Contemporary Mystery Schools and Reincarnation

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Contemporary Mystery Schools and Reincarnation

Since the earliest days of organized religious expression there have always been those who preferred seeking the individual mystical experience as their personal doorway to other dimensions of reality and the world beyond death. These mystics found the doctrines and dogmas of structured religion to be too inhibiting, too restrictive, and not at all conducive to the kind of personal relationship with the holy which they so desperately sought. Regardless of the religion or the culture from which they sprang, all mystics have as their goal the transcendence of the earthly self and union with the Absolute.

While the ancient mystery schools were built upon the worship of a particular god or goddess, the contemporary mystery schools have been built around the charisma and the spiritual teachings of a psychic sensitive, a medium, or a prophet. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, in Europe, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, the men and women who are most often attracted to the modern mystery schools are those who have grown dissatisfied with the teachings of Christianity and what they consider to be its restrictive religious doctrines concerning the afterlife and rebirth. Each of the contemporary mystery schools examined in this sectionAnthroposophy, the Association for Research and Enlightenment, and Theosophyaccept the concept of reincarnation and blend many of the beliefs of Christianity and Judaism with traditional teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism.

In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James (18421910) has this to say regarding the oneness and unity of the mystical traditions: "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of climate or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticismwe find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimityperpetually telling of the unity of man with God."

Many scholars of the early Christian church believed strongly that the various church councils had erred in removing reincarnation from official doctrine. The Gnostics, who strongly influenced early Christian doctrine, believed in reincarnation, and when the teachings of Origen (185 c.e.254 c.e.), who championed preexistence, was anathematized in 553, they, along with other believers in reincarnation, were condemned as heretics. In later centuries, those who held Gnostic views were forced to remain silent regarding their beliefs in reincarnation, so they very often formed their own sects and schools of thought, such as the Cathars, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, and the Albigenses.

Because many serious-minded Christians believe that there is evidence in the gospels that Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.30 c.e.) himself believed in reincarnation, they are comfortable with Hindu and Buddhist concepts of past lives and karma and see no conflict with their traditional belief in Christianity. Dr. Gladys McGarey is a member of the Association for Research and Enlightenment, the contemporary mystery school based on the medical and past-life readings of Edgar Cayce (18771945). The daughter of Christian missionaries and a medical doctor who employs the concepts of past lives in her practice, McGarey has expressed her belief that Jesus came to offer humankind the law of grace to supersede the law of karma.

"I believe sincerely that when Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law and not destroy it, he was referring to the law of karma, the law of cause and effect, which is superseded by the law of grace," she said. "If we are functioning under the law of karma, it is as if we are walking away from the Sun and walking into our own shadowwhich means we are walking into darkness. But if we turn around and walk toward the Sun, then we are walking toward the Light, and that is great. To me, the light of the Sunwhether you spell it son or sun is a symbol of moving in the law of grace. The law of grace does not take away the karmic pattern, it just makes it so I don't have to hurt myself as I move through the karma that I have created."

In A Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel (1923), Eva Gore-Booth explains the role of Jesus the Christ from the perspective of a reincarnationist and states that he is the way-shower in God's Great Plan, the intercessor who offers humankind release from the cycle of rebirth, the "circle of wanderings." In this view, Jesus became the anointed one who achieved Christ consciousness and thereby was allowed to offer eternal life to all people, a "deliverance from reincarnation, from the life and death circle of this earthly living."

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Charles Fillmore (18541948) and his wife founded what eventually became known as Unity School of Christianity. Fillmore once observed that a large part of the Western world looked upon reincarnation as a heathen doctrine and that many people closed the doors of their mind without waiting to find out what message it may have for them, interpreted in the Light of Truth. According to Fillmore's view, Christ released humanity from the bondage of karmic law, thereby allowing each individual to make the most of each incarnation.

Edgar Cayce (18771945), the famous "sleeping prophet" of Virginia Beach, was a solid Baptist and a Sunday school teacher, but while in a trance, he gave past-life readings to thousands of men and women. Cayce believed that each soul enters the material plane not by chance, but through grace and the mercy of a loving Father-God. As to whether the soul is developed or retarded during these various incarnations is left to the free will of the individuals as they live through the errors incumbent in the life process or rise above them in their journey toward Oneness.

Rudolf Steiner (18611925) was the head of the German Theosophical Society until 1912, when he broke away to form his Anthroposophical Society. Steiner's objections with the Theosophists were mainly that they didn't revere Jesus and Christianity as special. However, he had no problem incorporating reincarnation and karma into his beliefs.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891), the founder of Theosophy in collaboration with Henry Steele Olcott (18321907), had no problem with Christianity, but she preferred focusing on its esoteric traditions, which united it with all other religions. She popularized the study of reincarnation and past lives in Europe and the United States and introduced many occult and metaphysical concepts which flourished in the New Age Movement of the 1970s.

The contemporary mystery schools accept the doctrine of reincarnation as completely as did the ancient mystery religions. And just as the ancient mysteries departed from the state religions to form secret groups that required special initiations to ensure oneness with the gods, so have the contemporary mysteries departed from the organized religions of their cultures to form groups that require special memberships to establish a mystical union with the Absolute.

Akashic Records

Some metaphysicians believe that they have the ability to perceive and to read the Akashic Records, eternal accountings of individual human life patterns which have been somehow impressed on the celestial ether or astral light that fills all of space. These records are said to detail each lifetime and are perpetuated like vast computer-like memory banks in the collective unconscious. Certain psychic sensitives claim to enter altered states of consciousness, such as trance or meditation, and thereby achieve the ability to read the past lives of individuals who seek such knowledge. When these seers return to the mundane world, they may recount these memories in such a way as to aid men and women to avoid certain errors in their present life experience which were committed in earlier lifetimes.

According to many readers of the Akashic Records, they possess an accounting of the divine laws of debt (karma) and duty (dharma). It is as the Christian gospels declare; they say, "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." So do the psychic forces that emanate from an individual also come full circle and return to that person.

Most readers of the Akashic Records will present their clients with the events of certain past lives that are affecting them today in their present lives. It depends on the judgment of the Akashic readers to give whatever lives and whatever events they think may be causing the present problems and to offer suggestions on how to resolve them.

Paul Twitchell (d. 1971) the modern exponent of Eckankar, once explained that to read the Akashic Records, he had to project himself via his soul body so that he might rise above the time track and study the lives of whomever had requested a reading. Twitchell said that it didn't make any difference where his subjects might be, Australia or the Arctic Circle: "Once I rise above the time track in my soul body, I can read the lives of anyone. I must look at the lives of my clients, spread out like a fan of hundreds of playing cards. And I must look at the millions of little file cards, which are memories of past lives, in order to select what I believe to be most important to my clients and the problems that they are facing today. Next, it is up to me to make suggestions about how they might go about dissolving the karmic debts that they have accumulated."

Delving Deeper

Gaynor, Frank, ed. Dictionary of Mysticism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1953.

Steiger, Brad. Returning from the Light. New York: Signet Inspiration, 1996.


When he was in his late 30s, Rudolf Steiner (18611925), the founder of Anthroposophy, received a revelation of what he believed was the turning point in human spiritual history, the incarnation of the divine being known as the Christ. In the twentieth century, Steiner said, humankind began to enter the "fullness of time" when the Christ principle, cosmic consciousness, might once again become manifest. Steiner defined "Christ consciousness" as a transformative energy that greatly transcended orthodox Christianity. In Steiner's view, the Master Jesus became "christed" and thereby was able to present humankind with a dramatic example of what it means to achieve a complete activation of the spiritual seed within all human souls and to rise above all material considerations.

