(from Greek θεοσοφία theosophia, from θεός theos, divine + σοφία sophia, wisdom; literally "divine wisdom"), refers to systems of speculation or investigation seeking direct knowledge of the mysteries of being and nature, with particular concern on the nature of Divinity.
Theosophy is also considered a part of the broader field of esotericism, referring to hidden knowledge or wisdom that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation. The theosophist seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe and the bonds that unite the universe, humanity and the divine world.
The goal is to explore the origin of divinity and humanity (theogony and anthropogony) including the end of world, life and humanity (eschatology). Then, from investigation of these discover a coherent description of the purpose and origin of the universe (cosmogony).
The theosophist inquires into the hieroglyphs of nature (insights, or poetic meaning, in flowers, rainbows etc.), using a method of interpretation founded upon a specific myth or revelation, to apply active imagination in order to draw forth symbolic meanings and further their pursuit of knowledge toward a complete understanding of these mysteries.
The word theosophia appeared in both Greek and Latin in the works of early church fathers as a synonym for “theology”. The theosophoi are “those who know divine matters.” During the Renaissance, use of the term diverged to refer to a gnostic knowledge that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation through a knowledge of the bonds that are believed to unite him to the world of divine or intermediary spirits. By the 16th century the word theosophy had acquired its current meaning, under the influence of Arbatel, a book of white magic widely circulated in the 1550s and 1560s.
Theosophy broadly explores questions of metaphysics, especially questions within the areas of epistemology, mind, religion and the sciences. The theosophist’s premise is that knowledge must come from both external and internal sources, and requires both an existence and acknowledgement of internal and scientific truths. Both of these truths are given equal footing. Each individual theosophist’s interests and questions are dynamic due to this dual focus on internalism and externalism. Another central interest is the application and use of knowledge for the betterment of both humanity and the individual. Central theosophical questions include:
- What is the True and Universal reality? (Ontology)
- How can we find this True and Universal reality? (Epistemology)
- What are the Universal concepts between Mind and Reality ? (Metaphysics)
- How do we apply Universal truth to further Humanity? (Moral Epistemology, Religion)
- What does Science allow, or deny, within True and Universal Reality? (Metaphysics)
Traditional theosophists engage in circular analysis of the universe, man and divinity. The theosophist inquires into the hieroglyphs of nature, using a method of interpretation founded upon a specific myth, revelation or observational insight. Applying active imagination draws out symbolic resonances. By engaging in interiority or meditation on a specific religious revelation or myth, the theosophist engages in a search for the latent symbolic meanings in ordinary and extraordinary phenomenon. Her starting point may be either from knowledge of external things of this world, or knowledge of the internal divine realms. As knowledge increases, she experiences a change in being. As Antoine Faivre notes, “the theosophist dedicates his energy to inventing (in the word’s original sense of ‘discovering’) the articulation of all things visible and invisible, by examining both divinity and nature in the smallest detail.” This method of interpretation encompasses both rational and empirical approaches. Though the theosophical method is analytical, it also lends itself to a system style of metaphysics. The epistemological justification of knowledge is seen then as a synthesis, or integration, of both externalism and internalism practices. The knowledge of each Theosophist becomes somewhat individualistic and even at times independent.
While the term theosophy was used as early as the 3rd century AD, the method of theosophical inquiry was not developed fully until later. The 12th c. philosopher Al-Shahrastānī (d. A.H. 548 / C.E. 1153) explored theosophy in the context of Islamic thought. In the 13th century a clear distinction was made between classical philosophers, modern philosophers, theosophers, and theologians in the work Summa philosophiae by Robert Grosseteste. Theosophists were described as authors inspired by holy books. Theologians were described as persons whose task was to teach theosophy, and included such personages as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Origen.
In the 16th century Johannes Arboreus’ Theosophia (volumes published1540-1553) provided a lengthy exposition that included no mention of esotericism. Fellow Germans Paracelsus (1493-1541), Aegidius Gutmann (1490-1584), Valentin Weigel (1533-1588), Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), Johann Arndt (1555-1621), and Caspar Schwenckfeld (1490-1584) also contributed to the growing interest in theosophy.
The 17th century philosopher and self-identified theosophist Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) produced a complete explanation of theosophy that included esotericism. Boehme’s system of philosophical speculation bases knowledge of nature upon knowledge of the divine nature. This system presents an alternative method that provides a profounder knowledge and more control of nature than does the Aristotelian method.
