The millennium which extended from the time of Buddha and Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C., until the final suppression of the Neoplatonists in the sixth century A.D., is the only focus left in history wherein the bright rays of truth streaming from the sun of archaic wisdom converged for the last time, unobscured by the dark clouds of bigotry and fanaticism.
The first part of this period marked the rise of Greek democracy. The Kings had already given way to the Nobles who, in their turn, were being replaced by the Tyrants, some of whom championed the rights of the people while others became dictators. With the rise of the middle class, education became more general. The laws of Greece, which before that time had been oral, were now reduced to a written code. The arts of music, poetry, the drama and architecture began to flourish. At no other time in history were so many temples built as in Greece during the sixth century B.C. It was at the beginning of this rising cycle of democracy that the Milesian school of Greek philosophy was born. This School was an outcome of the Mysteries, and the three men who sponsored it were Initiates.
In the Mysteries, philosophy, science, religion and ethics were taught as one, with no special names to distinguish them as separate branches of learning. As a matter of fact, the word philosophy was not known until the days of Pythagoras. Before his time the wise men of Greece were known as Sages, “those who know.” Pythagoras coined the word philosopher to indicate one who loved truth and sought to discover what wise men already knew. The “Seven Wise Men” of Greece, while commonly called “philosophers,” were practical men who applied their extraordinary knowledge in various ways. Solon, one of the most famous of the Seven, used his knowledge of universal principles to establish good government. Born a wealthy noble, Solon was a friend of the common people. After his election as archon in 594 B.C., he limited the wealth of the nobles, released all the peasants who had been put into prison for debt, established a jury system and wrote out a Constitution in which every citizen of Greece had a voice in the government. Another of these “Seven Wise Men,” Thales, founded the first school of Greek philosophy in Miletus, a powerful Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor.
Thales, who took his name from Thallath, the Chaldean goddess personifying the sea, was a prominent statesman who was associated with King Croesus in the capacity of engineer. Of Phoenician parents, Thales had travelled widely in quest of knowledge, visiting Crete, Phoenicia, and Egypt. He studied astronomy in Babylonia, and after his return to Miletus gained great fame by predicting an eclipse of the sun. His initiation into the Egyptian Mysteries, it is said, made it possible for him to write a book on mathematics. To Thales we owe several propositions later included by Euclid in his Elements. He is also credited with having “discovered” the electrical properties of amber. But as the science of electro-magnetism was taught in the Mysteries, Thales cannot be regarded as the discoverer of any phase of this science, but only as one who gave out publicly what he had learned in secret.
It appears that at about 600 B.C. the time had arrived, under the cyclic law, for public instruction in some of the teachings which had hitherto been confined to the Mysteries. A recurrence of that cycle occurred 2,500 years later, when The Secret Doctrine appeared. It is interesting to notice the similarity of the method used by these early Greek philosophers to that of H.P.B. In the early pages of The Secret Doctrine three fundamental propositions appear in a summarized form, to be illustrated and elaborated throughout the work. The early Greek philosophers followed the same plan, proceeding by gradual stages from the first proposition to the second, and from the second to the third. In The Secret Doctrine these principles are applied first to the Cosmos and then to man. The Greek philosophers employed the same order. The Secret Doctrine presents philosophy, science, religion and ethics as they were taught in the Mysteries — inseparable from each other. The earliest Greek thinkers, however, concentrated on what may be called the “philosophy of science.” Only Pythagoras — whose School was patterned after the Mysteries — used the synthetic method.
Although the majority of modern philosophers are willing to admit that every known type of philosophy finds its prototype in the early Greek schools, the old philosophers are often accused of generalization, of a lack of system, and of scientific ignorance. This accusation itself springs from what the Platonists would describe as “complex ignorance” on the part of modern critics. It is the error which permits a man to remain oblivious of his ignorance regarding certain things. For example, how many of our scholars are aware of the fact that every science was originally imparted to men by Divine Teachers, thereby becoming sacred, and impossible of communication save during the rites of initiation? How many realize that no initiated philosopher had the right to reveal his knowledge clearly, but was obliged by the law of the sanctuary to conceal the truth under the veil of allegory and symbol? Once this is understood the seeming “ignorance” of the early philosophers will be recognized as but the result of obligatory caution.
The first school of Greek philosophy was founded by Initiates who taught under these restrictions. They started as do all true philosophers, by postulating the existence of a homogeneous Substance-Principle, the radical Cause of all. Thales symbolized this principle as Water, Anaximenes as Air, Heracleitus as Fire.
When Thales chose Water to stand for Primordial Substance, he employed a symbol already familiar to the Greeks. Homer had described the Source of all as “River Ocean, a deep and mighty flood, encircling land and sea like a Serpent with its tail in its mouth.” Hesiod had declared that “Chaos was of all things the first produced,” indicating that the producer of Chaos must be passed over in reverential silence. But long before the days of Homer and Hesiod the Greeks had learned of Primordial Substance from Orpheus, who brought from India the archaic doctrine which is itself as old as the world. This idea opens the cycle of cosmogony in the Chaldean Book of Numbers, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in the Indian Puranas, in the first book of Genesis. Even Wordsworth in his Ode to Immortality describes the beginning of things as–
A dark, immutable Ocean without bounds,
Without dimension, where length and breadth and height
And Time and place are lost; where oldest night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Anaximenes of Miletus, friend and associate of Thales, is known to the world for his description of the universally pervasive Principle in which the earth floats and which permeates every atom. He symbolized it as Air. In the single surviving sentence of his writings Anaximenes says:
Just as our soul, being air, holds us together,
so do breath and air encompass the whole world.
