The Theosophical Society in America

Viewpoint: On Being Eclectic

By John Algeo, National President

Theosophists are sometimes described as (or accused of, as the case may be) being "eclectic." Whether the description is accurate or the accusation (when intended) is merited depends perhaps on what one understands by the term "eclectic." Confucius said that the most important thing for clear thinking is the "rectification of names," by which he meant using words correctly—which requires understanding what we mean by them. So what does "eclectic" mean?

Being an etymologist by trade, when considering the meaning of a word, I customarily look to its origin and earlier sense. So where does "eclectic" come from? It is from a Greek adjective eklektikos, meaning "selected" or "gathered out." Its root is leg, which is also found in the Greek (and English) word logos, meaning "word, speech, reason." Thus what is eclectic is what has been reasonably selected; it is the result of gathering out the best from what is available. As that old Greek Plato taught us, what is best is also what is most true, so being eclectic is searching for truth, wherever it may be found and under whatever guise it may be lurking. Theosophists tend to be eclectic in that sense. Let’s call it eclectic1.

Of course, where a word comes from and what it once meant does not tell us what it means today or how it is used by our contemporaries. And with "eclectic," that’s another story. Today, people often use the word to refer to an unprincipled choice—just taking a bit from here and a bit from there, as we fancy, without regard for coherence or appropriateness. A synonym for the word in this use is "heterogeneous"—consisting of diverse and incompatible parts just jumbled together—parts that don’t really go together except in someone’s overactive imagination. Let’s call it eclectic2.

What goes together and what does not is always a judgment call, a matter of opinion. I happen to be a bagel purist. Onion, garlic, and sesame seeds all go with bagels just fine. But raisins, blueberries, and chocolate are bagel-incompatible—not quite sins against the Holy Ghost, but certainly violations of all bagel decorum. Bagels are savories, not sweets. And yet, I have known perfectly respectable and otherwise intelligent people who actually prefer their bagels with raisins in them. Their choice is inexplicable, but as the Romans were wont to say, de gustibus non disputandum est, which means, freely speaking, what goes with what is all a matter of opinion.

Those who are committed to a single vision of truth and regard all other visions as astigmatic will tend to see eclecticism (eclectic2) as a surface gathering of heterogeneous incompatibles by those who aren’t bright enough to recognize the folly of their choices. Those who believe that beneath the surface of quite disparate appearances lies a coherent and unified depth of reality will tend to see eclecticism (eclectic1) as choosing diversely on the surface to get at the best reality underneath.

What does Judaism have to do with Zen? What do those arch conservatives, the ancient Egyptians, have to do with our modern progressive enlightenment? What does group prayer have to do with solitary meditation? What does Carl Jung have to do with Henny Youngman? (Take my mother-in-law, . . . please!) The essence of intelligence (and of wit, but not necessarily of intellect, which is another matter) is the ability to see connections between apparently disparate things. That is eclectic1. And Theosophists are good at that.