Universal and Platonic Ideas
In the Novel by Theodor Herzl
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)
It was in 1902 and not far from the end of his life that Theodor Herzl published the utopian novel “Old New Land”.
The long History of the Jewish people has been inevitably intercultural and planetary. Both characteristics are shared by Herzl’s book, which anticipates with stunning detail the creation of modern Israel.
The novel is the draft of a project for the future and remains in many aspects far above the reality of Israel. An unknown amount of time may be necessary for the country to achieve the level of moral excellence described in the book. Much has been done already.
We will now examine seven aspects of the book “Old New Land” that show it as both classic and up-to-date. This is a truly visionary essay, thinly presented as a tale. It teaches lessons of decisive importance for the 21st century in Israel and elsewhere.
1. The Duty of Those Who Know
Herzl inscribes his novel as part of the Utopian literature. He discusses on its pages some of the most significant descriptions of an ideal country. He knew that “dreams regarding the future” actually occur on a creative realm of reality, and their historical effects cannot be easily denied.
For him, actions like founding the Zionist movement, devising a future Jewish State and writing “Old New Land” were but the natural things to do. There was no other path. Herzl explains it in the novel:
“The intellectuals of my time had the duty, similar to the noblesse oblige of earlier days, of working for the improvement of mankind. Each ought to have helped according to his ability and insight.” 
For ages the idea of such a duty has been an axiom in every nation. Millions of individuals have ceaselessly followed it. Remarkable Eastern philosophers lived by it, from Confucius to Lao-tzu and Emperor Asoka. In the West, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Francis Hutcheson are a few examples, not to mention, in the late Middle Ages, the Jewish statesman and philosopher Don Isaac Abravanel.
As to theosophical literature, the same moral duty is mentioned in various passages of “The Mahatma Letters” and the writings of Helena Blavatsky. There is a utopian aspect in the modern esoteric movement, since the primary goal of theosophists is to build a nucleus of universal brotherhood.
Some citizens, however, consider the very idea of an “improvement of mankind” a baseless dream. Lazy minds believe that looking for the best is useless. In fact, despondency regarding the future is a dream, too; and a self-defeating sort of nightmare at that. Dreams both good and bad are part of human reality. “Utopia”, literally “No-Place”, is the dim vision of that which is desirable and can come to be. Theodor Herzl writes:
“… Dreams also are a fulfillment of the days of our sojourn on Earth. Dreams are not so different from Deeds as some may think. All the Deeds of men are only Dreams at first. And in the end, their Deeds dissolve into Dreams.” 
2. The Jewish Openness to Universality
Any sense of deep isolation is an illusion. Everything is interconnected in the universe and no country or culture can ever be an exception to the rule. In Old New Land, Jews and Arabs are friends and all religions live in harmony.
This reality can be seen in today’s Israel already. Many Arab Israelis love and respect the country and different religions co-exist in it. By now, however, facts on the ground are still the seeds and seedlings of a more enlightened future.
“Let me tell you”, says one character in Old New Land, “that my associates and I make no distinctions between one man and another. We do not ask to what race or religion a man belongs. If he is a man, that is enough for us. (…) There are other views among us as well. (…) I shall not bore you now with our political controversies. They are the same here as everywhere else in the world. But I can tell you that the fundamental principles of humanitarianism are generally accepted among us. As far as religion goes, you will find Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhist, and Brahmin houses of worship near our own synagogues.” 
Besides being open to every religion, the Land of Israel is cosmopolitan:
“The New Society rests, rather, squarely on ideas which are the common stock of the whole civilized world. Now, my dear friends, do you understand what I mean? It would be unethical for us to deny a share in our commonwealth to any man, wherever he might come from, whatever his race or creed. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples. If a man joins us – if he accepts our institutions and assumes the duties of our commonwealth – he should be entitled to enjoy all our rights. We ought therefore to pay our debts. And that can be done in only one way – by the exercise of the utmost tolerance. Our slogan must be, now and always – ‘Man, thou art my brother!’ ” 
Herzl’s Israel receives migrants from every part of the world:
“What has held good hitherto will be equally true in the future”, says one character. “The more people come here to work, the better off everyone will be. It is not altruism alone that prompts me to proclaim: ‘Man, thou art my brother!’ Sheer self-interest, also, urges that we declare: ‘Brother, thou art welcome here!’ ” 
3. Plato, Herzl and the Need for Honesty
The Platonic Ethics is easy to find in the Jewish Utopia and provides us with a ground-breaking point of view from which to look at present-day facts. One can learn more than one lesson by comparing Herzl’s ideal to the constant news of corruption and criminal actions taking place in high-level religious and political institutions, in Israel and other countries.
