"A Nurture perfectly correct must show itself able to render both bodies and souls most
beautiful and good." — Plato.
Plutarch in his curious collection of excerpts, The Natural Things which the Philosophers take Delight in Studying, has given us a repertory of most valuable suggestions. It includes a great variety of themes, as for example: Nature itself, First Principles, Elements or Composites, the Kosmos or Universe, Divinity, Matter, Ideas, Causes, Bodies, Molecules, Necessity, Destiny, Fate, the Heavens and Earth with their motions, then the Soul with its activities and qualities, the conditions preceding and incident to mundane life, and finally what we denominate Heredity. For the supposition which many entertain that Philosophy is solely a pursuit of wisdom transcending what may be known of physical facts, and the converse notion that it consists entirely of the knowledge of natural things, are alike erroneous; for it comprises both in their respective spheres.
In his Fifth Book here named our author presents us with the speculations of the Hellenic Sages in respect to our physical nature and its conditions. These related to the laws and circumstances of our transition into the natural life, and the peculiarities of heredity; as for example, why children resembled their parents and progenitors, and why they often differed in temper, character and in other respects.
It is proper to take a full account of this department of the subject. The conditions attending the advent of the physical life are also essentials of the subsequent culture. It gives us confidence, our author declares, to be well born. It is fortunate beyond all power of estimate to be well fathered and well mothered. The beneficent consequences extend not only through the whole life, but also through the coming ages.
Meanwhile, the children of an unworthy father or mother are blemished at their birth, and likely to be pursued as long as they live by the ignominious fact of their early history. As is the mother, so is her daughter; the fathers eat sour grapes and the teeth of the sons are set on edge. The criminal, the libertine, the persons greedy for selfish ends are never likely to become parents, except of offspring tainted deeply with similar evil propensities. From thorn bushes nobody expects grapes to grow, nor from thistles any fruitage of luscious figs. Much of the insane diathesis, perverted faculty, defective intelligence, imperfect physical sense, stunted or repulsive configuration of body, and vicious proclivity, which we observe in many cases, may be set down as the inheritance from a drunken ancestry. Thus Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher, once reproached a crack-brained and half-witted stripling: "Surely when thy existence began thy father was drunk."
We acknowledge gladly that much, very much, can be accomplished with suitable training and self-discipline to overcome these faults of natural conformation. As the richest soil is unproductive when left without cultivation, and the best beginning suffices but little if not followed by diligent activity, so, on the other hand, the unfortunate sufferers from heredity may correct much of their condition physically and morally by proper effort. Our longest-lived individuals are often those who began with a frail body, and it is recorded of Sokrates that although the wisest of Greeks he had the appearance and natural proclivity of a satyr. Nevertheless, in such cases the drawback continues with them, that they are carrying a heavy weight through their whole term of life, which impedes endeavor on every hand and generally compels them to remain in a subordinate place in the theatre of active life.
Yet we are able to view the matter on the brighter side. While the evil dispositions of ancestry are said to be transmitted to the children to the third and fourth generation, the virtuous tendencies, the same authority assures us, will continue to the thousandth. Evil is always transitory, but good is perennial. This world is not normally a place for human beings to grow worse in, but to become better and more highly developed. There is a recuperative principle in our nature always operating to repair the mischiefs that have come to us, or which may occur during our varied experiences. With all the plausibility and actual truth that may exist in this dogma of heredity, we see no adequate reason for accepting it as a complete solution of the enigmas. Indeed, it appears to be a kind of stock argument by which to evade rather than to explain embarrassing questions. There may be other causes operative, holier inseminations, if we may so express it, by which pure children are born of ill parentage, as the loveliest water-lilies come from the foulest mud. We may not regard the unborn infant as merely a living mass of flesh and blood, without any moral quality. Such a notion may serve as a placebo for the conscience of certain individuals, but it cannot be justly entertained. This matter of the spiritual and moral nature of human beings during what is regarded as the inchoate period of existence, involves deeper problems than are presented by the conditions which are shared in common with the animals. Even at that time there exist the basis and rudiments of the intellectual quality. If therefore, it be true that man does not live by bread alone, but by an energy that is beyond and more life-imparting than bread, it is still more true that the nobler moral and spiritual nature does not proceed solely from the analogous qualities of parents and ancestry, but is likewise from a source infinitely higher.
