One of the underlying thoughts in religion, and more ancient philosophic literature, is the idea of the human being’s kinship with the divine: that there is some part of us, some inner core, which is not of this world, but rather comes from the world beyond. As such, it relates to that world, instead of to this one. It is like a stranger in a strange land here on Earth, and in reality longs to return to its spiritual home.
But, from the instant we are born into this life, the demands of the body dominate our attention. We immediately feel many needs, such as hunger, the need to breathe, sleep, etc. It is due to the forcefulness of these impressions that we begin to consider them “real”, and to pay attention to them.
After very little time, other human beings around us begin to reinforce our sense of the reality of the physical world. Even until the time we start life on our own, society and friends continue to encourage us to pay heed to the demands of our physical nature – in some cases, to the extent that we deny our spiritual part completely.
Unless man is given some way to foster the consciousness of his spiritual nature, and hence to educate it and develop its capacities, he is primarily living a “physical life”. That is, his relationship to the world around him is based on physical terms, taking no account for the rules which govern the life of his spirit.
Our spiritual nature, however, is our true reality, and it is this which defines who we actually are. The physical nature is simply a vehicle, even though it may make very real demands on our time.
Educating our spiritual nature into awareness is one of the goals of religion. This is a complex, and at times bewildering, process, and yet nothing else quite like religion so directly focuses on the needs of our spirit. For this reason, I think Plato’s ideas of the soul and its quest for beauty have a close relationship with what we find in the writings of the Faith on the subject of the nature of the soul.
Man has been created with a twofold nature. In one respect, he is a physical entity having attributes in common with the animal kingdom. But the real essence of his being is that he was created with an eternal nature, an immortal soul. It is in this respect that he bears a certain kinship with the divine, just as the Bible states that we were “created in the image of God”.
It is due to this kinship that man relates primarily to the kingdom of the ideal. For even though he may seem at first to be mainly a physical being in this life, if we look closely I believe we can find evidences of his divine origin in every aspect of our lives.
Human beings are born into this world with completely no knowledge. Our spirits, since they employ a physical body as their means for existing in this life, are entirely ignorant of their nature. Due to the physical demands of our bodies, we perceive this life to be “real”, since it forces itself upon our awareness so violently that we can perceive little else. Society and our peers also reinforce this perception, and may at times council us to believe that this is indeed all there is. But the spirit, despite whatever may happen to us, still bears its relationship to the immortal realm. It will always know where it came from, and longs to return there.
This relationship is one of coincidence only, however. Since the soul is essentially divine, it feels kinship with the divine; but this does not mean it knows where to find divinity, or how to establish a relationship with it.
The soul can only relate to the world according to its knowledge. Outside of this knowledge, it has no awareness of any kind. And so its longing for beauty, or love, will take shape corresponding to its understanding of these divine realities.
In fact, any understanding we may have of beauty, in any form, derives from our essential relationship with it: from our common nature. So that if a person is attracted to the appearance of someone, or a painting, or a scene of nature, what they are attracted to about it is the reflection of any divine attributes within it. Outside of this, color and shape are merely emanations of light. Yet for those with the capacity to appreciate beauty, such physical phenomena will invariably come alive with glorious representations of the spiritual kingdom.
Our first experience of the world is physical, and until we learn otherwise, we continue to relate to it physically. In this sense, we are drawn toward anything that is good, beautiful, fulfilling, according to our ability to perceive it. And since our vision at first depends mostly on our physical eyes, we pursue beauty where we can best find it physically.
The essential idea, however, is that even physical beauty is not purely physical. In fact, in the absence of a human mind to perceive it, I believe there would be no such thing as physical beauty. It would become merely light waves, or a combination of intensities of light. But hidden within this there is a semblance of beauty, which the human eye is capable of perceiving because it understands beauty intuitively, due to its inherent relationship. It is important to note that our eyes do not perceive beauty; it is what the soul experiences, according to what the eyes transmit, that we call beauty.
