Greater Works than These . . .

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell

Isn't it extraordinary how strongly we cling to an idea once it has become established, even when we begin to have doubts about it? Well over a century has elapsed since the proposition was expounded that man may be the crowning product of the animal kingdom. There is, of course, a certain specious comfort in the thought that when we behave badly, this is because we really are beasts with a thin veneer of "civilization," so it really isn't our fault! In view of the human characteristics that we do have, however, this excuse does not hold water. The greatest disservice done to man has been to convince him that he is merely a superior animal which has somehow acquired hands and feet, the power of speech, and a degree of intelligence due to a proportionately heavier brain.

Perhaps the superficial resemblance between man and the higher apes has at times been even more marked than it is today, yet despite appearances, there is an abysmal gap between the highest forms of animal life and the lowest form of human, for while it is true that man possesses animal characteristics, the reverse is not true. The brute creation does not possess characteristically human properties. To clarify this we must consider which qualities denote human and which animal nature. Much has been made of the intelligence of porpoises, dogs, birds, and chimps, but we have yet to benefit by original ideas and inventions emanating from these lovable but decidedly less evolved creatures. Many of the feats they accomplish are devised by human brains and their intelligence is often limited to executing physical feats at human direction. When an animal is able to design and construct an original device, expound a philosophy, or compose words full of beauty and thought, then and not before may we speak of animal intellect as comparable to man's.

It will doubtless be objected that animals have a superior faculty in their instinct, which dictates actions that are wise and proper for survival. Yet we must remember that man has largely forfeited this effective tool for survival in favor of knowledge and choice. Where animals instinctively obey the laws of their species, man has not only the privilege but the duty to reason and, as far as he is able, to intuit his best course of action. To this ability he adds the wisdom of experience and accumulates memory in the guise of conscience. Being self-conscious he is then able to choose his conduct and relationship between his self and surroundings. Physical man may be encased in an envelope of similar cast to those worn by animal creation, but who would venture to place tasks before any beast that could parallel the marvels achieved by human minds?

A good deal of confusion has arisen from the habit of regarding entities as primarily bodies, animated -- or not -- by souls. Seen realistically, the actual experience of living is borne by the consciousness, which cognizes its surroundings and reacts to them, whereas the body provides contact with the environment physically. The conscious awareness in man differs from that of the animal kingdom as the latter does from the vegetable and this from the mineral. Each higher kingdom brings to bear more knowledge, memory, and will -- along with increasing freedom -- on its progressive existence than the one before it, and more experience is accumulated and stored to serve as the basis of future living.

Growth, then, is not so much from lower to higher forms, as it is an expansion from the limited to the less limited consciousness. Thus an entity inhabiting the mineral kingdom would have only a rudimentary awareness -- at least from our point of view -- while that of a vegetable would possess this plus a greater range of its own, and the animal a still wider perception. Man comprises within his consciousness all the subtle properties of the lower kingdoms plus those he has developed while inhabiting the human form. If we see evolution from the standpoint of inner awareness, then the physical mutation of forms is seen to be an effect rather than a cause. True, changes do take place in the adaptation to environment, but transitions from one species to another cannot be fully understood unless we regard the indwelling consciousness as preparing itself to utilize higher forms and, when ready, imbodying in them.

There is today a wide divergence of thought, which on the one hand seeks to justify bestial behavior in humans, while at the same time exploring nonphysical parts of man. Within the broad scope of human consciousness are included spiritual impulses, a sense of beauty and compassion, noble philosophic concepts, as well as the inexact phenomena of ESP and the like, and the foolish, even horrifying depths of degradation. Yet, we too often ignore the uplifting and grand parts of our nature, leaving the greater potential of human existence largely unexplored.

The evolutionary urge is a strong incentive in all life, not least in humanity, where it emphasizes channels other than physical mutation, for man's evolution has avenues open to it which other kingdoms have not. History records examples of men who have become truly human -- perfectly humanized -- and they have beckoned the great stream of human growing beings to become like them, to rise to heights of self-awareness, in short to fulfill the destiny of evolutionary growth. I doubt whether Christ or Buddha physically were noticeably different from the rest of the people they contacted. Nothing indicates this. But who can doubt that these, and other sages in the forefront of evolution, were head and shoulders above and beyond the narrow band of consciousness most of us are content with. Miracles are attributed to all the great ones, but who is to say what "miracles" can be accomplished by a trained mind united to its spiritual center and working selflessly for the evolution of souls. Let us never forget the words: "and greater works than these shall ye do."

Emphasis is unduly placed on the seeming miraculous, the spectacular which, whether genuine or spurious, should always be open to question. Far more important is the selectivity of mind, where choice is open and daily made -- to expand or to contract. Growth of awareness inevitably accompanies the expansive, loving, generous tendencies, while selfishness shrinks the soul, ultimately to a vanishing point. What marvels of exalted being may be just beyond our present reach, ahead of the human race in its struggle with the daily confusion, where grandeur and understanding exist and consciousness, the inmost essence of us all, is universal.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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