(Henry Bedinger Mitchell was a professor of mathematics at Columbia University and a member of the Theosophical Society in America, and in this article he summarizes the main aspects of the Theosophical Movement.)
A conception that is at once profound and simple rarely meets with immediate comprehension. Our minds are so used to dealing with the complex details of the map of life, they are so narrowly focused upon the particular, that they miss the broad and general outlines and the significance of the names, written in widely spaced letters, across its entire surface.
To see these a new perspective is needed, a certain aloofness of attitude and a refocusing of our vision which require time and an act of will. So it follows that there is usually an intermediate stage where but half the larger letters are perceived, and their sequence seems meaningless or sheer folly.
This is illustrated in the history of every great scientific or philosophic or religious movement. It was the case with Darwinism, with the rediscovery and restatement of that profound and simple doctrine of evolution which today illumines our view of all Nature's processes, from the changes within an atom to the formation of a solar system or the life of a human soul. Its scope was too wide, its fundamental concept too simple, to be perceived at once.
A single bizarre detail was alone grasped by the popular mind, and for years evolution meant to many only an apparently ridiculous or rather blasphemous theory that man was the offspring of the ape. It was the case with Berkeley's idealism. It was, and is, the case with Christianity itself, the breadth of whose message is still hidden from us by the narrowing lenses of Hebraic legalism through which its early disciples viewed their Master's teaching. We cannot wonder, therefore, that like misconceptions have surrounded the purposes and principles upon which the Theosophical Society is based.
But however natural and inevitable these misconceptions may have been in the early days of the Society, the perspective of over a third of a century of consistent work gives little excuse for their continued existence. In this period the guiding principles and methods of the Society have been applied to widely varying fields of inquiry, and in these applications their significance and scope have been revealed.
This is the way in which all general principles become clear to us. The axioms and postulates of Geometry, for instance, seem mere platitudes when given their bare abstract statement, but when consecutively applied to problem after problem their meaning is brought home to us and we find that in their simple seeming statements the whole science of Geometry is contained. It was by this means also that the significance of the doctrine of evolution was learned. Now that it has been applied and tested in the mineral and vegetable as well as in the animal kingdoms, we perceive at once its simplicity and universal scope.
The same is true of the principles upon which the Theosophical Society is founded, so that the self knowledge gained by repeated tests makes possible today a clearer statement of its aims, methods and character, than could have been given even by its most zealous adherents thirty years ago. For reasons which will become obvious to the reader of this article, no such statement, other than the very general one contained in the constitution of the Society, can be authoritative or official. But as the Society's history speaks for itself, and as sixteen years of intimate participation in its affairs and councils enable me to write with at least the insight of personal knowledge, I have ventured to hope that I may dispel some of the misunderstanding which still surrounds its work.
1. The conditions in the world of thought at the time the Theosophical Society was founded
To understand any movement it is necessary to have some knowledge of the conditions in which it arose; and, in the case of the Theosophical Society, this takes us back to the year 1875, a time when the thought of the West was bitterly divided against exception, religious and scientific utterances. Religion was dominated dogmatism, and bitterness which then marked, with scarcely an itself. It is difficult for us to realize today the intense sectarianism, by theology, and science by materialism, and the age-long antagonism between the two had been fanned into the flame of fierce conflict by the spread of Darwinism with its popular misconceptions, and by the new light which the natural sciences had thrown upon the history of the earth.
The letter of the religious law had been so completely confused with or substituted for its spirit, that to doubt a single theological tenet or the literal accuracy of an ancient Hebraic text seemed to put the whole reality of the religious life and nature in question; a question which the materialism of science answered with a blatant and chill negation. Neutrality was impossible. The choice seemed forced between the extremes of superstition and materialism, and, in consequence, religion was left without vitality, without the sense of immediate reality and the support of natural law. It seemed to concern only a problematical future beyond the grave, and in the resulting spiritual lethargy and indifference there grew the feeling that freedom to enjoy and to be comfortable was the aim of life.
Science, on the other hand, was left without the assistance of a philosophy which saw the universe whole and took law and unity into the inner world of man's sentient life and consciousness. The tangible and the visible absorbed its attention, and the law which it saw enthroned in the physical realm found no recognition of dominion over the heart and destiny of man.
In this divided world and in the middle ground vacated by science and theology alike, had arisen the spiritualistic movement with its vast mass of remarkable phenomena, and the curious mixture of superstition and materialism put forward in explanation. The movement had spread with astonishing rapidity, and on every side men and women, ignorant of their dangers, were experimenting with hypnotic and trance states, and developing mediumistic and abnormal psychic conditions.
Laughed at by science, regarded as blasphemous by orthodox religion, yet supported by an accumulation of testimony which could not be ignored, there was nothing to guide or balance the popular interpretation of these phenomena, and from them spread a concept of life after death as degrading to the soul as to the intelligence of those who held it.
Such, in brief, was the condition of religious thought in Europe and America. If we turn to the East, to India or Burma or Ceylon, we find a situation different but no less serious. The material power and success of the Western nations were diverting the East from its own truths. The fire of religious aspiration which had given the world its greatest scriptures — for Christianity, too, is of the East, not of the West — had burned low. The East seemed to sleep, its energies and vitality indrawn and unused, and where it stirred it was awakening to scepticism and unrest. It neither understood the West nor was understood by it. It could neither give nor receive of the best. The old channels of its thought and laws were broken and its life currents turning stagnant and bitter.
In a word both East and West, both religion and science, were suffering from sectarianism — from the separation of truths which should have been conjoined, from narrow, dogmatic misunderstandings and antagonisms. There was a crying need for a common neutral meeting place where all beliefs and views of life could come together.
