Congratulations to Tim Rudbøg for winning the 2015 ESSWE PhD Thesis Prize and he recently taught a university class on Blavatsky in 2017 called The New Spirituality and Modern Religious Crises: H. P. Blavatsky’s synthesis of ancient traditions and modern science. Below is an extract from his thesis.
PS - check out the program for the mega 2015 theosopalooza at Columbia University as part of the Enchanted Modernities project (Theosophy and the Arts: Texts and Contexts of Modern Enchantment):
H. P. Blavatsky's Theosophy in Context: The Construction of Meaning in Modern Western Esotericism (2012) (pp.444-452)
The primary objectives of the present thesis were to map and analyse Blavatsky’s major discourses and to demonstrate that Blavatsky’s construction of meaning was influenced by and intertextually connected with the wider intellectual contexts of her time such as modern historical consciousness, the critical enlightenment, studies in religion, studies in mythology, the modern sciences, spiritualism, systemic philosophy, reform movements and practical ethics.
In relation to the demonstration of these objectives the thesis also sought to answer the three interrelated research questions:
(1) how did Blavatsky use the concept ‘Theosophy’ and from where did she
derive the term?
(2) what did Blavatsky talk about the most in her works?
(3) in what way and to what extend were Blavatsky’s discourses influenced by
wider intellectual contexts?
The first question was primarily answered in chapter 2.1. In this chapter it was demonstrated that the word ‘Theosophy’ stretches back to late antiquity and that it has been used quite extensively in a number of ways throughout Western history up to Blavatsky’s reception of the term. In relation to this Begriffsgeschichte, it was shown that Blavatsky clearly inherited some of the accumulated semantic content of the concept. Blavatsky especially retained the word’s association with the Neo-Platonists and the common connotation of ‘divine inspiration’ or ‘intuition’. It was furthermore shown that Blavatsky’s first use of the term was in a private letter to Hiram P. Corson (February 1875) and that it was directly derived from Christian D. Ginsburg’s The Kabbalah Its Doctrine, Development and literature: An Essay (1865). The word entered the soon to be ‘Theosophical Society’ at a pre-formation gathering, 13 September 1875, when it was derived from Webster's American Dictionary (1868). Thereafter Blavatsky only used the word ‘Theosophy’ four times between 1874- 1878 in relation to which Alexander Wilder's New Platonism and Alchemy (1869) was the primary source. Blavatsky's further construction of the concept ‘Theosophy’ could be classified into two major phases: (1) first major conceptualization (1879), and (2) second major conceptualization (1888-1889). Four general themes in her further usage of the term could be inductively established and shown to operate subtly in her text on three ontological levels ((1) a-historical, (2) historical, (3) practical). The general ways in which Blavatsky came to use the term were in relation to: (1) Neo-Platonic roots, (2) Wisdom-Religion, (3) transcendental psychology and divine inspiration, (4) practical Theosophy, divine ethics and universal brotherhood, and (5) secrets of nature. Some of the innovative connotations with which Blavatsky infused the term were especially that it on the abstract a-historical level was used to refer to an absolute Truth and that it at the historical level became a synonym for the ‘Wisdom-Religion’ in its capacity as the ancient common source of all religions. On the practical level Blavatsky furthermore innovatively construed ‘Theosophy’ as ‘Divine Ethics’.
It was also demonstrated that Blavatsky came to distinguish between ‘Theosophy’ (i.e. the abstract universal divine truth and its original historical manifestation) and Occultism/Magic and that in relation to the latter she came to regard her own exposition of specific occult doctrines as stemming from what she termed ‘trans-Himalayan esotericism’. Her major exposition of the doctrines of the ‘trans-Himalayan esotericism’, The Secret Doctrine, therefore hardly mentioned the term ‘Theosophy’ at all. Thus, Blavatsky did not conceptualise her trans-Himalayan system of esoteric philosophy as ‘Theosophy’—a term reserved for universal Truth and the ancient historical Wisdom Religion. On the other hand, her specific trans-Himalayan system, which increasingly became her focus from the eighteen-eighties to her death (as shown in chapter 2.6), was regarded as the purest transmission of the ancient Wisdom Religion in our time. Finally, for Blavatsky, the practical dimension of her construct ‘Theosophy’, as divine ethics, became the cause for which the Theosophical Society worked (as discussed in chapter 2.7).
The second and third research questions were primarily answered in chapters 2.2 to 2.7. The major topics, which Blavatsky discussed the most throughout her many works, were identified as: (1) ‘Theosophy’, (2) ancient knowledge, (3) Christian dogmatism, (4) the modern sciences, (5) spiritualism, (6) her own system of esoteric philosophy or trans-Himalayan esotericism (while only her discourse for ‘system’ was discussed in this thesis, Blavatsky’s doctrines, related to this ‘system’ and their demonstration through the comparative study of religions, accounts for the most substantial parts of her text corpus), and (7) universal brotherhood. These themes constitute her primary intellectual engagements and were therefore analysed and mapped as such in this thesis. The major theme of ‘ancient knowledge’—which was also one of the primary connotations of Blavatsky’s use of the concept ‘Theosophy’, in the sense of an ancient Wisdom Religion—was, however, more penetrating than any other of her discourses. Blavatsky discussed nearly all of her major topics in relation to this theme: (1) she criticised Christian dogmatism for having distorted the original ancient knowledge; (2) she criticised the modern sciences for having discovered nothing not already known to the ancients and for not having acknowledged their achievements; (3) she argued that the true source of spiritualism was the original ancient occultism/magic; (4) she argued that the true ‘system’ of esoteric philosophy was the ancient ‘esoteric system’ or ‘secret doctrine’ and; (5) she equally stated that the idea of universal brotherhood was an ancient idea. Blavatsky’s discourse for ancient knowledge was thus the major theosophical discourse in Blavatsky’s work and underlies all of her other discourses to a varying degree.
In relation to the third question, it was shown in each of the discourse chapters that each of Blavatsky’s discourses were influenced by their wider intellectual contexts to such an extent that these contexts not only supplied much of the data or input—but also formed her discourses. In chapter 2.2 it was shown that contrary to modern progressivist discourse, Blavatsky did not find modern society, culture and knowledge superior to the ancients. However, Blavatsky’s discourse for ancient knowledge was to a considerable extend moulded by the context of modern historical consciousness and its two major dimensions: (1) the idea of progress and (2) the quest for origins. Blavatsky adopted the modern Western idea of progress prevalent among intellectuals at the time, but as the idea of linear progress clashed with her view of the ancients possessing higher knowledge she had to reconstruct the idea of progress to accommodate this discrepancy. As a result, Blavatsky already in Isis Unveiled began to formulate a theory of progressive historical cycles including the notion of the rise and fall of civilizations. The second major section in this chapter demonstrated that the quest for ancient knowledge or for origins was a common way of thinking among intellectuals during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that Blavatsky’s discourse for ancient knowledge was significantly embedded in this larger context. More specifically, it was demonstrated how the contexts of the science of religion and mythology were the immediate historical sources and contexts in relation to which Blavatsky formulated her idea of an ancient ‘Wisdom Religion’. In other words, the historical search for an original religion was not only an occult strategy or rhetoric of higher knowledge—but was primarily an adoption of a common intellectual/historical occupation at the time.
In chapter 2.3 it was shown that Blavatsky’s critique of Christian dogmatism was largely derived from the critical Enlightenment trend of Biblecritique— typical of the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century. However, even though Blavatsky eagerly embraced the Enlightenment tradition of dispelling superstition and honouring truth, she did not agree with the consequences that often followed Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment critique of religion and the general secularization of society such as increased materialism and the decline of spirituality. To her, these trends represented a major crisis and she clearly regarded it necessary to fight against destructive religious critique. However having absorbed so much modern Bible critique, Blavatsky was unable to regard Western Christianity and its dogmas as an institution able to counteract the growing materialism of her age. Like others at the time who felt a crisis of faith, Blavatsky therefore sought to restore the authority of religion not by dismissing modern scholarship but by employing it as part of her own discourse. She used works from Bible criticism, the science of religion and the mythographers to deconstruct the humanly constructed Christian dogmas and in its stead she reconstructed what she believed to be the truly divine aspects of religion or the principles of the ancient universal pan-esotericism. Blavatsky’s bible-critique was thus not only the anti-Christian polemics of an occultist, but was the adoption of one of the major intellectual discourses at the time in order to establish what she found to be true religion in a time of religious crisis.
