SelfDefinition.Org

Conquest of Illusion J. J. van der Leeuw

Theosophical Publishing House 1928

J. J. Van der Leeuw

Chapter 1 The Quest of Life

For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy. -- PLATO, Theatetus
 

The Philosophy of Experience

It is one of the platitudes of our age to say that the time for words is past and the time for action has come. All around us is this clamour for action, all around the contempt for mere words, however verbose the exponents of the action cult may be. But then, even action needs expounding.

Yet there is sound reason underlying this impatience with words that are not vitally connected with action. Especially in philosophy we have suffered for many years from a deluge of words, barren of action, and consequently the man in the street has come to look upon philosophy as a pretentious speculation leading nowhere, an intellectual game, subtle and clever, sometimes not even that, but always without practical value for the life of everyday. Often it has been such; disguising its lack of reality under the cloak of a difficult and technical terminology it frightened away the investigating layman and made him feel that it was his fault, his shortcoming which prevented him from understanding its profound mysteries. Only the bold and persevering investigator discovers that its cloak often hides but a pitiful emptiness.

The profoundest minds have ever spoken the simplest language. The thought of Plato may be deep; his language is ever simple and may be understood by any cultured man. Here Oriental philosophy may well teach the West. Lao Tze, Patanjali, Gautama speak a language of utter simplicity, by the side of which Kant or Hegel appears ponderous and confused. When a thing is clear to a philosopher he must be able to say it in simple and intelligible language. If he fails to do so and if many volumes must be written to expound what he might have meant, it is a certain sign that his knowledge was confused. Only imperfect knowledge goes hidden under a load of words.

But apart from its intricate and unbeautiful language philosophy has often been a stranger to life. See again how the truly great touch life at every step and ever bring into this world of daily life the fire, which they steal, from the gods. If our philosophy leads to wisdom and not merely to knowledge it must bear fruit in action. Hear Epictetus the Stoic:

The first and most essential part of philosophy is that concerning the application of rules, such as for instance: not to lie. The second part is that concerning proofs such, as for instance: whence does it follow that one should not lie?

The third part is the confirmation and analysis of the first two parts, for instance: how does it follow that this is a proof? For what is a proof? What is a consequence, what a contradiction? What truth, what error? Hence the third part is necessary because of the second and the second because of the first; but the most necessary and that in which we must find peace, is the first. We, however, do the opposite; for we stop at the third part and all our interest concerns it; but the first we neglect entirely. Hence we do lie, but we know by heart the proof that we should not lie. (Eucheiridion, 52.)

It is in the acid test of daily life that the worth of a philosophy is proved. Morality is never the beginning, but always the end. While knowledge may remain a stranger to action, wisdom being experience of life, can never fail to stamp our every word and action with its seal.

Morality, however, or ethics, is but one-way in which wisdom becomes action; true philosophy inspires civilization at every point. There was never a Platonist worthy of the name who did not leave the world the better for his philosophy, whether he was a poet or politician. But it is only when philosophy has ceased to be merely intellectual and has become experience of living truth that it can be thus creative.

It is possible, with infallible logic, to build up an intellectual structure that has the appearance of a philosophy of life, but is in reality a phantasm of death. Only when philosophy as experience is rooted in our consciousness, and thence draws the life-giving force that makes of it a living organism, can it bear fruits that nourish man. Thus the facts on which a vital philosophy is based must needs be of a psychological nature or, using a much-dreaded word, 'subjective.' But then even though we may be happily oblivious of it, all facts are of a psychological nature, since we do not know a thing except in so far as it becomes awareness in our consciousness. The division of knowledge or truth into subjective and objective is misleading; the moment a thing becomes knowledge it is subjective, though its validity may well be objective. A fact of our consciousness or psychological truth may well be of objective value in so far as it is not a merely personal appreciation, but of universal application. In that case the method is subjective, the value objective. On the other hand there are facts which we call objective since they belong to what we call the outer world, but which are subjective in value since they apply to us only. It is the confusion of the two ways in which the word subjective is used, the one pertaining to method, when subjective means "belonging to the consciousness," and the other pertaining to validity, when subjective means 'of personal value only,' which makes us dread the term subjective. There are many facts of the consciousness which we come to know in a subjective way, but which yet are objective in validity since they hold good not only for us, but for all men.