2. The purposes for which the Theosophical Society was founded
It was to meet this need that the Theosophical Society was founded. It established an open platform where the adherents of all creeds and of none could meet; where all views could come together and each could have full hearing; where an open mind would be encouraged and points of agreement rather than of disagreement might be found; where the West could be interpreted to the East and the East to the West; where the science of religion and the religion of science might learn each of the other's truth and of the greater truths behind them both; where every view of life, every type of mind and nature, might find sympathetic under standing and be helped to a deeper insight into its own truth and genius; where outlawed views, heretical views, views that could command no other hearing, could be given full expression and be judged, not from prejudice, but from merit; where the divided thought of the world might be fitted into the unity of Truth, and each facet find its proper place and part. It was, and is, an ideal infinitely ambitious, but also eminently practical. Its ultimate goal may be, as is the goal of life itself, forever beyond our reach, but the way to it was clear from the outset and each step forward is so much sheer gain.
3. The Theosophical Society's fundamental rules
It is clear that the success of such an undertaking must be dependent upon the absolute freedom and impartiality of the platform the Society maintained. Of itself it could have no creed, dogma, or personal authority to enforce or impose. Neither could it be held responsible for the opinions of its members. Its characteristics must be Breadth, Impartiality, Tolerance, Courtesy and Sympathy. It could exclude no one, be committed to no one. Therefore the first rule of membership, beyond that of sympathy with its chief purpose, is thus phrased in its constitution:
- "Every member has the right to believe or disbelieve in any religious system or philosophy, and to declare such belief or disbelief without affecting his standing as a member of the Society, each being required to show that tolerance of the opinions of others which he expects for his own."
And in the By-Laws we find this further statement:
- "No member of the Theosophical Society shall promulgate or maintain any doctrine as being that advanced or advocated by the Society."
In these two rules are the indispensable and indisputable guarantees of the freedom and impartiality of the Theosophical Society. In view of the strictness with which they have been enforced, ignorance alone can account for the impression, still lingering in the public mind, that it is a new religious sect or “ism.”
4. A view of life and of truth suggested by the establishment of an open platform
Behind and prompting all our acts lies some philosophy of life which consciously or unconsciously is ours, and which is at once revealed and judged by its fruits. There is truth as well as humor in the assertion that, however pessimistic his books may be, no author was ever at heart a pessimist. For no one would write did he not believe his thought could influence others, and to believe this is optimism pure and simple. Judged thus, the insistent silence of the Society, as such, upon all matters of opinion and belief is eloquent of the philosophy of spiritual freedom held by its founders.
Breadth and tolerance are readily confused with indifference, and the open mind of the disciple, who has glimpsed the infinity of Truth, must often meet the charge of agnosticism from those who have been trained to believe that the whole meaning of life can be cramped into a single formula. But in the positive synthetic method of inquiry and procedure, established by the Society, is the answer to such criticism, and though each is free to interpret this method as he will, to me it appears a testimony to the belief in the oneness of Life and of Truth.
That this philosophy of Unity and Spiritual Freedom was held by the founders of the Society is a matter of abundant record. In no way is it imposed upon the Society, but the purpose for which the Society was created is clarified by its light. It is a belief that the Universe is one and that life is whole; that the true self of each of us is one with the Self of the Universe.
In Madame Blavatsky's fine phrase, it is the belief of "the fundamental identity of all souls with the Universal Oversoul." Similarly it is a belief that all truths are aspects and facets of the Truth; that nothing is meaningless, nothing too humble or insignificant to have its part and place in the great whole; that each has something to contribute. And from this it follows that to reach toward the Truth, to grow in power and self-knowledge, is to grow into a positive unity; the way to which is through sympathy and synthesis and impersonality, looking always back through the veils of personality and differences to the central flame of genius which lights all human minds.
5. The stated objects of the Theosophical Society
The first stated object of the Society is expressive of this attitude toward life and truth. It is thus phrased.
- "The principal aim and object of this Society is to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color."
It emphasizes the principle of spiritual unity and points the way to growth through sympathy, synthesis, and an open mind.
- "The subsidiary objects are: The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study; and the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man."
The theosophical attitude of sympathy and synthesis, which, in the first object, was to be applied to individual views, is, in the second, extended to systems of thought. In it the Society entered upon the modern study of comparative Religion, but with this distinction, that whereas too often in the schools the chief stress is still laid on differences, in the Theosophical Society from its inception the aim has been to discover the common part, to find those central truths and laws of the soul life which are embodied in all religions, or to which all point, as the spokes of a wheel point to the hub.
A very little of this study serves to demonstrate its importance; not only through the new light which a sympathetic appreciation of other religions throws upon one's own, but also through the revelation of the unanimity of personal testimony which the seers and prophets, the saints and mystics of all ages and of all races, have borne to the fundamental laws of the spiritual life.
It is impossible to find the dawning truths of our own experience clearly recorded in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, in the Sanscrit of the Upanishads, in the teachings of the Buddha, in the Gospel of Christ, in the writings of Molinos and in the visions of the Bienheureuse Marguerite Marie, without a deepening sense of their universal reality and profound significance. And it is far easier to obey the promptings of our inner guidance when we know the path along which it leads has been followed by the great of soul through the countless centuries of the past.
Through this study also the genius of the East grows clearer to our Western minds. We learn to see more than one side of the shield, and as we grow in understanding we grow in humility and the power of helpfulness, in the twin powers of giving and receiving. We learn that all forms and facets of the Truth are true each in its own way and degree, and that each is needed to supplement the others. So science needs philosophy and religion to set its genius free, to carry it beyond the realm of the concrete and the visible till its scope includes the whole of life. And religion in its turn needs science needs above all that grave scientific spirit which puts all things to the test of experiment and experience.
