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What is Theosophy and What is Not?

What Is Theosophy And What Is Not? by Geoffrey Farthing
Geoffrey Farthing

Geoffrey Farthing

T.D., C. Eng,. M.I.E.E.


Geoffrey Farthing - biography

First published as 'What Theosophy is Not' in 'The Theosophist' magazine May-June 1971, at which time Geoffrey Farthing was General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in England. Subsequently reprinted as 'What is Theosophy'

Because it seemed to me that the views of both the public and of many members of The Theosophical Society were confused on the nature and Objects of the Society, I tried, in an article (What is The Theosophical Society?) published in 'The Theosophist' of November 1969 (go to article), to clarify these views by making some definite statements as to what the Society was not and then, putting forward some ideas on what it was or was supposed to be.  This analysis seems to have been acceptable and helpful.  It now seems to me that a similar attempt at clarification is even more necessary for Theosophy itself.  

First let us see what most definitely Theosophy is not -

It is not:

(1) a religion as such; certainly not one derived from any other or others;

(2) a spiritualistic nor psychic cult;

(3) a dogma, creed nor sect; it was not made up or invented by anyone;

(4) a speculative philosophy; not a concoction from or of any schools of philosophy;

(5) a system of necromancy, divination, nor any of the ceremonial magic arts, certainly not of the black variety;

(6) a system of thought nor a specific set of ideas;

(7) a matter of opinion, belief nor concept, neither yours, mine nor anyone else's;

(8) a means of self-aggrandisement nor of satisfying personal wants, ambitions nor cravings, nor even of personal needs;

(9) anything deliberately kept secret; it is not with­held from anyone;

(10) incompatible with any fact or truth in Nature, nor with anything moral, decent, kind or helpful, nor with anything sane and reasonable.

The common views of Theosophy outside the Society and in some quarters within it include the following:

It is something of a religious nature, mostly Eastern, with spiritualist or psychic associations, but that it is limited and sectarian in character with some unusual beliefs, particularly on reincarnation to which some very peculiar meanings are given.

In the minds of many it is associated with the occult arts. It is actually fraudulent, or bordering on it.

It was made up, or concocted from other religions by Mrs Besant; possibly Madame Blavatsky had something to do with it and she was a proven charlatan.

It is closely allied to various unorthodox movements.  Various names of more or less celebrity or notoriety are associated with it, notably Krishnamurti who abandoned all connection with it.

There are various Theosophical movements but they are at variance with one another.

There is common confusion between Theosophy and the Theosophical Society.  We dealt with the Theosophical Society and its Objects in the previous article (go to article). Within the Society, which in its Objects let it be remembered does not mention Theosophy; there are widely divergent and strongly held views about it.  These views are broadly in categories:

First, there are those who have no views.  The Objects of the Society [1] appeal to them for one reason or another but they do no study of a "Theosophical“ nature, nor are they interested in it as a subject. They therefore have but vague ideas about it.

Second, there are those who feel it to be nothing specific in itself; that anyone has a right to declare a Theosophical point of view or tenet quite unsupported by any other than his own opinion on the matter. These are those who claim that Theosophy has never been defined.

Third, there are those who feel Theosophy to be something specific but that it must be entirely related to a man's own individual insight. The members of this group are those who cannot tolerate any idea of authority or teaching in this matter. They are completely confident that the material given us in books is otherwise available to them through their own direct, unaided, inner sight and that this is the only proper channel of knowing. Paradoxically this group is composed largely of earnest students of "Theosophical" technical literature.  Amongst them however are those who would say that the literature cannot be relied on. They say we do not know that it is genuine or that it has not been tampered with.

Fourth, there are those, who; whilst agreeing broadly with principles of individual freedom and trusting to their own intuitions, nevertheless study.  As a result of this study they maintain that Theosophy is something quite specific in its own right. Some of these students would maintain that authentic information about it is contained, with possible minor exceptions, only in the works of H. P. Blavatsky. They justify this view on the inherent quality of that literature and the "authority" of its Initiate author or authors.

Because of the freedoms in our Society, it is obviously difficult to discuss a subject as controversial as this, without the risk of appearing to argue against someone's point of view, but it is felt that Theosophy is an important enough subject for us to risk this in order to see if we can establish something definite about it.

Second - What then is Theosophy?

