Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Theosophist

John Algeo – USA

Theosophy has greatly influenced artists and musicians, but also some in the broader areas of science, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, a scientific linguist, who will be of interest to readers of this Web site.


Benjamin Lee Whorf

The Times Literary Supplement of March  23, 2012, has an article on Victoria Welby (in full, the Hon. Victoria Alexandrina Maria Louisa Stuart-Wortley-Mackenzie, Lady Welby-Gregory, 1837-1912), a very unusual woman and a pioneer in the study of meaning via the analysis of linguistic expressions, which she called “Significs,” and the author of several books on that subject that influenced such later scholars as C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richardson, whose Meaning of Meaning (1923) depended on her work, and George Orwell, whose Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) also derived from her.

Especially indebted to her is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, derived from the work of Edward Sapir at Yale University but fully formulated by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf and made generally known in a collection of Whorf’s papers, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carroll, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to think about the world. Physically we may be what we eat, but intellectually we are how we talk.

The TLS article ends (on page 15 of the issue) by observing that Benjamin Lee Whorf’s “work aims, overtly or covertly, at reconciling science and religion, a reflection  . . . of his lifelong commitment to Theosophy.”


 

Evolution & Amelioration

An article in an issue of the New York Times (Nov. 29, 2011) does not mention Theosophy but does treat a fundamental Theosophical idea, namely, that human evolution helps to perfect our species. The article concerns a linguist named Steven Pinker, whose most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that violence has declined during human history because evolution results in an improvement in human behavior. He maintains: “Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.” The implication is that evolution is not simply a matter of causation, but has a purpose; and that is a basic principle of Theosophy.

Theosophy and the Emergence of Modern Abstract Art

Kathleen Hall – Canada

[Kathleen Hall studied the modern abstractionists and their Theosophical connections while working on the thesis for her master’s degree. In connection with that work she corresponded with a number of contemporary Theosophical artists, particularly Burton Callicott, Don Kruse, and Pamela Lowrie. She is a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and became a member of the Canadian Federation of the Theosophical Society as a result of her study. Kathleen is currently researching arts-based education programs for marginalized Roma children].

At the turn of the nineteenth century, a movement in art emerged that was a response to higher awareness of cosmic truth. Modern abstract art was the visible manifestation of spiritual ideals professed through the teachings of Theosophy and other wisdom lore. The artists of this movement were scribes who painted what words could not say.

Spirituality in abstract art began around 1890 and ran in parallel with a growing interest in mysticism and the occult. Many artists were becoming intrigued with spiritual writings, in particular with Madame Blavatsky’s major work, The Secret Doctrine. Undoubtedly there were other influences, such as the works of Édouard Schuré, Jakob Böhme, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. But it was Theosophy that had the most profound effect on the emergence of modern abstract art and specifically on the founding fathers of the movement, Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimer Malevich.


Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian

Theosophy gave these artists a vista that became the fundamental groundwork of their spirituality. From this viewpoint, they believed they were able to see beyond and into the natural world, as well as gaining an understanding of the ancient wisdom and cosmic principles of our existence. This lofty vantage point elevated all four beyond this-worldly concerns and gave them a sense of divine sight into otherworldly realms. They stood in the doorway between two worlds, they were the messengers, and communicating this knowledge became the objective of their art.

Read more: Theosophy and the Emergence of Modern Abstract Art

Frank Lloyd Wright and Theosophy

John Algeo – USA

Although the architect Frank Lloyd Wright was not a member of the Theosophical Society (as far as the records indicate), he was strongly influenced by the wider range of modern theosophical insight, according to a recent article in Theosophical History 15.2 (April 2011, published in September): 5-24. That article is “The Red Square: Frank Lloyd Wright, Theosophy, and Modern Conceptions of Space,” by Eugenia Victoria Ellis. According to comments by the editor of Theosophical History, James A. Santucci, this article “offers revelatory insights in understanding . . . the vision of the apparently non-Theosophist and architect Frank Lloyd Wright . . . [whose] notion of interiority . . . space and light, rather than form, guided from ‘within outwards’ [correlates with HPB’s SD (1:274) statement:] ‘The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards.’ . . . And so we find Wright’s vision conforming to that of Blavatsky’s perspective. . . . The larger theme of Dr. Ellis’s article is that of the esoteric or occult milieu permeating the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”


Frank Lloyd Wright

Incidentally, the “Red Square” of the article’s title is not an allusion to Moscow, but a reference to a symbol Wright used to sign his early architectural drawings: “a red square circumscribing an encircled cross,” which combines three geometric forms (square, circle, cross) prominent in esoteric and Theosophical symbolism. This article is a demonstration of the prevalence of Theosophical thought, especially among artists, in earlier times and of its generally overlooked influence on one of the major architects of recent times.