It is to this undeveloped scientific realm, where the subject of experimentation escapes the balance and the scalpel, that the third object of the Society is directed. In its adoption we see the same emphasis upon the wholeness of life, the same open mind and receptiveness to what is elsewhere ignored, that characterize the whole spirit of the Society.
With the investigation of the psychical powers in man came the ability to offer many simpler and more rational explanations of the phenomena of spiritualism than were then current, and as the finer forces of nature were studied, both science and religion were profited, — religion to the extent that the laws and powers of the inner life were seen to be the reflection of universal laws and powers, and science to the extent that the energies of the ether were recognized as the source of all physical energy.
6. The theosophic attitude
These are the stated objects of the Society. Sympathy with the first alone is required of its members, for this constitutes an intellectual attitude toward life, — a turning toward the center — without which the work of the Society is meaningless and impossible. It is the attitude of open-minded sympathy and tolerance, of willingness to give and to receive, to profit from others as well as seeking to profit them. All who are willing to adopt this attitude are eligible for membership. They may hold any beliefs or disbeliefs. Their explanations of why this attitude is desirable or necessary may be infinitely various. They are committed to nothing in joining the Society save to sympathy with this first object and to the intellectual attitude it implies.
7. The theosophic method
If, holding this attitude, they desire to put it into practice and to take part in the work of the Theosophical Society, they find a practical method for its accomplishment. It is the method of free discussion in the spirit of sympathy, courtesy and tolerance, each member contributing to the discussion, each willing to listen. It is the method following as the logical consequence of the theosophic attitude that all truth is valuable, and that every view has some significance.
It presupposes that the essential element of inquiry and discussion is not the relative importance of this or that individual view and fragment of the truth, but the whole which is revealed as these views are synthesized and the fragments placed together. Therefore the discussions seek unities and not differences. But each opinion, however apparently at variance with the rest, must find some place in that unity, — must be given full and free opportunity for expression.
This method cannot be long practiced without the realization that one's own truth is not that fragmentary portion of opinion which is at any time cramped into our personal consciousness, but is some thing far larger and more symmetric; and we find its different aspects reflected back to us from the minds of others — enriching, widening, and clarifying our previous conceptions.
The subjects of discussion to which this method is applied are widely various. But as the method is one of synthesis, pointing always to the center, the subjects chosen habitually bear some relation to the source and seat of unity — to the spiritual life in which all souls find their oneness, or to the finer forces of nature of which the physical forces are differentiated transformations.
The Theosophical Society is not a mere debating club. The theosophic method is applied not only to the discussions at its Branch meetings, but also with great fruitfulness to the studies of its members. It furnishes an approach to a subject of study, and gives emphasis to fundamentals rather than to details. It is an impersonal method and its use helps to free us from preconceptions and to focus our attention wholly upon the search for truth.
The theosophic attitude and method constitute the outer aspect and life of the Theosophical Society. If they are adopted and persistently employed they lead to something further in its members, something which, ethically, is a spirit and, religiously, a life. But upon these we cannot now dwell.
8. The history of the Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City on November 17, 1875, by Madame Blavatsky, Mr. Judge, Colonel Olcott, and others, upon the principles and with the objects out lined above; the idea for such a society having been suggested by Madame Blavatsky, in conversation with Mr. Judge, on September 9th of the same year.
The name of the society was derived from the Greek Theosophia, meaning literally divine wisdom, or wisdom of divine things, if to our understanding of the word wisdom we add the notion that it is applied, or put in practice; for this distinguishes the Greek sophia from gnosis or knowledge. Its title therefore suggests that the Society is not only to seek spiritual knowledge, but to put that knowledge into practice and use. The name has a long history, having been given to certain schools of philosophy in Egypt, and among the Neo-Platonists and Gnostics.
The Society adopted as its motto: "There is no religion higher than Truth," which is said to have been the ancient family motto of the Maharajas of Benares. Thus the name of the Society comes to us through Greece and Egypt, and its motto from India.
The liberality, open mindedness, and scientific devotion to truth manifested by the Society, as well as the gifted personality of Madame Blavatsky, soon attracted a wide circle of brilliant intellect. As was also to be expected, it drew genius whose orbit could not be calculated in advance, and many who could not elsewhere obtain a hearing. All were accorded complete freedom, fullness of opportunity, and perfect tolerance.
Local branches were organized for regular meetings and for putting in practice the theosophic method. Such branches were established in the chief cities of America, in England, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Norway and Sweden, in India, Australia and South America, so that nearly every nationality and form of belief were represented on its rolls.
Magazines were started, through which the researches of the members might be made known and shared by others. A search through the early volumes of these publications shows the widest variety of topic. Christianity, Buddhism, Brahmanism, Confucianism, Taoism, forgotten and obscure religious teachings, old philosophies banned as heretical by the early church; the phenomena of spiritualism, hypnotism, psychometry, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and mediumship; discussions and speculations upon ethnology and the early history of the human race; the application of the doctrine of evolution to religion and to the soul of man; new and original theories of the constitution of matter and of broader scientific principles — many of them anticipating recent discoveries — all these and many more were treated in their pages.
9. A scheme of life presented by Madame Blavatsky
and called Theosophy
But most interesting of all, because of widest sweep and most profound conception, was the scheme of life — philosophy, science, and religion — put forward by Madame Blavatsky herself and as her contribution to the general symposium. The fundamental principles of this scheme were the same as those we have seen suggested as prompting the formation of the Society.
It is not easy to summarize, even in crudest outline. It involved and stressed the unity of the Universe; the fundamental identity of all souls with the Oversoul; the universality of law; an endless evolution through recurring cycles of birth and death, guided by the laws of cause and effect, — an evolution in which man, as we know him, is by no means in the foremost rank; the growth of consciousness toward the enduring realization of its deeper self in a central unity; the view of all manifested things as differentiated aspects of one Reality, of all truths as reflections of the one Truth — so that all religions yield their greatest truth as we look back through them to what they image.