Let us start with some statements and see if they can be justified.  The word "sophia” from which Theosophy is partly derived means, in the old Greek, wisdom or divine wisdom.  The "theos" part is again an old Greek word, having to do with divinity.  The Latin “deus," god, comes from the same original stem.  There are various meanings given to the two words combined.  That used by H. P. Blavatsky in her early literature after the modern Theosophical movement was founded, was "Divine Wisdom such as that possessed by the Gods".  The name comes to us, she says, from some Alexandrian philosophers calling themselves lovers of truth.  She says the word was used in the third century by some people calling themselves Analogeticists, because of the practice of interpreting all sacred legends and narratives, myths and mysteries by a rule or principle of analogy and correspondence, so that events which were related as having occurred in the external world were regarded as expressing operations and experiences of the human soul.

So Theosophy is knowledge (sophia), not belief nor opinion.  But before we have the knowledge; on our hearing about it we either believe or we do not.  To this extent Theosophy can be regarded as merely a matter of belief for us.  In describing an early Theosophical system of training requiring certain beliefs and practices, Madame Blavatsky says "by returning to one's pristine purity of nature, man could move the Gods (personified forces in Nature, GAF.) to impart to him Divine Mysteries."[2] This practice she calls Theurgy or "divine wisdom". The beliefs required of the would-be practitioner were similar to but shorter than, the three fundamental propositions of Theosophy given in the Proem to The Secret Doctrine (which please see).  It is remarkable that the mere mention of these propositions has become distasteful to some members.

Theosophy then has to do with the "operations and experiences of the human soul[3] .  It rests on some fundamental data.  It leads to a revelation, by direct experience, of certain mysteries and it eventually endows its devotee with power to perform "divine work".  So Theosophy is: knowledge and a knowledge gained through certain soul experiences.  It is therefore something quite definite and in the right conditions provable empirically.  To that extent it is scientific fact.

Deducing and inferring from this power-producing aspect of Theosophy, we can say that:

(1) it is knowledge of the powers and qualities of Nature;

(2) it is knowledge of universal law and of the laws of Nature at all levels of being, the physical, psychic, mental, super mental and spiritual;

(3) it is knowledge of the inner and outer forces, powers, and energies and of the varieties of substance and life forms in the Universe (macrocosm) and Man ( microcosm);

(4) it is knowledge of the various modes of consciousness, actually and potentially available, to man, and all creatures;

(5) it is knowledge of the origins, principles and processes of existence;

(6) it is knowledge of all that comprises man in his active, feeling and thinking being and living.

It is known in all these aspects only to Initiates and to those of them of sufficient degree.  Theosophy is also referred to as the "Wisdom-Religion".  H.P. Blavatsky says "All the old worships indicate the existence of a single Theosophy anterior to them ..." (see Key to Theosophy, Section 1, Meaning of the Name.)   "The Wisdom-Religion was ever one and the same, and being the last word of possible human knowledge [my italics - Author] was therefore carefully preserved ... amongst Initiates of every country, among profound seekers after truth, their disciples ..."  In another place in The Key to Theosophy it is referred to as "superhuman knowledge" obtainable by "metaphysical and alchemical processes".

To become possessed of Theosophy it is necessary, as we have said, to become an Initiate. This should be borne in mind when we, as student seekers, claim to know for ourselves and also when we are choosing our literature.  We are told that the founding of the modern Theosophical Society was at the instigation of two such Initiates.  We are told that a number of these Initiates were involved in the compilation and writing of Isis Unveiled and that H. P. Blavatsky herself, acting as amanuensis, was also an Initiate.  We learn that The Secret Doctrine was the work of H. P.Blavatsky in collaboration with two such high Initiates.  Now all this is very significant when dealing with Theosophy, as a subject, with the meanings given above to that word.  It is very obviously not a subject of the ordinary kind that can just be learned.  Powers or faculties of the Soul have to be developed and just as importantly we have, in some realistic, not fanciful, way to appreciate what an Initiate is.  If we are honest we must admit our ignorance in this as in so many things Theosophical.  Much, very much, information, is given us in those two classics concerning the nature, the inner nature, of the universe and its laws and processes.  We are given an insight into the constitution of the universe and man, and also into the origins and nature of matter, energy and space.  From an intellectual point of view this involves us in metaphysics, in ideas and concepts very difficult to comprehend.  It is in this connection that H. P. Blavatsky warns us not to ask our fellow students, albeit apparently more advanced, for the meaning of passages in The Secret Doctrine.  All we will get, she says, is their opinion.  This is not the reality.  To this extent then, Theosophy when dealt with intellectually is a matter of opinion -  but let us remember that Theosophy, as such, as knowledge, can never be just opinion.

Now, if Theosophy is knowledge, knowledge pertaining to the total universal process and man's part in that process as a unit within, and inseparable from the total Unity, it is obvious that the whole subject in all its infinite ramifications could-not possibly be exhaustively dealt with in any book or even in whole libraries of books.  The subject is literally infinite and any presentation of it definitely finite.  This, however, does not detract from the value of an informed or properly inspired exposition.  But it does mean that the authorship of the literature is important.  It should be clear now that the uninitiated layman, however otherwise gifted, would be very unlikely to be able to produce a significant Theosophical document, especially without previous "information".  It is necessary here to be careful as to who among our authors we recognize as Initiates.

This raises the matter of "authority" in Theosophical matters.  We have been at pains to show that Theosophy is a matter of “operations and experiences of the human soul".  These must obviously be individual.  But enlightenment into the mysteries of Nature comes slowly.  Spiritual and even psychic growth is a process of Nature and takes time.  The expositions of Theosophy given us in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine cover a range of knowledge that we would be exceedingly unlikely to become possessed of, even after many lifetimes of effort, by our own unaided direct insight.  Are we therefore to be denied any knowledge of it, or first-hand insight into it at all?  It seems the Masters taught otherwise and they made available the literature we have.  But the importance of such expositions stemming from Initiates should be borne in mind.  Surely we must grant the Master Initiates in this matter more “authority" than, say, the uninitiated medium or psychic who chooses to pronounce on the same subjects.  If two accounts or explanations of the same phenomena differ, which should be reasonably regarded?  Surely that of the senior Initiate, but very commonly, within the Society we have not been doing that fairly obvious thing.  A serious comparison of Isis UnveiledThe Secret Doctrine and The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett with any other literature will make quite evident what is meant here.

This failure to grant or even appreciate this kind of “authority" in our original literature has been a cause of great confusion in many particulars of intellectual Theosophy.  The Masters made a point of telling us that no uninitiated seer, from Swedenborg (amongst others) downwards could see quite truly.  One great difficulty in dealing with Theosophy in our Society is that belief in Masters is not required or expected.  In this case they cannot, be quoted as “authority”, but Theosophy, as we are now claiming it, and Masters of it, are inseparable; one is inherent in the other.  This becomes undeniably apparent as the universal law, with its evolutionary aspect, is seen and understood.

Now, if we grant the reality of Masters, for the purpose of seeing what Theosophy is, and we grant that they are Initiates into the mysteries of Nature, surely we must grant that they knew what they were about in making available some of their knowledge to us, and in the way they did it.  Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine are often criticized for many reasons.  They are too difficult.  Their essential message is too obscure.  They contain seeming contradictions. The material is badly presented, even disorderly.  They do not respect the established order of orthodoxy in Science or, and especially, Religion and Spiritualism.  They are obviously not comprehensible by the not-so-bright.  It is hard work to read them.  They have certainly been bypassed by generations of pseudo-Theosophical students; and their content, Theosophy, is unknown to the majority of our members.  In saying this it must not be forgotten that it is not incumbent on any member of the Society to study Theosophy.  We are here writing only for those interested in it.

(The above section appeared in the May 1971 edition of 'The Theosophist', with Part 2 appearing June 1971.)

Part 2

So, summarizing, what is Theosophy?  It is knowledge; knowledge ultimately derived from the ‘operations and experiences of the human soul’.  Before we reach that knowledge, however, we have available to us what we might call ‘Theosophical information’, necessarily incomplete and possibly in some detail inaccurate but of very great extent and depth, in our early classical literature.  That our early classics, are necessarily incomplete and surely do contain inaccuracies is no justification for our ignoring them.  They are certainly much less limited and, in the nature of things, likely to contain far fewer significant inaccuracies than any other ‘Theosophical’ literature.  For these and the reasons given above, later expositions, simplified versions, should not be regarded as Theosophy even though to beginners they may be helpful, and any claimed ‘additional’ information accepted with the necessary reservations.  Theosophy proper is certainly not a matter of opinion but to regard it so can be, and has been used to justify much that has been said and written in the name of, or as Theosophy, and again this has caused confusion.

We have it that Theosophy is the Wisdom-Religion, the root and trunk of the religious tree of which all religions are the branches and their sects sub-branches or even leaves, which come and go.  Theosophy postulates a spiritual base to all things and creatures.  In this sense it is religious but not a religion and it is very specific about what Spirit is.  Theosophy, as knowledge of the universal laws and processes, ante-dated its name.  So long as anywhere in the universe there was a conscious entity to apprehend it, there was Theosophy, from the inconceivably remote reaches of time past.

Theosophy is a knowledge of ‘being’ at all levels, at the spiritual, mental, psychic, and physical levels.  The Masters say they tell us of what they know.  This is an important statement.  In that Theosophy deals with the experiences of the soul, it also deals with its powers.   These powers reflect those in Nature.  A man who becomes a master of himself in any respect, to that extent becomes a master of the corresponding aspect in Nature.  He becomes a Theurgist; some might say a magician but he is certainly not then concerned with the production of ‘trick’ phenomena in the physical world.  Because, at some stage the powers of his Divine Soul begin to manifest through his human personality, he sees into the future, he is a seer, and because the various elements of his being are developed, he has a universal sympathy.  He knows, feeling directly in himself and in others.  He is becoming a real Theosophist and to this extent Theosophy has to do with magic, but magical works as they are normally conceived of are incidental to it.

One more very important point: Theosophy as here described was given out to the extent that it was, to the public, for the first time, at the end of the last century.  In this sense, the material then given us on Theosophy was source material.  It had not appeared anywhere else before.  The world has had ‘esoteric’ literature since before 1875 but it has been cryptic, associated with or deriving from ‘secret’ bodies, and it is not, for the most part, comprehensible; without keys not available to the general public.  Our basic Theosophical literature provides some of these keys.  There has also been a copious and in some instances splendid mystical and devotional literature for many centuries before 1875 but this did not provide us with the explanations which are in our literature.  Any information as to origins, the nature of existence and so on is largely allegorical or symbolic and is meaningless to the layman without the necessary keys.  Theosophical literature again provides some of those keys.  Although the scriptures and usages of extant exoteric religions are mentioned in the Theosophical literature, they do not constitute Theosophy.  They are seen mostly as man-made, limited distortions of Theosophy using often crude and jumbled symbolism.  When divorced from their superstitions, the ethics of these religions serve mankind well enough.  Reference to them in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine are by way of illustration at best, but more often as an example of how Truth becomes distorted by man, and sometimes to show an esoteric meaning and give an interpretation.

There have been schools of mysticism and magic but nothing of significance in the Theosophical sense was vouchsafed to the public through them, and from all one can discover of any of them, even in their esotericism, they dealt with only aspects of Theosophy.  Allusions are made to them and their teachings in Theosophical literature, and their methods as to mystical attainment appreciated and often recommended.  In this connection let it never be forgotten that H. P. Blavatsky left us The Voice of the Silence and referred in high terms to Light on the Path.

Theosophy acts as a yardstick to the pronouncements of the speculative (but uninitiated) philosophers of ancient and modern times.  They are legion and credit is due to many of them for their unaided intuitional glimpses into Truth.  But surely we should be careful about accepting these glimpses, in isolation, as Theosophical data, as some of our members seem prone to do.

Now all through this article, reference is made to the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and the strong inference drawn is that they, together with other material received from the Masters through her, and only they, constitute the authentic revelation of Theosophy in our time.  This inference will be much resented by some members of the Society, and we shall be accused of dogmatizing Theosophy, but knowledge of facts which it is claimed here Theosophy is, cannot be dogma.  Dogma is teaching to be believed based on un-provable concepts, theoretical and in our case even theological.  An appreciation of Theosophy necessarily means that our intellectual learning must be checked against Nature and living experience.  Our Masters say they "do but copy Nature".  For a generation or two there has seemingly been an attempt to have allowed as Theosophy many other writings. ‘Back to Blavatsky’ has become a derisive taunt.  Such an expression could only be uttered seriously by those fundamentally ignorant of what, through her agency, the Masters gave us.  It is like electrical engineers taunting each other with going back to Faraday, or atomic scientists back to Planck or Rutherford, or mathematicians back to Newton or Einstein.  There is no such thing in matters of knowledge as going back to anyone.  If we wish to know, we avail ourselves of what facts have been given us and we make what use of them we will or can.  At the present time there is a tendency to charge students of Theosophy, as here defined, with sectarianism.  No such charge is made against the followers of, or sympathizers with, say, Krishnamurti, Shankaracharya, Patanjali or Leadbeater whose followers are probably at present the majority of members of the Society, nor against organizations that so many members of the Society support.  It is worth considering deeply why this sectarian charge should be made in the case of H. P. B.