Steiner was born in Krajevic, Austria-Hungary (now Serbia-Montenegro), on February 27, 1861. Although he had experienced encounters with the mystical and the unknown as a young child and was introduced to the occult by an adept he would only refer to as the "Master," Steiner's early academic accomplishments were in the scientific fields. His father wanted him to become a railway engineer, so that had led Steiner into a study of mathematics, which seemed only to whet his appetite for the material sciences, leading him to pursue studies in medicine, chemistry, and physics, as well as agriculture, architecture, art, drama, literature, and philosophy. Fascinated by the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832), Steiner began the extensive task of editing Goethe's scientific papers, and from 1889 to 1896 worked on this project. It was also during this period that Steiner wrote his own highly acclaimed The Philosophy of Freedom.

Steiner grew increasingly interested in the occult and mystical doctrines, and he later claimed to be endowed with the ability to read the Akashic Records, from which he had been able to envision the true history of human evolution. According to his interpretation of humankind's prehistory, many present-day men and women were descended from the people of the lost continent of Atlantis, who had been guided to achieve illumination by a higher order of beings. Eventually, the smartest, strongest, and most intellectually flexible of the Atlanteans evolved into demigods, semidivine beings, who were able to relay instructions from higher intelligences. Consequently, within the contemporary mass of evolving humans are individuals who are descendants of those divine human-hybrid beings, men and women who are animated by higher ideals and who regard themselves as children of a universal power. Steiner perceived these individuals as members of the emerging "Sixth Post-Atlantean Race," who, imbued with divine universal power, would be able to initiate the more advanced members of the larger mass of humankind. The catalyst for this acceleration of humanity, in Steiner's vision, was the Christ energy, which the rest of the species must begin to imitate.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Steiner found that his lectures were well-received by those in the audience who were members of the Theosophical Society, so he began to make himself more familiar with their philosophy. In 1902, he became the general secretary of the German Section of the society, but he began to feel uncomfortable with what he perceived to be their lack of enthusiasm about the place of Jesus and Christ consciousness in the overall scheme of spiritual evolution. Although he accepted most of their teachings on reincarnation and highly approved of meditation, he came to believe that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891) and other high-ranking Theosophists were distorting many of the Eastern doctrines that they claimed to espouse.

In 1913, Steiner made a formal break with the Theosophical Society and set about forming his own group, which he declared would be about the utilization of "human wisdom" (anthro ' man; sophy ' wisdom) to achieve contact with the spiritual world. The human intellect, Steiner insisted, could be trained to rise above material concerns and to perceive a greater spiritual reality. The human consciousness had the ability to activate the seed that the great Spirit Beings had implanted within their human offspring.

Steiner recognized that while the physical seeds of male and female intermingled to produce the whole human being, there was also something in each human that did not arise from the blending of two physical seeds. Something ineffable and indescribable somehow flowed into the process of germination of the seed of the Spirit Beings within, something that could be accessed by human consciousness and directed by the Christ principle.

Steiner emphasized that the path to such contact might best be attained by a proper application of meditation. When human consciousness had been raised to the spiritual level, where it can experience the eternal element that is limited by neither birth nor death, then it can comprehend its own eternality and its ability to be born again in subsequent life existences. Steiner taught that the process of spiritual evolution enabled those who died in one period of history to be reborn in other epochs to experience various levels of Earth-existence.

In Lecture V, Earthly and Cosmic Man (1948) Steiner stated that in rejecting the doctrine of reincarnation, Christian thought had lost something vital that the East had always possessed, and he urged that such knowledge be reacquired. Western religion and culture is in the process of passing through a period during which individuals were "split up" into separate personalities, Steiner said, but now men and women of the West "stand on the threshold of a deepening of thought and experiencethey will themselves be aware of a longing to find the thread uniting the fragments which make their appearance in the life of a human being between birth and death."

In 1914, Steiner married Marie von Sievers, an actress, who had been secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society. Together they established a school for esoteric research near Basel, Switzerland, and developed new approaches to the teaching of speech and drama, which led to "eurythmy," an art of movement. Later, Steiner originated the Waldorf School Movement, an innovative educational system, which still maintains 80 schools in Europe and the United States. Rudolf Steiner died on March 30, 1925, in Dornach, Switzerland.

Delving Deeper

Melton, J. Gordon, Jerome Clark, and Aidan A. Kelly. New Age Almanac. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1991.

