May 26, 2014

In Defense of Criticism

According to Original Theosophy,
Criticism Is the Sole Salvation From Mental Paralysis

Helena P. Blavatsky

The central part of the painting “The School of Athens”, by Raphael


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An Editorial Note:  

Since Athens in ancient Greece, free and intense debate
defines philosophies, esoteric or not. While looking at some
sectors of the theosophical movement, however, one might
be led to think that quiet routine is a virtue, and polemics, or
frankness, creates dire problems to “our legitimate authorities”.

Those who adhere to such a view forgot what theosophy is
about. They ignore the fact that Life is movement, and that the
theosophical effort, being probationary, must constantly challenge
error, within and without itself. The following text clarifies
the issue.[1] Explanatory notes will be found at the end of the article.

(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)

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Theosophists and editors of Theosophical periodicals are constantly warned, by the prudent and the faint-hearted, to beware of giving offence to “authorities”, whether scientific or social. Public Opinion, they urge, is the most dangerous of all foes. Criticism of it is fatal, we are told. Criticism can hardly hope to make the person or subject so discussed amend or become amended. Yet it gives offence to the many, and makes Theosophists hateful. “Judge not, if thou wilt not be judged”, is the habitual warning.

It is precisely because Theosophists would themselves be judged and court impartial criticism, that they begin by rendering that service to their fellow-men. Mutual criticism is a most healthy policy, and helps to establish final and definite rules in life - practical, not merely theoretical. We have had enough of theories. The Bible is full of wholesome advice, yet few are the Christians who have ever applied any of its ethical injunctions to their daily lives. If one criticism is hurtful so is another; so also is every innovation, or even the presentation of some old thing under a new aspect, as both have necessarily to clash with the views of this or another “authority”. I maintain, on the contrary, that criticism is the great benefactor of thought in general; and still more so of those men who never think for themselves but rely in everything upon acknowledged “authorities” and social routine.

For what is an “authority” upon any question, after all? No more, really, than a light streaming upon a certain object through one single, more or less wide, chink, and illuminating it from one side only. Such light, besides being the faithful reflector of the personal views of but one man - very often merely that of his special hobby - can never help in the examination of a question or a subject from all its aspects and sides. Thus, the authority appealed to will often prove but of little help, yet the profane, who attempts to present the given question or object under another aspect and in a different light, is forthwith hooted for his great audacity. Does he not attempt to upset solid “authorities”, and fly in the face of respectable and time-honoured routine thought?

Friends and foes! Criticism is the sole salvation from intellectual stagnation. It is the beneficent goad which stimulates to life and action - hence to healthy changes - the heavy ruminants called Routine and Prejudice, in private as in social life. Adverse opinions are like conflicting winds which brush from the quiet surface of a lake the green scum that tends to settle upon still waters. If every clear stream of independent thought, which runs through the field of life outside the old grooves traced by Public Opinion, had to be arrested and to come to a standstill, the results would prove very sad. The streams would no longer feed the common pond called Society, and its waters would become still more stagnant than they are. Result: it is the most orthodox “authorities” of the social pond who would be the first to get sucked down still deeper into its ooze and slime.

Things, even as they now stand, present no very bright outlook as regards progress and social reforms. In this last quarter of the century it is women alone who have achieved any visible beneficent progress. Men, in their ferocious egoism and sex-privilege, have fought hard, but have been defeated on almost every line. Thus, the younger generations of women look hopeful enough. They will hardly swell the future ranks of stiff-necked and cruel Mrs. Grundy. [2] Those who to-day lead her no longer invincible battalions on the war-path, are the older Amazons of respectable society, and her young men, the male “flowers of evil”, the nocturnal plants that blossom in the hothouses known as clubs. The Brummels of our modern day have become worse gossips than the old dowagers ever were in the dawn of our century.

To oppose or criticize such foes, or even to find the least fault with them, is to commit the one unpardonable social sin. An Unpopular Philosopher, however, has little to fear, and notes his thoughts, indifferent to the loudest “war-cry” from those quarters. He examines his enemies of both sexes with the calm and placid eye of one who has nothing to lose, and counts the ugly blotches and wrinkles on the “sacred” face of Mrs. Grundy, as he would count the deadly poisonous flowers on the branches of a majestic mancenillier [3] - through a telescope from afar. He will never approach the tree, or rest under its lethal shade. “Thou shalt not set thyself against the Lord’s anointed”, saith David. But since the “authorities”, social and scientific, are always the first to break that law, others may occasionally follow the good example. Besides, the “anointed” ones are not always those of the Lord; many of them being more of the “self-anointed” sort.

