence. It assures immortality to the individual astral being in proportion to the willingness of the latter to receive it.(20)
Modern Platonists err in their interpretation of the great Greek philosopher because of their tendency to take literally what he intended to be allegorical, and, conversely, because they usually regard as mere fables what to him were important truths. The Neoplatonists, like H.P.B., were initiates, and in their writings we find the true meaning of Plato's teaching. As H.P.B. said: "It is this hidden Pythagorean meaning in Timaeus, Cratylus, and Parmenides, and a few other trilogies and dialogues, that the Neo-platonists ventured to expound, as far as the theurgical vow of secrecy would allow them."(21) Thus Proclus, in his Commentaries on the Timaeus, objects to the view that Plato taught the transmigration of human souls into animal bodies, urging that it is impossible for the rational essence to become the soul of a savage animal. Similarly, Hierocles, an Alexandrian philosopher of the fifth century, wrote in his Commentaries on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras:
He who expects that after his death he shall put on the body of a beast and become an animal without Reason, because of his vices, or a plant because of his dullness and stupidity, such a man, I say, acting quite contrary to those who transform the Essence of man into one of the superior Beings and precipitating it into one of the inferior substances, is infinitely deceived, and absolutely ignorant of the Essential Form of our soul, which can never change. Being and continuing always Man, it is only said to become God or beast by virtue or vice, for by its nature it cannot be either the one or the other, but only by its resemblance to the one or the other.(22)
Clearly, Plato's doctrine of transmigration, as H.P.B. says, applies to "the plastic material, astral soul," which, "following the laws of blind matter, shapes itself thoroughly into the mould which vice had been gradually preparing for it through the earth life of the individual." This explains the statements which seem to imply transmigration:
Then, as Plato says, it [the astral soul] assumes the form of that "animal to which it resembled in its evil ways" during life. "It is an ancient saying," he tells us, "that the souls departing hence exist in Hades and return hither again and are produced from the dead ... But those who are found to have lived an eminently holy life, these are they who arrive at the pure abode ABOVE and DWELL ON THE UPPER PARTS of the earth" (the ethereal region).(23)
Elsewhere H.P.B. goes into greater detail to explain how the astral soul assumes an animal form:
...the semi-material Skandhas of the astral man (his very ego, up to the point of final purification) are appropriated to the evolution of minor astral forms (which, of course, enter into the purely physical bodies of animals) as fast as he throws them off in his progress toward Nirvana ... so long as the disembodied man is throwing off a single particle of these Skandhas, a portion of him is being reincarnated in the bodies of plants and animals.(24)
In the light of these clarifying statements, the doctrine of the astral body as found in the teachings of the ancient Greeks is plainly the same as that found in the modern presentation of the Wisdom-Religion.

[Note: Here are the two links to HPB's articles, entitled "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics", and "Views of the Theosophists", that were referred to in footnote numbers 12, 19, and 24 by the Editors. --Compiler.]

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(1) See F. A. Lange, History of Materialism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1925) I, pp. 241-9.
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(2) William McDougall, World Chaos (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1931), p. 67.
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(3) J. A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato (London: Macmillan & Co., 1905), p. 95. (See also Isis Unveiled I, pp. 205-6, 384-5, for other statements by More.)
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(4) Ibid., pp. 95-7.
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(5) The Secret Doctrine I, 490-1.
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(6) Ibid., 495.
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(7) J. T. Addison, Life Beyond Death (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), p. 3.
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(8) S.D. II, 112.
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(9) W. A. Heidel, The Heroic Age of Science (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Co., 1933), pp. 7-9.
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(10) Quoted by E. Pococke, India in Greece (London: Griffin & Co., 1852), p. 363. (Compare Key to Theosophy, pp. 91-100, 115-16, original edition.)
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(11) See Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, II, 769a fn.
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(12) Plato (London: Benj. & John White, 1793), p. 376. (It should be noted that Taylor, according to H.P.B., was the only translator and commentator who correctly understood Plato's meaning. See THEOSOPHY V, 168.) [Note: The reference here is found in the 65th paragraph, counting both regular and indented ones, in an article by HPB entitled "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics". A link to it has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]
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(13) Fourth Ennead, Book III, 27-32. (Translation by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Plotinus, Complete Works [London: George Bell, 1918], pp. 433-40.)
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(14) Isis I, 401 fn.
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(15) S.D. I, 568-9.
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(16) Isis I, xii.
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(17) S.D. I, 639.
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(18) This and the subsequent extracts from the myths are from Stewart's Myths of Plato.
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[19] THEOSOPHY V, 110. [Note: The reference here is found in the 30th paragraph, counting both regular and indented ones, in an article by HPB entitled "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics". A link to it has been placed at the end of this article (it happens to be the same one as was referred to in footnote number 12, found above). --Compiler.]
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(20) Isis I, 327.
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(21) Ibid., 287; cf. xvii-viii.
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(22) Commentary on verses 52-3.
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(23) Isis I, 328.
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(24) "Views of the Theosophists," an article published by the London Spiritualist in 1878 and reprinted in A Modern Panarion (p. 132). [Note: The excerpts presented are found in the 12th paragraph, counting both regular and indented ones, in the article referred to. A link to it has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]
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