There are many today who doubt that a world as distraught and convulsed as ours has anything but a rather dim future to look forward to. "The time is out of joint," with thousands of Hamlets torn between the urge to action and passivity; between the decisive measure that will supposedly avenge the public wrongs and waiting, in the rather forlorn hope that somehow things will be set aright and the good life be restored.
In recent months a few of our leading historians, educators and even financiers have begun to articulate their concern as to the viability of our civilization. They cite certain parallels between the modern loss of self-confidence and the gradual disintegrating process that occurred in the ancient Greek world. "Religion has grown self-doubting and unpersuasive. Traditional political forms are under constant question. Government promises the good life but cannot deliver it. Military problems are ascribed to moral failure." (Editorial in The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 1971 by Robert L. Bartley.) As a consequence, a growing segment of the population, including persons of responsibility in many fields, are "turning away from the world, away from rationalism, toward superstition, toward mysticism," while the greatly increased interest in extrasensory and psychic powers, dependence on drugs, the Tarot, astrology and the I Ching, are regarded as symptomatic.
No one will dispute the fact that more and more people, adrift without the security of imposed ethical norms, are looking for instant nostrums to cure the ills of society. All this coupled with the wholesale flouting of established mores, has suggested to some "the unraveling of a civilization, a disintegration of the bonds of tradition and shared value, . . . a failure of nerve" -- a phrase first used by the renowned classicist, the late Gilbert Murray, as the real cause of the decline and final dissolution of Hellenic influence.
Everyone knows, of course, that one can't push historical parallels too far. Nevertheless, Professor Murray's commentary on the intensity of faith as well as the contempt for the world and its standards that marked the beginning of the Christian era might have been made today:
It is a rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; . . . There is an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions; an increase of sensitiveness, a failure of nerve.
-- Five Stages of Greek Religion
Other parallels might be drawn, not least between the ruthless attempt by the early Christians to eliminate every trace of pagan tradition, every memory of the once pure but by then degraded Mystery religions, and our own century's turbulent rejection of everything that smacks of hypocrisy.
Yet nothing is preordained absolutely, for man is intrinsically a free spirit within the cosmos of his own thought and aspiration. Collapse of our civilization is not certain, for we in this century do not have to repeat the failings of previous centuries. We, as a race, can choose whether to remain in the rutted paths of self-centeredness that all too long have marred our progress; or whether to evolve humanely, intelligently, utilizing the flood of our new knowledge for the world's good.
We dare not condemn out of hand what we do not fully understand. Behind the explosiveness, behind the idealism, powerful currents are at work. This surging cry of our youth for putting our vaunted principles into practice, for a return to the natural in place of the artificial in living, for jettisoning the arsenals of war and finding some way to live and work together in amity, are clear indications that our civilization, far from "unraveling," is more vital than ever. Some of the
established forms, possibly a good many of them, may go by the board; but is there any reason to lament the disappearance of forms? We who change our cars and our apparel quite regularly seem ever wont to offer the wornout skins of a previous cycle for the new wine of the spirit.
However, there are dangers here, more particularly for those who in their zeal to get rid of the public ills forget that he who would conquer the world must first conquer himself. It may be very exciting to throw oneself into some great big job of demolition, careless of the possibility that only the stumps of our forest of values will be left for posterity. But how much better it would be to thin out the trees and the underbrush in such a way that the forests will reseed themselves.
Classical Greece had a word for this -- Sophrosyne -- gentleness, moderation, "the spirit that in any trouble thinks and is patient, that saves and not destroys." The golden mean of Pythagoras, the middle way of Gautama -- this is difficult to find, difficult to maintain. Yet were everything to remain in perfect equilibrium there would be no growth. It needs the daring of the innovator, even at times the destruction of the thoughtless, to shake us out of our grooves. The secret is to recognize this and, when the storms of change howl about our heads, to let go of the limited, hold fast to the good, the while opening up our consciousness to the invigorating currents of the new.
Perhaps we should take a longer view of ourselves, our world, and of our partnership in the cosmic design. Were we here on earth simply for a one-stop visit, there might be reason for despair that we could accomplish so little; or for not caring a whit what happens -- to ourselves or others -- and so burying still deeper those yearnings for the immortal that abide deep in the soul. Seers, poets, writers of every age and race tell a different story, a story of man's endless past and of his equally endless future. We are not brand-new creations, thrown on the wheel of life in a moment of caprice by some Potter far removed from ourselves. No, every human being is the creation of his own individual Potter. Our entry into earth life is but the fruitage of seeds sown aeons ago; the consequence of a long, long series of experiences on this amazing planet of ours. And for no other purpose than to bring forth into ever grander expression the beauty, power, and goodness that was seeded by the divine element within us in the forgotten ages of our spiritual origins.