It is therefore no disparagement of philosophy to say of it that, in contrast with science, its method is subjective. Did we but realize it; there is greater safety in the knowledge of our own consciousness, which is direct, than in the knowledge of the world around us, which is indirect.

In this book the philosophical method will be psychological and based on experience of consciousness rather than argumentative and based on logical proof. I do not hesitate to use the central reality of mystical experience, namely the experience of what Bucke calls 'cosmic consciousness,' as a fact of the uttermost consequence in philosophy. The imposing testimony of all ages, which Bucke has gathered in his well-know book, goes far to prove the universal validity of an experience which some would discredit as 'merely subjective; It is subjective in so far as we approach it through our own consciousness, it is more than subjective, since in cosmic consciousness we share a Reality of which we are but an infinitesimal part. The race is growing towards this cosmic consciousness, which is, but the concluding chapter in an evolution of consciousness, leading from unconsciousness through self-consciousness to cosmic consciousness. It is in this mystical experience that the intellect is transcended and knowing becomes being. Far from being the vague emotionalism or the hysterical transports which at times have usurped the name of mysticism, true mystical experience is a most definite reality. A philosophy based on it is no longer a philosophy of reasoning only, but primarily a philosophy of experience, reasonably expounded.

It is here that philosophy can break through that ring-pass-not which Kant drew round the thing in itself, proclaiming it unknowable by reason. No doubt he was right, but this does not mean that the thing in itself cannot ever be known in any way. In a later chapter it will be shown how the experience of the thing in itself in the world of the Real is a possibility and how through that experience philosophy can be liberated from the Kantian doom. In this liberation the faculty of the intuition, or knowledge by experience, is consciously used and with this a new world opens for philosophy, in fact, a new philosophy is born. No longer is philosophy then a matter of intellectual belief, a result of irrefutable argument and convincing proof; it has become the experience of living man, life of his life, being of his being, the experience of truth.

top of page

 

The Birth of Wonder

There is no more pathetic spectacle than that of an age which is bored with life. Materially our modern world is richer than perhaps any preceding age; spiritually we are paupers. Not all our truly wonderful physical accomplishments, not all our abundance of amusements and sensations can hide the fact that we are poor within. In fact, the task of the latter is but to hide the poverty within; when our inner life is arid we must needs create artificial stimuli from without to provide a substitute, or at least cause such an unbroken succession of ever varying sensations that we have no time to notice the absence of life from within.

There are but few who can hear either solitude or silence, and find a wealth of life arising in themselves even when there is naught from without to stimulate. Yet such alone are happy, such alone truly live; where we find the craving for amusement and sensation from without we see an abject confession of inner lifelessness. There lies the difference between the quick and the dead, some are dead even in life, others can never die since they are life. We all seek life, since life is happiness and life is reality. But it is only when we have the courage to cease from sensationalism and outer stimulants that we may be successful in our quest.

Philosophy is the quest of life. It is more than a love of wisdom, unless we understand wisdom as being different from knowledge, as different as life is from death. Wisdom is knowledge which is experience and therefore life; the quest of wisdom is in reality the quest of life. It is true that the name of philosophy has often been used to corer a game of intellectual question and answer which leaves men no richer than before. Thus the average man distrust philosophy and accuses it of giving stones for bread. But real philosophy is not the intellectual solving of problems; in the words of Plato, philosophy is the birth of wonder, and he is the true philosopher who begins to wonder about life, not he who is certain of having solved that which is beyond solution. It is profoundly true that, until we can see the wonder of life all around us, unless we see ourselves surrounded by a mystery that challenges our daring exploration, we have not entered on the path of philosophy.

