Challenges of the Soul

By Robert K. Davidson

Documentary film about Leonardo da Vinci shown on television featured not only his art works, engineering and other inventions, and the background of his times, but also an intriguing item of information. It seems there was a period when he disappeared from his regular haunts, then returned a changed man, accompanied by a supposed servant whom he called "Zoroastro" and treated rather like a collaborator in his experiments. Between them, they created the mechanical marvels that excited the wonder of some and the fear of the superstitious.

Da Vinci's mind seemed greatly enlarged, and his interests were now far-ranging in scope. For instance, he entered upon the manufacture of a glass object that required enormous amounts of the necessary raw material. The workers hired to pour the molten mass into molds were not given a clue as to the ultimate design or purpose of the undertaking. Some of them playing on the fears of the others incited a riot in the laboratory, destroying the molds, the completed pourings and other fruits of their labors.

There is no way of knowing what the object was, but the writer of the script and producer of the film speculated that certain of the written references strongly suggest that da Vinci was engaged in making a huge mirror for a telescope. Be that as it may, it serves to point to an interesting passage in which da Vinci compares himself to a man peering into a dark cavern:

And drawn on by my eager desire, anxious to see a great multitude of varied and strange shapes made by formative nature, having wandered some distance among overhanging rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cavern before which for a time I remained stupefied, having been unaware of its existence, my back bent and my left hand supported on my knee while with my right I made a shade over my lowered and contracted eyebrows.

Da Vinci then analyzes his feelings:

And repeatedly bending, first one way and then another, to see whether I could discern anything inside, from this I was prevented by the deep darkness inside. Arid, after remaining there for a time, suddenly there arose within me two emotions, fear and desire -- fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there might be any marvellous thing therein. -- Manuscript BM 155r; Richter 262, quoted by V. P. Zubov: Leonardo da Vinci, translated from the Russian by David H. Kraus, published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1968

This moving metaphor must refer to the inner life of da Vinci, as Professor V. P. Zubov asserts; if so, clearly it should not be applied only to his attitude to science or anything exterior to himself. It could well have symbolized the theme of this article: how does one face up to the challenges that come before the soul? Da Vinci was very secretive about himself, and much of the material in his writings, especially the text published as his Notebooks, was written in cipher, some of it backhand and as if written reverso in mirror-image form. So his remarks are open to interpretation. That picture of the dark cavern conjures up not only Plato's myth of the Cave, in which men sit with their backs to the sunlight of truth and see only shadows from a fire flickering upon a wall, but also the chthonic symbols of past ages when initiations into the mysteries of nature and man took place in subterranean buildings simulating the caves used originally for the purpose.

Most of us have experienced in our daily lives a sudden awareness of a higher part of our nature. It may not happen often, perhaps only two or three times all told, but the petty affairs of our personal selves seem to fall away as we feel immersed in the infinite stream of being. If we distill the essence of this experience rather than let it slip into the limbo of forgotten things, we can embark upon a new course. In the New Testament this appears as metanoia, a Greek word meaning a change of outlook or in oneself rather than the 'repentance' of our pedestrian translations.

To illustrate this point, let us consider three instances that have been assembled in a study of the entrance of a higher aspect of ourselves into our routine existence. The Jungian school, calling this an intrusion of the 'unconscious' into 'consciousness,' has sponsored a book [Timeless Documents of the Soul, Helmuth Jacobsohn, Marie-Louise von Franz, Siegmund Hurwitz, translated from the German, published by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1968] dealing with the attempts of the "conscious personality to come to terms with this other force in the psyche," as exemplified in three historical cases. Widely scattered as to time, location and characteristics of the people concerned, there is a common experience linking them together -- they each confronted an aspect of themselves apparently quite different from the outer ranges of the personality with which they were familiar and that they assumed to be their real nature.

Two of the central figures felt aware of the existence of a 'higher self within them, however they called it, and faced up to the implications of the evidence. They transformed their lives, or perhaps transmuted would be a better term. The other person, Rene Descartes, rationalized his experience, and in a sense retreated from its inherent significance in favor of his own mechanically reasoned interpretation. Unfortunately, he thereby left his own ineradicable impress upon European thought (see Sunrise, March 1974, for a more detailed account of Descartes' background of interest in the thought currents and culture of his time) -- the rise of an and intellectualism that divided life into compartments, one being God's, the realm of theology, the other, nature, considered to be the rightful domain of scientific curiosity and investigation.

