The Claims of Occultism
Theosophist, September, 1881
This is the heading of an article I find in a London publication, a new weekly called Light, and described as a “Journal Devoted to the Highest Interests of Humanity, both Here and Hereafter.” It is a good and useful journal; and, if I may judge from the only two numbers I have ever seen, one whose dignified tone will prove far more persuasive with the public than the passionate and often rude remarks passed on their opponents and sceptics by its “spiritual” contemporaries. The article to which I wish to call attention is signed by a familiar name (nom de plume), “M.A. Oxon.,” that of a profoundly sympathetic writer, of a personal and esteemed friend—of one, in short, who, I trust, whether he remains friendly or antagonistic to our views, would never confound the doctrine with its adherents, or, putting it more plainly, visit the sins of the Occultists upon Occultism and vice versâ.
It is with considerable interest and attention, then, that the present writer has read “The Claims of Occultism.” As everything else coming from “M.A. Oxon.’s” pen, it bears a peculiar stamp, not only of originality but of that intense individuality, that quiet but determined resolution to bring every new phases, every discovery in Psychological sciences back to its (to him) first principles—Spiritualism. And when writing the word, I do not mean by it the vulgar “seance-room” Spiritualism, which “M.A. Oxon” has from the very first outgrown, but that primitive idea which underlies all the subsequent theories, the old parent root from which have sprung the modern weeds, namely, belief in a guardian angel or a tutelary spirit, who, whether his charge is conscious of it or not—i.e., mediumistic or non-mediumistic—is placed by a still higher power over every (baptized?) mortal to watch over his actions during life. And this, if not the correct outline of “M.A. Oxon.’s” faith, is undoubtedly the main idea of all the Christian-born Spiritualists, past, present, and future. The doctrine, Christian as it now may be—and preëminently Roman Catholic it is—has not originated, as we all know, with the Christian, but with the Pagan world. Besides being represented in the tutelary daimon of Socrates—that ancient “guide” of whom our Spiritualists make the most they can—it is the doctrine of the Alexandrian Greek theurgists, of the Zoroastrians, and of the later Babylonian Jews, one, moreover, sadly disfigured by the successors of all these—the Christians. It matters little though, for we are now concerned but with the personal views of “M.A. Oxon.,” which he sets in opposition to those of some Theosophists.
His doctrine then seems to us more than ever to centre in, and gyrate around, that main idea that the spirit of the living man is incapable of acting outside of the body independently and per se; but that it must needs be like a tottering baby guided by his mother or nurse—be led on by some kind of spiritual strings by a disembodied spirit, an individuality entirely distinct from, and at some time even foreign to himself, as such a spirit can only be a human soul, having at some period or other lived on this planet of ours. I trust that I have now correctly stated my friend’s belief, which is that of most of the intellectual, progressive and liberal Spiritualists of our day, one, moreover, shared by all those Theosophists who have joined our movement by deserting the ranks of the hoi polloi of Spiritualism. Nevertheless, and bound though we be to respect the private opinions of those of our Brother-Fellows who have started out in the research of truth by the same path as “M.A. Oxon.,” however widely they may have diverged from the one we ourselves follow, yet we will always say that such is not the belief of all the Theosophists—the writer included. For all that, we shall not follow the nefarious example set to us by most of the Spiritualists and their papers, which are as bitter against us as most of the missionary sectarian papers are against each other and the infidel Theosophists. We will not quarrel, but simply argue, for “Light! more light!” is the rallying cry of both progressive Spiritualists and Theosophists. Having thus far explained myself, “M.A. Oxon.” will take, I am sure, en bon seigneur every remark that I may make on his article in Light, which I here quote verbatim. I will not break his flowing narrative, but limit my answers to modest footnotes.
It is now some years since Spiritualists were startled by the publication of two ponderous volumes by Madame Blavatsky, under the title of Isis Unveiled. Those who mastered the diversified contents of those large and closely-printed pages, upwards of twelve hundred in number, bore away a vague impression that Spiritualism had been freely handled not altogether to its advantage, and that a portentous claim had been more or less darkly set up for what was called Occultism. The book was full of material—so full that I shall probably be right in saying that no one has mastered its contents so as to fully grasp the author’s plan; but the material sadly needed reducing to order, and many of the statements required elucidation, and some, perhaps, limitation. 1 Moreover, the reader wanted a guide to pilot him through the difficulties that he encountered on every hand; and, above all, he sorely needed some more tangible hold on the history and pretensions of the mysterious Brotherhood for whom the author made such tremendous claims. 2
It seemed vain for any seeker after truth to attempt to enter into relations, however remote, with any adept of the order of which Madame Blavatsky is the visible representative. All questions were met with polite or decisive refusal to submit to any examination of the pretensions made. The Brothers would receive an enquirer only after he had demonstrated his truth, honesty and courage by an indefinitely prolonged probation. They sought no one; they promised to receive none. 3 Meantime, they rejected no one who was persevering enough to go forward in the prescribed path of training by which alone the divine powers of the human spirit can, they allege, be developed.
