The Theosophical Society’s Seal

Theosophy and the Theosophical Society

Theosophy, literally ‘God-wisdom’, is a relatively recent term in English, going back to the mid-seventeenth century, and used by Cambridge Platonists such as More and Cudworth for a form of divine, inspired philosophy influenced by Cabbalism. It later came to be applied specifically to the system of thought founded on the visions of Jacob Boehme (also Böhme, Behmen). The term was then adopted in the nineteenth century for the Theosophical Society, by William Quan Judge and Helena Petrovna Blavatskaya (Madame Blavatsky).

Yeats was well acquainted with Boehme's work, which he used in the preparation of the Works of William Blake with Edwin Ellis, but his main source initially appears to have been Franz Hartmann's The Life and Doctrines of Jacob Boehme, the God-Taught Philosopher. Hartmann, a member of the Theosophical Society, tended to reinterpret Boehme and other earlier writers in the light of nineteenth-century thought, so in many ways Yeats’s introduction to the older form of Theosophy was as a forerunner of the contemporary interpretation. Although Yeats’s A Vision is definitely not theosophical, and in fact avoids the subject of God, his knowledge of Theosophy and the teachings of the Theosophical Society pervade much of his later thinking.

Yeats’s association with the Theosophical Society was brief in comparison with his involvement with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its offspring, but it remains important because it was the first esoteric system which Yeats encountered, and because of the way in which its teachings served as a structure which enabled him to place most of his subsequent interests within a general context, even once the content of its teachings had been modified or rejected. Its impact on Yeats’s mind is impossible to tell, but it certainly left a strong mark (viz. YM&M 69-71), so that Graham Hough is of the opinion that ‘again and again we find that obscure, puzzling and apparently original elements in Yeats’s esoteric doctrine, even towards the end of his life, turn out to have their roots in the Theosophical teaching he first encountered in his early twenties’ (MRWBY 35). Similarly, although Blavatsky’s works are sprawling compendia, written in a hectoring style that is extremely tiresome, their compendiousness means that she took all within her grasp and related it to a general, unitary vision; as Hough comments: ‘contrary to the general literary belief, if Yeats was introduced to the occultist creed via the Theosophical Society it was probably the best introduction he could have found, and one which gave him copious references to the more ancient part of the tradition’ (MRWBY 36). This ancient tradition included Neo-Platonism, the Cabbala and Vedic thought, as well as the Tibetan philosophy which formed the core and superstructure of Blavatsky’s later works.

As well as being an introduction to the ‘perennial philosophy’, Theosophy addressed the immediate concerns of its period. One of the most pressing of these was the challenge of scientific thinking to religious revelation, so that Yeats himself felt that, though naturally religious, he had been deprived of the ‘simple-minded religion’ of his childhood by Huxley and Tyndall (Au 116; 1921). The impossibility of evading the influence of both scientific method and many of its more compelling conclusions about nature was exacerbated by the inadequacy of the Christian churches’ response to the questions raised by science in the nineteenth century; at the same time the sterility of the materialism that appeared to accompany much of scientific thought was not an acceptable alternative for those of a spiritual outlook. Like many of his contemporaries, Yeats therefore sought some reconciliation for the divorce of science from religion in the claims of the “modern schools of mystical belief”, which included spiritualism and Theosophy. If a work such as Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus challenged revealed religion, books such as A. P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism and Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled directly addressed some of the perplexities of the age and mocked the responses of the established forms of spirituality, while Mohini Chatterjee’s conversation pointed to ‘a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless’ (Au 91-92). The logical coherence, meeting science on its own territory, was as important to Yeats as the boundlessness, which dismissed the impoverished world-view of materialism. The logic also appears to be partly taxonomic on Yeats’s part, like the naming of butterflies in boyhood (Au 60; 1914) or later the classification of Irish fairies, a scientific desire to place individual elements within a wider context relative to each other, while the boundlessness is partly religious, a sense that an adequate structure of thought must be capable of addressing all aspects of life. Blavatsky and Sinnett’s form of Theosophy also embraced evolution as a concept and a geological time-span, though applying them to a plurality of worlds and lives in a decidedly bold and unscientific manner.

His aunt, Isabella Pollexfen Varley, gave him a copy of Esoteric Buddhism late in 1884 and, although it did not have quite so radical an effect on Yeats as on Charles Johnston, who abandoned the idea of a career in the church for Theosophy, its impact on Yeats was significant (see Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life 1, 45). Not least was the introduction to Madame Blavatsky’s works, since, while Esoteric Buddhism is a largely clear and relatively simple exposition of Theosophy, Blavatsky’s writing, particularly Isis Unveiled, is far denser, more confused and a rich tapestry of allusion and reference, making copious use of myth and legend alongside science and pseudo-science.

