Compass Newsletter Spring 2017, No.34

The Ship of Theseus

Throughout our lives, we come to inhabit what some call the seven layers of identity, often interpolating between them and constantly changing within each. And yet somehow, despite this ever-shifting seedbed of personhood, we manage to think of ourselves as concrete selves — selves. Hardly any perplexity of human existence is more fascinating than the continuity of personal identity — what makes us feel the same throughout our life despite a lifetime of change, from your cells to your values. We mistakenly think rather than a work in progress, we are a ‘finished’ product.

Two millennia before modern psychologists came to tussle with this puzzlement, the great Greek historian and writer Plutarch (AD46-AD120) examined it more lucidly than anyone before or since. In a brilliant hought experiment known as The Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’s paradox, outlined (though not for the first or last time) Plutarch asks: If the ship on which Theseus sailed has been so heavily repaired and nearly every part replaced, is it still the same ship — and, if not, at what point did it stop being the same ship?

He writes:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

So, when are we, or can we ever consider ourselves to be, complete. The following article places us in a Universe that is ever changing, always developing.

An Unfinished Universe
By La Fayette Plummer

No argument will be necessary to convince you that this universe is unfinished. From the mere fact that life continues to manifest itself in living things, we may know that the course of evolution is not yet run. Whatever our ideas may be as to the goal for humanity, we all agree that mankind has not as yet reached that goal. And in larger measure we see in the heavens above us stars in all stages of youth and senility, infant stars, and old stars; comets on the one hand, which, the Ancient Wisdom tells us, are unborn suns and planets, and on the other hand, meteors and asteroids, evidently the remains of stars and planets that have passed away.

The effort, then, is not to argue the question, but rather to give you the picture of the Universe which the Ancient Wisdom, today called Theosophy, has painted for us. Far from being a mere fantasy of ideas, it is a picture of the thing as it really is, culled from the evidence furnished by those who know because they have the means to find out. The Masters of Wisdom are they who have mastered Wisdom about the development and use of the higher spiritual faculties innate in man, and by means of these awakened powers they have donned the winged cap and the winged slippers, and “walked the skies.”

Imagine yourselves standing on a hilltop on a clear night, with the stars shining brightly, as it were beckoning you. Imagine that you could take wings and rise from this earth and wander at will among the celestial bodies. Imagine that you could transcend the spheres which encompass our small family, our solar system, and with light step spring upwards into space and wander from star to star, and study the celestial phenomena. You would encounter all sorts of interesting things. You would see old stars and young stars, stars so aged that their life is spent, stars so young that they can hardly yet be called stars — they are comets. You would see nebulae, vast bodies of tenuous gases in the process of forming into celestial bodies. You would find meteors and shooting-stars, fragments of once living worlds. You would pass planets innumerable, and moons galore, worn-out shells of planets long since dead.

Imagine yourselves able to travel on and on without hindrance until our solar system dwindles away to a mere point and is lost in some star-cluster of the Milky Way. And then leave the confines of our home-universe, and pursue your cosmic course until our whole galaxy becomes a mere speck,as though it were but a single star itself. Approaching now the speed of thought, you would encounter new galaxies of stars and worlds and moons. But though you were to travel for ever, you would never reach the end of the universe. You would never come to a point in space where you could say, “I have now reached the limits of the universe; I have passed the last of the stars.”

Suppose then that you were to return home and meditate on what you had seen. You might feel that you had seen rather much; you might feel that you had seen rather little — no, more, in fact than a telescope could have shown you, were it of sufficient power. What about worlds invisible inhabiting the planes of consciousness above and within the physical, to wit, the spiritual, the intellectual, the astral realm, and so on, of which the Ancient Wisdom teaches? These no telescope can show us. Just as in our imaginary journey we saw celestial phenomena of all kinds, so there are wonders to behold on these inner planes, had we the eyes to see. Thus we find that our “limitless” universe is indeed limited, because it is physical; its sights are restricted to purely physical manifestations of life.

What is the boundary separating our physical universe from the inner planes? There is no real dividing-line at all. That which sets the limit to our universe is our own inability to see and to cognise. The horizon is that imaginary line which divides the world’s surface into two parts: that portion which we see, and that portion which, due to the curvature of the earth, we do not see. Let us then judge the universe, not by what we see, but by what we are privileged to learn about it in the writings and teachings of the Sages and Seers, past and present.

