Is Denunciation a Duty?
Condemn no man in his absence; and when forced to reprove, do so to his face, but gently, and in words full of charity and compassion. For the human heart is like the Kusûli plant: it opens its cup to the sweet morning dew, and closes it before a heavy shower of rain.
– BUDDHIST PRECEPT
Judge not that ye be not judged.
– CHRISTIAN APHORISM
Not a few of our most earnest Theosophists feel themselves, we are sorry to hear, between the horns of a dilemma. Small causes will at times produce great results. There are those who would jest under the cruellest operation, and remain cool while having a leg amputated, who would yet raise a storm and renounce their rightful place in the kingdom of Heaven if, to preserve it, they had to keep silent when somebody treads on their corns.
In the 13th number of LUCIFER (September, page 63), a paper on “The Meaning of a Pledge” was published. Out of the seven articles (six only were given out) which constitute the entire Pledge, the 1st, 4th, 5th, and especially the 6th, require great moral strength of character, an iron will added to much unselfishness, quick readiness for renunciation and even self-sacrifice, to carry out such a covenant. Yet scores of Theosophists have cheerfully signed this solemn “Promise” to work for the good of Humanity forgetful of Self, without one word of protest – save on one point. Strange to say, it is rule the third which in almost every case makes the applicant hesitate and show the white feather. Ante tubam trepidat: the best and kindest of them feels alarmed; and he is as overawed before the blast of the trumpet of that third clause, as though he dreaded for himself the fate of the walls of Jericho!
What is then this terrible pledge, to carry out which seems to be above the strength of the average mortal? Simply this:
I PLEDGE MYSELF NEVER TO LISTEN WITHOUT PROTEST TO ANY EVIL THING SPOKEN OF A BROTHER THEOSOPHIST, AND TO ABSTAIN FROM CONDEMNING OTHERS.
To practise this golden rule seems quite easy. To listen without protest to evil said of any one is an action which has been despised ever since the remotest days of Paganism.
To hear an open slander is a curse,
But not to find an answer is a worse, . . .
says Ovid. For one thing, perhaps, as pointedly remarked by Juvenal, because:
Slander, that worst of poisons, ever finds
An easy entrance to ignoble minds . . .
– and because in antiquity, few liked to pass for such – minds. But now! . . .
In fact, the duty of defending a fellow-man stung by a poisonous tongue during his absence, and to abstain, in general, “from condemning others” is the very life and soul of practical theosophy, for such action is the handmaiden who conducts one into the narrow Path of the “higher life,” that life which leads to the goal we all crave to attain. Mercy, Charity and Hope are the three goddesses who preside over that “life.” To “abstain” from condemning our fellow beings is the tacit assertion of the presence in us of the three divine Sisters; to condemn on “hearsay” shows their absence. “Listen not to a tale bearer or slanderer,” says Socrates. “For, as he discovereth of the secrets of others, so he will thine in turn.” Nor is it difficult to avoid slandermongers. Where there is no demand, supply will very soon cease. “When people refrain from evil-hearing, then evil speakers will refrain from evil-talking,” says a proverb. To condemn is to glorify oneself over the man one condemns. Pharisees of every nation have been constantly doing it since the evolution of intolerant religions. Shall we do as they?
