Lecture 19 — Man's Place in the World

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Macrocosm and Microcosm
The Law of Three Forces
The Law of Seven
Ascending and Descending Octaves
The Absolute
The Ray of Creation
Thinking No. 4
Organic Life on Earth
The Moon
The Mass and the Individual

Return to:


See also:

Consciousness, Laws, and Influences
From Accident to School
Music as Meaningful Vibrations
Universal Octaves
The Kybalion
Essay on Man — Part 1
Essay on Man — Part 1.01
The Edinburgh Lectures on Mental Science
The Dorι Lectures on Mental Science

Macrocosm and Microcosm

From now onwards we must study man in connection with his place in the world. In a certain sense, man is analogous to the Universe: the same laws operate in him and we shall find that it is easier to understand some of these laws by studying man, while other laws we can understand better by studying the Universe.

But first of all we must realise the limitations of our perception and our thinking power. The system enlarges our knowledge very much, but it cannot do miracles. If we try to think of the world apart from ourselves and to see it as it is, even from the physical point of view with the help of the telescope or the microscope, we shall realise how limited our capacities for perception are, for they are limited by size. And our capacity for mental seeing is even more limited. Even if we were to come in contact with the source of full knowledge, we should not be able to take it or use it for, although we can know more than we ordinarily know, there is a definite limit in our mind. So we must know all our limitations and then, when we know the power of our instrument, we shall know what we can get. The first idea of this system is that, to a certain extent, we can improve this instrument for acquiring knowledge. This is the idea of self-improvement.


From the point of view of the system, only knowledge of the whole can be regarded as knowledge, for knowledge of a part without its relation to the whole is not knowledge but ignorance. We can have this knowledge: only we do not realise it and do not understand that, in relation to everything, knowledge begins with knowledge of the whole.

Take, for instance a box of matches. If I look at it through a narrow slit I shall see only a small part of it and shall never get the idea of the whole. It is the same with everything. Almost all we call knowledge is not really knowledge at all, because it is merely knowledge of a small part without knowing the place of this part in the whole.

Knowledge of all is possible with the use of two principles: the principle of relativity and the principle of scale. If we speak about the world, it is necessary to know about the world, and we can know all we need to know about it if we take things on different scales. We can know much more than we know ordinarily if we study things commensurable with us and having a relation with us on one scale, and things which are further removed from us and which have no definite relation to us on another, smaller, scale, in a more abstract way. We can then get all the knowledge we need without learning too much. This knowledge will include very few useless things, whereas if we learn everything indiscriminately, we shall not know the necessary things.

For instance, you know your own house on a scale proportionate to your body, but the town in which you live you know on a much smaller scale. Some parts you know well, other parts not so well, but there is no part of it you know as well as you know your own house. England you know on a smaller scale, Europe on a still smaller scale, and so on.

You must remember what was said about the study of the world and the two fundamental laws that govern it. These Universal laws are really beyond our mind, so despite our wish to study them, we shall not at first understand much more than words. But even this is useful. With the help of these words, we can reconstruct our views of the Universe and put man in the right place in relation to different worlds.

The Law of Three Forces

Everything in the world, all manifestations of energy, all kinds of action, whether in the world or in human activity, whether internal or external, are always manifestations of three forces which exist in nature. These forces are called active, passive and neutralising, or first, second and third. It must be understood that they do not differ from one another as activity and passivity differ in our ordinary understanding of these terms. Active and passive forces are both active, for a force cannot be passive. But there is a certain difference in their activity, and this difference makes all the variety of phenomena that exist in the world. The three forces work together, but one of them predominates in each combination. At the same time, each force which is now active can become passive or neutralising the next moment, in another triad. When three forces meet together, things happen. If they do not come together, nothing happens.

From this point of view, matter must also have certain definite denominations according to which force works through it — whether it is organic or inorganic, a chemical element or a compound. When active force passes through any kind of matter, it is called carbon (C). When passive force passes through it, it is called oxygen (O). When it conveys neutralising force, it is called nitrogen (N). And when matter is taken without relation to the force that works through it, it is called hydrogen (H). To begin with, these names should be taken simply as labels; they do not mean precisely the same as they do in conventional chemistry.