Unawakened man knows only facts, no mysteries, to him things are their own explanation; the world is there and what else is there to know? Such is the animal outlook; to the bovine mind pastures may be good or bad, but they need no explanation. Thus unawakened man is content with the facts of existence--his environment, his food, his work, his family and friends are so many facts surrounding him, pleasant or unpleasant, but never in need of explanation. To speak to him of mystery hidden in his life and his world would not convey any meaning; he exists and the fact of his existence is sufficient unto him. Death and life themselves may for a while cause him anxiety or joy, but even then they do not arouse any questions; they are familiar and customary. It is the very familiarity of life which hides its mystery to the animal mind. That which seen once would be a marvel becomes familiar when seen a hundred times and ceases to suggest the possibility of further explanation; have we not switched on the electric light so many times that the unexplained wonder of electricity is lost in the familiarity of the action and the fact has become its own explanation?

There was a time, in the childhood of humanity, when primitive man lived in a world of mystery moving among dark fears and unknown terrors. But even them, though the mystery was felt and the world was seen as in a dream, the possibility of questioning the mystery did not suggest itself--primitive man was too much part of nature to question and investigate. With the dawn of intellect the mystery of primitive man is lost and naught but facts in their vulgarity remain; in the sublime ignorance of a self-satisfaction, which doubts neither itself nor the world, man moves among mysteries which, could he but realize them, would strike terror into his heart. And should he occasionally catch a glimpse of the mystery of life he but hastens to cover it up and even deny it, lest the comfort of his intellectual slumber should be disturbed. Rather than risk the chance of an upheaval of the familiar and comfortable facts of his existence he will shut his eyes to the unexplained and burn at the stake those who persist in seeing and questioning.

The time, however, comes for most of us, when catastrophe and suffering shock us out of the ruts of familiarity, when our old world is destroyed beyond hope of recovery. It is as if the universe, in which, but a few days before, we moved about with the easy certainty of unawakened man, had disappeared overnight and each familiar object and event had become a dark and terrible mystery. Thus would the traveler feel who, waking from a dreamless slumber, finds that he has slept by the side of deadly reptile, unaware of its proximity and happy in his ignorance.

The awakening to the mystery of life is a revolutionary event; in it an old world is destroyed so that a new and better one may take its place, and all things are affected by the change. We ourselves have become mysterious strangers in our own eyes and tremblingly we ask ourselves who we are, whence we came, whither we are bound. Are we the being who is called by our name, whom we thought we knew so well in the past? Are we the form we see in the mirror, our body, offspring of our parents? Who, then, is it that feels and thinks within us, that wills and struggles, plans and dreams, that can oppose and control this physical body which we thought to be ourselves? We wake up to realize that we have never known ourselves, that we have lived as in a blind dream of ceaseless activity in which there was never a moment of self recollection.

Our very consciousness is terra incognita; we know not the working of our own mind. What is it that happens when we think or feel, when a moral struggle takes place in us, when we are inspired, respond to beauty or sacrifice ourselves for others? It is as if we were prisoners in the vast palace of our consciousness, living confined to a small and bare room beyond which stretch the many apartment of our inner world, into which we never penetrate, but one of which mysterious visitors--feelings, thoughts, ideas and suggestions, desires and passions--come and pass through our prison, without our knowing hence they come or whiter they go. In our consciousness we knew but results, we saw but that which rose to the surface and became visible; now we begin to realize a vast and unexplored world of mystery which, mirabile dictu, is the world of our own inner life. We are discovering the wonder of life.