Thus the more involved the soul is in the act of perceiving, the greater its experience of beauty will be. If the soul looks at things with only physical eyes, it will see beauty only in physical objects. In would be like trying to listen to delicate music through a brick wall: only a certain part of the sound comes through; and even what does is neither very accurate, nor intense.
The goal is free ourselves from the obstruction – the brick wall – which intervenes between us and what we seek. I say “seek”, even though we may not be aware of it as seeking. Yet, consider that human beings are always seeking experiences which animals would never desire: they want to feel fulfillment in their lives, they want to find happiness, they want to achieve something. We are always looking for a way to transcend our ordinary, dull existence. “Praise be to God! man is always turned toward the heights, and his aspiration is lofty; he always desires to reach a greater world than the world in which he is, and to mount to a higher sphere than that in which he is. The love of exaltation is one of the characteristics of man.” (Some Answered Questions, p. 188). But animals want just the opposite. If they could achieve a mindless routine that would keep them well-fed and safe – with perhaps an opportunity here and there for exercise, or whatever social urges they might feel the need to pursue – they would call that perfection. I can’t think of a cat or dog who has ever become discontented with a good owner, no matter how invariable his life may have become.
Human beings, though, are always looking to satisfy some indefinite desire within themselves. It seems almost like a sense of homelessness: that we are not of this world, and our souls know this. And so we seek to find that place which will make us feel as though we completely belong there. And it is just because this “place”, the spiritual world, reflects its attributes on this plane of existence, that we pursue material objects for fulfillment. Otherwise, if the physical world were bereft entirely of its capacity to reflect spiritual attributes, I think we would feel for it about as much as we feel for a pound of sand.
Imagine, in fact, that our need to eat, drink, sleep, etc., had magically vanished. Yet imagine also that the entire world contained nothing but sand. Nothing else but sand. Our mating urges would have also vanished, and so picture the world as being inhabited by no one but people of the same sex. So here we sit on our mound of sand – which hasn’t even the decency to form itself into dunes, since there is no wind, either – with absolutely no need to do anything. We just sit around, nothing forcing us to move, and nowhere to go.
I think most people would consider this hell. But this is something similar to what the world would be like if we stripped it of every reflection of the divine. Perhaps some mystic might yet find a paradise in such a world, but for anyone who depended on their physical body to perceive beauty, there would be precious little for him to look at.
So even our love for the things of this world comes from the fact that they bear some kind of resemblance to spiritual reality. It is because of this that we actually pursue them as if they would grant us the happiness we seek; at times, we even arrange our entire lives around the pursuit of some material goal. When in reality the purpose of this world is only to sustain the health of our bodies, and the promulgation of the species; at least, that’s how it looks from the animal kingdom’s point of view.
Yet we humans go so much farther than merely satisfying our basic physical needs, that it must make anyone wonder. Is the addition of abstract thought – which is the only difference that materialists grant to the reality of man – so profound a thing that it would explain the irrational and chaotic endeavors of men? Our behavior is so radically different from animals in certain respects that it would seem to me that there must be more at the heart of the matter, which would give a consistent picture why we behave the way we do; which, if taken into consideration, would make us appear no longer irrational, but very definitely following a set course toward a determined objective.
This objective, I believe, is to find a place, situation, or circumstances, which would make us feel “complete”. Just as hunger seeks to be satisfied – without ever explaining why it should be – so the spirit longs to regain its home, without seeking to justify its longing. There are many things that we do simply because they feel good, and we accept this as a sufficient reason for why we do them. What other goal but true happiness is needed to understand why the soul desires to find that homeland from which it came?
What must happen is for us to find the Way to that condition of being. To do this requires being able to discern the signs clearly. This means finding a way to discover the divine principles more and more directly – since perceiving them through the material senses always distorts them to some degree.
