The Path to Virtue
The philosophy of Ethics is the branch of science, religion and initiation that deals with the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice. Ancient wisdom maintains that Cosmos, apart from being visible and material, primarily bears energy and ethos; therefore, it stresses the fact that moral principles being practiced on a daily basis help unfold “the latent Divine powers in man”.
Ethos is the art of acting without causing pain to others, which ultimately frees you from the causes of future pain. Real practice of ethos and related virtues is the art of sowing the seed of good karma.
In “The Key to Theosophy” we read:
“It is the essence and cream of the world’s ethics, gathered from the teachings of all the world’s great reformers. Therefore, you will find represented therein Confucius and Zoroaster, Lao-tzu and the Bhagavat-Gita, the precepts of Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth, …as of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and their schools.”
“If man’s mind is derived from the Divine Mind, his soul is a ray of the Universal Soul and lives by Moral Laws which manifest as Virtues.”
“All that was great, generous, heroic, was, in days of old, not only talked about and preached from pulpits as in our own time, but acted upon sometimes by whole nations.” 1
What is Virtue?
Virtue is purely divine ethics. It is the essence of Good-Agathon. It lies in the nucleus of the ONE PRINCIPLE, joining the ONE with the Many. To Plato, virtue is what people actually do when paying tribute to Good.
Virtues in actu aim at our spiritual perfection and result in a joyful, calm earthly life, free from remorse, a life that offers prospects of “happiness”. Happiness is the good fortune produced by our moral actions, a result that will bring us a good rebirth and harmony in life.
Ethos and Ethics
A philosopher pursuing to interpret the meaning of the term “ethos” scrutinizes philosophical principles; a moralist, on the other hand, flatly interprets human behavior after his own intentions. According to the Webster Encyclopedia, “ethos” is related to motive and character. “Ethics” is a narrower term as it gives emphasis to manners, customs and habits.
Socrates, a truly moral man who taught ethics, was criticized by his fellow-citizens as “immoral”. He never failed repeating that no man is voluntarily evil and that evil- doing is the offspring of ignorance.
Personal ethics, i.e. conforming to social conventions, is the poor imitation we witness for as long as the individual stays aloof from Truth. Such an attitude is the cause of the sufferings that befall personalities, peoples, nations and races.
The gap between Ethos and moralizing is bridged by evolution; the latter progressively disperses illusions through karma, initiation as well as through an ever-developing inner knowledge and highlights the spiritual target of life and its true realization.
To Plato, the Norms (Ideas) of Good are the superlative object of knowledge-wisdom. He points out that justice, truth, equality and beauty are the age-long germs and products of Good. Such Ideas as the above, also called “ethos” and “voice of our conscience” are existent in our “being” and their vigor emerges as personality gradually purifies itself.
There is no religion, esoteric teaching or occult system that does not refer to ethical paragons, to the well-known virtues. Moral archetypes adorn and permeate manifested world with their wisdom, showing the standards according to which everyone ought to walk in life and evolve towards divinity.
Theosophy is essentially divine ethics. It maintains and promulgates acceptance and understanding of all beings and circumstances of the world we live in, so long as whatever is done means to benefit the others and not the personal self. As already said, there is a big difference between ethos and any occasionally applied ethics, the former representing the Idea, whereas the latter express the Idea wrapped up in the veils of personal values.
By studying and deeply delving into the concepts of the Secret Doctrine we become convinced that justice and selflessness are the only paths that can take us to the Valley of Light wherefrom we once started. Virtue is the road that will bring us back to our root; such a return can become true if we a) start obeying the divine law and b) self-consciously adjust ourselves to it. It is the LAW which Buddha defined as “the realization of Truth” and which Theosophy defines as “Unity of Life”.
Our life in the physical world is dominated by sectarian separativeness and illusions. In other words, the human ego plunged in personal fallacies and blinded by maya, loses touch with the eternal and the true. If we are to accept that Truth is eternal and the fake temporary, then, we shall have to try to look for the causes that keep us entrenched in the latter.
Ancient wisdom affirms that the first cause of man’s illusions is the ignorance that governs our “little ego” which, falling deep into matter, wraps itself in denser and denser material veils to ultimately lose all remembrance of its divine origin.
