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vol. 1, p. 69
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 1 (1874-1876)


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Occultism and Its Critics

by Henry S. Olcott.

If the bare announcement of the formation of the Theosophical Society has raised such a breeze throughout the country, what may we not expect when that now inchoate organization applies itself to the work contemplated by its founders! It is only a month, since, in a letter to the Slew York Tribune, I catted attention to the fact that in the works of the ancient Occultist authors, and the historical records of

Egypt, Hindoostan and Chaldea, is alone to be found evidence of the nature of the mysterious phenomena classified under the misnomer of Modern Spiritualism, and yet the subject is already under discussion m many parts of the country. Nay, more, it has furnished themes for the European press and its correspondents. As was naturally to be expected, a great diversity of views is expressed by the several disputants; some warmly welcoming the idea; some expressing incredulity; some sounding the alarm of danger, and some, whose pretensions to knowledge warranted us in expecting better things of them, descending to cheap wit and buffoonery.

Among the examples of the class, last above noted, the Daily Graphic is conspicuous. Its editor is a man who displays not simply a detestation of the spiritual phenomena, but a positive hatred of everything calculated to prove the immortality of his soul. He loses no opportunity to resent, as if it were a personal effront, every narrative of fact and every logical argument likely to strengthen the universal faith in a future life. It would seem that his past experiences must have been bitter beyond expression, to make him so loth to confront the idea of postmortem consciousness.

The latest exhibition of the virulence of this editor, is made in the issue of the 8th inst. The pretext taken is a review of a pamphlet just issued by Mrs. Mary F. Davis, apropos of my letter on Occultism. He says:

“A pamphlet called Danger Signal, by Mary F. Davis, is published by A. J. Davis & Co., its purpose being to warn Spiritualists against certain American investigators who are turning to theurgy and the works of Hermes Trismegestus, Apollonius of Tyana. Iamblichus, and Cornelius Agrippa for an explanation of recent mysterious phenomena of Spiritualism. For it seems that a serious effort is at hand to revive the school of magic, the effort being that foreshadowed in the organization of a Theosophical Society by Col. Olcott. But there is little to fear from the society, for the difference between what Spiritualism promises to do and what it does, has already been so great as to give full warrant to the conclusion that it will always be immense. That can never ‘elevate the race,’ herald the dawn,’ and ‘bring the golden shower’ to the race which stultifies and weakens the individual, which fills him with wordy folly and leads him to the limbo of that grossest sort of fetichism where signs and formula and the ridiculous paraphernalia of magic are supposed to have power to put men in communication with ‘elementary spirits.’ It is conceivable why die Neo-Platonists should dream that thaumaturgy and philosophy were legitimately connected with each other, for the philosophy of the Neo-Platonists was a dream, as was thaumaturgy, except on its natural side, where it was simply medicine and ‘natural magic’ and the result of misunderstanding natural phenomena; it is inconceivable, now that the ‘Twin Giants’ are out of their cradle, that the upholders of any system claiming the name of philosophy should turn for aid to that which was the result only of the decrepitude of a futile and mooning antique dream, and is now useless save for the purpose of romancers like Bulwer, and catchpennies like Allan Kardek, and apostate priests like Eliphas Levi, who have nothing better to attend to. The folly of Mme. Lenormand and the imposition of Joseph Halsamo, not so come nearer home, are too patent to be an ‘occult’ science."

Here is an editor who never saw an experiment in White Magic in his life, nor, if I am correctly informed, ever attended a seance for materialization like those of Florenoe Cook, Williams, Herne, Mrs. Stewart, Mott, Mrs. Compton or the Eddys; and yet he presumes to dogmatize upon the question at issue! With cool effrontery he pronounces the most sublime of sciences “fetichism;” flouts the idea of elementary spirits as absurd, when nothing is easier of proof than their existence: calls thaumaturgy a compound of dreams, medicine, and ignorance of natural phenomena, when he understands neither the dream of the thaumaturgists, their drugs, formulae of magic, nor the phenomena they are acknowledged to have produced. If he had repeated the premature experiments of Glyndon, he would have called Bulwer something more than a romance; if he had read Eliphas Levi, be would have detected his Jesuitism beneath the covering of his vast erudition in magical lore; if he had read history carefully, he would have discovered, with your learned correspondent Charles Sotheran, that “Joseph Balsamo,” the charlatan and swindler, never existed except in the imagination of his infernal Romanist biographers, while Alessandro di Cagliostro, the real man, was reverenced by half the Sovereigns and Courts of Europe as a philosopher, philanthropist, and one of the wisest and purest men of his day. So much for this critic.

The care of the New York World is more amusing. Referring editorially to a recent lecture in New York, in which I spoke of the Theosophical Society and its probable relations towards the various religious and philosophical parties of our time, the World said, with an air intended to be very funny, that our, is so dull and prosaic an age, — so lacking in all the elements of romance, — that if the new society and I could furnish the public witch a sort of Prospero’s Isle, peopled with a party of Cagliostros and Michael Scots, we would be entitled to be regarded as public benefactors.

On the 4th inst. it concluded a denunciation of an alleged swindling seance at Tamnary Hall, with the following bit of pleasantry:

“The police ought not to be called in to prevent people from being swindled rather than by their own gullibility than by the transparent trickery which helps them to impose on themselves. But there is a good chance for Mr. Olcott and his theosophists to define the point at which a believer in manifestations ceases to be a common lunatic — if they can.”

