Blavatsky, Emerson, and The Tree of Knowledge

Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)

Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)

This morning I am entering territory I have not traversed before. I’m thinking about the emergence of what we might term western esotericism, or western occultism, or modern spirituality. When we think about the emergence of an idea, or a set of ideas, it's worth thinking about how such ideas arose. An idea does not just appear – ex nihilo - out of nothing. The conditions, the architecture of ideas prevalent at a particular time, the softening of prior-held precepts, these are all essential prerequisites for an idea to arise. In general, I find academic genealogy a fascinating subject. Samuel Coleridge wrote ‘The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on.’ A variant of the well-known idiom, ‘We all stand on the shoulders of giants.’ We all benefit from the insights of bygone thinkers, and our progress, our discoveries, depend upon those who came before. Scholarship often consists of tracing back the intellectual lineage of particular ideas. And indeed, even thinkers who we might consider as remarkably original, like Newton, Freud, Darwin, or Marx, all have their intellectual forerunners who preempted their work and theories to some measure, and set the stage for their advent.

It’s not always possible to work out who has influenced who. It can be an exceedingly complex landscape. Imagine though if we had an omniscient, magical lens upon the world, which allowed us to see those lines of influence branching out from each and every individual. Some of those lines would be thick and dense, and some of those lines would be thin and transparent. If we were also to take a step back out of time, and view all of eternity at once, we would see these lines branching throughout all of human history. It would be like a great tree, a tree not dissimilar to the tree of evolution, but this would be a tree of influence, or rather the tree of knowledge. I don’t think this tree would just consist of people that existed in the flesh either, it would include purportedly real people, who probably didn’t actually ever live, like Moses, Socrates, or Hercules, who have all been exceedingly influential despite their never existing, and also it would include fictional characters, like Captain Ahab, or Gandalf, or Captain John Luc Picard, who have, again, had their impact upon us despite their never existing.

As we move further and further out from the cradle of civilization, the average amount of lines that each individual would have would gradually increase, and it would jump dramatically at particular junctures in human history - with the invention of writing, the printing press, and the internet. The more substantial lines in this tree would be perceptible to the individuals in question: unquestionably the apostle Peter was plainly aware of the thick line of influence that moved from Jesus to himself, and Jesus would have been equally aware. But that wouldn’t necessarily always be so. In many cases there would be thick lines moving from people already deceased to someone else, or lines formed unconsciously, or lines formed because ideas had been of great influence, but that idea had remained unattributed in the mind of the recipient. Or there could be a whole network of lines which connect two individuals, via a whole load of other people, meaning that they are conceptually, in terms of the development of ideas, intimately related even though they themselves may not recognise it. In that way, we can perceive such lines of influence with our omniscient, magical, timeless glasses on, that these individuals, being as candid as you like, may be unable to see, or unable to see fully.

If we look at the nature of these thick lines then, I think we would discover something quite interesting. Sometimes these lines will intuitively make a great deal of sense to us, we would perceive both figures as existing within the same intellectual or cultural milieu, naturally proceeding from one to the other. Jesus to Peter or Jesus or Paul being cases in point. But sometimes the very opposite is the case. Sometimes the influence of one on the other spans across what we would have otherwise perceived an insurmountable gulf in outlook, across a vast ideological divide, or across a social-cultural divide, or across a class divide, or a religious divide, and yet despite all that, the line of influence is undoubtedly thick and dense.

So, as I said, I’m thinking about the emergence of western esotericism or occultism, or what we could call modern spirituality. I would identify the author of this movement to be Madame Blavatsky, and I would identify her forerunner to be our very own Ralph Waldo Emerson. Moving from Emerson to Blavatsky – contemporaries of one another - there is undeniably, in my opinion, a thick line of influence. First then, I’m going to talk about and introduce to you Madame Helena Blavatsky. Amongst Western esoteric figures, there’s a tendency to weave elaborate narratives about one’s self, in order to add to their mystique. It's one thing to know about esoteric spirituality, but if you’ve walked the walk, and sat at the feet of some mysterious eastern guru, and gleaned secret knowledge directly, well then you’re the real deal. As such, when it comes to Blavatsky, it’s quite difficult to make a distinction between myth and reality. So for now, I’ll just say what is irrefutable.

