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The Influence of Theosophy

Theosophy (literally, “god-wisdom”) is a surprisingly little known but nonetheless influential movement of the past several centuries in Europe and the United States.  In this week’s featured audio, Ken Wilber traces the development of theosophy and its descendents .  Viewed through an AQAL lens, theosophy was a sophisticated system, complete with states, levels and lines, but one that fell prey to what Ken calls “the myth of the given”—assumptions about the universe that, in the retrospective light of postmodernity, are simply naïve.

Theosophy is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “any system of speculation which bases the knowledge of nature upon that of the divine nature.”  The influence of Christianity in 19th century Europe and the United States was significant but by no means singular.  To many of the “unchurched” but nonetheless non-secular, theosophy—with its blend of modern thought and both Eastern and Western esotericism—held a great deal of appeal.

As Ken points out, there have been three great waves of this sort of thought to impact the United States, punctuated by wars in between them.  The original wave started around 1830, fueled by Enlightenment theologian Emanuel Swedenbourg and the German Idealists Kant, Schelling, and Hegel.  Among its most influenced and influential proponents:  Ralph Waldo Emerson and the New England Transcendentalists, part of the popular “New Thought” school.  The first wave ended with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

The second wave began around the turn of the 20th century, and included the great writers, researchers, and psychologists of that time, including William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience), James Mark Baldwin, the first great developmentalist, and Sigmund Freud,.  Unfortunately, this wave was subject to ferocious pressure from the emerging behaviorist and materialist schools of that time, and many of its proponents, though respected, were never widely accepted.  The third wave began after World War II, and came to fruition in the 60’s and 70’s, characterized by the humanistic, transpersonal, and New Age movements.

What might the next wave of “unchurched, non-secular” thought look like?  If developmental theory holds, the population of Europe and North America is slowly but surely moving toward the teal/integral altitude, which certainly displays an openness to this sort of thought when properly contextualized.  As Ken notes, a “tipping point” can be historically observed when ten percent of the population reaches a certain level of development (e.g. green/pluralistic and the Civil Rights Movement).  Could an integral tipping point be around the corner?

Published Wednesday, June 11, 2008 4:38 PM by rollie



shaktiphat said:

can you put the links to download the files of theosophy ...

June 19, 2008 3:48 PM

nibel said:

Please, expand a bit about the content of the "waves." What kind of thought was being thought in each of them? What the weaknesses?
August 2, 2008 8:04 AM
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