Thus the Law of Three brings relativity into our discussion of matter, for instead of one iron we have four irons; instead of one copper, we have four coppers; and so on. We have father, mother, child or carbon, oxygen, nitrogen; and the family is hydrogen. The beginning of a new family is the child.

In ordinary thinking we realise the existence of two forces — action and resistance, positive and negative electricity, and so on. But in this state of consciousness, we do not see that three forces are always present in every event, in every phenomenon, and that only a conjunction of three forces can produce an event. Two forces cannot produce anything: they will only turn around one another without any resolution. But for some reason, we are blind to the third force, although we can observe it in many chemical reactions and biological phenomena. Even when we fully understand that nothing can happen without the presence of all three forces, we are inclined to forget or disregard it in relation to ourselves. We do not fully observe even two forces and generally expect things to happen when only one force is present. Later you will learn that if you want to produce a certain effect and one force is missing, you can get no result.

If you try to find manifestations of the first and second forces, you can sometimes find manifestations of the third. It needs observation and it cannot be proven except by ourselves. In psychology many things can be explained by the need for the third force. Lack of the third force explains why we cannot 'do'.

Suppose you want to study something. You have some material, new ideas, and so on, but at the same time you have a resistance to this study because some 'I's want it and some other 'I's do not. They represent active and passive forces. Suppose that this study produces some kind of emotion in you; this emotion works as neutralising force, and then you can study. If emotion does not come, those 'I's that want it and those that don't will continue to argue and nothing will happen.

In the work of the system, you can readily see two forces: the ideas of the system and your own resistance, your own sleep. In each particular case a certain third force enters and helps one side or the other. Every event is the result of a triad of forces.

We can find the teaching about three forces or three gunas in Sankhya philosophy, but in the existing literature it has seriously deteriorated, for they speak of each guna or force as remaining the same, whereas from the point of view of the system, the activity, passivity or neutralising power of each force appears only in relation to the other two forces. There can thus be six different triads or combinations of forces.

The Law of Seven

Triads refer to events: so if we speak of each event separately, whether big or small, we have to understand to which triad each of them belongs. But a succession of events proceeds according to the Law of Seven or the Law of Octaves. [See Music as Meaningful Vibrations and Universal Octaves — Ed.]

This law must be understood and remembered from the point of view of intervals. Putting it briefly, the Law of Seven means that no force ever works continuously in the same direction: it works for a certain time, then diminishes in intensity and either changes in direction or undergoes an inner change.

In every octave — that is, a period between a certain number of vibrations and either double or half that number — there are two places where vibrations, or, to be more exact, manifestations of energy in space or time or both, undergo a certain change: they slow down and then start again. If an additional shock does not enter at those places, the octave changes direction. This measured irregularity in the rate of vibrations was calculated and embodied in a certain formula. This formula, expressing a cosmic law, was later applied to music in the form of the C major scale. The Law of Seven shows that no force can develop uniformly for ever, and it shows the places where changes or retardations occur.

When things 'happen', one can never be sure of direction. Men 1, 2, and 3 never arrive where they want to; it can happen only by accident. We think that when we do not arrive where we want to, it is an exception; we do not realise that it is a law. We cannot rely on chance to provide the right shocks at the right moments. But no force works indefinitely: it works according to how much energy is available to it.

Ascending and Descending Octaves

Octaves work in two directions: they may be ascending or descending. An ascending octave is between a certain number of vibrations per second and double that number. A descending octave is between a certain number of vibrations per second and half that number. So in speaking about a succession of events, we have to distinguish between ascending and descending octaves. Without knowing whether it is an ascending or a descending octave, it is impossible to understand why things turn out as they do. In ordinary thinking, people often mistake ascending for descending octaves and vice versa.

Suppose we meet savages: we usually think that they are primitive and that from such primitive people there developed civilisation and culture. We do not realise that, in most cases, they are descendants of cultured people. Very often we mistake degeneration for evolution.

