Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

Theosophia — Knowledge of Things Divine

Question — The other day a friend suggested I look into theosophy. He said he didn't know too much about it, and there were a lot of different opinions as to its merits and even some rather contradictory presentations, but he believed that basically it had some good philosophy behind it. So I was wondering whether we could go into its background.

Comment — All right, but first let us ask ourselves what we mean by theosophy. Do we mean its modern form that finds expression today in the several organizations that call themselves theosophical? Do we mean the theosophy of the Middle Ages or of the Renaissance? Or thinking still farther back, are we referring to the period of Ammonius Saccas who lived in the second and third centuries of our era? Again, do we have in mind the archaic philosophy of the early Mystery-schools? Or, coming closer to our own times, are we speaking of the type of Christian theosophy that found an outlet in the life and writings of Jakob Boehme who in turn inspired the "theosophers" of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

Question — I had no idea there were so many kinds of theosophy or that it reached so far into the past. I thought it was a modern word for a new kind of philosophy.

Comment — No, theosophy is not a newfangled thing, though unfortunately much that has gone under its name, in former times as well as today, concerns the husks rather than the kernel of its philosophy. The whole subject has so many ramifications that, in order to sketch even a bare outline of its development and growth, we should have to research into its origins and then thread our way carefully through the tangled web of differing connotations that the term "theosophy" has accumulated in the process of time. The word is believed to go back to the first few centuries of our era, and possibly earlier, while its usage, though limited, predates by hundreds of years the establishment of the modern organizations that bear the name and which, with varying fidelity to its original significance, profess to follow a theosophic philosophy.

I would ask just one thing, that we try to hold in abeyance any current notions we may have about what theosophy is and what it is not, so that we can more easily trace its development.

Question — I would like that very much, because I also thought it was a kind of new philosophy or creed. But what does the word mean?

Comment — It's from the Greek. Let's start with the dictionary definition and proceed from there.

theosophy. Also theosophism. From ML., fr. LGr. theosophia, knowledge of things divine, fr. theosophos, wise in the things of God, fr. theos, God + sophos, wise....

So much for the actual derivation of the word. Incidentally, I don't believe the word "theosophism" was ever used much, though it does appear occasionally in the writings of certain "theosophers" of some two hundred years ago.

Note the symbols: "From ML., fr. LGr." — these, of course, signify that the word comes through Medieval Latin from Late Greek; that is, the type of Greek spoken from the first or second to the sixth century ad. Right here, in a moment's time, we make a big leap in thought through the Dark Ages of our history back to those turbulent transition centuries following the beginning of the Christian era. You can see, therefore, what folly to confine our discussion of theosophy merely to modern times. But let us continue with the two definitions which follow the derivation of the word itself:

1. Alleged knowledge of God and of the world as related to God obtained by direct mystical insight or by philosophical speculation or by a combination of both.
2. (often capitalized) The doctrines and beliefs of a modern school or sect following, in the main, Buddhistic and Brahmanic theories, especially in teaching a pantheistic evolution and the doctrine of reincarnation.

Question — That sounds rather complicated. How can anyone really have "knowledge of God"?

Question — I want to know if God is capitalized there. I seem to be confused. First we get the translation of the word as "knowledge of things divine," which I like. It gives one a feeling of no limits. But then we're told that theosophy means "alleged knowledge of God." And right away I begin to feel hemmed in by the idea of a Personal Deity about whom theosophy is supposed to tell me. Perhaps I'm just splitting hairs.

Comment — No, I don't think you are. In fact, you have put your finger on something which we might peruse for a moment. Yes, God is capitalized in both phrases — "wise in the things of God," and "alleged knowledge of God." Had the lexicographers translated theos as "a spiritual or divine being" or simply as "divinity," which were its connotations in Greek times, instead of adopting the later Christian usage of God, they would have come much closer to the essential significance of theosophia as "knowledge of divine things." Nevertheless, the fact that they inserted the word alleged shows that they were well aware that no human being could be fully "wise in the things of God," much less comprehend the boundless wisdom of a Divine Intelligence whose experience includes the alpha and omega of life itself on our planet, our solar system, and indeed within and beyond our home-universe.

As said, the first definition treats of theosophy as variously used in preceding centuries, and is written with a small t. But the second definition, "often capitalized," pertains to the "modern school" of thought bearing the name theosophical. To make a point of this distinction may seem somewhat irrelevant, but it is not. The history of man's development and progress in true spiritual insight has proven time and again that the moment we put our beliefs in "capitals" we specialize and become static; the moment we specialize, we limit; and when we limit we begin to lose the very essence of that which we are seeking. In physical or administrative matters, we must of necessity define a problem in order to focus our attention on this or that specific area of interest. But when we treat of "divine things" that pertain to the growing inner constitution of man and of the cosmos, we are dealing with non-static developing principles of truth, whether we call them Buddhism or Christianity, Neoplatonism or theosophy. By placing those principles within the framework of finality, we have limited their significance to the particular form that our definitions take.