Other notable contributors to the theosophical literature of the 16th and 17th centuries hailed from Holland, England, and France. They included both theosophists and historians and theologians with a strong interest in theosophy. Jan Baptist van Helmont (1618-1699), Robert Fludd (1574-1637), John Pordage (1608-1681), Jane Leade (1623-1704), Henry More (1614-1687), Pierre Poiret (1646-1719), and Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) are among this group.
In the 18th century, the word theosophy came into widespread use in philosophy. Johann Jakob Brucker(1696-1770) included a long chapter on theosophy in his monumental work Historia critica philosophia (1741). He included all the theosophists in this standard reference in the history of philosophy. German philosophers produced major works of theosophy during this period: Theophilosophia theoritica et practica(1710) by Samuel Richter (alias Sincerus Renatus) and Opus magocabalsticum et theosophicum(1721) by Georg von Welling (alias Salwigt, 1655-1727). Other notable theosophists of the period include Johann George Gichtel (1638-1710), Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782), William Law (1686-1761), and Dionysius Andreas Freher (1649-1728). By the 18th century the word theosophy also often was used in conjunction with panosophy, i.e., a knowledge of divine things that is acquired by deciphering the hieroglyphics of the concrete universe. The term theosophy is more properly reserved for the reverse process.
In France, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803) and Jean-Philippe Dutoit-Membrini (alias Keleph Ben Nathan, 1721-1793) contributed to a resurgence of theosophy in the late 18th century. Other theosophical thinkers of this period include Karl von Eckartshausen (1752-1803), Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling (1740-1817), Frederic-Rodolphe Salzmann (1749-1821), Michael Hahn (1758-1819), and Franz von Baader (1765-1841). Denis Diderot gave the word theosophie a permanent place in the French language by including a critical article in his Encyclopedie, published during the French Enlightenment.
During the late 19th century theosophical initiate societies emerged. Some of these reflected a fluid boundary between theosophy and occultism. Others, such as the Martinist Order founded by Papus in 1891, follow the traditional theosophical current which was closely linked to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and Western esotericism. The Anthroposophical Society founded in 1913 by Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) is another initiate society in the traditional theosophical tradition.
Meanwhile traditional theosophy continued to develop under the auspices of persons such as Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). He wrote, “Although empiricism and rationalism (= idealism) rest on false principles, their respective objective contents, external experience, qua the foundation of natural science, and logical thought, qua the foundation of pure philosophy, are to be synthesized or encompassed along with mystical knowledge in “integral knowledge,” [what he terms “theosophy].”
The Parliament of the Worlds Religions in 1893 marked the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide.
In the late 19th century a second branch of theosophy began to develop. In 1875 Helena Blavatsky (c.1831-c.1891) founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that bears only a distant relationship to traditional theosophy. According to its adherents, their theosophy is neither revelation nor speculation. It is portrayed as an attempt at gradual, faithful reintroduction of a hitherto hidden science, which is called in theosophical literature The Occult science. This postulated science provides a description of reality not only at a physical level, but also on a metaphysical one. This Occult science is said to have been preserved (and practiced) throughout history by carefully selected and trained individuals.
The Theosophical Society further asserts that their precepts and their doctrinal foundation may be verified by following certain prescribed disciplines that develop in the practitioner metaphysical means of knowledge, which transcend the limitations of the senses.Helena Blavatsky introduced Eastern and Western esoteric teachings in Isis Unveiled (1877). Later she developed these in The Secret Doctrine (1888), which is her major work and exposition of her theosophy. The Theosophical Society, which she co-founded, became synonymous with Theosophy. So much so, that the vernacular media often (wrongly) equates her with not only the creation of the term Theosophy, but also as defining the term within the bounds of The Secret Doctrine. When examining esotericism and theosophy, as used within the academic tradition above (Methods), many differences and similarities are found between them and the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky. The three fundamental propositions as expounded by The Secret Doctrine, i.e. the theosophy of H.P.Blavatsky, are:
Traditional theosophical influences also can be seen in the work Sergei Bulgakov (1877-1945), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1945), Leopold Ziegler (1881-1958), Valentin Tomberg (1901-1973) and Auguste-Edouard Chauvet (1885-1955), of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), and Henry Corbin (1903-1978).
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