A chapter in the book Freedom and the Spirit by Nicolas Berdyaev deals with the Theosophical movements vis-à-vis authentic gnosis. Valentin Tomberg writes that Berdyaev is one of those who “show in their works a progress which is very advanced in substantially bringing together intelligence and the intuition of faith.” Berdyaev was also respected by Evola for his “unsuccessful” attempt to recuperate Christianity for our time; they probably agreed on the freedom, creativity, and absoluteness of the personality.
Berdyaev begins by pointing out that their already existed an “authentic Christian theosophy”, among whom he included: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysus the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Baader, and Vladimir Solovyov. To them he adds the pagans Heraclitus, Plato, and Plotinus. In this sense “theosophy” means knowledge of the divine. The Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophical movement, on the other hand, is unrelated to that tradition. Berdyaev describes her and other’s writings:
Contemporary theosophical writings are devoid of divine and creative inspiration. They betray no talent; they are frankly boring; they are, moreover, written in a style which would be more appropriate to a manual of mineralogy or geography; in fact they are almost impossible to read!
By “Theosophy”, Berdyaev is also including the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, whom he finds more “interesting” (not truer). He criticizes the intricacies of its cosmological system, particularly since “God” cannot even be found in that system. Theosophy is a child of its time, being a form of spiritualized naturalism and evolutionism that were—and are—in vogue. It makes no demands as the spiritual world is attained automatically through evolution.
Theosophy as Symptom
Theosophy is philosophically naïve and its adherents unsuited to high culture. We could say that the movement abounds with over-educated proles who thus seek a simple spiritual teaching that is allegedly based on science and the secret teachings of the ages. This is proved by the fact that there has arisen little in the way of high culture and incisive social commentary from theosophical quarters. The one exception may be Tomberg, but his magnum opus was created after he abandoned that movement.
Nevertheless, despite the “very low level of theosophical literature” and “charlatanism”, it must be taken seriously when understood as a symptom of the crisis of Christianity and science, which may no longer speak to contemporary man. Unfortunately, it does not challenge the modern world, but rather adopts its values as a sign of evolution. Thus, it will ultimately fail to satisfy the “deep spiritual longing” which depend on religious faith and authentic mysticism.
Secret and Mystery
Ostensibly claiming to be an esoteric teaching, Theosophy really turns it into a form of exoterism. Its esoterism offers a “secret rather than a mystery”. A secret is information, conceptual thought, that can be told by one person to another; there is a natural human fascination with knowing a secret that others do not know. However, a mystery cannot be communicated that way, it is ineffable. It depends on one’s own experience and intuition; the way can be pointed out, but each man must reach the destination on his own, depending on his own spiritual level.
Of course, Christianity also recognizes the distinction between the exoteric and esoteric. Berdyaev writes:
There is both a deeper and a more superficial understanding of Christianity. Esoterism in Christianity almost coincides with mysticism. Christian mystics have been truly esoteric. But the contemplation to which they devoted themselves, though beyond the reach of simple Christians, has nothing of the enigmatic about it. To understand them completely it is only necessary to possess an experience similar to theirs.
It is not clear to Berdyaev exactly what the esoterism of Theosophy consists of. He points out the profound difference between a Blavatsky or Steiner and a Jacob Boehme or Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. He claims that “when pagan polytheism flourished, monotheism was regarded as an esoteric truth to be hidden from the masses who were unable to reach such a high level.” But he asks:
What still remains to be discovered is what constitutes esoterism in an age of confusion like the present one, which is without any unique, integral, and predominant belief.
The Conception of Man
There is a radical and profound difference in the way Man is understood in Christianity and in Theosophy. Of the former Berdyaev writes:
Christianity is anthropocentric and anthroposophic in the truest sense of the words. According to Christianity man is the highest order of being and is superior even to the angelic hierarchy. The Son of God became incarnate in a man and not in an angel. … he is created in the image and likeness of God, he is not a product of cosmic evolution nor is he re-absorbed by it; he is not the child of nature. … The human species cannot be eclipsed by a new race, whether of supermen, angels, or demons.
