OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series(1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY PROPOSED
WE may now take up the story of the formation of the Theosophical Society and show what led up to it, who were the people who formed it, and how its aims and objects were defined. For this, let it be remembered, is a complete history of the Society’s beginnings, not a mere record of personal recollections of H. P. B.
The way had been prepared for the organisation of such a society by the active discussion, first, of Spiritualism and afterwards of some portions of Eastern spiritualistic ideas. This had been going on since my N. Y. Sun report on the Eddys appeared, in August of the previous year (1874), and had been tenfold intensified since H. P. B. and I met at Chittenden, and used the press for the exposition of our heterodox views. Her piquant published letters, the stories that were afloat about her magical powers, and our several affirmations of the existence of non-human races of spiritual beings),
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drew into our acquaintanceship numbers of bright, clever people of occult leanings. Among these were scientific men, philologists, authors, antiquarians, broadminded clergymen, lawyers, and doctors, some very well known Spiritualists, and one or two gentlemen journalists attached to metropolitan papers, only too eager to make good “copy” out of the business. It was an audacious thing, certainly, to stand, defiant of public prejudice, and assert the scientific legitimacy of ancient Magic in this age of scientific scepticism. Its very boldness compelled public attention, and the inevitable result was that, in time, those whom the discussion had drawn together in sympathy should group themselves together as a society for occult research. The attempt of May, 1875, to form such a nucleus in a “Miracle Club” having failed, for the reason stated in Chapter I, the next opportunity presented itself when Mr. Felt lectured privately to a few friends of ours, in H. P. B.’s rooms at 46 Irving Place, New York, on the 7th of September of the same year. This time there was no failure: the tiny seed of what was to be a world-covering banyan tree was planted in fertile soil and germinated. I regret to say that, to my knowledge, no official memorandum exists of the persons actually present on that particular evening, though one of them, the Reverend J. H. Wiggin, an Unitarian clergyman, published in The Liberal Christian of Sept. 4th, a notice of a similar gathering during the previous week, at which the fact of Mr. Felt’s promised lecture was, I think, announced for the evening of the
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7th. He names H. P. B., myself, Signor Bruzzesi, a New Jersey judge and his wife, and Mr. Charles Sotheran (who had procured for him from H. P. B. an invitation to be present). He expresses his wonder at the range and depth of the conversation, remarking:
“It would be discourteous to detail the minutiae of a friendly conversation where there was no desire for publicity nor any magic display, or offer notions about it. The phallic element in religions; recent wonders among the mediums; history; the souls of flowers; Italian character; the strangeness of travel; chemistry; poetry; Nature’s trinity; Romanism; gravitation; the Carbonari; jugglery; Crookes’s new discoveries about the force of light; the literature of Magic—were among the topics of animated discussion lasting until after midnight. If Madame Blavatsky can indeed bring order out of the chaos of modern spiritism she will do the world a service.”
On the evening of September 7th, Mr. Felt gave his lecture on “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians.” He was a remarkably clever draughtsman, and had prepared a number of exquisite drawings to illustrate his theory that the canon of architectural proportion, employed by the Egyptians, as well as by the great architects of Greece, was actually preserved in the temple hieroglyphics of the Land of Khemi. His contention was that, by following certain definite clues one could inscribe what he called the “Star of Perfection” upon a certain temple wall, within which the whole
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secret of the geometrical problem of proportion would be read; and that the hieroglyphs outside the inscribed figure were but mere blinds to deceive the profane curiosity-seeker; for, read consecutively with those within the geometrical figure, they either made undecipherable nonsense or ran into some quite trivial narrative.
This diagram consists of a circle with a square within and without, containing a common triangle, two Egypttian triangles and a pentagon. He applies it to the pictures, statues, doors, hieroglyphs, pyramids, planes, tombs and buildings of Ancient Egypt, and shows that they agree so perfectly with its proportions that they must have been made by its rule. He applies the same canon of proportion to the masterpieces of Greek art and finds that they were, or might have been, carved without models by this rule. It is, in fact, the true canon of Nature’s architecture. The late Dr. Seth Pancoast, M.D., of Philadelphia, a most erudite Kabbalist, being present, categorically questioned Mr. Felt as to whether he could practically prove his perfect knowledge of the occult powers possessed by the true ancient magician; among others, the evocation of spirits from the spatial deep. Mr. Felt replied as categorically that he had done and could do that with his chemical circle. “He could call into sight hundreds of shadowy forms resembling the human, but he had seen no signs of intelligence in these apparitions.” I take these details from a contemporary cutting that I find in its proper place in our Scrap-book I, but to which the name of the
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paper is not attached. It looks as if it had been cut from Mr. Wiggin’s paper, The Liberal Christian.
Felt’s theory and drawings were so captivating that J. W. Bouton, the publisher of symbological books, had contracted with him to bring out his work in 1000 pages folio, with numberless illustrations, and had advanced a large sum for copper plates, graving tools, presses, etc., etc. But having to deal with a genius burdened with a large family and exasperatingly unpunctual, the thing dragged along until he lost all patience, and the final result was, I believe, a rupture between them and the grand work was never published.