The “air” of which he speaks is Jiva, an aspect of the “Great Breath,” the Life which, without doubt, does “encompass the whole world.” As Jiva is the highest principle in man, the statement that our soul is “air” may be taken in this meaning. The “breath” associated with “air” may be understood as Prana, which, strictly speaking, is breath, a necessary element for the continuance of life in the human frame.
While the world of philosophy is indebted to Anaximenes for spreading these purely Theosophical concepts among the Greeks, modern science owes to him a statement of the nebular hypothesis. Anaximenes declared that the sidereal bodies were formed through the progressive condensation of a primordial, pregenetic matter, which had an almost negative weight, and was spread out through space in an extremely sublimated condition.
While Thales chose Water to symbolize Primordial Substance, and Anaximenes chose Air to describe the One Life which animates it, Heracleitus of Ephesus maintained that the one Principle underlying all physical phenomena is Fire. This is also an old occult symbol, for the esoteric teachings say that “Fire is the most perfect and unadulterated reflection, in Heaven as on Earth, of the ONE FLAME. It is Life and Death, the origin and the end of every material thing. It is divine ‘SUBSTANCE’.” (The Secret Doctrine, I, 121.)
However partial their explanations may appear in the greater light of The Secret Doctrine, the world owes these ancient Greeks a debt of gratitude for their impersonal concept of Deity. From the early period of the Fourth Race down to the last palmy days of Grecian art, the Hellenes were the only people who raised a public altar to the Unknown God. Although the lesser gods were worshipped in anthropomorphic forms, the unknown Source of all was described as IT. Parmenides, of the Eleatic School, declared: “IT is. IT is complete, immovable, indivisible, without beginning and without end.” Anaximander, of the Milesian school, called IT the Source of all, within which all things arise and into which they will eventually return. Many of the Greek thinkers symbolized the abstract, ever-incognizable Presence as a Circle, or a Sphere, Parmenides saying, “IT is complete on every side like the mass of a rounded Sphere, equally poised from the center in every direction.” From the point arising within that Sphere the Greek philosophers constructed the mathematics of the Universe.
The tendency of the Greeks to anthropomorphize the lesser “gods” received a stinging rebuke from Xenophanes, reputed founder of the Eleatic school. “Vain mortals,” he said, “imagine that gods like themselves are begotten with human sensations and voice, and corporeal members.” In his humorous fashion he assured his countrymen that if oxen and horses had hands and could form images of their gods, the oxen would shape their gods in the form of oxen, the horses in the shape of horses, “each kind the divine with its own shape and form endowing.” The early Greek philosophers, therefore, must be credited with an understanding of the impersonality of the Deity as taught in Theosophy.
The second fundamental proposition was clearly stated by Anaximander, who said that “There are innumerable worlds which come into being and pass away, some always coming into being, while others are passing away.” This universal Law of Periodicity, prevailing in every department of Nature, found another advocate in Heracleitus. He affirmed that the Universe is pervaded by duality, and that the various pairs of opposites — day and night, heat and cold, life and death, sleeping and waking — are synthesized in an underlying Unity. This Unity, he said, is the Unity of Law. “The process by which one thing changes into another does not take place in an unregulated and lawless manner. It is rhythmical, kept within the bounds of definite proportions.”
The orderly procession of events under the Law of Cycles was treated at length by Empedocles. He declared that “all things prevail in turn as the cycle comes around, and pass again into one another, and grow great in their appointed turn.” This, he said, brings about the regular recurrence of the seasons, the rise and fall of civilizations, the successive incarnations of man. Empedocles regarded death as an illusion, a mere interval between two lives on earth. One statement made by him might well have been drawn from The Bhagavad-Gita:
There is no death for any of the things which perish,
nor any cessation for them through baneful death.
Empedocles apparently was able to remember some of his past incarnations. He informed his students that in some of his lives he had been a man, in others a woman. In a fragment of his writings he described his sensations when he again found himself assuming a body of flesh. “I wept and wailed,” he confessed, “when I saw the unfamiliar land. I am now a wanderer and an exile from the gods, because I put my trust in insensate strife.”
Empedocles thus described the working of the Law of Karma which compels the soul to incarnate again and again until it rises above the attachment to the pairs of opposites — the cause of “insensate strife.” Empedocles spoke of this Law as the Oracle of “Necessity” which follows a man’s footsteps until he learns to work with the Law. In another fragment, Empedocles wrote of one who has wilfully polluted his hands with blood and thus foresworn the Law of Brotherhood. Such a man, he said, “must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abode of the blessed, being born throughout the times in all manners of mortal forms, changing one form for another.”
Are these the words of “ignorant” men? Are they not rather the carefully and cautiously phrased statements of those who knew the fundamental teachings of the archaic wisdom, but who were prevented by their pledge of secrecy from giving them out to the world in full detail? In the thought of the early Greek philosophers, many hints of the ancient secret doctrine are evident to those who have eyes to see. These hints, however, will not be understood, even by the greatest scholars of the day, until they are viewed against the background of the ancient wisdom, the modern expression of which is found in The Secret Doctrine. With this standard of comparison, all systems of philosophy, ancient or modern, show their relation to the unchanging truth, of which they are more or less partial representations.