In his ancient Utopia entitled “Republic”, Plato teaches a central tenet of universal wisdom by stating that honest men have no personal ambition regarding material possessions or political power. He writes:
“…Money and honour have no attraction for them; good men do not wish to be openly demanding payment for governing and so to get the name [fame] of hirelings [mercenaries], nor by secretly helping themselves out of the public revenues to get the name of thieves. And not being ambitious they do not care about honour. (…) And this, as I imagine, is the reason why the forwardness to take office, instead of waiting to be compelled, has been deemed dishonourable.” 
In “Old New Land”, one of the main characters describes the politics of the future Jewish nation:
“… Politics here is neither a business nor a profession, for either men or women. We have kept ourselves unsullied by that plague. People who try to live by spouting their opinions instead of by work are soon recognized for what they are. They are despised, and get no chance to do mischief. Our courts have repeatedly ruled in slander suits that the term ‘professional politician’ is an insult. That fact speaks for itself.”
The Platonic influence gets obvious as Herzl proceeds:
“We have both salaried and honorary positions. But the salaried positions are allotted for skill and merit only. There is a healthy prejudice against partisans of any kind whatever. Paid officials are not allowed to take part in public discussion. But it is quite different with the honorary officials. For filling the honorary positions we have one simple principle: Those who try to push themselves are gently ignored; while, on the other hand, we take great pains to discover real merit in the most obscure nooks. We thus make certain that our precious commonwealth will not become the prey of careerists. Our president, for example, is a venerable Russian oculist. He accepted office most unwillingly, because he was obliged to give up his practice. (….) He worked mostly among the poor. He turned his practice over to his daughter, who is also a prominent physician. She now heads their great eye clinic. A fine woman, who has never married, and devotes her skill to the sick poor.” 
Later on in the novel two characters discuss the issue of Ethics in Politics:
“That president of yours seems to be a fine chap”, says one. “A bit old and infirm though. Why did you choose him especially?”
“I can tell you that in a word (…)”, is the answer. “Because he did not want to accept office.”
“Oho! That’s better still.”
“Yes. We follow a principle laid down by the sages of Israel: ‘Bestow honors upon him who seeks none!’ ” 
Plato and Herzl think the same, and they are not alone. The raja yogis of the Himalayas have a similar approach to political power, and one of them wrote:
“… In our sight an honest boot-black [is] as good as an honest king, and an immoral sweeper far higher and more excusable than an immoral Emperor…”. 
Both kinds of human beings exist, however. And since humans are complex and contradictory, every good-willing collective project must share the same characteristics.
4. The Unavoidable Lessons in Realism
Naiveté goes hand in hand with fraud in making people believe that some special individual or institution is perfect, that he or it makes no mistakes and does not need to learn from failures.
Movements whose goals are noble attract people of the purest motives and ideals. They also have a number of selfish individuals, however, and these often strive to obtain positions of leadership.
If associations of noble goals are to remain loyal to their ideals and methods, there must be a Pedagogy that fights self-delusion, and organizational structures that stimulate the noble functions of the soul, turning the soil arid for egocentrism.
The lower principles of consciousness include selfishness and other forms of ignorance. They must be accepted as part of human reality, and transformed by wisdom, in any collective movement dedicated to the regeneration of mankind. Individuals should be taught about the challenges of self-knowledge and self-transformation.
The presence of visible selfishness is much better than its disguised varieties. A realistic acceptance of mistakes leads to their correction. In “Old New Land”, a skeptical visitor only believes in the legitimacy of the mutual-help philosophy inspiring the new country after he sees the action of unfortunate boycotters inside the community.
