Unveiling Isis

The following is excerpted from
Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher/Penguin 2012).


If there is one person responsible for laying the foundations of our modern spirituality, it is Blavatsky, and one of my aims in writing the book is to show just how important and influential this remarkable woman was. In this chapter I write about the impact and influence of Blavatsky's first book, her enormous compendium of esoteric knowledge, Isis Unveiled (1877). It's first printing sold out in a week and it has been in print ever since. Although her second gargantuan tome, The Secret Doctrine (1888), is better known, to my mind Isis Unveiled is more accessible and challenging. Blavatsky's target is the materialist, reductionist science that was establishing its strangle hold on western thought, reducing man to a well-dressed ape and the universe to a machine. Sadly, that vision of ourselves and the cosmos remains firmly in control, but with Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky struck a powerful blow against it, and started the ongoing struggle for a more spiritual view of the world, that many are carrying on today.

A central argument informing Isis Unveiled is that all of the world's religions spring from a common source, the ancient wisdom religion that Blavatsky identified with the Hermetic philosophy. This idea, of a common ancient, "primordial" origin for Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the rest, is found today in the work of the "Traditionalist" school, whose main theoretician, René Guénon, was, oddly, a strident critic of Blavatsky. The idea has a prestigious pedigree and can be found in the writings of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of philosophical and spiritual texts attributed to the ancient mythological sage Hermes Trismegistus, but which were most likely written circa 100-200 A.D. in Alexandria. The idea was later revived when the Corpus Hermeticum, lost for centuries, was translated into Latin by the Florentine Platonist Marsilio Ficino in 1463. Ficino and his contemporaries believed the Hermetic texts were the source of a prisca theologia, a "perennial philosophy," that dated back to the dawn of time, and this idea informed much of the art and culture that we associate with the Renaissance. In reviving this notion once again, Blavatsky was in some good company.

Such an idea seemed peculiarly apt for the time. When Isis Unveiled appeared, western consciousness had entered a kind of metaphysical black hole. Although Christianity was still a powerful presence it was fighting a losing battle against a reductive, exclusively materialist science, the conclusion of which was that the universe, and the life within it, were ultimately meaningless, an assessment it still stands by today. By this time, Darwin's "dangerous idea" had showed that we were really only "trousered apes," and all our pretentions to being something more were mere egotistical delusions. And if this wasn't bad enough, in 1865 the German physicist Rudolf Clausius had introduced the notion of entropy. Clausius had observed that over time, in a closed system, organized energy -- for example, heat -- tends to move toward a less organized, uniform state. (This is why a cup of coffee cools to room temperature.) As the "second law of thermodynamics," this suggested that eventually, the organized energy in the universe would dissipate until it formed a kind of uniform lukewarm "cosmic puddle," unable to support life. This irreversible process was known as the "heat death" of the cosmos. For all the "progress" associated with the Industrial Revolution and the nineteenth century, a sense of futility had entered things, a feeling for which can be found in Matthew Arnold's famous poem "Dover Beach," with its images of "ignorant armies clashing by night" upon "a darkling plain." The Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1882 because its members were troubled by this growing sense of cosmic inconsequence, and hoped that the study of Spiritualism and other "psychical" phenomena might help throw light on "the actual truth as to the destiny of man."

Yet while Spiritualism offered some support for the belief in a non-material reality, its nebulous pieties repelled more vigorous minds, eager for some coherent philosophy with which to challenge a science that seemed intent on undermining all human purpose. Faith was little help in his matter. What was needed was knowledge, and with Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky seemed to show that she had it on tap.

Although Darwin's figure looms over the book, her main targets are his "bulldog" Thomas Henry Huxley, and the scientist John Tyndall, the two high priests of scientific materialism. Although few historians have noted it, in Isis Unveiled Blavatsky presents the first major intellectual -- not religious -- criticism of Darwinian evolution. Credit for this is usually given to Samuel Butler, best known as the author of the utopian fantasy Erewhon. In 1878 Butler published Life and Habit, the first of a series of brilliantly argued books, criticising this mechanical account of how species evolved. Butler argued that Darwin had "banished mind from the universe." Blavatsky agreed, but she had made the point first, and this alone should warrant her a secure place in the history of ideas.

Darwinian evolution, she argued, only told part of the story, the part that takes place in our current, physical world. It leaves out what happens before and after this interlude. Basing her vision on the Hermetic belief that the universe and everything in it, including ourselves, is an emanation of spirit,  Blavatsky argued that the transition from monkey to man is only part of the evolution of men and women into gods, a transformation, she added, that embraces the entire cosmos. Darwin, she said, "begins his evolution of species at the lowest point and traces upwards. His only mistake may be that he applies his system at the wrong end..." After passing through a period of necessary separation, spirit returns to itself, enriched by its voyage. Thus, as the late Theodore Roszak remarked, Blavatsky presents "the evolutionary image as the redemptive journey of spirit through the realms of matter" offering "the first philosophy of psychic and spiritual evolution to appear in the modern west."

The evolution of life, then, is not a "chance" occurrence, which "just happened" to take place because of some "accidental" combination of chemicals, and which then carried on, driven by the pressures of survival and the occasional advantageous mutation. As she says, "it is not spirit which dwells in matter, but matter which clings temporarily to spirit." Spirit (or consciousness), then, is primary, and matter a temporary means spirit employs in its work. Evolution is the basic grain of the universe itself, and opposed to the materialist vision which presents a "hideous, ceaseless procession of sparks of cosmic matter created by no one, floating onward from nowhere," and which "rushes nowhither," Blavatsky offers the Cabalistic aphorism: "A stone becomes a plant; a plant, a beast; a beast, a man; a man, a spirit; and the spirit, a God." In this scheme, "each perfected species in the physical evolution only affords more scope to the directing intelligence to act within the improved nervous system," a remark that the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose Creative Evolution (1907) similarly challenged Darwin, could have made. For Blavatsky then, mind is not "banished" by evolution, but uses it in order to develop itself. In this way, rather than oppose science to religion or vice versa, Blavatsky synthesizes the two and transcends both, in a way reminiscent of the philosopher Hegel's equally evolutionary account of spirit's journey through matter, The Phenomenology of Mind.

