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Theosophy derives from the Greek term θεοσοφία (theosophia), from θεός (theos), "god", "gods" or "divine", and σοφία (sophia), wisdom; variously translated as divine wisdom, the wisdom of God or the gods, or wisdom in things divine. The term is first found in writings of Porphyry (AD 234–c. 305), a well-known Alexandrian philosopher who belonged to the Neo-Platonic school.[1] In the course of time, several people and movements spiritually inclined also adopted the denomination of "theosophers" or "theosophists" for themselves. That was the case of Meister Eckhart in the 14th century, a group of Renaissance philosophers such as Paracelsus in the 16th century, Robert Fludd, Thomas Vaughan, and Jacob Boehme in the 17th; and Emanuel Swedenborg and Karl von Eckartshausen in the 18th century, among others. Finally, the theosophical movement reappeared in the 19th century with the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875 by H. P. Blavatsky, H. S. Olcott, W. Q. Judge, and others.

H. P. Blavatsky, states that "theosophia properly means not a knowledge of "God" but of gods, i.e., divine, that is superhuman knowledge".[2] In The Theosophical Glossary, she describes the term further as follows:

Theosophia (Gr.). Wisdom-religion, or "Divine Wisdom". The substratum and basis of all the world-religions and philosophies, taught and practised by a few elect ever since man became a thinking being. In its practical bearing, Theosophy is purely divine ethics; the definitions in dictionaries are pure nonsense, based on religious prejudice and ignorance of the true spirit of the early Rosicrucians and mediæval philosophers who called themselves Theosophists.[3]

Neo-Platonic theosophy

The origin of the term theosophia is unknown, but it is likely to have been coined by the Neo-Platonic (a philosophical school founded by Ammonius Saccas, who was born ca. 175). Based on the writings of the famous Platonist Prof. Alexander Wilder, H. P. Blavatsky suggests that the term was commonly used by all Neo-Platonists.[4] However, researches made in the late 1980s by scholars James Santucci[5] and Dr. Jean-Louis Siémons[6] showed that it is only with the third-generation Neo-Platonist Porphyry (234–305) that we find the term in writing for the first time. In Porphyry’s view, the divine wisdom is a state of illumination that can be attained by self-exertion. The theosophos (Gr. θεόσοφος) tries "by himself, to elevate himself, alone to alone, to a communion with the divine." With Iamblichus (250–325), the pure mystical meaning given to the term by Porphyry acquires a more occult or magical significance. He proposed that the theosophia can be attained through theurgy (Gr. θεουργία), a series of religious rituals and magic operations aimed at elevating consciousness. Proclus (412–485) uses the term in yet another way to denominate specific spiritual doctrines, making reference to a local 'Hellenic theosophy', but also to a foreign or barbarian (that is, non-Greek) theosophy, referring to Chaldean doctrines.

Christian theosophy

Many early Christians, including a number of Church Fathers, were students of Neo-Platonic teachers. They also adopted the term theosophia, but used it in a more Christian sense to mean "the Wisdom of God". Clement of Alexandria (150–215) talks about a theosophos as one who writes "driven by divine inspiration," and thus in time this term came to be used to refer to the prophets of old. An important difference between the Neo-Platonic and Christian concepts of theosophia, is that in the former view no one is a born theosophos—he becomes such by long exertion, application to philosophy, self-purification and contemplation of the divine.[7] In the Christian view the divine wisdom is bestowed by God—as He chooses—upon the prophet, in the form of a revelation. After the Neo-Platonists disappeared in the 6th century, the term theosophia continued to be used in Christianity during the Middle Ages, but frequently in a lower sense as a synonym of theologia. In the 9th century, after the re-discovery of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius (a Christian Neo-Platonist that lived ca. 500) the term regained a lofty meaning among great mystics such as Meister Eckhart, J. Tauler, John of Ruysbroeck, and others. It was through their writings that 17th to 19th century European mystics such as Boehme, Saint-Martin, Swedenborg, and others, inherited the term theosophy and adopted it as their own. With these “theosophers” (as they came to be known) the term became popular, being on the title of a number of books during the 1700s.[8] There continued to be publications on Christian theosophy until the middle of the 19th century.

