The sixth century was the darkest period in the history of the Western world. It marks the mid-point, or nadir, in the 2500-year cycle which began with Pythagoras and ended with H.P.B., and corresponds to the lowest of the seven worlds. It is almost impossible to get a clear picture of Europe during this dark century because for two hundred years after its beginning there was scarcely a Christian who could either read or write. The only important historian of this century was the half-illiterate Pope Gregory the Great, who is described by historians as “the most inveterate enemy of learning who ever lived,” and whose Dialogues make it difficult to believe that they could have been written by a prominent man and addressed to adult minds. Taking as his motto, Ignorance is the mother of devotion, Pope Gregory celebrated his rise to power by burning the Palatine Library and by forbidding the study of mathematics and the classics. He was so proud of his own ignorance that he openly boasted of the ungrammatical construction of his own writings and severely censured a priest for paying attention to the rules of grammar.
In this century the scientific knowledge of Europe reached its lowest ebb. The idea of the sphericity of the earth, commonly accepted a thousand years before, was now anathema. The Christian world had embraced the system of cosmogony worked out by Cosmas Indicopleustes. This monk described the earth as a flat quadrangular plane four hundred days’ journey long and two hundred broad. Above the earth, like the second floor of a house, is heaven. Here the angels spend their time pushing and pulling the planets to and fro and opening the windows of the heavenly palace so that rain can fall upon the earth. Heaven, the final abode of all orthodox Christians, is cooled by glacial waters. Hell lies beneath the earth and is populated by all who were born before Jesus Christ, and with those who, after hearing of the Gospel, refused to accept it. Cosmas closes his treatise with rapturous assertions that not only Moses and the Prophets, but also all the angels and apostles agree with the truth of his teachings, assuring his readers that on the Day of Judgment God will condemn all who do not accept them.
Such was the “science” of Europe in the sixth century. The study of philosophy was a state crime, and any one caught with a philosophical book in his house was accused of magic and put to death.
The persecution of scholars steadfastly maintained by the Christian Church for over four hundred years had gradually driven all students of science and philosophy out of Europe. These people sought and found refuge in Arabia, the still unconquered land of liberty in those days, where they continued to promulgate the knowledge which had caused their persecution and exile. The persecuted Gnostics gave the Arabs a knowledge of Greek philosophy. The Nestorians made them acquainted with the Neoplatonic writers and the persecuted Jews instructed them in the Kabala.
Among the various groups who had taken sanctuary in Arabia, the Nestorians were by this time the most powerful. Nestorius, the founder of the Order, was the Bishop who had refused to accept the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. He was excommunicated and exiled to an African oasis where he died of thirst. After his death his followers emigrated into Asia Minor, China, Tartary and India, and increased so rapidly that they eventually outnumbered all the Christians of the Greek and Roman Churches combined. Many of these Nestorians were students of the Hermetic philosophy and the Kabala. Many of them, like Nestorius, were students of Neoplatonism, while others followed the Gnostic teachings. In his followers, therefore, four streams of ancient Wisdom-Religion met and mingled, and for this reason the Nestorians formed an important link in the Theosophical Movement.
In the last quarter of the sixth century occurred an event which was destined to change the history not only of Europe, but of the whole world. One summer day in the year 581, a caravan of camels laden with the costly products of southern Arabia appeared in the little town of Busra. The leader of the caravan was accompanied by a boy who was the nephew of the guardian of the Caaba, the sacred Temple of the Arabs in Mecca. The boy’s name was Mohammed. During his stay in Busra Mohammed was entertained in the Nestorian monastery. He had many conversations with the monks and became deeply interested in their religious and philosophical views, particularly in their aversion to idolatry and their revolt against the carnalized Trinity of the orthodox Christian Church. As Mohammed grew to manhood he came more and more under the influence of the Nestorians. Finally he retired to a grotto and gave himself up to meditation. From this silent communication with his own thoughts one conviction was born: the Unity of God. He then left his retreat, determined to devote his whole life to the promulgation of that one truth. By the end of six years he had gained only 1500 converts. But when he departed from Medina on his last pilgrimage to Mecca, he was accompanied by 114,000 followers. The religion of Islam has now approximately 200,000,000 believers.
Like Jesus and the Buddha before him, Mohammed had no intention of founding a new religion. His purpose was to reform Christianity and Judaism, to destroy the sectarianism and idolatry into which these two religions had fallen. For many centuries the Muslims considered their religion merely as an offshoot of Nestorianism. Not until it had become intoxicated with its own success did Islam repudiate the original intentions of its founder and assert itself as a distinct revelation.
There was, however, one striking difference between Christianity and Mohammedanism which appeared at the very beginning of both religions and continued without interruption for many centuries. Where the Christians denounced learning, the Mohammedans encouraged it. Where the Christians destroyed libraries and universities, the Mohammedans built them. Within twenty-five years after the death of Mohammed, intellectual development had become a settled principle in the system of Islam. Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, became a patron of arts and sciences and devoted himself to the pursuit of knowledge. When the seat of government was removed to Baghdad, a new era of intellectual development arose which had ultimately a profound influence on the whole of Europe. The first Khalif of Baghdad was a devoted student of the sciences who established many colleges of medicine and law. When Haroun-al-Raschid (hero of the Arabian Nights) came into power he ordered a school to be attached to every mosque built. He never traveled without his retinue of a hundred scholars. Sir Mark Sykes gives us an illuminating picture of Mohammedan culture under his reign:
The Imperial Court was polished, luxurious and wealthy. Every department of state had a properly regulated and well-ordered public office. Schools and colleges abounded. Philosophers, students, doctors, poets and theologians flocked to Baghdad from all parts of the civilized globe. (The Caliph’s Last Message.)
While the Christians were declaring that the world is flat, the Mohammedans were teaching geography from globes in their common schools. While the Christians were touching “holy relics” in the hope of being cured of their diseases, the Mohammedans were establishing great medical colleges conducted along strictly scientific lines, with rigid entrance requirements. In these colleges physiology and hygiene were studied, and their materia medica was practically the same as ours today. Their surgeons understood the use of anaesthetics and performed some of the most difficult operations known. A description of one of these Arabian hospitals recently published by the American University at Beirut relates that the number of patients admitted often amounted to 4000 daily. Every patient when discharged received a certain sum of money and a suit of clothes. The furniture and bedding in this hospital rivalled the appointments in the palaces of the Khalif and the princes. Efficient service was assured by capable physicians, competent inspectors, educated directors and active servants who attended to all the needs of the sick.
What a contrast between the condition in Mohammedan Arabia and that found in Christian Europe! When a Christian fell ill in those days, his only hope of recovery depended upon the touching of some “holy relic” carried about by the monks, for touching which a substantial fee was asked. These relics, which are described by a monk who brought some of them back from Jerusalem, show the intellectual degradation into which Europe had fallen. They included a finger of the Holy Ghost; the snout of a seraph; one of the fingernails of a cherub; one of the ribs of the Word made Flesh; some rays of the Star which led the Wise Men to the cradle of the Holy Infant; a phial containing the sweat of St. Michael which exuded during his fight with the Devil — “all of which things,” the pious monk observed, “have I brought home with me.”
In the year 800 Pope Leo III. placed the royal diadem upon the head of Charlemagne, who showed his gratitude to the Church by inflicting capital punishment upon all who refused to accept Christianity or who still continued to eat meat during Lent. When Charlemagne substituted the Ambrosian chant in the Church in place of the old Gregorian, he ordered the singers to be burned along with their music. But Charlemagne’s submission to Papal authority could not be pushed beyond a certain limit. He expressed his disapproval of celibacy by taking unto himself nine wives and several concubines, and he openly fought the Papal ban against education by trying to learn to read and write. In this, however, he was unsuccessful, never being able to do more than sign his own name.
It seems almost useless to look for any traces of the Theosophical Movement in these dark centuries of European history. As a matter of fact, there is no historical record of any individual in the Christian world between the sixth and ninth centuries who openly espoused the work of the Movement. But in the ninth century one man appeared who was bold enough to defy the Holy Anathema against the study of philosophy, and brave enough to declare reason superior to blind faith. That man was John Erigena.
John Erigena was a native of Britain. Procuring copies of the works of Plato and Aristotle in his early youth, he studied them in silence and secrecy. In the year of Charlemagne’s coronation Erigena started on a pilgrimage to visit the places where these two philosophers had lived and taught. There he came in contact with men who were acquainted with the philosophies of Greece and the Far East, a fact which shows that there must have been obscure Theosophists living in Europe even in those dark days. When Erigena returned to his native land he wrote an important treatise called De Divisione Naturae, in which he promulgated many Theosophical teachings. God, he said, is not a Person, but a Principle which is the Creator, Preserver and Regenerator of Nature, “the Beginning and Cause of all things; the end and consummation of all things.” The Universe, he declared, is an Emanation of this First Principle, which is Life itself. Therefore Life is universal, and there is nothing dead or inanimate in the whole of Nature. Erigena declared that this First Principle expressed itself as the fundamental Law of the Universe, which he described as the Law of Cause and Effect. He held also that all souls are one with the Universal Over-Soul. As John Erigena gave utterance to the three fundamental propositions of Theosophy, he must be considered as one of the “Companions” whose work it is to rediscover and promulgate the teachings of the ancient Wisdom-Religion.
During the eighth and ninth centuries, four “Companions” appeared in the Mohammedan world. Two of them gave expression to the Neoplatonic tradition; the other two continued the Hermetic line of the Movement.
Neoplatonic thought, which had been carried on from the fifth century by the Nestorians, was given new life in the eighth century by the great Arabian philosopher Al-Kindi. In his youth Al-Kindi had come in contact with Arabic translations of the works of Proclus, Plotinus and Pythagoras. He became so interested in Neoplatonism that he took up the study of Greek so that he could translate the works of other Neoplatonists. When he died he left many of these translations behind him, accompanied by voluminous commentaries of his own. The work of Al-Kindi was continued in the ninth century by an equally famous Arabian scholar, Al-Ferabi, who received his philosophical training in Baghdad. He was a prolific writer on many subjects, all of which were approached from the Neoplatonic point of view. He was succeeded by his still more famous pupil, Avicenna.
The Hermetic line of the Theosophical Movement found able exponents in two other illustrious Arab scholars — Geber and Rhazes. The life of Geber (whose real name was Abu Musa Djafar al-Sofi) is full of mystery. Some historians describe him as an “Illuminated Monarch of India” who had come from that land to instruct the sons of Islam in Eastern philosophy. Others say that he was a Persian mystic, a member of the mysterious sect of Sufis. Whatever his mystical connections may have been, there seems to be no doubt as to the amount of scientific knowledge he possessed. Geber is called the “father of modern chemistry” and is acknowledged as the man who re-introduced the science of chemistry into Europe. Hoefer says that “Geber, for the history of chemistry, is what Hippocrates is for the history of medicine.” Cardan describes him as one of the twelve great geniuses of the world. Geber wrote over five hundred books, only three of which have survived to the present day. He veiled his real teachings in such obscure language that the name of Geber eventually gave rise to our word “gibberish.” The reason why they appear as “gibberish” to the average scientist is because Geber approached the science of chemistry from the philosophical and ethical point of view. He declared that no one could really understand the science of chemistry unless he first learned to know himself. He taught that matter must be considered from the spiritual point of view, and in his Book of Mercy (a strange title for a chemical treatise) he declared that “the body is only the place of sojourn and refuge of the spirit, the spirit being the real force within every body.”
The Hermetic and alchemical line of the Theosophical Movement was continued in the ninth century by the great Arabian scientist and philosopher Rhazes, whose real name was Abu-Bekr Arrasi. He devoted many years of his life to working out the correspondences between the planets, the metals and the principles of man. He applied his knowledge of these correspondences in the practice of medicine, and performed many wonderful cures. His success was so great that his methods became the basis of medical study in all the large Arab Universities, and were considered as the final authority in medical science up to the time of Paracelsus.
Thus, in the life and work of these five men — one in Christian Europe, four in Mohammedan Arabia — we have convincing evidence of the continuity of the Theosophical Movement, the light of which is never extinguished, although at times the flame burns low. Like the quenchless lamps of the Alchemists, buried for centuries in silent tombs, the undying light of this great Movement burns steadily throughout the centuries, however unaware of the fact the world may be.