So-called “Heresies”: Can Modern Theosophy be considered the Successor of Neoplatonism?
In Key to Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky calls the Theosophical Society the modern successor of the Neoplatonic School. I say, this would have come true, if only Theosophy managed to stay on its original track a little longer into the twentieth-century. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Neoplatonism in the first paragraph basically explains what the Theosophical School sought to do. The Gnostics are often taken to task, as they even were by Plotinus himself in the ninth tractate of the second Enneads (II.9), in regards to what he critiqued as the irrationality of the Gnostics and their disparagement of the physical world (II.9). Theosophy explain the Gnostics more than critique them. Plotinus viewed himself as Greek and a Platonist, and his message was the last message of Greek philosophy to the world. It was German scholars in the mid-nineteenth century that coined the term Neoplatonism, to distinguish the ideas of later Greek and Roman Platonists from those of Plato. According to Augustine, the successors of Plotinus were not considered Platonists, when to Porphyry he remarked, “Thou didst learn these things, not from Plato, but from thy Chaldean masters.” Then again, this highlights that Christian tendency similar to Jews to idealize their heroes and demonize their foes, as to myths about Babylonian Chaldea — an attitude we as Theosophists do not share. While, Christians found in Neoplatonism, a system common with Christianity in the mysticism of its apostles, John and Paul, Theosophy presented to the West more than the proposal of a shared metaphysical idealism with Christianity. As I see it, Christianity did not need this. H.P. Blavatsky basically explains, that the raison d’être of the Theosophical Movement is to wage a war on all dogmatic religious forces obstructing esoteric truths and historical facts of their origins. It argued, that the battle that ended the Gnostic movement was far from over, that a new Buddhist propaganda was being prepared, and that Theosophists have entered the fray to defend and equip Asia with the knowledge to contend with the Christian missionaries. The attempts at Christianizing Theosophy, despite the efforts or statements of Rudolf Steiner tired of the anti-Christian attitude in the Theosophical Society, only served to always obstruct the message of Theosophy to the world. Attempts to blend Christianity and messianic fervor with Theosophy to make it more palatable, according to such persons, only made Theosophy more of a target to angered Christians who went on a rabid campaign throughout the entire twentieth-century denouncing Indian religio-cultural influences, the Neo-Wiccan and “New Age movement” like a frantic child with a bee caught in his eye. Christian establishments resorted to old strategies, even though the Theosophists were already contending with the Spiritualists. Theosophists had more than Christianity to tackle, attempting to intervene in the conflict between Science, Atheism, Modernization and Religion. The Christian opponents of Porphyry in their attempts to discredit him and fabricate stories about him, forgot that Porphyry studied directly under Plotinus in Rome in 263 C.E., after studying under the scholar Longinus in Athens. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry shows, those called Neoplatonists did not limit Greek philosophy to Plato, but understanding Plato was essential. H.P. Blavatsky attempts to demonstrate her understanding of Plato, and show there was more to Plato’s philosophy not able to be gleaned by those early Christians in the Key to Theosophy. The Torah was known widely to the Greek philosophers already, before the “New Testament,” and Porphyry utilized his scholarly acumen to dissect the Bible. Porphyry produced a fifteen volume critique of Christianity, but the failure of the influence of his work, Against the Christians, was mainly due to the fact the book was banned in numerous imperial edicts, such as that in connection with the Council of Nicaea. The Neoplatonic priority of reason, expressed by Porphyry is also similar to the Theosophists, which Porphyry and the Roman sages critique in their initial encounters with Christianity as lacking. Christians studied the pagan philosophers, not merely because some intellectual Christians like Augustine found its qualities attractive and similar to Christianity, but because they sought to hone their arguments against the pagan philosophers to end their influence. A common tactic employed in the developing Christian argumentation of that time was to quote the pagan philosophers before attacking them. This tactic apparently is still overused, finding them utilized on both a Anti-Masonic and Orthodox Traditionalist Blog. It is certain, that in conversation for many years with Christians, certain authorities like Augustine and Irenaeus are always mentioned first, as if I believed their arguments settled the great conflict as to what are called “heresies,” for they have not from a philosophical, nor archaeological and historical standpoint.
Scholars are changing how we view these things, drastically.
It is in my experience, that certain Christians often lurk and find interest in such philosophy only to argue against with Scripture. Pablo Sender explained, that many theosophists adopted the Neoplatonic point-of-view (see Gnosticism and Theosophy), which we can see throughout the literature. The following passages below belong to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Neoplatonism and H.P. Blavatsky’s magazine article directly addressing Christian readers, because both complement each other along with the commentary.
“The term “Neoplatonism” refers to a philosophical school of thought that first emerged and flourished in the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity, roughly from the time of the Roman Imperial Crisis to the Arab conquest, i.e., the middle of the 3rd to the middle of the 7th century. In consequence of the demise of ancient materialist or corporealist thought such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, Neoplatonism became the dominant philosophical ideology of the period, offering a comprehensive understanding of the universe and the individual human being’s place in it. However, in contrast to labels such as “Stoic”, “Peripatetic” or “Platonic”, the designation “Neoplatonic” is of modern coinage and to some extent a misnomer. Late antique philosophers now counted among “the Neoplatonists” did not think of themselves as engaged in some sort of effort specifically to revive the spirit and the letter of Plato’s dialogues. To be sure, they did call themselves “Platonists” and held Plato’s views, which they understood as a positive system of philosophical doctrine, in higher esteem than the tenets of the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, or any other subsequent thinker. However, and more importantly, their signature project is more accurately described as a grand synthesis of an intellectual heritage that was by then exceedingly rich and profound. In effect, they absorbed, appropriated, and creatively harmonized almost the entire Hellenic tradition of philosophy, religion, and even literature—with the exceptions of Epicureanism, which they roundly rejected, and the thoroughgoing corporealism of the Stoics. The result of this effort was a grandiose and powerfully persuasive system of thought that reflected upon a millennium of intellectual culture and brought the scientific and moral theories of Plato, Aristotle, and the ethics of the Stoics into fruitful dialogue with literature, myth, and religious practice. In virtue of their inherent respect for the writings of many of their predecessors, the Neoplatonists together offered a kind of meta-discourse and reflection on the sum-total of ideas produced over centuries of sustained inquiry into the human condition.
As a natural consequence of their insistence on the undiminished relevance of the past, the Neoplatonists developed their characteristically speculative brand of philosophical enquiry in which empirical facts tended to serve as illustrations rather than heuristic starting points or test cases. Today, the Neoplatonic system may strike one as lofty, counterintuitive, and implausible, but to dismiss it out of hand is difficult, especially if one is prepared to take seriously a few fundamental assumptions that are at least not obviously wrong and may possibly be right.” (ibid.)
BLAVATSKY ADDRESSES CHRISTIAN READERS ABOUT THEOSOPHY
H.P. Blavatsky, Lucifer, Vol. I, No. 4, December, 1887, pp. 242-251: “The Christian reader is no doubt aware that Theosophy is not a religion, but a philosophy, which is both religious and scientific; and that the chief work, so far, of the Theosophical Society has been to revive in each religion its own animating spirit, by encouraging and helping enquiry into the true significance of its doctrines and observances. Theosophists know that the deeper one penetrates into the meaning of the dogmas and ceremonies of all religions, the greater becomes their apparent underlying similarity, until finally a perception of their fundamental unity is reached. This common ground is no other than Theosophy—the Secret Doctrine of the ages; which, diluted and disguised to suit the capacity of the multitude, and the requirements of the time, has formed the living kernel of all religions.
The Theosophical Society has branches respectively composed of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Christians and Freethinkers, who work together as brethren on the common ground of Theosophy; and it is precisely because Theosophy is not a religion, nor can for the multitude supply the place of a religion, that the success of its teachings has been so great, not merely as regards its growing membership and extending influence, but also in respect to the cultivation of the sentiment of compassion and wisdom among human beings on this globe.
