WE have already, in the course of this inquiry, become familiar with most of the conclusions to be drawn therefrom, and it will therefore suffice to recall the most important in a brief recapitulation.
At the very beginning of the old religions, and especially at the beginning of that which seems to be the most ancient of all and the source of all the rest, there is no secret doctrine and no revelation; there is only the prehistoric tradition of a metaphysics which we should today call purely rationalistic. The confession of absolute ignorance as regards the nature, attributes, character, purposes, and existence even of the First Cause or the God of Gods is public and explicit. It is a vast negation; we know nothing, we can know nothing, we never shall know anything, for it may be that God Himself does not know everything.
This unknown First Cause is of necessity infinite, for the infinite alone is unknowable, and the God of Gods would no longer be the God of Gods, and could not understand Himself, unless He were all things. His infinity inevitably gives rise to pantheism; for if the First Cause is everything, everything partakes in the First Cause, and it is not possible to imagine anything that can set bounds to it and is not the Cause itself, or part of the Cause, or does not proceed from the Cause. From this pantheism proceeds in its turn the belief in immortality and the ultimate optimism, for, the Cause being infinite in space and time, nothing that is of it or in it can be destroyed without destroying a part of the Cause itself; which is impossible, since it would still be the nothingness that sought to circumscribe it, just as nothing could be eternally unhappy without condemning part of itself to eternal unhappiness.
Absolute agnosticism, with its consequences; the infinity of the divine, pantheism, universal immortality, and ultimate optimism here is the point of departure of the great primitive teachers, pure intellects, and implacable logicians, such as were the mysterious Atlanteans, if we may believe the traditions of the occultists; and would not the very same point of departure impose itself to-day upon those who should seek to found a new religion which would not be repugnant to the ever-increasing exactions of human reason?
But if all is God and necessarily immortal, it is none the less certain that men and things and worlds disappear. From this moment we bid good-by to the logical consequences of the great confession of ignorance to enter the labyrinth of theories which are no longer unassailable, and which, for that matter, are not at the outset put before us as revelations but as mere metaphysical hypotheses, as speculations of great antiquity, born of the necessity of reconciling the facts with the too abstract and too rigid deductions of human reason.
As a matter of fact, according to these hypotheses man, the world and the universe do not perish; they disappear and reappear alternately throughout eternity, in virtue of Maya, the illusion of ignorance. When they no longer exist for us or for any one, they still exist virtually, where no one sees them; and those who have ceased to see them do not cease to exist as though they saw them. Similarly, when God sets bounds to Himself, in order to manifest Himself and to become conscious of a portion of Himself, He does not cease to be infinite and unknowable to Himself. He seems for a moment to place Himself at the point of view or within the comprehension of those whom He has quickened in His bosom.
This last hypothesis must in the beginning have been, as it is at present and always will be, a mere makeshift; but there was a time when it became a sort of dogma which, eagerly welcomed by the imagination, soon completely replaced the great primitive negation. From that moment, despairing of knowing the unknowable, man duplicated and subdivided and multiplied it, relegating the inconceivable First Cause to the inaccessible Infinite, and henceforth concerned himself only with those secondary causes by which it manifests itself and acts.
He does not ask himself, or rather he does not dare to ask, how, the First Cause being essentially unknowable, its manifestations could be considered as known, although it had not ceased to be unknowable; and we enter the vast vicious circle in which mankind must resign itself to live under penalty of condemning itself to an eternal negation, an eternal immobility and ignorance and silence.
Unable to know God in Himself, man contents himself with seeking and questioning Him in His creatures, and above all in mankind. He thought to find Him there, and the religions were born, with their gods, their cults, their sacrifices, their beliefs, their moralities, their hells and heavens. The relationship which binds them all to the unknown Cause is more and more forgotten, reappearing only at certain moments, as it reappeared, for example, long afterwards, in Buddhism, in the metaphysicians, in the ancient mysteries and occult traditions. But despite this oblivion, and thanks to the idea of this First Cause, necessarily one, invisible, intangible, and inconceivable, which we are consequently compelled to regard as purely spiritual; two of the great principles of the primitive religion, which subsequently permeated those religions which sprang from it, have survived, deep-rooted and tenacious of life, secretly repeating, beneath all outward appearances, that the essence of all things is one and that the spirit is the source of all, the only certitude, the sole eternal reality.