It is easiest to observe the Law of Seven in human actions. You can see how, when people begin to do something — to study or work — after some time, without any visible reason, their efforts diminish, work slows down, and if some special effort is not made at a given moment, the line of work changes its direction. There is a small but real change in inner strength. Then after some time there is again a slackening; and again, if there is no special effort, the direction changes. It can change completely and go in a diametrically opposite direction while still appearing to be the same thing.

There are many phases of human activity which answer to this description. They start one way and then imperceptibly change direction and eventually continue in exactly the opposite way. If the intervals of development are known and if a method of creating some special effort or arrangement is used in those intervals, it is possible to avoid breaks in development. Everything goes by octaves. No vibration, no movement, no activity can go on in any other way. Scales vary, so we cannot follow them: but we can see their results, the results of the Law of Seven. Even the inner physical work of the organism is under this law.

With certain kinds of effort we can produce these missing semi-tones, fill the intervals, and in this way change the work of our machine. For instance, you will see later how the effort to remember oneself changes many things in the chemistry of our organism. If you work, your work may form itself into octaves and will have intervals [i.e. 'hiccups' (see Mathematics) — Ed.]. If you do not know where the intervals come, your work will change. But we cannot speak of octaves in relation to self-remembering, because with us it only starts and peters out because we do not have enough initial energy. If we manage two or three notes it will be good. Yet we must start again until we make an octave. We have to begin afresh every day: do, re, mi.... For a long time we can get no further than mi.

The Absolute

Now, having all this in mind, we come to the study of the Universe in order to determine what is the world for man.

Man lives on Earth. Earth is one of the planets of the Solar System, so man belongs also to the planetary world. The Sun is one of the stars of the Milky Way, so in a sense we belong also to the Milky Way. Then ordinary science understands and admits the existence of other galaxies, similar and dissimilar to the Milky way, so we belong also to the world of all galaxies taken together. Astronomically we cannot go any further, but philosophically we can conceive a state of things where everything is One, as an apple is one. This state we call the Absolute. So all galaxies, our galaxy, our solar system, the planets, the Earth and the Moon, which is in the sphere of influence of the Earth, are all in the Absolute.

The Absolute actually creates only the world of the next order to itself and the Will of the Absolute does not manifest itself beyond World 3. [See Table of Worlds] As the number of laws increases, worlds become more and more mechanical and complicated, and the Will of the Absolute cannot come through the intervening mechanicalness and manifest itself in the lower worlds. But it starts the ball rolling, so to speak. Try to think about this: it is very important.

There are some things the Absolute cannot do because it begins by creating certain laws; these laws create other laws, and these yet other laws. The Absolute creates only the first order of laws. If it wants to manifest its Will on our level, it will have to destroy all these laws. We are surrounded and controlled by quantities of mechanical laws; when we begin to see that, we realise that it is impossible for the Will of the Absolute to enter our level. In order to do that, the Absolute would have to destroy all the intermediate worlds, since everything depends on the laws governing them. A little change would mean the destruction of the whole Ray of Creation.

We can understand this to a certain extent by analogy. If we take man as the Absolute and try to find the ultimate limits that can be reached within himself by his will, even the most superficial knowledge of human physiology will give us an answer to this question. Man's will (taking it as a conditional concept) may govern the movements of the whole body, of separate limbs, of some organs, and of breathing. If a man concentrates his attention on the tip of his nose, he begins to feel it. By this concentration he may even provoke a slight sensation in some tissues. But he can in no way manifest his will in relation to some separate cell in his body; cells are too small for this. Man's will can manifest itself only in relation to tissues; in relation to cells it can no longer manifest itself.

If we take man as analogous to the Absolute, tissues will correspond to World 3, and cells to World 6.

Or to take another analogy, if an architect draws the plan of a house and gives it to the builders and contractors, he cannot afterwards interfere, either with the bricklayers or with the people who live in the house when built, should he not like the way they behave.

