Ethics – Bridging Freedom and Responsibility

Paul Zwollo – the Netherlands

Responsibility can be defined as the state of being responsible or accountable; that for which one is answerable, for example, a duty or trust. It also means the ability to meet obligations or to act without superior authority or guidance. Moreover, it is the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong – having ethical discrimination. And of course, in the first place, it is accepting full res­ponsibility for one's own life and all that it entails.

Applying the above to our daily circumstances, it is the feeling of being responsible for the well-being of our fellowmen, on a voluntary basis and from a state of complete freedom. It goes without saying that the choice to act in such a way arises from insight and discrimination developed from the many experiences we have had in this life and former incarnations. According to Theosophy, our present understanding is the result of all these experiences that have been stored during former lives in the Causal Body, which, together with the Monad or Atma-Buddhi, forms the Higher Self. It is that part of our sevenfold constitution that is born again and again in a sequence of incarnations, every time adding the spiritual insight gained in the former earth life.

The Third Proposition of The Secret Doctrine speaks of ”The obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul, a spark of the Universal Oversoul, through the Cycle of Incarnation, or Necessity, in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic Law, during the whole term'. So the Law of Cyclicity is one of the major factors in making possible our growth in responsibility and spiritual maturity. A comment of Madame Blavatsky on this Third Proposition says that 'the pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric Philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.”


This growing in consciousness is part and parcel of the life of every human being, and finally leads to a mind that embraces the whole universe. Responsibility is a condition or sine qua non for this process to bear fruit. It presupposes the fact that we are all part of humanity and that the Oneness of Life is the cornerstone of the world in which we live. When the First Object of the Theosophical Society speaks of forming a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, it refers to the One Life in which we all participate. The Theosophical Society owes its existence to this principle of the One Life and all Theosophical teachings are based on it. As members of the Theosophical Society, we have all subscribed to its Three Declared Objects, which implies we are all responsible for living accordingly.

Coming from the One Source, all creatures in manifestation have taken shape after a long process called involution. After having reached their most solid form, they are destined to return to the Source from which they once came, a process called evolution. Involution and evolution are the two parts of the major cycle through which the whole of manifestation is going, and consists in its turn of many minor cycles. Therefore we speak in Theosophy of cycles within cycles within cycles, each major cycle comprising many minor ones.

This is a fact we can easily recognize in the cycles of day and night, summer and winter, ebb and flow, and life and death. On the macrocosmic scale, we speak of Manvantara and Pralaya – periods of manifestation and dissolution. The cycle in which humanity is involved consists of two parts: the descending arc, in which the life wave becomes less spiritual, reaching the point where spirit and matter are in equilibrium; and the ascending arc, in which the life wave becomes less material and more spiritual. During this latter part man becomes more and more responsible for his feelings, thoughts and deeds.

Let us return to the theme of our Congress and pay attention to Freedom. From the very beginning of the Theosophical Society, the members' freedom has been guaranteed. The search for Truth can only be made in a state of complete freedom, any form of compulsion from outside agencies being detrimental. The urge to follow the path to freedom and realization can only come from within. The late international speaker Ianthe Hoskins called that urge “the homing instinct.”

In the inside front cover of The Theosophist we can find every month a resolution emphasizing the fact that freedom is of paramount importance for the study of the Ancient Wisdom and the work of the Theosophical Society in the world. This freedom is of course closely connected with responsibility – the two go together.

Freedom can be defined in many ways. It is the power to choose among alternatives, or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social or divine restraints. It has been said that “Man is condemned to be free.” This is not the case in the animal kingdom, as all animals follow their instinct. However, complete freedom is an illusion and would be detrimental, not only to ourselves, but also to our fellow human beings. In the present state of man's evolution he has not yet overcome his animal instincts and tendencies. Complete freedom would immediately create possibilities to corrupt the loftiest ideals. Freedom requires a stem spiritual discipline and discrimination, as propagated by yoga and Theosophical literature.