This is the case whether we are considering the gnosis (knowledge) of gnostic theosophy, the theosophic speculations of the Hebrew Kabbalists or of the Fire-Philosophers, the Christian theosophy expounded by Meister Eckhart, Jakob Boehme, or Saint-Martin, or again its modern representations. That is why I suggested we hold in abeyance our previous notions in order that we might enlarge our area of thought, and view theosophy, literally, as "knowledge of things divine." If we can consider it in this sense, we will realize that the essence of pure religion and philosophy — and of science too when considered as pure "knowledge" which is what the word means — is theosophia with a small t, that quality of "wisdom" which the greatest seers of mankind have attained through direct perception of "things as they are."

Question — May I interrupt? If we follow out that last thought, would it mean then that all the saviors or world teachers, such as Buddha and Jesus, and I suppose men like Plato and Pythagoras, taught a kind of theosophy?

Comment — Let's not make a new dogma out of this and say that every religion and philosophy is theosophy; we could as easily say they are all Buddhism or Christianity or Islam, and so forth. Nevertheless, you have a point here, because no matter what system of thought we consider, if we can discern its eternal and imperishable quality we will arrive at one central point — truth. Their differences lie only in their external wrappings, which most of the time tend to hide rather than to reveal their essential worth.

This brings us to the second definition, which is capitalized and refers to the modern organization founded in 1875 by H. P. Blavatsky, and which attempted to carry on the work started by Ammonius Saccas in the third century of our era. Just as he tried to show that truth was one, and that all religions originally sprang from a common wisdom of antiquity, so her thought-provoking work, The Secret Doctrine, was written with that in mind. However, during the succeeding years, the term theosophy has suffered considerably by misuse. There exist several organized bodies that attempt with relative success to disseminate its philosophy. But there are also a few dubious cults using the literature to promulgate a type of teaching which is nothing more than a deviation from the original doctrine, with glamorous emphasis on fringe aspects, such as psychism and other unhealthy brands of phenomenalism — all of which are highly dangerous perversions of spiritual values.

Question — Isn't the very type of mixed-up knowledge current today in our philosophical and religious outlook, and particularly in regard to these psychic matters, almost a replica of what was happening in Alexandria when Ammonius lived? Even at an earlier period the Romans had to enact laws against the practice of mediumship, divination, and the making of horoscopes; in fact, against anything that tended in the slightest degree toward the use and development of the "occult arts."

Question — I would like to hear more about the earlier uses of the term theosophy.

Comment — To fix the exact date when the term first came into currency is difficult, though I believe the word theosophos, or "wise in divine concerns," is found occasionally in the writings of Clement of Alexandria and possibly others of that time. Some authorities, however, lean to the view that it was Ammonius Saccas who more specifically grounded his pupils in "theosophic" principles.

Question — I read somewhere that he taught a kind of eclectic philosophy by combining ideas from different sources.

Question — You mean by skimming off the cream of the various religions and making a sort of spiritual potpourri? I don't like the word "eclectic," because how can you arrive at a sound philosophy by artificially building it up from bits and pieces?

Comment — Let's not go too fast and end up drawing faulty conclusions. I agree with you that we will never find truth by arbitrarily collecting pieces of it and tacking them together. To interpret the word "eclectic" in that sense is, of course, legitimate, but that is far from what Ammonius Saccas did. While his system of instruction is modernly referred to as "eclectic," in reality he followed a threefold method of arriving at truth: analysis, synthesis, and interpretation. With Plato as the foundation, he was able to distill the essence of sophia or "wisdom" from the seemingly conflicting elements in the conglomerate of mystical and religious traditions then current in Alexandria. That is why he is considered the inspiring genius behind the extraordinary revival of interest in the Platonic philosophy, which as Neoplatonism was later so strongly to influence not only Christian psychology but even church theology through St. Augustine. But that is another story!

