1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Theosophy

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THEOSOPHY (from Gr. θεός, god, and σοφία, wisdom), a term used to denote those forms of philosophic and religious thought which claim a special insight into the Divine nature and its constitutive moments or processes. Sometimes this insight is claimed as the result of the operation of some higher faculty or some supernatural revelation to the individual; in other instances the theosophical theory is not based upon any special illumination, but is simply put forward as the deepest speculative wisdom of its author. But in any case it is characteristic of theosophy that it starts with an explication of the Divine essence, and endeavours to deduce the phenomenal universe from the play of forces within the Divine nature itself.

General Theory.—Theosophy is thus differentiated at once from all philosophic systems which attempt to rise from an analysis of phenomena to a knowledge, more or less adequate, of the existence and nature of God. In all such systems, God is the terminus ad quem, a direct knowledge of whom is not claimed, but who is, as it were, the hypothesis adopted, with varying degrees of certainty in different thinkers, for the explanation of the facts before them. The theosophist, on the other hand, is most at his ease when moving within the circle of the Divine essence, into which he seems to claim absolute insight. This, however, would be insufficient to distinguish theosophy from those systems of philosophy which are sometimes called “speculative” and “absolute,” and which also in many cases proceed deductively from the idea of God.

In a wide sense, the system of Hegel or the system of Spinoza may be cited as examples of what is meant. Both thinkers claim to exhibit the universe as the evolution of the Divine nature. They must believe, therefore, that they have grasped the inmost principles of that nature: so much is involved, indeed, in the construction of an absolute system; But it is to be noted that, though there is much talk of God in such systems, the known universe—the world that now is—is nowhere transcended; God is really no more than the principle of unity immanent in the whole. Hence, while the accusation of pantheism is frequently brought against these thinkers, the term theosophical is never used in their regard. A theosophical system may also be pantheistic, in tendency if not in intention; but the transcendent character of its Godhead definitely distinguishes it from the speculative philosophies which might otherwise seem to fall under the same definition. God is regarded as the transcendent source of being and purity, from which the individual in his natural state is alienated and afar off. An historical survey shows, indeed, that theosophy generally arises in connexion with religious needs, and is the expression of religious convictions or aspirations. Accepting the testimony of religion that the present world lies in wickedness and imperfection, theosophy faces the problem of speculatively accounting for this state of things from the nature of the Godhead itself. It is thus in some sort a mystical philosophy of the existence of evil; or at least it assumes this form in some of its most typical representatives.

The term Mysticism (q.v.) has properly a practical rather than a speculative reference; but it is currently applied so as to include the systems of thought on which practical mysticism was based. Thus, to take only one prominent example, the profound speculations of Meister Eckhart (q.v.) are always treated under the head of Mysticism, but they might with equal right appear under the rubric Theosophy. In other words, while, an emotional and practical mysticism may exist without attempting philosophically to explain itself, speculative mysticism is almost another name for theosophy. There is still a certain difference observable, however, in so far as the speculative mystic remains primarily concerned with the theory of the soul's relation to God, while the theosophist gives his thoughts a wider scope, and frequently devotes himself to the elaboration of a fantastic philosophy of nature.

In the above acceptation of the term, the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanations from the supra-essential One, the fanciful emanation-doctrine of some of the Gnostics (the aeons of the Valentinian system might be mentioned), and the elaborate esoteric system of the Kabbalah, to which the two former in all probability largely contributed, are generally included under the head of theosophy. In the two latter instances there may be noted the allegorical interpretation of traditional doctrines and sacred writings which is a common characteristic of theosophical writers. Still more typical examples of theosophy are furnished by the mystical system of Meister Eckhart and the doctrine of Jacob Boehme (q.v.), who is known as “the theosophist” par excellence. Eckhart's doctrine asserts behind God a predicateless Godhead, which, though unknowable not only to man but also to itself, is, as it were, the essence or potentiality of all things. From it proceed, and in it, as their nature, exist, the three persons of the Trinity, conceived as stadia of an eternal self-revealing process. The eternal generation of the Son is equivalent to the eternal creation of the world. But the sensuous and phenomenal, as such, so far as they seem to imply independence of God, are mere privation and nothingness; things exist only through the presence of God in them, and the goal of creation, like its outset, is the repose of the Godhead. The soul of man, which as a micro cosmos resumes the nature of things, strives by self-abnegation or self-annihilation to attain this unspeakable reunion (which Eckhart calls being buried in God). Regarding evil simply as privation, Eckhart does not make it the pivot of his thought, as was afterwards done by Boehme; but his notion of the Godhead as a dark and formless essence is a favourite thesis of theosophy.

