The Innocent Eye


Hugh Shearman

The Theosophist 1957

IN the literature of Theosophy there is a great variety of personal or individual approach. The authors of Theosophical books are often vividly different from each other; but, broadly speaking, they all have seen and written about the same things. There is, of course, a wide fringe of derivative books, giving summaries of what other people have taught; but, in the more impressive works, there is always some touch at least of direct experience in the writer.

Those who come to this literature often want to know who is right and who is wrong about this or that matter. They want to know which writer is a good authority. They want a measure of “higher criticism” to distinguish the true from the false or at least from the less true. They want to know whether H.P.Blavatsky or A.P.Sinnett was right in instances where their accounts of things seems to disagree. They want to know how far Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater really knew what they were talking about and whether George Arundale really had the visions that he sought to record. They want to ask themselves:”Do I agree with Annie Besant or with such-and-such another writer?”

At its particular level, this is eminently reasonable and proper. The reasonable individual wants to know where he stands. And yet there is another approach to Theosophical literature which does not directly involve these considerations. If one may be personal, I should say that something of this other approach became available to me through reading that literature as a child. Nobody asked me to read it, for I was not acquainted with any member of the Theosophical Society, nor had I any such person in my family. Theosophical studies were a voluntary amusement which circumstances—or, as some would say, karma—made available through the fact that I lived in two houses each of which had a little collection of Theosophical books. And from the age of eleven I pursued these studies eagerly.

A child does not read critically, particularly when he reads for enjoyment. He can, of course, notice an inconsistency, a mechanical error or a flaw in the plot of a story; and some little boys are very sharp in observing such things. But, in a broader sense, a child’s reading is not critical, and it involves a certain innocent acceptance of all that he finds in print.

That was how I read—uncritically and innocently, drawn on solely by the fascinating interest of what I found in those books. I became, of course, a glib young specialist in rounds and races, and, printed in an old school magazine, I have found a little treatise which I wrote at the age of thirteen on the subject of the fourth dimension of space. Probably the most intellectually profound work which I read and reread was Mrs. Besant’s Introduction to Yoga. I was also familiar with The Voice of the Silence and Light on the Path by the time I was sixteen. I also read many talks by Krishnamurti. I did not acquire The Secret Doctrine till I was nineteen.

Such juvenile studies were not, of course, sufficient. The grown-up intellect has to assert itself. In due course the honour schools of two universities did their worst upon me, and I reread all those books with a very altered attitude of mind. Yet that early experience of innocent juvenile study of Theosophical literature left a kind of understanding which is ineffaceable. It had opened certain “doors of the mind” which are perhaps not so easily opened if one’s studies until after the development of a critical and sophisticated intellect.

For those who study with an innocent eye, the impact of a book is total. Critical intellect knows a book only at its own level; and much of the worth of any book is often at some level other than that of the critical intellect. Its message is for the whole of one’s nature and not for the relatively narrow band of responses which constitute the critical and analytical mind.

It has been said of education that real education is what you carry with you after you have forgotten everything you ever learned. That is to say, there is in true education a moral and spiritual impact and influence which has little or nothing to do with the intellectual contents of the curriculum of studies. So it was with my own early Theosophical education. Approached with an absence of critical self-consciousness, it more readily yielded qualities of the kind with which the critical intellect is not directly concerned. The golden glow that lingers from a childhood experience is not merely illusory; and, whatever may subsequently be made of it, it is of itself utterly unsentimental.

Moreover, there is much to be gained at times from study which is taken in large slices, without critical attention to details. I galloped through many Theosophical books, much as one reads a novel to see what happened next. The total impression of a long book may be blurred if it is rapidly run through with the zeal of a voracious young reader; but it can nevertheless include something that will be lost if it is read slowly and carefully, with pauses for the critical assimilation of each paragraph. In later life I have certainly found that it is often helpful to read a whole book through from beginning to end, even where it is impossible to carry all the details. And in Lodge study groups there can sometimes be a place for the reading of long passages fairly quickly in order to get general proportions and a total view before details are discussed.

