theosophy (thēŏs´əfē) [Gr.,=divine wisdom], philosophical system having affinities with mysticism and claiming insight into the nature of God and the world through direct knowledge, philosophical speculation, or some physical process. This system of thought differs from many other philosophical positions in that it begins with an assumption of the absolute reality of the essence of God, from which it deduces the essentially spiritual nature of the universe. Other assumptions frequently found in theosophical doctrine are that God is the transcendent source of all being and all good; that evil exists in the world because of human desire for finite goods and may be overcome by complete absorption in the infinite; and that sacred writings and doctrines are interpreted through allegory. This is the position of much speculative mysticism. However, mysticism generally confines itself to the soul's relation to God, while the theosophist uses these theories to formulate a complete philosophy of humanity and nature.


The Neoplatonists, the Gnostics, and the kabbalists are generally considered types of theosophists. Jakob Boehme, regarded as the father of modern theosophy, developed a complete theosophical system attempting to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God with the presence of evil in the world. The philosophy and theology of Asia, especially of India, contain a vast body of theosophical doctrine. Modern theosophy draws much of its vocabulary from Indian sources. The Theosophical Society, with which theosophy is now generally identified, was founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky; associated with her were H. S. Olcott and W. Q. Judge. Blavatsky wrote The Secret Doctrine (1888, repr. 1964) and Key to Theosophy (1931, rev. ed. 1969). An active exponent of theosophy in Europe, America, and the East was Annie Besant, who added many works to the literature on the subject.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Theosophy: Selected full-text books and articles

Odd Gods: New Religions and the Cult Controversy By James R. Lewis Prometheus Books, 2001
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Theosophy and the Theosophical Societies"
America's Communal Utopias By Donald E. Pitzer University of North Carolina Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: "The Theosophical Communities and Their Ideal of Universal Brotherhood" begins on p. 396
Eastern Spirituality in America: Selected Writings By Robert S. Ellwood Paulist Press, 1987
Librarian's tip: Chap. V "Theosophy"
Modern Religious Cults and Movements By Gaius Glenn Atkins Fleming H. Revell, 1923
Librarian's tip: Chap. IX "The Return of the East upon the West: Theosophy and Kindred Cults"
When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements By Timothy Miller State University of New York Press, 1991
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Democracy vs. Hierarchy: The Evolution of Authority in the Theosophical Society"
Greek Piety By Martin Persson Nilsson; Herbert Jennings Rose Clarendon Press, 1948
Librarian's tip: "Occultism and Theosophy" begins on p. 138
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