Shepherd, A. P. Rudolf Steiner: Scientist of the Invisible. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1983.

Steiner, Rudolf. Lecture V, Earthly and Cosmic Man. Rudolf Steiner Publishing, 1948.

Association for Research and Enlightenment

When Edgar Cayce (18771945) died at the age of 67, he had given nearly 9,000 medical readings while in a state of clairvoyant trance. In addition, the "sleeping prophet" also gave life readings dealing with the vocational, psychological, and human-relations problems of individuals. It was through these life readings that the concepts of reincarnation and the possibility of past lives were introduced. All together, more than 14,000 Cayce readings have been recorded on 200,000 permanent file cards and cross-referenced into 10,000 major subjects.

In 1931, the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) was chartered in the state of Virginia as a nonprofit organization to conduct scientific and psychical research. In 1947, two years after Cayce's death, the Edgar Cayce Foundation was established. The original ARE has become the membership arm of the Cayce programs. The foundation is the custodian of the original Cayce readings, and the memorabilia of the great contemporary seer's life and career. Both are headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and there are more than 1,500 ARE study groups around the world.

Since the establishment of the ARE, thousands of people from every corner of the nation, as well as from around the world, have journeyed to Virginia Beach to attend lectures and conferences and to investigate the information in the Cayce readings. Many of the skeptics who came to expose Cayce stayed on to support his work. Among these have been Jess Stearn, author of Edgar Cayce: the Sleeping Prophet (1967), and Thomas Sugrue, author of There Is a River: The Story of Edgar Cayce (1942), both of which are important books about the life and work of Edgar Cayce.

Cayce's son, Hugh Lynn Cayce (19071982), once commented that his father had said that everyone was psychic, "but for many people manifestation of this ability can be very disturbing, very upsetting, and in fact, it can even destroy the personality if it runs rampant in the person's life. This can be very damaging if the individual does not use these abilities constructively. If he takes ego trips with it, or begins to fake it, the result can be very destructive to the personality, particularly that of young children."

With these concerns in mind, before he died Edgar told Hugh Lynn that the Association for Research and Enlightenment had better make certain that they were doing the research before they did too much enlightening. To fulfill Edgar's wish, the ARE maintains an extensive library of information concerning the entire field of psychical research and metaphysics, as well as the Cayce materials. It also sponsors regular seminars, publishes a journal, and established Atlantic University as an environment in which various psychic attributes can be examined and developed.

Cayce believed that in an earlier incarnation, he had been wounded in battle and left in the field for dead. However, he had managed to live for several days, conscious and in extreme pain. He was not able to help himself in any way, having only his mind as a weapon against pain. Just prior to his physical death, he had been able to elevate his mind beyond the reach of his body and its suffering. Since no achievement, good or bad, is ever lost, the ability to subdue the body and its feelings became part of the pattern of his individualityand he was able to use this ability in his physical incarnation as Edgar Cayce.

In a trance state, Cayce was able to give complete medical diagnoses, prescribe remedies, and review the past lives of his clients. Cayce learned that each existence on Earth is a purposeful experience, and the place in which people find themselves provides them with the opportunities to use their presentlife abilities, weaknesses, or virtues in fulfilling the purpose for which their souls decided to manifest in the three-dimensional plane of Earth. In Cayce's opinion, no soul is placed here accidentally. Humans are all where they are today because they have "chosen" to be there in an effort to work out their soul development.

"My father's unconscious mind was able to tap the unconscious minds of other people and draw information from them," Hugh Lynn Cayce said. "He insisted that there is a river of thought forms and intelligence at another level of consciousness, and that this was the source of his information. This procedure apparently had nothing to do with mediumship as we understand it. He had no guides or anything like that. He had to do his own legwork, so to speak."

Hugh Lynn Cayce died on July 4, 1982, in Virginia Beach. Posthumously, a collection of his speeches concerning Edgar Cayce's teachings on Jesus and Christianity was published under the title The Jesus I Knew (1982). Hugh Lynn's son Charles Thomas Cayce (1942 ) became the president of the ARE in 1976 after his father suffered a heart attack, and he still serves the organization in that position.