Mr. Felt told us in his lecture that, while making his Egyptological studies, he had discovered that the old Egyptian priests were adepts in magical science, had the power to evoke and employ the spirits of the elements, and had left the formularies on record; he had deciphered and put them to the test, and had succeeded in evoking the elementals. He was willing to aid some persons of the right sort to test the system for themselves, and would exhibit the nature-spirits to us all in the course of a series of lectures, for which we were to pay him. Of course we passed an informal vote of hearty thanks for his highly interesting lecture, and an animated discussion followed. In the course of this, the idea occurred to me that it would be a good thing to form a society to pursue and promote such occult research, and, after turning it over in my mind, I wrote on a scrap of paper the following:
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“Would it not be a good thing to form a Society for this kind of study?” –and gave it to Mr. Judge, at the moment standing between me and H. P. B., sitting opposite, to pass over to her. She read it and nodded assent. Thereupon I rose and, with some prefatory remarks, broached the subject. It pleased the company and when Mr. Felt, replying to a question to that effect, said he would be willing to teach us how to evoke and control the elementals, it was unanimously agreed that the society should be formed. Upon motion of Mr. Judge, I was elected Chairman, and upon my motion Mr. Judge was elected Secretary of the meeting. The hour being late, an adjournment was had to the following evening, when formal action should be taken. Those present were requested to bring sympathisers who would like to join the proposed society.
As above stated, no official record by the Secretary of the attendance at this first meeting survives, but Mrs. Britten quotes, in her Nineteenth Century Miracles, (p. 296), a report which was published in a New York daily and copied into the Spiritual Scientist, and from her book I take the following extracts:
“One movement of great importance has just been inaugurated in New York, under the lead of Colonel Henry S. Olcott, in the organization of a society, to be known as the Theosophical Society. The suggestion was entirely unpremeditated, and was made on the evening of the 7th inst. in the parlors of Madame Blavatsky,
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where a company of seventeen ladies and gentlemen had assembled to meet Mr. George Henry Felt, whose discovery of the geometrical figures of the Egyptian Cabbala may be regarded as among the most surprising feats of the human intellect. The company included several persons of great learning and some of wide personal influence. The Managing Editors of two religious papers; the co-editors of two literary magazines; an Oxford LL.D.; a venerable Jewish scholar and traveller of repute; an editorial writer of one of the New York morning dailies; the President of the New York Society of Spiritualists; Mr. C. C. Massey, an English visitor [barrister-at-law]; Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten and Dr. Britten; two New York lawyers besides Colonel Olcott; a partner in a Philadelphia publishing house; a well-known physician; and, most notable of all, Madame Blavatsky herself, comprised Mr. Felt’s audience. . . . During a convenient pause in the conversation, Colonel Olcott rose, and after briefly sketching the present condition of the spritualistic movement; the attitude of its antagonists, the Materialists; the irrepressible conflict between science and the religious sectaries; the philosophical character of the ancient theosophies and their sufficiency to reconcile all existing antagonism; and the apparently sublime achievement of Mr. Felt, in extracting the key to the architecture of Nature from the scanty fragments of ancient lore left us by the devastating hands of the Moslem and Christian fanatics of the early centuries, he proposed to form a nucleus around
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which might gather all the enlightened and brave souls who are willing to work together for the collection and diffusion of knowledge. His plan was to organise a society of Occultists and begin at once to collect a library; and to diffuse information concerning those secret laws of Nature which were so familiar to the Chaldeans and Egyptians, but are totally unknown by our modern world of science.”
This being from an outside source and published within a few days of the meeting, is even more welcome than if official, as it shows conclusively what I had in mind when proposing the formation of our Society. It was to be a body for the collection and diffusion of knowledge; for occult research, and the study and dissemination of ancient philosophical and theosophical ideas: one of the first steps was to collect a library. The idea of Universal Brotherhood was not there, because the proposal for the Society sprang spontaneously out of the present topic of discussion. It was a plain, business-like affair, unaccompanied by phenomena or any unusual incident. Lastly, it was free of the least sectarian character and unquestionably anti-materialistic. The little group of founders were all of European blood, with no strong natural antagonism as to religions, and caste distinctions were to them non-existent. The Brotherhood plank in the Society’s future platform was, therefore, not thought of: later on, however, when our sphere of influence extended so as to bring us into relations with Asiatics and their religions and
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social systems, it became a necessity, and, in fact, the ,corner-stone of our edifice. The Theosophical Society was an evolution, not—on the visible plane,--a planned creation.
