Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and the Perennial Tradition

We forget just how much the spiritual movements of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries owe to H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society she founded. Although not yet counted with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as a creator of our time, Mme. Blavatsky, no matter how wild her eccentricity or willful and capricious her natural freedom of spirit, deserves equivalent stature. Contemporary spiritual thinkers could not have accomplished what they have without her strenuous preparatory efforts. Much of what we think of as “New Age” — from Buddhism through “inner development” to channeling — was part of the original Theosophical mission.

Despite the apparent differences in their individual teachings, the capacious being of Mme. Blavatsky, deep as it is wide, lies behind most alternative spiritual teachers still read today, such as G.I. Gurdjieff, J. Krishnamurti, and Rene Schwaller de Lubicz. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anyone escaping her influence. The same is equally true of cultural figures like C.G. Jung (and the Eranos group), as well as contemporary figures like R.J. Stewart, David Spangler, or Caroline Myss. It was HPB, furthermore, who introduced world religions and world history into the theretofore parochial and tightly guarded confines of Western thought. It was she likewise who opened up the possibility of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and laid the ground (with the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel) for a truly global theory of history as evolution of consciousness.

Above all, it was Blavatsky’s stubborn, independent, open-minded exploration that broke open the hegemony of the aging secret societies and began the process of tearing the veil of the temple and making esotericism part of cultural life, in two equally important ways. She made available — for rational reflection, speculation, and contemplation — long-hidden spiritual teachings and doctrines, both Western and Eastern, about the universe and humanity’s place and role within it. At the same time, she introduced and began to teach methods and practices of inner work by which any person of good intention willing to make the effort could achieve direct cognition of the realities she expounded, more theoretically, in her books. Thus, despite herself and her passionate anti-Christianity, she was, perhaps without knowing it, of Christ’s party.

All that said, one might sum up her achievement by naming her the “prophet” or “mother” of what has begun to be called “post-religion spirituality.” This is a tricky term, because it was not clear then, nor is it now, in fact, that the age of religions is over. To think so is perhaps only wishful thinking. It may be overly optimistic to believe that we have moved beyond religion to an age of spirituality in which each person has a personal, direct connection to the universe and the Godhead that translates into peace, compassion, justice, and mercy in social relations. It is by no means evident that the shared communal institutions, rites, and rituals that have for untold millennia transmitted revelation and tradition in the form of wisdom and knowledge are obsolete. Certainly much evil has been done in the name of the good, often with the best intentions. But we must never forget that to be human is to interpret, and any religion can turn on a new interpretation if it is radical enough. In this case — if the religions don’t atrophy and fade away, but somehow manage to evolve — then the term “metareligious spirituality” would perhaps be more appropriate.

The great Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner — who was strongly influenced by Blavatsky — was ambiguous about this question. On the one hand, his Anthroposophy or spiritual science, like Theosophy, was whole in itself — sufficient for a complete spiritual life — and he clearly believed religions were dying (and, indeed, they seemed deader then than now). On the other hand, he was equally clear that Anthroposophy itself was not a religion — it was a “science,” a way of knowing. But if one had a religion, the practice of Anthroposophy would only deepen, elucidate, and enrich it.

Whether or not the Kali Yuga, or Age of Darkness, ended in 1900, as Steiner believed, it is true that something new arose in the second half of the nineteenth century. Human beings had forgotten that beyond the countable, weighable, measurable universe lay other worlds. Spiritualism began to change all that. Suddenly the world revealed by sense perception, itself determined by the cognitive structures (ideology, prejudice) of science, became only the tip of an enormous, practically infinite, iceberg. This was obvious, but it had been obscured by three centuries of modern science. Such was the good news proclaimed at the apex of materialism: the world is essentially spiritual. We live in a spiritual world. We are spiritual beings in a universe of spiritual beings. Materiality is the illusion.

Thus the realization dawned that, if the world is spiritual, we need only awaken to this reality to begin to explore it — to develop means of researching it — and so unite, as in the most ancient times, science and religion in a new universal mysticism. This was the mission of Theosophy. What was new in Theosophy was not so much the proclamation or the insights behind it, but the democratization of the teaching: it was available to everyone.

In a sense, the reality had never been forgotten. Throughout dark ages of materialism, however, knowledge of it had remained the jealously guarded province of elitist occult and esoteric groups and secret societies. During the Romantic period, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century and lasting about forty years, an attempt had been made to bring knowledge of the spiritual nature of reality out into the open and transform society, science, and religion in its light, but materialism (and opposing forces) won the day. Spiritualism, which began in upstate New York in 1848 and was to culminate in the profound revelation of esotericism and practice of Theosophy, was the ultimately successful response of the spiritual world to this impasse.