In chapter 2.4 it was shown how, in mainstream culture, the close relation between natural philosophy and esotericism gradually disintegrated after the ‘Scientific Revolution’ and that in the increasingly secularised modern context several movements—such as Romantic Naturphilosophie, mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, spiritualism and modern occultism—continued their attempt to bridge the spiritual and material domains. Blavatsky’s discourse was a part of this bridging activity as well as a direct response to the growing authority of the new naturalists. It was demonstrated that—despite previous arguments that ‘occultism’ was largely an adaptation to modern scientism and thereby a way to legitimize its marginal views in the modern context—‘occultism’, as expressed in the works of Blavatsky, contains greater nuances. Blavatsky’s attitude towards the modern sciences primarily consisted of a severe critical reaction to what was perceived to be the methodological and doctrinal limitations of contemporary scientists. Rather than appealing to them, they were perceived to stand in the way of an understanding of and reassertion of spirit in the natural domain. This, however, implies that even though Blavatsky for the most part did not agree with the modern sciences, Blavatsky’s discourse for occultism was formulated in relation to the sciences. In other words, Blavatsky defined occultism as the answer to the limitations of the modern sciences. Blavatsky thus posed ‘occultism’ or the ‘secret doctrine’, as an alternative, more comprehensive science of the whole of nature—inclusive of both the material and spiritual dimensions—to the new natural sciences and the agnosticism that excluded spirit from nature. In relation to her critique, an analysis—of how Blavatsky’s discussion, definition or presentation of ‘occultism’ and ‘the secret doctrine’ was influenced by the context of ‘scientism’—was thus relevant.
This analysis demonstrated that in Isis Unveiled, scientism only entered indirectly into Blavatsky’s definitions of ‘magic’ through mesmerism and the works of Eliphas Levi. In The Secret Doctrine, scientism rather marked the comparative context in which Blavatsky discussed the ‘secret doctrine’, ‘occultism’ and ‘esoteric philosophy’. The definitions, discourses or presentations of the terms magic, occultism and the secret doctrine were more aligned with religious and philosophical ideas than with the modern sciences. In terms of authority, presentation and self-identification the ancients thus outweighed the moderns. Thus, Blavatsky’s discourse was not primarily one of appeal to the modern sciences or an adoption of scientism as a legitimising strategy—but one of a revival of ancient science or magia naturalis to counter the materialism of the modern context that had recently deprived nature of its spiritual meaning.
In chapter 2.5 Blavatsky’s relation to the larger context of modern spiritualism was discussed, mapped and analysed. It was demonstrated that in the wider sense of the term—that is, being opposed to the values of materialism—Blavatsky was a spiritualist and had been extensively involved in spiritualism including ‘modern spiritualism’. However, in addition to spiritualism Blavatsky also had a wider background in Western esoteric traditions that was central to her understanding and construction of spiritualism/modern spiritualism. It was shown that Blavatsky from an early date criticised modern spiritualism and constructed spiritualism as a modern presentation of ancient magic and occultism. Initially, Blavatsky thought she could reform modern spiritualism or cleanse it of what she perceived to be ignorant materialistic theories, but as she did not succeed, Blavatsky used modern spiritualism as a launching pad for a further development of ‘new occultism’. Blavatsky’s critique of modern spiritualism, based on Western esoteric traditions and particularly on Eliphas Levi’s writings, thus became the opportunity to define her own occultism resulting in three primary characteristics: (1) a knowledge of ancient esotericism and associated theories of spirits, (2) an ideal of the adept, and (3) a systematic spiritual philosophy. These became some of the defining features of the new occultism that emerged during the late nineteenth century and can be said to represent the construction of meaning in Blavatsky’s work from the convergence of two intellectual contexts—modern spiritualism and older western esoteric traditions.