She was born into Tsarist Russia in 1831. When she was 17 years old, she was married off to a 40 year-old man, but she was unhappy with the marriage and ran off “in search of the unknown”. She had various connections in her childhood with people who spoke about esoteric wisdom, and a great-grandfather who was a Rosicrucian Freemason. And that is essentially all we know about her early life. For the next twenty years, up until her arrival in New York city in 1873, we also have scant evidence as to what she was doing or where she was. We only have her accounts, and her accounts contradict one another, but she claims that during this period she was traveling around the world. It’s probably not a complete fabrication, she probably did travel a fair bit, but she claimed to have travelled all throughout Europe, Eastern Europe, down in Greece, a tour of Egypt, up through the rest of the Middle East, across to India. At another point she was in England, in America, in Canada, in Mexico, down into South America, and all throughout this time she’s said to be visiting various magicians, gurus, and other religious specialists.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

She also claims to have travelled to Tibet, and this is an important part of her mythology. There she met a couple of mysterious sages named Koot Hoomi and Master Morya, whom she spent years with in a secret monastery, learning an unknown language, reading secret teaching in mysterious ancient manuscripts, and being taught to develop her psychic powers of clairvoyance, telepathy, the ability to dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and to project out her astral form, etc. etc… So, in 1873 she arrives in New York city and ends up in a working women’s hostel. A short time later, she came across a news article about some American mediums. The article was written by a Henry Steel Olcott. Blavatsky sought him out, and that sets the stage for what was to follow. Olcott and Blavatsky became friends, and he started writing about her. Writing about her history, or the history she claimed for herself, writing about her views on spirituality and the occult, and writing about her own mediumistic abilities. And that began garnering attention.

Now the reason I say Emerson is so critical in all this, has to do with the culture of religion in the Eastern United States in the 19th Century. Because it really did all change with Emerson. Prior to Emerson, we can contrast him with the Unitarian theologian, William Ellery Channing. Channing’s theology was very biblically orientated, he had a very high view of scripture. If the New Testament said that Jesus performed miracles, well then Jesus performed miracles, because God was above natural law, so he could change natural law, if he so desired. God was the father of all creation, and Jesus was his divinely ordained mediator. God was beyond humanity, and beyond nature. Take the anti-evolutionary view of intelligent design, that the complexity of animals necessitates the existence of a designer, of God. Today this would be regarded as a very conservative religious view to hold. This is the view that fundamentalist Christians today take. Well, it was also the view of Channing, and the early Unitarians. But with Emerson, and his radical views, we see a move away from that high view of scripture. Of course he didn’t achieve this by ignoring the Bible, but the very opposite, he deconstructed that prevalent, literal way of reading the Bible, by studying the Bible more closely, and ultimately arriving at his view of God - a God not revealing his truth to us through scripture, but intuitively though nature herself – a direct experience.

William Ellery Channing (1780-1842)

William Ellery Channing (1780-1842)

And so, if we were to ask these men, ‘what is spirituality?’, we’d be given two totally different answers. Channing would say it was about being ‘a man’ of ‘the book’. But for Emerson, it was much more of an intuitive, experiential, and universalistic affair. A by-product of which, in large part, was the parting of ways between religion and spirituality. Emerson made it possible to be spiritual without being religious. And of course, a lot of people today like to think of themselves as being spiritual, but not religious, they just don’t realise how Emersonian they’re being. And so, Emersonian and transcendentalist thought seeped into East Coast American culture, free now of the past, religion, and social forms; a more experimental and individualistic approach to spirituality was possible, in which we can be liberated to live from within. Thus it opened up avenues of inquiry that the previous generation would not have entertained for a moment. Particularly when it came to receptivity to spiritual ideas coming out of the East. Emerson was a major forerunner in this respect. He had various Eastern texts on his shelves at home, loads of them, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas. It seems that Emerson leaned on the Vedas for inspiration, and as such they influenced his ideas a lot. Although he was never that explicit about that, as such association would have carried some degree of stigma, it is nevertheless evident in his writings. As such, transcendentalism is riddled with Eastern thought, and thus this paved the way for a more explicit, out-and-out investigation of Eastern spiritual ideas to follow. In other words, the groundwork was laid by Emerson for Madame Blavatsky.