The future belongs to us, if we will but assume our true dignity as pilgrims of eternity: inhabitants of a planet, itself a living being, whose journeyings in time and space are as inextricably linked with the orbiting of our sun around its own central focus of light, as that solar being itself is linked with the larger destiny of the galaxy. Were the ancients, of Greece, Babylon, Persia, India and China so foolish in believing that the starry hosts were really only the bodies of divinities working out their celestial destinies within the still grander sweep of some supergalactic entity whose vehicle of expression was the universe?
As all growth, whether of man or star is spiral, the procession of the millennia has a way of bringing the human race around to much the same type of challenges that prevailed in some previous cycle. Astronomically speaking, due to the precession of the equinoxes, the sun is now leaving the sign of Pisces and gradually entering that of Aquarius, just as some 2160 years earlier it moved out of Aries into Pisces. Briefly, this means that once again we are passing through one of those dynamic change points which signal the ending of existing conditions and the beginning of new ones.
Nothing, however, is ever exactly identical in quality or form, for nature is not static. There may be nothing new under the sun, yet everything is ever new within the cosmic domain, for at every moment the entire solar system with its vast cargo of living entities is transiting into a different space-time of our galactic home.
It would be as stupid to write all this off as mere superstition, as it would be to feel we are but pawns, unwilling victims of astrological forces, as some have done in the past and are doing even today, regarding the configuration of sun and planets with the zodiacal signs as absolutely fateful influences about which man can do little. The succinct Latin saying expressed it well: Stellae agunt, non cogunt -- the stars impel, they do not compel.
Nevertheless, the fact that science records a variation in the intensity of solar energy at certain cyclic periods, leads us to believe that at these particular junction points a specific quality of solar force finds entrance into the earth's atmosphere, which we humans are bound to feel. In this connection, Professor Murray himself noted the marked difference in tone between the classical age and that of the Christian era. It was as though "a soil once teeming with wild weeds was to all appearances swept bare and made ready for new sowing. . . . The new quality is not specifically Christian: it is just as marked in the Gnostics and Mithras-worshippers as in the Gospels and the Apocalypse, in Julian and Plotinus as in Gregory and Jerome." In short, it is a universalizing force.
In view of the current precessional change-over may we not reasonably deduce that an inrush of like power is working its alchemy at this present juncture? Time alone will reveal what new firmaments of human achievement it will open up, but judging by the upheaval already caused, and by the world-wide urge to end the divisiveness of the past and go forward together as brothers, we can surmise that its dynamism will leave a powerful impress upon the civilizations to come.
Plato spoke of cycles of spiritual fertility when men were more attuned to the time-honored principles of nobility; and of cycles of spiritual barrenness when the ancient truths went unrecognized, and so fell into disuse. We are, as we have said, at the intersection of two major astronomical cycles, and possibly of larger ones as well. Whether the incoming tide will be on a rising scale and we shall experience a minor resurgence of wisdom; or whether we shall descend into an even darker period of human suffering, we cannot know. The force of destructiveness spreading to all areas of the globe gives one pause; but when we think of it as part of the harrowing process, so that the new seeding can take place in fresh soil, we have every reason to hope.
What, then, is the lesson of antiquity? The fall of Athens in 404 B.C., followed shortly by the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenians, the stripping of that fair city of all that her citizens had cherished most: honor, supremacy in the arts, democracy, the esteem of neighbors in war and peace, had been a shattering blow. The trauma had gone deep. But these were signposts; they were not causal. The corruption had already had its seeding within, undermining the very pillars of her matchless splendor. Seeds sown at the pinnacle of her glory which lay fallow until, despair taking hold, the 'failure of nerve' did its unholy work and the scepter of power eventually passed to Rome.
But here is the moving challenge for us. At the very hour when Athens was in its nadir of hopelessness, we find her philosophers turning inward, searching their very souls to find the strength from within to meet the onslaughts from without, sowing in the minds and hearts of their listeners the ancient seeds of probity, of purity, of philosophic wholeness. Curiously, the very seeds thus sown in defeat were, through the writings of Plato in particular, to inspire many through the coming centuries, not to outer triumph but to inward recognition that the Good, the True and the Beautiful are the only viable principles in human life.
As Francis Thompson said, "the fall doth pass the rise in worth." Just as in the prime of material success all too often we allow the weeds of selfish motive to take root and germinate, so too we may be assured that at the darkest hour of the soul's travail the seeding time for a new and finer flowering is quietly taking place.
(From Sunrise magazine, June 1971; copyright © 1971 Theosophical University Press)