Man is a spark from the ocean of Light, an indivisible minimum called “monad”. The monad, along with its projections into universe, is veiled with the matter of the planes it passes through.
The life of the monad in the universe is called “Cycle of Necessity” or “Pilgrim’s Voyage” meaning the presence of individual life through all planes of creation, ranks of consciousness and sorts of manifestation, from the tiniest atom of physical evolution to the highest of Archangels. Its purpose is for the monad to conquer divine self-consciousness through self-induced choice, effort and experience. Whatever stage of this voyage the “monad” may find itself in, it steadily keeps in its core the same old spark it had when previously co-existing in the ocean of Light with the myriads of other monads. When falling into the cycle of Necessity, the veils enwrapping it to facilitate its sliding down into objectivity and transformation put a change to that co-existence and cut if off from the feeling of love towards its sister monads.
Once emerging in the phenomenal world, the human ego is confined to the world of the senses due to five basic causes. They are:
– Contentment for whatever pleases the ego and repulsion against what displeases it
– Attachment to what pleases it
– Fear of death regarding all that it is about to lose (physical body, belongings: material, emotional, mental).
Such causes afflict the ego; however, aided by karma and reincarnation, it gradually learns to discern inner reality from illusion and by adjusting itself to the divine law it seeks to apply the law both to itself and humanity, having now realized it is part of it.
Yet, the identification of the “little ego” that considers itself unique and quite distinct from everything surrounding it, opens up “Pandora’s box” and brings forth personal claims commonly recognized as vices, such as egoism, selfishness, wrongdoing, violence, strife, greed, lie-telling, thirst for power, anger, machinations, lust and any evil tendency temporary contentment may entail. Self-knowledge, a method helping us discern our flaws and weigh them against virtues makes it clear that you can only surmount your little ego through a virtuous life. Why? The answer is: because, virtues are part and parcel of the nature of our Spiritual Self.
To self-consciously fight against vices and not only do so under the irrevocable pressure of karma, the student will have to counter-deploy his virtuous elements and apply them constantly.
Many are the vices, some of them obvious, some others concealed, detectable and combatable only by each one of us – on the condition that we are frank with our self and resolve to fight against them. If we are to take the self-development way in order to subdue our personal ego, we will have to firmly persist in reducing or, better still, doing away with our week points. Purification is the term self-knowledge uses to denote the opening up of the path to the Higher Self.
According to Patanjali, the mystic course is grounded on two solid pillars, a) our ethical rapport with our fellow human beings and b) our rapport with our very self, (Yama and Niyama). Ethics, being actual virtue -practicing, is the aroma of wisdom and the expression of spirituality on the physical plane.
Personality has a way of expressing itself under the influence of ignorance and separativeness, all arising from our personal Ego. Likewise, individuality, i.e. our spiritual nature, has an expression of its own, the difference being that the latter comes from the ocean of universal Love and Wisdom. Virtue being the expression of our spiritual nature, if we truly mean to adjust ourselves to our spiritual nature, we ought first and foremost to become virtuous.
It, therefore, seems that being virtuous or not depends on a single choice: on whether we choose what is good for all or choose what is good for our personal self. It is only when choosing the former, i.e., the good of our neighbor or of the whole of mankind that real spiritualization of our personality begins. Concepts and deeds corresponding to justice, truth, altruism and service to the fellow humans, kindness, understanding and humility compose the axis round which spiritual man revolves and behaves.
On the contrary remaining attached to personality’s behaviorism, the Ego clings to selfishness and sheer egoism. To satisfy his separate Ego, man engages in a never-ending race of promoting himself and imposing his authority onto others; and to support his ignorance-ignited weaknesses, he becomes unjust, a liar, an hypocrite, ambitious, greedy, lustful and arrogant.
We might as well say that whatever keeps man enslaved to his senses enchaining the human soul to the cycle of reincarnations is opposed to virtue and spirituality. Consequently, the mortal “ego’s” detachment from whatever feeds contentment and separativeness fruitfully helps abolish self-centered desires.