In chapter 2.6 it was demonstrated that, increasingly through the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties, Blavatsky adopted the ‘will to system’ prevalent in the preceding and immediate intellectual context as a way of constructing meaning. Blavatsky’s discourse was, however, not only based on reason and empirical experimentation that substantiated the philosophical systems of the day but on mystical divine origins, initiated access, ancient texts and spiritual authority, as well. It was demonstrated that Blavatsky, after the publication of Isis Unveiled, began to portray the ancient Wisdom-Religion as a ‘system’ and that Blavatsky, in collaboration with other central theosophists, also began to construct a specific system that was persistently, through the years, defined as trans-Himalayan esotericism originating with the mahatmas and ultimately from Shambhala. This development of a specific ‘system’, however, clashed with the more general non-dogmatism policy of the Theosophical Society and soon led to several significant conflicts within the Society, such as the resignation of Anna Kingsford and T. Subba Row.
In the final chapter (2.7) it was shown that the idea of universal brotherhood, which became central to Blavatsky’s and the Theosophical Society’s intellectual and practical work in India, had been current since ancient times and that Blavatsky’s contemporary inspiration resided in the Enlightenment ideals of equal human rights and nineteenth-century initiatives of social reform. In particular, both spiritualism and Freemasonry provided the immediate Western sources for Blavatsky’s early use of the idea. It was demonstrated that especially the move to India (1879) became the unique platform for the practise of this Enlightenment ideal. In India the Society would work to revive ancient Indian culture as it was coupled with the idea of ancient wisdom, counteract the Christian missionaries and British rule, and spread Theosophy among the Indian people through Blavatsky’s and Olcott’s cooperation with Hindu and Buddhist reformers. The idea of universal brotherhood was furthermore specifically connected to the Theosophical policy of no-dogma, as this was believed to lead to intellectual unity and thereby to avoid superficial divisions among men. In India, universal brotherhood thus became the central cause for which the Theosophical Society was intended to work and a direct extension of the ‘divine ethics’ of Blavatsky’s ‘Theosophy’.
The working hypothesis of this thesis was that even though Blavatsky primarily is thought of as an esotericist, her construction of meaning was to a greater extent, than has hitherto been analysed, influenced by and intertextually connected with many of the major intellectual trends of her time. In order to demonstrate this hypothesis a set of theoretical assumptions and a specific methodology, based on language, intertextuality and close contextual historical study, was adopted. After having analysed and mapped Blavatsky’s major discourses and answered the research questions, it can thus be concluded that: simply to read Blavatsky’s discourses and their ideas as the idiosyncratic strategies of an esotericist in opposition to mainstream culture would be to largely fail to see that they were in fact part of the larger cultural web of meaning and that they in fact only can be understood in this larger context. It was shown that the larger cultural web of meaning supplied the data and shaped her discourses to a considerable extent. Thus it can be concluded that Blavatsky was deeply engaged in the intellectual currents of her day and based on these engagements posed her own solutions to many of their problems. The construction of meaning in modern Western esotericism, in the case of Blavatsky, was thus based on and formed in interaction with larger intellectual contexts. Such a theoretical/methodological apparatus that can avoid an a priori reduction of the research objects to a specific form of discourse, strategy or rhetoric and thereby neglect their historical context, is profitable for the future study of Western esotericism, as it will facilitate a better understanding of how Western esotericism was a part of the intellectual landscape rather than something isolated from it or only engaged with it in order to legitimize its minority views.
In addition to the above general conclusions this thesis has demonstrated several particular and important historical details. For these see each of the chapter conclusions and their part-conclusions. Finally, the author would like to express the hope that this thesis will serve as a contribution to future research into Blavatsky’s Theosophy and imagines a fruitful future for this area of research thinking that an analysis of Blavatsky’s particular doctrines now seems closer at hand than before this thesis was completed.