One last point, Theosophy is obviously for him, and him only, who will strive strenuously and devotedly after it.  To begin with it means prolonged and serious study, learning to think; and think hard and deeply.  Other qualities such as open-mindedness and humility are sine qua non.  Theosophy obviously cannot be simplified. Some of its teachings might be put simply and broadly for the beginner to start to get a grasp of them, but it must be remembered that no concept, as such and in itself, small or magnificently large, is Theosophy.  Theosophy is knowledge not concepts.  We should all then beware of thinking we know it.  It is in this way that so many opinions are put over, maybe quite sincerely, as Theosophy.  Much writing and talking has been done in the name of Theosophy against a background of real ignorance.  This is how so much confusion and vagueness has arisen and this is an area where, as members of the Theosophical Society, we should be ever mindful of our responsibility.  To repeat once more, our opinions are not Theosophy.

In order to avoid work or too much effort in unaccustomed directions some members will justify themselves by saying that intellect is not all, there are other worthwhile human faculties such as love, devotion, a willingness to serve and so on.  But a Theosophist must have these and his knowledge.  In any case, his knowledge would beget them.  Theosophy is a way of life, they say. It most certainly is, but it is a way of life dictated by an awakened inmost conscience, not a set of rules imposed from outside nor by sentimentality.  There is a world of difference here not easily explained, but one has to do with the ‘operations of the soul’ and the other with the mind and emotions.  The earnest aspirant is bent on getting his soul operating, not learning precepts, although in the early stages he must regard these as his only guide.  Theosophy is not only a way of life; it is, in all important respects, life itself, because the Knower, the Knowing and the Knowledge are one . . . at the core of life and being.  Let us become possessed of that life and we shall KNOW.

Many reading this article will no doubt want to say, "But all that is only his opinion".  It was however shared by a late but illustrious member of our Society, Dr. Annie Besant.  She wrote in 1891:

"Now, by Theosophy I mean the ‘Wisdom Religion,' or the 'Secret Doctrine,' and our only knowledge of the Wisdom Religion at the present time comes to us from the Messenger of its Custodians, H. P. Blavatsky.  Knowing what she taught, we can recognize fragments of the same teaching in other writings, but her message remains for us the test of Theosophy everywhere.  As we learn, we verify some of its more elementary portions, and so - if need be - we may, increase our confidence in the Messenger.  Also, it is open to every student only to accept as he verifies, and to hold his judgement in suspension as to anything that does not approve itself to his reason, or as to all that he has not yet proven.  Only, none of us has any right to put forward his own views as 'Theosophy,' in conflict with hers, for all that we know of Theosophy comes from her.  When she says 'The Secret Doctrine teaches,' none can say her nay; we may disagree with the teaching, but it remains 'The Secret Doctrine,' or Theosophy; she always encouraged independent thought and criticism; and never, resented differences of opinion, but she never wavered in the distinct proclamation 'The Secret Doctrine is' so-and-so"

Lucifer, Oct. 15, 1891.  The italics are mine-Author.

She then goes on to state the three fundamental propositions from The Secret Doctrine and the relationship of Theosophy, as here defined, to Christianity.

May I make a heartfelt plea, for the future well-being of our Society and its function in the world, that this article be given very serious consideration by all our members.


^1 The Objects of The Theosophical Society

First: To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood or Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.

Second: To encourage the study of comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.

Third: To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.

^2 The Key to Theosophy section 1 'The Meaning of the Name'

^3 Article 'What is Theosophy? H.P. Blavatsky see this website (an article first appearing in The Theosophist, Volume 1, Number 1 (October 1879) and which is also contained within The Collected Writings Volume II, pp87-97)