Theosophy – April 1896

HISTORICAL EPOCHS IN THEOSOPHY — J. D. Buck

On page 512 of the Secret Doctrine, first edition, vol. ii, is found the following footnote: "Says Johannes Tritheim, the Abbot of Spanheim, the greatest astrologer and Kabalist of his day: 'The art of divine magic consists in the ability to perceive the essence of things in the light of nature (astral light), and by using the soul-powers of the spirit to produce material things from the unseen universe, and in such operations the Above and the Below must be brought together and made to act harmoniously. The spirit of Nature (astral light) is a unity, creating and forming everything, and acting through the instrumentality of man it may produce wonderful things. Such processes take place according to law. You will learn the law by which these things are accomplished if you learn to know yourself. You will know it by the power of the spirit that is in yourself, and accomplish it by your spirit with the essence that comes out of yourself. If you wish to succeed in such a work you must know how to separate Spirit and Life in Nature and, moreover, to separate the astral soul in yourself, and to make it tangible, and then the substance of the soul will appear visibly and tangibly, rendered objective by the power of the spirit.' (Quoted in Dr. Hartmann's Paracelsus.)"

Trithemius was an abbot of the Spanheim Benedictine monks at Wurzburg, in Franconia. This was four hundred years ago, just at the dawn of the sixteenth century. Trithemius was noted far and wide for his great learning, and among the many who sought his instruction were Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Another noted scholar and Kabalist at this time was John Reuchlin, the preceptor and friend of Luther. The discovery of America in the West, and the dawn of religious liberty — the Protestant Reformation — in Europe, mark the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries.

Paracelsus was born in 1493, and was a pupil of Trithemius between his sixteenth and twentieth years; and Cornelius Agrippa — who afterwards wrote a treatise on occultism greatly approved by his former teacher, Trithemius — was his fellow-student. The monasteries were then the seats of learning, and the monks were the learned men of the day, and those who sought learning seldom found it outside the monasteries. That of St. Jacob, with which Trithemius was connected, was one of the most famous. Then, as now, occultism was in the air. It had not yet organized into schools, and it was ridiculed and bitterly opposed by the rank and file of the clergy. It was a formative period. Most students were familiar with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Martin Luther's first public utterances were a course of lectures on the philosophy of Aristotle. Luther presently took the initiative in reforming religious abuses. In the beginning of the fourteenth century mysticism had been perverted by the emotional Tauler, who packed the churches where he spoke, at times becoming speechless with emotion (as he was already weakened by fasting) in contemplating the Divine Beatitudes, and the reunion of the soul with God. Reuchlin endeavored to disseminate the Kabalistic interpretation of the scriptures, and at least to supplement with reason and intelligence the dawning age of faith. The age was too gross, sensual and benighted, and the proffered knowledge was rejected for the triumph of creed and dogma, and "salvation by faith." The society calling itself "Friends of God" took the purely Theosophical phase of occultism, and the little mystical treatise, Theologia Germanica, gave comfort to the emotional and mystical element of society, that looked with repugnance and disgust on the hypocrisy and brutality of both laity and clergy in those days.

On the other hand, ceremonial magic (hatha yoga) carried away the more intellectual but less spiritual students of occultism like Cornelius Agrippa. True occultism as expounded by Trithemius gained no foothold, and finally became obscured and lost. Something of the true philosophy may be derived from the writings of Paracelsus, yet fragmentary and obscure to the average reader. A far better outline may be found in Browning's poem, Paracelsus. The poet's intuition, idealizing the life and aims of the great physician, has portrayed the journey of the soul in quest of the great secret, and outlined the process of the higher evolution of man as stated by Trithemius in the quotation at the head of this article.

After four hundred years we are nearing the end of another century, and the close of a great cycle; and the same old truths are again challenging the world. The Theosophical movement has already gained a far greater impetus than at any time for many centuries. To those familiar with the history of past efforts to bring these truths to the world, the opposition encountered is not in the least surprising or discouraging. It has never been otherwise, and will not be for millenniums to come. Humanity is too deeply immersed in matter and too closely wedded to sense to readily seize and firmly hold the truths of the spirit. The strength of the present movement consists in its simple but firm organization, and in keeping it free from dogmatism, vapid mysticism (emotionalism) and the occult arts (ceremonial magic): or, in other words, in following the lines laid down by H. P. Blavatsky in the Key to Theosophy; and the work of organizing and holding it intact fell upon one man, who has sacrificed fortune, health, and possibly life, to that one idea. Under all sorts of specious pleas, others have sought to disorganize, and but for the stubborn, sphinx-like resistance of this one man, backed by those who realized the issues and trusted their leader, they might have succeeded. A careful study of the movement of four hundred years ago will make apparent the necessity of organization, and the wisdom of the course laid down by H. P. B. and persistently followed by Mr. Judge. If we learn why it failed then, we may the better judge how it may succeed now. Personal issues of every name and nature sink into utter insignificance in the face of the great work of holding these truths before the world, so that they cannot again become obscured and lost, and in refraining from obscuring them ourselves. They stand today like a beacon-light in the midst of the angry and contending waves blown into fury by agnosticism, materialism, and the expiring struggles of the age of blind belief which usurped their place four hundred years ago. The Voice of the Silence, "dedicated to the few," embodies those golden precepts vaguely and emotionally discerned in the Theologia Germanica. Every day adds proof to the wisdom and foresight of the secret doctrine, with its basis so broad and its foundation so deep that the twentieth century will not be able to shake them. In America the movement was never so strong as it is today. Organize and work, has been and still is the watchword. Ridicule has changed to interest, and though the great majority may still be indifferent, the organization will hold in spite of all disorganizers, so long as the few real workers hold steadfast to their traditions.

The period of four centuries of darkness and superstition, of persecutions, sorrow and despair, has been a long time for humanity to wait. At no intervening time has the truth been so revealed or gained such a hearing as now. America, then just discovered, could give no home to the Wisdom Religion. It was then a howling wilderness, inhabited only by bands of wild Indians. Now all is changed. Here is the home of the coming race, and bad as may be the outlook, with competition, selfishness and greed everywhere rampant, side-by-side into the coming twentieth century will go these old truths, no more to be obscured or lost unless we relax our work.

"There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at its flood leads on to fortune." There are epochs in history when old traditions are dethroned, superstitions dissipated, and grand opportunities presented to man. If, however, he fails to seize this opportunity, if the consensus of opinion is indifferent or adverse to the opportunity, then a new cycle begins with other factors shaping events, and it has to run through its course. It may be, as in the present instance, centuries before the opportunity will come again. The movement failed in the sixteenth century. People were not ready for it, and the emotionalism of Tauler was supplemented by the ceremonial magic of Cornelius Agrippa, and Theosophy became obscured and lost. Until H. P. Blavatsky had revived the old interest and called attention to former workers and movements, few persons had ever heard of either. The principles involved are eternal, and they concern the higher evolution of man and the advancement of the human race. Each age gathers, uses or garners what it can. The power of an individual or of any civilization to apprehend and use these principles is the measure of its previous evolution, and the capacity for further progress. It is because people do not perceive their transcendent importance that they fail to grasp and use them, or misinterpret, misapply or ridicule them. It is therefore of importance to show how these great truths have been offered to the world again and again; how here, as elsewhere, history repeats itself, and how back of all passing events, changing creeds or vanishing superstitions, these unchanging principles are pushing for recognition, and are discerned by the few who can understand and apply them.

" . . Man is not Man as yet,
Nor shall I deem his object served, his end
Attained, his genuine strength put fairly forth,
While only here and there a star dispels
The darkness, here and there a towering mind
O'erlooks its prostrate fellows; when the host
Is out at once to the despair of night,
When all mankind alike is perfected,
Equal in full-blown powers — then, not till then,
I say, begins man's general infancy.
. .......
Such men are even now upon the earth,
Serene amid the half-formed creatures round,
Who should be saved by them and joined with them." (1)

FOOTNOTE:

1. Browning's Paracelsus, pp. 118, 119. (return to text)


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