As an angry citizen showed him that someone was cowardly sabotaging the community’s ideals and asked whether he understood that, he heartily laughed and said:
“Do I understand? (…) I too have lived in the world. I know what low beasts men are. I admit frankly, I have been incredulous about many things in your New Society, despite the evidence of my own eyes. The whole thing was too rose-colored, too Potemkin-like. But now that I see all sorts of rascals in your camp, I begin to believe that the thing is real after all. Now I, old desert-wanderer that I am, must own that it’s true.” 
The existence of a realistic attitude regarding imperfections in individuals and communities is a warranty seal regarding collective efforts towards a noble ideal.
5. With Sacredness Comes Ignorance
Every intention to do good must confront organized ignorance. To raise the focus of one’s human consciousness up to the long term realm of divine potentialities brings about a need to challenge habit, routine and status quo. A master of the Eastern wisdom described this aspect of mankind’s Karma:
“As for human nature in general, it is the same now as it was a million of years ago: Prejudice based upon selfishness; a general unwillingness to give up an established order of things for new modes of life and thought – and occult study requires all that and much more -; pride and stubborn resistance to Truth if it but upsets their previous notions of things, – such are the characteristics of your age….” 
Such a sober view of human nature was shared by Theodor Herzl, who made one of the characters in his novel say:
“Prejudices, my dear fellow, there will always be. The human pack nourishes itself on prejudices from the cradle to the grave. Well, then. Since prejudices cannot be wiped out, they must be overcome….The more I think of it, the more it seems to me that it must be quite interesting to be a Jew these days. Just because one has the whole world against him.” 
Man and women of good will must not be excessively afraid of challenging “tamas” or blind routine – as long as they want to search for Truth.
With sacredness comes ignorance, for it is only when an individual looks at life from the point of view of divine wisdom that he can see what is right and what is wrong, and discern truth from illusion. This is no painless operation. The tamasic routine to be defeated is mainly in oneself, and secondarily in the collective patterns of human interaction. However, the two things are inseparable. Ecclesiastes 1:18 says:
“…As wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.”
But this is the short term process. While short term bliss is passing, the real bliss is long-term.
It is useless to look for the eternal in the world of impermanence. The famous verses of Ecclesiastes (1:2-7) clearly say that. They teach the Law of Cycles:
“Utter futility! – said Koheleth – utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets – and glides back to where it rises.”
In other words, the Law of the Universe is eternal: its outer manifestations are not. The verses proceed:
“Ever turning blows the wind; on its rounds the wind returns. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place [from] which they flow, the streams flow back again.” 
6. Beauty, Wisdom and the Wheels of Time
Theodor Herzl comments on Ecclesiastes through one of the characters of “Old New Land”:
“I was thinking (…) of the co-existence of things, a favorite theme of mine. I meditate on it when I relax, and it calms my spirit. I welcome the years, the months or the days that still remain to me for its sake. It is my comfort that all things which once existed still continue to exist. The future too is already here, and I recognize it: it is the Good. Thus, while I start from the same premises as the Preacher, son of David, who ruled over Israel in Jerusalem, I reach a conclusion different from his. Still, Solomon may have meant the same thing, though he said that all is vanity, and inquired what reward had a man for all his toil under the sun.”
“All is indeed vanity if we look at things from the transitory viewpoint of our own personalities. But once we can think beyond ourselves, all is not vanity. Even my dreams are eternal, for others will dream them when I am gone. Though the creators of beauty and wisdom pass away, Beauty and Wisdom are themselves immortal. Just as the conservation of energy is self-evident, so must we infer that there is conservation of Beauty and Wisdom.”
“Has the joyous art of the Greeks, for instance, ever been lost? No, it is always reborn in later ages. Are the sayings of our sages extinguished? No, they still burn, though perhaps less brightly in the daylight of happiness than in the dark night of misery. In that they are like all flames. What follows? That we are in duty bound to increase Beauty and Wisdom upon the earth unto our last breath. For the earth is we ourselves. Out of her we come, unto her we return. Ecclesiastes said it, and we today have nothing to add to his words: ‘But the earth shall endure forever’.” 