In his essay “Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desert Places,” the Irish poet W.B. Yeats (who was also an occultist, magician, philosopher, and early Theosophist) told how he once withdrew in poor health to the west of Ireland. Here he helped his friend in the Celtic Revival, Lady Gregory, collect stories from country people. These stories contained a great deal of wisdom, as living folk traditions often do, and were filled with supernatural occurrences and miraculous powers. Listening to them, the poet felt he was beginning to live in a dream.

As “the ancient system of belief” unfolded before him, Yeats began to notice analogies between the informants’ accounts and modern spiritualism. It seemed that a community of potential and practice existed between the Irish peasants and his own experiences when, as he wrote, “I climbed to the top of some house in Soho or Holloway, and, having paid my shilling, awaited, among servant girls, the wisdom of some fat old medium.” As he says, “I did not go there for evidence of the kind the Society for Psychical Research would value, any more than I would seek it in Galway or Aran.” His aim was simply, like that of Paracelsus, to compare beliefs. And the result? He discovered a continuity and network of kinship that reached from the ancient mystery religions through Jacob Boehme, Emanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake to the spiritualist mediums and philosophers of his own time, and included the second sight of peasant people everywhere.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912), the Scots poet, folklorist, novelist, and psychical researcher, neatly corroborated Yeats’s experience by publishing, in 1893, an edition of Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, subtitled Of Elves, Fauns, and Faeries. Yeats in fact owned a copy of this work and may well have been influenced by it. The Reverend Kirk, who was born in 1644, was a Scots minister and a linguist who translated the Psalms into Gaelic and other religious works into Highland dialect. He was also the seventh son of a large family — that is to say, he had “second sight.” In June 1685, he was appointed to the family parish of Aberfoyle. Here he remained until his death in 1692, the same year he created the manuscript of The Secret Commonwealth, perhaps the most remarkable work of its kind ever written.

Interest in the clairvoyant capacities of the people of the Scottish Highlands had been at its height in the last twenty years of the seventeenth century. Scottish authors like Kirk, stimulated by scientific and philosophical curiosity about magic, were encouraged to put down whatever they could discover. And what was discovered was marvelous indeed. For Andrew Lang, the phenomena Kirk recounts, having lain dormant for two centuries, were evidently the stuff of contemporary spiritualism: rappings, teleportations, precipitations, poltergeists, and so forth. Lang was not alone in thinking so. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, in his Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, concurred in this assessment. Today such fairy phenomena have been assimilated to abduction and UFO phenomena. In a sense, the more things change, the more they remain the same — “there is nothing new under the sun.”

The story, however, like all good stories, is more complicated. To understand it, several strands must be unraveled — strands that are not just strings of historical connection but lineages or, more precisely, esoteric lines of filiation. Steiner’s main concern was to make esotericism and the cult of symbolism, ritual, and practice that traditionally conveyed it accessible to the general public. Therefore he tried to move beyond the dualism of esoteric and exoteric. His later teaching is exemplary in this regard. At the same time, Steiner sought to ensure evolutionary continuity. At the start of his mission, therefore, he consciously and explicitly affiliated himself with those esoteric lineages and movements to whose transformation or flowering he sought to bear witness.

The history of these lineages, as Steiner never failed to emphasize, began long ago. Indeed, in a sense, it is a history without beginning, for it begins in the spiritual world. On earth, however, it passes by Atlantis through great initiates into the great mystery centers of prehistory. Thence, consciousness ever evolving, it metamorphoses into the temples, shrines, cults, and sacred sites — the mystery religions — of antiquity. And these streams, Indian, Persian, Egypto-Chaldean, flow into the great pluralistic, multicultural maelstrom of Hellenism. At which point, suddenly and bafflingly, the incarnation of Christ erupts, transforming everything forever.

The full story is too complex to be told here in any detail — perhaps to be told at all. Nevertheless, several milestones or points along the way may be usefully noted.

Whether or not acknowledged consciously or known by name, the Mystery of Golgotha — Steiner’s preferred designation for the Christ event — transformed the world and human nature utterly and forever. What had been outside the world was now in it. Matter was spiritualized. Living fire or spiritual leaven filled all things again and awaited only the love-filled recognition of the sons and daughters of God to be awoken and raised in the spirit to approach the kingdom. The Logos, the divine Word-Son, dwelling within and without, made this possible.

Throughout the early Christian centuries, Greek and Latin church fathers, early Gnostics, and alchemists of the Hellenistic period strove to understand what had come to pass and to create a new culture appropriate to it. Everyone had a part to play in this process. Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Israel all played theirs. From Persia arose the sense of the human mission to cultivate the earth and transform evil. From Egypt, a dynamic and transformative cosmology in the shape of Hermetism. From Greece, philosophy (Presocratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian) and the remnants of the mysteries; and from Israel, the personal and passionate relationship with the living God.

