Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion
(translators: Alvin Moore, Jr., Cecil Bethell, Hubert and Rohini Schiff)
Hillsdale,NY: Sophia Perennis, 2004
ISBN 0 900588 79 9
Paperback, 335 pages
Originally: Le Théosophisme: Histoire d’une Pseudo-Religion (Les Éditions Traditionelles, 1921)
Review by Joe Szimhart, November 2010
For my review of a critical book on Guenon see
On the back cover of this book, Huston Smith, author of the ever popular The World’s Religions, heralded René Guénon (1886-1951) as “one the greatest prophets of our time, whose voice is even more important today than when he was alive.” The scholar Smith found in Guénon an early and reliable argument for the Primordial Tradition or perennial philosophy that inspires all the world religions. This school of thought emerges in various guises, or as we learn in this book distortions in the new religious movements. These movements tend to fall under Rosicrucian, Hermetic, Theosophical, Catholic, and Masonic forms of esoteric initiation in the West with many counterparts in Eastern forms of Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism. A common theme among these groups is initiation or a jump-start so to speak to enter behind the veil of mysteries to find the truth about human life. As a young seeker Guénon interrupted his higher education in Paris to explore this territory. One might say he was rather caught up in several movements until he realized the alarming levels of ignorance, manipulation and deception among the lot, especially within the Theosophical Society and the sects that spawned from it. Theosophy is Guénon’s enduring commentary based on what he and his colleagues discovered. It is also a warning.
In today’s jargon, we might classify Guénon as an ex-cult member who made a brilliant career out of self-correction and recovery—somewhat like St Augustine who rebounded from Manichaeism. However, unlike St Augustine’s Confessions, Theosophy is hardly a memoir. There is no “I” in the book as the author employs the plural “we” throughout the text:
“In this Theosophical use of ‘karma’ we find an excellent example of the abuse of poorly understood Sanskrit terms, as we have previously noted, for the word ‘karma’ quite simply means ‘action’ and nothing else. It has never had the sense of causality (‘cause’ in Sanskrit is ‘kārana’), and even less has it ever designated that special causation whose nature we have just indicated.”
The quote above is indicative of the precision in language, history and context the reader will find in this book as in all of this author’s work. Nearly all of René Guénon’s works are available in English translation today. Theosophy first appeared in 1921 as Le Théosophisme: Histoire d’une Pseudo-Religion. Guénon distinguishes between what he called Theosophism or the system of modern occult movements influenced since the 19th Century by Eliphas Levi, Papus, Helena Blavatsky and related others, and theosophy proper that transcends movements or cults. Thus, the title of this book in translation is “Theosophy” with specific reference to the Theosophical Society founded by Blavatsky, Henry Olcott and others in America in 1875. Guénon’s Theosophy remains in my view one of the essential exposés on this movement though it was published 90 years ago.
A brief introduction to this author’s life may be in order for readers unfamiliar with him. The young Guénon was schooled by Jesuits in France. He was brilliant in mathematics and philosophy. He was also rather cranky, often ill since infancy, and hyper-sensitive to criticism by teachers. Guénon did not like to be wrong. One of his biographers (Robin Waterfield, 1987) described him as a loner at school, seemingly unimaginative and clearly not artistic. He studied mathematics inParis at College Rollin. Around 1910 he met the then famous French painter Gustav Ageli (Abd al-Hadi) who introduced him to Sufism and Islam. Guénon quietly settled into Islam by 1912 after accepting an initiation under a respected Sufi scholar and cleric. He later took the name Sheikh Abdul-Wahid Yahya. His first wife died childless in1928 inFrance but he married again inEgypt at around age fifty to a much younger, Muslim woman Fatima who bore his four children, the last around the time of Guénon’s death. He died in 1951 at age 65 weakened by lifelong health issues. Guénon taught intermittently throughout his life and published in journals to make a living. Many who knew him inEgypt regarded him as a recluse and prophet who sought no followers yet sustained a vast correspondence with many colleagues.
Guénon was an insider, so to speak, within the very “history” he presents. He begins with some antecedents to Theosophy, covering Madame Blavatsky’s forays into Spiritualism before describing the origin of the Theosophical Society that emerged from the Miracle Club founded by Blavatsky and other “Spiritualists” in 1874. We learn how important to Theosophists were these “miracles,” or “phenomena” produced by paranormal activity and power. Henry Olcott and others close to Blavatsky often experienced these phenomena including the tinkling of bells and “precipitated” notes and letters from the Mahatmas: Morya, Koot Hoomi and other mysterious “adepts.” Indeed, one of Blavatsky’s more credulous devotees, A.P. Sinnett, eventually published these precipitated missives in The Mahatma Letters that came to him between 1880-84. Guénon reports that these phenomena were faked by Blavatsky and her confederates. Several eye-witnesses had testified as to how she tricked her disciples. Also, in a chapter titled “The Source of MME Blavatsky’s Works” we learn that “HPB” plagiarized from a trunk of books she had with her at the time she wrote Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. To this day, despite a string of published exposés that add to but may not improve upon Guénon’s Theosophy, Theosophists continue to believe in the fanciful legacy as this blavatsky.net website testifies: “The Mahatmas were the direct, in-person, instructors of Madame Blavatsky. They "wrote" letters to A.P. Sinnett by "precipitating" those letters apparently out of the air and the letters are currently in the British Museum.”