Let us, then, bear the fact in mind that the Soul is the veritable self, the ego or individuality. (1) The body, head, brain, any or all of them, may not be accounted in any proper sense as the selfhood. I have often noted in my own vivid consciousness that they were something apart and distinct from me. Their peculiar form and office fit them admirably for my service and convenience. I am certain that I could not do so well with any other, and I would not be at home in another person's body. Yet I could not have had this body of mine so perfectly adapted to me, except I had had some directing agency in its fabrication. The poet Spenser has well explained this:
"For of the soul the body form doth take;
For soul is form, and doth the body make."
It is easy, therefore, to perceive and understand that being thus divine and constructive, the Soul is superior and older than the body. We are not able intelligently' to conceive that it has its first inception with it in the protoplasmic ooze. It can be by no means a fabricated thing, like the objects perceptible to our senses, but must be from its inherent quality now and always of the eternal region. How it was projected into temporal life and conditions, and whether it became personal by such projection, are questions of deep interest to earnest thinkers. Whether, when coming into the circumscribed region of Time there was a former consciousness rendered dormant, as from the fabled drinking of the Lethean draught, is a question in the same category. Perhaps, we sometimes remember.
It may not rationally be pleaded as an objection that this is a concept of too unreal and visionary character to deserve serious consideration. We are what we are by virtue of our interior thought, our will and desires, and our bodily organism is only the minister to these. Day by day and even moment by moment the particles which make up the body are perishing, and new ones taking their place. Yet during all these changes, the soul and thinking principle remain the same. If, then, our identity and memory continue thus unaffected during these transformations of bodily tissue, it can not be illusive and unreasonable to suppose that they have endured through a succession of ages and changes prior to the present term of corporeal existence.
The transit of the soul from the eternal region to the conditions of corporeal life, is a matter by no means easy to comprehend. The human understanding is somewhat like a vessel, incapable of receiving a truth or concept of superior or equal dimensions to itself. A little perhaps, may be known, but far more is only to be observed, contemplated, and admired. On its superior side the soul is divine; on the other, human and subject to the contingencies of change. Its genesis is not its beginning as a living essence, but its transition, extension or projection into conditional existence. This may be considered as being the result of a predilection, an attraction of spiritual for the phenomenal life.
Plato has given us, in the Tenth Book of the Republic, a very significant suggestion in regard to this matter. Eros, of Pamphylia, had fallen in battle, but when laid upon the funeral pyre, twelve days afterward, recovered from his trance. He had been in the world beyond and beheld many wonderful things. Among them was the beginning of a period of life upon the earth, to those of mortal race, the "souls of a day." They were selecting from models the form of life in which they would live upon the earth. Thus, the cause of their respective careers was in their own choice. Those who had lived here very frequently, as if weary of excessive effort or the tedium of monotony, chose a mode of life widely different from what had been lived. To each of these models a demon or guardian genius belonged, so that every one thus selected his own, and thereby his destiny. They next proceeded to the plain of Lethe, and drank the water from the river of forgetfulness, which no vessel contains. Then falling asleep, they were carried hither and thither, to begin their life in the world. Hence the soul when first united to a mortal body, is without intelligence; but as time passes, every one who receives proper food and education, receives his proper allotment and development.
We for our part are enabled to know this much: that a certain vital quality is conjoined with an albuminous molecule, which immediately thereupon begins to unfold organic structures and afterward continues the process of maturing them into the several parts of the future body. So far the human and animal races are similar, yet in the same thing and beyond, they part and are differenced. While this is going on, the thoughts and emotions of the mother, even to her loves and aversions, are blended with the psychical nature of the developing individual, making him or her different in the future character from what otherwise might have been the case.
By no means, however, does the agency of the father cease with the inception of this process, with the involution or enwombing, which is always before evolution and is its prior cause. The mother having become "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh," the child, so far as concerns the exterior selfhood, is not hers alone, but theirs in common. The affection of the father for the mother, or his indifference and aversion will permeate their child's temper and moral qualities. For the father does not cease, during the entire gestative period to do his full share for the weal or woe of the future individual. A man can no more disconnect himself from the life of his progeny than a tree can sever itself from any of its branches. The act by which physical existence begins, is therefore sacred and sacramental, an allying of human souls in solemn league with the eternal world. To speak of it lightly and with idle ribaldry is really a sacrilege.