This is a true lesson in theosophy. It shows the difference between the lower self or personality and the higher self or spiritual soul which never dies. Into the extent that the student of philosophy has a glimpse of the eternal, he perceives that divine timelessness was never separated from him, nor from his present moment.
Space-time is plastic.
As the pilgrim is situated “here” in space, he can inhabit distant places, in spirit. While living in the “now”, he dwells in several past and future times. Regardless of appearances, he is never alone: mutual help is a universal law, and Gilgul, the cycle of reincarnation, corresponds to a rule of nature.
7. Truthfulness Brings About Balance
Movements based on contemplative views of the world must have their earthly life sustained by the practice of solidarity.
In Herzl’s Israel nurseries of trees are found everywhere. The desert came back to life thanks to trees, and forestry is a priority. The inner dream of universal brotherhood expresses itself through an objective network of co-operatives. A need is felt at the same time to look beyond material facts. In a congress of citizens, one of the leaders says:
“We are simply a large co-operative association composed of affiliated co-operatives. And this, our congress, is really nothing more than the general assembly of the co-operative association which is called the New Society. Yet all of us feel that more is involved than the purely material interests of an industrial and economic co-operative association.”
“For we establish schools and lay out parks; we concern ourselves not only with utilitarian things, but with Beauty and Wisdom as well. For Beauty and Wisdom, too, benefit our commonwealth. We understand that a community must have an ideal in its own interest: let us say at once – an ideal is indispensable. For it is that which draws us on.”
“We were not the first to discover the value of ideals: the discovery is as old as the world. The ideal is for the community what bread and water are for the individual. And our Zionism, which led us hither and will lead us still further to yet unknown heights, is but an ideal, an infinite, endless ideal.”
Herzl’s view is universal and Platonic.
The real leader, says the book, “must be one who will concern himself with the Ideal and keep aloof from material things. All his thought must be for the Ideal. He must be a quiet man, just and modest, above the strife of current opinion.”
These are guiding lights for the theosophical movement, and also for every country, association or community whose aims are peace and justice, and wisdom; and prosperity.
 “Old New Land”, Theodor Herzl, Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 296 pp. See the third chapter of Book III. Herzl mentions the famous book “Looking Backward”, by Edward Bellamy. He discusses Fourier. He refers to “Icaria”, by Étienne Cabet; to “Freiland”, by Jewish economist Theodor Hertzka; to the experience of Rahaline in 1831 and the co-operative pioneers of Rochdale, whose efforts started in 1844.
 “Old New Land”, Theodor Herzl, Markus Wiener Publishers, p. 156.
 “Old New Land”, Theodor Herzl, Markus Wiener Publishers, p. 296.
 “Old New Land”, pp. 66-67.
 “Old New Land”, p. 152.
 “Old New Land”, p. 153.
 “The Republic”, by Plato, in “The Dialogues of Plato”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Translated by Benjamin Jowett, copyright 1952, folio , p. 306.
 “Old New Land”, Theodor Herzl, Markus Wiener Publishers, pp. 76-77.
 “Old New Land”, p. 112.
 “The Mahatma Letters”, transcribed by A. T. Barker, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, CA, 1992, see Letter XXIX, p. 223.
 In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is. The term comes from stories of a fake portable village built only to deceive Russian Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. While some modern historians claim accounts of this portable village are exaggerated, the original story was that Grigory Potemkin erected the fake settlement along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool the Empress. (Wikipedia)
 “Old New Land”, p. 256.
 “The Mahatma Letters”, TUP edition, Pasadena, California, 494 pp., Letter I, p. 3.
 “Old New Land”, p. 41.
 “Tanakh, the Jewish Bible”, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia-Jerusalem, p. 1442.
 “Tanakh, The Jewish Bible”, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia-Jerusalem, p. 1441.
 “Old New Land”, Theodor Herzl, pp. 261-262.
 “Old New Land”, Theodor Herzl, Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 296 pp., see pp. 284-285.
The above article was first published in 2016 in our blog at “The Times of Israel”.
See in our associated websites the article “Israel as a Utopia”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline.
In September 2016, after a careful analysis of the state of the esoteric movement worldwide, a group of students decided to form the Independent Lodge of Theosophists, whose priorities include the building of a better future in the different dimensions of life.