Victorian Theosophists = Parapsychologists

Well that’s a title that’s sure to mean practically nothing to almost everyone… nevertheless it’s still true!

The Theosophists were a group that came into being at the end of the nineteenth century lead by an eccentric medium named Elena Petrovna Gan better known as ‘Madame Blavatsky’. They were akin to what we would recognise today as new age enthusiasts; they believed in a wide variety of psychic and paranormal phenomena and were very interested in reinterpreting the ‘ancient wisdom’ of religious traditions particularly ‘exotic’ traditions such as those found in East Asia and India. Reading any Theosophist work is a fascinating and extremely frustrating experience. In that if you have any familarity with the subject they are discussing you are immediately aware that they are, by and large, talking rubbish but at the same time their deep fascination with all manner of quirky subjects together with their old fashioned style of writing makes their works strangely appealing.

One illustrative example of a Theosophist work would be the ‘translation’ of the famous Taoist text the Tao Te Ching (also known as the Dao De Jing and the Lao Tzu) by Isabella Mears. Isabella Mears was a theosophist with very little understanding of classical Chinese and yet she ‘translated’ the text by dissecting the indidivual Chinese characters into their constituent components and then poetically weaving these components into her own definitions.

Using this method the title of the work for instance changes from the well established reading of “the Way and Virtue” to “Life consciousness and its manifestations in action”.  Her translation carries on from there with many more elaborate reconstructions and also includes references equating parts of the Tao Te Ching to the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the English Metaphysical poets and a whole host of other ‘spiritual’ sources.

If this is starting to sound a bit silly, it’s probably a good idea to not dwell on the fact that Theosophists also believed that Madame Blavatsky received instructions and messages from telepathic Aryan masters living in secret mountains of Tibet from letters which materialised in her drawing room cupboard. Ahem…

Anyhow, the reason I mention all this is that when reading Donald Lopez’s excellent book Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, I came across a quote from a Theosophist called Alfred Percy Sinnett who was complaining about Theosophists theories and research not being taken seriously by the mainstream scientific community back in 1893. What struck me about this quote is that it is so remarkably similar in content and tone to the kind of arguments I see parapsychologists making all the time today.

Oh and parapsychologists, by the way, is the name that so designates those researchers who believe in, and ‘research’, psychic abilities and life after death phenomena. Parapsychology had it’s hey day back in the 1960’s and 70’s but after massive research programs, including many organised by the USA, came up with diddly squat in terms of results, the ‘field’ lost credibility. Today the parapsychology ‘field’ exists mainly as a fringe pseudoscience which typically attracts fringe theorists and occasionally fringe scientists.

Gettiong back to the Theosophists, here is the full quote from Sinnett’s article, published in The Nineteenth Century: A Review in 1893:  

Every advance of knowledge leaves some people around in the rear, and there are hundreds of otherwise distinguished men amongst us who will probably never in this life realise the importance of new researches on whicvh many inquirers besides theosophists are now bent. But thir immobility will be forgotten in time. Knowledge will advance in spite of them, and views of nature, at first laughed at and discredited, will be teaken after a while as matters of course, and, emerging from the shadows of occultism, will pass down the main current of science. Those of us who are early in the field with our experience and information would sometimes like to be more civilly treated by the recognized authorities of the world; but that is a very subordinate matter after all, and we have our rewards, of which they know nothing. We are well content to be in advance even at the cost of some disparaging glances from our less fortunate companions.

This letter was originally directed to a famous scholar of religions, Max Muller, after his critique of Madame Blavatsky’s portrayal of ‘Estoreic Buddhism’ which had been published in the journal a few months before. The kind of ‘new researches’ that Sinnett was referring to were things like seances, apparations, telekensis and telepathy and echo almost word-for-word exactly the same kind of rhetoric that parapsychologists are using today (although the parlour style seances aren’t so much in fashion right now). 

To see some examples of modern figures making the same kind of actions you need only go visit Skeptiko a pro-parapyschology website and podcast which claims to present ‘science at the tipping point’. One particularly good example is the dialogue from this episode which includes the following illustrative quotes:

… We’ve got the data. It’s been there for decades, and people are just not listening to it. We can’t stop. They say, “Give us some more. We want more data.” Well, we have so much data now that it’s time for us to stop and say, “Here’s the new paradigm based on the data.” We should not drag our feet and try to give them more.

… science is going to be stunted. It is being stunted, because of the fact that they won’t accept the data. We have the data. We have data about remote viewing, about people being able to sense things before they’re even shown. We have all of the data, and we simply need to incorporate that data. It’s not being incorporated right now.

… I think the change is gradually, gradually coming, and we just have to advance those people who are on the forefront of it.

These quotes and A.P. Sinnett’s above are seperated by almost 100 years and yet they both have the same sense that scientific validation of various paranormal phenomena is just around the corner and that the evidence already exists that proves the paranormal is real and is just being ignored by closed minded skeptics.

It’s slightly depressing but I strongly expect in another 100 years there will be another group arguing the exact same things…

But rather than end on that sour note I think a nice picture of two of the leading Theosophists of their day will help put the depressingly long lived silliness in perspective.


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