In the notes for his opening address to the Hermetic Society, on 16 June 1885 (see YM&M 42-43), Yeats holds ‘European science’, and its vaunted claims to answer the problems of existence, up to sceptical view, along with theology and spiritualism, putting against them ‘the maze of eastern thought’. The drift of his argument is very much a summary of the first few chapters of Isis Unveiled, which approaches in a somewhat diffuse manner exactly the same targets of science, theology and spiritualism. Indeed, the introduction to that work appears to have provided Yeats with an image for one of his first published poems:

Between these two conflicting Titans — Science and Theology — is a bewildered public losing all belief in man’s personal immortality, in deity of any kind, and rapidly descending to the level of a mere animal existence. Such is the picture of the hour, illumined by the bright noon-day sun of this Christian and scientific era!
Isis Unveiled 1, x

Published in The Dublin University Review in March 1886, ‘The Two Titans’ (VP 687-688) is, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, ‘a strained and unworkable allegory’ (letter to Coventry Patmore, 7 November 1886, cited Ellmann, YM&M 49-50) and uncertain in its application, though the subtitle ‘A Political Poem’ would seem to imply a nationalist subtext (which Ellmann gives YM&M 49-50).

The vision of a rock where lightnings whirl’d
Bruising the darkness with their crackling light;
The waves enormous wanderers of the world,
Beat on it with their hammers day and night.
Two figures crouching on the black rock, bound
To one another with a coiling chain;
A grey-haired youth, whose cheeks had never found,
Or long ere this had lost their ruddy stain;
A sibyl, with fierce face as of a hound
That dreams. She moveth, feeling in her brain
The lightnings pulse—behold her, aye behold—
Ignoble joy, and more ignoble pain
Cramm’d all her youth; and hates have bought and sold
Her spirit. . . .
Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Plate 1
from ‘The Two Titans’ (VP 687)from Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
(1791-92), final plate or frontispiece.

However, it can also be read as a response to this image of Blavatsky’s where the politics are those of a more spiritual kind, and the old woman, for whom ‘Ignoble joy, and more ignoble pain / Cramm’d all her youth; and hates have bought and sold / Her spirit’ represents Theology corrupted by centuries of church power, while the ‘grey-haired youth, whose cheeks had never found, / Or long ere this had lost their ruddy stain’ is Science, young in years but lacking life-affirming qualities. The allegory is deliberately vague and lacks internal logic, being somewhat derivative, with vague echoes of Blake’s images of chains, rocks and storm, as well as the violent bonds of ‘The Mental Traveller’, combining, sexual, spiritual and national politics. It also recalls the fallen Titans of Keats’s ‘Hyperion’ poems and Shelley’s tortured Titan in Prometheus Unbound. However, the necessity of the conflict and the assertion that the youth has been created for this punishment, and so is locked for ever into its desperation, would argue against identification with Britain and Ireland or indeed any simple political equivalents. In contrast, from a rather simplistic Theosophic stance, Science could certainly be seen as the critique of Theology, the necessary reaction to its dogma, victim of its intolerance, but essentially equally sterile, and, at the end of her introduction, Blavatsky characterises scientific materialism as ‘the bastard progeny of the French Revolution and its reaction against ages of religious bigotry and repression’ (Isis Unveiled 1, xlv). Her writings also offered to the ‘bewildered public’ the promise of some escape from the enfolding ‘darkness of the whirlwind shattered deep’ (VP 688) of the poem’s setting, and a resolution of the Titans’ conflict through a fusion that would be consistent with the principles underlying both sides, as indicated in the subtitles of her two major works: Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology and The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy.

Certain elements of Theosophical thinking remained central to Yeats’s thought for the rest of his life, albeit tested and reformulated, in particular those of planes of existence and the principles inherent in the human being. Possibly the most important element, however, is an omission. In Yeats’s temperament an unshakeable certainty about the supernatural dimension of existence appears to have been matched with a fundamental lack of interest in the divine, as he partly acknowledges when he makes the figure of Owen Aherne comment that Mr Yeats ‘has thought more of the love of woman than of the love of God’ (AV A xxi; 1925). In this general ignoring of God, Yeats had the support of Theosophical thought.

Esoteric Buddhism is purely Theosophical and has no real connection with the historical religion founded by Lord Gautama Siddhartha, beyond the fact that the term Budha or Vidya is wisdom, divine knowledge, while Buddha means the personal acquisition of that knowledge, and therefore he who embodies that wisdom; Madame Blavatsky commented that it ‘was an excellent work with a very unfortunate title’ (The Secret Doctrine 1, xvii-xviii). However, like the traditional Buddhism, Theosophy is largely unconcerned with Deity, positing an impersonal Absolute:

Our DEITY. . . is everywhere, in every atom of the visible as of the invisible Cosmos, in, over, and around every invisible atom and divisible molecule; for IT is the mysterious power of evolution and involution, the omnipresent, omnipotent, and even omniscient creative potentiality’ which does not think, ‘for the simple reason that it is Absolute Thought itself. Nor does it exist, for the same reason, as it is absolute existence, and Be-ness, not a Being. . . . It is a sphere, without circumference, in its symbolism, which has but one ever-acting attribute embracing all other existing or thinkable attributes — ITSELF’
(The Key to Theosophy 64-65)

Conversely, man is not only a God, but God, since ‘the inner man is the only God we can have cognizance of. . . . Grant us our postulate that God is a universally diffused, infinite principle, and how can man alone escape being soaked through by, and in, the Deity?’ so that prayer, such as it is Theosophically, is the manifestation of ‘Will-Power’ and should be addressed to the upper triad within, the ‘Higher Spiritual Ego [Human Soul/Manas] immersed in Atma-Buddhic light’ while ‘crushing out the desires of the lower personal ego or physical man’, the Vehicle of Will or Animal Soul (The Key to Theosophy 67-68).