It is everywhere around us, this wonder of life, nothing now is common or familiar, everything throbs with a mysterious life which is there for us to explore. The sacred enthusiasm of the investigator claims us, we desire to know as a starving man desires food, we cannot live unless we know; we will know if it must cost our lives. Thus are we born as philosophers.

top of page

 

The Mystery of Life

The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved; it is reality to be experienced. Beware of the man who claims to have solved the problem of life, who would explain its complexities and, with deadly logic, build a system in which all the facts of our existence may be pigeon-holed and neatly stored away. He stands condemned by his own claim. The child which sees wonder in all the world around it, to whom the shells with which it plays on the beach are objects breathless excitement and thrilled amazement, is nearer to divine truth than the intellectualist who would strip a world of its mystery and takes pride in showing us its anatomy in ruthless dissection. For a while it may satisfy evolving man to know that the splendors of a sunset are but the breaking of light-rays in a moist atmosphere; he will come to realize that he may have explained the method, but has not touched the mystery at all. Recovering from the sureness of youth, never doubting itself, awakened man returns to the wonder of childhood and once again sees a world, which, as the years pass by, deepens in mystery and beauty, but is never exhausted or explained.

Many are the systems claiming to explain life, contradictory in their premises and consequently in their conclusions. They may be clever, they may fit perfectly in all their details, but life itself never evades them; were it possible to contain life in a system it would no longer be life, but death. Life is ever changing, ever becoming, yet eternal in its abiding reality and the desire to grasp and hold it, to see it stretched out before us, as a butterfly in its glass case is destined ever to be disappointed. Our systems of theology and philosophy, yes, even science, are but as momentary glimpses of a rapid movement; they may show us an instant of that movement in frozen immobility, the movement itself can never be contained in them. And yet, even though the attempt to solve the problem of life and explain it logically is doomed to failure still the yearning to understand more, to know our own meaning and purpose is so irresistible that even the thought of failure cannot hold it back.

The thirst for truth is a sacred aspiration; like water seeking to gain its true level its onward pressure is unending until its purpose is fulfilled, its object achieved. Such a fundamental desire cannot exist only to be frustrated; the very existence of the desire for truth is the promise of its fulfillment and prophesies achievement. Fundamental instincts are never wholly mistaken; if truth were not for man the desire for truth would not be as a burning unrest in his heart, the eagle ever eating out Prometheus' liver which ever grows again. That man should desire truth above all things is right, that he should be willing to sacrifice himself, his years, yes, his very life, to achieve does but show the nobility of the desire. But when, in blindness of materialism, he wants to have truth, to grasp and hold her, to lock her between the pages of a book, to make an object, a thing of that which is the heart of things, then the nobility of his aspiration is lost and the hero of yesterday becomes an object of pity, at whom the great gods smile in compassion.

Though ever again men may claim to have found truth and to possess her, truth herself remains untouched; truth is the mystery of life, which the hand of man can never reach. Truth never descends to our world of error, he who would know must ascend towards that world of Reality where he can see face to face and, for a while, becomes living truth. But it is ever man who must climb the mountain of reality; the Vision on the Mount does not descend into the valley. Thus it is possible for man to know the mystery of life; solve it he never can, still less contain it in an intellectual system, however logical. Life is not logical; thought logic is the alphabet, which we must learn if we would speak the language of life, which is truth. And yet no intelligible language can tell of the vision to him who has not seen it; each must tread the weary path up the mountainside by himself and reach the bare and lonely top where alone the vision can be seen. We may point out the path, tell of the hardships on the way, the dangers to be avoided and the obstacles to overcome, but none may tell the final mystery--its name is experience.

The mystery of life in not a problem to be solved, it is a reality to be experienced.

top of page

 

The Vision on the Mount

Once we begin to question the world, to demand an answer from our daily existence, we embark on a long and perilous voyage of exploration. Not too lightly should we leave these familiar shores; unless we are willing to suffer hardship, to toil and persevere when all seems lost, to sail on towards the unknown even though death may be our share, we had better stay at home and hug the shores we know. Yet, if we dare and persevere what glories open up before us, what undreamed joys become ours! All achievement is to be paid in toil and hardship; that which comes easily and is given to us, is never the treasure that is lasting.

