The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor’s Desk" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 90

Richard SmoleyNational secretary David Bruce reminds me that this year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Which raises a question: what exactly was Shakespeare’s worldview?

Technically, Shakespeare was a Christian. But Christianity is far in the background in Shakespeare’s work. Often he seems more comfortable setting his plays in pagan contexts—as with Julius Caesar or King Lear—than in Christian ones. If you search for Jesus or Jesu in his plays, you will see that they mostly occur as interjections.

Some argue that Shakespeare was an atheist. But he does not seem to be an atheist. His plays are full of spirits of all kinds — nature spirits, the dead, even the occasional pagan god. And these details all point to one thing as the source of his worldview: the occult philosophy of the Renaissance, which was the version of the Ancient Wisdom known and practiced at that time. It was essentially a mix of Hermeticism, a Christianized version of the Kabbalah, and Neoplatonic ideas that persisted in Western thought after the end of classical antiquity.

Scholar Frances Yates has written, “Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the occult, with ghosts, witches, fairies, is understood as deriving less from popular tradition than with deep-rooted affinity with the learned occult philosophy and its religious implications.” This quotation is taken from Yates’s book The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, which is a good place to go if you want to know more about this subject. Many educated men of the time understood this philosophy, and Yates points out numerous allusions to it in Shakespeare.

One example is the famous speech about the “seven ages of man” in As You Like It, act 2, scene 7: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, /And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages.”

I don’t have the space here to reproduce the entire passage. It has been quoted very often.

But the structure behind it is not widely understood.

These seven ages are correlated to the seven planets as they were known in Shakespeare’s time. These planets surround the earth (it was believed) in concentric spheres. Shakespeare’s stages of life correspond to them. The “mewling, puking” infant corresponds to the moon, which governs growth. The “whining schoolboy with his satchel” correlates with Mercury, which has to do with study and learning. The stage of the “lover” is of course the stage of Venus, while the “soldier” is that of Mars. The justice, “full of wise saws,” relates to Jupiter, the planet of counsel. And “the lean and slippered pantaloon” corresponds to Saturn, the slowest of all the planets then known, associated with old age and melancholy. The seventh stage, “second childishness and mere oblivion,” corresponds to the primordial space to which we all return. The seventh “planet,” the sun, does not appear here, because esoterically the sun correlates to the Self and thus encompasses all levels. (For more on this subject, see Priscilla Costello’s recent book Shakespeare and the Stars.)

It’s hard, even for those drawn to esotericism today, to grasp how much this occult philosophy informed people’s lives in those days. Remember that this seven-planet system, centered on the earth (the Copernican theory had not yet been fully accepted), was believed to be the way the universe was physically composed. That it had correspondences in the life of man, even in terms of the ages, meant that the human being was seen as much more integrally connected to the cosmos than today.

Theosophical literature often speaks of the astral body, but the reason for its name is sometimes forgotten. The original idea was that this astral body was made up of subtle starry stuff—what H.P. Blavatsky, following Éliphas Lévi, called the astral light. We can think of it as the medium by which the planets affect our moods and feelings, just as the forces of the earth affect our physical bodies.

Clearly these are subtle forces—so subtle that one might be forgiven for believing that they don’t exist at all. But there are many energies that science has not discovered, or has just barely discovered. I’m thinking of a recent news item saying that astronomers have discovered a “magnetic rope” that extends between Saturn and the sun. Although they had known such magnetic links existed between the sun and the inner planets, including the earth, they had never found one for an outlying planet such as Saturn. It is possible, even likely, that other such forces govern our existence in ways that are still undreamt of.

It may be useful to imagine our astral, and perhaps mental, bodies as coextensive with the solar system, whose planets govern their currents and impulses, just as the astrologers claim. If so, then possibly the higher bodies still—the causal body and those above it—are governed not by the planets but by larger and still more comprehensive entities. We might imagine that the causal body, say, is coextensive with the galaxy and is influenced by its movements—although these are, of course, on a scale that goes past the bounds of a single lifetime. But then so does the causal body.

I find these speculations both comforting and plausible. It may be the case that, as the old occult philosophy taught, the stages of human life are attuned to the planets. It may also be the case that the stages of life far outstrip, not only the life of the body on earth, but the life of the solar system, of the galaxy, and of the universe itself.

Richard Smoley