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Theosophy (from Greek θεοσοφία theosophia, from θεός theos, God + σοφία sophia, wisdom; literally "God's wisdom"), refers to systems of esoteric philosophy concerning, or investigation seeking direct knowledge of, presumed mysteries of being and nature, particularly concerning the nature of divinity.
Theosophy is considered a part of the broader field of esotericism, referring to hidden knowledge or wisdom that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation. The theosophist seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe and the bonds that unite the universe, humanity, and the divine. The goal of theosophy is to explore the origin of divinity and humanity, and the world. From investigation of those topics, theosophists try to discover a coherent description of the purpose and origin of the universe.
The word theosophia appeared in both Greek and Latin in the works of early church fathers as a synonym for "theology". The theosophoi are "those who know divine matters." During the Renaissance, use of the term diverged to refer to gnostic knowledge that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation through a knowledge of the bonds that are believed to unite her or him to the world of divine or intermediary spirits. By the 16th century the word theosophy was being used in at least one of its current meanings.
The term theosophy was used as a synonym for theology as early as the 3rd century CE
Hellenistic Alexandrian culture expressed religion through a syncretism that included influences from Egypt, Chaldea, Greece etc. It became a "philosophizing and systematizing" culture containing mythology, theosophy and gnosis of the East.
The 12th-century philosopher Al-Shahrastānī (died 548 AH / 1153 CE) explored theosophy in the context of Islamic thought. In the 13th century, a clear distinction was made between classical philosophers, modern (to the people then) philosophers, theosophers, and theologians in the work Summa philosophiae attributed to Robert Grosseteste. In Summa, theosophists were described as authors inspired by holy books, while theologians were described as persons whose task was to teach theosophy. During that time, the term theosopher was applied retroactively to include earlier people including Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Origen.
In Jewish mysticism, the theosophical doctrinal system of Kabbalah (Hebrew: "received tradition") emerged in late 12th-century southern France (the book Bahir), spreading to 13th-century Spain (culminating in the late 13th-century book Zohar). Kabbalah became the basis of later Jewish mystical development. The theosophical Kabbalah in Judaism was recast into its second version, Lurianic Kabbalah, in 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. From the Renaissance onwards, syncretic non-Jewish traditions of theological Christian Cabala and magical Hermetic Qabalah studied the Judaic texts, incorporating its system into their different philosophies, where it remains a central component of Western esotericism. Gershom Scholem, the founder of Jewish mysticism academia, saw Medieval and Lurianic Kabbalah as the incorporation into Judaism of Gnostic motifs, though interpreted strictly monotheistically. At the centre of Kabbalah are the 10 Sephirot powers in the divine realm, their unification being the task of man. In Lurianism, man redeems the sparks of holiness in materiality, rectifying the divine persona from its primordial exile.
Modern theosophy arose in Germany in the 16th century.
In the 16th century Johannes Arboreus' Theosophia (volumes published 1540-1553) provided a lengthy exposition that included no mention of esotericism. In contrast fellow Germans Paracelsus (1493–1541), Aegidius Gutmann (1490–1584), Valentin Weigel (1533–1588), Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605), Johann Arndt (1555–1621), and Caspar Schwenckfeld (1490–1584) demonstrated an interest in theosophy.
The 17th-century philosopher and self-identified theosophist Jakob Boehme (1575–1624) produced a complete explanation of theosophy that included esotericism. Boehme's system of philosophical speculation bases knowledge of nature upon knowledge of the divine nature. During that time, the Aristotelian method had lost favor among intellectuals. Boehme presented his system as an alternative to the Aristotelian method, which he believed could provide a more profound knowledge and more control of nature than the Aristotelian method did.
Other notable contributors to the theosophical literature of the 16th and 17th centuries hailed from Holland, England, and France. They included both theosophists, historians, and theologians with a strong interest in theosophy. This group includes Jan Baptist van Helmont (1618–1699), Robert Fludd (1574–1637), John Pordage (1608–1681), Jane Leade (1623–1704), Henry More (1614–1687), Pierre Poiret (1646–1719), and Antoinette Bourignon (1616–1680).