In 1909, Yeats records an acquaintance (identified as ‘little Evans’ in the Journal, Memoirs 163) commenting on ‘the Dublin theosophists’ that ‘They pick up names and thoughts all over the world and these never become being in their minds, never become their own, because they have no worship . . . . They are all self, all presumption. They do not know what it is to abase themselves before Christ, or their own Gods, or anything’ (Au 479). Such lack of worship and emphasis on the inner man seems to have been congenial to Yeats; though generalisation over a long period of time is bound to ignore fluctuations and adaptations of attitude, it seems that, while the basic irrelevance of the Deity in Theosophy suited Yeats, even the emphasis on the higher man as the prime focus of the occultist’s efforts may have raised some doubts, as being less than appropriate for a poet. Certainly, years after leaving the Theosophists, he wrote to Florence Farr that he was beginning to practise her type of ‘eastern meditations . . . with the object of trying to lay hands upon some dynamic and substantialising force as distinguished from the eastern quiescent and supersensualizing state of the soul—a movement downwards upon life, not upwards out of life’ (L 469; 1906).

The Seven Principles of Man

A central element of the teaching which persists into Yeats’s A Vision is the anatomy of man into principles, levels or states of being. The sevenfold system of principles, as described by A. P. Sinnett in Esoteric Buddhism (1883) and Madame Blavatsky in her later works, most notably The Secret Doctrine (1888) and The Key to Theosophy (1889), became almost the dogma of the Society, to the dismay of those who held to the pluralist tenets of the Society’s charter. Yeats would no doubt have been aware of these dissenting voices, of which two are particularly significant, the esoteric Christianity of Anna Kingsford and the Indian Vedanta of T. Subba Row. They represent important alternatives to Blavatsky's ‘Tibetan’ system, but they do not dispute the basic concept of the principles, so much as their number and operation. Even within Blavatskian orthodoxy precise allocation and divisions of the principles vary slightly according to different writers, and the seven are frequently conjoined or subdivided to suit particular purposes, so that the number often appears little more than a symbolic convenience.

Yeats was deeply involved in the enquiry into these principles in the Society’s Esoteric Section, where the programme required him ‘to study tables of oriental symbolism. Every organ of the body had its correspondence in the heavens, and the seven principles which made the human soul and body corresponded to the seven colours and the planets and the notes of the musical scale’ (Mem 23) [note]. He seems to have chafed at the ‘perpetual discussion’ and the somewhat arbitrary assertion of the occult dogma as truth, and his controversial experiments included one which used pure indigo to find the visions associated with the level of Manas, the mental plane or principle of the Human Soul. Though his scientific approach and attitudes may have upset the Society, he sought to understand the planes and principles with serious intent.

The basic rationale of the seven principles is as degrees of potential spiritual awareness, ranging from the highest level, impersonal participation in divinity through the numinous essential Self, Atman, to the lowest level of the Physical Body, largely divorced from spirituality and mired in the limiting senses. Inextricable from this hierarchy is the theme of spiritual evolution, first downwards towards materiality, as the spirit gradually acquires the grosser ‘bodies’ in order to handle Nature, and then the evolution back towards enlightenment, retaining the lower faculties but moving the consciousness progressively higher towards the spiritual principles. These principles are called the ‘sheaths of the soul’ by William Quan Judge to explain the concept:

These sheaths are necessary if the Soul is to know or to act. For it cannot by itself understand Nature at all, but transforms instantly all sensations and ideas by means of the different sheaths, until in the process it has directed the body below, or obtained itself experience above. By this I mean that whatever Soul initiates, it has to pass along through the several sheaths, each reporting, as it were, to the one next below it; and in like manner they report from below upward in the case of sensations from natural phenomena and impressions on the outside.       
‘The Sheaths of the Soul’, Lucifer, Vol. 10 (June 1892), 324.

Though the hierarchical nature of this chain of command is less evident in Yeats’s model, the concept is fundamentally similar. The Celestial Body becomes active in the Spirit, then uses the sensual sheaths of first the Passionate Body and then the grosser Husk to achieve understanding of Nature, directly through the Faculties.

The labelling and division of the Theosophists’ seven principles are far from clear and decided, but the variations do not cause major difficulties here. The most important sources for Yeats are likely to have been A. P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism and H. P. Blavatsky’s teachings, particularly in her Esoteric Section, and one of Yeats’s colleagues there, Annie Besant, wrote probably the most straight-forward exposition of the topic, The Seven Principles of Man, which in the main is followed here.

  • The lowest of the principles is the Physical Body (Sthula Rupa), which is probably the only incontrovertible element of the system but is sometimes excluded as irrelevant to spiritual aspirants.