Okay, so back to Blavatsky. She met her friend, Henry Olcott, and together they started promoting her ideas. A short time later they established their esoteric organisation in 1875, called the Theosophical Society. The word Theosophical or Theosophy relates to what we were talking about last week – like the word theology, which merges together the two Greek words ‘Theos’ meaning God, and ‘Logia’ meaning ‘sayings’ or ‘study of’, Theosophy merges the two words ‘Theos’, and ‘Sophia’, meaning, as we know, wisdom, or more specifically the feminine personification of wisdom in God. So, Theosophical means something like ‘God’s wisdom’. So, these powers which Blavatsky was apparently able to manifest, were on account of, according to her, her connection with the ‘hidden masters’, whom she later termed the ‘mahatmas’, individuals including Koot Hoomi and Master Morya, those teacher figures she allegedly encountered in Tibet, figures who had access to 'secret teachings', who operated in the shadows, revealing themselves to particular individuals, whom they swore to secrecy.

A letter from Koot Hoomi.

This concept of hidden figures behind the scenes is a recurring idea amongst such Western esoteric figures. In Blavatsky’s case, she was allegedly selected and trained by these hidden masters to be their ambassador to the West, their conduit, through which they would impart their esoteric knowledge to the West. The way they did this, they way they communicated, was either telepathically, or by sending Blavatsky letters – but not letters through the post of course, but letters which would be dematerialized by the masters (wherever they were), and then rematerialized by Blavatsky, in the presence of her disciples. And these would be very long letters, written in an eloquent style, written in English, but an English very unlike Blavatsky’s written English, adding to the mystery of all this, and adding to the potential authenticity of her claims.

Her adherents, it's important to recognise, were not the witless-minded being swept up by spectacle, they included some of the most intellectually astute people of her day, including the inventor Thomas Edison, the poet Sir Edwin Arnold, the chemist Sir William Crookes, and even Gandhi was an admirer of Blavatsky. And beyond these individuals she met, she influenced the artist Paul Gaugain, the philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Lewis Carrol, and the list goes on and on. So, the Theosophical Society was seeking to bring the truth of ancient Eastern religion to the West, and at the same time integrate that thought with the contemporary scientific thought of her day. And the society had the broader goal of helping society to become a universal brotherhood, where people would see each other as equals, irrespective of sex, race, or creed. So, a very progressive movement for the 19th Century.

In 1878 she gained US citizenship; she was the first Russian to become a naturalized US citizen. And then soon after acquiring her citizenship, she left America and moved to India, where she moved the Theosophical Society to. There she politized the society and joined forces with a Hindu Nationalism movement, this being when India was still very much part of the British Empire. As you might imagine, she upset some people, and so was eventually forced out of India. She travelled through Europe for a bit, before settling in London, where she lived for the last few years of her life. Madame Blavatsky then was at the helm of esotericism or occultism, or modern spirituality’s sudden rise to prominence. Theosophists themselves speculate that the reason for this sudden rise was on account of the hidden masters themselves, who perhaps convened in some clandestine fashion to orchestrate the emergence of this ancient truth, to aid humanity in our ongoing spiritual betterment. And who knows? I’m obviously a sceptic when it come to this stuff, but here I am talking about it, so, make of that what you will. It does resonate on some level as meaningful to me.

HQ of the Theosophical Society in London.

HQ of the Theosophical Society in London.

To make a rational account of modern spirituality’s abrupt rise, however, must require invoking the influence of Emerson. Emerson made the West receptive to exploring the esoteric, and Eastern spirituality in general. To quote him, “within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission…’ Blavatsky herself wrote in praise of Emerson. Emerson’s pantheism, Emerson’s God perpetrating all things, and his idea of the over-soul, all prepared the West for what followed. I will close then with this final quote from Madame Blavatsky herself:

“Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached "reality"; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya [illusion]. ”


Lewis Connolly