In earlier days, when Canada was hardly yet beginning to be won from the wilderness, it was the custom when sending a man on a long journey to supply him with three fish-hooks and a rabbit-snare. Those represented rations. It was his business to convert them into meat. When he failed, he perished. A great deal has been said and sung about the resourcefulness of the type of man evolved by that system, and there is considerable silence concerning those who found the fish-hooks and the rabbit-snare inadequate, and died. But it is noteworthy that the system, at any rate, has not survived. It has been found wiser to supply men in advance with adequate provision of the right kind, before expecting from them results worth mentioning.
The men who devised the fish-hook and rabbit-snare system were probably quite familiar with the New Testament parable that mentions men asking for bread and being given stones; but, if they reasoned about it at all, they may have argued that with stones men might go forth and kill meat, which, as far as it goes, is a sound enough material argument.
But these material arguments, however superficially logical, look less alluring when followed to their conclusion, which is this: that, just as no stream can flow to a point higher than its source, and like begets like, so no material noumenon can produce spiritual phenomena. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, to quote the New Testament again; and no amount of torturing, tampering with, or studying mere flesh will ever gain a spiritual end.
But matter is deceptive stuff and we, being plunged into it, are easily deceived. No sooner is one material basis found unsuitable on which to build a tower that shall reach the skies than another presents itself, often so subtilly disguised as to make the most cautious of us think it is not material at all, but something spiritual, on which we may safely rear our monument of progress.
Yet the world is strewn with proofs that nothing -- absolutely nothing based on material cause and effect can endure, or can do anything but crumble. Consider the ancient temples. If beauty and purity of outline may be taken as criterion, then unquestionably the men who designed and built many of those ancient fanes were spiritual thinkers. Yet the ruins of their buildings strew the earth, and most of us are therefore willing to admit that neither their knowledge nor their art was in the stones they wrought, but in the minds of the men themselves.
The spirit and the art endure. It is possible, by purity of purpose and sincere effort, for any of us to become the servants of that spirit and to learn that art; and it would be inevitable then that beauty would adorn our path; whatever we should touch would take on dignity and charm. But equally inevitably, those who should think the spirit and the art were in the thing wrought, gainers though they might be for a while by contemplation of mere consequences, would base their own efforts on false premisses and would descend by gradual or rapid stages to unspiritual ugliness. That is why great leaders, great reformers, and great artists have so seldom left behind them others who could carry on their work and carry it to greater heights; the most enthusiastic sometimes are most dazzled by the effects of the leader's work and, worshiping effects, fall soonest by the way.
"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." -- John, vi, 63.
We forever put the cart before the horse. In this age of machinery it is fashionable to assert that our progress, such as it is, has been due to machinery. We worship the machine -- put faith in it, just as they who saw those marvelous ancient temples rise and change the whole face of their surroundings, came to worship the shrine instead of the Idea and the honesty that gave it birth. The truth is, that increasing intelligence has produced machinery, exactly as increasing spiritual vision would produce a higher art.
I remember three instances that serve to illustrate. In Assam, years ago, when they were building the first railway through the country, thousands of Indian laborers were employed to dig embankments. The means employed was the ancient one of filling baskets with dirt, to be carried on men's heads, sometimes for the length of half a mile, and dumped -- a tedious, slow process that got severely on the nerves of one contractor. He was a rather young man, used to the new efficiency, full of ambition for a useful career, and equally full of scorn for ancient ways. Progress, in his mind, and machinery, were one. He decided to import machinery and, rather accurately gaging the intelligence of the laborers he had to deal with, decided that wheelbarrows would be enough for a beginning.
The wheelbarrows arrived -- extremely up-to-date ones made of steel. The obedient laborers studied them with great distaste and worse bewilderment, filled them with rather less earth than they had formerly, put into the baskets in order to reduce the weight as nearly as possible to normal, and carried the wheelbarrows on their heads. Nor could they be persuaded to do otherwise. At the end of the second day they went on strike, arguing with perfect reason from their viewpoint that the contractor had made their work cruelly toilsome. What he had overlooked was that even so simple a sign of progress as a wheelbarrow and its proper use must be a result of progress in a man's mind, and can never be the cause of it.