Try to understand that each level brings more laws, independently of other levels. The architect has made his plan and has finished with the house. Many things did not enter into this plan: the work of the decorators, the people who will live in the house, the cats, dogs, mice, and so on. It is a question of understanding the principle. Many things enter on each plane, independently of the original plan.

The Ray of Creation

This topic was introduced in Lecture 5.

Fig. 04

There is nothing new in the Ray of Creation, nothing that you do not know; only the facts are differently disposed. Disposing your material in a certain way is necessary for the solution of any problem, and the way it is done is itself an understanding of how this problem is to be solved. So the Ray of Creation is a kind of enunciation of the problem of how to define man's place in the world. This means not only man's exact place but also the relation of this place to as many landmarks as possible.

The Ray of Creation is a help, an instrument or method for new thinking. We know about the division of man into seven categories, and everything else should be divided in the same way. Ordinary thinking is divided into thinking No. 1, 2, and 3. Thinking No. 1 is chiefly imitative; thinking No. 2 is more emotional, based on likes and dislikes; thinking No. 3 is theoretical, logical thinking, which is quite good in its place; but when it is applied to things that are beyond its power, it becomes quite wrong. This is all we know in ordinary life.

Thinking No. 4

From the Ray of Creation begins thinking No. 4, and this you must try to understand. The Ray of Creation is not just another theory like other theories you know; it is a certain rearrangement of the material you have already. And thinking No. 4 is thinking which, little by little, disposes of all contradictions. In thinking No. 3, whatever line one takes, one immediately finds some other theory which will contradict that particular theory. In thinking No. 4 — not at once but gradually — one comes to a certain understanding of the fact that it is possible to think without contradictions and to understand that apparent contradictions are not really contradictions.

Ordinary thinking has many contradictions. For instance, if we take the world, we either think that there is a kind of divine will which creates and keeps everything, or that things just happen by themselves. Another example of ordinary thinking is will versus mechanicalness, or predestination versus accident. When you study the Ray of Creation, you will see that it contains all these things. All these views are right in a sense, and the Ray of Creation includes them all.

There is a theory that the human mind we know cannot invent an absolute lie. It cannot invent anything that has no relation to truth. Everything that the human mind can invent will be a partial representation of truth. For instance, if a man tries to draw a new animal, he will have to take parts of known animals, for he has to use the material borrowed from his actual observation of life. The Ray of Creation shows you how all contradictory theories about predestination or freedom, free choice, divine will, mechanicalness, and so on can be reconciled in one system; how, in their totality, these views, each of which shows one facet of the truth, do not contradict one another. In one place one thing is right, in another place another thing is right; but each, if applied to the whole, is wrong. Later you will see that certain things cannot be applied to the whole because the whole is too varied, has too many faces.

At this stage, the study of the Ray of Creation and of Universal Laws is not yet knowledge — it is only language: but with the help of this language we shall be able to talk about many different things for which ordinary language lacks words, expressions, and connections between things. In studying this new language, you understand the relation of things to one another, because it binds everything together — everything we know or must know or might wish to know in the world. The value of this language is that in using some term of it you not only explain what this object is and what place it occupies in its immediate surroundings, but you also show its place in the entire Universe.

Organic Life on Earth

Taking the Ray of Creation as a succession of events, it can be regarded as an octave. It is a descending octave in the sense of expansion and differentiation. The first hiccup [see "semitone" in the section on Mathematics in Sound — Ed.] in this octave is filled by the Will of the Absolute. In order to fill the hiccup between planets and Earth, a special instrument was cosmically created. This instrument is organic life on Earth, which plays a very important part in the Ray of Creation for it guarantees the transmission and distribution of energies and makes possible the growth and diversification of the Ray.

The growing tip of the Ray is the Moon. The idea is that eventually the Moon will become like the Earth and the Earth like the Sun; then another moon will appear, and so growth will continue up to a certain point. But this is at present rather beyond us.