This Madame Blavatsky called Theosophy, associating it with the earlier systems that had borne that name and whose essential characteristics were the same. If we turn to the dictionary, seeking a brief statement of these characteristics we shall be told that "Theosophy differs from Philosophy in that it starts from a transcendental apprehension of divinity to explain the manifested universe, and does not generalize from phenomena to the being and attributes of God"; and that "it differs from Mysticism in that it does not content itself with the relations of the soul to God, but speculates on the constitution and course of nature."
10. This scheme to be tested by experience
It is thus that Euclidean Geometry proceeds from its general axioms to their detailed applications. No explanation is given of the origin of these axioms. The test of their validity is in the consistency of the results which flow from them. Such also must be the test of all theosophical postulates and systems — the test of experiment, the test of the consistency and accuracy of the results which follow their application to the world as it may be known to experience. In view of this test the distinction between sophia, as applied wisdom, and gnosis, as knowledge, is doubly significant.
If this method of reasoning from universals to particulars is not that by which philosophic and scientific generalizations are made, it is at least the method by which science and philosophy, as well as religion, are taught. The student of chemistry is not made to travel the long and painful path by which its laws were first discovered. These laws are stated to him one by one, and he is led to test and verify them.
He is not asked to believe in advance of the experiment, he is only told what results he should expect and where to look for the significance of what is occurring before his eyes. And yet a certain faith is demanded of him, for without some measure of faith the teacher's guidance would not be followed and the crucial experiment not performed.
This is quite clear to us in the teaching of physical science, where we can perceive that the teacher has a deeper knowledge than our own. But in the science of life itself, in the grave and serious alchemy of the soul, it is harder to trust. For here our own hearts and natures are the materials of experimentation, and we are slow to recognize that there are those who have a deeper knowledge of life than we yet share.
If our view of human evolution were directed more to what man is becoming, than to those lower forms through which his organism has passed, it would be easier for us to believe that there are beings and sentient life beyond and above as well as below us.
This was a cardinal point in Madame Blavatsky's philosophy, and if we could appreciate its significance we should understand better the method adopted by all religious teachers, who teach "As one having authority" and yet say "My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me," and who bid us "Be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." It is through Madame Blavatsky's fullness of belief in the existence of spiritual teachers, in the continued presence in the world of "just men made perfect," that we may find the origin and explanation of her religious, philosophic and scientific system.
11. Theosophy in its larger sense beyond formal definition
To the exposition of this scheme of life Madame Blavatsky directed the greater part of her prodigious literary activity. By every means at her command she sought to direct men's minds toward it, pointing out unities of belief in all spiritual teaching, showing how each fitted into the skeleton plan she submitted, revealing meanings lying beneath the surface and within the words, challenging accepted scientific theories here, strengthening others there, correlating, synthesizing, retranslating and reinterpreting ancient scriptures, until Theosophy appeared as the foundation of them all. But never did she claim either to have originated what she offered, or that her own exposition did more than point the way.
To her Theosophy was always beyond definition or formal statement. It was rather an attitude, a looking toward and growth toward the truth. In her conception truth was infinite and could only be known, unveiled and undistorted, by the soul which shares in infinitude. It could not be cramped and confined in words or offered as a formula to a narrow mind.
12. The many expositions of Theosophy and the dual sense in which the term is used
But even if incapable of being fully depicted, as a sphere cannot be mapped without distortion upon a plane, its fundamental principles and their applications could be at least partially elucidated. Many books, articles and pamphlets were written; approaching the subject, in accordance with the Society's method, from many different points of view.
Among the more important of these works were the four ponderous and erudite volumes of Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, and her shorter and popular Key to Theosophy, as well as Mr. Sinnet's Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism, and Mr. Judge's Ocean of Theosophy. At the same time, or shortly following them, appeared a number of more personal treatises, such as Light on the Path, The Voice of the Silence and Mr. Judge's edition of the Bhagavad Gita, in which the same broad principles were applied to the individual life, and where directions were given which would test their validity.
As this expository literature multiplied, the name "Theosophy" came to be used in a two-fold sense. Chosen originally to designate those central truths, from which, in Madame Blavatsky's view, all religions were derived and to which all pointed, it became associated more particularly with her own attempts at its exposition. In the primary and literal sense of "wisdom of divine things," Theosophy denoted equally the wisdom of Christianity and of Buddhism and of science; standing for a synthesis beyond verbal formulation, but whose existence was perceivable through the theosophic attitude and method.
In the secondary sense it was applied specifically to the new effort to restate and reinterpret certain elements of this synthesis. As a matter of fact we each of us use the word "truth" with precisely the same dual significance, meaning thereby both the universal truth in its infinite wholeness, and also that fragmentary and distorted portion of it which at any moment seems to us true opinion. To members of the Society, trained in the theosophic attitude and method, where truth is sought through synthesis, and all formal statements are regarded as but partial, this duality of meaning presented no difficulty. But to the world at large it has been a source of much confusion.
13. The Theosophical Society neither was nor is committed to Theosophy
or to any other system of thought
Because of its consistency and wide scope, and also because of Madame Blavatsky's personal power and genius, her view of life won many adherents, both within and without the Theosophical Society. But — save to the extent that the fundamental concepts of this system are reflected also in the stated objects of the Society's constitution — the Theosophical Society is no more committed to Theosophy than to Buddhism or Christianity or spiritualism or modern science. All of these were discussed and elaborated and elucidated, in books and articles and branch meetings, as was Theosophy.
All kinds of theories were presented and championed with the full power of those who held them, and with the fullest freedom of opportunity accorded by the Society. Each member was free to believe what he pleased, and if many believed in Madame Blavatsky's philosophy, so also did many believe in the views which the spiritualists then advocated. And where these systems differed and contradicted one another in certain fundamental particulars, each member made his own judgment. If more adopted the views of Madame Blavatsky, it was because these views seemed to them more illuminating; perhaps because of Madame Blavatsky's power as an expositor, perhaps because her exposition came nearer to the truth.
14. Freedom of individuality the key to the Theosophical Society's history
It is in this absolute freedom of individuality, in the fundamental rules embodied in the constitution of the Theosophical Society, — that every member can believe or disbelieve in what he will, that no member can commit the Society to any form of belief or disbelief and that all views and all members are entitled to a full and respectful hearing, — that the key to the Society's history is found. Brilliant genius, great personalities, have arisen within it. Views of the most profound wisdom and the crassest folly have been advocated from its platform. Each has been given opportunity to prove what it was, — and the Society and the world have profited thereby.
15. Madame Blavatsky's psychic phenomena
One of the most common sources of the misconception that has surrounded the Society lies in the psychic phenomena which Madame Blavatsky exhibited on numerous occasions. Even by those who recognize the wisdom of giving courteous attention to all views of life, it is often asked why hospitality was accorded to these; why such a scheme of life as Theosophy should have been confused by association with the materialization of tea-cups and portraits, the precipitation of letters, or the transportation of material objects through space without apparent physical contact.
The answer, from the point of view of the Society, is that Madame Blavatsky was what she was. They were her phenomena, not the Society's. Within the Society her brilliant genius, her psychic gifts of a very remark able order, her great personal force and many personal peculiarities had free scope, — as had the genius and peculiarities of all other members. What her personal motives were, what her personal acts were, what her personal character was, could be of no official concern to the Theosophical Society. Whatever they were, as a member she had full right to them.
Right or wrong, her views were entitled to a courteous hearing, and full liberty was due her to present and support them in her own way. Each member could agree or disagree, approve or disapprove in his personal capacity. But the Society as such could do neither. The Society explicitly declines all responsibility for the views of its members. Its brotherhood is without distinction and wholly impersonal, in order that individuality may have full freedom.
If it be the opinion of the querent that these phenomena were trivial and unworthy the expositor of such a philosophy as Madame Blavatsky put forth, — or if again they be regarded as impossible, and those who believe in them credulous dupes, — then still the answer of the Society is the same: Such considerations do not concern us. Accept the phenomena or reject them. Whatever your decision it does not affect the Society. Nor yet does it affect the truth or falsity of her view of life. This stands quite apart from personality and must be judged upon its own merits. Does it explain life and the world as you know them? Does it appear to you as true? Does it meet your tests of truth? If so, accept it. If not, reject it. Or accept in part and reject in part. The Theosophical Society knows nothing of personalities.
But if the question be differently phrased, and directed, not to the Society, but to the personal opinion of some individual student, as to why such bizarre methods were adopted by Madame Blavatsky and these phenomena produced, then perhaps the querent might be reminded of the conditions in the thought of the world at the time the Society was founded. With these conditions we have dealt already, and it will be remembered that spiritualism was then a rising tide in Europe and America, supported by a vast mass of phenomenal testimony whose offered explanations were shot through and through with superstition and materialism.
Madame Blavatsky hated superstition with all the intensity of her uncompromising character. To her all was law, and these phenomena but the manifestation of laws not yet generally understood, the action of finer forces of nature. She set out to prove that she could herself repro duce all the phenomena of spiritualism by the action of forces which, though supernormal, in the sense of being latent rather than developed in the majority of men, were by no means supernatural.
This, we might be told, was her aim, and that to fair-minded judges the evidence proved her point. For all that Mrs. Piper and Eusapia Palladino and the investigators of psychic phenomena are doing today, Madame Blavatsky did a quarter of a century ago, adding to the production of the phenomena an explanation of their rationale which many have found logically consistent and intelligible.
Or again we might be told that in support of her effort to turn men's minds back to the reality and power of the inner world, and in her emphasis upon the potency of the finer forces of nature, it was valuable, indeed necessary, to give tangible demonstrations of the action of these forces. Let us for a moment, our informant might say, place ourselves in her position, and assume that we share her burning conviction, born of personal experience, that the long line of seers and mystics who had met their Master face to face, in vision or in daily intercourse, were not deluded; that Christ and Krishna and the Buddha, and all the greatest of all the past, had indeed entered into immortality, still lived and worked for men, to be known of those who loved them and who kept their commandments.
Let us assume that we, too, had experienced the fulfillment of this promise, and that, because of it, knowledge and power which were none of ours, save as they took the color of our minds in passing through them, could be given by us to the world. Imagine ourselves thus, profoundly sensible of our great responsibility, setting forth upon our mission, alone, friendless, and without funds. Then let each ask what he would do, where and how he could obtain a hearing.
For that cannot be given which will not be received. And to receive, a measure of faith is needed; not the blind faith of unquestioning belief, but that faith which leads to faithful trial and test. How win this faith from those who "have Moses and the Prophets" and hear them not? Would not we also have to show some sign of the power which such discipleship can command?
16. The Theosophical Society's impartiality and impersonality
demonstrated in its history
But whatever personal answer might conceivably be given by one or another of its members, the answer of the Society itself would be unchanged. The full liberty of its members to present their views in the way that seems best to them, the complete impersonality and impartiality of the Society as such, cannot be curtailed or abrogated.
These principles of complete individual freedom and official impartiality have been demonstrated continuously through out the Society's history. Again and again some member of unusual personal force and brilliancy has won by these gifts a large following within the Society's ranks. So long as such acceptance of leadership or of opinion is a matter of voluntary personal belief, it is as it should be.
