The objective of this article on René Guénon’s critique of Theosophy, or Theosophism is to honestly outline his analysis in Le théosophisme: Histoire d’une pseudo-religion, and not to react to it defensively. Guénon calls the theosophy of the T.S. generally pseudo-Theosophy (or Theosophism) and ‘pseudo-Christianity.’ He terms Mrs. Annie Besant’s theosophy, ‘pseudo-Christianity’ and ‘neo-Christianity.’ The T.S. in his time took on a strange amalgamation of a quasi-Catholic and Neo-Hindu theology, which we’ve criticized.
I guess we’re all creating similar terms now. The result from the analysis is at best, a conjectural study of modern Theosophy. Georges Méautis: “Theosophy and Theosophism” Dissects Rene Guenon’s Critique, 1922 demonstrated the issue with his critique, but I can explain the issue as well.
It does not separate anything, because Guénon doesn’t view the T.S. associated Theosophy as “genuine (i.e., traditional) theosophy.”
Wikipedia’s article on Theosophy, e.g., speaks of certain theosophists themselves using the term pseudo-theosophy or neo-theosophy as “originally derogatory.” The Adyar and American section Theosophical organisation believes that all of the systems should be accepted. It is the lily-mindset, that sees those terms as “derogatory.”
Ironically, pseudo-Theosophy is a term, H.P. Blavatsky coined herself (Pseudo-Theosophy and Pseudo-Messiahs), Guénon accuses her of being.
The term theosophy, the Preface of Le théosophisme: Histoire d’une pseudo-religion (Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion), explains, is a common denomination for a wide variety of doctrines, that are all of the same type, or originating from the same basic ideas. The commonality of the systems maintaining those doctrines, are their esoteric conceptions of a religious or mystical mode of conveying knowledge — hypónoia (inner meanings). They are of Western tradition, it is argued; and its basis is Christianity, under its variety of forms. Therefore, the traditionalists maintain the historical significance of the term, as opposed, to the neologism Rene Guénon dubs ‘Theosophism.’
Guénon’s work is vitriolic, Richard Smoley said in his Against Blavatsky: Rene Geunon’s Critique of Theosophy. This was similar to the works of Buddhist convert, Arthur Lillie’s Madame Blavatsky and Her “theosophy”: A Study (1895). In a very different manner, Arthur Lillie argued that Theosophy was a constructed “pseudo-religion.”
Famed persons of this parochial line of schools are named, despite there being not a single ‘eastern’ philosopher on the list. As René Guénon’s thoughts on the crisis of the modern world, was that the West’s anomalous advancement — a regression to him — had a certain disdain for eastern civilisation. It was due to the assertion, that the “Westerners,” i.e., Europeans, only considered itself to be a civilisation, and the pinnacle exemplar of a civilisation, based on purely material lines. Since the nineteenth-century Theosophists were getting the peoples of Europe and the Americas to comprehend the same, despite the research of the Orientalists and adventurers, what was the angst of the Traditionalists? Well, firstly Guenon was a sheikh of the Islamic tradition, and H.P.B. thought that Islam was obstructionist to the aims of the Mysteries, with it and Christianity dueling for rule. Is the ‘Theosophy’ of The Mahatma Letters and theosophical colleagues, a counterfeit — “Pseudo-Theosophy” (theosophism), or is that called Theosophy (or Traditionalism and Perennial Wisdom), the genuine line for our study?
Jakob Boehme, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Swedenborg, and the likes are traditionally the apple of their eyes — persons, whom only arrived on the scene less than five centuries prior. Guénon’s critique has aided in the consequent fall in the repute of both ‘Theosophists,’ and ‘Traditionalists.’ Traditionalists today, and even Julius Evola and the Perennialists have been somewhat adopted by the New Right intellectual milieu. The same respect is however not extended to the pioneers of modern Theosophical Movement.
According to the opinions expressed by Rene Guenon, we are supposed to retire ‘modern Theosophy’ to the dust bin of history.
The Preface adds, Theosophism, or the Theosophical Society makes pretensions to esotericism it cannot verify, and its original tendency being “anti-Christian,” does not put it doctrinally in line with the schools, especially the Neoplatonic nor the ‘Philadelphian Society,’ to which are claimed to be its predecessors. Guénon aims to dismantle the whole of Theosophical influence. Guénon’s work should be now put into considerable repute, in that first, Le théosophisme: Histoire d’une pseudo-religion, alluding to this neologism — ‘Theosophism,’ is mostly aimed at the changes in policy, doctrine, and expression beginning right in the time, H.P. Blavatsky died, and exploded after-wards. Alice Bailey was a member at Adyar. Charles W. Leadbeater & Annie Besant were members. The latter two joined the T.S. in the time H.P.B. was alive, and interacted with her.