The subjects and lessons on a general educational curriculum, too, are significant not merely for their informative value, but because they provide a medium through which a living relationship is established between teacher and taught, a relationship which can be much more influential and creative than any formal contents of the curriculum. Books, like school lessons, are also a medium through which a relationship is established and developed. I was in no doubt as a child that those whose Theosophical writings I read had a measure of wisdom and greatness which I did not find in the writers of most other books. Albeit childishly, I saw or felt those Theosophical authors whole, and my view of them was not limited to what may be discerned by a reader’s critical faculty.

A posthumous critical chipping at the characters and achievements of those great people—which is not always unheard of in these latter days—is quite understandable to me. I can understand the arguments advanced in the case for the prosecution as it is set forth; but I have also recognized something which makes that chipping seem incomplete and rather pointless. It can be answered in various ways at its own controversial level, but the real answers to it cannot be given at that level.

In reading a book on a serious subject it is important to feel one’s way towards a recognition of how deep inside the writer was the source of its inspiration. Many fluent and well devised works spring only form a source that is quite close to the surface. And on the other hand, some of those which have a source far deeper inside are not necessarily well devised in a technical sense; yet they carry from their profounder source a certain quality for those who have eyes to see.

In our best work, moreover, something greater than ourselves surely enters in. Indeed, at a certain level of achievement, the better the work the less is it we personally who perform it. That kind of depth in a work is not to be recognized by mere analysis of its intellectual or informative contents. And if I were to explain how and why I seem to experience that quality of deeper authority in certain books , I do not think that I could readily give an answer.

This is admittedly dangerous territory, for anybody may justify a delusive personal enthusiasm by assertions such as this. Anybody may evade the responsibility of common sense by claiming the privilege of using his “intuition”. And yet there is an authentic intuition, often prompting to conclusions quite opposed to personal interest. If we are to seek it, we must venture upon that dangerous territory, with innocence as our only protection.

Reading Theosophical books with the eye of childhood has also a further advantage which arises from the child’s acceptance of authority. One strong reason for challenging the authority and truth of certain works is the fact that if we accept them as sound and true we find ourselves placed in a position of great inferiority. Nobody finds it easy to accept and agree to standards to which he himself is not conforming, standards so high that he is bound to feel small and incomplete by the measure of them. Yet it is standards of that nature which are offered by many Theosophical works; and only a certain impersonal humility makes it possible to accept such works without making self-protective gesticulations of dissociation, disengagement or revolt. But to the child it is quite easy and natural to take that attitude of acceptance. The normal adult, however, will accept facts of teachings of any kind usually only as far as he can accept the implications which they hold for himself and for his private structure of values; and there are even more powerful psychological motives for incredulity in connection with certain subjects than there are for credulity. Sometimes, as a substitute for incredulity, it is possible to philosophize a subject away from oneself into some remote and speculative sphere; but where this is not possible, as in the case of certain of the more simple Theosophical books, people sometimes become indignantly incredulous and say that the author is a rascal.

Thus, while a mere mechanical acceptance of authority is dangerous, there are many fields in which truth is accessible only when we abandon forms of scepticism which are merely subtle self-protective devices by which we may save ourselves from unflattering comparisons, embarrassing responsibilities or agonizing reappraisals.

To sum up, a truly grown-up attitude towards Theosophical literature cannot be taken with the critical intellect alone or even predominantly. The innocent eye, the eye of that self within us which is larger than the critical intellect, must also participate in our studies. We have to bring to our studies a certain impersonal openness, a capacity to recognize and salute in any work or in any person the things that are greater than those more personal and fallible qualities which the mind is bound to note. Nor must we imagine that the intrinsic value of any work lies in its capacity to answer some personal problem of our own. Often deeper truths can be understood only to the extent to which we leave behind us that plane of habit upon which personal problems arise.

The power to act and understand from a true perspective is sometimes called reverence. In it there is no inhibition of intelligence; but there is an unflinching full-range recognition of the greatness and triviality of things. In the Theosophical Society we have had in the past and have still the privilege of association with people who are not only worthy of reverence but who cannot be truly understood in any other way.


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