The Wisdom of the East, the West, and the World

John Algeo - USA

Theosophists often talk, with considerable justification, about the wisdom of the East. The East—particularly Persia, India, and China—have indeed produced profoundly wise and views of life.

Persian wisdom, although less talked about than the other two, has been very influential. That wisdom, expressed through the revolutionary religious system of Zoroaster, influenced early Judaism, and through it later Christianity and Islam. Persian wisdom may be said to focus centrally on the view that the universe is ruled and guided by wise and beneficent powers. Those powers are personified in the person of Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, and the other Amesha Spentas, Holy Immortals. The personification of that power is specifically Persian, but the existence of a wise and beneficent force in the cosmos is a universal truth. Persian wisdom also recognizes the existence of a contrary power, whose operation appears ignorant and maleficent. But the ultimate triumph of wise beneficence is assured, and human beings are called to act with purpose and dedication in its cause.

Indian wisdom includes the propositions that all existence is fundamentally one, that the universe is pervaded by an informing intelligence, that every form is endowed with life, and that all life is evolving toward more sensitive forms, wider intelligence, and fuller realization of the unity that underlies its apparent diversity. Indian wisdom is expressed most centrally through the ancient religious systems of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Each of those systems has its own emphases and its own ways to state Indian wisdom. India is a land of wide variety of all kinds, including philosophical variations. But, in general, the Indian religious systems agree on the basic propositions of unity, intelligence, and vitality (or, as one Hindu system puts it, sat-chit-ananda). As for Indic variations, as Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “The paths they take on every side are mine.”

Chinese wisdom is of two main varieties, resting on the teachings of Lao-tzu (Taoism) and Master Kung (Confucianism). Those two varieties are sometimes presented as opposite approaches. But actually they are harmoniously complementary, although they do reflect the character differences of their founders and have appealed to rather different types of followers. The Taoist form of Chinese wisdom, which emphasizes the importance of “going with the flow” without interjecting personal ambitions (wu-wei), is similar to both the Gita’s emphasis on desireless action (nishkama karma) and the contemporary Western ideal of being “in the zone.” The Confucian form of Chinese wisdom emphasizes the importance of participating honorably and ethically in human society, of preserving and benefiting from the wisdom of the past, and of finding a harmonious solution to conflict by moral example.

These three forms of the wisdom of the East—those of Persia, India, and China—are adapted, each to the culture in which it developed. Yet all of them have important contributions to make to universal human culture. Wisdom is wisdom, whatever its form of expression and emphasis. So the wise in every culture will heed and follow these universal insights into the fundamental nature of reality and of human life.

Theosophists talk less often about the wisdom of the West. Yet Western wisdom also exists. That Western wisdom, which is strongly scientific in one of its phases, is just as true and important as the wisdom of the East. The Chinese talk about two principles, yang and yin, which are both needed to make up the whole, the tai-ji or “Great Ridgepole” (the basis of the manifold universe). Similarly, the wisdoms of East and West are twin articulations of absolute Truth, although they differ in orientation. An old Latin saying is Ex oriente lux, ex occidente lex “From the East, Light; from the West, Law.” Light and Law are wisdom and order. Each requires the other: The light of wisdom reveals order, and order leads to wisdom. They are the yin and the yang of life.

The West had two great periods during which it developed its wisdom. The first was during the ancient classical age of Greece and Rome, a very rich period in thought and practice, which became the foundation of all Western civilization. Among its intellectual bequests to later times were the Ancient Mysteries, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and Neo-Platonism, a quartet of inner-knowledge that all interacted to inspire the classical age and to continue through following centuries, right down to our own time. Those four classical movements, which differ significantly among themselves in some ways, share an emphasis on what in India is called the guru-chela relationship. That is, wisdom is imparted, often intuitively rather than by intellectual discussion, by a wise teacher to an eager learner.