From these two principles, which at bottom are only one, proceeds all that primitive ethic which became the great ethic of humanity: unity being the ideal and sovereign good, evil means separation, division, and multiplicity, and matter is finally but one result of separation or multiplicity. To return to unity, therefore, we must strip ourselves, must escape from matter, which is but an inferior form or degradation of the spirit.
It was thus that man found, or believed that he had found, the purpose of the unknowable, and the key of all morality without, however, venturing to ask himself why this rupture of unity and this degradation of the spirit had been necessary; as though we had supposed that the First Cause, which might have kept all things in the state of unity, in its undivided, immobile, and supremely blessed bosom, had been condemned, by a superior and irresistible law, to movement and eternal recommencement.
These ideas, too purely metaphysical to nourish a religion, were soon in India itself covered by a prodigious vegetation of myths, and gradually became the secret of the Brahmans, who cultivated them, developed them, gave them profundity, and complicated them, to the verge of insanity. Thence they spread over the face of the earth, or returned to the place whence they had set forth; for while it is permissible to attempt the chronological localization of a central source, it is impossible for us to determine where they rose to the surface in the ages before the dawn of history, unless we refer to the theosophical legends of the Seven Races, which we might perhaps accept if we were supplied with documents less open to criticism than those which have hitherto been offered to us.
At all events, it is easy enough to follow the progress of these ideas through the world known to history; whether they went hand in hand, or one following another, through India, Egypt, and Persia; or found their way into Chaldea and pre-Socratic Greece by means of myths or contacts or migrations unknown to us; or, especially in the case of Hellas, through the Orphic poems, collected during the Alexandrian period, but dating from legendary ages, and containing lines which, as Emile Burnouf observes in his Science des Religions, are translated word for word from the Vedic hymns.1
As a result of the Egyptian bondage, the Babylonian captivity, and the conquest of Cyrus, they reached the Bible, changing their shape to harmonize with the Jewish monotheism; but in secret they were preserved, almost undefiled, by oral transmission, in the cabala, in which the En-Sof, as we have seen, is the exact reproduction of the Hindu Unknowable, and leads to an almost similar agnosticism, pantheism, optimism, and ethic.
These ideas, stifled beneath the Bible in the Jewish world, and in the Greco-Roman world beneath the weight of the official religions and philosophies, survived among the secret sects, and notably among the Essenes, and also in the mysteries; reappearing in the light of day about the beginning of the Christian era, in the Gnostic and Neoplatonic schools of philosophy, and later on in the cabala, when they were finally put into writing; whence they passed, more or less distorted, into the occultism of the middle ages, of which they constitute the sole foundation.
We see, accordingly, that occultism, or rather the secret doctrine, variable in its forms, often extremely obscure, above all during the middle ages, but almost everywhere identical as to its basis, was always a protest of the human reason, faithful to its prehistoric traditions, against the arbitrary assertions and pretended revelations of the public and official religions. To their baseless dogmas, their anthropomorphical manifestations of the divine, illogical, petty, and unacceptable, they opposed the confession of an absolute and invincible ignorance of all essential points. From this confession, which at first sight seems to destroy everything, but which leads, almost of necessity, to a spiritualistic conception of the universe; it was able to derive a metaphysics, a mysticism, and a morality much purer, loftier, more disinterested, and above all more rational than those which were born of the religions which were stifling it. One might even prove that all that these religions still have in common on the heights where all are united all that could not be debased to the level of the material requirements of an over-long life all that is to be found in them that is awe-inspiring, infinite, imperishable, and universal they owe to that immemorial metaphysic into which they struck their first roots.
It would even seem that in proportion as time removes them from this metaphysic the spirit leads them back to it; thus, to value only the two latest religions, without mention of all that they borrowed from it more directly, we find that the God the Father of Christianity and the Allah of Islam are much nearer to the En-Sof of the cabala than to the Jahweh of the Bible; and that the Word of St. John, which is not mentioned in the Old Testament or the synoptics, is merely the Logos of the Gnostics and the Neoplatonists, who themselves obtained it from India and Egypt.
