Annie Besant, wonderful photo taken in the early 1890ties
I speak tonight on the supreme duty. I proclaim tonight the universal law of life; for only by service is fullness of life made possible, to the service of man the whole of the universe today is yoked. For under the name of man, man past, present, and future, man evolving up to the divine man, eternal, immortal, indestructible, that is the service to which every individual should be pledged, that the object of life, that the fashion of evolution. I shall try to put for you tonight in few words something of the elements of this service, something of its meaning in daily life, as well as something of the heights whereto the daily practice may at length conduct the human soul. Poor indeed is that religion that cannot teach the men and the women of the world the duty of daily life, and yield to them inspiration that shall aid them in their upward climbing to the light.
Great is philosophy that molds the minds of men. Great is science that gives light of knowledge to the world. Greater than all is religion that teaches man his duty, and inspires man with strength to accomplish it. Greatest of all is that knowledge of the human soul that makes daily service the path of progress and finds in the lowest work the steps that lead to the highest achievement.
According to the philosophy that we stand here to represent, we have in the universe and in us various planes of being, sevenfold in their full enumeration. A briefer classification will serve me for the hints that alone I can throw out tonight. Let us take the plane of the physical man and see what on that plane the service of man may connote. First, the service of man implies what was called by the Buddha right livelihood, that is, right fashion of gaining ordinary life, honest way of gaining the means of ordinary existence. Not a livelihood based on the compelled service of others, not a livelihood that takes everything and gives nothing back, not a livelihood that stretches out its hands to grasp and closes its fists when gift is asked instead of gain.
Right livelihood implies honesty of living, and honesty implies that you give as much as you take, that you render back more than you receive, that you measure your work by your power of service, not by your power of compulsion. That the stronger your brain the greater your duty to help, that the higher your position the more imperative the cry to bend that position to the service of human need. Right livelihood is based on justice. Right livelihood is made beautiful by love, and if there is to be a reckoning between the giving and the taking, then let the scale of giving weigh the heavier, and give to man far more than you take from him.
On the material plane, more is asked of you than the discharge of this duty of right livelihood that injures none and serves all. You have also a duty of right living that touches on the plane of the body, by which I include tonight the whole of the transitory part of man, and right living means the recognition of the influence that you bring to bear upon the world by the whole of your lower nature as well as by the higher. It implies the understanding of the duty that the body of each bears to the bodies of all, for you cannot separate your bodies from the bodies amidst which you live, since constant interchange is going on between them. Tiny lives that build up you today help to build up another tomorrow, and so the constant interaction and interweaving of these physical molecules proceed.
What use do you make of your body? Do you say, "It is mine, and I can do with it as I will. Shall not a man do as he will with his own?" Even so, nothing a man has is his own. All belongs to that greater man, the aggregate humanity. The fragments have no rights that go against the claim of service to the whole.
You are responsible for the use that you make of your bodies. Say that when these tiny lives come into your charge you poison them with alcohol. Perchance you render them coarse and gross with over-luxurious living. Then you send them out into the community of which you form a part. You send them out to other men, women, and children. Then they sow there the seeds of the vices they have learned from you, of the gluttony, of the intemperance, the impurity of living that you have stamped on them while they remained as part of your own body. You have no right to do it. No excuse can bear you guiltless of the crime.
There are drunkards amongst us. Granted they are responsible for their crime, but also every human being is responsible for those who help to spread the poison in a community that is focalized in those miserable creatures. And so every atom that you send out alcohol-poisoned from yourself helps to make drunkenness more permanent, helps to make its grip tighter upon the victims already in its grasp, and you are guilty of your brother's degradation if you do not supply pure atoms of physical life to build up others who in very truth are one with yourself.
You have something of what service of man means on this lowest plane. There is another service of which you, the richer people in this land, could set an example. Then others from your voluntary action may learn to follow the same path. Just simplify your physical life. Lessen your physical wants, thinking less of luxury and more of the higher life. Waste less labor ministering to the artificial wants of the body, and spend more time helping the souls of men to grow less encumbered with the anxieties of life.
If you take such teaching to the poor, true as the teaching is, one hardly dares to put it to them on whom the iron yoke of poverty presses, and who find in so much of physical suffering one of the miseries of their life. You should set the example, because with you it is voluntary action. You should set the ideal of plain living and high thinking instead of the ideal of senseless luxury, of gross materialistic living on every side.
Can you blame the poor that they think so much of earthly pleasure, that they desire so passionately material ease? Can you blame them if in every civilized country discontent is growing, threats are filling the air, when you set the ideal that they copy in their desire, and when you, by the material pleasure of your lives, tell them that man's aim and object is but the joy of the sense, is but the pleasure of the moment? This also is your duty in the service of man on a material plane, so that, lessening the wants of the body, he may learn to feed the soul, and making the outer life more nobly simple may give his energies rather to that which is permanent and enduring.
Not only on the physical, the lowest plane, is the service of man to be sought. We rise to the mental plane, and there too must man be served far more efficaciously than he can be served on the physical plane. Do you say you cannot serve on the mental plane, since it is for the great thinker publishing works that revolutionizing thought or the speaker reaching thousands where you reach but units?
