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Phlogiston (from the Ancient Greek φλογιστόν phlogistón "burning up") was a fire-like element said to be contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion. The air was thought to have a limited capacity to absorb the phlogiston released, this being the reason why combustion did not take place for long in an enclosed container.

The theory was first postulated in 1667 by Johann Joachim Becher (reformed in 1703 by Georg Ernst Stahl) as an attempt to explain processes such as combustion, metabolism, and the rusting of metals, which are now collectively known as oxidation.

During the eighteenth century it became clear that metals gained weight when they burned or were oxidized, even though they were supposed to have lost phlogiston. The threory remained dominant until Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743 – 1794) showed that combustion requires a gas that has weight (oxygen) and could be measured by means of weighing closed vessels.

Theosophical use

In one of his letters, Mahatma K.H. says:

Well, we believe in the much laughed at phlogiston (see article “What is force and what is matter?” Theosophist, September), and in what some natural philosophers would call nisus, the incessant though perfectly imperceptible (to the ordinary senses) motion or efforts one body is making on another — the pulsations of inert matter — its life. The bodies of the Planetary spirits are formed of that which Priestley and others called Phlogiston and for which we have another name — this essence in its highest seventh state forming that matter of which the organisms of the highest and purest Dhyans are composed, and in its lowest or densest form (so impalpable yet that science calls it energy and force) serving as a cover to the Planetaries of the 1st or lowest degree.[1]

In the article referred to above the author (who Mme. Blavatsky stated was Master K.H. himself[2]) discussed the nature of force and matter. In it, he argued that forces such as electricity were a form of matter (this, before the electron was discovered), and related them to the idea of phlogiston, although not in the sense of an "element" with weight:

. . . it is not in the least unscientific to speak of the substantiality of the so-called Forces. Subject to some future specific name, this force is substance of some kind, and can be nothing else; and perhaps one day Science will be the first to re-adopt the derided name of phlogiston.[3]

The Phlogiston of Stahl [was] a theory of combustion taught by Aristotle and the Greek philosophers. . . . Lavoisier, as it is well known, did not add any new fact of prime importance by upsetting the phlogiston theory, but only added “a grand generalization.” But the Occultists prefer to hold to the fundamental theories of ancient sciences. No more than the authors of the old theory, do they attach to phlogiston—which has its specific name as one of the attributes of Akasha—the idea of weight which the uninitiated generally associate with all matter. And though to us it is a principle, a well-defined essence, whereas to Stahl and others it was an undefined essence—yet, no more than we, did they view it as matter in the sense it has for the present men of science. As one of their modern professors puts it: “Translate the phlogiston by energy, and in Stahl’s work on Chemistry and Physics, of 1731, put energy where he wrote phlogiston, and you have . . . our great modern doctrine of conservation of energy.” Verily so; it is the “great modern doctrine,” only—plus something else, let me add. Hardly a year after these words had been pronounced, the discovery by Professor Crookes of radiant matter—of which, further on—has nigh upset again all their previous theories.[4]

The "radiant matter" was what today is known as "plasma", the fourth state of matter. By heating a gas its molecules or atoms are ionized (reducing or increasing the number of electrons in them), thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions.

The connection between phlogiston and plasma can also be seen in another letter from Master K.H.:

What are those long white filaments twisted like so many ropes, of which the penumbra of the Sun is made up? What the central part that is seen like a huge flame ending in fiery spires, and the transparent clouds, or rather vapours formed of delicate threads of silvery light, that hangs over those flames — what — but magneto-electric aura — the phlogiston of the Sun?[5]

Today it is known that the corona of the sun consists of extremely hot ionized gases, or plasma. The "prominences" (large, bright, gaseous features extending outward from the Sun's surface) contain much cooler plasma, typically a hundred times cooler and denser than the coronal plasma.

The identical phenomena of twisted plasma filaments, as described by the Master, can be observed throughout the stars of the Galaxy and on Earth. They are known as "Birkeland currents". This current on Earth is the result of the motion of space plasma following the magnetic field of the planet, induced by the solar wind:

A Birkeland current usually refers to the electric currents in a planet's ionosphere that follows magnetic field lines (i.e., field-aligned currents), and sometimes used to describe any field-aligned electric current in a space plasma. They are caused by the movement of a plasma perpendicular to a magnetic field. Birkeland currents often show filamentary, or twisted "rope-like" magnetic structure.[6]

The existence of these currents was also observed in the sun by the Ulysses spacecraft launched in 1990.

Thus, it is possible that by "phlogiston" Mme. Blavatsky and her teachers were referring to the fact that atoms have energy and are divisible (something denied by the science of the time), containing electrons that, when removed, form ions. This characteristc is the foundation for all chemical reactions.

See also


  1. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 88 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 273.
  2. A. Trevor Barker, The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett Letter No. VI, (Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1973), 8.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 511.
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 217-218.
  5. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 93B (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 320-321.
  6. Birkeland current at