I think it is difficult for us to realize what that teeming metropolis was like in those early centuries. Here was a thriving center of commerce and trade between the Orient, Asia Minor, Africa, and Rome, but it was also the seat of the highest culture and learning, the Museum with its Library being famed particularly for its hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts (a goodly portion of which was later destroyed by fanatics). Hindus and Buddhists, Greeks, Jews and Egyptians, Romans and Arabs, as well as the growing body of Christian converts mingled, each eager to sell his "wares," material or so-called spiritual. And it was here, in protest against the superficiality of life in general, and the hollowness of much that was expounded as truth, that Ammonius founded his school in which he demanded of his disciples the highest reverence for truth. He was called theodidaktos or "god-taught," because it was believed that he had experienced the sacred union of the soul with its divine source. Certainly the nobility of his life acted as a constant reminder to his pupils that if they faithfully lived a self-disciplined life they too, in time, might become theosophos or "wise in the things of God."

Question — Did Ammonius write any books?

Comment — He wrote nothing down, any more than did Jesus or Buddha or Socrates.

Question — Then how do we know what he taught?

Comment — In the same way that we know, to a fair degree at least, what all the world teachers, including Jesus, taught: by reading between the lines and behind the words of their followers. Ammonius, in accord with the archaic practice of the Mystery-schools (even though in his time they had become very much degraded), exacted a solemn vow from his disciples never to commit to writing what they would learn. After his death, however, two of them circulated some manuscripts, giving their interpretation of his doctrines. Fortunately, for posterity, one very remarkable individual came to study under Ammonius and later wrote several books giving the essence of the teachings imparted.

Question — Wasn't that Plotinus? If I remember the story correctly, he had been searching everywhere among the many philosophical schools in Alexandria for genuine spiritual instruction, but finding nothing but husks had become despondent. Then a friend told him about Ammonius. As Porphyry, the beloved pupil of Plotinus records it, as soon as he heard Ammonius, he exclaimed: "This is the man I have been seeking." So he stayed on with him some ten or eleven years, and it is said that he too attained moments of union with his Father within.

Comment — We have Porphyry to thank for persuading Plotinus that it was his duty, now that these imperfect because incomplete accounts had come out, to preserve in written form a true interpretation of Ammonius' teaching. It would have been a terrible loss otherwise, for Plotinus seems to have outshone even Plato in his exposition of the ancient theme that everything flows from divinity or theos, and that all souls and forms and phases of manifestation must in time consciously strive to return to their divine source. Of course there is much more, but it is easy to see why the theosophia of Neoplatonism again and again has tried to find expression in succeeding centuries.

Question — I'm trying to link up the definition of theosophy as "alleged knowledge of God" with the fact that Ammonius apparently achieved a "divine insight."

Comment — Let me reread the definition: "Alleged knowledge of God and of the world as related to God by direct mystical insight or by philosophical speculation or by both." If we rephrase this from the vantage point of what we have just discussed, we will see how remarkably apt it is: theosophia, or knowledge of divine things concerning the cosmos and man as expressions of divinity, attainable through direct spiritual perception or by study and reflection, or by a combination of the mind illumined by the intuition.

Question — That's wonderful, but who can attain that outside of people like Ammonius or the great teachers?

Comment — Didn't Plato say something about the soul having been impressed at the dawn of time with knowledge of the great "Idea," by which he no doubt meant sophia or wisdom, and that it was up to us to "recollect' that knowledge during our lives on earth? And didn't Jesus say that it was the Father within him that was performing the so-called miracles, and that what he did we could do also?

Question — I like that because during the war years I met individuals of entirely different religious backgrounds and, while I didn't have the opportunity to investigate their beliefs, I became convinced that spiritual worth was no respecter of skin, country, or religion. That is why I am so interested in Ammonius' hope to show that there was but one truth. I feel there must be, even for us ordinary people, a kind of natural wisdom we can find.

Comment — Isn't it perhaps that "natural wisdom" within all of us that we are trying to recollect?

Question — I've often wondered why there isn't a common pool of knowledge from which we could all draw. I can't see why there have to be so many religions and so many different types of philosophical speculation about how our world came into being and what we as humans mean in relation to it.

Comment — The traditions of antiquity confirm that at one time in the early history of mankind there was One Wisdom known to all the nations of earth, but gradually so many false interpretations of this or that aspect of truth gained supremacy that it was deemed necessary for saviors or avataras periodically to "incarnate" among men in order to restore the ancient values. They did not come to found a new religion; their followers did that, with a zeal not always matched by fidelity to the spirit of the message. It is the same sad story of human nature seeking to preserve the words of truth by getting them so neatly inscribed into a book or manuscript that once this occurs there is nothing left to do but to store it away carefully! All too soon, not only have we "lost" the key to it, but we have forgotten its original high purpose. Before we know it, we are taking someone else's say-so as our authority for what is true or not true! Truth is one, but there are as many "truths" or expressions of "divine things" as there are human beings to reflect their insight through the prism of their own individual consciousness.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition