From Theosophy to Shakespeare
Theosophist, July, 1883
Notes by H.P.B. on a letter from Mr. Henry G. Atkinson
We have received a very interesting letter from Mr. Henry C. Atkinson, now in Boulogne, France. As this excellent and most esteemed gentleman seems to labour under certain erroneous impressions with regard to Theosophy and its promoters, he will pardon us if, in publishing his remarks we explain to him his mistakes.
I forwarded the (March) Theosophist to Professor Tyndall as requested. . . . I have shown your remarks in the Journal to several persons, and we all feel surprised that you should not have accepted the Professor’s observation as a compliment,1 he not considering the article to be exactly in your special line of inquiries, as showing your freedom and breadth of view. Why there should be any mystery in respect to membership and the deeds and doings of your members, I cannot conceive; it reminds one of Pythagoras and his secret cave,2 and why you should consider mesmerism to be an occult and secret science is beyond my comprehension.3 Can any one science be more occult or secret than another?4 I have been much engaged with mesmerism or animal magnetism; but it never occurred to me that there was anything particularly occult or secret about it. Those words would not at any rate equally apply to any science, from astronomy to chemistry and electricity, etc. Our object should be to reduce “wonders” to plain things, not to inflate plain things into wonders.5 Of course there is in one sense mystery attached to all natural action, and from the atoms to the sun shining, and from the substance in motion to its feeling, thinking and apprehending; and the idea of another person—called the soul—within the person visible, does not explain anything more than that the memory and sense of identity is perpetually transferred by an animal magnetic rule to the new matter with both man, beast, bird or fish. But there is nothing more occult or secret about that than about gravitation, what Newton would not attempt to account for, the rule being all to be known or conceived of it. Professor Blackie in his history of materialism or atheism pronouncing against Professor Tyndall and myself says, if all phenomena whatsoever, with Bacon, is to be referred to matter as the common source of all, and as old Timon of Athens in the play—begins his famous utterance with ‘common mother thou,’ whilst he digs—then Tyndall is right, he says, to fix a new definition to matter and it is this. “If these statements startle, it is because matter has been defined and maligned by philosophers and theologians who were equally unaware that it is at bottom, essentially mystical and transcendental.”6 You may call it occult if you please, but the same applies to all conditions and to all enquiries, and from the growth of a blade of grass to the formation of a complex correlated organism, does it not?
. . . We are now reducing the marvellous into a plain matter.
Pope in his preface to his magnificent edition of Shakespeare after all his praise and fine criticism expresses his astonishment in these words: “this is perfectly amazing from a man of no education or experience of those great and public scenes of life, which are usually the subject of his thoughts; so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion—that the philosopher and even the man of the world, may be born as well as the poet.” The same astonishment is expressed by all the great writers on Shakespeare for 300 years. But a short while ago, lo and behold, in a publication of Bacon—Promus, or Collection of fine Thoughts and Sayings—1680 entries,—and these in one form or other, are 4,400 times introduced into the plays, a proof positive that the laborious genius Bacon was the real author of the plays, and all the supernatural wonder and mystery is at an end! Poor ignorant Shakespeare never had a book in his possession, never wrote a line in his life!
Tyndall is better in health, sleeps better; he is a laborious worker and a fine genius.
Henry J. Atkinson
May 10th, 1883, Hôtel de la Gare,
[Notes by H.P.B.:]
1. As found in Mr. Atkinson’s letter to the Philosophic lnquirer, the words quoted by him from Professor Tyndall’s note with regard to the Theosophists did not sound “complimentary” in the least. If, however, no offensive meaning was implied in the words “too stiff,” the Theosophists have but to apologize for their obtuseness, and—to feel delighted of course, to have been noticed at all by this great man of science. They have an excuse, however, for any excess of sensitiveness, in the recollection of a certain other and superlatively pungent remark made by Professor Tyndall, a few years ago, in his Belfast address, if we remember rightly. An ungenerous adjective which we may not repeat, was added to and flung by him, in the face of spiritualism in that famous address. Thus the Theosophists who are almost as heterodox as the Spiritualists, and including in their ranks a number of very well-known persons of that faith, had a certain right to fear they might be complimented in the same way. Were Professor Tyndall a simple mortal, no one would take great notice of his words. Being, what he is, however, one of the greatest, if not the greatest man of science in Europe, whatever he says about us is of the highest consequence to the Theosophists who hold true science above all in this world of error.
2. We can assure our esteemed correspondent that he is quite mistaken. There is no “mystery” in either the membership or “the deeds and doings” of our members as Theosophists. With the exception of certain simple passwords, etc., given at the time when a candidate for fellowship is received into the Society, and a necessary convenience in so polyglot an association as ours, there is nothing secret in it, whatsoever, and if the password and grip are not divulged to the general public, it is simply to protect our members from being imposed upon by some unprincipled travelling outsiders, who might otherwise claim help from, and abuse the confidence of, the “universal Brotherhood” under a plea of Fellowship. There is a small fraction in the Society of those who study the occult sciences—and whose number hardly amounts to a half per cent of the whole group of Fellows. These certainly have their secrets and will not give them out. But it is unfair to visit the sin (if sin it is) of the very few upon the whole Society, which in India and Ceylon alone has already 67 Branch Societies, and most of whose Fellows never gave a thought even to mesmerism—let alone the secret sciences.
3. Again Mr. Atkinson labours under an erroneous impression. No one in our Society considers “mesmerism per se an occult and secret science,” though it is an important factor in occultism; least of all has our President-Founder treated it as a mystery, for, as our correspondent may see for himself in the Supplements of our journal for March, April, May, June, and July, while healing the sick on his tour in the Bengal Presidency, Col. Olcott made it a point to teach publicly mesmerism to the respectable medical and other members of our various Societies, and even instructed in it qualified outsiders.
4. Some of the discoveries of certain sciences—such as chemistry and physical science—ought to have been kept “occult,” at any rate. It is very questionable whether the secrets of gunpowder, nitro-glycerine, dynamite and the like, have more benefited than wronged humanity; at least they ought to have been withheld from the knowledge of the ignorant and unprincipled portions of mankind. Such, at least, was the opinion of Faraday, and some other great men of science. And this may explain, perhaps, why the occultists will not give out their even more perilous secrets promiscuously.
5. Quite so; and therefore, the leaders of the Society do their best to uproot superstition and prove to their members that since such a thing as miracle is an impossibility and belief in it an absurdity, the most wonderful phenomena, if genuine, must have a natural explanation, however occult the agency behind them may seem at present.
6. Professor Tyndall was anticipated in his opinion on matter by most of the great Philosophers of India. Perhaps Mr. Atkinson is not aware that the Eastern Occultists hold that there is but one element in the universe—infinite, uncreated and indestructible—matter; which element manifests itself in seven states—four of which are now known to modern science, and which include the state of Radiant matter discovered by Mr. Crookes, and that three are to be yet discovered in the West. Spirit is the highest state of that matter, they say, since that which is neither matter nor any of its attributes is—nothing. We would recommend in reference to this question the perusal of an article headed “What is Matter and what is Force?” in the September number of The Theosophist, 1882.