Individuation and Global Responsibility: The Subtle Magic of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Mandela — Part one

James Tepfer – USA 


James Tepfer, a deep student and gifted speaker, delivering his talk during the147th International Convention at Adyar

1. Acknowledgements:

I would like to begin by extending my gratitude to Tim Boyd our International President who works tirelessly for that noblest of all human Causes, universal brotherhood. I would also like to offer the garland of gratitude to all those luminous teachers of the past who gave us soul-saving teachings and were such resplendent examples of the spiritual life: Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Mahavira, Mohammed and a constellation of other wise and compassionate teachers. Each one promulgated some facet of Theosophia, the Wisdom-religion. And every single devotee of these pristine religions contributes, to and enriches the legacy of, humanity, as we move into the uncharted waters of the future. In this deeper sense, there is no such thing as a non-theosophist. We are all seekers of spiritual truths and we are all brothers and sisters of the human family.

I would also like to offer my profoundest gratitude to both H. P. Blavatsky of the 1875 Cycle and Raghavan Iyer and Nandini Iyer of the 1975 Cycle. As to H. P. Blavatsky, she was remarkable in every way. She was, par excellence, the courageous purveyor of the teachings of the Brotherhood of Bodhisattvas in the nineteenth century. She had no immediate predecessors nor worthy successors that rose to her profound occult stature. She continues to be the spiritual gold standard of that most precious of all virtues, fidelity to the Wisdom Teachers behind the Theosophical Movement and to their iridescent teachings. She remains today an unwavering beacon light for all students of Wisdom and virtue across the globe.

The coming of the 1975 Cycle brought with it two remarkable souls: Raghavan and Nandini Iyer. For those of us who had the privilege of knowing Nandini she was truly a marvel. She possessed the most acute and far-reaching philosophical intelligence that one had ever encountered. She was an Oxford don and a theosophical teacher all in one. With respect to the former, one of her Oxford tutors referred to her in a letter of commendation as perhaps the finest philosophical mind that Oxford had ever produced. With respect to Theosophy, Nandini was so brilliant in her intuitive grasp of the theosophical philosophy and its indissoluble bond with all the world’s religions, that one can easily imagine a Plato sitting at her feet in radiant admiration and gratitude. But beyond her mastery of all things conceptual, Nandini was, in a sense, Sitacome-again. She was spiritual royalty. Her heart was pure as the virgin snow and it seemed to be one of oceanic depths. She was unflinchingly loyal to H. P. Blavatsky and, like the latter, lived and breathed for the amelioration of the human race. She was indeed what her consort Raghavan once said of her: “She is ‘a golden Kshatriya’ — the embodiment of spiritual fearlessness, ethical probity, and genuine humility.”

Raghavan Iyer was the sacrificial, Promethean forerunner of the universal civilizations yet to come. He was wisdom and magnanimity incarnate. In this respect, he exemplified a multitude of supernal Aquarian qualities. He was, in one sense, very Indian: he was spiritual, cultured, brilliant, and full of the graces that immediately remind one of ancient Aryavarta and of Golden Ages long past. He was also very English: he was confident, highly educated, extremely literate, and at ease with statesmen, scientists, educators, and royalty. He was also very American: he was a true and fearless rebel, innovative, resourceful, visionary, and the eternal friend of the common man. But, beyond all this, he was, in a much deeper sense, the Universal Man: original, sui generis and timeless. His sympathies were always compassionately inclusive and his repeated emphasis — from first to last — was to “draw the larger circle” through the magic of selfless action.

Speaking of magic, let us now turn to this evening’s topic for consideration: “Individuation and Global Responsibility: the Subtle magic of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Mandela.”

II. Individuation and Global Responsibility

Raghavan Iyer, in his pioneering book, Para politics: Toward the City of Man, tells us that true statesmen are “dreamers of the dreams of men”. He also intimates that the very greatest statesmen can be more than dreamers. They can be “magicians of the heart”. A magician, we are told, can be seen as an awakener and a precipitator of the latent, unseen wisdom and goodness in human beings. In fact, a magician is one who can, by a conscious act of his rationally directed imagination, help turn the forces of evil to good. However, a true statesman can neither be a visionary nor a magician unless he or she has spiritually, intellectually, and morally individuated to a

high degree. To individuate is to expand the circumference of creative initiative for the good of all and to simultaneously deepen one’s feeling of responsibility for the suffering of others. This is not easy. However, philosophical understanding of what it might mean to “individuate” can be of great help.

Let me begin our exploration of the concept of “individuation” and the connecting cord of responsibility with a question: “Would you, ladies and gentlemen, agree with me when I say that we are all — in some meaningful sense — ‘self-determining individuals’?”

Good. I agree. Now, let me ask you another question: “Aren’t we all members of a particular community which has needs that its members must responsibly satisfy?”  Good. I concur. So, we are all, in some sense, self-determining individuals with compelling obligations to the society into which we are born.

These two truths seem to be in constant tension with each other. How does one harmonize freely chosen actions with meeting the multi-leveled needs of our community? Without a moral hyphen that integrates self-determination and social obligations, we get unwholesome extremes. Thus, to overstress individual liberty usually results in the dilution of social values and the incremental retrogression of society into anarchy. However, if we stress the primacy of community cohesion and civil law over individual freedom, we create a boring uniformity, individual lethargy, and social stagnation. Fortunately, from the standpoint of individuation, the bridging concept between individual liberty and meeting our social responsibilities is the notion of dharma, or voluntary compliance with our personal and social obligations. In this respect, India has something to teach the world, since dharma or self-sustaining family and community duties has always been its strength.

However, to simply meet our civic duties to our respective communities is not necessarily to “individuate” or self-actualize in a higher sense. Personal and community responsibilities performed in a quasi-unthinking manner can actually be a form of intellectual and moral passivity. That is, one might be an upright citizen but one might never really “think for oneself”; one might never pause; one might never reflect; and therefore, one might never intellectually enrich one’s beliefs or show moral courage when one’s society needs it the most. In other words, one might never really activate one’s full intellectual, moral, and spiritual potential such that it intelligently elevates social consciousness and makes a Promethean contribution to the future of the human family. Sadly, the unbounded, multi-dimensional spirit in man is rarely activated to any significant degree in modern civilization. We are, in a Socratic sense, “sleepwalking” through life. Yet, in moments of crippling social crisis, the spirit in man often wakes up and inspires us to act with resolve and daring. When it does, it often leaves us in a state of amazement and wonder. To our delight, we rediscover that individual human beings can be surprisingly self-surpassing, courageous, and compassionate.

Given that there is truly an indomitable spirit that dwells in the heart of each man and woman, how, then, should we characterize human beings? How might we conceive of that most complex, baffling, ridiculous, and yet, the most exalted of all creatures — man? There are clearly many ways of defining man. Those ways span the spectrum of human qualities from the divine to the demoniac. Man has been characterized as: a rational and moral agent, an incorrigible sinner, a fallen angel, a social animal, a sophisticated supercomputer, and, finally, a creature consumed with its passions and self-interests. All of these views embody some spark of truth about human beings at certain times in history and at certain moments over the span of an individual’s lifetime. However, the most comprehensive way of characterizing man is to say that he is a “self-surpassing, self-aware, rational, and moral agent.” This very expansive, philosophical way of viewing man is, I believe, compatible with the Wisdom of the ages or Theosophia. It is also the only way we can come to understand the concrete reality of a Lincoln, an Eisenhower, a Gandhi, or a Mandela. It is also the only way we can begin to edge toward a minimum grasp of a Buddha, a bodhisattva, or a sage.

This inclusive and exalted view of man, by the way, is exquisitely expressed by Shakespeare when he has Hamlet say: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and motion how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”

Clearly, Shakespeare’s tribute to human nature at its best is an ideal toward which we may all aspire. However, we can only approximate the ideal by degrees. Individual moral and spiritual perfection must be won, it must be earned. To sculpt ourselves into the divine image [imago dei], we must courageously and skillfully conquer our passions, ambitions, and self-interests. We can only do this by consciously vowing to serve others.

Now, if we are willing to see man in this morally and psychologically more comprehensive and complex way, how then should we conceive of society? Society, like man, has been conceived in a variety of ways. It has been seen as a nurturer of virtues but also as an unavoidable oppressor of the human spirit. Both are true — at times. At its very root, however, society is a moral community. It is, ideally, a polis. It is a living, dynamic matrix of principled relationships confirmed by formal laws and cultural codes. Fundamentally, society is all about meeting basement-level needs and, simultaneously, fostering human excellences that reside in the cupola of human consciousness. For these dual purposes, every culture or society evolves what have been termed “civilizing centers” — centers that affect its citizens for good or for ill. These “civilizing centers” are called family, school, employment, religious institutions, and government. All such seminal orbits of influence attempt to inculcate the best cultural qualities and behaviors in each of us. In a word, the cultural excellences that these primary institutions nurture and the opportunities they afford for meeting elementary human needs affect our ability to individuate, to mature, to self-actualize. To put it another way, all societies, whether closed or open, necessarily “socialize” their citizens to some degree. This is understandable and fulfills a vital Vishnu function. It preserves and forwards a society’s quintessential beliefs and practices into futurity.