Thus, whenever taken to task for disrespect to Science and its “authorities”, which the Unpopular Philosopher is accused of rejecting, he demurs to the statement. To reject the infallibility of a man of Science is not quite the same as to repudiate his learning. A specialist is one, precisely because he has some one specialty, and is therefore less reliable in other branches of Science, and even in the general appreciation of his own subject. Official school Science is based upon temporary foundations, so far. It will advance upon straight lines so long only as it is not compelled to deviate from its old grooves, in consequence of fresh and unexpected discoveries in the fathomless mines of knowledge.

Science is like a railway train which carries its baggage van from one terminus to the other, and with which no one except the rail­way officials may interfere. But passengers who travel by the same train can hardly be prevented from quitting the direct line at fixed stations, to proceed, if they so like, by diverging roads. They should have this option, without being taxed with libelling the chief line. To proceed beyond the terminus on horseback, cart or foot, or even to undertake pioneer work, by cutting entirely new paths through the great virgin forests and thickets of public ignorance, is their undoubted prerogative. Other explorers are sure to follow; nor less sure are they to criticize the newly-cut pathway. They will thus do more good than harm. For truth, according to an old Belgian proverb, is always the result of conflicting opinions, like the spark that flies out from the shock of two flints struck together.

Why should men of learning be always so inclined to regard Science as their own personal property? Is knowledge a kind of indivisible family estate, entailed only on the elder sons of Science? Truth belongs to all, or ought so to belong; excepting always those few special branches of knowledge which should be preserved ever secret, like those two-edged weapons that both kill and save. Some philosopher compared knowledge to a ladder, the top of which was more easily reached by a man unencumbered by heavy luggage, than by him who has to drag along an enormous bale of old conventionalities, faded out and dried. Moreover, such a one must look back every moment, for fear of losing some of his fossils. Is it owing to such extra weight that so few of them ever reach the summit of the ladder, and that they affirm there is nothing beyond the highest rung they have reached? Or is it for the sake of preserving the old dried-up plants of the Past that they deny the very possibility of any fresh, living blossoms, on new forms of life, in the Future?

Whatever their answer, without such optimistic hope in the ever-becoming, life would be little worth living. What between “authorities”, their fear of, and wrath at the slightest criticism - each and all of them demanding to be regarded as infallible in their respective departments - the world threatens to fossilize in its old prejudices and routine. Fogeyism [4] grins its skeleton-like sneer at every innovation or new form of thought. In the great battle of life for the survival of the fittest, each of these forms becomes in turn the master, and then the tyrant, forcing back all new growth as its own was checked. But the true Philosopher, however “unpopular”, [5] seeks to grasp the actual life, which, springing fresh from the inner source of Being, the rock of truth, is ever moving onward. He feels equal contempt for all the little puddles that stagnate lazily on the flat and marshy fields of social life.


NOTES:

[1] Original title of  “In Defense of Criticism”: “Literary Jottings - On Criticism, Authorities, And Other Matters”. Initially signed by “An Unpopular Philosopher”. Here reproduced from “Theosophical Articles”, H.P. Blavatsky, a three-volume collection, Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, 1981, volume II, pp. 389-392.  First published at “Lucifer” magazine, London, September 1892.  The word “Lucifer” means “light- bearer” and is an ancient name for the planet “Venus”.  It has been distorted by Middle Ages priests who wanted to dominate people’s minds through fear. (CCA)

[2] Mrs. Grundy - fictional English character who typifies the censorship enacted in everyday life by conventional opinion.  (CCA)

[3] Mancenillier - a small tree belonging to the family of the  Euphorbiaceae.  The word mancenillier comes from the Spanish term “manzanilla”. (CCA)

[4] Fogeyism or Fogyism - attachment to old-fashioned conservative attitudes. (CCA)

[5] When the present article was first published, H.P.B. signed it with the words “An Unpopular Philosopher”. (CCA)

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