Modern Theosophy

At the opening of the last quarter of the 19th century a committee formed by H. P. Blavatsky, H. S. Olcott, W. Q. Judge, and others, founded what they called the Theosophical Society. According to Col. Olcott, the choice of the name of the newly formed Society was subject of discussion in the committee, and several options were suggested, such as the Egyptological, the Hermetic, the Rosicrucian, etc. However, none of them seemed the right one. 'At last,' he recalls 'in turning over the leaves of the Dictionary, one of us came across the word "Theosophy," whereupon, after discussion, we unanimously agreed that that was the best of all.' Olcott explained this name was appropriate because it expressed 'the esoteric truth we wished to reach' and covered the ground of 'methods of occult scientific research.'[9] It does not seem likely that the name for the Society was chosen merely out of a dictionary search, since Madame Blavatsky had already connected her knowledge with the term theosophy a few months before, in a letter to Hiram Corson:

My belief is based on something older than the Rochester knockings [that began the Spiritualistic movement in 1848], and springs out from the same source of information that was used by Raymond Lully, Picus della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Fludd, Henry More, et cetera, etc., all of whom have ever been searching for a system that should disclose to them the "deepest depths" of the Divine nature, and show them the real tie which binds all things together. I found at last, and many years ago, the cravings of my mind satisfied by this theosophy taught by the Angels and communicated by them that the protoplast might know it for the aid of the human destiny.[10]

Uses of the term by H. P. Blavatsky

In her article "The Beacon of the Unknown" Mme. Blavatsky says there are two Theosophies: that of the true Theosophist and that of the regular fellow of the Theosophical Society.[11] The first is the "true Theosophy, inner Theosophy, that of the soul"[12] and it is connected with the use and development of the spiritual intuition.[13] Here, the term Theosophy is used in its literal sense, as a state of divine wisdom that transcends the intellectual faculties.

The second meaning of the term was defined by H. P. Blavatsky as follows: "Theosophy, as already said, is the WISDOM-RELIGION". In this aspect, theosophy represents a body of teachings which is claimed to form the basis of every religious truth.

A third and more specific meaning was also assigned to the term by Mme. Blavatsky, to refer to the teachings that were given at the time through the Theosophical Society. The phrase "Modern Theosophy" is frequently used in this connection.

Common beliefs of Theosophists

Freedom of thought is an important concept to Theosophists, and beliefs vary. However, the following concepts are commonly accepted among most Theosophists:

Modern Theosophy holds that existence embraces more than the material realm. Moreover, a lack of knowledge about these higher aspects of reality leads many people to feel confused, conflicted, and unsure of their purpose in life. Most Theosophists believe that we can gain knowledge of the Real, both in the universe and in human beings, by means of a holistic spiritual practice that includes study, meditation, and service. Here is a more detailed explanation:

  • Behind everything seen or unseen there is an eternal, boundless, and immutable absolute Reality, which is beyond the range of human thought. Both matter and consciousness (or spirit) are the two polar aspects of this Reality.
  • The universe is cyclical in nature. In fact there have been many universes. Each one manifests, develops, and dissolves back into the absolute Reality. After a period of cosmic rest, a new universe appears again.
  • Because everything proceeds from this one Reality, there is only one common life that pervades and sustains the whole universe. Every form of life is an expression of this unity.
  • The visible universe is only its densest part of this Reality. Invisible dimensions or planes of extremely subtle kinds of matter-energy interpenetrate the physical world. Knowing this truth helps us to understand many things in the universe that are otherwise baffling.
  • The universe has a purpose. The entire system, visible and invisible, is the scene of a great scheme of evolution, in which life moves to ever more expressive forms, more responsive awareness, and more unified consciousness.
  • There are no mechanical laws. The universe is pervaded by an immense intelligence, which is both present in the world and beyond it. Therefore intelligence is at the basis of all laws of nature. What most people consider "supernatural" is a manifestation of these otherwise unknown laws.
  • Human consciousness is in essence identical with the ultimate Reality. This Reality is the root of our real Self, and it is shared by all beings. Thus at the core we are united with one another.
  • The gradual unfolding of this Reality within us takes place over a long period of time through reincarnation, which is one aspect of the cyclic law that is seen everywhere in nature.
  • The cycle of reincarnation is ruled by the law of karma, or cause and effect. The doctrine of karma holds that each cause produces an effect like itself, and that this effect will eventually return to the one who has acted. As St. Paul says, whatever we sow, we will reap. The law of karma enables us to weave our own destiny through the ages. It is the force that ensures justice in the universe, because it means that everything we experience is the fruit of our actions in the past—in this life or another. This offers great hope, because it gives us the opportunity to create our future by what we do in the present.
  • The human pilgrimage takes us from the Source, where we begin as an unconscious part of the One Divine Reality, and leads us through the experience of the many, to finally take us back into union with the One, but now in full awareness. Our goal is thus to consciously realize ourselves as integral parts of the One, no longer polarized between consciousness and matter, or self and other. This realization is known as enlightenment.