This was doubtless a Parthian arrow, shot in its retreat of the day before from the advanced skirmish-line it had previously thrown out. On the 3d, it had said:

“People are no unaccustomed nowadays to hear anything like common sense from anybody claiming to be a Spiritualist, that Mr. Olcott’s letter may be to the average reader surprising quite as well as satisfactory. He attacks the Spiritualists who are responsible for the odium cast upon Spiritualism with vigor especially commendable in one who claims himself to be a Spiritualist, though a rational one Of the Theosophic Society it can be said without question that its aim is laudable and as to the means, there is at least no harm in trying them.

So much for this, Democratic Balaam, whose curses have already been changed into the word of good-will, if not into blessings. It is no small matter to have extorted even so much as this, in so brief a time, from so influential a person.

The friends of Occultism can afford to wait the turn of the tide, which will as surely come as the sun will rise tomorrow. They know what they are about. They know that no claim has been or is likely to be made for it which cannot be substantiated in the most satisfactory manner by practical proofs. They know that it is only a question of a few months, or a few years at most, before the Spiritual press will be forced to choose between the alternatives of teaching Occultism or of giving way to other journals that will; when translations and reprints of ancient and modern Occultist authors will replace the flapdoodle literature of this Modern Spiritualism; when the great army of perspirational and inspirational speakers will be crowded off the rostrum and back to the wash-tub and manure-fork, at which alone they are of practical benefit to society; when the free-love philosophers will be remanded to the common jail, in company with the vendors of indecent prints and pamphlets; when the unseen races of the air, the fire, the water and the earth, made visible at will by adepts, will cease their mischievous work in our circles, as “guides, controls, and bands,” and be forced to keep their place, and Wait their turn to be born upon this earth; when the existence of a grind and blessed Fraternity, in the heart of the Orient, will be known, and its majestic mission to elevate and enlighten mankind appreciated. They know all this, and they patiently bide their time; —it will soon be here.

The last critic to notice—the editor of the Banner of Light having already been answered in a former communication — is the authoress of the pamphlet entitled, “Danger Signals, whose preface contains the following paragraphs:

“The signs of the times give evidence that dangers, which threaten Spiritualisms have recently accumulated along the open sea of investigation and discovery. Among them is the fatal one of retrogression. Doctrines which prevailed in superstitions eras, are finding lodgement in many speculative minds.

Modern Spiritualism, the child of light, seems retreating into the darkness of Egypt and the Middle Ages. Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, a doctrine that took shape in the very cradle of the world, has been revived, in a modified form, by French Spiritualists under the name of ‘Reincarnation;’ and certain American investigators are turning to equally ancient Theurgy for an explanation of recent mysterious phenomena.

The works of mythical Hermes Trismegistus, Apollonius of Tyana, Ianiblicus, Cornelius Agrippa, and others, of a dead past, are to be explored as in the darkness of a tomb, while the mental vision is turned from the broad, clear light of the living present. A serious effort is at hand to revive the secret School of Magic; and the favored few, who will be deemed worthy of discipleship, may soon startle the uninitiated by summoning elementary spirits from the ‘vasty deep’ of the ‘primum mobile’ — the sylphs, gnomes, undines, and salamanders of the Rosicrucians.

The pentagram, the Jewish Cabala, and the Abracadabra of the pagan theosophers may again assume their ancient significance, and the lives of Paracelsus and Raymond Lilly be repeated by the modern esoteric magicians, who claim to give ‘directions for invoking, controlling and discharging spirits.’”

This is all very pretty, but it will not accomplish the purpose intended. The “doctrines which prevailed in superstitious eras” will prevail now and sweep everything before them, for the simple reason they are true. Hermes, Apollonius, and the other philosophers whom Mrs. Davis quotes, forgot more about real Spiritualism, its limits, uses, abuses and possibilities, than all our modern investigators and authors, myself included, ever knew. They could do what no one nowaday pretends to be able to accomplish, produce such manifestations as they liked, when and where they liked, converse with such spirits as could instruct them ol they could teach, help their profession and their own, and protect themselves and the people from the malice of irruptive ‘elementaries’ and debased human denizens of the Other World. The reproach so commonly and justly cast upon our contemporary Spiritualists that they have added no useful thing to human knowledge, promoted no science, offered no satisfying philosophy, mitigated no human suffering, was not applicable to them for they ransacked the most obscure corners of Nature’s domain, discovered her most valuable secrets, added enormously to the sum of knowledge, contributed to the welfare of the race, made plain its origin and destiny, and afforded the most satisfactory information as to the nature and attribute of the God of the Universe, whom they adored as the Endless and Boundless One. — the Ain-Soph. Mrs. Davis herself, without knowing the real significance of the words rightly characterizes the crisis which is upon us. “This is a transition period.” Says this estimable lady. “We are passing from the old to the new by highway of spiritual science.” She will live long enough to see her words come true; not as she fancies, by the triumph of Modern Spiritualism over its opponents, but by the resistless sweep of Ancient Occultism — Parent of all Faiths, Embodiment of all Wisdom, Hope and Humanity.

Editor's notes

  1. Occultism and Its Critics by Olcott, H. S., Spiritual Scientist, v. 3, No. 6, October 14, 1875, p. 63