Theosophy (Small-t) Proper
From Part One, you likely got the idea that theosophy is an amalgam of theology and philosophy, although not quite one or the other, and that it shares several characteristics with the ideal form of Visionary Fiction.
It has been said that the term Visionary Fiction is a neologism, a new kid on the genre block. (When I was working on the Wikipedia article on VF, I was in a firefight with the Wiki gate keeper on this point until I mentioned that the term was used, if not coined, by Carl Jung back in 1929.) In fact, Visionary Fiction, by whatever name, has been around—and this is another characteristic it shares with theosophy—since mankind began writing its heroic epics: the mythical poetry and dramas about divines interacting with humans told in Indian Sanskrit, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Babylonian cuneiform, biblical Hebrew, and ecumenical Greek, to cite a few. What we now call classics. Ancient sources, indeed.
We can proudly claim that the greatest spiritual and motivational documents of all time—the Bhagavad Gita, The Iliad, The Holy Bible, Beowulf, for example—are works of Visionary Fiction. (Yes, fiction, with apologies to the literalists. That they are stories, allegories, does not make them less beautiful or inspiring.) Think about the impact of The Book on civilization. What if, for better or for worse, humanity had no Bible or Koran?
In the earlier definition for theosophy, which was not 100% complete, we said it was “any doctrine of religious philosophy and mysticism claiming that knowledge of god can be attained through mystical insight and spiritual ecstasy, and that direct communication with the transcendent world is possible.” It elevates the esoteric (internal, individual) over the exoteric (outer, authoritarian) aspect of spiritual practice, a tendency that has limited theosophy’s propagation, especially in the West where “church” is more about buildings and ritual than solitary meditation and personal revelation. Note that we claim that VF “embraces spiritual and esoteric wisdom,” even though we know that “the inside” requires considerably more expertise to frame as story
Theosophy in the Ancient Classical World
Although I am not going to take this discussion any further back than 3000 BCE, I still want to offer a reverent nod to sources lost in prehistory, which historical writers from Plato to Blavatsky acknowledged as contributing to the tradition significantly—think Atlantis and Hyperborea.
In ancient Greece, before knowledge was partitioned into categories like theology, philosophy and science, the teacher or leader was called hierophant, which meant an “interpreter of sacred mysteries or esoteric principles.” The mysterious Pythagoras (570-495 BCE), a prototypical thinker, mathematician, and spiritual master all in one, was the consummate hierophant, the model for theosophy. Socrates, Plato, and other Greek eminences would also qualify, although, to be accurate in attribution, ancient historians record that Pythagoras, Plato, and possibly others learned what they knew from Egyptian masters (another tantalizing thread to follow another time).
In the later Greek and early Roman period (3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE), it was cosmopolitan Alexandria in Egypt, with its famed library and university, that became the theosophical center of the known world, a religious and academic melting pot that produced hybrids of Egyptian, Greek, Judaic, and Roman culture and religion, among them the cult of Serapis, the writings of Philo Judaeus, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and several exotic brands of Christianity, including monasticism. [Commercial here: my forthcoming historical VF novel, The Elect, is a saga of Alexandria in the 1st century AD, and thus my seeming—I’ve done a lot of research and am headed to Alexandria shortly—erudition on the subject.] In her book The Key to Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky attributes the term theosophy, which she borrowed for her Theosophy, as coming “to us from the Alexandrian philosophers…. Theosophy dates from the third century of our era, and began with Ammonius Saccas [one of the founders of Neoplatonism] and his disciples.”
To understand the full range of theosophy, recall that Egyptian magic, both black and white if you must, and Greek mystery rites (Orphic, Elysian, etc.) were integral to the spirituality of the period and thus part of the religious panoply. Granted, most of these practices were intentionally occult (hidden); initiates into the magical-mystery schools were sworn to secrecy under pain of death, which is a factor in why so little is known about these cults even today. Cross the demand for silence from initiates with the fear of the “black arts” instilled in the uninitiated and we have the dynamic that has informed anything labelled occult, including psychic and paranormal phenomena, throughout the Christian era. Blame it as the reason why some of our favorites topics cause people to call VF authors weirdos.