The second great period of Western wisdom was during post-medieval times, when Renaissance Humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and the European Enlightenment developed incrementally as its phases. That post-medieval development, with its three phases, is the essential Western wisdom that has spread around the world and provides the lex or Order to complement Eastern lux or Light.

This Western wisdom of roughly the past half millennium differs from both Eastern wisdom and the earlier classical Western wisdom in several ways. This later Western wisdom is public, focuses on this world, centers upon individual human concerns, and requires personal initiative. If we think of wisdom solely as private, other-worldly, collective in emphasis, or transmitted from teacher to learner, we might be inclined to deny that the modern Western tradition is really “wisdom.” But that would be too narrow a view. Here we explore some of the distinguishing characteristics of the more recent Western tradition, which can benefit humanity in the twenty-first century as the modern Western articulation of Theosophical wisdom.

Renaissance Humanism

The modern Western wisdom tradition began with Renaissance humanism in Italy in the late fourteenth century and continued through the sixteenth century, spreading throughout Europe. It was a rebirth (which is what “renaissance” means literally) of an interest in classical literature and art and also in certain classical values and attitudes. It turned away from the supernaturalism and ecclesiastical authority of the Middle Ages. It emphasized instead secular concerns, individualism, and the value of reason. It celebrated the human form and human abilities.

Such emphasis might be considered to be “unspiritual.” But that would be a narrow view of spirituality. According to Theosophy, we are of the fifth Root Race, whose evolutionary purpose is to develop the mind so that we can deal with the passions of the fourth Round. It is reasonable to regard true spirituality as whatever promotes the evolutionary goals of our development. From such a viewpoint, Renaissance humanism was highly spiritual because it served exactly that purpose: using the mind to tame the passions.

The great classical epic, Homer’s Odyssey (10.278), refers to “the human form divine.” The Renaissance English poet John Milton echoes that phrase in his epic Paradise Lost (3.44), as “human face divine.” And the later English poet William Blake repeats “the human form divine” in a poem from his Songs of Experience. Leonardo da Vinci made a famous drawing called “Vitruvian Man” depicting a nude male figure whose arms and legs define the boundaries of both a square (symbolizing matter) and a circle (symbolizing spirit). The title of the drawing alludes to the classical Roman architect Vitruvius, who maintained that the proportions of the human body were rationally interrelated as a microcosm of the cosmos. As the fifth century b.c. Hellenic philosopher Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things.” That is both classical and Renaissance spirituality.

The Scientific Revolution

Science, as the study of natural phenomena, developed early all over the world—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and elsewhere. But the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a remarkable development in both theory and practice in Europe that is called the Scientific Revolution. Its hallmark was the adoption of the experimental method of testing theories by collecting and analyzing data in an attempt to disprove the theories. It viewed the universe with mathematical calculations and by the invention of new instruments, such as the microscope, the telescope, and mechanical timepieces. It emphasized accuracy, simplicity, explanations, and public verification.

The first major organization devoted to this new scientific approach was the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, founded in 1660. Its most distinguished early member and its president from 1703 to his death in 1727 was Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was not only the archetype of the new scientist, but he was also a transitional figure, who practiced alchemy and wrote extensively on theology. Thus he bridged the gap between past and future. A 2005 poll of the Royal Society’s members judged Newton to have been the most influential scientist of all time.

The Scientific Revolution grew out of Renaissance Humanism’s rejection of authority and also its focus on the secular and its use of reason. To those characteristics, the Scientific Revolution added an emphasis on democracy. Every scientific theory is open to challenge by anyone with facts. The only proper hierarchy among scientists is based on insight and rationality. The mantra of the Gita is Om tat sat, which has been translated as “Well, that’s the way it is.” The aim of science is to establish exactly that: the way things are. Consequently, the Scientific Revolution, which has continued its ever strengthening contributions to human life, is a fundamentally spiritual activity and a vital factor in the wisdom of the West.