It is not so. The great thinker, be he writer or be he speaker, has not such enormous surplus of impulse as you, judging by the outer appearance, may imagine. True, his work is great, but has it never struck you in what lies the power of the speaker, whence comes the strength with which he moves a crowd? It does not lie in himself; it lies not in his own power, but in the power, he is able to evoke from the men and women he addresses, from the human hearts he wakes. It is their energy and not his in the tide of his speech.
The orator is but the tongue that syllables out the thoughts in the hearts of the people; they are not able to speak them, they are not able to articulate them. The thoughts are there, and when some tongue puts them into speech, when the other inarticulate sense takes the force of the spoken word, then they think it is oratory. Their own hearts moves them. Inarticulate in most, this speaker's voice makes the power ring from land to land.
That is not all. Every one of you in your daily thinking, every one of you has thoughts that you pour out to the world. You are making the possibilities of tomorrow; you are making or marring the potencies of today. Even as you think, the thought burning in your brain becomes a living force for good or for evil in the mental atmosphere just as far as the vitality and the strength that are in it may be able to carry it on in its work in this world of mind.
There is no woman, however weak, there is no man, however obscure, who has not in the soul within him one of the creative forces of the world. As he thinks, thoughts from him go out to mould the thoughts and lives of other men. As he thinks thoughts of love and gentleness, the whole reservoir of love in the world is filled to overflowing; and as he contributes to them, so every day is formed that public opinion that is the molder of men's ideas more than sometimes we are apt to dream. In this, everyone has share, so that in this all men and women have their part. Your thought-power makes you creative Gods in the world, and it is thus that the future is built; it is thus that the race climbs upward to the divine.
Not alone in the physical nor alone in the mental sphere is this constant service of man to be sought; but of the service of the spiritual sphere, no words of platform oratory can fitly describe its nature or its sacredness. That work is done in silence, without sound of spoken word, of clatter of human endeavor. That work lies above us and around us, and we must have learned the perfection of the service in the lower ere we dare aspire to climb where the spiritual work is done.
What, then, is the outcome of such suggestion, what the effect in life of such philosophy applied to the life of each as it is made or met in the world today? Surely, it is that we should think nobly. Surely, it is that our ideals should be lofty. Surely, it is that in our daily life we should ever strike the highest keynote, and then strive to attune the living to the keynote that at our noblest we have struck.
According to the ideal, the will is lifted. In the old phrase, the man becomes that which he worships. Let us see, then, that our ideals are lofty. Let us see that what we worship shall have in it the power that shall transform us into the image of the perfect man; that shall transmute us into the perfect gold of which humanity shall finally consist. If you would help in that evolution, if you would bear your share in that great labor, then let your ideal be truth; truth in every thought and act of life.
Think true, otherwise, you will act falsely. Let nothing of duplicity, nothing of insincerity, nothing of falsehood soil the inner sanctuary of your life, for if that were pure, your actions will be spotless, and the radiance of the eternal truth shall make your lives strong and noble.
Not only be true, but also be pure, for out of purity comes the vision of the divine, and only the pure in heart, as said the Christ, shall see God. That is true, in whatever words you describe it. Only the pure in heart shall have the beatific vision, for that which is itself absolute purity must be shared in by the worshipper ere it can be seen.
Add to these ideals of truth and of purity one that is lacking in our modern life, the ideal of reverence for what is noble, of adoration for that which is higher than one's self. Modern life is becoming petty because we are not strong enough to reverence. Modern life is becoming base, sordid, and vulgar because men fear that they will sink if they bow their heads to that which is greater than they are themselves.
You raise yourself in worship of that which is higher than you are; you are not degraded. That the feeling of reverence is a feeling that lifts you up, it does not take you down. We have talked so much about rights that we have forgotten that which is greater than a man's right with himself. It is the power of seeing what is nobler than he has dreamed of, and bowing in the very dust before it until it permeates his life and makes him like itself. Only those who are weak are afraid to obey; only those who are feeble are afraid of humility.
Democrats we are in our modern phrase, and with the world of today as we have it, democracy in the external world is the best fashion of carrying on the outer life. Say the very gods themselves wandered the earth as men. They trained the people in the higher truth as in the days of old in Egypt and India. If that were possible and they conveyed to people the higher knowledge, would we claim that we were their equals and would be degraded by sitting at their feet to learn?
If you could weave into your modern life that feeling of reverence for that which is purest, noblest, grandest; for wisdom, for strength, for purity, until the passion of your reverence should bring the qualities into your own life -- Oh, then your future as a nation would be secure. Then your future as a people would be glorious.
You men and women of America, creators of the future, will you not rise to the divine possibilities that every one of you has hidden in his own heart? Why go only to the lower when the stars are above you? Why go only to the dust when the sun sends down his beams that on those beams you may rise to his very heart? Yours is the future, for you are making it today, and as you build the temple of your nation, as you hope that in the days to come it shall rise nobly amongst the peoples of the earth and stand as pioneer of true life, of true greatness, lay you the foundations strong today. No building can stand whose foundations are rotten, and no nation can endure whose foundations are not divine.
You have the power. As you exercise your choice, the America of centuries to come will bless you for living or will condemn you for failure. You are the creators of the world, and as you will, so it shall be.
[From "The Report of Proceedings of The Theosophical Congress, World's Fair of 1893," pages 186-90.]