Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Theosophy
THEOSOPHY, as its derivation implies, is 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. It 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 quern, 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. An historical survey shows, indeed, that theosophy generally arises in connexion with religious needs, and is the expression of religious convictions or aspirations. Now the specifically religious consciousness is not pantheistic in any naturalistic sense; God is rather regarded as the transcendent source of being and purity, from which the individual in his natural state is alienated and afar off. Theosophy accepts the testimony of religion that the present world lies in wickedness and imperfection, and faces the problem of speculatively accounting for this state of things from the nature of the Godhead itself. Theosophy 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 name with which it is oftenest coupled is mysticism (see Mysticism). The latter term 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 microcosmos resumes the nature of things, strives by self-abnegation or self-annihilation to attain this unspeakable reunion (what 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. The followers of Eckhart are either practical mystics, or reproduce at most what may be called their master's speculative theology, till we come to Boehme.
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 Nicholas of Cusa, 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 Manichæanism 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 essenceless 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 pro cess) 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 within the present century, notably upon the later phases of Schelling's philosophy, upon Franz von Baader, Molitor, and others.
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 writ ings, 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 (of the ideal and the real), 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 reflexive 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 conscious ness 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 under stood.(a. se.)