Divine Wisdom

Theosophical teachings can be learned by means of study and mental processes, but as useful as a knowledge of these teachings may be, this is not the same as the direct perception of truth, which can take place by means of our higher consciousness:

These subjects (metaphysical) are only partly for understanding. A higher faculty belonging to the higher life must see, — and it is truly impossible to force it upon one's understanding — merely in words. One must see with his spiritual eye, hear with his Dharmakayic ear, feel with the sensations of his Ashta-vijnyāna (spiritual "I") before he can comprehend this doctrine fully; otherwise it may but increase one's "discomfort," and add to his knowledge very little.[14]

Spiritual knowledge or esoteric wisdom [is] a knowledge not attainable by ordinary intellectual processes, and only to be gained by mystical enlightenment or the awakening of the buddhic elements in Man.[15]

The recognition of the higher phases of man’s being on this planet is not to be attained by mere acquirement of knowledge. Volumes of the most perfectly constructed information cannot reveal to man life in the higher regions. One has to get a knowledge of spiritual facts by personal experience and from actual observation.​[16]

Knowledge comes in visions, first in dreams and then in pictures presented to the inner eye during meditation. Thus have I been taught the whole system of evolution, the laws of being and all else that I know—the mysteries of life and death, the workings of karma. Not a word was spoken to me of all this in the ordinary way, except, perhaps, by way of confirmation of what was thus given me—nothing taught me in writing. And knowledge so obtained is so clear, so convincing, so indelible in the impression it makes upon the mind, that all other sources of information, all other methods of teaching with which we are familiar dwindle into insignificance in comparison with this.​[17]

The Occult Science is not one in which secrets can be communicated of a sudden, by a written or even verbal communication. If so, all the “Brothers” would have to do, would be to publish a Hand-book of the art which might be taught in schools as grammar is.[18]

Living Theosophy

According to one of the Masters of Wisdom, Theosophy should not be seen a mere intellectual philosophy, but should express itself as a way of living based on love and the search for truth:

Theosophy can only find objective expression in an all-embracing code of life, thoroughly impregnated with the spirit of mutual tolerance, charity, and brotherly love. Its Society, as a body, has a task before it which, unless performed with the utmost discretion, will cause the world of the indifferent and the selfish to rise up in arms against it. Theosophy has to fight intolerance, prejudice, ignorance and selfishness, hidden under the mantle of hypocrisy. It has to throw all the light it can from the torch of Truth, with which its servants are entrusted. It must do this without fear or hesitation, dreading neither reproof nor condemnation. Theosophy, through its mouthpiece, the Society, has to tell the TRUTH to the very face of LIE; to beard the tiger in its den, without thought or fear of evil consequences, and to set at defiance calumny and threats. As an Association, it has not only the right, but the duty to uncloak vice and do its best to redress wrongs, whether through the voice of its chosen lecturers or the printed word of its journals and publications—making its accusations, however, as impersonal as possible. But its Fellows, or Members, have individually no such right. Its followers have, first of all, to set the example of a firmly outlined and as firmly applied morality, before they obtain the right to point out, even in a spirit of kindness, the absence of a like ethic unity and singleness of purpose in other associations or individuals. No Theosophist should blame a brother, whether within or outside of the association; neither may he throw a slur upon another’s actions or denounce him, lest he himself lose the right to be considered as a Theosophist. For, as such, he has to turn away his gaze from the imperfections of his neighbour, and centre rather his attention upon his own shortcomings, in order to correct them and become wiser. Let him not show the disparity between claim and action in another, but, whether in the case of a brother, a neighbour, or simply a fellow man, let him rather ever help one weaker than himself on the arduous walk of life.[19]

