Essays from "The Theosophical Path" by Talbot Mundy

I Will and I Will Not

By Talbot Mundy

August 1924

A certain sort of modern scientist is fond of describing the human race as animals, and from his own point of view, which is as circumscribed by material limitations as a frog's at the bottom of a well, he may be right; but he might just as well, and just as logically, describe animals as men. In fact, the animals might be the better for it -- might receive a more intelligent consideration and more mercy from homo sapiens, who is seldom as wise as the pandits of materialism flatter themselves that he is.

From the viewpoint of the sheer materialist, who weighs a dying man to prove that life has no weight whatever and therefore that soul does not exist, there is no soul and evolution is a blind, mechanical procession of events that follows undiscoverable laws with no comprehensible purpose except to develop what must ultimately be destroyed. And if we accept that view there remains but one mystery: why should anyone trouble himself to continue living, or -- if we cannot quite force ourselves to such flat depths of cynicism -- why not eat, drink, and be immoral, since tomorrow or the next day we must disintegrate into unthinking atoms?

There are strange inconsistencies in human nature, and particularly in scientific human nature, which are easy to recognise but very difficult to understand. For instance, one and the same intensely educated biologist will speak of the 'blind laws' of nature with as fanatical conviction as the out-of-date enthusiast's who used to speak of everlasting hellfire; but almost in the same breath he will boast of his own will that differentiates him from the common run of men and makes it possible for him to force his tired brain and his exhausted body in the search after new discoveries. He is willing to divide his neighbors into classes and to publish statistics, which are alleged to prove that about nine-tenths of the human race are his mental inferiors; but he denies that there is any spiritual basis for his theory, and he shuts his eyes deliberately to that very "will" and "will not," which in practice have made his life-work possible.

The average nature-lover, much better than the most expert analytical naturalist, knows what an animal will or will not do in given circumstances. The differences between the species and genera are much more evident in their behavior than in conformation or in structural anatomy; they have evolved up to a certain point, and at that point they function, always in the same way, always in obedience to the law of their kind. Their will, which is their state of consciousness, obliges them to respond in certain ways to given circumstances; and when one animal -- as a dog, for instance, or an elephant -- evolves a disposition to act differently from the rest, that individual's state of consciousness is changing, usually to a slightly higher level. Then, there being no exception possible to law, it follows that exception must become law; the level to which one member of the species has attained becomes possible to all that species, and evolution takes one step forward. Thenceforward the "I will" and "I will not" of all that species has one less limitation. Example being more contagious than disease, it is only a matter of time before the ability of the one becomes the law -- the will -- the state of consciousness of the entire species.

It is so with men, but with this difference: that men have reached the stage of evolution in which it is possible for them to become aware of it and consciously to direct its progress. Animals evolve unconsciously, the lower species hardly more aware of what compels them than the trees are, or the rocks and rivers. The higher mammals very often are aware of spiritual forces, although only for short periods, amid surroundings and in circumstances that provide the necessary stimulus; and although they give every evidence then to a discerning observer of being conscious of unseen powers whose presence thrills them, they rarely, if ever, appear to change in character in consequence.

My own observation suggests, in fact, the contrary. A lion is never so much a lion as when he has stood for a few minutes staring into infinity, motionless, absorbed in contemplation of the unseen. At such moments his normally keen senses appear to be in a state of suspended function; he can neither hear the sounds that usually alarm him, smell the scents that normally enrage him, nor see what should make him suspicious, were his purely animal consciousness alert. He is alert to something else, and in another way. For a moment he seems aware of the divinity of everything that lives and breathes, and of his own place in the universe.

On many such occasions I have had the opportunity to watch lions in the open, when the weather, his own vitality, and every other circumstance was in the lion's favor, giving him nothing to think about but the satisfaction of being alive. In such moments the very spirit of pantheism seems expressed, and that wonderful old psalm comes to mind in which the singer adjures: "O all ye beasts, praise ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him forever."

The moment passes, and the lion always roars -- roars as if a glimpse of the reality of things has thrilled him to the marrow -- roars and roars -- and then reasserts the animal. He is dangerous then. It is as if, in the words of the Bible, the flesh lusteth against the spirit. He reverts to blind laws and the lion's will, which is to go in search of what he may devour and to slay because he can.

It is the same with wolves. Sometimes, particularly toward evening in fine weather, when they have eaten and slept and played, so that they feel in the pink of condition and their senses are in harmony, they seem to grow conscious of another element. Usually one wolf feels it first, and howls; but the howl is an entirely different note from the hunting-call. Each wolf in turn takes it up until they all howl in chorus, putting all their heart into the music. No observer then, unless afraid, or so prejudiced that he is incapable of recognising anything except what he has been told he should expect, could mistake that chorus for the usual wolfcry. It is more like an evening hymn. They throw up their throats and take extraordinary pains to pitch on exactly the right quarter-tone. They are doing something they enjoy, and for the sake of doing it -- something that is neither play nor work -- an ecstasy.