The Society's platform may be likened to the central tables in a great library upon which, in innumerable papers, the news of the spiritual world is spread. Each member is free to choose what he will and to accept what he will — and for this purpose was each such paper laid there, that to each might be given the widest possible opportunity for effect and usefulness. But when any member, or any faction, seeks to commit the Society as such to any view, to any belief, or to any person, then that member or faction is in conflict with the fundamental principles upon which the Society is established, and by this conflict is separated from its organism.
17. Mrs. Besant's conflict with these principles
This was the case with Mrs. Besant, — also a woman of brilliant gifts, of great personal force, and many personal peculiarities. Departing from the fundamental principle of tolerance, she accused a fellow member, Mr. Judge, of deliberate misrepresentation in stating the sources of certain letters. As a matter of private personal opinion she was entitled to hold what view she pleased both as to the origin of these letters and of Mr. Judge. But when she made this view the basis of formal accusations of bad faith before the governing body of the Society, and sought to compel this body to institute a formal trial of Mr. Judge and decide between her view and his, she not only violated the primary rule of tolerance, but placed herself in conflict with the fundamental principles of individual freedom and the impartiality and impersonality of the Society's constitution.
Mr. Judge took his stand squarely on these principles. He refused utterly to explain or defend his view before such a court, contending that it was a question of his personal opinion, and, right or wrong, concerned the Society not at all. Should the Society as such try him formally, it would commit itself to one or another of two perfectly definite beliefs. It would not matter what judgment was rendered; any decision, other than that of lack of jurisdiction, would destroy the free and impartial character of the Theosophical Society. Each member was free to believe or disbelieve in his views, or to hold what opinion of him each might deem just, but the Society as such could not commit itself. The weight of this argument was immediately recognized, and the formal court of inquiry, which Mrs. Besant had sought to institute, was abandoned.
If it be asked today: "Were these letters from the source Mr. Judge claimed?" the reply, from the point of view of the Theosophical Society, must be precisely that upon which he himself insisted. It is impossible for the Society, as a Society, to pass judgment. Even if the personal opinion of some individual member were sought, a like confession of incompetence might be evoked. But by none who knew Mr. Judge's sterling honesty and life long devotion to the search for truth, would his personal sincerity and integrity be questioned ; and there are many, cognizant of the facts and trained in discrimination, who would answer with an unqualified affirmative:
- "Yes. For myself I know of my own knowledge, and am entirely convinced."
Yet the circumstances, and Mrs. Besant's nature, were such that suspicion and calumny took deep hold upon her, and, persisting in them and in her accusations, she and her following departed from the fundamental principles of the Society's life, and thus, though still using its name, separated themselves from its living organism. The orbit of her personal genius passed without the Society, carrying in its train — to psychic investigation and to a crystallized sectarian philosophy, — a large number of its former members. But the principles and freedom of the Theosophical Society remained inviolate.
18. Mrs. Tingley’s conflict with these principles
The inherent vitality and strength of these principles were demonstrated in the case of still a third woman of remarkable gifts and powers, who led what was generally considered a rather theatrical crusade around the world, using the name of the Society and for the promulgation of her understanding of Theosophy. In so doing she was entirely within her rights, as were those who followed and supported her. Whether her methods were good, bad, or indifferent, necessary or unnecessary, is, from the theosophical standpoint, wholly immaterial. It was the expression of her genius, and as such was good.
But when upon her return, flushed with her remarkable success, and uplifted by the adulation of her personal following, she sought to dominate a convention of the Society and enforce a pledge from its free membership to adopt her as its leader and to follow where she led, she was then in conflict with the fundamental principles of the Theosophical Society, and she and her following passed from out its ranks.
Many more instances might be given illustrative of the inviolability of the Society's guarantees of freedom and impartiality. From the Theosophical Society, as from a great ante-room, many doors are open. And those who have passed out, alone or taking others with them, whether to what they regard as some higher, better chamber, or, in disappointment, back whence they came, have still rendered to the Society deep and lasting service.
Gratitude is due them not only for their contributions as members — for the play and fruits of their genius and the sincerity of their views — but also for their leaving; for raising issues which revealed with added clearness the principles upon which the Society rests, and for the demonstration these issues offered of the enduring stability of its foundation.
In the Theosophical Society, where learning is through freedom of opinion, and sympathy and synthesis of views, and the object of learning is the Self, failure and success, folly and wisdom, weakness and strength alike have had their lesson. However many departed, to however many off shoots it gave birth, the free Society remained, fulfilling its original purposes, carrying out its fundamental principles, true to its appointed destiny. And from all it gained.
19. The history of the Theosophical Society as written
in the thought of the world
in the thought of the world
From even such a cursory review as this, we must return convinced that the true history of the Theosophical Society is neither in the history of its organization, nor of the personalities that have risen to prominence within it, but is rather in the growth and development of the principles which it embodies. We have seen that these constitute an intellectual attitude and a practical method, which the Society has made its own, but whose record must be sought in the thought of the world. Have they there grown and born fruit?
To answer this question it is only necessary to contrast the conditions of today with those of 1875. The sectarianism which then characterized all our thinking has given place to a more liberal spirit. On all sides old barriers have fallen, and what were formerly regarded as separate fields of knowledge have been recognized as one. Nowhere has this been more marked than in the great scientific discoveries of the last thirty years. Today each science leans on all the others.
Chemistry and physics have interblended and illumined one the other ; and by their twin processes we have penetrated deep into the mystery of the atom, as a man may descend a stair, placing his weight first on one foot and then upon the other. Or again they have lent their joint aid to astronomy, till through the photographic plate and spectroscopic analysis we have learned of invisible stars and recognized the elements flaming in the aura of the sun. Or still again they have been made instruments for the study of biology, and in turn have been themselves profoundly affected by the observations of stellar phenomena and by the doctrine of evolution arising from biological research.