Is this, then, the great secret of humanity, which has been hidden with such care beneath mysterious and sacred formulζ, beneath rites which were sometimes terrifying, beneath formidable reticences and silences: an unmitigated negation, a stupendous void, a hopeless ignorance? Yes, it is only this: and it is as well that it is nothing else; for a God and a universe small enough for the little brain of man to circumnavigate them, to understand their nature and their economy, to discover their origin, their aims and their limits, would be so pitiful and so restricted that no one would resign himself to remain eternally as their prisoner. Humanity has need of the infinite, with its corollary of invincible ignorance, if it is not to feel itself the dupe or victim of an unforgivable experiment or a blunder impossible of evasion. There was no need to call it into existence, but since it has been raised out of nothingness it must needs enjoy the boundlessness of space and time of which it has been vouchsafed the conception. It has the right to participate in all that has given it life, before it can forgive it for bringing it into the world. And it is not able thus to participate save on the condition that it cannot understand it. Every certainty at all events, until our minds are liberated from the chains that fetter them would become an enclosing wall on which all desire to live would be shattered. Let us therefore rejoice that we know of no further certainties beyond an ignorance as infinite as the world or the God Who is its subject.
After so many efforts, so many experiments, we find ourselves precisely at the point from which our great teachers set out. They bequeathed to us a wisdom which we are hardly beginning to clear of the rubbish that the centuries have left upon it; and beneath this rubbish we find intact the proudest confession of ignorance that man has ever ventured to pronounce. To a lover of illusion this means but little; to a lover of truth it is much indeed. We know at last that there has never been any ultra-human revelation, any direct and irrecusable message from divinity, no ineffable secret; and that all man believes himself to know of God, of His origin and His ends, he has drawn from his own powers of reason. Before we had interrogated our prehistoric ancestors we more than suspected that all revelations, in the sense of the word understood by the religious, were and will always be impossible; for we cannot reveal to any one more than he is capable of understanding, and God alone can understand God. But it was easy to imagine that having, so to speak, been witnesses of the birth of the world, they ought to know more of it than we do, since they were still nearer to God. But they were not nearer to God; they were simply nearer to the human reason, which had not as yet been obscured by the inventions of thousands of years. They are content with giving us the only landmarks which this reason has been able to discover in the unknowable: pantheism, spiritualism, mortality, and final optimism; confiding the rest to the hypotheses of their successors, and wisely leaving unanswered, as we should leave them to-day, all those insoluble problems which the succeeding religions blindly attacked, often in an ingenious manner which was none the less always arbitrary and sometimes childish.
Need we again recapitulate these problems? the passage from the virtual to the actual; from being to becoming; from non-existence to existence; and the descent of the spirit into matter that is, the origin of evil and the ascent from matter to spirit; the necessity of emerging from a state of eternal bliss, to return thither after purification and ordeals whose indispensable nature is beyond our comprehension; eternal recommencements, to reach a goal which has always fled us, since it has never been attained, although in the past men had as much leisure to attain it as they will ever have in the future.
I might increase beyond all measures this balance-sheet of the unknowable. To close the account it is enough to add that the question which rightly or wrongly causes us the greatest anxiety that which concerns the fate of our consciousness and our personality when absorbed by the divine, is likewise unanswered, for Nirvana determines nothing and specifies nothing, and the Buddha, the last interpreter of the great esoteric doctrines, himself confesses that he does not know whether this absorption is absorption into nothingness or into eternal blessedness. "The Sublime has not revealed it to him."
"The Sublime has not revealed it to him"; for nothing has been revealed and nothing has been solved, because it is probable that nothing will ever be capable of solution, and because it is possible that beings whose intellect must be a million times more powerful than our own would still be unable to discover a solution. To understand the Creation, to tell us whence it comes and whither it goes, one would have to be its author; and even then, asks the "Rig-Veda," at the very source of primordial wisdom: "and even then, does He know it?"
The Great Secret, the only secret, is that all things are secret. Let us at least learn, in the school of our mysterious ancestors, to make allowance, as they did, for the unknowable, and to search only for what is there: that is, the certainty that all things are God, that all things exist in Him and should end in happiness, and that the only divinity which we can hope to understand is to be found in the depths of our own souls. The Great Secret has not changed its aspect; it remains where and what it was for our forebears. At the very beginning they managed to derive from the unknowable the purest morality which we have known, and since we now find ourselves at the same point of the unknowable, it would be dangerous, not to say impossible, to deduce other lessons therefrom. And these doctrines, of which the nobler portions have remained the same, and which differ only in their baser characteristics, in all the religions whose various dogmas are at bottom only mythological translations or interpretations of these too abstract truths, would have made man something that as yet he is not, had he but had the courage to follow them. Do not let us forget them: this is the last and the best counsel of the mystical testament whose pages we have just been turning over.
1 Emile Burnouf, La Science des Religions; p. 105.