A somewhat similar incident occurred in a native state in another part of India. There was famine, and as the result of the distress a commission was appointed to inquire into the causes. The commission in all honesty decided that the ancient ways were at fault; that men whose plows were little better than a forked stick could hardly be expected to produce crops in sufficient abundance to tide them over lean years. It was decided to import good steel plows from the United States, and that was done; the plows were distributed about the countryside, and the peasantry were told that an era of prosperity had dawned -- the plows would solve the problem of supply. But to this day the remains of those imported mysteries lie rusting in the fields, and the peasantry still use the ancient implements. The only result accomplished was to convince the peasantry that for inscrutable reasons their rulers had tried to burden them with foreign difficulties in addition to their own -- which, they reasonably argued, already were enough.
I was witness of another incident, yet better to the point, in Africa, away off in the wilderness, a good week's march from rail-head. Those were early days, when colonial government-machinery had been set up but was not yet fully functioning. Much of the local government of outlying districts was left to the tribes themselves, and their jealousies and rivalries led to a vast amount of bickering and murder. Serious cases of dispute were supposed to be submitted to the colonial official, fifty or a hundred miles away, but nothing could convince the natives that the official judgment was not prejudiced, and nearly every legal decision led to worse strife than it cured.
But there was a British sergeant sent to an outlying post in the district I have in mind, whose sole official business was to teach a company of newly raised native police the elements of discipline. He was not exactly an illiterate man, but he had received no more education than he had managed to pick up in the army-school, and the best thing he had learned was how to mind his own business; and the business was, by example, precept and watchfulness, to teach new standards of self-respect to naked recruits. They were of several tribes, and as many prejudices, so he had his hands full.
It dawned after a time on the recruits that there was something in his method, new to their experience, which was better than their own accustomed ways. He taught a new loyalty, to a brotherhood based on a high ideal, and the discipline grew, not because he punished them, for he was very sparing with penalties, but from imitation of his self-respect.
The marvel took place within sight of a dozen villages, whose inhabitants watched the amazing patience and good-humored justice of a stranger who accepted no bribes, played no favorites, and cared for nothing but the welfare of his proteges. He was not like any other stranger they had ever seen; he used to tell his men stories at night over a camp-fire, used to dance for them, sing to them, and -- most remarkable of all -- although he seemed so fond of them, he took the part of villagers whom they molested in their dawning consciousness of the power that goes hand-in-hand with fraternity.
It was not very long before the neighboring tribes began to bring their own disputes to him for settlement. He told them he had no authority, either to pass judgment or to enforce decisions. They liked that, and insisted all the more that he should act the part of judge. They offered him presents, if he would hold the scales of justice, and when he refused those they were all the more insistent. He told them he knew nothing about judicial procedure, and they answered that they were very glad to hear that, since they sought justice and merely what was right.
At last he yielded, very much against his inclination, and the unprecedented spectacle was seen day after day, of villagers from fifty miles away, whom nothing less than force could have induced to take their quarrels to the constituted courts, arguing their cases before this unauthorized, uneducated sergeant, accepting his decisions without question, and returning to their homes in peace to abide by them. Murders and intervillage fighting almost ceased. Unpaid, unpurchasable, plain, disinterested honesty succeeded, where an empire's legal processes had failed.
The sergeant returned in due course to the Birmingham slums and oblivion; but he had left behind him consequences that no official formulas or red tape could quite undo. The subsequent administration of the country took its tone, to some extent, from that one man's example, and for years to come his judgments (some of them hugely humorous) were cited as unofficial precedents for official guidance.
Men will ever rebel against machinery. We have machines in politics, in trade and in religion; yet no machine ever contributed one straw to the world's progress, and every machine is a degrading factor from the moment it becomes anything more than a means to eliminate toil -- anything more than a consequence of intelligent and honest thinking.
It is so with Brotherhood. No man, no group of men or nations can create it by decree, or by new intricate machinery. The Brotherhood must come first, out of individual effort to attainment of its high ideal; the means of its expression afterwards. A League of Nations -- all the nations -- is inevitable when the nations recognise the Universal Law. A dozen men who recognise that Law, and live by it, accomplish more toward true peace than can all the machinery of law-courts and governments ever invented. Theosophists, by living their Theosophy, will sow the seed that can not fail to spring up and ripen into all-inclusive Brotherhood. If a League should be an accompaniment who shall complain? But shall we have the Brotherhood and Justice first, or the machinery?