We Theosophists believe that a religion is a natural incident in the life of man in his present stage of development; and that although, in rare cases, individuals may be born without the religious sentiment, a community must have a religion, that is to say, a uniting bond—under penalty of social decay and material annihilation. We believe that no religious doctrine can be more than an attempt to picture to our present limited understandings, in the terms of our terrestrial experiences, great cosmical and spiritual truths, which in our normal state of consciousness we vaguely sense, rather than actually perceive and comprehend; and a revelation, if it is to reveal anything, must necessarily conform to the same earthbound requirements of the human intellect.
In our estimation, therefore, no religion can be absolutely true, and none can be absolutely false. A religion is true in proportion as it supplies the spiritual, moral and intellectual needs of the time, and helps the development of mankind in these respects. It is false in proportion as it hinders that development, and offends the spiritual, moral and intellectual portion of man’s nature. And the transcendentally spiritual ideas of the ruling powers of the Universe entertained by an Oriental sage would be as false a religion for the African savage as the grovelling fetishism of the latter would be for the sage, although both views must necessarily be true in degree, for both represent the highest ideas attainable by the respective individuals of the same cosmico-spiritual facts, which can never be known in their reality by man while he remains but man. Theosophists, therefore, are respecters of all the religions, and for the religious ethics of Jesus they have profound admiration. It could not be otherwise, for these teachings which have come down to us are the same as those of Theosophy. So far, therefore, as modern Christianity makes good its claim to be the practical religion taught by Jesus, Theosophists are with it heart and hand. But the historical truth about the gospels is another issue. . .
So far as the Christian doctrine goes contrary to those ethics, pure and simple, Theosophists are its opponents. Any Christian can, if he will, compare the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospels with the dogmas of his church, and the spirit that breathes in it, with the principles that animate this Christian civilisation and govern his own life; and then he will be able to judge for himself how far the religion of Jesus enters into his Christianity, and how far, therefore, he and Theosophists are agreed. But professing Christians, especially the clergy, shrink from making this comparison. Like merchants who fear to find themselves bankrupt, they seem to dread the discovery of a discrepancy in their accounts which could not be made good by placing material assets as a set-off to spiritual liabilities. The comparison between the teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of the churches has, however frequently been made—and often with great learning and critical acumen—both by those who would abolish Christianity and those who would reform it; and the aggregate result of these comparisons . . . goes to prove that in almost every point the doctrines of the churches and the practices of Christians are in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus.
We are accustomed to say to the Buddhist, the Mohammedan, the Hindoo, or the Parsee: “The road to Theosophy lies, for you, through your own religion.” We say this because those creeds possess a deeply philosophical and esoteric meaning, explanatory of the allegories under which they are presented to the people; but we cannot say the same thing to Christians. The successors of the Apostles never recorded the secret doctrine of Jesus—the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”—which it was given to them (his apostles) alone to know. These have been suppressed, made away with, destroyed. What have come down upon the stream of time are the maxims, the parables, the allegories and the fables which Jesus expressly intended for the spiritually deaf and blind to be revealed later to the world, and which modern Christianity either takes all literally, or interprets according to the fancies of the Fathers of the secular church. In both cases they are like cut flowers: they are severed from the plant on which they grew, and from the root whence that plant drew its life. Were we, therefore, to encourage Christians, as we do the votaries of other creeds, to study their own religion for themselves, the consequence would be, not a knowledge of the meaning of its mysteries, but either the revival of mediaeval superstition and intolerance, accompanied by a formidable outbreak of mere lip-prayer and preaching or else a great increase of scepticism, for Christianity has no esoteric foundation known to those who profess it.
For even you, and all priests, bishops, cardinals, and Pope must be painfully aware that you know absolutely no more of those “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” which Jesus taught his disciples, than does the humblest and most illiterate member of your church. And if you do, why do you not act in accordance with true teachings of the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”?”
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