There is much more, but the point is clear. There is no evolution beyond man, which is the implication of the previous series of posts on involution and evolution. In particular:
- There will be no evolution into higher races, with new “organs”, such as Steiner taught
- There is no “superman” coming as Nietzsche believed
- There will be no transhuman based on technology
There is no secret, but there is a mystery. The open secret is that we know who man is and what he must do to be “saved” or “liberated”. The mystery then is actually follow that path. This is because:
The Christian conception of man is hierarchical and not evolutionist. Man is not a transitory fragment of the cosmos, a mere step in its evolution; he is superior to the cosmos, independent of its infinity, and in principle embraces it completely.
The Theosophical understanding is that man is a temporary and fleeting manifestation in an indefinitely long cosmic process. He comes into being and is dissolved again.
Berdyaev points out that in Theosophy man is but the play of cosmic forces, formed by the hierarchy of spirits superior to man. This part is unclear to me, given the genuine teachings of Dionysus. I believe the point is that the angels are free and do not block communion with God, while the theosophical hierarchy of spirits limits man’s freedom. But the next point he makes is very telling:
Theosophy re-establishes the old demonolatry and man remains subject to the genii.
Evola and Berdyaev part ways on this point. For Evola, the daemons, genii, manes, Laertes are an essential part of pagan teachings. For Berdyaev, however, they are the reminders of the time when man was unfree and bound to such spirits. Thus he can conclude:
The freedom of the human spirit achieved by Christianity is no more and we are confronted with a return to ancient, semi-Christian, semi-pagan, Gnosticism.
Berdyaev then makes this observation:
Theosophy and anthroposophy of every variety deny personality, and combat this principle in the interests of a sort of cosmic communion. They complicate the problem by failing to observe the distinction between personality and individuality. For Christian thought personality is a spiritual category while individuality is a biological one.
Both Evola and Berdyaev are in perfect agreement with that conclusion. Readers will have to decide about the role of the daemons in man’s life.
Excursus on Various Traditions
At this point, I want to bring in a discussion that Berdyaev did not deem necessary, although his thought has consequences for the answer. While Tradition sees hierarchy and inequality everywhere, it is strangely egalitarian when it comes to the various traditions. That is, Rene Guenon will say that each tradition is identical and the choice is arbitrary. Normally, a man follows the tradition of his people, but more advanced souls will choose one based on their personal needs. Furthermore, those very advanced will be beyond any particular tradition, as Evola believed himself to be.
On the one hand, a metaphysical teaching must be complete. On the other, it is impossible not to notice that traditions follow each other in time. Could we not regard this in the same way as the involution of man? That is, there is one main axis which represents the “perfect” tradition. The various traditions are attempts to manifest it, some closer some further away. There are futile lateral branches that are in reality counter or anti-traditions.
Excursus on Reincarnation
In personal conversations, I have noticed that there is a great deal of confusion about the question of reincarnation in relation to tradition. Let us be completely clear at the outset. This is not a question to be decided by whether or not such and such a tradition “teaches” reincarnation. That question is irrelevant and its only purpose would be to distinguish false from true traditions. No, the only way to deal with this issue is to understand the metaphysics of it. Once it is clearly understood that reincarnation is simply not possible, there can be no more doubt. No one today who understands math and science will bother trying to square the circle or build a perpetual motion machine. Although Guenon, Coomaraswamy, and Evola have critiqued the idea of crude reincarnation, it is still wise to consider Berdyaev’s point of view. He explains, in regards to the various theosophical systems:
Man is reincarnated and thus loses his image, the substratum of personality … the unique and integral, the ontological core of things, can be found nowhere. Personality comes together and then dissolves, only to reappear in other personalities. … Man possesses a physical body which corresponds to the mineral kingdom, an etheric body which corresponds to that of plants, an astral body which corresponds to that of animals, and a spiritual Ego which has an affinity with God. All these constituent parts are then dissolved and so personality itself disappears.
Berdyaev compares this to those Russian Easter eggs, each one containing a smaller version within itself. While traditional teachings also understand the various soul elements in man, they nevertheless constitute a unity. Hence, you cannot take the vegetal soul of one being and arbitrarily combine it with the intellectual soul of another, like some children’s game like Mr. Potato Head. As we recently pointed out, the spirit, or rational-intellectual soul, of man is attracted to a given genotype and historical-social situation. It would be absurd for the soul to incarnate at a different time into a completely different genotype and situation. This is what Guenon means by his claim that a being can be in the human state just one time.
It is this unity of personality that Berdyaev emphasizes: man as body, soul, person, an integral whole not an arbitrary construction.
Part II will deal with the failures of the Christian churches to teach an authentic gnosis in our time and what the solution might be.