Rene Guénon does not utilise other works. K. Paul Johnson, in his books argued that the “mahātmas” were dupes, prestidigitators and confederates, or H.P.B. herself. An author, and theosophist, Jeanine G. Miller, in her “The Blazing Dragon of Wisdom,” puts researchers to difficult task, in asking how could a single person, do all she did at a time, where scholarship on the topics she covered were either scarce, or plainly not even known yet? Guénon’s answer: H.P.B was a master at suggestion (a hypnotist), with aiding confederates and dupes.
Le théosophisme: Histoire d’une pseudo-religion does raise some legitimate points to consider, and there are problem, but it is conjectural. You would have to already believe she was just a dupe.
The Miracle Club in Cairo
So, from 1870-72, Helena P. Blavatsky became known as a medium in Cairo (Egypt), helping to form a society of spiritualists composed of other mediums, with member meetings, a reading room, and a library of spiritual works. It was called, ‘the miracle club.’ The profession as a medium Guenon argues, already puts her into repute, whether real phenomena or not; because, the phenomena of spiritualists are known to have been simulated by hoaxes. Hoaxes of ‘Cheese-clothed gaggers,’ I call them. When accused of fraud, the miracle club fell, and H.P.B. left Cairo, and returned to Paris and lived with her brother intolerably, until leaving to the United States.
Two years later, H.P. Blavatsky founds the Theosophical Society.
This is the beginning of the high suspicion of Guénon. This spiritualist dupery has transferred in the contemporary period, to the ideas and practices of self-identified ‘star-seeds,’ channeling supposed intergalactic extraterrestrials. They don’t even use cheese-cloth now.
H.P. Blavatsky claims to have been sent to America to demonstrate the fallacy and deception of the spiritualist theory, in a letter to Stain Moses, and in a letter to Solovyof, February 1886 to try out her psychic abilities. Guénon leaves no source for the Solovyof letter, who himself forged letters of H.P. Blavatsky, from within the T.S., in hopes to expose her. It is merely, the narrative of H.P. Blavatsky Rene Guenon has accepted, as opposed to the narrative of her defenders. So the view is simply, that she was a con, and theosophy is a fraud.
Vera Petrovna de Zhelihovsky relays, in her letters sent to her by her sister, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Helena P. Blavatsky says to Vera:
“Humanity has lost its faith and its higher ideals; materialism and pseudo-science have slain them. The children of this age have no longer faith; they demand proof, proof founded on a scientific basis – and they shall have it. Theosophy, the source of all human religions, will give it to them.” (Vera Petrovna de Zhelihovsky, “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky,” Lucifer, London, Nov. 15, 1894, April 15, 1895)
Soon after, Vera says, her sister began sending letters more on the abuses of spiritism, spiritual materialism, medium séances, etc.
Vera adds later, that her sister had wrote:
“If I have attached myself to a certain group of Theosophists, a branch of the Indo-Aryan Brotherhood, which has been formed here,” she wrote to us from New York, “it is precisely because they fight against all the excesses, the superstitions, the abuses of the false prophets of the dead letter – against the numberless Calchases of all the exoteric religions, as well as against the maunderings of spirits. We are spiritualists, if you choose so to call us, but not after the American manner, but after the ancient rites of Alexandria.” (Vera Petrovna de Zhelihovsky, “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky,” Lucifer, London, Nov. 15, 1894, April 15, 1895)
Western Occultists rejecting Reincarnation
It is precisely this link to the Neoplatonists of Alexandria, Rene Guenon rejects, to not give the Theosophical doctrines any legitimacy. Rene Guenon speaks of the H.B. & L. describing the Theosophical doctrines, as attempts to pervert the Western mind, and that the “real Adepts” do not teach the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Reincarnation is a modern doctrine Guénon believed, as he casually brushed everything about the Theosophical position. This isn’t true, and even existed in the Middle East, thought subtly. So, the argument is that, the Theosophical doctrines can’t claim the torch from the Alexandrian school; because it adopts a special conception of evolution, which he argues is wholly ‘modern.’
Sylvia L. Cranston’s Reincarnation (A Compilation), 1967, easily dismantles this argument. The Secret Doctrine, does not even hold the same popular conception of reincarnation, so that critique is superficial. It is based upon an older position, and whether one accepts the doctrine or not, is intimately tied into the Vedic atomic theory, which is hylozoic. Without the latter position, we could argue, the entire card house of religion falls. So, perhaps in their denunciations, they are not thinking carefully about the contributions of theosophical literature to the very ideas they use, without elucidating.
Traditionalism vs. “Theosophism”
The Theosophical Society gradually shifted from focusing on practical occultism, to emphasising the Theosophical Society as a philanthropic and philosophical society. Guénon argued these theosophists lacked actual knowledge, and that they were not teachers.
“Why come to the theosophists for knowledge?” he asked. Aleister Crowley criticised the Theosophists similarly, defining them as those who speak of Yoga, but do not practice, i.e., mere intellectuals.
The term, theosophist does connote a profession, or a professional in the theurgic operations, hence Adepts, and not amateurs. No offence.
