The Theosophical Enlightenment

The Theosophical Enlightenment

by Joscelyn Godwin
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Pp. xiii +448. Paper.

Joscelyn Godwin is a professor at Colgate University who has distinguished himself as the author of a series of volumes on the history of the esoteric, particularly in its relationship to music.

The Theosophical Enlightenment is one of the most important books ever written on the history of the esoteric. The author with a charming and yet erudite style tells us all we essentially need to know about the English esoteric world from the time of the French Revolution to the early part of this century.

In this volume students of the writings of H. P. Blavatsky will find the essence of the teachings of many of the sages about whom she wrote. In addition these esotericists are linked to the social and political background of their time, and the reader will also be able to trace their links to one another.

The Theosophical Enlightenment is in three parts. The first deals with a revisionist approach to myth which developed into a universal view of history. The persons in this section include Richard Payne Knight, Sir William Jones, Henry O'Brien, Thomas Inman, and Godfrey Higgins, whose Anacalypsis was seen by one contemporary reviewer as a precursor to Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled. In this first part Professor Godwin does the reader a signal service in summarizing the 1500 pages of the Anacalypsis.

The second part of this book deals with the esoteric sciences in England up until 1850 and covers such diverse characters as Emanuel Swedenborg, Francis Barrett (author of The Magus) , the novelist Bulwer-Lytton, and Frederick Hockley. The third part views the rise of Spiritualism and deals in some derail with the mysterious Emma Hardinge Britten who was one of the founders of the Theosophical Society. It also outlines the origins of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Christian disciples of Jacob Boehme, and the Rosicrucians associated with such figures as P. B. Randolph and Hargrave Jennings. It also investigates the mysterious Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, treated more fully in The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, by Joscelyn Godwin, Christian Chanel, and John Deveney (Weiser, 1995).

Godwin sees Blavatsky as a product of the skeptical enlightenment of the nineteenth century who brought together in the Theosophical Society the two threads of western and Oriental esotericism, a joining which did not survive the century. He devotes well over 50 pages to the early Theosophical Society and brings forth a number of little known details.

The research in this volume is encyclopedic and fascinating. Very few errors can be noted, although the "legal gentleman" mentioned on page 287 who conducted telepathic experiments with G. H. Felt was W. Q. Judge, and not H. S. Olcott: as supposed (see Path 7: 344).

This volume is dedicated to Leslie Price, who founded the journal Theosophical History and to James A. Santucci, the current editor.

I recommend The Theosophical Enlightenment as essential reading for those students interested in the history of esoteric ideas and in particular for students of H. P. Blavatsky.


-JOHN COOPER {reprintedfrom Theosophy in Australia 60.3, September 1996} 

January 1997