The next two principles vary in order, but are intimately linked:

  • the Life principle (Prana or Jiva) and
  • its Vehicle, the Etheric Double (Linga Sharira) which corresponds very closely to the Physical Body, since Life is tied to the Physical. The Etheric Double is supposedly manifest at a subtle level of matter, though the degree of subtlety varies according to the authority.
  • The fourth principle is of central importance and position, the Kama, the ‘passional and emotional part of our nature’ (SPM 1), ‘often translated 'Body of Desire,' . . . . A closer translation . . . would, perhaps, be 'Vehicle of Will' but the name . . . Animal Soul, may be more accurately suggestive still’ (Esoteric Budhism, 28-29).
  • The fifth principle is Manas, a Sanskrit word cognate with the Latin ‘mens’ or English ‘mind’ and with equally broad application, while the associated word, Manu, means ‘thinking, wise, intelligent’ and by extension ‘man, mankind’. Besant states that the principle is best translated as ‘Thinker’ since it is regarded as the distinguishing Human Soul, the individuating principle or will (SPM 29).
  • The sixth principle of Buddhi, ‘intelligence’ or ‘intellect’, is interpreted as the Spiritual Soul, and is regarded as usually unrealised in current man; it acts as the vehicle for
  • the seventh principle, Atman, which is the spark of impersonal divinity that is the fundamental selfhood of all beings, and also unrealised in all but a handful of people.

These seven principles are subject to a number of permutations and adaptations. A fundamental division is the two groups, the lower Quaternary and higher or spiritual Triad, since the members of the Quaternary are mortal and form human personality, those of the Triad are immortal and form the reincarnating self. Another important grouping is the pairings of vehicle principles with agent principles, usually discounting the Physical Body, so that the Etheric Body-Linga Sharira is the vehicle of Life-Prana, the Desire Body-Kama the vehicle of Mind-Manas, and the Spiritual Soul-Buddhi the vehicle of Atman. The Physical nexus is not neglected but somewhat disdained, while the Spirit nexus is for the most part beyond ordinary man and words, however the Psychic nexus of Kama and Manas is central to the Theosophical inquiry. In order to comprehend the Quaternary/Triad division and the Vehicle/Agent division within the same schema, immortal Manas is often divided into two further aspects, that which inclines towards perishable Kama and the natural man, and that which inclines upwards towards immortal Buddhi and the spiritual self: self-consciousness is usually located within the nexus, and the preponderant emphasis indicates the life-bias towards the sensual or the spiritual. In this conception Manas sends out a ray or a root into Kama which becomes Lower Manas forming the bridge between the two parts of man; this should feed back into Higher Manas, and provide the necessary mediated experience for the spiritual Triad. This arrangement forces other adaptations in order to retain the heptadic principles, either a merging of two principles or the discounting of either of the extremities, but effectively it creates an eightfold scheme of a Physical Triad, a central Psychic Dyad and a Spiritual Triad.

One other practical grouping involves the four Planes of cosmic reality upon which the Principles themselves operate, the Physical, the Astral, the Mental and the Spiritual, with another three beyond comprehension to complete the septenary. This has effective similarities with the other groupings, since the lowest three principles are consigned to the Physical Plane, the Kamic principle operates on the Astral Plane, the Manasic principle on the Mental (or Devachanic) Plane and the two highest principles on the Spiritual Plane.

heptadic dualtetradic variant heptadtriadic
Sanskritmeaning plane plane
Sthula RupaPhysical BodyLower QuaternaryPhysicalBodyPhysical
Linga ShariraEtheric Double [Astral Body]Prana/Etheric
PranaVital Energy/Life Force
Kama RupaDesire Body/Animal SoulAstralKama RupaPsychic
ManasMind/Human SoulSpiritual TriadMentalLower Manas
Higher ManasSpiritual
BuddhiWisdom/Spiritual SoulSpiritualBuddhi
AtmanSelf/Divine SpiritAtman

adapted from The Seven Principles of Man, esp. 82-83.

Such a summary description cannot begin to indicate the subtleties of a system which Yeats studied in detail, however it should indicate enough to show that the idea of levels of being and the Principles which emerged from the Automatic Script would not have come to Yeats unprepared. The seven principles and their malleable groupings also show a very ready analogy with Yeats’s Four Principles and, more importantly, help to illuminate certain aspects of the Yeatsian schema.

As noted above, in Theosophical terms the Lower Quaternary on the Physical and Astral Planes is a temporary attribute of being, its various elements being shed by stages at or after death, while the Spiritual Triad is the reincarnating kernel of being which survives all. A crucial bridge is formed by the higher aspects of Kama with the lower aspects of Manas, which enables the Spiritual Triad to engage with the experience of incarnate life and for that experience to be carried forward in a refined form, compared to the accountant’s summarised figures for the year, rather than the raw details. Similarly in the Yeatses’ System the purpose of the first two stages of the after-life is to transfer the experience of the Passionate Body into the Spirit so that it may be carried forward to the next incarnation, but transferred in a refined and completed form. After physical death ‘the Spirit and Celestial Body appear’ again,while ‘Husk and Passionate Body disappear’ (AV B 223-24; cf. AV B 188), and the Spirit’s task is to wean itself from its association with the Passionate Body to an association with the Celestial Body, though the process is not completed until the Beatitude, and then briefly and imperfectly. During incarnate waking life, even the Husk and Passionate Body operate through the medium of the Faculties rather than directly, the closest point of contact being between the Husk and the Will, the Faculty which determines the progression through the Phases.