He who would leave the valley of familiar life in order to climb the far off mountain has to buy his achievement with unknown dangers and continual hardship. His friends will mock at him when he leaves the village of his youth, the place of sunshine and familiar sights, the home and fireside where he is safe from the dangers of the world. Why should he leave all that makes life dear and risk it in futile endeavors after the impossible? But he in whom the yearning has been born does not heed the mockery; there is that within him which will not let him rest until he has achieved. And yet, when once he has left the haunts of man and has entered the dense and tangled woods that cover the foothills, he may well doubt whether he has done right. Here is no path to guide him, no sunshine to give him his bearings; the dense vegetation around seems to shut out the very world and for weary days he hews his way through the tangled growth.

Gradually he ascends and reaches the higher slopes where new and more terrible dangers await him--barren rocks and deadly precipices, cold and piercing winds, treacherous snowfields to be traversed with chasms hidden beneath their smooth surface. His very footsteps dislodge the snow and avalanches threaten with sudden death, yet he climbs on, frost and starvation have no terrors for him, for far ahead shows the mountain top which he must reach. Many a time would he give up his struggle and succumb to the weariness that envelops him, but ever again the voice from within urges him on, the voice that promises achievement.

Then come the last and fearful hours when his lungs can hardly breathe the rarefied air and progress becomes ever slower and more painful. His hands bleed where the sharp rock has torn his flesh, his every step is a burden, in agony he climbs the final slope and reaches the top, where he sinks down, panting and exhausted.

But when he lifts his head and looks around, a new world meets his eye. Far below he sees the woods where he struggled in darkness, lost and erring, beyond again he sees the village of his youth, further yet other villages and cities. But he himself is now lord of all, he has forsaken his world to find a greater World, renounced the familiar sights of life to find the Vision of the mountaintop. Forgotten now his hardships, forgotten the long and painful struggle; in the light of this new world he knows but the bliss which the Vision brings to those who gain it. Henceforth this is his world, the world of the mountaintop; henceforth this is his inspiration, the Vision on the Mount. He who has seen it can never again be the same man, he has the world stretched out at his feet, has know himself the conqueror of life and death and, wherever he goes, his eyes behold that Vision.

When he descends again and returns from the heights to the valleys in which men live he comes with a new joy singing in his heart and with a solitude, which henceforth will make him lonely even in the crowded city. For he moves amongst men who know not the Vision of the mountain top, men whose sight does not reach further than their neighbour's street, and how can he speak to them of the unutterable things which be beheld in the solitude and splendor of the mountain top? Those who knew him see that he has come back a changed man, that, like the Ancient mariner, he has a look in his eyes which makes men feel less certain of themselves and causes them to pause for a while in their hurried stride. And he, in whatsoever place he finds himself, ever sees the Vision before him, he sees it even in the ugliness and misery of the lives of men, he hears the Song of Joy singing even through their cries of pain, whatever he beholds is illumined by the glory he has seen.

The familiar sights of his youth have now gained a new and sometimes terrible meaning. Nothing can be commonplace or meaningless to him who has seen the Vision on the Mount. The mystery of life is as a secret Voice within, telling of new and wonderful meanings in all that surrounds him. To some he speaks of the Vision he has seen, of the terrible path he has trodden, and possibly they too feel the yearning for the mountaintop and leave life in order to find it again in fuller measure. But thought he may tell of his experience, tell of the vision he has seen, each man to whom he speaks must in solitude make the 'flight of the alone to Alone' and gain the Vision of which no words can ever tell.

Truly, not lightly should we question and explore the world with which we are familiar, which we seem to know so well, for once we have begun this voyage of exploration there is no turning back to the state of content which knew not doubt or question. It is a great but terrible thing when doubt is born, terrible in that it destroys the old world, great in that it opens the way to a new and nobler one.

top of page