It is, indeed, precisely where the barriers have fallen, and two streams of thought have poured their waters into one, that the greatest progress has been made. Problems which had proved stubborn and insoluble to direct attack, easily yielded their secret when the angle of approach was shifted and the light of other knowledge brought to bear upon them. The advance of science has been a testimony to the power and fruitfulness of the theosophic attitude and method.
It is noteworthy also that this advance has been in the direction indicated by the third object of the Society. Thirty-four years ago our knowledge of the ether was in its infancy; today it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that we know more of it than of any other form of matter. In this invisible, intangible medium we have found the source and seat of all electrical and chemical energy, and the tremendous potency of its forces, locked within a single atom, runs into figures we can express but hardly comprehend. We have come to realize that the visible and tangible is rather an effect than a cause, a shifting shadow and appearance of what is permanent, rather than its substance. And with this growing knowledge of Nature's finer forces, the old materialism of science is losing both its meaning and its hold.
The change of attitude in orthodox religion has been scarcely less revolutionary. The old dogmatic tone seems strange and alien to our modern thought. Sectarian strife and bitterness have given way to a more liberal spirit and the recognition of a common aim. Wider acquaintance with the Eastern scriptures has brought a clearer perception of the unity of theme and of testimony in all great religious systems; and from this has come a deepening sense of the reality of spiritual law.
Science is no longer regarded as the enemy of religion, but rather as one who, if he would, could be her chief interpreter. Unseeing materialism and unreasoning superstition, arrayed though they be one against the other, go hand in hand, and must together pass away. In the development of religious thought, no less than in science, the theosophic attitude and method have been operative and have proved their worth.
No greater triumph can come to any man of generous spirit than to see the ideals, for which he has long striven, triumphing in the world around him. Such a man will have no thought of self, for his personality has been sunk in the cause he serves. He will care little whether his own part was great or small, so long as he knows he did his best. The degree of personal credit which should accrue to him is a question he leaves to other minds. But it is a question which other minds are sure to ask, and which arises with regard to the Theosophical Society. Granted that the world has moved, granted, too, that its movement has been in the direction of the Society's ideals, and that the use of the theosophic attitude and method has played an important part in its progress, the question still remains: how much of this is due to the Society itself?
The answer falls under three main heads:
1) First, the Society must be credited with being the self-conscious exponent of the principles which are triumphing, with being the conscious leader of what has been otherwise a largely unconscious movement. We have seen that a third of a century ago the Society advocated and adopted an attitude and method totally at variance with the general thought of the time. Through all the vicissitudes of its history it has maintained these inviolate, and has continuously labored to advance certain ideals of freedom, tolerance, synthesis, and unity.
The world has followed; so that, in this direction, the Theosophical Society has led its evolution. It has not been the leadership of authority, for "the Theosophical Society has no personal authority to enforce or impose." But it has been that true leadership which wider vision, and stronger, conscious purpose can never fail to wield, even though those whom it guides do not recognize its presence.
2) Second, by inspiring its own members and giving freedom and opportunity to their genius, the Society has contributed, through them, directly to the change in the thought of world. To be treated adequately this heading would need both subdivision and amplification, for it covers a far wider field than is generally supposed.
The extent and variety of the Society's literary output have been already mentioned, and it was stated that in these books and articles many recent scientific theories and discoveries had been anticipated. It is quite true that for the most part they had been reached by other methods than those of modern science, and there is a wide gap between the enunciation of a scientific hypothesis and its experimental verification.
But to formulate a theory which is capable of the substantiation it later receives, is to render a service which can only be fully appreciated by the scientist who has confronted masses of phenomena to whose significance he has no clue. His difficulty is more often the stating of his problem than its solution, and once a clear statement is given him the thread is in his hands.
It is this quality of suggestiveness which characterizes Madame Blavatsky's books to a most unusual degree, and which constitutes a large part of the value of other papers in the Society's transactions. It is difficult to estimate the extent of its influence, as it would be difficult to determine what portion of the credit for our present submarine torpedo boats is properly ascribable to Jules Verne's conception in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.
He created a demand, quickening the imaginations of many men, skilled as perhaps he was not, until this demand was met, and through their persistent, collective labor his Nautilus became a fact. But the Society's contributions to science have not been limited to mere suggestiveness and the creating of a demand, for it has numbered among its members those who have played no small part in scientific progress.
To mention the names of Alfred Russel Wallace, Camille Flammarion, Thomas Edison, or Sir William Crookes, is to prove this point without further comment. Yet, in view of Sir William Crookes' acknowledgment of his indebtedness to Madame Blavatsky, it is interesting to note that from his experiments in “radiant matter” have come all the later discoveries of the X-rays, the Alpha and Beta rays, and the phenomena of radio-activity which have revolutionized our view of all material substance
The Society's direct contribution to the development and change in religious thought are even more easily traceable, as should have been made apparent by what has already been said of its activity in the study of comparative religion and in the popularization and interpretation of Eastern scriptures. Here also it both created a demand and did much to aid in its fulfillment. Greatest of all its contributions, however, was the demonstration it offered that sectarianism was not the basis of religion, but that our perception of spiritual law, as of natural law, was clarified by liberality and breadth of view.
The spirit of such books as James' Varieties of Religious Experience, or Fielding Hall's Inward Light and The Soul of a People, or those two remarkable volumes by an unknown author, The Creed of Christ and The Creed of Buddha, is the logical outcome of the pioneer work of the Society's members, and, but for it, would scarcely be possible today. In like manner the seed of the whole modernist movement in theology may be found in the view of the nature of truth which underlies the theosophic attitude and method.
3) As the third factor in its contribution must be reckoned the indirect effect the Society has had upon other organizations, in that many of its members have felt it their duty to take an active part in the civic, religious and scientific movements around them and to infuse these with the spirit of the thesophic attitude and method. The absolutely unsectarian character of the Theosophical Society is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in its influence upon its own members.
There has been no proselytizing, and very little weaning away from old forms of faith. More often has each member gained from its discussions a clearer perception of the truth his own creed reflects. The Christian has been made a better Christian, the Buddhist a better Buddhist by the recognition of their common tenets. It is strange that this could ever have been doubted, for when was a man's faith shaken by the discovery that another shared his belief in its truth?
To this freedom from the proselytizing spirit the Society owes a large part of its influence. Its members have remained scattered in all forms of denominational organization and have entered freely into the activities of the time, spreading the theosophic spirit and working "as the little leaven that leaveneth the whole lump." The Society has not aimed to become a large and powerful organization. To have done so would have been to defeat its own purpose. It seeks to be the nucleus of a universal brotherhood, by radiating and infusing the spirit of brotherhood throughout the entire world.
20. The theosophic spirit
As the essence of the Theosophical Society is intellectually an attitude and practically a method, so, ethically, it is a spirit, which is quickened by assuming the attitude and practicing the method, but which then becomes their basis. Just as, when children, we were told that if we would look pleasant and act kindly we would find the feelings of pleasure and kindliness springing up within us till their spirit became our own, so this theosophic spirit is first born of its expressions and then becomes their origin.
It is the wholeness of spirit which comes with the perception of the unity of life. In our relations with other men it shows as brotherliness, as sympathy and respect for their individuality. For the spirit of Christ's commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, and of Buddha's teaching of compassion, is not other than the theosophic spirit taken into the realm of ethical conduct.
To understand this spirit it is only necessary to understand the philosophy of unity and spiritual freedom which we have seen indicated in the stated objects of the Society. If we become indeed convinced of "the fundamental identity of all souls with the Universal Oversoul," that the universe is one, and that life is whole, our view both of ourselves and of others undergoes a profound change.
With Emerson we perceive that "we are open on one side to all the attributes of God. There is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases and God, the Cause, begins. The walls are taken away." These walls are the barriers of personality; and when they have fallen we no longer see ourselves isolated and separate from the whole of which we are a part.
We no longer seek to found our lives upon personal ambition or personal self-indulgence, for we have had a vision of a self transcending personality. We begin to live from within, rather than by external stimulus and reaction from an outer environment. We begin to find in "the attributes of God" a limitless source of power which can act through us, giving to the performance of the smallest duty a certain universal coloring and significance.
I remember once listening to an army officer tell of his experience when in absolute control of an isolated district in the tropics. His word was law, from which there was no appeal. Surely, he said, if man can be free to follow his own will, he was free then. Yet never was his personal will more negligible, never had he been compelled to set his personality so wholly aside. Case after case would be brought to him, by enemies and friends alike, for judgment; but into his decisions he found no personal prejudice or opinion could enter.
It was the universal quality of justice which must judge through him. He was bound hand and foot by his traditions and ideals. And this, he told me, had been to him a revelation of himself. Most men he fancied, viewed themselves as he had done, as a congeries of personal likes and dislikes, of ambitions and hopes and fears, together with a certain personal will to be true to the good as it appeared to them. But in the light of such experience he saw this "good" no longer as something imposed upon man, but as his truer, deeper self, and this congeries of personal qualities as but a mask through which this Self must speak.
When the personality is thus seen in its literal significance, as that through which a greater voice must sound, we come close to a realization of the ethical spirit of theosophy. Those whom it animates gradually become, in their own being, part of the great moral order, their wills attuned to the Divine Will, their righteousness the Breath of the Eternal Spirit, their lives the Word made flesh. To such the obligation of ethics is the demand of self consistency, and its basis is the nature of the Soul.
21. The theosophic life
Thus that which is intellectually an attitude, practically a method, and ethically a spirit, develops into what is, religiously, a life. It is a life of service, at once of meditation and of ceaseless activity. For within and above man is infinite power and around him is infinite need. His outer life stands as the finite link between the two, but in the inner life he recognizes his oneness with them both. Of him self he can neither give nor claim, but through him the infinite may answer to the infinite.
It is a life of growth,—of growth toward the deeper Self and central Oversoul. As the mind is turned toward the Truth behind all truths, as the principle of spiritual unity is made active in our dealings with others, as the individual will is attuned to the Divine Will, the old limitations of consciousness are little by little transcended, and the nature transformed. We see new richness and meaning in life, and that which before seemed cold and distant is suddenly perceived glowing within our own hearts and vibrant with spiritual light. The kingdom of the heavens is seen as indeed "at hand," to be entered here and now by those who have at once the courage and the strength.
Above all it is a life of communion — a deepening sense of companionship with the great of soul. It is not alone that high communion which Dante depicts in the Elysian fields, where the sublime sages of the pagan past, grave and reverend and noble men, walk and converse together, but where over all is a grey mist, and their figures are dim and vague. Rather is it touched with the rapture of his paradise, and lit by the light, however distant, of the flaming heart of the rose; for it is the communion of love. Such a communion did Christ promise to those who loved Him.
"He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that Ioveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. If a man love me he will keep my words: and my Father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with him."
The test of any scheme or philosophy of life lies in living it, and its significance is the life to which it leads. So in the theosophic life is the deepest significance and test of the principles upon which the Theosophical Society is founded. Because of this, and because the inspiration and vitality of the theosophical movement flow in large part from its ethical spirit and religious life, we have touched upon them here. But they concern the esoteric rather than the exoteric aspect of the movement, and are not properly dealt with as part of its organism. The great exoteric Society is wholly free.
Its members may accept or reject what they will of ethical spirit or religious life. The Theosophical Society, as such, implies only an attitude and a method; and to these it has been unfalteringly true.
(The Theosophical Quarterly, January 1910, vol. 7, p.218-240)