During the gestative period the child is receptive to a most extreme degree. We may imagine it to be unconscious, but this is because we do not know. It is certainly sub-conscious, somewhat like the person in the mesmeric trance. "As soon as the voice of thy salutation came into mine ears," says Elizabeth to Mary, "the babe leaped in my womb for joy." We know that every caress of the mother, every harsh word or unkind act, affects the little one in her arms. The milk is a potent agent in forming the character and disposition. The babe after birth is, however, nothing else than the continuation of the babe that was enwombed and fed from the mother's blood. While, therefore, the body of the child is taking form in the body of the mother, almost as part of her, its moral and passional nature is acquiring her characteristics, her modes of thought and feeling, and even her very sentiments. When the little one awakes into the earth-life it has similar likes, tastes, habits and repugnances to those which she had cherished.
Plato gives parentage all the significance of a religious observance. It should be preceded, he declares, by an affectionate devotion of husband and wife to each other. "All persons who share in any work," he remarks, "when they give their minds to themselves and the work, produce the whole beautiful and good; but when they do not give their minds, or possess any, the result is the contrary." This pre-natal period is a time of teaching without text-books, lectures or recitations. The teachers impart their instruction by the medium of will and thought; and the learner is a very apt one. The lessons are generally retained in the internal memory for the lifetime. "The divine principle seated in man, if it obtains the consideration to which it is entitled, from those who bring it into action, will set all things right."
His suggestions were given with a view to the highest perfection, bodily as well as moral and spiritual. He recommended youth on the part of mothers and perfect maturity for men, with prudence in both. Like Hesiod and others he pleaded against an excessive number of children in a family. There should be a son to maintain the "honoring of father and mother, the worship rendered to ancestry, and also to prevent any deficiency of population." This course would enable a proper maintenance and education for every one. But when the necessary conditions do not exist of food, clothing and shelter, the welfare of the home is imperilled, the mental training is sure to be defective and the higher development is almost hopelessly arrested. The community then swarms with unfortunate persons, sickly and debilitated, and with those who on account of their ignorance and inefficiency, are disabled from earning a livelihood.
The antecedent existence of the human soul has been a belief recognized in the older world-religious, and entertained by the pro-founder thinkers in all the historic ages. It pervaded every faith and influenced all forms of thought. The Buddhistic teachers accordingly tell us of a karma or innate tendency, the result of our action in former terms of existence. By its operation every thing that is done by us infixes itself in the very elements of our being, thenceforth to influence the motives, conduct and events of our subsequent career, as a destiny that may not be shunned. This influence, they declare, will not cease with a single term in life, but affects the career and fortunes of those which follow. Hence we are what we are in our exterior nature, not from heredity alone, nor from the higher estate of the soul in eternity, but also from the conditions which we ourselves have created. "Rabbi," said the disciples to Jesus, "did this man sin or his parents, that caused him to be born blind?" The moral conditions of the soul are not changed because we are parted from the body. Whether we are to accomplish a progress of ages in the invisible region, or are embodied anew and born again into the earth-life, they are certain to influence and modify our fortunes. Wisely therefore, may we heed the counsel of the great philosopher: "The most important thing is to become expert and intelligent to distinguish what is the good life and what is the bad, and to choose the best. This will lead the soul to be become more just, and to overcome the evils of heredity, acquired wickedness and other misfortunes, so that the individual will shape his next life and become correspondingly blessed and happy."
Most happy is the child that is ushered into this life with propitious influences to move it onward through its earthly career; yet I will add that such a one will be infinitely more blessed, if as man or woman, the higher knowledge and inspiration shall impel to the overcoming of the abnormal or unholy bias, and ancestral entailment; and so, he or she shall emerge into a higher life, higher thought, higher moral altitude. There are some who do all this; and they are the precious and sacred ones whose presence makes the earth fragrant and renders life richly worth the living.
Let us welcome the new-comer while yet on the way. Let everything pertaining to the Great Mystery of Life be esteemed as venerable and holy. Let us honor even to reverence her to whom the sacred charge has been committed. If the august Son of David, coming into Jerusalem might be greeted with applause and hosannas, then with sentiments equally just and worthy may we hail the approach of the infant man or woman about to become an actor and participant in the experiences of life. For every child comes as a herald from the eternal world, an apostle to save, to ransom and redeem.
1. The writers of the New Testament have incidentally recognized this fact. In the Synoptic Gospels according to .Mark and Matthew, the question is asked: "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" In the book by Luke, the text reads: "What is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world and lose himself?" Indeed, in most places in the Bible where the term soul occurs, the same sense is preserved by substituting the word self. (return to text)
TheosophyTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE