Note: The doctrine of Human Perfectibility includes the subjects of Chelaship, Initiation, and Adeptship.

Theosophical teachings propose a wider, more comprehensive view of evolution than materialistic science. When taking into account the theosophical teachings on the Constitution of Man (i.e. the principles or aspects of our complete nature), and the process of Evolution and Involution, our view of evolution naturally begins to extend beyond the purely physical processes. In theosophical teachings, evolution begins from “above,” descends into more material forms, and then, reaching a natural bottom point, begins to re-ascend from the material back into the “spiritual.” It is also taught that this process follows a kind of pre-established “plan,” i.e. the general outline is that we evolve in a cyclical or helicoidal manner—each major cycle involves a gradual materializing of the forms we inhabit, and then a gradual etherializing or spiritualizing of those forms, and each cycle takes us one step forward in an overall progression.

Thus from the theosophical perspective the modern scientific teachings on evolution are only one part of a bigger picture. Science deals primarily (almost solely) with our physical development, whereas theosophy looks also to our mental and spiritual evolution as part of the same overall process. Thus in theosophy, the field of evolution also involves fields such as psychology, sociology, etc. along with certain occult sciences. Theosophy also teaches that the more “spiritual” takes precedence over the more “material,” i.e. our evolution is driven more by spiritual and mental processes than by purely physical. This is to say that our physical evolution is, in a certain sense, but an outward effect of our inner progression. As we progress inwardly, the causes setup within us trickle out as effects on the physical form.

While modern science teaches that evolution is driven forward by natural selection and observes that environmental and other pressures will push the evolution of species in certain directions, we already know that as self-consciousness arises, the possibility of self-driven evolution enters the stage. That is to say, Man begins to unfold the potential to play a more active and self-devised role in his own evolution, as well as the evolution of the lower kingdoms (animal, plant, mineral, and in theosophy, elemental). A simple material example of this is seen in artificial selection processes like selective breeding, or in the field of Eugenics. The idea in theosophical teachings is that evolution proceeds along the lines of natural or instinctual selection, up to a certain point of biological complexity, at which point a complex enough brain and nervous system allows for self-consciousness and an increasingly greater degree of self-chosen will. As this self-determination develops, Man unlocks the capacity to drive evolution beyond the mechanism of natural selection. Another way to put this is to say that the inner causes that drive the outer evolution are done somewhat unconsciously or with a passive will, until the point of self-consciousness when those processes become increasingly conscious and willful.

One of the most important implications of this wider view of evolution is the idea that our future involves a purposeful progressive development, and therefore that it is possible for some humans to far outstrip others. We can see this even in very basic ways in the examples of communities where certain aspects of our nature have been prioritized and developed to a greater extent than in other communities. One community may focus heavily in intellectual development, another on physical or athletic development, and so on, and we can observe that such sustained efforts in this or that direction begin to play themselves out in hereditary traits. If we take these simple examples and extrapolate to the theosophical view of what Man is in the totality of his being, then we can conclude that it must be possible for humanity to develop a great self-determination in its own spiritual, mental and physical evolution.

This brings us to the theosophical doctrine of Mahatmas. One idea that is proposed in this doctrine is that over the long course of human evolution on this planet, there have been individuals and groups who have outstripped the bulk of humanity in their self-driven evolution, thus developing their inner selves to a much higher extent, which naturally and gradually affects every part of themselves, down to their most material form. The general idea is that a Mahatma represents what the bulk of humanity will be at some future time, when we have collectively developed ourselves to the same extent as those who have gone ahead through intense self-effort.

But there is much more to the theosophical picture of human perfectibility than this. An essential point of the doctrine is that after self-consciousness arises we begin to de-physicalize the forms or bodies through which we operate, and to awaken inner faculties that lay dormant in our current human condition. A Mahatma, then, is not just one who has evolved his form into something further evolved than the current human form—he is also one who has unfolded more powers of mind and soul than the bulk of humanity. With each step in our self-driven development, further faculties arise, as we begin to refine and utilize our inner nervous systems to a higher degree. What theosophy proposes is that the future of human evolution involves us becoming “meta-human,” so to speak. Just as in the evolutionary process, there is progression from plant life to animal life to human life, so from human life there is a progression into something beyond human. This is commonly thought of and referred to as a kind of divine stage, where the human becomes a “god” so to speak, or a “great soul,” Maha-Atma, Mahatma.

To gain an appreciation for the way in which Theosophy views evolution and human perfectibility, one must study the teachings on Planetary and Human Evolution, grasp the fundamentals of the doctrine of Cycles and Periodicity and the concept of Evolution and Involution, and understand the framework of the The Constitution of Man and his States of Consciousness. In all these are teachings on which the doctrine of Human Perfectibility rests. When one has an overall sense of the process outlined therein, he can begin to study with benefit the doctrines on Chelaship, Initiation, and Adeptship.

On “Human Perfectibility” from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky

The Secret Doctrine teaches . . . The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul—a spark of the former—through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle,—or the over-soul,—has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. (SD 1:17)

That physical nature, the great combination of physical correlations of forces, ever creeping onward towards perfection, has to avail herself of the material at hand; she models and remodels as she proceeds, and finishing her crowning work in man, presents him alone as a fit tabernacle for the overshadowing of the divine Spirit. (SD 1:185)

How comes our physical body to the state of perfection it is found in now? Through millions of years of evolution, of course, yet never through, or from, animals, as taught by materialism. For, as Carlyle says:—“. . . The essence of our being, the mystery in us that calls itself ‘I,’—what words have we for such things?—it is a breath of Heaven, the highest Being reveals himself in man. This body, these faculties, this life of ours, is it not all as a vesture for the unnamed?” SD I:211

It is not in the course of natural law that man should become a perfect septenary being, before the seventh race in the seventh Round. Yet he has all these principles latent in him from his birth. Nor is it part of the evolutionary law that the Fifth principle (Manas), should receive its complete development before the Fifth Round. (SD 2:167)

The whole Kosmos is guided, controlled, and animated by almost endless series of Hierarchies of sentient Beings, each having a mission to perform, and who—whether we give to them one name or another, and call them Dhyan-Chohans or Angels—are “messengers” in the sense only that they are the agents of Karmic and Cosmic Laws. They vary infinitely in their respective degrees of consciousness and intelligence; and to call them all pure Spirits without any of the earthly alloy “which time is wont to prey upon” is only to indulge in poetical fancy. For each of these Beings either was, or prepares to become, a man, if not in the present, then in a past or a coming cycle (Manvantara). They are perfected, when not incipient, men; and differ morally from the terrestrial human beings on their higher (less material) spheres, only in that they are devoid of the feeling of personality and of the human emotional nature—two purely earthly characteristics. The former, or the “perfected,” have become free from those feelings, because (a) they have no longer fleshly bodies—an ever-numbing weight on the Soul; and (b) the pure spiritual element being left untrammelled and more free, they are less influenced by maya than man can ever be, unless he is an adept who keeps his two personalities—the spiritual and the physical—entirely separated. The incipient monads, having never had terrestrial bodies yet, can have no sense of personality or ego-ism. That which is meant by “personality,” being a limitation and a relation, or, as defined by Coleridge, “individuality existing in itself but with a nature as a ground,” the term cannot of course be applied to non-human entities; but, as a fact insisted upon by generations of Seers, none of these Beings, high or low, have either individuality or personality as separate Entities, i.e., they have no individuality in the sense in which a man says, “I am myself and no one else”; in other words, they are conscious of no such distinct separateness as men and things have on earth. Individuality is the characteristic of their respective hierarchies, not of their units; and these characteristics vary only with the degree of the plane to which those hierarchies belong: the nearer to the region of Homogeneity and the One Divine, the purer and the less accentuated that individuality in the Hierarchy. They are finite, in all respects, with the exception of their higher principles—the immortal sparks reflecting the universal divine flame—individualized and separated only on the spheres of Illusion by a differentiation as illusive as the rest. They are “Living Ones,” because they are the streams projected on the Kosmic screen of illusion from the absolute life; beings in whom life cannot become extinct, before the fire of ignorance is extinct in those who sense these “Lives.” Having sprung into being under the quickening influence of the uncreated beam, the reflection of the great Central Sun that radiates on the shores of the river of Life, it is the inner principle in them which belongs to the waters of immortality, while its differentiated clothing is as perishable as man’s body. Therefore Young was right in saying that

“Angels are men of a superior kind”

and no more. . . . Man, being a compound of the essences of all those celestial Hierarchies may succeed in making himself, as such, superior, in one sense, to any hierarchy or class, or even combination of them. “Man can neither propitiate nor command the Devas,” it is said. But, by paralyzing his lower personality, and arriving thereby at the full knowledge of the non-separateness of his higher Self from the One absolute Self, man can, even during his terrestrial life, become as “One of Us.” Thus it is, by eating of the fruit of knowledge which dispels ignorance, that man becomes like one of the Elohim or the Dhyanis; and once on their plane the Spirit of Solidarity and perfect Harmony, which reigns in every Hierarchy, must extend over him and protect him in every particular.

. . .

In sober truth, as just shown, every “Spirit” so-called is either a disembodied or a future man. As from the highest Archangel (Dhyan Chohan) down to the last conscious “Builder” (the inferior class of Spiritual Entities), all such are men, having lived æons ago, in other Manvantaras, on this or other Spheres; so the inferior, semi-intelligent and non-intelligent Elementals—are all future men. That fact alone—that a Spirit is endowed with intelligence—is a proof to the Occultist that that Being must have been a man, and acquired his knowledge and intelligence throughout the human cycle. There is but one indivisible and absolute Omniscience and Intelligence in the Universe, and this thrills throughout every atom and infinitesimal point of the whole finite Kosmos which hath no bounds, and which people call Space, considered independently of anything contained in it. But the first differentiation of its reflection in the manifested World is purely Spiritual, and the Beings generated in it are not endowed with a consciousness that has any relation to the one we conceive of. They can have no human consciousness or Intelligence before they have acquired such, personally and individually. This may be a mystery, yet it is a fact, in Esoteric philosophy, and a very apparent one too.

The whole order of nature evinces a progressive march towards a higher life. There is design in the action of the seemingly blindest forces. The whole process of evolution with its endless adaptations is a proof of this. The immutable laws that weed out the weak and feeble species, to make room for the strong, and which ensure the “survival of the fittest,” though so cruel in their immediate action—all are working toward the grand end. (SD 1:274-77)

Selected Writings related to Human Perfectibility