The only palpable outcome of all this elaborate effort at human enlightenment was the foundation in America of the Theosophical Society, which has been the accepted, though not the prescribed, organization of the Occult Brotherhood. 4 They would utilize the Society, but they would not advise as to the methods by which it should be regulated, nor guarantee it any special aid, except in so far as to give the very guarded promise that whatever aid might at any time be vouchsafed by them to enquiring humanity, would come, if at all, through that channel. It must be admitted that this was a microscopically small crumb of comfort to fall from so richly laden a table as Madame Blavatsky had depicted. But Theosophists had to be content, or, at least, silent; and so they betook themselves, some of them, to reflection.
What ground had they for belief in the existence of these Brothers, adepts who had a mastery over the secrets of nature which dwarfed the results of modern scientific research, who had gained the profoundest knowledge—”Know thyself”—and could demonstrate by actual experiment the transcendent powers of the human spirit, spurning time and space, and proving the existence of soul by the methods of exact experimental science? What ground for such claims existed outside of that on which the Theosophical Society rested?
For a long time the answer was of the vaguest. But eventually evidence was gathered, and in this book 5 we have Mr. Sinnett coming forward to give us the benefit of his own researches into the matter, and especially to give us his correspondence with Koot Hoomi, an adept and member of the Brotherhood, who had entered into closer relations, still however of a secondary nature, 6 with him than had been vouchsafed to other men. These letters are of an extremely striking nature, and their own intrinsic value is high. This is greatly enhanced by the source from which they come, and the light they throw upon the mental attitude of these Tibetan recluses to whom the world and the things of the world are alike without interest, save in so far as they can ameliorate man’s state, and teach him to develop and use his powers.
Another fruitful subject of questioning among those who leaned to theosophical study was as to the nature of these occult powers. It was impossible to construct from Isis Unveiled any exact scheme, supported by adequate testimony, or by sufficient evidence from any proper source, of what was actually claimed for the adept. Madame Blavatsky herself, though making no pretension to having attained the full development of those whose representative she was, possessed certain occult powers that seemed to the Spiritualist strangely like those of mediumship. 7 This, however, she disclaimed with much indignation. A medium, she explained, was but a poor creature, a sort of conduit through which any foul stream might be conveyed, a gas-pipe by means of which gas of a very low power of illumination reached this earth. And much pain was taken to show that the water was very foul, and that the gas was derived from a source that, if at all spiritual, was such as we, who craved true illumination, should by no means be content with. It is impossible to deny that the condition of public Spiritualism in America, at the time when these strictures were passed upon it, was such as to warrant grave censure. It had become sullied in the minds of observers, who viewed it from without, and who were not acquainted with its redeeming features, by association with impurity and fraud. The mistake was to assume that this was the complexion of Spiritualism in itself, and not of Spiritualism as depraved by adventitious causes. This, however, was assumed. If we desired true light, then we were told that we must crush out mediumship, close the doors through which the mere Spiritual loafers come to perplex and ruin us, and seek for the true adepts who alone could safely pilot us in our search. These, it was explained, had by no means given up the right of entrance to their Spiritual house to any chance spirit that might take a fancy to enter. They held the key and kept intruders out, while, by unaided powers of their own, they performed wonders before which medial phenomena paled. This was the only method of safety; and these powers, inherent in all men, though susceptible of development only in the purest, and then with difficulty, were the only means by which the adept worked.
Some Theosophists demonstrated by practical experiment that there is a foundation of truth in these pretensions. I am not aware whether anyone has found himself able to separate quite conclusively between his own unaided efforts and those in which external spirit has had a share. There is, however, one very noteworthy fact which gives a clue to the difference between the methods of the Spiritualist and the Occultist. The medium is a passive recipient of spirit-influence. The adept is an active, energizing, conscious creator of results which he knowingly produces, and of which evidence exists and can be sifted. Spiritualists have been slow to accept this account of what they are familiar with in another shape. Theosophists have been equally slow to estimate the facts and theories of Spiritualism with candour and patience. Mr. Sinnett records many remarkable experiences of his own, which are well worthy of study, and which may lead those who now approach these phenomena from opposite sides to ponder whether there may not be a common ground on which they can meet. We do not know so much of the working of spirit that we can afford to pass by contemptuously any traces of its operation. Be we Spiritualists or Theosophists—odd names to ticket ourselves with!—we are all looking for evidence of the whence and whither of humanity. We want to know somewhat of the great mystery of life, and to pry a little into the no less sublime mystery of death. We are gathering day by day more evidence that is becoming bewildering in its minute perplexities. We want to get light from all sources; let us be patient, tolerant of divergent opinion, quick to recognize the tiny hold that any one soul can have on truth, and the multiform variety in which that which we call truth is presented to man’s view. Is it strange that we should see various sides of it? Can we not see that it must needs be so? Can we not wait for the final moment of reconciliation, when we shall see with clearer eye and understand as now we cannot?