The first case concerns the unknown author of an ancient Egyptian scroll known as the Berlin hieratic papyrus 3024. He lived more than 4,000 years ago when the country was in an unsettled state, and there appears to have been an erosion of ethical values. From the papyrus, it seems the author faced a decision between two philosophies, one involving the inner life of the individual and the other, contending with it, focused upon a hedonist enjoyment of the present with no thought of the future or a life beyond the immediate pursuit of pleasure. Does not this situation sound familiar today? The protests of the youth surfacing ten or more years ago were directed against the trumpery emphasis in our civilization on luxury and the search for the comfortable life, and the neglect of principles that should govern human conduct.

The man who wrote the papyrus felt his own despair at what seemed to him the collapse of his familiar 'world,' and thought of suicide. But he had a dream in three segments, in each of which his soul told him a parable. Dr. Helmuth Jacobsohn, an Egyptologist as well as a Jungian, translates the scroll as "The Dialogue of a World-Weary Man with his Ba. (See also The Report About the Dispute of a Man With His Ba, Papyrus Berlin 3024, by Hans Goedicke, published by The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore and London, 1970; Notes and Commentary, Text [in beautifully reproduced photocopy] and Translation.) His analysis finds that the author experienced a confrontation with his soul (Ba), who instructed him through the three parables not to allow himself to be eddied around by the currents of circumstances.

He was encouraged to evaluate the inner life as of paramount importance, to harmonize all the aspects of his character with the soul. Dr. Jacobsohn interprets this event as an achievement of integration of the whole individual from the previous state of dissociation. That is to say, the ancient writer achieved at-oneness with his Ba.

The papyrus has baffled many orthodox Egyptologists who have claimed that the author did indeed commit suicide, basing their view upon what they consider the 'unfinished' appearance of the ending. Others hold contrary opinions and point to the optimistic tone of the last passages as implying or suggesting a complete change of outlook. Dr. Jacobsohn himself extracts from the concluding portions of the text that, after his remarkable experience, the writer of it did not put an end to that chapter of his life but accomplished an exemplary detachment from stress.

Consideration of the text suggests that he was not without sympathy for others, for he was too sensitive to human relationships to harden his heart against them. He might well have reached that place where he was no longer at the mercy of emotional crises -- a victim -- but could stand resolutely upon his own two feet. In this regard, it might be well to remember that the Ba was generally considered to be the spiritual soul, the human aspect irradiated by an element whose origin is in the celestial world, the universal divine source of all the Bas.

The second case in the book refers to young Rene Descartes standing at the threshold of his career but in a quandary about it. He had previously been very curious about the writings of the alchemists, Hermetists, Gnostics and other 'underground' mystics and philosophers, and was also drawn to the work of scientists then struggling to establish a solid foundation for their subject.

Descartes experienced what he called in his published account of it, a "Great Dream," consisting of three consecutive episodes during the course of which he tried to interpret their meaning. He regarded the incident as of fundamental importance in his life. The last dream in the series involved the discovery of copperplate portraits that he found in a book and that he felt in the dream to be of consequence. He refrained from deciphering this symbol, however, because soon afterward he met a portrait painter and thought it had to do with this meeting. One of the earlier dream experiences involved 'spirits' which he considered to be 'ghosts,' and from which he withdrew in terror.

But, as Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz interprets it all, both the 'spirits' and the 'portraits' refer to the "emotional" side of his nature that he rejected in favor of his purely rational mind processes. She says it was obvious that Descartes "identifies completely with his thinking function," and she regrets its fruitage in 'Cartesian rationalism' which has so desiccated modern thinking. A mechanically rational view of the world is inadequate because it is incomplete, and Descartes' dreams show that "inwardly man is in reality manifold and inextricably bound up with the many."

To limit the feeling side of Descartes' nature, or of anyone else's, to the emotional aspect would be excluding much that is more refined and greater in range than the emotions. Descartes himself did so confuse the matter, for he found that the evidence of the soul and its relation with the body was to be found in the emotions. In the tense parts of his "Great Dream" he struggled against the non-rational, believing it had to be less than the rational, and in his fear felt that he threw himself or bent himself over to the left side. This is interpreted to mean that he rejected the tendency toward the right, which is accepted in symbolism as the sign of the spiritual aspect.

