On using words with Care

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William Quan Judge, one of the three principle founders of the Theosophical Society,  advised us to use words with care, and this advice is very necessary if we would leave no room for “avoidable” misconceptions. The unavoidable misconceptions are due to the limitations of the readers or of the listeners, their preconceived notions and experience. Three words, especially, need to be used with great care; Ego, conscience, Tradition.

When we use the word “Ego” what do we mean? There is the spiritual, divine Ego, the inner, higher Ego or the reincarnating Ego; and the lower, personal Ego. So, when we use the term, let us be wary and try to see that the reader or the listener understands in what sense we are using it.

When we say, “Follow your conscience,” what do we mean? What is conscience? If we analyze what we mean, we learn that there are three kinds of conscience: (1) the Voice of Past Experiences; (2) the inner promptings as to what is right, which comes from the Higher Ego and is more properly known as the still, small voice or the Voice of the Silence; (3) the false conscience, which is the voice of the taboos and beliefs pertaining to any particular religion, race or civilization. It can easily be seen that the first and the third are changeable, while the second is permanent, the only variability being in our personal receptivity to it.

When, therefore, we hear such a phrase as “Follow your conscience but take care that it is not the conscience of a fool,” we can understand it as pertaining to the third type of conscience, the impress on us of the habits and customs of the environment in which we are placed during a particular rebirth. A notable example concerns marriage laws: in one period it was lawful for a man to have many wives; in another period he could have only one wife. Or, it was against conscience to have shops open on Sundays; now many are doing so.

But with regard to those deeply impacted twinges of conscience that have to do with the fundamental laws of Nature, we see two aspects in them: (1) what we have learnt in the past, such as, it is wrong to steal, to lie, etc., and (2) some innate moral sense that keeps us all as straight as we are.

Whenever we have a doubt as to which conscience is speaking to us the matter should be analyzed and experimented with—always up to a point.

The same is true of the word “Tradition.” There is true Tradition and there is false tradition. True tradition is the memory of the things impressed on infant humanity by its Great Teachers and Helpers, and of those great Teachings that have come down to us through the Buddhas and the Christs down the ages. They all showed a way of life and because it is the same way it is “traditional.” It will be the same millions of years hence also. It may be forgotten from time to time, but the memory of it will come back.

False tradition is like false conscience, a keeping up of ideas and forms suitable at one stage and unsuitable at another. Such a false tradition as the supremacy of the white over the coloured races must go with changing circumstances; the tradition of the “chosen” people, of the superiority of one caste over another, all must go. The tradition that money makes for rights and privileges, lack of money for servitude, must go. Autocracy in every form must go; the priesthoods must go. We could go on enumerating the things that must go!

But how shall we separate true from false tradition? If we do not do that we shall destroy much that is of value and materialism will reign supreme.

We find today almost a wholesale overthrow of tradition, not only among the youth in their home life, school life, etc., but also among men like the poets and the artists. But it is in the world of action and of education that we are suffering the most. What, for example, is home life a reflection of? What is education a reflection of? When the idea of life as the great educator is forgotten, when parents forget their role, namely, to help the incoming soul to manage its vehicles, and take its part in the new life, when teachers no longer draw out the knowledge inherent in the indwelling soul or help the child to true self-expression—when this happens then civilization is at a low ebb. But it will rise again because of the innate spiritual nature of man.

There is no substitute for home life and its real traditions. The false conception that children had to obey their parents, that the parents were the owners of the children, has already gone. But what is in its place? And why?

The idea of a Universal Brotherhood is true tradition, for there was a time when all men realized this; false brotherhood is partial, limited in place and time.

Beyond materialism with its new “traditions” and religious dogmatism lies the true Traditon to be found at the heart of all great religions and philosophies.

So when we speak of tradition let us be sure that our listener knows which tradition we are referring to.

Here it is useful to consider Judge’s observation concerning lying.

WilliamJudge  says,

“Some psalmist or other said that ‘all men are liars,’ in which I agree. We are all makers of lies from the fact that we are never able to show our correct selves to others, or to gain from their words a correct estimate of them or what they are trying to say. This leads to trouble, and hence the other gospel said our communications should be yea, yea and nay, nay, for more than these cometh of evil. These are not intentional lies of ours, but they often have as much ill effects as the real article.”


This article also appeared in The Theosophical Movement. For more articles published in this excellent magazine follow this link:

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