The correspondences in the following table set out an abstract of the possible correspondences between the two systems.

Theosophic Principles&PlanesA Vision’sPrinciples
Physical BodyLower Quaternary mortalPhysicalLunar Pair mortalHusk
Etheric Double/Astral Body
Vital Energy/Life Force
Desire Body/Animal SoulEmotional/AstralPassionate Body
Mind/Human SoulSpiritual Triad immortalMentalSolar Pair immortalSpirit
Spirit Body/Spiritual SoulSpiritualCelestial Body
Self/Divine Spirit

Though it would be misleading to read Yeats’s System through that of Theosophy, and would skew the System’s structure, there are certain elements that show instructive parallels that genuinely illuminate Yeats’s concepts.

In the Automatic Script the Husk was termed the Physical Body, but the term was changed to avoid confusing the abbreviated form with that of Passionate Body, and also since it did not include quite enough since, as Yeats summarised, the ‘Husk is sensuous and instinctive, almost the physical body during life, and after death its record’ (AV A 160; emphasis added), this latter role conforming more to the nature of the Theosophists’ Etheric Double. Like the Etheric Double, the Husk appears to act as the informing matrix upon which the Physical Body depends for form ‘the exact double or counterpart of the dense physical body to which it belongs’ (SPM 9) and the bridging medium for the transmission of the sense impressions to higher levels. The Husk also shares aspects of the Theosophists’ Prana, the Life force, particularly when it is reflected from its own form as ‘the involuntary self’ into ‘the voluntary’ self as the Faculty of Will, in which one of the definining features is that it ‘seeks its own continuance’ (AV B 83).

The Passionate Body, as its name indicates ‘is passion’, and is the seat of desire, image and dream, corresponding with the Mask of the Faculties but, since it is also ‘described as that which links one being to another’ (AV A 176), it—unlike the Mask’s potentially ‘isolating passion—is without solitude’ (AV A 160). There is a strong degree of overlap between Yeats’s Passionate Body and the Theosophists’ Kama Rupa, which is most literally translated as ‘Desire Body’, Kama, being among other meanings the name of the Hindu Cupid or Eros (as in Kama Sutra). In Besant’s description of ‘the desire-body’:

All animal needs, such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, come under it; all passions, such as love (in its lower sense), hatred, envy, jealousy. It is the desire for sentient existence, for experience of material joys — ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life.’ The principle is the most material in our nature, it is the one that binds us fast to earthly life.
(SPM 20)

Though not every detail may cohere, Yeats was definitely aware of and influenced by the similarity of his Passionate Body to the Theosophical formulation. Part of the reason why Yeats never gives as clear a description of the character of the Passionate Body, or indeed any of the Principles, may well be that such a formulation was already clear in his own mind from Theosophy. What he does offer are far more developed and abstruse descriptions, though they indicate very similar ideas, for instance describing the Principles in terms of the Daimon’s experience or in terms of light. While the Husk can be viewed as the product of ‘the Daimon’s hunger to make apparent to itself certain Daimons, and the organs of sense are that hunger made visible. The Passionate Body is the sum of those Daimons’ (AV B 189) or the internal manifestation of these external objectives of desire. In ‘another of its aspects’ the Passionate Body is ‘identical with physical light . . . . as it was understood by mediaeval philosophers, by Berkeley in Siris, by Balzac in Louis Lambert, the creator of all that is sensible’ (AV B 190) which could almost be glossed from Besant’s description of the Desire Body: ‘a tree may reflect rays of light, that is, ethereal vibrations’, which will pass through the sense organs and ‘be propagated as vibrations to the physical and on to the astral centres, but there is no sight of the tree until the seat of sensation is reached, and Kama enables us to perceive’ (SPM 22). Besant’s Desire Body also ‘belongs to, in constitution, and functions on, the second or astral plane’ (SPM 20), which is the plane of astral light, the substance of Anima Mundi, and dream forms; Yeats’s Passionate Body is created, according the Automatic Script, from ‘astral’ or ‘universal images’ (YVP 1 390) and is part of the Anima Mundi (YVP 1 386). The Anima Mundi is at one stage defined as ‘The world memory opacity passionate body’ (YVP 1 396) and in A Vision’s formulation the World Memory is called the Record, whose ‘images are in popular mysticism called “the pictures in the astral light”’, which can also be described ‘as the Passionate Body lifted out of time’ (AV B 193). The Theosophists’ astral plane is experienced largely unconsciously in dream through the Desire Body by ‘a man of average intellectual development’, but is available to conscious experience ‘in the highly evolved man’ (SPM 23).

After death, the persistence of the Desire Body is analogous in many ways to that of the Husk or Passionate Body, since ‘the higher part of man dwells for a while in the desire-body’ entirely naturally and it will briefly continue independently beyond this as an emptied shell. In less evolved natures it may linger far longer as ‘an altogether objectionable entity, often spoken of as a ‘spook’’ (SPM 23), potentially haunting séance rooms and vampirising the energy of the living, and a similar phenomenon attends the persistence of the Husk or Passionate Body (see the After Life).