Throughout the Middle Ages this vision encountered and then entered the human heart. True human feeling, residual clairvoyance, and the birth of new thinking came together to create a magnificent synthesis. True and embodied knowledge created a civilization. Consider the greatness of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the growth of vernacular literatures (the Troubadour and the Grail cycles, for instance), the profound mysticism of such as St. Bernard, St. Francis, Hildegard, Gertrude of Helfta, Margaret of Porete, Hadjewich, and Meister Eckhart, and the cognitive triumph of Thomas Aquinas. These are not signs of a dark and miserable time! Nor is this all. The sacred science of alchemy, Christianized, took hold and flourished. New precursors of a future spirituality planted the seeds of our time: Cathars, Templars, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Friend of God from the Highlands, to name but a few. The new message was twofold, with two meanings — the local or particular, and the cosmic or universal — in one. Exoterically, ordinary human beings came to feel that the embodied human heart, made new and united to God in knowing, could overcome evil and transform the world through love. The other side of this was that esoterically, the good news was dawning that the world was in God as God was in the world — in the least atom of matter as in the greatness of the galaxies. The world was spiritual, a heavenly host, whose name (as the Valentinian Gnostics would say) is anthropos, Christ, or the fullness of human nature. In a word, it came to be realized that matter and consciousness were two sides of a single coin: the conscious heart.

It is clear from the above that one may speak of many renaissances. The very word renaissance therefore requires specification. With the Italian Renaissance, which followed, we might say, the renaissances of the ninth and twelfth centuries, reality struck. The foretaste of paradise was over. The journey would be long, perhaps indefinitely so. Many obstacles would call for human resourcefulness before the hard work of consciousness could take hold.

The Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon brought the good news to the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439: what had been locally intuited was a global phenomenon with an ancient lineage. Zoroaster, Hermes, Orpheus, Min (the first king of Egypt), Minos, and Numa, and even the Brahmans of India, the Magi of Media, and the priests of Dodona — these were the ancient theologians, the prisci theologi, who had all taught the same thing: that the world is full of gods whose nature is of fire. And the human task is the cotransfiguration of the earth by this fiery light of glory, the all-luminous substance that is the true nature of human beings.

Plethon also brought texts: Plato and the Neoplatonists (Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, Proclus), the Corpus Hermeticum, the Chaldean Oracles. These in turn, translated by Marsilio Ficino, were read and pored over by indigenous magi such as Paracelsus, John Dee, and Giordano Bruno. The practice of alchemy — and other occult sciences, like astrology and magic — deepened and became more widespread. The result was a call for a general reformation of all knowledge and being: a new way of knowing. At the same time, under the impact of the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, the first rays of modern science in the form of the search for abstract mathematical certainty, combined with a pragmatic, empirical literalism, could be sensed dawning on the horizon.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, with Bruno dead at the stake, the battle lines were drawn. The Rosicrucian Manifestos of 1614-17 announced the last struggle. In vain. Religious conflicts and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War decided the issue: mechanistic, materialistic science would become the outer form of the new civilization. The dream of the Renaissance was over. The Rosicrucians left Europe for the East, perhaps the Baltic states, and the inner traditions of sacred science and the work of consciousness went underground, to emerge again later, like a message in a bottle, in Freemasonry and other secret societies. For a while, however, there was an attempt at some kind of collaboration. We see this, for instance, in the background to the Royal Society in England, behind whose ideas lay Rosicrucian ideals mediated by such figures as John Comenius and Samuel Hartlib. It is evident, for example, in the alchemical work of Robert Boyle, the great founder of empirical chemistry. Boyle, like Newton, worked with alchemy all his life and understood the need for a higher, clairvoyant empiricism. For this reason, indeed, Boyle consulted with the Reverend Kirk, quizzing him about Highland “second sight.” Kirk also spoke to him of the “Mason Word.” For Masonry too appears to have originated in Scotland, where medieval guild initiations seem to have melded with a transformed Templarism — many Templars having fled to Scotland, already a Templar stronghold, after the destruction of the order by the French king Philip the Fair between 1308 and 1314.

All these currents of inner wisdom then flowed through into the eighteenth century, carried primarily by the secret societies. Side by side, as rationalism and materialistic empiricism flourished, the study and practice of ancient initiation metamorphosed and evolved, developed and unfolded by important pioneers such as Martines de Pasqually, Swedenborg, Louis-Claude de Saint Martin, Friedrich Christian Oettinger, Karl von Eckhartshausen, Alessandro Cagliostro, and Franz Anton Mesmer. A whole history remains to be explored here.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, a new dawn was felt, a third (or fourth) Renaissance: Romanticism. The inner side of Romanticism, from this perspective, is nothing but the transformation of the esoteric. Drawing on the rediscovery of direct experience, coupled with a renewed respect and deep reading of Hermetic texts, these poets and seers proclaimed a new mystery cult of the everyday. A new science, a new religion, a new art — all available to all — were seen to be possible again. The good news was that the world was spiritual after all. We see this in great souls like Goethe, Novalis, Blake, Coleridge. We see it in philosophers like Franz von Baader, as well as the better-known German idealists (Kant, Hegel, and Schelling). Above all we see it in those precursors of spiritualism, “lesser” figures like Jung-Stilling and Justinus Kerner, who wrote the account of the Seeress of Prevorst. For Steiner, this moment marked the earthly reflection of the great reopening of the spiritual school of the archangel Michael in heaven.