Theosophists of this period often inquired into nature using a method of interpretation founded upon a specific myth or revelation, applying active imagination in order to draw forth symbolic meanings and further their pursuit of knowledge toward a complete understanding of these mysteries.
In the 18th century, the word theosophy came into widespread use in philosophy. Johann Jakob Brucker (1696–1770) included a long chapter on theosophy in his monumental work Historia critica philosophia (1741). He included all the theosophists in what was then a standard reference in the history of philosophy. German philosophers produced major works of theosophy during this period: Theophilosophia theoritica et practica (1710) by Samuel Richter (alias Sincerus Renatus) and Opus magocabalsticum et theosophicum (1721) by Georg von Welling (alias Salwigt, 1655-1727). Other notable theosophists of the period include Johann George Gichtel (1638–1710), Gottfried Arnold (1666–1714), Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702–1782), William Law (1686–1761), and Dionysius Andreas Freher (1649–1728). By the 18th century, the word theosophy was often used in conjunction with panosophy, i.e., a knowledge of divine things that is acquired by deciphering the supposed hieroglyphics of the concrete universe. The term theosophy is more properly reserved for the reverse process of contemplating the divine in order to discover the content of the concrete universe.
In England, The Theosophical Society was established in 1783 by a printer with a Methodist background, Robert Hindmarsh. The Theosophical Society was renamed in 1785 as The British Society for the Propagation of the Doctrines of the New Church, consisting of Swedenborgian based beliefs.
In France, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803) and Jean-Philippe Dutoit-Membrini (alias Keleph Ben Nathan, 1721-1793) contributed to a resurgence of theosophy in the late 18th century. Other theosophical thinkers of this period include Karl von Eckartshausen (1752–1803), Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling (1740–1817), Frederic-Rodolphe Salzmann (1749–1821), Michael Hahn (1758–1819), and Franz von Baader (1765–1841). Denis Diderot gave the word theosophie a permanent place in the French language by including it in an article in his Encyclopédie, published during the French Enlightenment.
During the late 19th century, theosophical initiate societies emerged. In 1875, Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) and others founded The Theosophical Society, an organization related to earlier theosophical ideas and also departed from them significantly by including concepts from eastern esotericism. The Esoteric Society, a theosophical initiate society, was founded by the Theosophical Society.
Meanwhile, outside of the initiate societies, others such as the Martinist Order founded by Papus in 1891, followed a prior theosophical current which was closely linked to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and Western esotericism. Theosophists outside of the initiate societies included people such as Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900). According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Solovyov thought, "Although empiricism and rationalism (= idealism) rest on false principles, their respective objective contents, external experience, qua the foundation of natural science, and logical thought, qua the foundation of pure philosophy, are to be synthesized or encompassed along with mystical knowledge in 'integral knowledge,' what Solovyov terms 'theosophy.'"
Several organizations developed from the popularization of Blavatsky's ideas and are considered new religious movements. Theosophical Society lodges also continue to exist in many places. Some of the German-speaking members of the Theosophical Society left it to follow Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy after the forming of the Anthroposophical Society in 1912. Theosophical concepts can be seen in the work of Sergei Bulgakov (1877–1945), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1945), Leopold Ziegler (1881–1958), Valentin Tomberg (1901–1973), Auguste-Edouard Chauvet (1885–1955), Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975) and Henry Corbin (1903–1978).
The use of the term "theosophy" has changed over time. As such, the use of the term in antiquity, or even using a strictly etymological definition, is not common in the academy. Theosophy actually designates a specific flow of thought or tradition within the modern study of esotericism. Thus, it follows the path starting from the more modern period of the 15th century onward (e.g. neo-Alexandrian, hermeticism, Christian Kaballah, Rosicrucianism, Alchemy etc.). The usage here is not intended to be inclusive of the concept as used in The Theosophical Society.
Theosophists engage in analysis of the universe, humanity, divinity, and the reciprocal effects of each on the other. The starting point for theosophists may be knowledge of external things in the world or inner experiences and the aim of the theosophist is to discover deeper meanings in the natural or divine realm. Antoine Faivre notes, "the theosophist dedicates his energy to inventing (in the word's original sense of 'discovering') the articulation of all things visible and invisible, by examining both divinity and nature in the smallest detail." The knowledge that is acquired through meditation is believed to change the being of the meditator.
