Book Reviews

Helena Blavatsky edited and introduced by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 2004; Western Esoteric Masters Series, ISBN 155643457x, 220 pages, paperback, $14.95.

This satisfying anthology of H. P. Blavatsky's writings focuses on her relationship to the Western esoteric tradition embodied in such movements as Kabalism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Rosicrucianism. General editor of the Western Esoteric Masters series, Dr. Goodrick-Clarke is Vice-Chairman of Keston College, Oxford, and Director of the Centre for Western Esotericism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

The book begins with a sympathetic introduction to Blavatsky's life, writings, efforts, and legacy. The first part presents selections relating to spiritualism and occultism, the ancient wisdom tradition, secret brotherhoods, oriental and western kabala, mesmerism, magic, and hermetic philosophy. The second section covers various theosophical ideas with special emphasis on their relation to western traditions: Buddhism and Brahmanism, cosmology, microcosm and macrocosm, evolution, and personal growth. Much of the material is drawn from Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky's first book which deals more extensively with occidental subjects, but The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence, her Esoteric Instructions, and several articles are also culled. Each chapter contains clear editorial notes, giving context to passages which are carefully chosen and which read along smoothly — although a change in type face between the notes and excerpts would have been helpful. Taken together, the result is a thoughtful introduction to Blavatsky's intellectual exposition of theosophy in a Western context. — Sarah Belle Dougherty


Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004; ISBN 0393050750, 375 pages, hardback, $29.95.

Who we are and how we perceive ourselves lie at the heart of this history of the "controversies which raged over mind and body, heaven and hell, the soul, the afterlife, the je ne sais quoi of the self" (p. xv) in Britain from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. Maintaining that "Our contemporary sense of identity stems directly from transformations occurring in the centuries since the Renaissance" (p. 3), the author begins with a brief survey of Classical Greek and Medieval Christian thought. The importance in traditional Christian thought of the body, particularly as a permanent part of the self which was resurrected at the Last Judgment for eternal punishment or reward, is striking. Through the seventeenth century, this tenet was considered the basis for enforcing morality, especially among the masses. The author then sets forth a wide variety of new influences presented through profiles of influential thinkers. Central is the rise of the psychological self of mind and sensibility, impermanent and without innate characteristics, which eventually displaced the Christian idea of the eternal physical and spiritual man. The book also stresses the importance of increasing secularization of thought due to widespread literacy and the burgeoning diversity of publications in Britain, thanks to the end of government censorship after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Dr. Porter was professor of the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College, London. His clear, energetic, and often humorous prose presents "a gallery of contrasting yet interlocking studies meant to be engaging and stimulating rather than encyclopedic" (p. xvi). These include such diverse thinkers as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Swift, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, Gibbon, Sterne, Hartley, Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Blake, and Byron, among many others. Covering such a wide sweep of philosophical, literary, and scientific thinkers, the author at times over-generalizes or makes an infrequent error in fact or exposition that he might have caught if he had not died before the book was put into type. Endnotes are missing for this reason, though there is an extensive bibliography. Entertaining and accessible, Flesh in the Age of Reason is nonetheless a first-rate history of the often contentious origins of today's commonly held but rarely examined ideas about who we are. — Sarah Belle Dougherty


Open Secrets: The Letters of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael by Rami M. Shapiro, Consortium/Monkfish Book Publishing, Rhinebeck, NY, 2004; 128 pages, ISBN 0974935921, paperback, $14.95.

You ask me of God: to define the Nameless, to place in your palm the ultimate secret. Do not imagine that this is hidden somewhere far from you. The ultimate secret is the most open one. Here it is: God is All. . . . What we truly are is God manifest in time and eternity. Know this, live well, and be easy.

This moving volume consists of a fictional collection of letters from a 19th-century Eastern European rabbi, a composite of several genuine hasidic rabbis. They address such subjects as God, death, the soul, good deeds, and whether all religions are true. About duality, one letter says:

Some would argue that God is a divine spark inside each being. Others would argue that God is above and outside Creation. I teach neither position. God is not inside or outside. God is the very thing itself! And when there is no thing, but only empty space? God is that as well.
Picture a bowl in your mind. Define the bowl. Is it just the clay that forms its walls? Or is it the empty space that fills with soup? Without the space, the bowl is useless. Without the walls, the bowl is useless. So which is the bowl? The answer is both. To be a bowl, it must have both being (the walls) and emptiness (the space).
It is the same with God. For God to be God, for God to be all, God must manifest as being (Yesh) and emptiness (Ayin).
Yesh is the manifestation of God that appears to us as separate entities — physical, spiritual, and psychological. Ayin is the manifestation of God that reveals all separation to be illusory: everything is simply God in differing forms. God is All, there is nothing else (ain od).

These letters beautifully express the meditative teachings of the Hasidic philosophy, particularly that of avodah be-bittul (the annihilation of all separate existence), in a way that is relevant to all peoples. — Eloise Hart

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)


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If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. — Dalai Lama