Dr. Gina Cerminara, a trained psychologist with a specialty in semantics, conducted an extensive study of the Edgar Cayce past-life readings while she was residing in Virginia Beach. In Chapter XXIV, "A Philosophy to Live By," in her book Many Mansions (1950), Cerminara presented the ethics of karma as delineated in the Cayce readings. In outline form, the pattern that she discovered is as follows:

  • God exists, and every soul is a portion of God. (You are a soul; you inhabit a body.)
  • Life is purposeful and continuous.
  • All human life operates under the law of karma and reincarnation.
  • Love fulfills that law.
  • The will of all humans creates their destiny.
  • The mind of all humans has formative powers.
  • The answer to all problems is within the Self.

In accordance with the above postulates, humankind is enjoined as follows:

  • Realize first your relationship to the Creative Forces of the Universe: God.
  • Formulate your ideas and purpose in life. Strive to achieve those ideals.
  • Be active. Be patient. Be joyous. Leave the results to God.
  • Do not seek to evade any problem.
  • Be a channel of good to other people.

Dr. Gladys McGarey is a medical doctor who employs various concepts from the Edgar Cayce material in her practice at the Association for Research and Enlightenment Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. McGarey gave new life to the Temple Beautiful program as it was described in Cayce's readings of the lost continent of Atlantis. The daughter of Christian missionaries, McGarey has said that her work with the Cayce readings had not changed her basic attitude toward life and death, religion and immortality. "It is still Christ-centered with a basic Christian foundation. The part that has changed is the addition of reincarnation and the concept that comes from the Cayce material that gives impact and reality to the importance of us as ongoing beings. We are as rays of light and love that are involved in this three-dimensional world."

Rather than taking her away from the church, McGarey stated that the concepts of reincarnation had actually given her a deeper understanding of Christian ritual and the belief structures of the Christian faith. She also said that the concept of past lives had helped her to be a better physician, because they had enabled her to share responsibility with her patients, "rather than take responsibility from them."

Delving Deeper

cayce, hugh lynn. venture inward. new york: paper back library, 1966.

cerminara, gina. many mansions. new york: william morrow, 1950.

stearn, jess. edgar cayce: the sleeping prophet. new york: doubleday, 1967.

steiger, brad. returning from the light. new york: signet inspiration, 1996.

sugrue, thomas. there is a river: the story of edgar cayce. new york: h. holt and co., 1942.


Theosophy (divine wisdom) is an eclectic blend of many earlier philosophies and cult teachings, all of which claim to have been handed down to contemporary seekers of spiritual truth by disciples of ancient wisdom. The Theosophical Society, cofounded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891) in New York in 1875, is an esoteric blend of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the Kabbalah, and the philosophy of Plato (c. 428 b.c.e.c. 348 b.c.e.) and other mystics, combined with the teachings of mysterious masters who dwell in secret places in the Himalayas and communicate with their initiates through their psychic abilities and their projected astral bodies. Whereas Edgar Cayce (18771945) and Rudolf Steiner (18611925) evolved their spiritual teachings primarily through their own revelations, inspirations, and psychic abilities, Blavatsky claimed to be able to draw upon the ancient wisdom of the Masters Koot Hoomi and Morya to abet the considerable knowledge that she had distilled from various mystery schools, Hindu religious thought, Jewish mysticism, and Christian sects. Many of the concepts and the spiritual eclecticism professed by Blavatsky in the 1880s would be revised on a large scale in the 1970s, in what has loosely been called the New Age Movement. In addition to such contributions as occult masters and guides, Blavatsky introduced the legend of the lost continent of Lemuria, the return of the Maitreya (world savior), and was greatly responsible for popularizing the concepts of reincarnation and past lives in Europe and the United States.

At the time of her death in 1891, Blavatsky's detractors considered her to have been a hoaxster, a fraud, and a deceiver, while her followers revered her as a genius, a veritable saint, and a woman of monumental courage who had struggled against an incredible array of adversities and adversaries to fashion a modern mystery school without equal. Foe and follower alike conceded that she was a unique, sometimes overpowering, personality who had apparently traveled the world in search of spiritual truths and who had survived physical crises and challenges that would certainly have discouragedor killeda less indomitable individual.

Born Helena Petrovna Hahn on July 30, 1831, in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) in the Ukraine, she began displaying mediumistic abilities as a young girl. Just before her seventeenth birthday, she married the much older General Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia. Three months later, she left her husband and her homeland to travel freely and widely throughout the world, exploring the occult wisdom and teachings of many traditions.

In 1858, Blavatsky arrived in Paris, where she met the famous spirit medium Daniel Dunglas Home (18331886). By this time, she had herself acquired a modest reputation for mediumship, and she began to practice these talents more openly. In Cairo, Egypt, in 1871, Blavatsky founded a spiritualist group that was forced to disband after accusations of having produced fraudulent phenomena to deceive its patrons. In 1873, she settled in New York City and resumed the practice of her mediumship in association with the brothers William and Horatio Eddy, two wellknown materialization mediums. Her participation in numerous seances in New England brought her to the attention of Henry Steel Olcott (18321907), a newspaperman fascinated with psychic phenomena, who established a group centered around her mediumship.

In 1875, Blavatsky, Olcott, and William Q. Judge (18511896), an attorney, made the decision to move beyond the precepts of Spiritualism and create a more sophisticated approach to spirit contact and mysticism, which they named the Theosophical Society. The threefold purpose of the society was

  1. to form a universal brotherhood of man;
  2. to study and make known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences;
  3. to investigate the laws of nature and develop the divine powers latent in humankind.

In 1877, Blavatsky published her world-view of the occult, Isis Unveiled. In this work, she argues that the reason metempsychosis (reincarnation) has been ridiculed by scientists and orthodox theologians in the West is because it has never been properly understood. While learned individuals accept the indestructibility of energy, she reasons, how can they believe that

"man, the living, thinking, reasoning entity, the indwelling deity of our nature's crowning masterpiece, will evacuate his casket and be no more! Would the principle of continuity which exists even for the so-called inorganic matter, for a floating atom, be denied to the spirit, whose attributes are consciousness, memory, mind, love! Really, the very idea is preposterous.If the Pythagorean metempsychosis should be thoroughly explained and compared with the modern theory of evolution it would be found to supply every 'missing link' in the chain of the latter. There was not a philosopher of any notoriety who did not hold to this doctrine, as taught by the Brahmans, Buddhists, and later by the Pythagoreans."

In 1878, Blavatsky and Olcott moved to Bombay, India, to be nearer the mahatmas and masters, the members of the Great White Brotherhood who appeared to her in their astral bodies to relay metaphysical teachings. After a turbulent period in India, which she left under charges of fraud to settle in London in 1887, Blavatsky began work on her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine (1888), a massive statement of her theosophical philosophy, including her views on reincarnation.

Only a constant series of rebirths of one and the same individual, passing through the "Circle of Necessity," can fully explain the age-old problems of good and evil and the apparent injustices of life, Blavatsky argues. Only a system wherein one is rewarded or punished for the deeds or crimes committed in a former life can explain the inequalities of "birth and fortune, of intellect and capacities." When a person's life is beset by injustice and misfortune, only the "blessed knowledge of Karma" can prevent one "from cursing life and men, as well as their supposed Creator." Those individuals who believe in karma have to believe in destiny, which, Blavatsky states in The Secret Doctrine, "from birth to death, every man is weaving, thread by thread, around himself, as a spider does his cobweb.Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plants and creates causes, and karmic law adjusts the effects, which adjustment is not an act but universal harmony.Karma has never sought to destroy intellectual and individual liberty.On the contrary, he who unveils through study and meditation its intricate paths, and throws light on those dark waysis working for the good of his fellow men."

Delving Deeper

blavatsky, h. p. collected writings. 16 vols. wheaton, ill: theosophical publishing house, 195085.

spence, lewis. an encyclopedia of occultism. new hyde park, n.y.: university books, 1960.