His rejection of the message of his dreams -- that he was about to overdevelop his brain-mind at the expense of higher elements of his nature -- culminated in his famous saying: "I think, therefore I am." It would have been better and more true for him to have said: "I am, therefore I think." This applies also today to scientists like behaviorist B. F. Skinner, and the chemists who would reduce life to molecules and atoms and their interaction.

The third example in the book under consideration here is the experience of an eighteenth-century Rabbi, Dov Baer, also known as the Great Maggid or Preacher, of Meseritz. He was a pupil of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov -- the 'Master of the Good Name' -- founder of the revivalist sect known as Hasidism, inheritors of the medieval Jewish mysticism that flowed through the Kabbala. Baer was a man of considerable intellect who experienced a deeply moving inner transmutation when he sought advice from the Baalshem as the latter was called. Baer was asked to interpret a difficult text of a Kabbalistic work, "The Tree of Life," but his effort was deemed unworthy because it was too literal and omitted the "soul." Thereupon the Baalshem offered his own exposition of the text, this exegesis having such a tremendous impact upon Baer that from that time forward, he spoke from the heart, wisdom and understanding welling up from within.

This experience catalyzed a sudden illumination into the oneness of life -- Descartes was also bothered by the philosophical problem how the One (God) related to the Many (all created entities). But it is evident that if we consider the One (Divinity or divine quality) to be in the many, then the problem disappears.

Descartes loved nature; so did Dov Baer, for his writings show an apprehension of the relationship between the natural world of creatures and the impelling spiritual force not only sustaining the whole but also driving all forward to ever greater refinement of faculty. His insights into the particular characteristics of man led him to coin his own Hebrew words for the noetic side or what is called in Sanskrit manas, the mind.

Baer's expression was a composite, qadmut-ha-sekhel, meaning something beyond sekhel or the everyday, reasoning portion of the mind. Dr. Hurwitz translates the phrase as referring to what the Jungians call the "unconscious," but I suggest it more nearly approaches what some of the Indian schools call buddhi, or more precisely perhaps, buddhi-manas, the spiritual or intuitional side of the mind. The old Greeks designated this nous, usually translated the intellect, but they meant something different from what we nowadays understand by the term.

The duality of the mind is quite a discovery, not limited to the Orient, or to Dov Baer, but known throughout antiquity, if we may judge by texts and symbols that have reached us from diverse times and places. When the discovery is one's own and not merely verbalized or gained from someone else by the reading of books, there is sometimes a sort of extra 'magic' in the person that is felt by others. This was the case with Dov Baer, whose encounter with his qadmut-ha-sekhel affected many pupils who carried forward the Hasidic movement, the stream dividing into several channels colored by the particular inheritors.

When emphasis is upon leading individuals, a spiritual movement runs into the danger of personality cults, and some claim the Hasidic movement has already met this fate, with but one or two exceptions among the many channels surviving. Dr. Hurwitz feels there has been an "exaggerated over-evaluation" of certain teachers and the fire of inspiration has departed with the rise of family 'dynasties." It may be that few, if any, of the present transmitters have the catalytic 'grace' of the original expositors.

Out of the Great Maggid's "happening in the soul," or "psychological event," as Dr. Hurwitz calls it, was born his great love of nature per se. He expressed the basis for his feeling in this phrase: "All things visible in the whole are vestures of the Godhead." To see life in this way is to escape what someone has called the 'general unsatisfactoriness of the world' and to avoid being overwhelmed by the circumstances in which we are immersed.

These three instances do not merely represent episodes out of the past. Martin Buber, the modern existential philosopher, who drank deeply from the fresh springs of Hasidic wisdom, has had a powerful influence on Christian theology, especially in Protestant mystical circles, and other religious philosophies.

There are unique qualities to be brought into manifestation through our humanizing experience. The whole life-process is a continuum without break throughout our visible and comprehensible universe. This humanization referred to involves the evocation of our ennobling potentialities and they will ultimately prevail, despite appearances to the contrary.

We do not undergo, for ourselves alone, this travail to bring spirit to birth in our lives. The soul challenges us to look beyond the petty limits of one personality, to the needs of others. We are stimulated to feel compassion and to practice loving-kindness. If the lesser portion of our constitution is aware of challenges, so is the higher in its endeavors to clarify our opaqueness, for as the biblical text has it: Lo, if I be lifted up, so shall ye also.

(From Sunrise magazine, October 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu