Theosophy and Who Theosophists Are: History of a Word
THE NEOPLATONISTS, DIOGENES AND THE GREEK ORIGIN OF THE TERM THEOSOPHY, CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM & THE 1875 THEOS. SOC.
There are multiple ways to describe Theosophy, whether technical, mystical, from the special point-of-view of the mystic through their experience, or in describing the ancient wisdom of peoples and religions throughout human history. We must go outside of a Eurocentric view (e.g., of Classical Antiquity) to do so. Lets begin in the East in the Mediterranean, with the basics, the etymology that comes from the classical Greek language, and the way in which this term is still used, so that it may be able to regain meaning for us in our times within or outside of any association. Firstly, there are two connotations to the word “Theosophy” being (1) traditional theosophy in association with the Alexandrian Neo-Platonists and Christian Protestant use of the term predating the 1875 Theosophical Society founded in New York. This traditional theosophy is “itself an expression in various cultures and times of the Primordial Theosophy, which was the gift of superhuman agents and is the birthright of humanity” (THEOSOPHY, Theosophical Encyclopedia). Prior to 1875, after the death of Emmanuel Swedenborg in 1772, an organization was founded in 1784 in London with the name of “Theosophical Society” to publish the works of Swedenborg. The theology of Swedenborg is Christian-centric, and he did not profess a belief in the doctrine of reincarnation, but Swedenborg anticipates several doctrines to be found in both Spiritualism and Theosophy.
This first connotation of the term Theosophy commonly refers to ‘divine inspiration’ or ‘intuition.’ The word theosophy comes from the Greek theos “god” and sophia “wisdom.” Providing a brief glossary of the term Theosophy, it describes a characteristic way of approaching and interpreting the world. Theosophists carried on this method and influenced a period of philosophical revival. There are many individuals that can be described as propagators of this traditional theosophy in the past before the 1875 Movement such as sources shaped in the Renaissance, like Christian kabbalah, Hermetic and revivalist Neoplatonic thinking.
A few of these names come to mind, such as: Gabriel Mathieu Marconis de Nègre, Antoine-Joseph Pernety, Martinez de Pasqually, A.E. Ragon, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Frère Chastanier featured on this Timeline of Templars to the Enlightenment (1075-1875). Some listed here are Freemasons and proponents of Protestant theosophy. The Neo-Platonists were Analogeticists — “on account of their method of interpreting all sacred legends, symbolical myths and mysteries, by a rule of analogy or correspondence, so that events which had occurred in the external world were regarded as expressing operations and experiences of the human soul” (Helena Blavatsky, What Is Theosophy). The origins of an “ancestral Gnosis” through the Neo-Platonists (Jean-Louis Siemons: “Theosophy” in Neo-Platonic and Christian Literature) were traced to the Ptolemaic dynasties, and antedated Ptolemy I Soter according to Diogenes Laërtius, and were passed down and meant for those their contemporaries styled “theodidaktoi” (god-taught).
In the second connotation (2) modern Theosophy on the other hand derives primarily from the writings of several figures who founded the Theosophical Society, specifically H.P. Blavatsky. Blavatsky’s first use of the term was in a private letter to Hiram P. Corson (February 1875), directly derived from Christian D. Ginsburg’s The Kabbalah Its Doctrine, Development and literature: An Essay (1865). The word entered the ‘Theosophical Society’ at a pre-formation gathering, 13 September 1875, when it was derived from Webster’s American Dictionary (1868). Thereafter Blavatsky only used the word ‘Theosophy’ four times between 1874-1878 in which Alexander Wilder’s New Platonism and Alchemy (1869) was her primary source.
Blavatsky’s innovative connotations used to refer to an absolute Truth made Theosophy synonymous with ‘Wisdom-Religion’ to describe the ancient common source of all religions and magical knowledge. Theosophists explained that the term Theosophia implies in its etymology, not belief in a personal extra-cosmic (i.e., outside of Space and Time) god as in Christian theology, but signifies knowledge concerning the real nature of man and higher occult wisdom, or real magical knowledge as is possessed by the gods. In technical terms, not “the Wisdom of God” as commonly defined, but divine hidden wisdom as is held by (or of) [and is intelligible to] ‘the gods,’ involving practical experience and interaction with super-sensible reality. This technical distinction, seemingly small at first has an importance. H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophy in Context explains how Blavatsky uses the concept ‘Theosophy’ in her primary discourses and writings for (1) discourse for ancient knowledge and ethics; (2) discourse against Christian dogmatism, (3) discourse against the modern natural sciences and materialism, (4) discourse against modern spiritualism, (5) discourse for system and (7) discourse for universal brotherhood. Number 7 may include, given the history of the Theosophical Movement, discourse for diplomacy and religious pluralism. Blavatsky’s exposition of specific occult doctrines stems from early book learning as a child, her life experiences studying in other religious communities and primarily, derived from what she called ‘trans-Himalayan esotericism’ — from her teachers and their school, which she professed to be a student and emissary of. Blavatsky’s discourse for ancient knowledge she refers to as the Wisdom of the Ages is the major theme in her works and theosophical discourse (see Tim Rudbøg’s PhD Thesis on Blavatsky).
WHO ARE THEOSOPHISTS
“A name by which many mystics at various periods of history have called themselves. The Neo-Platonists of Alexandria were Theosophists; the Alchemists and Kabbalists during the mediæval ages were likewise so called, also the Martinists, the Quietists, and other kinds of mystics, whether acting independently or incorporated in a brotherhood or society. All real lovers of divine Wisdom and Truth had, and have, a right to the name, rather than those who, appropriating the qualification, live lives or perform actions opposed to the principles of Theosophy. As described by Brother Kenneth R. Mackenzie, the Theosophists of the past centuries—“entirely speculative, and founding no schools, have still exercised a silent influence upon philosophy; and, no doubt, when the time arrives, many ideas thus silently propounded may yet give new directions to human thought. One of the ways in which these doctrines have obtained not only authority, but power, has been among certain enthusiasts in the higher degrees of Masonry. This power has, however, to a great degree died with the founders, and modern Freemasonry contains few traces of theosophic influence.” (THEOSOPHISTS, THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY)
There have been several ardent and diligent Masons and Philaletheians since her time, that have been inspired to do just this.