Organic life is a sort of receiving apparatus for catching and distributing influences coming from the planets of the Solar System. At the same time as providing a means of communication between the Earth and the planets, organic life feeds the Moon. Everything that lives serves the purposes of the Earth; everything that dies feeds the Moon. This sounds strange at first, but when we understand the laws which govern organic life, we shall realise that it is based on a very hard law, the law that one class of living beings eats another class. This not only makes life self-supporting, but also serves as a transmitter of energies and enables it to feed the Moon. Thus organic life serves many purposes — those of the greater worlds, the planets, the Earth, and the Moon.

How can we prove it? We can find certain proofs later by analogy with man, because man is built on the same principle as the Ray of Creation. There are many things which we cannot prove in an objective way, but it may be that we can find proofs by studying ourselves.

The whole surface of the Earth, its composition and structure, depend on organic life. The Earth receives the body, for that is what it wants. It depends on its taste and appetite. The Moon wants one thing, the Earth another. It is a very interesting idea. Later you will see more clearly how things are connected, how one thing makes another grow. Certain matters pass to the Moon in that way that would otherwise not be able to reach it. And they come in an already digested form.

Organic life is a quite definite thing — animals, plants, men, and micro-organisms. As to the Earth itself, it is certainly a living being, only on quite a different scale. Nothing is dead in Nature.


There are many forms of communication. When you inhale air, for instance, this is communication. We are here on Earth as part of organic life. Organic life is under certain influences coming from all the planets and, since we are part of it, these influences affect us too. We are also under certain influences coming from the Sun, the Milky Way, and, maybe, under the influence of All Worlds — although, naturally, influences of All Worlds on an individual man are very small.

We do not know very much about influences coming from the Moon, but we do know that it plays a very important part in organic life and, without understanding how everything is connected with the planets and the Sun, we cannot understand man's position and his present life as it is. For instance, without the diagram of the Ray of Creation, it is impossible to understand that man lives in a very bad place in the Universe, and that many things which we regard as unfair, against which we rebel and try to fight, are really the result of this position of organic life on Earth. If we were on the Moon, it would be still worse; there would be no possibility of development. On the Earth there is some possibility of development: we can develop certain parts of ourselves.

Very little of planetary influences comes to us as individuals. Generally, such influences are felt only by masses of people, but in the aggregate they are responsible for wars, revolutions, and things like that. An individual man is very little under planetary influences, because the part that can be affected by them is undeveloped. This undeveloped part is essence.

To a certain extent, man is also under the influence of the Sun, and he can be under much higher influences if he develops higher centres and becomes connected with them. So development means passing from one kind of influences to another kind. At present we are more particularly under the influence of the Moon. We have to become more and more conscious to come under higher influences.

The Moon

The Moon has a very important influence on organic life on Earth. It controls all our movements. If I move my arm, it is the Moon that does it, because without the influence of the Moon it could not happen. The Moon is like the weight of an old-fashioned clock mechanism: its action on our life is purely mechanical. It acts by sheer mass, and it receives higher energies which little by little make it alive. If you remember the four kinds of energy: mechanical energy, life energy, psychic energy, and conscious energy, then the Moon acts with mechanical energy, attracting the matter of the soul [see Soul] as if it were a huge electromagnet. When it gets this matter its temperature rises. The Moon is in a very low energy state, much lower than the Earth.

All our mechanicalness depends on the Moon. We are like marionettes moved by wires, but we can be more free of the Moon or less free. When we understand that, we shall understand that the way to become more free is by not identifying, by not considering, by struggling with negative emotions, and so on. At present we cannot move a step without the energy of the Moon. The wires cannot be cut at once, for then the marionettes would simply collapse. It is first necessary to learn to move. All sleeping people are under the influence of the Moon. They have no resistance. But if man develops, he can gradually cut some of the wires that are undesirable and can open himself to higher influences. In this way he can become more free from the Moon than he is now.

The underlying principle is that everything is connected, that things do not exist separately, and that in some way organic life connects Earth and Moon.

The Mass and the Individual

People in the mass are affected by planetary influences in certain parts of themselves which are always there. Most people in a crowd are Men No. 1, that is, men living in instinctive and moving centres. The chief motive power of Man No. 1 is imitation and imagination. When people are under the power of imitation and imagination, they very easily accept mechanical influences; they begin to imitate one another, so it produces a big effect.