The European Enlightenment

The most recent development of the wisdom of the West is the European Enlightenment. That movement had its roots in the fourteenth-century Renaissance, which rediscovered Classical culture and thus moved Europe from Medieval to modern thought patterns. It was significantly advanced by the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, which substituted observation and reason for blind faith in authority. But it was in eighteenth-century thought and practice that the movement we call the European Enlightenment reached its apogee.

The basic principles of the Enlightenment wisdom of the West are set forth cogently in the opening words of the American Declaration of Independence. That document rests squarely on Enlightenment views and provides a convenient statement of the fundamental basis of this phase of the wisdom of the West. After an introductory sentence that asserts the general reason for the Declaration, the next sentence (known as the “Preamble”) sets forth certain Enlightenment principles:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Enlightenment wisdom asserts that some truths are not derived from Medieval authority or from classical models, or from scientific procedures, but are “self-evident.” That is, these truths can be recognized by anyone who makes the effort to look and to reason. They are, as it were, the axioms of the geometry of thought. All thought must be based on certain axiomatic or self-evident propositions, and Western Enlightenment thought is based on these:

· All human beings are equal. That proposition is obviously in full harmony with the Indian principle of the unity of all existence, but it combines that Indian principle with the Confucian principle of the need for social engagement. To be sure, the American Founding Fathers did not observe that proposition perfectly in their own lives: some were slave-owners, none insisted on the political equality of women, and they tended to regard property-owners as more responsible and thus “more equal” than the unlanded. However, all human beings are imperfect; we are only evolving toward perfection, and recognition of the qualities of perfection is requisite for sound progress. Such recognition was the achievement of Enlightenment wisdom.

· All human beings have “unalienable Rights.” This proposition of natural rights is fundamental to Enlightenment philosophy. Certain rights are not granted by law or bestowed by a gracious sovereign, but are ours by nature and they cannot be taken away by anyone (which is what “unalienable” means). The reference to “endowed by their Creator” is a bow in the direction of Enlightenment deism, which emphasized natural morality rather than dogmatic religion and acknowledged an intelligent creation according to universal law but denied that God keeps sticking his finger into the pie.

· The specific natural and unalienable rights singled out for mention are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They are the right to live (which is harmonious with the Indian principle of ahimsa), the right to think and act freely (as long as our thoughts and actions do not interfere with the natural rights of others), and the right of all of us to determine what is best for ourselves (as is consonant with the Indian law of karma and the third of the Three Truths of the White Lotus: “We are each our own absolute lawgiver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to ourselves; the decreer of our life, our reward, our punishment”). These three natural rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” can be seen as parallel with the three Indian principles of sat-chit-ananda (which can be glossed as “being or living,” “knowledge or free thought,” and “bliss or happiness”).

The Wisdom of the World

We have been considering seven traditions of wisdom: Persian, Indic, Chinese, Classical, Renaissance, Scientific, and Enlightenment. These seven curiously parallel the Theosophical seven Rays. We can summarize those parallels as follows:

1. Enlightenment wisdom: the natural equal right of human beings to live, think, and quest freely parallels the first ray of freedom and self-governance.

2. Indian wisdom: the unity of all evolving life parallels the second ray of intuitive recognition of unity and of compassion and love for all.

3. Chinese wisdom: the need for impersonal but historically respectful participation in society parallels the third ray of understanding and respect for human community.

4. Renaissance wisdom: the use of art and literature to define the nature of human beings parallels the fourth ray of harmony and art.

5. Scientific wisdom: the value of rational observation, testing, measuring, and objectivity parallels the fifth ray of knowledge and science.

6. Classical wisdom: the transmission of insight between a Master and a student parallels the sixth ray of devotion and loyalty.

7. Persian wisdom: the beneficent orderliness of the universe parallels the seventh ray of tradition, order, and ritual.

These seven varieties of wisdom, East and West, and their characteristic propositions provide a sound basis for living and evolving toward the stature of full and perfect humanity. Combined, they are the wisdom of the World.

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