Through the centuries, the word “theosophist” has been given a wide range of meaning. This article will attempt to survey how the word is understood by leading theosophical writers and commentators.
While the word “theosophy” has been in use since the second century CE when Ammonius Saccas established the Eclectic School, the term “theosophist” was not applied to the followers of Ammonius. Today, they are known as Neo-Platonists, with Plotinus as the leading example.
The term “theosophist” (or “theosopher”) was first popularly applied to Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), the Teutonic mystic, who wrote, among other works, a book entitled Six Theosophic Points. The term implies one who has acquired “divine wisdom,” which can be taken to be the intuitive perception of the larger order of things, and who lives according to such perception. Two other persons who were influenced by Boehme and who have been called theosophers were Johan Georg Gichtel (1628-1710) known as the “Theosopher of Amsterdam,” and Louise-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803) whose published letters were called “Theosophical Correspondence.” Common among them were the cosmogonical and mystical elements of their teachings.
It was with the advent of the Theosophical Society that the term “theosophist” became widely popular. The Theosophical Society however had no official definition of “theosophy” and theosophist. It was left to individual writers to define what a theosophist is supposed to be.
Helena P. Blavatsky, the principal co-founder of the Theosophical Society, distinguished between a member of the Theosophical Society and a true theosophist. The former may not be a true theosophist, and the latter may or may not be a member of the TS. “True Theosophists, as true Christians are very, very few” (CW VIII:159). Scattered throughout her writings, she mentions certain characteristics of a true theosophist:
a. An understanding of the wisdom teachings with its implications. She states, for example, that no true theosophist will fall into the error of an anthropomorphic or extra-cosmic god, and must fight superstition and bigotry in all its forms.
b. An effort to live the principles of the wisdom in his or her life. Fundamental to this is selflessness and self-mastery. “The one self has to forget itself for the many selves” (Key to Theosophy, Sec. 4). Blavatsky outlines the duty of a true theosophist: “To control and conquer, through the Higher, the lower self. To purify himself inwardly and morally; to fear no one, and nought, save the tribunal of his own conscience. Never to do a thing by halves; i.e., if he thinks it the right thing to do, let him do it openly and boldly, and if wrong, never touch it at all” (ibid., Sec. 12).
c. Embracing the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction. “A true theosophist must be a cosmopolitan in his heart. He must embrace mankind, the whole of humanity in his philanthropic feelings” (CW X:199).
d. Selfless service to humanity. She describes, for example, Fr. Damien as “a true theosophist.” Fr. Damien was a Catholic priest who devoted his life in the Molokai Islands to help the lepers and who died of the disease himself. As Fr. Damien was not known to have studied theosophy, it is apparent that Blavatsky was referring to his selflessness and service to humanity as the main qualities of being a true theosophist. “To become a true theosophist — i.e., one thoroughly imbued with altruistic feelings, with a willingness to forget self, and readiness to help his neighbour to carry the burden of life . . .” (CW VIII:32). The famous Maha-chohan Letter confirms this: “It is . . . the self-sacrificing pursuit of the best means to lead on the right path our neighbour, to cause as many of our fellow-creatures as we possibly can to benefit by it, which constitutes the true theosophist” (LMW I, Letter 1).
Blavatsky further states that the true theosophist must be a person of action, and not just in intention:
But no Theosophist has the right to this name, unless he is thoroughly imbued with the correctness of Carlyle’s truism: “The end of man is an action and not a thought, though it were the noblest” — and unless he sets and models his daily life upon this truth. The profession of a truth is not yet the enactment of it; and the more beautiful and grand it sounds, the more loudly virtue or duty is talked about instead of being acted upon, the more forcibly it will always remind one of the Dead Sea fruit. Cant is the most loathsome of all vices. (Key to Theosophy, Sec. 12)
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