Guénon exposes most of the major figures in the Theosophical movement second generation including Annie Besant, Charles Leadbeater, J. Krishnamurti, and Rudolf Steiner, all of whom were Guénon’s contemporaries. We learn how Besant and her cohorts were able to hijack a good portion of the first World Parliament of Religions at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. The small group of Theosophists managed to dominate an entire two days out of seventeen by “putting forth a large number of speakers” (152). Despite the Theosophical façade of unity as speakers, deep divisions existed among them. William Q. Judge, the leader of the American Section accused Besant of “having unwittingly entered into the conspiracy of black magicians” (153) referring to her reliance on the psychic advice of Charles Leadbeater. The latter co-founded the Liberal Catholic Church, a Theosophical parody of Anglican and Catholic costume, liturgy and ritual. Leadbeater’s embarrassing behaviors, that included the discovery of a new world messiah in Krishnamurti and the sexual abuse of minor males under his care, lead to his dismissal from the Society for many years. As for Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophy, Guénon sees little more than elements of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine “with a few modifications” (201).
Guénon comments on characters of lesser import that have faded from more recent histories of Theosophy. For example, Lady Caithness, Duchess of Pomar started a movement she called Christian Theosophy. In 1882, Lady Pomar appointed herself “President of the Theosophical Society of the East and of the West.” Blavatsky, who visited Pomar in her home, wrote in 1884: “God bless her, let her call herself what she likes, she is rich, and has a superb hotel of her own here inParis; that is no objection; she may be useful” (165).
In the final few chapters, we get a taste of Guénon’s Traditional view that eschews the “moralism” and “Protestantism” in the pseudo-tradition represented by Theosophy. Guénon observed that Blavatsky’s Theosophy had devolved into merely another Protestant sect very much in line with the “modernist” impulse to remain “scientific” and in tune with outward human progress. To Guénon there is no room in traditional metaphysics, or in the Primordial Tradition that Theosophy claimed to represent, for evolutionary spirituality and progressive revelation, much less for political posturing by naming a new messiah. Guénon remains prophetic in recognizing that Theosophy would continue to splinter just as Protestant sects have to this day. And all of this adds to the quantification and splintering of human experience or what Guénon came to call The Reign of Quantity described in his last important book by that title. Although the “modern” Roman Catholic Church troubled Guénon, he nevertheless saw in it a vehicle that carried what he sought as a Primordial Tradition. Some of Guénon’s critics point out that despite his adoption of Islam, the author most turned to Hindu Vedanta and the Sanatana Dharma to explain “Tradition.” Guénon would argue that Tradition must be embodied in a religion to live but no one religion owns it. Among Traditionalists aligned with Guénon are individuals and scholars in all major religions. For example, Ananda Coomaraswamy was Hindu whereas Marco Pallis was Tibetan Buddhist and Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr is Muslim.
The purpose of his book can be summed up in his words from a final chapter, “The Political Role of the Theosophical Society:”
“It goes without saying that if for us the duplicity of the heads of the Theosophical movement is not without doubt, the good faith of most of those who follow them, especially those who are not English nationals, is not in question; in all circles of this kind one must distinguish between the charlatans and their dupes and though one has only contempt for the former, one must pity the latter (who form the great mass) and try to enlighten them if there is still time and if their blindness is not irremediable.” (284)
This effort by Guénon is less a wholesale rejection of Theosophy and its sects than an attempt to rescue and define the very intention of Theosophy to represent the primordial spirituality. Guénon retains the theosophical (sic) belief that intuition and revealed knowledge is superior in function to scientific knowledge but his approach insists upon precision in language and cultural context as well as proper appreciation and employment of symbol and ritual. This is not to say Guénon was always precise or inflexible. Late in life he changed his view that Buddhism was a mere sect and came to agree with peers who argued that the Buddha indeed tapped the Primordial Tradition to form his system.
For a fine presentation of the Primordial Tradition as envisioned by Guénon and his peers read Journey’s East by Harry Oldmeadow (2004), an Australian professor and philosopher.
 René Guénon. Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, 107-08
 Robin Waterfield. René Guénon and the Future of the West: The life and writings of a 20th Century Metaphysician (Great Britain: Crucible/The Aquarian Press, 1987), 25
 Harry Oldmeadow. Journeys East: Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004) (For more on Oldmeadow see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Oldmeadow)