Jean-Louis Siemons: “Theosophy” in Neo-Platonic and Christian Literature
Dr. Jean-Louis Siémons article Theosofia in Neo-Platonic and Christian Literature (2nd to 6th Century A.D.), Theosophical History Centre, London, 1988, pp. 24-26. Dr. Siémons was an Associate of the United Lodge of Theosophists for over fifty years. This is to give us perspective on the 19th century Theosophical Movement’s place within the broader scope of theosophical currents and history.
Summary and Conclusions from Louis Siémons:
“In view of the data made available, the following may be said:
1) The origin of the term théosophia is unknown, but certainly posterior to the classical period of Grecian literature. There is no certain evidence of its appearance before our era. At least, the ideas it conveys were familiar to initiated philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato or Plutarch.
2) It is not the property of any one system: It may have been used by various currents nourished at the source of the Greek culture.
3) The use of the term by the early Neo-Platonists (Ammonius and Plotinus) remains an open question. There is no evidence of their calling themselves “Eclectic theosophists”. Later writers, from Porphyry to Damascius, never called themselves théosophoi. However, in our days, French scholars currently apply the term théosophe to one or the other of the Neo-Platonic authors, and allude to their théosophie.
4) First of the Neo-Platonists to quote théosophia, Porphyry speaks of it with the respect and consideration due to a really divine wisdom that can be reached by the elect: the théosophoi are for him pure mystical philosophers, made divine by their spiritual discipline. As there was, beyond question, an esoteric side to the Neo-Platonic school (as in many other systems of Hellenic or oriental origins) one can assume that a théosophos must have been also an initiate, in Porphyry’s mind.
5) With later Neo-Platonists, the Chaldaean (and possibly Egyptian) theurgy added to this initiatic aspect. To disciples and outsiders, the Neo-Platonic masters often appeared as hierophants and thaumaturgists, as much as great philosophers.
6) In the nascent current of learned philosophers among Christians (like Pantaenus, Clement, etc.), Platonic and other doctrines were studied, in order to select the valuable aspects of them – partly for Church propaganda (1). As they freely used the Greek language (in the Alexandrian metropolis, or Athens), some leading Church Fathers may have taken, quite as freely, the term théosophia for their own use, the more so that it reminded them of St. Paul’s Théou sophia (God’s wisdom).
7) While with the later Neo-Platonists the term théosophia eventually appeared to designate one spiritual doctrine or the other, in the same time its use seemed to spread through the Christian world, but with the latter the difference between théosophia and théologia (2) often vanished. Whereas primitively the word théosophos served to qualify a God-inspired biblical personage, in later periods it came to be applied even to respected theologians or Church authorities.
8) With the remarkable Pseudo-Dionysius, a Christian and a pure mystic philosopher, inspired of the lofty views of Proclus and the transcendental pantheism of Plotinus, the history of the term théosophia reached a turning point. He was himself called “the most théosophos (divinely inspired) of theologians” (théosophotatou én théologios). His influence was widely spread, even to reach the Sufi mysticism of Islam. Through the Latin translations of his works, the aura of the Areopagite enlightened many scholars in the West, including St. Thomas Aquinas; nearly all learned mystics felt his inspiration (e.g. Eckhart, Tauler, Ruysbroeck, etc.). Through him it is – most probably – that the term théosophia was handed over to all the future generations of European mystics who, in course of time, even appropriated the term and called themselves theosophs (theosophers or theosophists). With them, the reference to Theosophie (or the corresponding terms in various languages) became quite current. The list of Christian theosophists of this new category is very long, including great figures like Paracelsus, Boehme, Gichtel, Eckhartshausen, L.-C. de Saint-Martin, etc. The “Philadelphian Society” (which was animated by a Boehmian leader, Jane Leade) is quoted in the Key to Theosophy (H.P. Blavatsky, Chap. II).
9) The avatars of the term théosophia under its Christian facets, from the Middle Ages to our days, belong to another page of the history of mysticism, that could be outlined in another occasion (3)
10) When H.P. Blavatsky appeared on the scene, she alluded to Theosophy (4) before the foundation of the Theosophical Society in 1875. Apparently she did not herself propose the name for the new society, but in course of time, when she presented her doctrines through articles and books, she adopted for them the general name Theosophy – with a capital T. In doing this, most certainly, she referred not to the Christian witnesses of the later European tradition but directly to the illustrious Neo-Platonists whose pure mystical philosophy bears the stamp of the universal Théo-sophia of the ages.”
Paris, November, 1987
(1) In the pagan world of the 2nd/3rd centuries, Christian leaders felt the need to make themselves heard and respected, by using a language that could have an impact in highly civilized cities. But, while appropriating many purely Platonic notions, they often delighted in denouncing apparent or real incongruities in the philosophies of the “Pagans” and even “demonstrating” that, for the better aspects, Plato had … but copied Moses. See for instance Clement’s Stromata, Book II, I: “The Greeks (are) pilferers of the barbarian (Jewish) philosophy (…) they have plagiarized and falsified (…) the chief dogmas they hold,” … etc.
(2) In later times, many Church writers made the confusion and translated the Greek théosophia into the Latin theologia [theology] – which reduced the meaning to an intellectual speculation about God, when it did not mean God’s Thought and Will as expressed through the Scriptures.
(3) I touched upon this question in my French article “Les chemins de la Théosophie” [De l’Antiquité au Xxe siècle: Les chemins de la Théosophie, the publication of this rather lengthy article has been delayed to this day, for technical reasons.]
(4) In an article dated July 1875 (H.P.B. Coll. Writ. I, p. 110), she wrote: “Before that, all the mysterious doctrines had come down in an unbroken line of merely oral traditions as far back as man could trace himself on earth. They were scrupulously and jealously guarded by the Wise Men of Chaldaea, India, Persia and Egypt, and passed from one initiate to another, in the same purity of form as when handed down to the first man by the angels, students of God’s great Theosophic Seminary.”