It was not long after joining the Army that one heard the famous phrase 'Look after Number One', Number One being of course one's self. The inference was that if one did not, no one else would. Then in Shakespeare's Hamlet there is Polonius' advice to young Laertes going on a journey which amongst much else included, 'This above all, to thine own self be true. Thou canst not then be false to any man'.
On the face of it these two pieces of advice seem to be saying more or less the same thing but really they are very different. Number One is the personal man who as a soldier is very concerned with physical comforts, needs, even safety. Polonius' self might be regarded as the higher, the spiritual man, who sets a different set of standards altogether from those of Number One.
It may sound as if looking after Number One is the acme of selfishness and, as such, it has come to be generally so regarded. In an army, however, especially under active service conditions, it has a practical application, amounting maybe to survival, and it is important that soldiers do survive. Looking after Number One means making one's self as comfortable and safe as can be using all local resources on which one can lay one's hands or turn to one's use, thus ensuring that one stages as dry and warm as possible. It also means ensuring that one gets one's share of rations. We are all familiar with the unfledged bird in the nest which gets weaker and weaker and eventually dies because its stronger companions get all the food. There are always the greedy ones wanting more than their share who have to be kept in order. Any soldier has to evince enough strength of character to ensure 'fair-do's' and usually there is plenty of help from one's companions readily at hand.
To looking after Number One in the ordinary way there are also wonderful exceptions, e.g., volunteering for hopeless, performing incredible acts of bravery to save a comrade, foregoing water to quench a wounded man's thirst. Such examples are legion. In these cases Number One has quite a different meaning from that of selfish egotism. Number One can become all humanity or it can be an immediate important military objective, in the long run even winning the war, and so on. Human beings are very contradictory creatures!
Polonius' advice concerned those aspects of a man's nature which reflect into the higher motives inspiring these extraordinarily unselfish actions. They are examples of the motivation which could inspire all of us were we able to respond to the call 'to our own Self be true'. In Theosophy we learn that human beings are of a very complex nature. According to St Paul man's nature is threefold: body, soul and spirit. Our Number One would be the body together with the more ordinary elements of the soul. Our Self would be the higher aspects of the soul together with spirit. In the ordinary way human consciousness is centred in Number One, our ordinary self. However, some of the dynamics of the soul associated with Number One can sometimes surprise us. We can be motivated by sympathy because inwardly we sense how another person is feeling, particularly in moments of pain or other distress. We sympathize and often maybe try to help. Sometimes our otherwise worthy action is marred; for example, we can be quite upset if we do not get the thanks that we feel are due to us, or at least get some recognition for what we have done. Our act is not as pure as it might have been. Even magnificent generosity can be tainted by expectations of this kind.
The Self which Laertes was enjoined to be true to has, however, a motivation of a different order altogether. In the case of the Self, pure altruism reigns. Number One is completely forgotten. The motivation is pure, that is, free from any self-concern at all. Put shortly, duty in every action is the prime motivator. When we are operating as Number Ones our duty in many situations is not clear, even if we would wish it to be so. The factors are too complex. When we are operating from the standpoint of our real inner Self, issues become clear; we know what we have to do.
For anyone attempting to be true to his or her own Self the guidelines, at any rate to start with, can be confusing. It may be very difficult to determine priorities in many situations. The reason is that, in operating from the normal personal mental level, we have too many considerations. It appears that too many factors are involved. One major factor is that we tend to involve ourselves in the problem, i.e., the situation that has to be rightly handled from our point of view, or our personal concern is to do the 'right' thing in our conception. If, however, we could truly operate from the level of the Self, issues become simple for the reason that we do not make a distinction between ourselves and others. In Buddhist terms there are no 'others', but a realization of this fact is wisdom of high order and few of us possess it yet.
Wisdom is coupled with, and inseparable from, what we feel to be understanding, benevolence, justice, sympathy, true affection, love and lastly real compassion. Most of us at some time or another have felt some at least of these things in various situations in our lives. We know they exist but generally we do not act accordingly. These motives are not habitually uppermost in our minds, at least for most of the time.
We, as humanity in the mass, are on an evolutionary journey and according to
Theosophy our evolution proceeds by stages. At this present stage our development,
the emotional and desire elements of our nature are being emphasized but with
overtones of mind, intellection. This is evidenced in the almost savage emotional
stimulus that so many of us react to by way of 'pop' music, violent drama, etc.
On the other hand, we now have the mental know-how to send rockets out into
space and even explore planets. Coupled with this, of course, we have the technology
to make atom bombs and other horrific methods of killing or maiming each other.
What we lack, however, are those balancing adult qualities of our higher selves
which would make us behave in a truly human fashion and prevent our abusing
our great 'know-how'. This would be impossible because we would be rightly motivated.
We would be true to our Selves as opposed to our habitual looking after Number