Rene Guénon expected, by the dignity of that title — H.S. Olcott in his diary notes, reveal was picked out of a number of other ill-fitting titles — that “theosophists,” should have been able to be masterful teachers of this knowledge, deserving the reputation of the successors of the Wisdom-Tradition. Guenon focuses much on traditional ‘orthodoxies’ as legitimate, like Aleksandr Dugin. Even if Guénon is wrong, in that, H.P.B. noted they were focused on ‘Eastern Esotericism,’ or Gupta Vidya, and not Western Mysteries, the Westerners are entirely influenced by the Jewish and Christian worldview. Ultimately, at the end of Rene Guénon’s critique, there is no glory for either the model of Traditionalism or “Theosophism.”
Of Arya Samaj’s Dayananda Saraswati, it is researched by Guénon, that Dayananda broke with H.P. Blavatsky; because he considered her a ‘trickster,’ only knowledgeable in the method of mesmerism, and lacking actual knowledge of the occult science of the ancient Yogis, and involved in dexterous conjurations. The suspicion of Guénon, throughout Pseudo-Theosophy, is the legitimacy of the Theosophical Society, as a claimant in connection with true Adepts of the Orient, particularly in the esoteric lineage of Buddhism. What is strange, is that, in the chapter on The Theosophical Society and Rosicrucianism, Rene Guénon settles his whole angst into a few sentences, about true illuminati versus false Rosicrucianism.
Guénon thinks Blavatsky was a passive medium influenced by mind-controlling occult individuals, and using mesmerism on her subjects —
“This is an opportune place to point out that the names Mme. Blavatsky’s so-called ‘spiritual guides’—first John King, then Serapis, and finally the ‘Kashmiri brother’—in short only express the various influences that successfully worked on her. This is the very real backdrop to the wild imaginings, with which she surrounded herself (…) one can rightly conclude that in many circumstances Mme Blavatsky was above all a ‘subject’ or an instrument in the hands of occult individuals or groups using her personality as a cover, while others in turn were instruments in her hands.” (Rene Guénon, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, Second Impression 2004, pg. 24)
He makes her seem like a woman possessed on the loose.
Guénon lastly, begins railing on Besant’s ‘neo-Christianity’:
“It is not our intention here to go into the controversies related to the origin and the history of the true and false Rose-Cross. These are veritable puzzles that have never been satisfactorily resolved, and about which writers who claim to be more or less Rosicrucian seem not to know much more than others.” (René Guénon, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, pg. 31)
Ramalingam Pillai’s vindication of the T.S.
We end in a similar conundrum with the Theosophical Society. After demonstrating objective evidence (see The Identity of Koot Hoomi of Kashmir, College and Travels) — only one of many — that the ‘Kashmiri brother’ was in-fact a real mortal, under a pseudonym, René Guénon would be equally confused by other supporting evidences put before him, pointing to integrity and validity of H.P.B.’s narrative and the Theosophical Movement (see Ramalingam Pillai and the Theosophical Movement), being inspired by such men of a brotherhood. This is even more apparent in The Disciples of the ‘Wisdom Tradition’: Charles J. Ryan and Vladimir Solovyov on the Adepts.
The Society for Psychical Research recounted its original case that caused a great riff in the T.S., but so far, it has never recovered its original numbers. The fraud of Leadbeater, and Besant regarding a “new messiah” in Jiddu Krishnamurti is so far-off the deep end, that superficial analysis of the issue has led many to denounce theosophy altogether (traditional and modern). Besides the quirkiness of H.P.B.’s eccentric personality, many around her attested of her childishness and prankish behavior, and these critiques of Guénon are weak now.
Despite the influence of Traditionalism, and the “Cultural Christianity” of the meme-culture, Guénon’s critique helped nobody. Rene Guenon’s criticism satisfy some who already made up their minds about Theosophy, and would rather rely on middle-man sources to tell them what Theosophy is. However, the truth is that Guenon’s critique is greatly flawed and hypocritical, as can be demonstrated further in 2016’s Special Edition discussed in Georges Méautis: “Theosophy and Theosophism” Dissects Rene Guenon’s Critique (1922 article from Theosophy and Theosophism: Response to a Criticism of Theosophy by René Guénon, Paris: Publications Théosophiques. Trans. and Intro., Godwin, Joscelyn. FOTA Newsletter, Special Summer, 2016).
 Rene Guénon, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, Second Impression 2004.
 Richard Smoley, Against Blavatsky: Rene Geunon’s Critique of Theosophy.
 Jeanine G. Miller, The Blazing Dragon of Wisdom.
 Vera Petrovna de Zhelihovsky, “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky,” Lucifer, London, Nov. 15, 1894.
 Letter to Dr. Hugo Wernekke, The Identity of Koot Hoomi of Kashmir, College and Travels.
 Ramalingam Pillai and the Theosophical Movement.