Isis Unveiled is such a huge work, both in size and conception, that it can be read on many levels. It is also, as most modern readers discover, not a work that needs to be read cover to cover, and perhaps the best way to approach it is by dipping in and out. From a historical perspective, from it we can learn about works that were considered important at the time but which are pretty much forgotten today. One such is The Unseen Universe by Peter Guthrie Tait and Balfour Stewart, published in 1875. This once very popular work argues that "the visible universe is not the whole universe but only, it may be, a very small part of it," an idea that physicists today are grappling with under the rubric of "dark matter." Arguing against the universe's eventual "heat death," the authors suggest that the energy of the visible universe might transfer to an invisible one, from which it emerges again in new forms, an idea that Blavatsky, with her Hermetic belief in dimensions of reality beyond the sensory, embraced, and which was later revived by the poet Rilke. On a biographical note, we discover that HPB was impressed with a work by a Civil War hero, General A. J. Pleasonton, The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight, and because of it she had blue glass windows and blue draperies installed in her apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen. Pleasonton believed that blue light was particularly helpful in plant growth and that it was able to eradicate many illnesses. His work is seen as the beginning of chromotherapy -- the idea that certain colors affect health -- and HPB was not alone in putting it into practice. Around the time of Isis Unveiled there was a "blue glass" craze in America, with many people following Pleasonton's example, and using blue glass in their hot houses and for personal ailments.

It should also come as no surprise that many of the themes and ideas that occupy a great deal of contemporary "alternative" literature, were first announced by Blavatsky. When she asks her readers, "Do not the relics we treasure in our museums -- last mementos of the long lost arts -- speak loudly in favour of ancient civilizations?" We are unavoidably reminded of Graham Hancock's many works on just that theme. When she tells us that "ages before [Columbus] clove the western waters, the Phoenician vessels had circumnavigated the globe and spread civilization in regions now silent and deserted," and asks who "will dare assert that the same hand which planned the pyramids of Egypt...did not erect the monumental Nagkow-Wat of Cambodia," we think of Charles Hapgood's ideas about a "prehistoric" maritime civilization, that encircled the globe. Even Erich von Daniken, who wrote of "ancient astronauts" and the science of earlier civilizations,  is upstaged: "At a period far anterior to the siege of Troy, the learned priests of the sanctuaries were thoroughly acquainted with electricity and even lightning conductors."

An attentive reader familiar with other works of modern esotericism soon also sees how much in later systems is rooted HPB. While a student of Gurdjieff's "work," I repeatedly ploughed through his own gargantuan masterpiece, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, and one idea that baffled me was the notion that "the sun neither lights nor heats." Gurdjieff, we know, criticized HPB but he was not beyond borrowing from her, and the same notion can be found in Isis Unveiled. (Its original source is the Pythagorean notion of the spiritual "central sun," of which our physical sun is only a reflection.)

Gurdjieff also spoke about the law of "reciprocal maintenance" at work in the cosmos. HPB speaks of "...the reciprocal relations between the planetary bodies." And when Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that wars were the result of "tensions" between two planets, Blavatsky told her readers that "certain planetary aspects may imply disturbances in the ether of our planet, and certain others rest and harmony." Indeed, for HPB, the planets and other stellar bodies so influence life on the Earth, that at one time they promote periods of withdrawal -- "monasticism and anchoritism" -- and at others frenzied action and "utopian schemes." This seems a pre-echo of Gurdjieff's gloomy assessment of mankind's inability to "do," our complete mechanicalness and "sleep."

Gurdjieff, of course, wasn't the only one to borrow from the Madame. Some time ago I wrote an article for the sadly defunct Gnosis magazine, about Rudolf Steiner's odd idea that the Earth was "dying," in preparation for its evolution to a higher planetary level, and how developing our own inner worlds helps this process along. Although, like Gurdjieff, Steiner was often critical of HPB, he nevertheless seems to have picked up this idea from her. Blavatsky asks "...who is able to controvert the theory...that the earth itself will, like the living creatures to which it has given birth...after passing through its own stage of death and dissolution, become an etherealized astral planet?" Gurdjieff, too, talked about the Earth "evolving" into a sun, and the moon "evolving" into an Earth, along what he called the "Ray of Creation."  And, as already mentioned, Steiner's "Anthroposophy" -- the "wisdom of man," as opposed to that of the gods -- is in many ways a western, intellectualized version of HPB's basic teachings.

But even a reader coming to these ideas for the first time is sure to learn something from HPB's vigorous, often torrential accounts of what modern science is unable to fit under its narrow rubric. Arguments for mesmerism, hypnosis, precognition, psychometry (the ability to "read" an object's past simply from touching it), the science of the ancients (which in many ways anticipates our own), the cyclical theory of history (well in advance of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West), elementals, the evolution of the planets, the unity of all religions, prehistoric civilizations, animal reincarnation (she believed many animals were more deserving of this than many humans), magic, and much, much more, are all presented in a robust, exuberant manner that often leaves the reader dazzled. The central message is that the dull, dead, mechanical universe, that a triumphant modern science was applauding as the height of human consciousness, was, quite simply, false, and that the world was an infinitely more mysterious, more fascinating, and more alive place than what the Huxleys, Tyndalls, and others believed. The ancients knew this, and built a deeper, more profound science on that belief, a science that Blavatsky was here to revive.