But all of the preceding does not ensure that individuals will individuate beyond their culture and tap their unknown, intellectual, moral, and spiritual potential. They will not necessarily awaken their intuitive intelligence nor appeal to the latent intelligence and goodness in others. To individuate in a deeper sense is to go beyond being a good citizen and a responsible model. It is the capacity to creatively transcend self and society when it is most needed, when it is most helpful. It is, in some sense, to rise inwardly to the plane of the universal, the para-cultural.

Let me illustrate the notion of responsibly “transcending ego and society” by virtue of citing an example from ancient history. We have the true story of courageous individuation as told by the eminent Greek historian, Edith Hamilton. It is the tale of a Spartan soldier who engaged in an act that was both wise and unexpectedly compassionate for a citizen of Sparta. It is an especially remarkable story because ancient Sparta, in contrast to ancient Athens, was a highly structured, militaristic city-state which allowed little room for individual creativity in thought and morals and resisted social change of any sort.

The tale goes like this:

A young Spartan officer, responsible for entertaining the Spartan generals on the eve of the destruction of Athens, took courage in both hands and decided to read out a soliloquy on the importance of loyalty — a prime Spartan virtue. After voicing the eloquent monologue on the various forms of loyalty, the Spartan officer went quiet. The silence lasted a long time but finally the chief Spartan general asked the young officer what Spartan wrote such a magnificent piece of literature. The critical moment had come, and with a cool assurance that he was doing the right thing, the officer responded that it had been written by an Athenian playwright, Sophocles. A much longer silence charged the night air. Finally, the chief general said, “Fellow generals, it would seem that we must revise our thinking about the destruction of Athens. A city-state that produces a Sophocles deserves some form of mercy. Let it be known to all your officers and men that the Athenians’ most treasured cultural site, the Acropolis, is not to be touched. We will leave them their art and their architecture, their tribute to their gods.”

Now, what is interesting about this historical example and about our emerging concept of “the individual” is that we have edged into the heady domain of the metaphysical and the meta psychological. How so? Well, once we acknowledge the potential for each individual to transcend both ego and culture, we have engaged in a quantum shift in thought and in perspective. We are admitting that we are not only self-aware, rational, and responsible agents but we are also self-surpassing beings. We are capable of transcending our personality and our culture. We are capable of consciously setting aside our name-and-form self; our limiting personal experiences, our mental habits, and our cultural mores. More importantly, we are acknowledging the moral fact that we are able to affect others for the greater good; that others, by virtue of our insightful actions, are able to rise above themselves and their culture and thereby change for the better — even if it is only for a moment. This we might say is “minor magic”, but magic, nonetheless.

What seems to be the deeper dynamics of any form of human magic — minor or otherwise? It is this. When we individuate or feel more universally responsible and open to the potential in each and all for spiritual and intellectual growth, we progressively awaken our own inner, spiritual powers of perception. To individuate intellectually and morally is to begin the mysterious process of assimilating the immortal self within us. Theosophically speaking, this immortal self is a boundless center of consciousness because it is linked to the Universal Oversoul. It is, as such, dimensionless. It is capable of infinite expansion and that is why we are able to perpetually expand our sense of self (of who we are) to include more and more people of diverse qualities and in adverse conditions. The immortal self is all-knowing, replete with creative powers, completely fearless, and unconditionally compassionate. Furthermore, the immortal individuality sloughs off its mortal vestures periodically only to reassume new ones on its great return pilgrimage to the source of all life. So, when we consciously strive to think more comprehensively and with greater depth, we expand the circle of the embodied self as well as intensify our felt compassion for others. This invisible process can culminate in a “second birth”, a mental incarnation of our higher creative and intuitive faculties. This, in turn, releases a divine efflux that elevates those individuals within the radius of our increasingly refined consciousness.

It should be evident from all that has been said that genuine magic calls for highly individuated individuals who are both creative and responsive to the needs of others. Furthermore, the magic they bring about is not the magic of those who possess and display psychic powers such as telepathy, telekinesis, and the like. They amaze us perhaps and awaken an unhealthy curiosity about psychic powers but they do not affect our hearts or inspire us to engage in self-sacrificial action for the benefit of others. One engaged in spiritual magic, is one who awakens the deeper heart quality within us — the will to serve and engage the world courageously and creatively. Since the heart has several layers (ranging from passions, to aspirations, to cosmic compassion), let us call the deeper layer that the magician touches the “alpha dimension” of the heart. It is that heart center that is benevolent, transformative, and makes spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth possible. The true magician, then, has the soul wisdom to help fertilize this invisible center in the hidden chamber of the heart. It is up to us to make wise use of the karmic opportunity given us by the truly wise.

To be continued


This article was also published in The Theosophist VOL. 144 NO. 8 MAY 2023

The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.

To read the MAY 2023 issue click HERE 

To watch James Tepfer’s talk click HERE (pending on your region, you might have to skip the advertisement) 

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