The Key to Theosophy
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
The Key to Theosophy
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
What is Memory According
to Theosophical Teaching?
Q. The most difficult thing for you to do, will be to explain and give
reasonable grounds for such a belief. No Theosophist has ever yet succeeded in
bringing forward a single valid proof to shake my skepticism. First of all, you
have against this theory of reincarnation, the fact that no single man has yet
been found to remember that he has lived, least of all who he was, during his
A. Your argument, I see, tends to the same old objection; the loss of memory in
each of us of our previous incarnation. You think it invalidates our doctrine?
My answer is that it does not, and that at any rate such an objection cannot be
Q. I would like to hear your arguments.
A. They are short and few. Yet when you take into consideration (a) the utter
inability of the best modern psychologists to explain to the world the nature of
mind; and (b) their complete ignorance of its potentialities, and higher states,
you have to admit that this objection is based on an a priori conclusion drawn
from prima facieand circumstantial evidence more than anything else. Now what is "memory" in your conception, pray?
Q. That which is generally accepted: the faculty in our mind of remembering and
of retaining the knowledge of previous thoughts, deeds, and events.
A. Please add to it that there is a great difference between the three accepted
forms of memory. Besides memory in general you have Remembrance,
Recollection,and Reminiscence, have you not? Have you ever thought over the
difference? Memory, remember, is a generic name.
Q. Yet, all these are only synonyms.
A. Indeed, they are not-not in philosophy, at all events. Memory is simply an
innate power in thinking beings, and even in animals, of reproducing past
impressions by an association of ideas principally suggested by objective things
or by some action on our external sensory organs. Memory is a faculty depending entirely on the more or less healthy and normal functioning of our physical brain; and remembranceand recollection are the attributes and handmaidens of that memory. But reminiscence is an entirely different thing.
Reminiscence is defined by the modern psychologist as something intermediate between remembrance and recollection,or "a conscious process of recalling past occurrences, but without that full and varied reference to particular things which
characterizes recollection." Locke, speaking of recollection and remembrance,
When an idea again recurs without the operation of the like object on the
external sensory, it is remembrance;if it be sought after by the mind, and with
pain and endeavor found and brought again into view, it is recollection.
But even Locke leaves reminiscence without any clear definition, because it is
no faculty or attribute of our physical memory, but an intuitional perception
apart from and outside our physical brain; a perception which, covering as it
does (being called into action by the ever-present knowledge of our spiritual
Ego) all those visions in man which are regarded as abnormal-from the pictures
suggested by genius to theravings of fever and even madness-are classed by
science as having no existence outside of our fancy. Occultism and Theosophy,
however, regard reminiscence in an entirely different light. For us, while
memory is physical and evanescent and depends on the physiological conditions of the brain-a fundamental proposition with all teachers of mnemonics, who have the researches of modern scientific psychologists to back them-we call
reminiscencethe memory of the soul. And it is this memory which gives the
assurance to almost every human being, whether he understands it or not, of his
having lived before and having to live again. Indeed, as Wordsworth has it:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath elsewhere had its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Q. If it is on this kind of memory-poetry and abnormal fancies, on your own
confession-that you base your doctrine, then you will convince very few, I am
A. I did not "confess" it was a fancy. I simply said that physiologists and
scientists in general regard such reminiscences as hallucinations and fancy, to
which learned conclusion they are welcome. We do not deny that such visions of the past and glimpses far back into the corridors of time, are not abnormal, as
contrasted with our normal daily life experience and physical memory. But we do maintain with Professor W. Knight, that: The absence of memory of any action done in a previous state cannot be a conclusive argument against our having lived through it.
And every fair-minded opponent must agree with what is said in Butler's Lectures on Platonic Philosophy:
That the feeling of extravagance with which it (preexistence) affects us has its
secret source in materialistic or semi-materialistic prejudices.
Besides which we maintain that memory, as Olympiodorus called it, is simply
fantasy, and the most unreliable thing in us.
Says Olympiodorus, in Platonis Phaed.:
The fantasy is an impediment to our intellectual conceptions; and hence, when we are agitated by the inspiring influence of the Divinity, if the fantasy
intervenes, the enthusiastic energy ceases: for enthusiasm and the ecstasy are
contrary to each other. Should it be asked whether the soul is able to energize
without the fantasy, we reply, that its perception of universals proves that it
is able. It has perceptions, therefore, independent of the fantasy; at the same
time, however, the fantasy attends in its energies, just as a storm pursues him
who sails on the sea.
Ammonius Saccas asserted that the only faculty in man directly opposed to
prognostication, or looking into futurity, is memory. Furthermore, remember that
memory is one thing and mind or thought is another; one is a recording machine,
a register which very easily gets out of order; the other (thoughts) are eternal
and imperishable. Would you refuse to believe in the existence of certain things
or men only because your physical eyes have not seen them? Would not the
collective testimony of past generations who have seen him be a sufficient
guarantee that Julius Caesar once lived? Why should not the same testimony of
the psychic senses of the masses be taken into consideration ?
Q. But don't you think that these are too fine distinctions to be accepted by
the majority of mortals?
A. Say rather by the majority of materialists. And to them we say, behold: even
in the short span of ordinary existence, memory is too weak to register all the
events of a lifetime. How frequently do even most important events lie dormant
in our memory until awakened by some association of ideas, or aroused to
function and activity by some other link. This is especially the case with
people of advanced age, who are always found suffering from feebleness of
recollection. When, therefore, we remember that which we know about the physical and the spiritual principles in man, it is not the fact that our memory has
failed to record our precedent life and lives that ought to surprise us, but the
contrary, were it to happen.
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