The freedom to choose is the privilege of every man and woman, and it can be used either rightly or wrongly. By means of trial and error we have to find out what is the best way to act. The process of evolution, which widens one's consciousness, enables us to discover gradually how to use this freedom for the benefit of fellow humans, realizing that their well-being is also in our own interest. In a wider frame this freedom should also be applied to fostering the well-being of all sentient beings, including the lower kingdoms of the animals, plants and even minerals. Freedom and responsibility are all-encompassing, excluding nothing.

Humanity as a whole has reached the point in evolution where it begins to realize that all life is one, and that by hurting one of its parts, it is also hurting the whole. The science of ecology has become crucial. Nowadays we speak of sustainable development, indicating progress for humanity without endangering the life of future generations on this planet.

Unlimited freedom for man is unthinkable and undesirable. Perhaps that was the reason why the motto of the French Revolution in 1793 was Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite (Freedom, Equality and Fraternity). By adding Equality and Fraternity, or Brotherhood, to Freedom, the possible dangerous disadvantages of freedom alone were meant to be avoided. As the state of human development was and is far from perfect, the ideal of Freedom has been seriously misused, and the values of Equality and Brotherhood have been encroached upon.

However, there exist certain fundamental rights every individual can claim. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated by the Third General Council of the United Nations on 10 December 1948 in Paris, the first two Articles run as follows:

  1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards another in a spirit of brotherhood.

  1. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

It is remarkable that the above- mentioned articles comply with the First Object of the Theosophical Society, not-withstanding the fact that our Three Objects were conceived much earlier, namely in the eighties of the nineteenth century. The two quoted Articles re-produce the essential meaning of what Universal Brotherhood and the Oneness of Life imply.

Let us now pay attention to Ethics, bridging Freedom and Responsibility. The terms Ethics and Morality are closely related. Ethics or Morality is that conduct which is based upon right views and right thinking. The unparalleled virtues inculcated by the Buddha could be undoubtedly called Ethics in optima forma. His teachings have been unanimously pronounced the most perfect the world has ever known. His universal code of ethics was based on altruism. Ethics or genuine morality does not rest with the profession of any particular creed or faith, least of all with belief in gods or a God.

When the Mahatmas say that “motivation is everything to us”, it should be based on the highest human values we can imagine. Ethics or moral philosophy is the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad. Ethics has less to do with factual knowledge, but more with human values; human conduct as it ought to be, rather than as it actually is.

There exists what is called an “ethical relativism”: the view that what is right or wrong, good or bad, is not absolute but variable and relative, depending on the person, circumstances or social situation. Because what one thinks will vary with time and place, what is right will also vary accordingly. So there is no objective way of justifying any principle as valid for any time, all people and all societies.

Ethics began with the introduction of the first moral codes. In the Veda’s, the gods referred to are not persons, but manifestations of ultimate truth and reality. The Old Testament account of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai is another example. In Greece, the high god Zeus gave humans a moral sense and the capacity for law and justice, so that they could live in larger communities and cooperate with each other. In the New Testament the Sermon on the Mount exemplifies a code of ethics that has been accepted by Christians all over the world. In the course of time the link between morality and religion became established. In one of his dialogues Plato considered the suggestion that it is divine approval that makes an action good. However, he held that there must be some standards of right and wrong that are independent of the likes and dislikes of the gods.

This sounds more Theosophical and refers to the Great Laws which govern manifestation and life on earth. Madame Blavatsky called the Law of Karma the Great Law of Righteousness. Arbitrari­ness is out of the question. The Law of Karma is infallible according to HPB. The Law of Cause and Effect, if rightly understood by man, may and can be used by him to come to Self-realization, while becoming instrumental in helping the whole of humanity in its struggle to come to perfection. This is the Path of the Bodhisattva in optima forma.

The following words of Master KH deserve to be pondered upon:

The term Universal Brotherhood is no idle phrase. Humanity in the mass has a paramount claim upon us. . . . It is the only secure foundation for universal morality. If it be a dream, it is at least a noble one for mankind; and it is the aspiration of the true adept.”

[The article was published previously in The Theosophist, y2005, v126, June p337]

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