Although not mentioned in this article, another architect similarly influenced but also formally connected with the Theosophical Society was Claude Bragdon, who like Wright was a student of Louis Sullivan, who has been called the "father of skyscrapers" and "father of modernism." Although Bragdon wrote directly on architecture, for example in The Frozen Fountain; Being Essays on Architecture and the Art of Design in Space (1932), he also wrote on many other subjects, including Theosophy, for example in Episodes from an Unwritten History (1910) and The Beautiful Necessity: Seven Essays on Theosophy and Architecture (1910). Bragdon also designed the gateway leading to the Wheaton headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America. Wright’s buildings are works of art, justly valued by history; but Bragdon’s domestic buildings are far more livable, as Bragdon was responsive to how people use architectural space, whereas Wright tended to be concerned solely with the abstract artistry of space. As this article expertly shows, however, Wright’s work was deeply influenced by Theosophy.

Swedenborg as Theosophist

By G. Baseden Butt – the UK

[Edited from the Theosophist, October 1925]

The truths of Theosophy continually receive confirmation from unexpected quarters. An instance of this is provided by the Swedish seer and mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg died in 1772 at the age of eighty-four, most of his religious works being produced in the last twenty or thirty years of his life. All his theology is Christo-centric and he betrays no indication of having given the idea of reincarnation even cursory attention.


Emmanuel Swedenborg

But in spite of these limitations Swedenborg anticipates several doctrines to be found in Theosophy and also, of course, in modern spiritualism. He makes what must then have been the revolutionary announcement that man after death pursues for a time a life similar to that which he has followed in the world—thought, character, personality, and tastes remaining unchanged. Swedenborg refers to the astral plane as the “world of spirits” and the lower and higher mental planes are doubtless his “celestial” and “spiritual” heavens, in the former of which dwell angels, grounded primarily in goodness, and in the latter angels grounded primarily in the love of truth.

Read more: Swedenborg as Theosophist

Thought Control

“thoughts are things — have tenacity, coherence, and life, — . . .  they are real entities.” [Mahatma Letter 18 (chronological ed.)]

Time magazine for November 14, 2011, has an article on “Thought Control” (pp. 52-4) that does not mention Theosophy but is of interest in providing scientific and technological confirmation of a central Theosophical idea—the one enunciated in the quotation above from the Mahatma Letters.


Thought Control

Briefly, a North Carolina former school science teacher created a device that can detect electrical pulses from the brain that are transmitted to the skin throughout one’s body and reflect concentrated thought processes. The device is attached by a strap to one’s arm, for example. Then, when we concentrate our thoughts, thereby increasing the prominence of beta waves that the brain is sending through our central nervous system and into our skin, the device picks up those waves and sends the information to a computer, which can be programed to perform various operations when our brain-wave information reaches it.

Read more: Thought Control

Scriabin: Musician and Theosophist

Sybil Marguerite Warner

[Edited and slightly expanded from Music and Listeners, by Sybil Marguerite Warner, with a foreword by C. Jinarajadasa (London: Service Magazine and Publications, 1911)]


Scriabin

The growth of Western music is the product of the soul development of its individual composers. Through the creative energy of many of varying stature, the form and power of music changes and expands, and at intervals a giant arises, who, while synthesizing all that is past, transmutes it into something higher and hitherto undreamed. Such a one was Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin: composer, pianist, and Theosophist.

In the widely differing fields of lyric passion, expressed through piano music, and of a profound psychological philosophy, symbolized in myths and mighty music dramas, Chopin and Wagner reigned supreme. It would have seemed fantastic to predict that a composer would shortly appear who would blend these two types of thought; yet, idolizing Chopin, Scriabin followed in his steps until the path led him far beyond the heights reached by the old master, while into this realm of poems in music the Russian genius brought a wealth and profundity of psychological expression and interpretation that has widened the boundaries of musical speech.

Read more: Scriabin: Musician and Theosophist

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