Two Delightful Theosophers of the 18th Century

By Mary G. Langford

Much has been written in this century about theosophy, and more so today. Numerous are the contemporary interpretations stemming from the offshoots of HPB's nineteenth century The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888. In the confusion confounded by wordiness, we have been dogged in our search for meaning and frequently led to gross misunderstanding of the nature of things.

By chance discovery, I found a volume of theosophic correspondence carried on during the years of 1792-1797 between Louis Claude de Saint-Martin and Kirchberger, Baron de Liebistorf (1), dealing mainly with the profound works of Jacob Boehme, the German mystic (1575-1624). As I read and pondered the contents of these letters, I was moved by their honesty of expression and simplicity of thoughtful statements on deep concerns of the human spirit — past, present, and future. They are permeated with the integrity of two responsible learned statesmen who aspired to understand the spiritual aspect of the scheme of things. I experienced the unfoldment of a profound friendship as they consulted with and responded to one another on obscure passages in Boehme's work under translation into French by Saint-Martin, and of the latter's writings into German by the Baron. At the same time each perfected his own knowledge of the native tongue of the other.

What amazes me is the fact that this correspondence went on during the troublous times of the French Revolution without being permeated by its rage. In spite of the challenges of their personal lives and the political upheavals that powerfully affected each of them in their respective posts of responsibility, these gentle noblemen spent their leisure hours in dedicated pursuit of spiritual propositions. These qualities emanate through their written words as they highlight the theosophic premise: that the universe is basically one spiritual entity ("the active intelligent Cause") reflecting its laws and patterns in the world of nature. Man, the epitome of nature, contains within himself the seed of spiritual growth. Our task is to discover this seed (the moral equation of right relationship) within ourselves and to nurture it. How simple, but how difficult of application! Yet the lives of these two men bore this out.

The Swiss Kirchberger, moved by Saint-Martin's work Des Erreurs et de la Verite (Of Error and of Truth), initiated the correspondence in 1792. Saint-Martin had written extensively on occult matters and disciplines prior to his translations of Boehme into French. He wrote anonymously and was known in the European community as "The Unknown Philosopher."

To be a translator requires imagination (not fancy) and poetical sensitivity to the implied meaning of the original. Thus there exist numerous translations of profound works, just as there are many interpretations of musical scores. Each translator-interpreter sheds his own light on the subject. The greater his light, the greater the light transmitted to the work. Edward Burton Penny of Topsham, Devon, England, translated and edited this theosophic correspondence between Saint-Martin and Kirchberger in 1863 — well over one hundred years ago. To him we are indebted for another link in the golden chain of transmitters of the ancient wisdom.

Several days before his death, Saint-Martin said to his friend J.B.M. Gence, "I feel that I am going. Providence calls me. I am ready. The germs I have endeavored to sow will fructify." (2)

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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    1. Theosophic Correspondence (1792-1797), translated from the French by E. B. Penny, 1863; verbatim reprint, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1983; ISBN 0-91150062-6, cloth $20.00; reviewed in Sunrise, Dec-Jan 1983. (return to text)

    2. The Unknown Philosopher, a biography of L. C. de Saint-Martin, by A. E. Waite. (return to text)