Printed in the Summer 2013 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard "Letters to the Editor" Quest 101. 3 (Summer 2013): pg. 82.
My good friend, the British Kabbalist Warren Kenton, who writes under the name Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi, recently sent me a copy of his latest book. It's entitled A Kabbalistic View of History. It portrays the ups and downs of history, as well as the rise and fall of civilizations, in light of the evolution of humanity.
While there are many fascinating themes in Warren's book, one in particular stands out. It has to do with the role played at crucial moments in history by small groups of people who were working from a higher plane of consciousness. Groups of this kind included the Pythagorean school in ancient Greece; the school of Chartres in medieval times, which built the great cathedral; the Brethren of the Common Life, who revitalized Christian devotion in the late Middle Ages; and the Rosicrucian brotherhood, whose famous manifestoes, published around 1615, proclaimed a coming age of political liberty and scientific inquiry. And of course there is Theosophy, which began in the nineteenth century by setting forth esotericism as a third way between a rigid Christian dogmatism and an equally rigid scientific materialism.
While there are many lessons we could learn from each of these cases, there are a couple that stand out for me. The first has to do with timing. While a small and subtle impetus can push human history and civilization in a given direction, this impetus has to wait for the right moment. It is as if a rock is teetering over a precipice; one small push could make it go in either direction. But one might have to wait a long time before the rock comes into that position. Furthermore—since we are not dealing with rocks but with large currents in human life—it requires a great deal of discernment to see when that moment is at hand.
I would suggest that it is only from a higher perspective that one can accurately see the moment at hand. It does not require the power of prophecy—indeed the record of prophets through the ages, from the Bible to Nostradamus to the tangle of pronouncements surrounding the year 2012, suggests that we have no reason whatsoever to believe in prophecies of any kind. But it does require a transcendent capacity to see the potentialities in the present—and to know how to make use of them. We could call this kind of knowledge and power an "esoteric impulse."
The second thing that strikes me is that these esoteric impulses run down after a time. The school of Pythagoras died out not long after his lifetime in the sixth century B.C. The schools that built the great cathedrals left buildings as monuments to their legacy; they did not perpetuate themselves as schools. The Brethren of the Common Life vanished from history around the time of the Reformation.
What happens when an esoteric impulse withers away? Or, to put it in familiar language: "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?" (Matt. 5:13).
To begin with, the founding figures pass from the scene, replaced by followers in whose minds the original ideas take up a comfortable slumber. Practices become rote and mechanical, and the purpose behind them is forgotten. There is a curious story about a spiritual teacher who had a cat that misbehaved. To keep it from causing trouble, the teacher told one of his students to catch the cat before meetings and tie it up. The years passed; the cat died; the master died. But the school went on. Hundreds of years later, before each meeting, the followers still had to find a cat to tie up.
In the end, the energy fueling organizations of this kind is provided mostly by inertia. Sooner or later even this runs out, and the movement dwindles away. This does not always happen overnight. Much has been made of the Christians closing down the pagan temples in late antiquity, but people often forget that the energy of paganism had been dying for centuries. Around A.D. 100 the Greek author Plutarch wrote a treatise called On the Failure of the Oracles, lamenting that of the great oracles that had once been so admired in the classical world, "silence has come upon some and utter desolation upon others." Plutarch was in a position to know, since he served for many years as a priest at the celebrated oracle of Delphi. The job apparently left him plenty of time for writing.
What happens after the temples have closed? Sometimes the impulse survives in a new and unrecognizable form, as Christianity in many ways carried on the traditions of the old mystery religions. Sometimes it goes underground for centuries, passed on only in tiny groups or even in one-on-one transmissions, as seems to have been the case with much of the "old religion" of pre-Christian Europe. In still other cases it may vanish entirely. Then, when the oracles are most silent and the rituals most mechanical, a new impulse arises—perhaps from the esoteric orders on the inner planes that are said to watch over human evolution—and the cycle starts all over again.