They are not wolves while they are doing that, but a conscious part of Nature, one with all the rocks and trees and rivers, one with the wind and the twilight, one with Life itself. But it is only for short moments that they can hold to that realization; then they are wolves again, and dangerous, asserting their condition and the fang and claw with which they hold such sway in the forest as is theirs by right of evolution.

It is only man who can explain to himself what such ecstatic moments mean and can direct himself in order consciously to profit by them. And that is why it is unfair and ignorant to label man an animal, and why, the less a man regards himself as animal, the swifter his advancement to the higher planes of consciousness. We all are spiritual -- rocks and trees and rivers, wind and weather, stars -- birds, reptiles, beasts; we all evolve; we all work out our destiny exactly from the point at which we stand; but the dividing chasm between man and animal is greater than that between animal and tree, because man alone is able to be conscious of the Soul that guides him.

The animal's "I will" is an obedience to the law of his existence that he heeds but does not understand. He is a lion or a sheep, a wolf or a hyena; evolution is directed for him and he spends his life in being what he is, without a discernible trace of will to become something higher. Unless compelled, as a few rare individuals know how to compel, he shows no disposition to imitate anything higher than himself, or even to recognise that there is any higher condition than his own. His will is to be wolf or sheep or lion, and to make the most of that, adapting himself as best he can to changing conditions. His "I will not" is his unwillingness to change himself -- his inability to do it.

Man's "I will" is all too often no more than the animal's expression of desire. His "I will not" descends too often, and particularly when the individual surrenders to the mean massed instinct of the mob, to the plane on which all consciousness of self-direction ceases and, in common with the vegetables, he exists within his senses and self-rooted to the earth. In such moods men are not superior to animals, but worse, and for this reason: that whoever once has felt within himself and recognised the working of the Higher Law, thereafter is responsible; and he who lets that feeling of responsibility escape him or be crowded out by swinishness and greed commits sin. It is impossible to sin without a consciousness of what sin means.

Accordingly, a man's "I will," if he shall have the right to call himself a man and to enjoy man's heritage, must entail some higher object than the mere expression of his appetite or his ambition to impose his own desires on others. As an animal, man is a weakling so inferior in strength and obstinacy to the ass, for instance, that no comparison is possible between them. Man's intelligence, if set to perform the asses' labor in the asses' way, still leaves him so inferior to the beast that mere economy would give the ass a higher market value. It is in a man's unwillingness to be an ass, to be described as one, to be made to work as one, that the hint of his way of salvation lies.

The meanest man, at intervals at any rate, is conscious of his manhood and aware of a compelling force within himself (he calls it 'conscience' oftener than not) that drives him to remorse, and through remorse to self-improvement. Then his "I will" strikes a nobler key, no longer flatted by disgusting appetite but thrilling with authority. He has accepted man's responsibility -- the privilege of self-direction. Self-control and self-improvement follow, and the "I will not" falls like a sword into his right hand -- a sword that points every way.

And "I will not" is equally important with "I will." The animal within a man is stirred by every evidence of strengthened will. The "I will not" restrains it, and converts the animal emotion into higher forms of energy. No latter-day condition is more noticeable and productive of bewilderment than that increasing education and intelligence bring with them an increasing animality and cleverness in crime; but that is because "thou shalt not" has been allowed to substitute for "I will not," paternalism (of a sad, short-sighted kind) stalking stupidly where individual responsibility should be the first law of the land and the first concern of educators.

An man who has responded to the Soul-note in himself (his conscience, if you will) and has deliberately set his face toward the future and the light, has felt -- perhaps instantly -- in some degree increasing influence upon his fellowmen. They begin to regard his word and to accord him the beginnings of authority, most often without knowing why they do it, because few men pause to analyse and to dissect their own reasons for this and that attitude. And if the truth could be set down in cold statistics (we are fortunate, perhaps, to be spared that mathematical indictment of a whole race!) we might be staggered by the revelation of what follows; our belief in human nature would need readjusting drastically before we could resume that buoyant optimism that we need in daily life.

Let each man analyse himself. Let each discover for himself the need for constant watchfulness. Our memories are not for nothing. There are few of us who need to look back more than one day down the line of zigzag and sporadic evolution to discover that each time we have been conscious of a forward step, however short, our lower nature instantly has sought to take advantage of it, causing us, subtilly perhaps, to use the opportunity for self-aggrandisement.

I remember a black man who set himself deliberately to improve his moral status. The effort was easy to recognise, and the result was obvious, although only he knew what extremes of self-denial it had cost him. He had left his native village, as he told me. (He was born in a village of thieves, where murder was considered bravery, and it was a Sikh skin-trader who first suggested to him higher standards of morality.)