We may be told, perhaps, that we ourselves are the first to break the ethical law we are upholding. That our theosophical periodicals are full of “denunciations,” and LUCIFER lowers his torch to throw light on every evil, to the best of his ability. We reply – this is quite another thing. We denounce indignantly systems and organizations, evils, social and religious – cant above all: we abstain from denouncing persons. The latter are the children of their century, the victims of their environment and of the Spirit of the Age. To condemn and dishonour a man instead of pitying and trying to help him, because, being born in a community of lepers he is a leper himself, is like cursing a room because it is dark, instead of quietly lighting a candle to disperse the gloom. “Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word”; nor can a general evil be avoided or removed by doing evil oneself and choosing a scape-goat for the atonement of the sins of a whole community. Hence, we denounce these communities not their units; we point out the rottenness of our boasted civilisation, indicate the pernicious systems of education which lead to it, and show the fatal effects of these on the masses. Nor are we more partial to ourselves. Ready to lay down our life any day for THEOSOPHY – that great cause of the Universal Brotherhood for which we live and breathe – and willing to shield, if need be, every theosophist with our own body, we yet denounce as openly and as virulently the distortion of the original lines upon which the Theosophical Society was primarily built, and the gradual loosening and undermining of the original system by the sophistry of many of its highest officers. We bear our Karma for our lack of humility during the early days of the Theosophical Society; for our favourite aphorism: “See, how these Christians love each other” has now to be paraphrased daily, and almost hourly, into: “Behold, how our Theosophists love each other.” And we tremble at the thought that, unless many of our ways and customs, in the Theosophical Society at large, are amended or done away with, LUCIFER will one day have to expose many a blot on our own escutcheon – e.g., worship of Self, uncharitableness, and sacrificing to one’s personal vanity the welfare of other Theosophists – more “fiercely” than it has ever denounced the various shams and abuses of power in state Churches and Modern Society.
Nevertheless, there are theosophists, who forgetting the beam in their own eye, seriously believe it their duty to denounce every mote they perceive in the eye of their neighbour. Thus, one of our most estimable, hard-working, and noble-minded members writes, with regard to the said 3rd clause:
The “Pledge” binds the taker never to speak evil of anyone. But I believe that there are occasions when severe denunciation is a duty to truth. There are cases of treachery, falsehood, rascality in private life which should be denounced by those who are certain of them; and there are cases in public life of venality and debasement which good citizens are bound to lash unsparingly. Theosophic culture would not be a boon to the world if it enforced unmanliness, weakness, flabbiness of moral texture. . . .
We are sincerely sorry to find a most worthy brother holding such mistaken views. First of all, poor is that theosophic culture which fails to transform simply a “good citizen” of his own native country into a “good citizen” of the world. A true theosophist must be a cosmopolitan in his heart. He must embrace mankind, the whole of humanity in his philanthropic feelings. It is higher and far nobler to be one of those who love their fellow men, without distinction of race, creed, caste or colour, than to be merely a good patriot, or still less, a partizan. To mete one measure for all, is holier and more divine than to help one’s country in its private ambition of aggrandizement, strife or bloody wars in the name of GREEDINESS and SELFISHNESS. Severe denunciation is a duty to truth.” It is; on condition, however, that one should denounce and fight against the root of evil and not expend one’s fury by knocking down the irresponsible blossoms of its plant. The wise horticulturist uproots the parasitic herbs, and will hardly lose time in using his garden shears to cut off the heads of the poisonous weeds. If a theosophist happens to be a public officer, a judge or magistrate, a barrister or even a preacher, it is then, of course his duty to his country, his conscience and those who put their trust in him, to “denounce severely” every case of “treachery, falsehood and rascality” even in private life; but – nota bene – only if he is appealed to and called to exercise his legal authority, not otherwise. This is neither “speaking evil” nor “condemning,” but truly working for humanity; seeking to preserve society, which is a portion of it, from being imposed upon, and protecting the property of the citizens entrusted to their care as public officers, from being recklessly taken away. But even then the theosophist may assert himself in the magistrate, and show his mercy by repeating after Shakespeare’s severe judge: “I show it most of all when I show justice.”
But what has a “working” member of the Theosophical Society independent of any public function or office, and who is neither judge, public prosecutor nor preacher, to do with the misdeeds of his neighbours? If a member of the T.S. is found guilty of one of the above enumerated or some still worse crime, and if another member becomes possessed of irrefutable evidence to that effect, it may become his painful duty to bring the same under the notice of the Council of his Branch. Our Society has to be protected, as also its numerous members. This, again, would only be simple justice. A natural and truthful statement of facts cannot be regarded as “evil speaking” or as a condemnation of one’s brother. Between this, however, and deliberate backbiting there is a wide chasm. Clause 3 concerns only those who being in no way responsible for their neighbour’s actions or walk in life, will yet judge and condemn them on every opportunity. And in such case it becomes – “slander” and “evil speaking.”