In the beauty of a sunrise, for example, we see the reflection of the divine beauty. But in order to separate away the material elements of the picture, in order to leave nothing but pure beauty, would require already knowing which where the physical elements, and which were the divine. However, since possessing this knowledge is the end we have in mind, then in our condition of ignorance we will not know which are the divine aspects, and which are the material.
Because of this confusion, we are likely to pursue our heart’s desire sometimes in the wrong direction. We may discover beauty in the physical forms of other human beings, and then mistake these forms for beauty itself, and wind up organizing our lives around this one objective. But it is not the form which should be seeking; rather, beauty itself.
It is very difficult, without already possessing a knowledge of what beauty is in its essence, to go about finding it. It’s almost a catch-22, since, without the capacity to distinguish between what is truly beauty and what is merely a physical form reflecting beauty, we really can’t know whether we’ve taken a right step or not. Sometimes the physical object is so pleasurable that it’s just about impossible to remain objective in order to see things clearly.
In fact, it is entirely impossible. The physical world is too beguiling, and the object which we seek too elusive, for us ever to achieve this on our own. Left alone, we would end up worshiping whatever was most physically attractive, simply because this is as real as beauty would ever be for us. What other way of seeing things with our physical eyes is there? In what way would the human soul ever receive the education it requires in order to break into the light, unless there were some way that a pure knowledge could be transmitted to us, in a form that we could understand? It would be like to trying to describe the experience of sight or color to a blind man. Without some common frame of reference, the communication of this knowledge would be impossible.
This is exactly where the Messengers of God come in. It is because these Individuals have a direct knowledge of the Truth – unobstructed by the normal hindrances of the human body – that they are able to communicate this knowledge to us in a form we can understand. Even still, the knowledge is presented, but it is not a knowledge of anything we have had any experience of, except dimly. And so at first it seems strange, or incomprehensible; not because the prophets desire to keep anything hidden, but because we can’t relate to what’s being said. It would be like opening a Calculus text book with no prior knowledge of math: all of the answers are there, in clear print, but we are not yet able to understand them.
Understanding the principles of math is a slow, continual process of building concept upon concept, one at a time. Our spiritual education is something very similar. The Prophets communicate knowledge which our souls may relate to, but our minds and hearts are completely unfamiliar with. It requires time, and patience – but it is by no means impossible.
This knowledge communicated by the prophets is often understood by some, but not all, of the people. And since God has sent Prophets to us since the beginning of man’s existence, we have always had the benefit of their knowledge, even if we did not always understand what was being taught to us.
It is in this way that the philosophers and sages are able to postulate and make discoveries about the nature and condition of the soul. Since even in the fairy tales that our parents tell us when we’re younger – perhaps the crudest form of ethical philosophy – there is a faint echo of the teachings of the early Prophets. That which had benefit was kept, and that which was useless was discarded. Humanity knew that justice was a required principle of government, and for this reason we still find it with us today, despite the various forms it may take – at times being so crudely implemented as to seem antipodal to the divine message it came from.
In the Writings of the Manifestations themselves, however, we find the most direct, unmodified transmission of these spiritual teachings. These teachings direct us toward our goal – what has been called the “Straight Path”, or the “gate of heaven” – and they instruct us as to what we must do in order to better our spiritual perception, and thus make the correct decisions which will ultimately lead to our true happiness. It is through them that we learn how to separate between the divine realities being expressed in nature, and the lifeless, material elements which are used as the medium for their expression.
Plato’s means of achieving this goal, a mode of life lived according to the soul rather than the body, was to lessen the attention paid to the body to the extent that the soul’s needs must perforce break through. But we know this to be a crude and inexact approximation of the divine teachings. There is nothing inherently bad or evil about material reality. At worst, it simply has no value at all. And yet it does reveal to us, in the form of our first experience with the divine kingdom, those attributes which are possessed by our Creator. The only real tragedy is if we mistake the medium for the message, and direct our lives toward the pursuit of some material object, when in reality it is something much more ethereal about that material object which we are attracted to.
