Saturday, July 02, 2005

gnosis 7: gnosis and sophia

   Both the Greek terms sophia (wisdom) and gnosis (knowledge) are used in the Bible, occurring in both the Old Testament and the New. From sophia we get, of course, the word "theosophy". […] It is true that sophia can sometimes signify that kind of wisdom that gives the heart and mind whatever is needed for the right conduct of life. More often, however, it means the highest intellectual gift, the gift that gives insight into the secret purposes of God. That is what the great Wisdom literature of the Bible is about.
   Gnosis, though it may be sometimes used in some special sense, has a fundamental significance that is so similar to sophia as to make any attempt to draw a radical distinction between them somewhat articial. Gnosis, like sophia, is what theosophical writers from time immemorial have been talking about. For all ordinary purposes, therefore, we may identify gnostology and theosophy, the theosophist and the gnostic. Nevertheless, we must at no time forget that besides the broad, general use in which they are synonymous, both terms have also been used to designate special movements. Theosophists would be among the first to perceive such a distinction between, say, the nineteenth-century movement initiated by H.P. Blavatsky and others, on the one hand and, on the other, theosophy as an ageless pursuit. As many philosophers were pantheists centuries before the term "pantheism" was invented by John Toland in 1705, so of course ancient sages in India and Egypt and Greece were theosophists thousands of years before anybody ever used the term. We have seen, and we shall see again, that much the same is the case with gnosticism. […]

- MacGregor: Gnosis, pp. 15-16.

For many years I attended the monthly lectures held by my local C.G. Jung Society. These were held in rooms of The Theosophical Society called "The Blavatsky Lodge". As we entered, we invariably encountered the gloomy stare of Madame Blavatsky herself in a painting based on the photo shown below. She seemed to preside over all of our proceedings.

H.P. Blavatsky in 1889, London (@

Out of curiosity, I did borrow a copy of one of her books from the Theosophical Library but I found it incomprehensible, long-winded, tedious and ultimately vacuous. It's little wonder that MacGregor does not want to identify theosophy too strongly with this lady. However, it is also true that The Theosophical Society was very supportive of the Jung Society in its early days, even offering the rooms free of charge until a viable membership could pay the usual going rates. Their library and their bookshops held many books that would have been hard to locate anywhere else apart from providing a good concentrated storehouse.

I was also impressed by a genuine quiet wisdom that emanated from theosophists and I much appreciated their ability to connect wisdom traditions from around the world, to see, for example, parallels between Christian prayer and Hindu meditation. They had been doing this for almost a century before the New Age set in and started taking over.

They probably remain a great resource for things occult and on the fringe of mainstream religion. I've sometimes even found there an obscure book on psychology, psychotherapy or reflective autobiography, small treasures hard to locate elsewhere. So, whatever else I might think of her, I do think Madame B got a good thing started.

Until I read all this in MacGregor, I had not directly associated theosophy with Jungian psychology, let alone with gnosticism. However, as I read further, things did start to make more sense and trends that seemed separate started to appear more closely related. So yes, I would agree with MacGregor that gnosis and sophia point to interchangeable sets of ideas and experiences.


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