This is how we understand the clause in question; nor do we believe that by enforcing it “theosophic culture” enforces “unmanliness, weakness or flabbiness of moral texture,” but the reverse. True courage has naught to do, we trust, with denunciation; and there is little manliness in criticizing and condemning one’s fellow men behind their backs, whether for wrongs done to others or injury to ourselves. Shall we regard the unparalleled virtues inculcated by Gautama the Buddha, or the Jesus of the Gospels as “unmanliness”? Then the ethics preached by the former, that moral code which Professor Max Müller, Burnouf and even Barthelemy St. Hilaire have unanimously pronounced the most perfect which the world has ever known, must be no better than meaningless words, and the Sermon on the Mount had better never have been written at all. Does our correspondent regard the teaching of non-resistance to evil, kindness to all creatures, and the sacrifice of one’s own self for the good of others as weakness or unmanliness? Are the commands, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” and, “Put back thy sword, for they who take the sword shall perish with the sword,” to be viewed as “flabbiness of moral texture” or as the voice of Karma?
But our correspondent is not alone in his way of thinking. Many are the men and women, good, charitable, self-sacrificing and trustworthy in every other respect, and who accept unhesitatingly every other clause of the “Pledge,” who feel uneasy and almost tremble before this special article. But why? The answer is easy: simply because they fear an unconscious (to them), almost unavoidable PERJURY.
The moral of the fable and its conclusion are suggestive. It is a direct blow in the face of Christian education and our civilized modern society in all its circles and in every Christian land. So deep has this moral cancer – the habit of speaking uncharitably of our neighbour and brother at every opportunity – eaten into the heart of all the classes of Society, from the lowest to the very highest, that it has led the best of its members to feel diffident of their tongues! They dare not trust themselves to abstain from condemning others – from mere force of habit. This is quite an ominous “sign of the times.”
Indeed, most of us, of whatever nationality, are born and brought up in a thick atmosphere of gossip, uncharitable criticism and wholesale condemnation. Our education in this direction begins in the nursery, where the head nurse hates the governess, the latter hates the mistress, and the servants, regardless of the presence of “baby” and the children, grumble incessantly against the masters, find fault with each other, and pass impudent remarks on every visitor. The same training follows us in the class room, whether at home or at a public school. It reaches its apex of ethical development during the years of our education and practical religious instruction. We are soaked through and through with the conviction that, though ourselves “born in sin and total depravity,” our religion is the only one to save us from eternal damnation, while the rest of mankind is predestined from the depths of eternity to inextinguishable hell-fires. We are taught that slander of every other people’s Gods and religion is a sign of reverence for our own idols, and is a meritorious action. The “Lord God,” himself, the “personal Absolute,” is impressed upon our young plastic minds as ever backbiting and condemning those he created, as cursing the stiff-necked Jew and tempting the Gentile.
For years the minds of young Protestants are periodically enriched with the choicest curses from the Commination service in their prayer-books, or the “denouncing of God’s anger and judgments against sinners,” besides eternal condemnation for most creatures; and from his birth the young Roman Catholic constantly hears threats of curse and excommunication by his Church. It is in the Bible and Church of England prayer-books that boys and girls of all classes learn of the existence of vices, the mention of which, in the works of Zola, falls under the ban of law as immoral and depraving, but to the enumeration and the cursing of which in the Churches, young and old are made to say “Amen,” after the minister of the meek and humble Jesus. The latter says, Swear not, curse not, condemn not, but “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate and persecute you.” But the canon of the church and the clergymen tell them: Not at all. There are crimes and vices “for which ye affirm with your own mouths the curse of God to be due.” (Vide “Commination Service.”) What wonder that later in life, Christians piously try to emulate “God” and the priest, since their ears are still ringing with, “Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark,” and, “Cursed be he” who does this, that or the other, even “he that putteth his trust in man”(!), and with “God’s” judgment and condemnations. They judge and condemn right and left, indulging in wholesale slander and “comminating” on their own account. Do they forget that in the last curse – the anathema against adulterers and drunkards, idolaters and extortionists – “the UNMERCIFUL and SLANDERERS” are included? And that by having joined in the solemn “amen” after this last Christian thunderbolt, they have affirmed “with their own mouths the curse of God to be due” on their own sinful heads?