The Manas, in contrast, ‘is the immortal individual, the real ‘I,’ that clothes itself over and over again in transient personalities, and itself endures for ever’ (SPM 29), in which it has strong affinities with Yeats’s Spirit, the permanent, moving and determining Principle of the individual soul, which he refers to as ‘mind’ (AV B 187). Just as the Theosophists view Manas as having a dual allegiance during life, and often divide it into a lower and higher form, the former cleaving to Kama and the latter remaining a distinct part of the Spiritual Triad, so Yeats’s Spirit cleaves in life to the Passionate Body, and weans itself from the association during the first two stages of the after-life, until it then turns towards the Celestial Body. There is a major difference between the two systems, however: Theosophy treats the linkage between Manas and Kama as a necessary evil, since Manas ‘still requires experience, through its personalities, of the things of earth’ (SPM 37), but this Lower Manas is treated almost as a hostage of Kama and there is a struggle for supremacy between the higher and lower aspects, in which the higher is the only possible preference for the student of Theosophy; Yeats treats the immersion of Spirit within Passionate Body as the natural bias of incarnate life which is then relinquished during the after-life for the natural bias of discarnate life, and although, sub specie aeternitatis, the latter prevails, it is right for the living to devote their energies to the phenomenal world. At least for the antithetical person, to be ‘attracted by the vividness of the material life-impressions, swayed by the rush of the kamic emotions [i.e. from Kama], passions and desires, attracted to all material things, blinded and deafened by the storm-voices among which it is plunged’ (SPM 38) is not to be divorced from the spiritual reality but to be engaged in the proper activity of living. The spiritual asceticism of Theosophy is, for Yeats, a primary bias, which seeks to condemn the desire for worldly achievement and to subdue individuality:

So long as any work is wrought for the sake of love, or praise, or even recognition that the work is ‘mine’ and not another’s; so long as in the heart’s remotest chambers one subtlest yearning remains to be recognised as separate from all; so long, however grand the ambition, however far-reaching the charity, however lofty the achievement, Manas is tainted with Kama, and is not pure as its source.
(SPM 39)

Forced by such denial ‘to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work’ (VP 495), dedication to the spiritual objective or to individual achievement, the antithetical person must defiantly choose impurity and the assertion of separate uniqueness.

In Theosophical thought the majority of humanity is neither of the best nor the worst state, with the Kama-Manas nexus partially aspiring upwards and partly tending downwards; for them, death liberates the Kama-Manas, which stays at an astral or dream-like level until ‘all of the manasic ray that is pure and unsoiled gradually disentangles itself’, and after another period of more exalted existence, ‘it returns to its source, carrying with it such of its life-experiences as are of a nature fit for assimilation with the Higher Ego [Higher Manas]’ (SPM 50). Though Theosophy typically envisions a far longer total time-span in the after-life than Yeats does (see the After Life), the process is fundamentally the same and, as importantly, is written about with a similar nebulous precision that mixes detailed accounts of processes with the hedged uncertainties that inevitably attend such a subject.

The Celestial Body is less clearly matched to the higher principles of Theosophical thinking, since Yeats draws most of his language concerning it from Platonic thought concerning the Ideas or Forms. It shares with the spiritual dyad, Atman-Buddhi, a unifying impersonality, since the Divine Ideas are common to all and cannot be differentiated according to the individual. There ‘is but one Atma-Buddhi in our universe, the universal Soul, everywhere present, immanent in all; the One Supreme Energy whereof all varying energies or forces are only differing forms’ (SPM 78-9), and, though Yeats draws his definition from the more generally accepted literary tradition, using Coleridge’s description, it is largely the same: ‘the universal, the eternal, the necessary . . . . God, the soul, eternal truth’ (AV B 187). However, ‘Atma-Buddhi, a universal principle, needs individualising ere experience can be gathered and self-consciousness attained’, so that it needs to be united with Manas in order to create the Spiritual Ego and become truly ‘self-conscious on all planes’ (SPM 73). Yeats entertains the idea that the Spirit is described as ‘the future’, rather than the Celestial Body, which might appear more logical ‘for the ideal forms are only apparent through hope’, because ‘we do not in reality seek these forms’ but ‘we do seek Spirit as complete self-realisation’ (AV B 191). While the hierarchy, whether from Plotinus, Blavatsky or Yeats, places the One of the Divine Ideas at the summit, Yeats is more than willing to put aside the nirvanic goal of impersonal unity as another illusion and to make self-realisation and individuation the true aim.

Though Atman and Buddhi are treated together by Besant as an unrealised element within humanity, they are distinct and even operate on different planes.

 The Seven Planes and the Principles Functioning Thereon 
1Prana. Etheric Double. Dense Physical Body.Physical
2Kama/Desire BodyAstral
3Manas/Human SoulMental
4Buddhi/Spiritual SoulSpiritual

SPM 101 (adapted)

In this construct the Spiritual is not a simple, single plane, but divided between the Spiritual of Buddhi and Atman, while two further planes transcend even the highest level of human spirituality. Buddhi, the spiritual soul, is the vehicle or body of Atman and acts as the bridge between Atman and Manas; it forms the Spiritual Ego together with Manas, Manas being the individualising egoic element and Buddhi the spiritual. Buddhi is the chalice into which the wine of Atman is poured, but Atman is ‘the inseparable ray of the Universal and ONE SELF. It is the God above, more than within us’ (cit. SPM 72; KT 175-76). It is possible that this five-fold division lies at the root of one of the more perplexing concepts in A Vision: while Atman-Buddhi can be treated as a single entity, Atman actually exists on a plane beyond Buddhi, so in one construct Yeats treats the Celestial Body as the highest Principle, but in other places he appears to consider that beyond it is the Ghostly Self. Certainly, in the Automatic Script papers one of the definitions of the Ghostly Self is that it ‘Does not incarnate but has a correspondential relation with Spirit which does. CB is between the two’ (YVP 3 310; cf. YVP 2 174). When Yeats explains that the first element of Ghostly Self derives from the Instructors’ ‘commemoration of the Third Person of the Trinity’ (AV B 22), he appears to imply that the second element of ‘Self’ is self-explanatory, but it is probably linked to Indian thought and Theosophy. Blavatsky stipulates that ‘Self’ should properly only ever be used of Atman (KT 174-75), and Yeats, while generally eschewing Sanskrit terms, when he is writing about Vedantic literature is careful to use the capitalised word ‘Self’ to refer only to Atman.

Though he never clearly defines the Ghostly Self in either version of A Vision, neither does he feel able to exclude it entirely, so that it occurs sporadically and tantalisingly in both versions (viz. AV A 221; 235; 236; 236-7; 242-44; 249 and AV B 22; 193; 193-94; 210-11; 239-240). It is usually linked with the Daimon and it is the relationship between the two that appears to create most of Yeats’s problems with the concept, since at times he seems disposed to consider them as largely identical, while at others they appear to be distinct if akin. The characteristic that appears to be central to the concept of the Ghostly Self is that it ‘is the source that which is unique in every man’, the irreducible essence which never itself enters the antinomies, and represents the permanent, true self with which the Spirit after repeated incarnations will be reunited in some final state, in short Atman (AV A 221). Since Yeats has little real concern with first or last things on the cosmic scale, this may account for some of his lack of clarity on and curiosity about this subject, but it would probably also have been clear to him from the Theosophical analogue of Atman that writing about the ineffable tends to produce nebulous platitude and generalisation.

These higher levels also receive attention in the System’s preparatory material. Given Yeats’s natural tendency towards syncretism, it is hardly surprising that there should be traces of Theosophical thinking in the Automatic Script, and one of the more obvious instances where Yeats sought to find parallels between the emerging System and Theosophy, involves attempts to discover correspondences between his Principles and the Theosophists’ seven planes, as well as the four classical elements. His Principles are placed on the first four levels, and beyond these are those of the Guides, the Angels and the Invisible:

  YVP 1 535nYVP 1 318YVP 3 351  AV B 192
 [element] (cf. YVP 3 370) quarterlater names
   ‘Planes’‘in a sense’   
1Earth glyph(Earth)PhysicalPhysicalPhysical Body =Libra glyphEarth glyph 1stHusk
2Water glyph(Water)PassionatePassionatePassionate Body =Water glyphCapricorn glyph 2ndPassionate Body
3Air glyph (Air)Spirits of DeadSpirits of DeadSpirit Body =Aries glyphAir glyph 3rdSpirit
4Fire glyph (Fire)Celestial BodyCelestial BodySpiritual Body =Cancer glyphFire glyph 4thCelestial Body
5  Guides etc.    
6  Angels    
7  Invisible    

The levels of Guides, Angels and the Invisible do not appear in A Vision, but may lie behind the concept of the stages beyond incarnation, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Cycles, used only in the first version (AV A 176 and 236). This triad of Cycles was later subsumed within the unique Thirteenth Cycle or Cone (see the Thirteenth Cone), but indicate that, probably through force of Theosophical habit, Yeats naturally sought to find a septenary form of classification, at least on occasions.

Beyond the use of the term Principles Yeats does not draw attention to Theosophical parallels, and one reason for the relative lack of explanation of the Principles in AV A may be that the concept of human principles was such a long-standing part of his own thinking that Yeats did not realise how much it needed explanation, and he recognised that it can be ‘hard for a writer . . . to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical . . . may be unintelligible to others’ (VP 853). Another reason may be that since the material ‘is intended, to use a phrase of Jacob Boehme’s, for my “schoolmates only”’ (E&I, xi) and his ‘old fellow students’ (AV A xii), he felt that it did not need so much underlining. He also preferred to draw his analogues from literary sources and ancient writers, and these undoubtedly carry more intellectual respectability, while also linking the apparently new construct to an age-old tradition, as Blavatsky had shown in her own writings.