According to Annie Besant

Dr. Annie Besant talks about a primary and a secondary meaning for the word Theosophy. In her view the primary meaning has to do with the development of the ability to gain a "direct" personal knowledge of the divine. This aspect is present in the mysticism and esotericism of different religions:

Theosophy is this direct knowledge of God; the search after this is the Mysticism, or Esotericism, common to all religions, thrown by Theosophy into a scientific form, as in Hinduism, Buddhism, Roman Catholic Christianity, and Sufism. Like these, it teaches in a quite clear and definite way the methods of reaching firsthand knowledge by unfolding the spiritual consciousness, and by evolving the organs through which that consciousness can function on our earth –once more, the methods of meditation and of a discipline of life.[20]

The secondary meaning lies at the level of the basic philosophical and moral teachings shared by different religions:

Theosophy, in a secondary sense–-the above being the primary-–is the body of doctrine, obtained by separating the beliefs common to all religions from the peculiarities, specialities, rites, ceremonies and customs which mark off one religion from another; it presents these common truths as a consensus of world-beliefs, forming, in their entirety, the Wisdom-religion, or the Universal Religion, the source from which all separate religions spring, the trunk of the Tree of Life from which they all branch forth.[21]

Definition by Fritz Kunz

American Theosophist Fritz Kunz gave another perspective on the term in his entry "Theosophy" written for Runes' Dictionary of Philosophy:

Theosophy: (Gr., lit. "divine wisdom") is a term introduced in the third century by Ammonius Saccas, the master of Plotinus, to identify a recurring tendency prompted often by renewed impulses from the Orient, but implicit in mystery schools as that of Eleusis, among the Essenes and elsewhere. Theosophy differs from speculative philosophy in allowing validity to some classes of mystical experience as regard soul and spirit, and in recognising clairvoyance and telepathy and kindred forms of perception as linking the worlds of psyche and body. Its content describes a transcendental field as the only real (approximating to Brahman, Nous, and Pleroma) from which emerge material universes in series, with properties revealing that supreme Being. Two polarities appear as the first manifesting stage, consciousness or spirit (Brahma, Chaos, Holy Ghost), and matter or energy (Siva, Logos, Father). Simultaneously, life appears clothed in matter and spirit, as form or species (Vishnu, Cosmos, Son). In a sense, life is the direct reflection of the transcendent supreme, hence biological thinking has a privileged place in Theosophy. Thus, cycles of life are perceived in body, psyche, soul and spirit. The lesser of these is reincarnation of impersonal soul in many personalities. A larger epoch is "the cycle of necessity", when spirit evolves over vast periods. -- F.K.[22]

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  1. Santucci, James A. On Theosophia And Related Terms (Theosophical History, vol. II, no. 3, 1987), 107-110
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 335.
  3. Blavatsky, H. P., Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1918), 304.
  4. Blavatsky, H. P., The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing House, [1968], 1-2)
  5. Santucci, James A. On Theosophia And Related Terms (Theosophical History, vol. II, no. 3, 1987), 107-110
  6. Jean-Louis Siémons, Theosophia in Neo-Platonic and Christian Literature, (London: Theosophical History Centre, 1988)
  7. Siémons, op. cit., p. 24
  8. Faivre, Antoine, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2000), 19
  9. Olcott, H. S., Old Diary Leaves, v. 1 (Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 132
  10. Algeo, John (Ed.), The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, v. 1, Letter 21, (Wheaton, Il: Quest Books, TPH, 2003), p. 86.
  11. Blavatsky, H. P., Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 252.
  12. Blavatsky, H. P., Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 254.
  13. Blavatsky, H. P., Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 253.
  14. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 104 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), ??.
  15. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XIII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, ​1982), 6.
  16. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 65 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 168.
  17. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XIII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, ​1982), 285.
  18. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 20 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 72.
  19. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 174-175.
  20. Besant, Annie, Theosophy (London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, [1912?]), 12.
  21. Besant, Annie, Theosophy (London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, [1912?]), 12.
  22. Fritz Kunz, "Theosophy." Dagobart D. Runes, editor. Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1942. Available at Dictionary of Philosophy.