But this seems to trouble our society slanderers very little. For no sooner are the religiously brought up children of church-going people off their school benches, than they are taken in hand by those who preceded them. Coached for their final examination in that school for scandal, called the world, by older and more experienced tongues, to pass Master of Arts in the science of cant and commination, a respectable member of society has but to join a religious congregation: to become a churchwarden or lady patroness.
Who shall dare deny that in our age, modern society in its general aspect has become a vast arena for such moral murders, performed between two cups of five o’clock tea and amid merry jests and laughter? Society is now more than ever a kind of international shambles wherein. under the waving banners of drawing-room and church Christianity and the cultured tittle-tattle of the world, each becomes in turn as soon as his back is turned, the sacrificial victim, the sin-offering for atonement, whose singed flesh smells savoury in the nostrils of Mrs. Grundy. Let us pray, brethren, and render thanks to the God of Abraham and of Isaac that we no longer live in the days of cruel Nero. And, oh! let us feel grateful that we no longer live in danger of being ushered into the arena of the Colosseum, to die there a comparatively quick death under the claws of the hungry wild beasts! It is the boast of Christianity that our ways and customs have been wonderfully softened under the beneficent shadow of the Cross. Yet we have but to step into a modern drawing-room to find a symbolical representation, true to life, of the same wild beasts feasting on, and gloating over, the mangled carcasses of their best friends. Look at those graceful and as ferocious great cats, who with sweet smiles and an innocent eye sharpen their rose-coloured claws preparatory to playing at mouse and cat. Woe to the poor mouse fastened upon by those proud Society felidœ! The mouse will be made to bleed for years before being permitted to bleed to death. The victims will have to undergo unheard-of moral martyrdom, to learn through papers and friends that they have been guilty at one or another time of life of each and all the vices and crimes enumerated in the Commination Service, until, to avoid further persecution, the said mice themselves turn into ferocious society cats, and make other mice tremble in their turn. Which of the two arenas is preferable, my brethren – that of the old pagan or that of Christian lands?
Addison had not words of contempt sufficiently strong to rebuke this Society gossip of the worldly Cains of both sexes.
“How frequently,” he exclaims, “is the honesty and integrity of a man disposed of by a smile or a shrug? How many good and generous actions have been sunk into oblivion by a distrustful look, or stamped with the imputation of proceeding from bad motives, by a mysterious and seasonable whisper. Look . . . how large a portion of chastity is sent out of the world by distant hints – nodded away, and cruelly winked into suspicion by the envy of those who are past all temptation of it themselves. How often does the reputation of a helpless creature bleed by a report – which the party who is at the pains to propagate it beholds with much pity and fellow-feeling – that she is heartily sorry for it – hopes in God it is not true!”
From Addison we pass to Sterne’s treatment of the same subject. He seems to continue this picture by saying:
So fruitful is slander in variety of expedients to satiate as well as to disguise itself, that if those smoother weapons cut so sore, what shall we say of open and unblushing scandal, subjected to no caution, tied down to no restraints? If the one like an arrow shot in the dark, does, nevertheless, so much secret mischief, this, like pestilence, which rages at noonday, sweeps all before it, levelling without distinction the good and the bad; a thousand fall beside it, and ten thousand on its right hand; they fall, so rent and torn in this tender part of them, so unmercifully butchered, as sometimes never to recover [from] either the wounds or the anguish of heart which they have occasioned.