The seven principles were largely established as Theosophical doctrine by the time that Yeats became interested in it through Esoteric Buddhism and Mohini Chatterjee, however it had itself evolved from earlier formulations and some aspects of Blavatsky’s systematisation derive from needing to cover the shifts she made in her thinking, which she was reluctant to admit, entailing the need to accommodate earlier pronouncements into her later formulations. The most significant of these changes was the incorporation of reincarnation into her thinking: in Isis Unveiled, proposing a threefold division of physical body, astral body or soul, and divine, rational spirit, Blavatsky had stated that as long as ‘reason has been so far developed as to become active and discriminative, there is no reïncarnation on this earth, for the three parts of the triune man have been united together, and he is capable of running the race’ of evolving into the next stages of spiritual evolution once he has shed the lowest part of the triad (IU 1 351).

Having accepted reincarnation with the shift in her focus from Western Hermetic and Egyptian influences to Eastern Vedantic and Buddhist ones, she was forced to retrench and modify her earlier statement that the transmigration of souls was allegorical, explaining that this had been only an exoteric, partial explanation and the product of misunderstandings. It is ‘the ‘astral monad’ or body of the deceased personality’ only that does not reincarnate, which ‘in the Greek philosophy is called the simulacrum or umbra’ and is consigned to Hades or, in Theosophic terminology, Kama-loka, literally ‘place of desire’ (IU 2 Appendix 32-33). The Physical Body and Prana-Energy are abandoned and dissolve at the point of death, and the immortal triad of Atman, Buddhi and Higher Manas go to a state of bliss, Devachan, to await reincarnation. The remaining ‘non-reincarnating principles (the false personality)’, comprising the Etheric Double, Kama Rupa and the Lower Manas, ‘are left behind in Kama-loka, firstly as material residue, then later on as a reflection on the mirror of Astral light. Endowed with illusive action . . . what is it but the Greek Eidolon and the simulacrum of the Greek and Latin poets and classics?’ (IU 2 Appx. 34). Consequently ‘what was really meant [in Isis Unveiled] was that the principle which does not reincarnate . . . is the false personality’, which is a ‘bundle of desires, aspirations, affection and hatred, in short of action’ (IU Appx. 37-38). Though such self-justification and retrospective clarification may appear sophistic in its redefinitions, it provided a distinction that was particularly important for Yeats.

Yeats uses the same classical sources to describe part of the Principles’ interaction in the after-life, differentiating the second stage of the after-life, the Return, from the later Beatitude and Purification through ‘the Homeric contrast between Heracles passing through the night, bow in hand, and Heracles, the freed spirit, a happy god among the gods’ (AV B 226). The Underworld myths of classical tradition are glossed by Blavatsky as Kama-loka, and by Yeats as the Return, which includes the Dreaming Back and Phantasmagoria. The Dreaming Back, in particular, where ‘the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it’, is compared to a form of imprisonment by the event (AV B 226). This dream or nightmare of intense emotion is tied to the respectable Homeric vision of Hades, given personal colour by the use of William Morris’s translation, but the thinking is as much Theosophical in origin. When Yeats therefore returns to the image of the dual Heracles in the final section of A Vision B, his gnomic question harks back through a complex series of debts:

Shall we follow the image of Heracles that walks through the darkness bow in hand, or mount to that other Heracles, man, not image, he that has for his bride Hebe, ‘The daughter of Zeus the mighty and Hera shod with gold’?
A Vision B 302

Heterodox Theosophy

Back Cover of ‘Lucifer’, the Theosophical Society’s Journal

Blavatsky and her heir, Besant, presented a body of thought which can loosely be called Theosophical orthodoxy, but the Society’s policy stated that: ‘No person’s religious opinions are asked upon his joining, nor is interference with them permitted; but everyone is required, before admission, to promise to show towards his fellow-members the same tolerance and respect he claims for himself’. Theoretically, therefore, the Society was pluralist in its religious outlook; in effect those who clashed with the orthodox line, and Blavatsky’s virulent anti-Christian attitudes, found little tolerance. Within Theosophy there were frequent dissenting voices during Blavatsky’s lifetime, not least with respect to the anatomising of the soul, the most significant being T. Subba Row’s championing of traditional Indian forms and Anna Kingsford’s form of esoteric Christianity. The importance of these different schemes lies less in the likelihood that Yeats necessarily studied them with great attention, though this is certainly possible, than that they show the importance of Theosophical heterodoxy as much as its orthodoxy, a category into which Yeats himself could be placed. As with other esoteric systems, the differences from the Yeatses’ System are as significant as the similarities, but they underline the ways in which A Vision is very much part of a trend of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and within this tradition, which was at once both marginal and popular. Much of the influence of the Theosophical Society lies in the fact that almost all of the figures associated with this esoteric margin in the nineteenth century came into contact with it at some stage, though few of those with any strength of character remained for long. Kingsford effectively left the Society in 1884, Subba Row resigned in 1888 and Yeats was asked to resign in 1890.

The Canadian Theosophical Association gives access to many Theosophical texts on-line and useful links. The Theosophical Society in Australia provides full indices to Lucifer and other Theosophical journals.

Esoteric and Occult Overview

Vedanta and Theosophy

Kingsford's Hermetic Society

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

The Principles

The After Life



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.