There is wonderful knowledge to be gained by a study of the Ancient Wisdom, which is at once Philosophy, Religion, and Science; and if a thing be approached from these three angles, a fully comprehensive understanding of it may be acquired. No doubt we will more readily concede this to be true in the study of man, but the nature of man cannot be fully understood unless we accept the fact that he is inseparably linked with the Cosmos about him, from which he draws his very life. Not only is it possible then to study the universe scientifically, religiously, and philosophically, but this must be done if we are to have a well-rounded picture of the Cosmos. Thus only can we turn on the light of Theosophy. The universe, Theosophy declares, is composed entirely of forces; and so is man, and modern Science inclines toward this view. We are told by the most advanced thinkers of today that what we call “matter” is nothing more than electric energy. To this, Theosophy adds that behind all manifestation is intelligence, and it is through the operation of intelligentforces that this universe has come into being. In building for ourselves a picture of the universe then, there are three fundamental principles or axioms that we must bear in mind. Firstly, the philosophic axiom, As above, so below. This is a master-key, by the aid of which we may unlock numberless mysteries. It teaches the interdependence of all things, for all things are in essence one. What is true of the nature of man is true of the sun. Universe and atom alike are composite in nature. The second key is the religious aphorism, Man, know thyself — another master-key closely related to the first. Could we but know the mysteries of consciousness and the sevenfold nature of man in their completeness, we should have full knowledge of the universe. A third key, the scientific, is that all things are relative. In the last analysis nothing is great, nothing small; all things are relatively great or small, in relative degrees of development, with relative manifestations of consciousness. Bearing these three truths well in mind, let us proceed to our study, and endeavor to understand this bewildering universe about us.

The vast cosmic scheme is nothing if not the manifestation and working of consciousness. Consciousness is the great mystery, about which very little can be said; it is the Boundless All, the vital drive of the universe, endless, infinite, within all and containing all, ever-present, and yet utterly indescriptible. It is space itself, and duration, and its counterpart is substance. By substance I do not mean matter in any form such as we know it to be, or such as we imagine it to be even in the electronic state (i.e., it is neither gaseous, liquid, nor solid). Cosmic substance might best be described as the great matrix, the womb from which are born the galaxies filling all planes of being. Thus substance is not confined to any so-called plane of consciousness, any more than is consciousness, its counterpart. The universe comes into bloom when consciousness unites with substance, and becomes an infinitude of consciousnesses, clothed in substance and manifesting as numberless lives, which in their vast aggregate form this living universe. The lowest grades of substance temporarily become what we recognise as matter, composed of ninety-two chemical elements — but only so long as consciousness is there. If this is so in the case of the universe, it is equally true of man. Man is the manifestation of human consciousness, one of those infinitudes of consciousness before alluded to. This consciousness-center combined with cosmic substance and brought man into being. The seven planes of consciousness forming man we call his seven principles; but to the endless numbers of lives subservient to the man, they are the playgrounds, the fields of activity, in other words, the planes of consciousness, in which they live, move, and have their being.Similarly, a sun is the manifestation of a solar consciousness, for only a solar consciousness could so manifest; the plant is the imbodiment of a plant-consciousness; and an atom, of an atomic consciousness. All these are composite of seven principles, elements, planes, call them what you will, and all of these are part and parcel of the whole, subservient to the ruling consciousness imbodied as our Home-Universe. And even that exalted being is but one of many, a building-block, let us say, helping to build and sustain the manifestation of a super-cosmic being as a supercosmic universe. Who can say that the universe will ever be finished? Apply now the second key. Study man, learn the mysteries of his nature, apply the law of analogy, and learn to know and love this universe, ever evolving, ever becoming. And then the third key, the relativity of all things, which stresses the fact that brotherhood, that is, spiritual brotherhood, is a fact in Nature, indeed the fundamental law whereby the cosmos is knit together. Essentially consciousness is One, its manifestations legion. The purpose of evolution is the endless journey of the many back to the One, only to proceed again at the dawn of a new Cosmic day, to build universes anew, in a never-ending pageant of Life.

The Theosophical Forum – April 1937