I have an official report of the meeting of September 8th, signed by myself, as Chairman, and W. Q. Judge, as Secretary, which I will quote from our Minute Book:
“In consequence of a proposal of Col. Henry S. Olcott, that a Society be formed for the study and elucidation of Occultism, the Cabbala, etc., the ladies and gentlemen then and there present, resolved themselves into a meeting, and, upon motion of Mr. William Q. Judge, it was
“Resolved, That Col. H. S. Olcott take the chair. Upon motion it was also
“Resolved, That Mr. W.Q.Judge act as Secretary. The chair then called for the names of the persons present, who would agree to found and belong to a Society such as had been mentioned. The following persons handed their names to the Secretary:
“Col. Olcott, Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, Chas. Sotheran, Dr. Chas. E. Simmons, H. D. Monachesi, C. C. Massey of London, W. L. Alden, G. H. Felt, D. E. de Lara, Dr. W. Britten, Mrs. E. H. Britten, Henry J. Newton, John Storer Cobb, J. Hyslop, W. Q. Judge, H. M. Stevens (all present save one).
“Upon motion of Herbert D. Monachesi, it was
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“Resolved, That a committee of three be appointed by the chair to draft a constitution and by-laws, and to report the same at the next meeting. Upon motion, it was
“Resolved, That the chair be added to the Committee.
“The chair then appointed Messrs. H. J. Newton, H. M. Stevens, and C. Sotheran to be such Committee.
“Upon motion, it was
“Resolved, That we now adjourn until Monday, September 13th, at the same place, at 8 P.M.”
The Society, then, had sixteen formers—to use the most apposite term--not founders; for the stable founding was a result of hard work and self-sacrifice, of years, and during a part of that time H.P.B. and I worked quite alone in the trenches, laying the strong foundation. Our colleagues either went out entirely, or became list-less, or were prevented by force of circumstances from devoting their time and efforts to the work. But I must not anticipate.
When this portion of my narrative appeared in the Theosophist (November, 1892), sketches were given of several of the officers of the Society, to which the interested reader is referred; the superabundance of material for the present volume compelling me to condense so far as practicable. I shall, however, preserve my note on Mr. Alden for the sake of the story of one of his occult experiences.
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Mr. W. L. Alden, now so well known in London literary circles, was then an editorial writer on the N. Y. Times, of great repute for his caustic and humoristic criticisms upon current topics. I met him in Paris recently, after many years of separation, and learnt that he had been holding an important consular appointment under the American Government. He had an amusing adventure in New York, I recollect, at about the beginning of our acquaintance. He was then an editorial contributor to the N. Y. Daily Graphic, and I was writing for the paper my Chittenden letters. A host of eccentric people were attracted to the editorial rooms to ask idle questions, and they bored the editor, Mr. Croly, so much that at last he published a cartoon, representing himself standing at bay, with a revolver and huge pair of shears, to defend himself against an irruption of, “long-haired men and crop-haired women” Spiritualists. But one morning there came an aged man in Eastern garb, who carried a strange-looking, evidently very old book under his arm. Saluting the editorial staff with grave courtesy, he began talking about my letters, and about Western and Eastern Spiritualism. All left their writing-tables and clustered about him. When he spoke of Magic he turned quietly towards Alden, whose occult tastes nobody had until then suspected, and said: “Do you believe there is truth in Magic, Sir?” Taken aback, Alden replied: “Well, I have read Zanoni and think there may be something in it.” By request, the stranger showed his queer book to the
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editors. It proved to be a treatise upon Magic, written in Arabic or some other Eastern tongue, with numerous illustrations interspersed with the text. All were very much interested, Alden especially, who, at parting, asked the old gentleman if he might have some further talk with him. The latter smilingly assented, and gave him an address at which to call. When Alden went there, however, it proved to be a Roman Catholic image and book-shop; my friend found himself tricked and ever after, for months, fruitlessly kept a sharp eye upon the people he met, in the hope that he might once more set the mysterious Asiatic. I was told by Mr. Croly that the man never revisited the Graphic office; it was as if the earth had swallowed him. This unexpected appearance and sudden disappearance of mysterious people who bring rare books to the right man, or who impart useful hints that put him on the right path through the swamp of difficulties through which he is bravely floundering towards the truth, is not an uncommon experience. Many a case of the kind has been recorded in religious history. Sometimes the visit is made during the waking hours, sometimes in visions of the night. The revelations sometimes come in “flashes”—flashes of the buddhi in upon the manas—begetting great discoveries in science; as the idea of the spectroscope flashed in upon the mind of Fraunhöfer, that of the nature of lightning upon Franklin’s, that of the telephone upon that of Edison, and that of ten thousand other great facts or laws upon other minds open to
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suggestion. It would be deemed exaggeration to say that every aspirant to arcane knowledge has his chance to get it, once in his lifetime, yet it is true, I believe, that the percentage of those who have is a hundredfold greater than people imagine. It is the individual’s misfortune if, through ignorant misconceptions as to how such a messenger should look, or with what phenomenal portents his message should be delivered, he “entertains an angel unawares” or elbows him in the street without feeling even a tremor to divert his attention from a passing cab. I speak of that which I know.