When people live as part of the mass, nobody can help them; they are so intermingled that you cannot separate one unit from another. On the level of the mass they are all the same. People cannot expect to meet with favourable influences until they rise from the mass. Influences affecting the mass are only unfavourable; they are influences to keep it down. There are favourable influences that help individuals to get out of prison, but they can help only men who stand a little above the mass. We can expect help, but only on a certain level; for what would be the value of our efforts if someone could take us by the ears and drag us up?

If we become conscious, it is the same as having will on a higher level; and if we can 'do', we can isolate ourselves from many of the planetary influences which affect the mass. This, however, will not be individual influence: it will be in accordance with the individual's essential type. Individual men differ according to their essence. Essence or type is the result of planetary influences. Planets make us what we are. Different combinations of planetary influences make different essences. Our state attracts and repels planetary influences. We cannot know what they are, but we can know our own state. If we remember ourselves we can attract good influences; if we are mechanical, we attract wrong influences.

Forces pass through man and he takes this as his own desires, sympathies, attractions. But it is only forces passing through him from all directions. Starting from World 3, forces reach man and can produce attitudes and actions — or they can be rejected. We can study only the effects they produce. We are interested in everything from the point of view of our profit; the rest does not interest us. Higher forces or higher influences are normal, cosmic; but we can open ourselves to receive them, or shut ourselves off from them. If we are asleep we are more closed to them, and the more we are asleep the more we are closed. If we awaken, we open ourselves to higher influences.

Ordinary man lives under the law of accident. Accident has many different manifestations. The simplest forms of accident disappear very quickly once we awaken, and the more wide awake we are, the less likely we are to be affected by accident. But we can never guarantee absolute freedom from accident because this law is very big and many-sided. It is a question of degree. Only in the Absolute are things absolute. For us it is a long stairway and on each step one is more free. If we are below, we cannot speak about what may happen if and when we reach the top. One can only say: 'If I were to begin to work so as to be free from the law of accident, would my life be less chaotic?', the answer is 'Yes'. If you have a permanent aim, you will be free from accidental aims. But forget about miracles. Each line of effort will bring results on that line, though there are connections.

Man, and even Mankind, does not exist separately, but as a part of the whole of organic life. The Earth needs organic life as a whole — men, animals, plants. The Ray of Creation is a growing branch, and this communication by influence is necessary in order that the branch may grow further. Everything is connected; nothing is separate; and smaller things, if they exist, serve something bigger. Organic life serves planetary purposes: it does not exist for itself. An individual man is a highly specialised cell in it, but on that scale an individual cell does not exist — it is too small.

Our ordinary points of view are very naοve and homocentric: everything for us turns around man. But man is a very insignificant part of a very big machine. Organic life is a particular cosmic unit and man is a unit in this big mass of organic life. He has the possibility of further development, but this development depends on man's own effort and understanding. It enters into the cosmic purpose that a certain number of men should develop: but not all, for that would contradict another cosmic purpose. Evidently mankind must be on Earth and must lead this life and must suffer. But a certain number of men can escape: this also enters into the cosmic purpose.

So individually, we are not at all important for the Universe. We cannot speak even about humanity in relation to the Universe — we can speak only about organic life. We are part of organic life and organic life plays a certain part in the Solar System; it is a very big thing compared with us. We are used to thinking of ourselves individually, but very soon we lose this illusion. It is useful to think about different scales; take a thing on a wrong scale and you lose your way.

As far as we can see, individual development is under the same law as, for instance, street accidents. It is well known that in every big town a certain number of people will be killed by traffic. Who will be killed is not determined: it need not necessarily be one or another person, but a certain number. In the same way, a certain number of people may have a chance of escape — but there is no must about it in this case, This is the difference.

Every normal person is given this possibility of development. The rest depends on us. Individually, men exist only for themselves. But even for themselves they do not serve any useful purpose. If a man grows and becomes different, he may become important individually in some way, although we cannot know that for certain. But this can refer only to a man of higher development, not to a mechanical man.