Such are the results of slander, and from the standpoint of Karma, many such cases amount to more than murder in hot blood. Therefore, those who want to lead the “higher life” among the “working Fellows,” of the Theosophical Society, must bind themselves by this solemn pledge, or, remain droning members. It is not to the latter that these pages are addressed, nor would they feel interested in that question, nor is it an advice offered to the F.’s T.S. at large. For the “Pledge” under discussion is taken only by those Fellows who begin to be referred in our circles of “Lodges” as the “working” members of the T.S. All others, that is to say those Fellows who prefer to remain ornamental, and belong to the “mutual admiration” groups; or those who, having joined out of mere curiosity, have, without severing their connexion with the Society, quietly dropped off; or those, again, who have preserved only a skin deep interest (if any), a luke-warm sympathy for the movement – and such constitute the majority in England – need burden themselves with no such pledge. Having been for years the “Greek Chorus” in the busy drama enacted, now known as the Theosophical Society, they prefer remaining as they are. The “chorus,” considering its numbers, has only, as in the past, to look on at what takes place in the action of the dramatis personae and it is only required to express occasionally its sentiments by repeating the closing gems from the monologues of the actors, or remain silent – at their option. “Philosophers of a day,” as Carlyle calls them, they neither desire, nor are they desired “to apply.” Therefore, even were these lines to meet their eye, they are respectfully begged to remember that what is said does not refer to either of the above enumerated classes of Fellows. Most of them have joined the Society as they would have bought a guinea book. Attracted by the novelty of the binding, they opened it; and, after glancing over contents and title, motto and dedication, they have put it away on a back shelf, and thought of it no more. They have a right to the volume, by virtue of their purchase, but would refer to it no more than they would to an antiquated piece of furniture relegated to the lumber-room, because the seat of it is not comfortable enough, or is out of proportion with their moral and intellectual size. A hundred to one these members will not even see LUCIFER, for it has now become a matter of theosophical statistics, that more than two thirds of its subscribers are non-theosophists. Nor are the elder brothers of LUCIFER – the Madras “Theosophist,” The New York “Path,” the French “Lotus,” nor even the marvellously cheap and international “T.P.S.” (of 7, Duke Street, Adelphi), any luckier than we are. Like all prophets, they are not without honour, save in their own countries, and their voices in the fields of Theosophy are truly “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” This is no exaggeration. Among the respective subscribers of those various Theosophical periodicals, the members of the T.S., whose organs they are, and for whose sole benefit they were started (their editors, managers, and the whole staff of constant contributors working gratis, and paying furthermore out of their own generally meagre pockets, printers, publishers and occasional contributors), are on the average 15 per cent. This is also a sign of the times, and shows the difference between the “working” and the “resting” theosophists.
We must not close without once more addressing the former. Who of these will undertake to maintain that clause 3 is not a fundamental principle of the code of ethics which ought to guide every theosophist aspiring to become one in reality? For such a large body of men and women, composed of the most heterogeneous nationalities, characters, creeds and ways of thinking, furnishing for this very reason such easy pretexts for disputes and strife, ought not this clause to become part and parcel of the obligation of each member – working or ornamental – who joins the Theosophical movement? We think so, and leave it to the future consideration of the representatives of the General Council, who meet at the next anniversary at Adyar. In a Society with pretensions to an exalted system of ethics – the essence of all previous ethical codes – which confesses openly its aspirations to emulate and put to shame by its practical example and ways of living the followers of every religion, such a pledge constitutes the sine qua non of the success of that Society. In a gathering where “near the noisome nettle blooms the rose,” and where fierce thorns are more plentiful than sweet blossoms, a pledge of such a nature is the sole salvation. No Ethics as a science of mutual duties – whether social, religious or philosophical – from man to man, can be called complete or consistent unless such a rule is enforced. Not only this, but if we would not have our Society become de facto and de jure a gigantic sham parading under its banner of “Universal Brotherhood” – we ought to follow every time the breaking of this law of laws, by the expulsion of the slanderer. No honest man, still less a theosophist, can disregard these lines of Horace:
He that shall rail against his absent friends,
Or hears them scandalised, and not defends;
Tells tales, and brings his friends in disesteem;
That man’s a KNAVE – be sure beware of him.
Lucifer, December, 1888
H. P. Blavatsky