Human consciousness begins discerning the spiritual from the material, when disposing a mind “ready to embrace theUniverse”. It is an experience that opens up a channel of communication that H.P.Blavatsky describes as “the path which lies between the divine and human Egos”2 and which can never be destroyed so long as there is even one spiritual element to serve “as uniting thread” between the two.
To H. P. Blavatsky, the dominant characteristic of separativeness is inherent selfishness. When asked on the causes that make a utopia of Universal Brotherhood, she replied:
“First and foremost, the natural selfishness of human nature. This selfishness, instead of being eradicated, is daily strengthened and stimulated into a ferocious and irresistible feeling by the present religious education, which tends not only to encourage, but positively to justify it. People’ s ideas about right and wrong have been entirely perverted….All the unselfishness of the altruistic teachings of Jesus has become merely a theoretical subject for pulpit oratory; while the precepts of practical selfishness taught in the Mosaic Bible, against which Christ so vainly preached, have become ingrained into the innermost life of the Western nations…” 3
Another major evil mainly rooted in selfishness, one that really pesters mankind is violence, aggressiveness, wedging wars. Diametrically opposite, lies non-violence, ahimsa as established in India’s religions – Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In Christian parlance, the essence of non-violence is to be traced in the concepts of love, forgiving and compassion. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Non-violence means to be kind and tolerant towards all living creatures; avoiding any violent action expressed by word or deed means understanding the need or weakness of our fellow human, it means showing respect and appreciation for the life that surrounds us.
Abstaining from animal food is part of a modus vivendi closely related to the ethical standards and karma. H. P. Blavatsky says in her “Key to Theosophy”:
“One of the great German scientists has shown that every kind of animal tissue, however you may cook it, still retains certain marked characteristics of the animal which it belonged to, which characteristics can be recognized….Moreover, occult science teaches and proves this to its students by ocular demonstration, showing also that this “coarsening’ or “animalizing” effect on man is greatest from the flesh of the larger animals, less for birds, still less for fish and other cold-blooded animals, and least of all when he eats only vegetables.”4
Non-violence is one of the principal virtues. Ahimsameans not to hurt, not to insult, not to kill and not to destroy. Asoka, the first Buddhist emperor, fervently embraced this virtue as a part of dharma -practicing, i.e. duty. According to Manu (4:148) one can acquire the potentiality of remembering one’s past lives only by practicing non-violence.
In Vamana-Purana non-violence is personified as the wife of Dharma; her off-springs, Nara and Narayana, adjectives related to Arjuna and Krishna respectively, indicated the path to spiritual enlightment.
Non-violence does not dissipate dignity, family bonds, our homeland, our ethical obligations and duties. By duly discerning matters we can shield and defend our rights whenever needed in the best possible non-violent way. By peacefully overcoming disputes and wrongdoings, by forgiving as much as possible, we can help create a smooth and peace-loving society and so replace pain, animosity and antagonism with brotherliness, mutual understanding and fraternity.
We ought to resist violence with non-violence, anger with calmness and understanding. It is uncontrollable anger that brings about violence, both – violence and anger – being rooted in egoism.
Speaking of it, William Q. Judge says that anger gives vent to such strong whirlwinds in our astral body as they completely detach our physical body from everything existing over and above the astral one. It is specially forbidden during meditation, since anger along with its common aftermath, i.e. violence completely destroys the longed-for total equilibrium of the elements of personality. Their equilibrium and state of serenity are the goal of self-knowledge techniques and of the transcendence of the astral-physical self. That is why the system insists on purification i.e. shedding off illusions, habits and, most of all, attachments.
The path to enlightment is a thorny one. Each and every thorn will have to be eliminated and replaced by virtues, blossoms of universal wisdom. Let us wish and hope that inherent unselfishness, practical love, self-generated service to our neighbor and self-renunciation οf the “lower ego”for the sake of the aggregate of life will be translated into common experience and actual deeds in our lives.
- “The Key to Theosophy”, p.226
- “Collected Writings”, vol. XII, p.. 633-4
- “The Key to Theosophy”, ch. 3, p. 45
“The Key to Theosophy”, H.P.Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, p.260