In course of time he came to the attention of a high government official, who employed him and, finding him diligent, caused him to be enlisted in the police force, in which he began with such a splendid record in his favor that he was placed in positions of trust much sooner than was usual with recruits. His "I will" was as ready as the knife he used to wield in the old days in his native village; discipline seemed second nature to him, and his influence among the raw recruits enlisted later than himself was excellent. His "I will not," however, had not kept pace, and the feel of the new-found influence went like wine to his head. He became a bully, and from that went on to mutiny; and the last I knew of him he was a member of the chain-gang, cleaning township streets.

Now human nature varies only in degree. As long as we are humans we are subject to the laws that govern human life and conduct. What is possible to one is possible to everyone, and the degree of our advancement can be measured solely by the strength or weakness of our individual self-control. Unlike the animals, we have the power of self-direction; we may exercise our will in the deliberate judgment of ourselves by spiritual standards, stedfastly aspiring to new levels of discretion, sturdily rejecting all inducements to descend again on to the lower plane on which the animal controls us.

The secret of success is balance. We are all familiar with characters who shine with a resplendent genius and lack, nevertheless, that moral stamina that challenges respect. The jails are full of them. The most of them lack balance -- lack the "I will not" to serve as counterweight and regulator to "I will." Without "I will" we never may attain to that self-government that is our goal, nor ever may evolve into such consciousness as can conceive self-government throughout a universe. Without the "I will not" we never can escape from the attraction of the lower nature, which provides us with an infinite variety of opportunities to resubmerge ourselves into its depths for every forward spiritual step we take.

The Middle Way -- Theosophy -- lies midway between animal ambition and the subtiler maze of spiritual pride. A man needs balance more than any other faculty, if he would keep the true course, and the surest aid to learning balance is a sense of humor that enables one to laugh at his own erratic judgment and, instead of pitying himself, to pity others whom his own mistakes may have misled. There is no more certain prelude to a fall than self-approval; self-condemnation and self-pity are such dead-weights as the strongest cannot bear upward; but a sense of humor is no burden. The ability to laugh at one's own flounderings, and above all to laugh at one's own claims to superiority above his fellowmen, is a magic talisman that costs nothing, weighs nothing, and occupies no space. Unlike those patent medicines that they used to sell to travelers, it really cures all ills and is available in every accident.

It is the lack of any sense of humor that has darkened all religion until men fight and go to law about past participles and the dull, dead letter of a printed creed. Paul the Apostle, who did more than any man to compose and formulate the religion since called Christianity, was no apostle of self-righteousness and gloom. One can imagine how he laughed and how he tapped his own breast when he voiced that famous phrase "the evil which I would not, that I do!" And doubtless he would laugh (and at himself) if he could hear the din of the debates over his phrases that have kept men quarreling among themselves for nineteen hundred years. Paul had sufficient sense of humor to preserve himself from bishoprics and too much praise; he earned his own living as a tent-maker; he laid no claim to be immune from limitations and obsessions that beset the rest of us, and he foresaw the evil that he might do while attempting the great benefit he would.

So, whether we agree with the Apostle Paul in all his teachings, or agree to disagree with him, we may admire the manliness that made him recognise his own humanity and saved him from the mire of self-esteem, into which too many of the world's would-be reformers have slid headlong. Thus far we all may follow him, conceding our intention to do well by all the world but laying no claim to infallibility, our sense of humor coming to our aid to save us from self-praise -- such heady stuff that, balance we like Blondin, we should nevertheless lose footing if the least whiff of it were allowed to poison the immediate air.

"I will" and "I will not" are grand assertions. They include the whole of man's prerogatives; and neither is complete without the other. The infinite immensity of will, forever broadening as man ascends by purifying and controlling his own character, reveals such realms to revel in as blind and dazzle or bewilder at the first glimpse. Power not subject to restraint -- power even over oneself, without the sanity that shall restrain and guide it -- is madness, self-destroying and destructive of all else that meets it while its short-lived frenzy lasts.

Power over oneself can be attained, and must be, before progress becomes possible. But it is power held in trust and the least abuse of it is treason to the Soul -- rank sacrilege. "I will" is an expression of the consciousness of power. "I will not" is born of the determination never to betray the trust that power imposes.

So the two go hand in hand, the will to become one with our Higher Nature and the Higher Law being balanced and restrained by will not to offend or injure. Therein lies the difference between man and animal-man, if he is worthy of the name of man, evolving character and race, and laying down his destiny, by serving others first, himself last -- the animal unconsciously obeying laws that seem to him to legalize the theory of self first.

Animals, in fact, are far from selfish, because their very instinct to protect themselves is based on laws beyond their comprehension that oblige them to protect their offspring and the herd and, consequently, all their ways are suitably conditioned to the state of consciousness at which they have arrived. Nature guides them.

Man is his own guide. He has attained to spiritual consciousness and may, and can, if he sees fit, take cognisance of spiritual laws and by their aid advance to higher spiritual knowledge, benefiting all humanity and all life less advanced than he is, not by self-assertion but by vigilant self-government that requires each thought and act to be unselfish and constructive. Man, if he will be man, not a major animal, will -- must -- live, and alone may live, by spiritual service.