There is much in Mr. Sinnett’s little book that may help those who are trying to assume this mental attitude. The philosophy that it contains is clearly stated, and affords rich material for thought. The facts recorded are set forth with scientific accuracy, and must profoundly impress the careful and candid reader. The glimpses revealed of this silent Brotherhood, in its lonely home on one of the slopes of the mountains of Tibet, working to solve the mighty problem, and to confer on humanity such benefits as it can receive, are impressive enough even to the Philistine sceptic. If they should indeed be flashes of a greater truth, now only dimly revealed, the importance of such revelation is not to be measured in words.
Be this, however, as it may—and there are many points on which light is necessary before a decisive opinion may be pronounced—there is no doubt whatever that the philosophy contained in Mr. Sinnett’s book is similar to that which the great students of Theosophy in ages past have arrived at. It is a mere piece of nineteenth-century arrogance to pooh-pooh it as unworthy of attention by those on whom has flashed the dazzling light of the spirit circle. The facts recorded are at least as scientifically conclusive as any recorded as having happened in a dark séance, or under the ordinary conditions of Spiritualistic investigation. The letters of Koot Hoomi are fruitful of suggestion, and will repay careful study on their own merits. The whole book contains only 172 pages, and will not, therefore, unduly tax the reader’s patience. If any instructed Spiritualist will read it, and can say that there is nothing in it that adds to his knowledge, he will at least have the satisfaction of having read both sides of the question, and that should present itself to all candid thinkers as a paramount and imperative duty.
1. It is not the first time that the just reproach is unjustly laid at my door. It is but too true that “the material sadly needed reducing to order,” but it never was my province to do so, as I gave out one detached chapter after the other, and was quite ignorant, as Mr. Sinnett correctly states in The Occult World, whether I had started upon a series of articles, one book or two books. Neither did I much care. It was my duty to give out some hints, to point to the dangerous phases of modern Spiritualism, and to bring to bear upon that question all the assertions and testimony of the ancient world and its sages that I could find, as an evidence to corroborate my conclusions. I did the best I could and knew how. If the critics of Isis Unveiled but consider that (1) its author had never studied the English language, and after learning it in her childhood colloquially had not spoken it before coming to America half-a-dozen of times during a period of many years; (2) that most of the doctrines (or shall we say hypotheses’) given had to be translated from an Asiatic language; and (3) that most, if not all of the quotations from, and references to, other works—some of these out of print, and many inaccessible but to the few—and which the author personally had never read or seen, though the passages quoted were proved in each instance minutely correct, then my friends would perhaps feel less critically inclined. However, Isis Unveiled is but a natural entrée en matière in the above article, and I must not lose time over its merits or demerits.
2. Indeed, the claims made for a “Brotherhood” of living men were never half as pretentious as those which are daily made by the Spiritualists on behalf of the disembodied souls of dead people.
3. No more do they now.
4. We beg to draw to this sentence the attention of all those of our Fellows and friends in the West as in India, who felt inclined to either disbelieve in, or accuse the “Brothers of the First Section” on account of the administrative mistakes and shortcomings of the Theosophical Society. From the first the Fellows were notified that the First Section might issue occasionally orders to those who knew them personally, yet had never promised to guide, or even protect, either the body or its members.
5. The Occult World, by A. P. Sinnett.
6. With Mr. Sinnett, and only so far. His relations with a few other Fellows have been as personal as they could desire.
7. Medium, in the sense of the postman who brings a letter from one living person to another; in the sense of an assistant electrician whose master tells him how to turn this screw and arrange that wire in the battery; never in the sense of a spiritual medium. “Madame Blavatsky” neither needed nor did she ever make use of either dark séance-rooms, cabinets, “trance-state,” “harmony,” nor any of the hundreds of conditions required by the passive mediums who know not what is going to occur. She always knew beforehand, and could state what was going to happen save infallibly answering each time for complete success.