By the 1840s, this dream too was over. Materialism again seemed to have won the day. But just when humanity seemed to have reached the nadir, light — weird light — broke forth. Led by figures like Éliphas Lévi, esotericism, occultism, and magic reemerged gradually from the shadows of history to begin what would be a continuous ascent into the light of consciousness. At the same time, to the hour, the phenomenon of spiritualism erupted, shattering forever the complacency of the industrial age. With it, the “New Age” was born.

Spiritualism itself was born in 1848 in the hamlet of Hydesville in Wayne County in the “burned-over district” of western New York, so called because of the number of religious revivals (including Joseph Smith’s discovery of the Book of Mormon) that had swept through it. Thence spiritualism, with its attendant and democratic culture of mediumship and the primacy of women, spread like wildfire, first across America (where, by 1850, it could count over two million adherents), and then into Britain and continental Europe. However, there was a difference between Anglo-Saxon “spiritualism” and Continental “spiritism.” The Anglo-Saxon variant was concerned mostly with the “spirits of the dead,” whereas spiritism, which began in France, under the aegis of Allan Kardec, and moved across into Germany and Austria, became something akin to a “religion of the spirits.” (As a kind of animism, it has its major center now in Brazil.) It was furthermore resolutely reincarnationist and, though universalist and even “Druid” in its origins, it was resolutely Christian in its moral and ethical fervor. But it had no method. Mme. Blavatsky’s great contribution was both to link it to the perennial and esoteric wisdom traditions of the world and to incorporate into its program a method (meditation, ritual, and astral travel) whereby one could confirm its teachings for oneself. Steiner’s perhaps even greater contribution was to remove the dust of the past and Blavatsky’s prejudices and to place both method and teachings squarely in the evolutionary development of human consciousness.

It is important to remember, however, that Steiner did this as a Theosophist, within Theosophy. Anthroposophy, which he taught from the beginning, began as, and was for the first ten years of his public (and private) esoteric work, explicitly his contribution to Theosophy. On Steiner’s part, this was a conscious deed, a historical decision freely made out of his own understanding of the spiritual world, given as a gift to the movement and impulse that he recognized as carrying the spiritual mandate of our time. During this period (1902″“13), he created an independent body of teaching based on his own spiritual research and written and spoken out of his own experience. But he always did so within the framework and context of the Theosophical movement, whose world-historical mission he understood directly from the spiritual world.

The emergence of Anthroposophy as a separate teaching — its radical separation from Theosophy enforced and rendered irrevocable by the momentous barrier placed around Central Europe by the First World War — came only as a final and humble submission to world destiny. The earthly circumstances of this separation were, of course, many and complex. The precipitating event — whether or not the young Krishnamurti was the reincarnation of the Christ, the World Teacher; indeed, whether or not there could be a reincarnation of the Christ, which Steiner denied — was embedded within an extended, long-standing web of intricate and duplicitous personal and political struggle.

Steiner resisted the inevitable as long as he could. He had honestly placed himself at the service of Theosophy — as late as 1907 he translated Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy — but in 1913 he realized that he had no choice but to place himself at the service of an Anthroposophy no longer connected to Theosophy. It was a costly decision, both in personal and cultural evolutionary terms. I am sure, however, that he made his peace with Mme. Blavatsky and that on May 8, her death day, while no longer giving White Lotus Day lectures, he continued to acknowledge her contribution, to express his gratitude, and seek her counsel.

Christopher Bamford is editor-in-chief of Steiner Books and Lindisfarne Books and senior editor of Parabola. His works include The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity (Lindisfarne) and An Endless Trace: The Passionate Pursuit of Wisdom in the West (Codhill Press). He is also coauthor of Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology (Lindisfarne).

This article is adapted from Mr. Bamford’s introduction to Spiritualism, Mme. Blavatsky, and Theosophy: An Eyewitness View of Occult History, a collection of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures published by the Anthroposophic Press (today called Steiner Books) in 2001. Reproduced with permission.

Previously published:

Printed in the Summer 2015 issue of Quest magazine.

Citation: Bamford, Christopher. “Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and the Perennial Tradition” Quest 103.3 (Summer 2015): pg. 90-94.