Hence religion indicates to us that our desire for beauty in any physical object is really the soul’s desire to be reacquainted with the divine beauty from which that object derives its qualities. It also teaches us how to distinguish between the twofold nature of the physical world, and to learn to appreciate the divine realities directly, without depending on our physical senses at all.
For what would happen to us if one day our sight were lost, and our only means of perceiving beauty had been through our eyes? Or if it were by sound that we knew these things, and we then lost our hearing?
In fact, the day will come when we will have lost all our physical senses, and if, by that time, we have not learned how to apprehend the divine reality any other way, what will become of us? All of the concrete things by which we knew God’s qualities will be gone. If we haven’t learned how to use the faculties of our soul by then, we will be just as handicapped in the next world as a blind person is here on Earth. It would be like to a baby which saw no need to develop its power of sight, only to discover later, and much to its chagrin, how important that ability really was.
But even the loss of sight does not render a person’s life naught. They are still able to manage, just as I believe that all souls, no matter how ignorant they may have been of the spiritual truths, will be able to make a life for themselves in the next world, and develop some sort of relationship with that world. But the degree of appreciation one develops for beauty is in direct proportion to his ability to perceive it. Do we want merely to exist, or to find the most desirable existence possible? None of us would choose to have been born blind, since it is evidently a condition of loss. Yet now we have a very similar choice, with regard to our spiritual vision: will we choose to remain wholly dependent on our physical eyes, and left entirely to God’s mercy when we lose those eyes, or will we attempt to discover another mode of perception, one which is more directly related to the nature of the soul, and hence be possessed of a faculty which we will not lose when we shake off this mortal coil?
It is the soul inside us which constitutes who we truly are, and in reality every aspect of our lives is determined by this truth, whether we are able to see how this is so or not. We may not be aware that our desire for beauty stems from our inherent relationship to the divine, but nevertheless the soul is at the root of all of our actions, feelings and experiences. The aim of the philosophers, and the intent of religion, is to teach us a new means of relating to the world; one which is more directly in touch with our true nature, and which lessens our dependence on the physical vessel in which our souls exist, so that one day, when this body is gone, we will have learned to swim well enough to be able to push off from the pier unassisted. We are, in a sense, being taught how to “use our souls” – since true sight is something very different from physical sight, even though physical sight may be able to teach us some things, in a symbolic way, about the former. Perceiving the world according to its real, essential reality, is something foreign to our physical mode of existence. Our souls are very aware that this crude, material substance is not what it seeks.
Hence it is the ideal of beauty, not merely it various manifestations, that we are ultimately seeking. And it is the Prophets of God alone Who can teach us how to achieve this ideal. It is a tricky thing, something that we must admit to having little or no knowledge of, for the very reason that material existence is so misleading; but with prayer, meditation, and striving to harmonize our outward lives with what we’ve been taught, we can learn someday how to break free of our crutches, which are supporting us during this time of ignorance.
On that day, when we come face to face with the nature of beauty itself, it will be as much grander as the perception of beauty in this world is to a mere, verbal description of it. For is it possible that the word “sunset” could convey all that that word implies, or be anything more to the hearer than merely a reminder of something he already knows? So too, how can we expect the glory of the next world to be comprehensible to us, if we are condemned here on Earth only to fall in love with its shadows? The essence of everything we love about life comes from that world, and so try to imagine, in lieu of experience, what it would be like if from a lone vibration our hearing were suddenly to develop into a realization of the symphony from which it had issued; or if from a glimmer of light, we were suddenly brought into an awareness of the entire luminescence of the Sun. I think that we have seen so far only the dimmest suggestions of what life truly is, and when we move on, the very greatest thing that we ever knew in this life will seem to us as commonplace as the sand on the beach, or the never-ending, lullaby motion of the waves.