Antoine Faivre successfully created a taxonomy approach as a means to comparing the various traditions. He proceeded by taking the concordance of neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Kaballah, astrology, alchemy, magic etc. and deduced six fundamental characteristics of esoteric spirituality. He concluded that the first four characteristics of esotericism are always present, while the latter two are sometimes present. Along with these six characteristics of esotericism, he identified three characteristics of theosophy.
The three characteristics of theosophy are listed below.
In 1875 Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge co-founded The Theosophical Society. Blavatsky combined Eastern religious traditions with Western esoteric teachings to create a synthesis she called the Perennial Religion. She developed this in Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), her major works and exposition of her Theosophy.
Eventually the Theosophical Society became virtually synonymous with Theosophy in the vernacular sense. There are many differences between traditional Western theosophy and the Theosophical movement begun by Helena Blavatsky, though the differences "are not important enough to cause an insurmountable barrier." When referring to the ideas related to Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, the word "Theosophy" is capitalized; otherwise it is not.
The three fundamental propositions expounded in The Secret Doctrine are:
Helena Blavatsky taught that Theosophy is neither revelation nor speculation. Blavatsky stated that Theosophy was an attempt at a gradual, faithful reintroduction of a hitherto hidden science called the occult science in Theosophical literature. According to Blavatsky occult science provides a description of reality not only at a physical level but also on a metaphysical one. Blavatsky said occult science had been preserved and practiced throughout history by carefully selected and trained individuals.
The Theosophical Society believes its precepts and doctrinal foundation will be verified when a Theosophist follows prescribed disciplines to develop metaphysical means of knowledge that transcend the limitations of the senses.
René Guénon wrote a detailed critique of Theosophy entitled Theosophism: history of a pseudo-religion (1921), in which he claimed that Blavatsky had acquired all her knowledge from reading books, and not from any supernatural masters. Guenon pointed out that Blavatsky was a regular visitor to a library in New York, where she had easy access to the works of Jacob Boehme, Eliphas Levi, the Kabbala and other Hermetic treatises. Guenon also wrote that Blavatsky had borrowed passages from extracts of the Kanjur and Tanjur, translated by the eccentric orientalist Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, published in 1836 in the twentieth volume of the Asiatic Researchers of Calcutta .
K. Paul Johnson suggests in his book The Masters Revealed: Madam Blavatsky and Myth of the Great White Brotherhood that the Masters that Madam Blavatsky claimed she had personally met are idealizations of certain people she had met during her lifetime.
The article "Talking to the Dead and Other Amusements" by Paul Zweig New York Times October 5, 1980, maintains that Madame Blavatsky's revelations were fraudulent.
Robert Todd Carroll in his book The skeptic's dictionary (2003) wrote that Blavatsky used trickery into deceiving others into thinking she had paranormal powers. Carroll wrote that Blavatsky had faked a materialization of a teacup and saucer as well as writing the messages from her masters herself.
Jackson Spielvogel and David Redles of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance analyze Blavatsky's racial ideas in her book Secret Doctrine. According to Spielvogel and Redles, Blavatsky labeled some races superior and others inferior. They clarify that Blavatsky did not advocate "domination of one race over another" and that she was against violence. They comment that Blavatsky's work "helped to foster antisemitism, which is perhaps one of the reasons her esoteric work was so rapidly accepted in German circles." They state Blavatsky "sharply differentiated Aryan and Jewish religion" and believed "The Aryans were the most spiritual people on earth." They quote Blavatsky's writing in Secret Doctrine as stating Aryans used religion as an "everlasting lodestar" in contrast to Judaism which Blavatsky claimed was based on "mere calculation" while characterizing it as a "religion of hate and malice toward everyone and everything outside itself."
G.R.S. Mead was an early Theosophist. In 1909 he resigned from the Theosophical Society which was Orientalist. Prior to his break from the Society Mead had already begun emphasizing sources from the Western esoteric tradition in his writing. Mead was among the first Theosophists to explicate a "'Western' theosophy deriving from Alexandrian and Hellenistic sources in the early centuries A.D."