Curiously, this occult aspect of religious practice has its own theu- word: theurgy, which is defined as the “the practice of rituals, sometimes seen as magical in nature, performed with the intention of invoking the action or evoking the presence of one or more gods, especially with the goal of achieving henosis (unity with the divine) and perfecting oneself.” A combination of theo- (God) + -urgia (from ergon work), at one time the word meant simply magic. The alchemical Great Work, anyone?
Theosophy during the Renaissance
Like many facets of classical culture, theosophy was largely suppressed in the West from Rome’s conversion to Christianity (c. 300 CE) until the pre-Renaissance (14th century). Ironically, it was the Crusades, mounted to protect Christendom against the encroachment of Islam, that were instrumental in bringing back classical “pagan” religious, philosophical, and theosophical concepts to Europe. While researching my novel, Channel of the Grail, (2016), I was stunned to discover that one of the reasons the powerful and wealthy military-religious Order of the Knights Templar, the elite army of the papacy, was violently dissolved in 1307 was because its leadership, while in the Holy Land, had secretly embraced a universal form of religion, which aimed to unite Christians, Muslims, and Jews into a super-confederation under Templar rule.* A game-changer had the Templars not been brought down by the Inquisition. (A marvelous, chilling book and movie about this era is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.)
While the Templar effort to insert theosophical principles into European religion and politics failed, only a hundred years later and from the same source, the Middle East, a flood of classical knowledge did successfully find its way into Europe, and a movement we now know as the Renaissance changed its course forever. While the causes, vectors, and outcomes of this revolution were many, few influenced the minds, hearts, and souls of the period more than the revival of the study of theosophy, whether in its various forms.
Under the patronage of the powerful Florentine leader Cosimo de Medici, Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) got the ball rolling by translating Plato’s works into Latin, by teaching the principles of Alexandrian neo-Platonism (theosophy), and by founding a school in Florence modeled on the ancient Athenian Academy. Discerning a spirituality common to all ages as did the Templars earlier, Ficino sought to integrate Egyptian Hermeticism, manuscripts of which had been found by the Crusaders, with Greek and Jewish-Christian thought. His student, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) extended Ficino’s universalism to include the Muslim Koran and the Jewish Cabala. Della Mirandola’s efforts, however, attracted the attention of the still-supreme Church, and he was poisoned to death at age 31. Then as now, established religions, especially those holding serve, did not cry “Uncle” easily.
In the later Renaissance period, as the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment unfolded, theosophy cautiously emerged from the shadows dressed variously as Rosicrucians and Free Masons; or, in more recent times, Blavatskyan Theosophists and Steiner’s Anthroposophists; while today they are represented by a variety of metaphysical and New Age practitioners.
Theosophy: A Universal Model
In its most pristine form—what we aim to celebrate in the spiritual and educational aspects of VF—theosophy is the collection of most noble—meaning universal and perennial—teachings and practices of theology, philosophy, and even theurgy presented in a form appealing to almost any audience: Story. We tell and retell of the powerful dream of humanity at its most extraordinary, a legend/legacy passed down with its infinite variations from the very dawn of history to the present day.
It matters little whether we call it universalism, perennial philosophy, alchemy, the Second Coming, or a New Age. It matters greatly that we understand it with our mind, hearts and souls and continue to explore and extol its values to all who would consciously share in the dream with the intent to make it reality. As Visionary Fiction authors we are not alone in this endeavor, nor are we the most important to its success, but we are vital nonetheless. Would the world’s great teachings be available today had there not been humble, even blind, scribes across the ages who made the effort to tell the tale?
Apology for Use of Wikipedia as a Source
Aware that some view it as quick and dirty scholarship, which it can be, I only use material from Wikipedia if it checks for accuracy against my own knowledge and research on a subject. I admit it makes it easier, and I justify any sloth involved by citing that I am a sometimes contributor to the Wiki knowledge bank.
*Atienza, Juan Garcia, The Knights Templar in the Golden Age of Spain (2006), Ch. 6.