Besides mystical theology, Boehme was indebted to the writings of Paracelsus. This circumstance is not accidental, but points to an affinity in thought. The nature-philosophers of the Renaissance, such as Nicolaus Cusanus, Paracelsus, Cardan and others, curiously blend scientific ideas with speculative notions derived from scholastic theology, from Neoplatonism and even from the Kabbalah. Hence it is customary to speak of their theories as a mixture of theosophy and physics, or theosophy and chemistry, as the case may be. Boehme offers us a natural philosophy of the same sort. As Boehme is the typical theosophist, and as modern theosophy has nourished itself almost in every case upon the study of his works, his dominating conceptions supply us with the best illustration of the general trend of this mode of thought. His speculation turns, as has been said, upon the necessity of reconciling the existence and the might of evil with the existence of an all-embracing and all powerful God, without falling into Manichaeanism on the one hand, or, on the other, into a naturalistic pantheism that denies the reality of the distinction between good and evil. He faces the difficulty boldly, and the eternal conflict between the two may be said to furnish him with the principle of his philosophy. It is in this connexion that he insists on the necessity of the Nay to the Yea, of the negative to the positive. Eckhart's Godhead appears in Boehme as the abyss, the eternal nothing, the essence less quiet (“Ungrund” and “Stille ohne Wesen” are two of Boehme's phrases). But, if this were all, the Divine Being would remain an abyss dark even to itself. In God, however, as the condition of His manifestation, lies, according to Boehme, the “eternal nature” or the mysterium magnum, which is as anger to love, as darkness to light, and, in general, as the negative to the positive. This principle (which Boehme often calls the evil in God) illuminates both sides of the antithesis, and thus contains the possibility of their real existence. By the “Qual” or torture, as it were, of this diremption, the universe has qualitative existence, and is knowable. Even the three persons of the Trinity, though existing idealiter beforehand, attain reality only through this principle of nature in God, which is hence spoken of as their matrix. It forms also the matter, as it were, out of which the world is created; without the dark and fiery principle, we are told, there would be no creature. Hence God is sometimes spoken of as the father, and the eternal nature as the mother, of things. Creation (which is conceived as an eternal process) begins with the creation of the angels. The subsequent fall of Lucifer is explained as his surrender of himself to the principle of nature, instead of dwelling in the heart of God. He sought to make anger predominate over love; and he had his will, becoming prince of hell, the kingdom of God's anger, which still remains, however, an integral part of the Divine universe. It is useless to follow Boehme further, for his cosmogony is disfigured by a wild Paracelsian symbolism, and his constructive efforts in general are full of the uncouth straining of an untrained writer. In spite of these defects, his speculations have exercised a remarkable influence.

Schelling's Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom (1809) is almost entirely a reproduction of Boehme's ideas, and forms, along with Baader's writings, the best modern example of theosophical speculation. In his philosophy of identity Schelling (q.v.) had already defined the Absolute as pure indifference, or the identity of subject and object, but without advancing further into theogony. He now proceeded to distinguish three moments in God, the first of which is the pure indifference which, in a sense, precedes all existence—the primal basis or abyss, as he calls it, in agreement with Boehme. But, as there is nothing before or besides God, God must have the ground or cause of His existence in Himself. This is the second moment, called nature in God, distinguishable from God, but inseparable from Him. It is that in God which is not God Himself, it is the yearning of the eternal One to give birth to itself. This yearning is a dumb unintelligent longing, which moves like a heaving sea in obedience to some dark and indefinite law, and is powerless to fashion anything in permanence. But in correspondence to the first stirring of the Divine existence there awakes in God Himself an inner reflective perception, by means of which—since no object is possible for it but God—God beholds Himself in His own image. In this, God is for the first time as it were realized, although as yet only within Himself. This perception combines, as understanding, with the primal yearning, which becomes thereby free creative will, and works formatively in the originally lawless nature or ground. In this wise is created the world as we know it. In every natural existence there are, therefore, two principles to be distinguished—first, the dark principle, through which this is separated from God, and exists, as it were, in the mere ground; and, secondly, the Divine principle of understanding. The first is the particular will of the creature, the second is the universal will. In irrational creatures the particular will or greed of the individual is controlled by external forces, and thus used as an instrument of the universal. But in man the two principles are consciously present together, not, however, in inseparable union, as they are in God, but with the possibility of separation. This possibility of separation is the possibility of good and evil. In Boehme's spirit, Schelling defended his idea of God as the only way of vindicating for God the consciousness which naturalism denies, and which ordinary theism emptily asserts. This theosophical transformation of Schelling's doctrine was largely due to the influence of his contemporary Baader (q.v.). Baader distinguishes, in a manner which may be paralleled from Boehme, between an immanent or esoteric process of self-production in God, through which He issues from His unrevealed state, and the emanent, exoteric or real process, in which God overcomes and takes up into Himself the eternal " nature ” or the principle of selfhood, and appears as a Trinity of persons. The creation of the world is still further to be distinguished from these two processes as an act of freedom or will; it cannot, therefore, be speculatively constructed, but must be historically accepted. Baader, who combined his theosophy with the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, has had many followers. Among thinkers on the same lines, but more or less independent, Molitor is perhaps the most important. Swedenborg (q.v.) is usually reckoned among the theosophists, and some parts of his theory justify this inclusion; but his system as a whole has little in common with those speculative constructions of the Divine nature which form the essence of theosophy, as strictly understood.

Besides the books mentioned under Mysticism, and those referred to under individual authors, Baur's Die christliche Gnosis in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (1835) and Hamberger, Stimmen aus dem Heiligthum der christlichen Mystik und Theosophie (1857), may be mentioned.

(A. S. P.-P.)

Oriental Theosophy

The term “theosophy” has in recent years obtained a somewhat wide currency in a restricted signification as denominating the beliefs and teachings of the Theosophical Society. This society was founded in the United States of America in the year 1875 by Madame H. P. Blavatsky (q.v.), in connexion with Colonel H. S. Olcott (d. 1906) and others. The main objects of the society were thus set out: (1) To establish a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity; (2) to promote the study of comparative religion and philosophy; (3) to make a systematic investigation into the mystic potencies of life and matter, or what is usually termed “occultism.” As regards the first object the mere fact of joining the society and becoming an “initiated fellow” was supposed to involve a certain kind of intellectual and social brotherhood, though not implying anything in the nature of an economic union. This latter aspect of the fraternity was to be satisfied by the contribution from each fellow of five dollars by way of initiation fee. The society's theory of universal brotherhood was, however, of far wider scope, being based upon a mystical conception of “the One Life”—an idea derived from and common to various forms of Eastern thought, Vedic and Buddhist. It implies the necessary interdependence of all that is—that ultimate Oneness which underlies and sustains all phenomenal diversity, whether inwardly or outwardly, whether individual or universal. The theosophical conception of brotherhood is thus rather transcendental than materialistic, and is not therefore to be regarded as the exact equivalent of the socialistic doctrine of the solidarity of the human race.

The second object of the society, the study of comparative religion and philosophy, soon crystallized into an exposition of a more or less definite system of dogmatic teaching. The leading thesis seems to have been that all the great religions of the world originated from the same supreme source, and that they were all to be regarded as so many divers expressions of one and the same fundamental truth, or “Wisdom Religion,” in such form and dress as was best adapted to suit the times and the people for whose spiritual growth and development religious instruction was required. Now, in order to discern this underlying truth in the various and apparently conflicting world creeds, appeal was made to a “Secret Doctrine,” and “Esoteric Teaching,” which Madame Blavatsky proclaimed had been held for ages as a sacred possession and trust by certain mysterious adepts in occultism, or “Mahâtmâs,” with whom she said she was in psychical as well as in direct physical communication. It is here that the theosophical movement showed its most serious shortcomings. From time to time Madame Blavatsky's numerous friends and associates were allowed to witness the manifestations of “occult phenomena,” which she averred were the outcome of her connexion with these “Mahâtmâs.” The fraudulent character of the “phenomena” was on several occasions exposed by numerous painstaking investigators (see Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vols. iii. and ix., and A Modern Priestess of Isis, by Solovyoff). There are, moreover, numerous passages in the sacred books of the East, especially those of the Buddhists, which warn the student against the assumption that “magical” performances of any kind are to be regarded as proving the truth of the performer's teaching; and indeed it must be owned in justice to the theosophists that similar warnings are to be found scattered throughout their writings; while even Madame Blavatsky herself was wont to expatiate on the folly of accepting her “phenomena” as the mark of spiritual truth. Yet at the same time it cannot well be denied that she was in the habit of pointing to the said marvels as evidence of her Mahâtmâ's existence. If theosophy were to be judged solely by the published revelations of this “Secret Doctrine” it would hardly be deserving of serious consideration; for, as suggested in the separate article on Madame Blavatsky, the revelations themselves appear to have been no more than a crude compilation of vague, contradictory and garbled extracts from various periodicals, books and translations. It was an article of faith with her disciples that the outward and visible Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was on certain occasions the vehicle of psychic powers of transcendent spiritual import. Although there is not much to justify such a proposition, it may perhaps be conceded that she was in many respects abnormal and that some of her work is characteristic of a process known to modern psychologists as “automatism,” or in other words that it is the result of a spasmodic uprush to the surface of sub-conscious mental activities. Apart, however, from these pseudo-revelations the Theosophical Society has given rise to an extensive literature, some of which displays a high degree of argumentative and expository ability; and moreover the movement has from time to time attracted the attention and secured the co-operation of many earnest seekers, of some few of whom it can be truly said that they possessed undoubted spiritual power, insight and knowledge.

Soon after the death of Madame Blavatsky a split in the society was brought about by Mr Wm. Q. Judge (d. 1896) of New York, who claimed the leadership; and there came into existence two if not three separate theosophical societies (following judge and later Mrs Katherine Tingley in America, Olcott and Mrs Annie Besant in America and India, with a more or less independent organization in England), each one contending that the original afflatus of the founder had descended upon it exclusively. The fortunes of the societies are, however, of less importance than their leading doctrine.

It will be surmised from what has been said that any concise statement of orthodox theosophy is hardly to be expected; though from the materials available a fairly definite outline of its leading tenets can be deciphered. We will try to give a cursory review of three of the most important of these, viz.: the constitution and development of the personality or ego; the doctrine of “Karma”; and the Way or Path towards enlightenment and emancipation. Human personality, we learn, is the temporary manifestation of a complex organization consisting of “seven principles,” which are united and interdependent, yet divided into certain groups, each capable of maintaining temporarily a spurious kind of personality of its own and sometimes capable of acting, so to speak, as a distinct vehicle of our conscious individual life. Each “principle” is composed of its own form of matter, determined and conditioned by its own laws of time, space and motion, and is, as it were, the repository of our various memories and volitions. These seven “principles,” starting from the most gross—the physical body, or “Rûpa”—become more and more subtle and attenuated until we reach the Universal Self “Âtmâ,” the centre as also the matrix of the whole, both individual and universal. Now that which binds together these elements of our nature and maintains their interrelation in their respective spheres of activity—that which determines an individual's powers, his tastes, his opportunities, advantages and drawbacks, in a word, the character—is his “Karma.” Broadly speaking, it is the sum of an individual's bodily, mental and spiritual growth; having its roots, as it were, spread over many lives, past and future. The two sentences, “as a man soweth, so must he reap,” and “as he reaps so also he must have sown,” give comprehensive expression to the idea of Karmic activity.

The doctrine of Karma is with modification common to both Buddhism and Brahminism, and in their expositions theosophists have apparently drawn from both sources.

The theosophic “Path” to the final goal of emancipation or Nîrvâna, is in a great measure derived from the Buddhist literature, available to the English-speaking peoples through numerous excellent translations, more especially those of Professor T. W. Rhys Davids, and also from the many translations in all the European languages of the Bhagavad Gîtâ and Upanishads. Theosophic teachings on this subject are not, however, exclusively Oriental, for following their contention that they are the exponents of the universal and unchangeable “Wisdom Religion” of all the ages, theosophists have selected from various sources—Vedic, Buddhist, Greek and Cabalistic—certain passages for the purpose of exposition and illustration. To the uninitiated it would appear that this selection has been made, generally speaking, at random; it is at any rate lacking in the wise discrimination one would expect from the supposed source of its inspiration. Nevertheless theosophists by their investigations and expositions have undoubtedly been brought in touch with some of the most profound thought in both ancient and modern worlds; and this fact in itself has assuredly had an inspiring and ennobling influence upon their lives and work. The histories of all the great religious and philosophic movements show them as developments of an evolutionary process, arriving at their accepted dogmas through long periods of contention between numerous tendencies and cross-currents, resulting in some compromises and not a little confusion of thought. So it is in the main with theosophy. It has followed Buddhism in deprecating any reliance upon ritual. Ceremonial and sacrificial observances of all kinds are held to be useless in themselves, but operative for good or ill indirectly by their effect upon the mental attitude of those who practise them. Theosophists insist, however, that all religious observances had their origin in some mystical process, the true meaning of which has in most instances been lost. The Path is represented as the great work whereby the inner nature of the individual is consciously transformed and developed. The views of life held by the ordinary mortal as well as his aims and motives must be radically altered; and simultaneously a change must take place in his modes of speech, conduct and thought. The Path is said to be long and difficult, and with most individuals must extend over many lives. It is divided into four stages, each one representing the degree of spiritual growth and karmic development at which the “chela” or disciple has arrived. But even the entrance upon the very first stage implies something more than, and something fundamentally different from, the life of an ordinary layman, however morally excellent this life may be. Morality, important though it be as preparatory to the “higher life,” does not alone lend itself to that awakening of the spiritual faculties without which progress along the Path is not possible. In good citizenship morality is practised out of regard to certain preconceived notions of the needs, the health and happiness of ourselves, our fellows and the community at large. According to theosophy, it would appear that these notions are for the most part mistaken, or at any rate they are quite insignificant in comparison with the interests with which the traveller along the Path soon finds himself absorbed. It is not that human needs are to be disregarded, but that the pabulum which he now sees that humanity really requires is of an incomparably higher order than that which is generally so considered. The physical methods and spiritual exercises recommended by theosophists are those inculcated in the systems known in Hindu philosophy as Râja Yoga in contradistinction to the Hatha Yoga system, which is most commonly to be met with in India, and in which the material aspects are given greater prominence. The Path has an active and a passive side. Fresh knowledge, new forces and faculties, have to be acquired by positive and strenuous efforts, while, on the other hand, delusions and superstitions are to be abandoned by an attitude of conscious neglect; or to use the phraseology of the Hindus, Avidyâ, nescience—the mental state of the unenlightened through which the individual energies are scattered and dissipated in futile effort, is gradually replaced by Vidyâ, the higher wisdom which dispels the darkness of the mind, awakens our latent faculties and concentrates our efforts in the direction of that harmonious union, which ultimately results in Nîrvâna. Although the way of the disciple or “chela” is always represented as long and difficult, it is said that as he proceeds, the transcendental faculties which arise to help him enable him to pursue the right course with ever increasing confidence and security. These powers of the mind, or “siddhi,” should never be sought for their own sake, or be used for selfish purposes. The attempt to develop and use them without regard to the higher purpose is spoken of as practising the arts of “black magic,” the exercise of which invariably leads to disaster. It is proclaimed that were the “chela” to attempt to make an improper use of his powers—that is to say, were he to yield to the promptings of selfishness, lust or antagonism—such a lapse would at once set in action counteracting forces, which not only retard his upward growth, but which would, were such evil courses persisted in, lead ultimately to the obliteration of all his newly acquired psychic possessions.

The Path may also be described in terms of the “seven principles.” It may be said to be a process of unification, whereby the centres of volition, consciousness and active memory are systematically shifted upwards from the lower to the higher “principles” until they have become firmly established in the “Buddhi,” or “sixth principle.” As this last stage is approached the “chela” becomes less and less dependent on the guidance of traditions and scriptures. The truth becomes revealed to him by the opening of his inner vision, and he learns to see Dharma, the Eternal Law, as it were, face to face. Thus theosophists may be said to accept in their own sense the saying: “He who does the Will shall know the doctrine.”

Along the Path are ranged ten great obstacles, or fetters, the Buddhist Sanyojanas, which have to be successively overcome before the final goal is reached. As these sanyojanas give a very good idea of what has been termed the negative aspect of the Path, we may enumerate them as follows:—

  1. The delusion of personality—the belief in a permanent and unchangeable ego entity.
  2. Doubt as to the use of the higher efforts, or as to the possibility of solving the great mysteries of life.
  3. The reliance upon ritual-seeking salvation through outward acts.
  4. Lust.
  5. Ill-will, or antagonism.
  6. Love of this life and its possessions—“The care of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.”
  7. The egoistic longing for a future life.
  8. Pride.
  9. Self-righteousness.
  10. Nescience.

A few words should be added as to the theosophic hell, or “Avichi.” This is described as a long drawn-out dream of bitter memories—a vivid consciousness of failure without volition, or the power of initiative—a dream of lost opportunities and futile regrets, of ambitions thwarted and hopes denied, of neglected duties, abused powers and impotent hate; a dream ending ultimately in the oblivion of utter annihilation.

There is no doubt much of valuable suggestion to be found in the philosophic system, or rather the conglomerate of systems, which pass to-day under the name of theosophy; and probably much has been done by means of its propaganda to popularize Eastern thought in the West, and in the East to reawaken a truer appreciation of its own philosophic treasures; but however that may be, the serious student would be well advised to seek his information and his inspiration from the fountain-heads of the theosophists' doctrines, which are all easily accessible in translations; and to avoid the confusions and errors of writers who in most cases have but a superficial if any knowledge of the original languages and systems from which their doctrine has been arbitrarily culled.

(St G. L. F.-P.)