Theosophical racism

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Today's SMBC:

Those first four panels resonated with my recent experience skimming Helena Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. Vol II — Anthropogensis (1888). I learned of Blavatsky's existence due to the restaurant located in her former residence, and my sense of her influence in Philadelphia was reinforced by years of walking past the United Lodge of Theosophists.

I expected The Secret Doctrine to be nuttier than squirrel poop, as indeed it is. But I wasn't prepared for its extreme mythic racism, endorsement of (fantastical versions of) eugenics, and so on. In retrospect, I should have realized that late 19th-century fantasy would be like that. I'll spare you the details of Blavatsky's theories of lost continents and their associated "root races" — you can read Wikipedia's summary, or dive into the 1888 tome yourself if care. But I'll reproduce a few illustrative quotes from the book.

p. 421: Mankind is obviously divided into god-informed men and lower human creattures. The intellectual difference between the Aryan and other civilized nations and such savages as the South Sea Islanders, is inexplicable on any other grounds. No amount of culture, nor generations of training amid civilization , could raise such human specimens as the Bushmen, the Veddahs of Ceylon, and some African tribes, to the same intellectual level as the Aryans, the Semites, and the Turanians so called. The "sacred spark" is missing in them and it is they who are the only inferior races on the globe, now happily owing to the wise adjustment of nature which ever works in that direction fast dying out. Verily mankind is "of one blood," but not of the same essence. We are the hot-house, artificially quickened plants in nature, having in us a spark, which in them is latent.

p. 444: Since the beginning of the Atlantean Race many million years have passed, yet we find the last of the Atlanteans, still mixed up with the Aryan element, 11,000 years ago. This shows the enormous overlapping of one race over the race which succeeds it, though in characters and external type the elder loses its characteristics, and assumes the new features of the younger race. This is proved in all the formations of mixed human races. Now, Occult philosophy teaches that even now, under our very eyes, the new Race and Races are preparing to be formed, and that it is in America that the transformation will take place, and has already silently commenced.
Thus the Americans have become in only three centuries a primary race, pro tem., before becoming a race apart, and strongly separated from all other now existing races. They are, in short, the germs of the Sixth sub-race, and in some few hundred years more, will become most decidedly the pioneers of that race which must succeed to the present European or fifth sub-race, in all its new characteristics.

p. 470: With the Semite, that stooping man meant the fall of Spirit into matter, and that fall and degradation were apotheosized by him with the result of dragging Deity down to the level of man. For the Aryan, the symbol represented the divorce of Spirit from matter, its merging into and return to its primal Source; for the Semite, the wedlock of spiritual man with material female nature, the physiological being taking preeminence over the psychological and the purely immaterial. The Aryan views of the symbolism were those of the whole Pagan world; the Semite interpretations emanated from, and were pre-eminently those of a small tribe, thus marking its national features and the idiosyncratic defects that characterize many of the Jews to this day — gross realism, selfishness, and sensuality. They had made a bargain, through their father Jacob, with their tribal deity, self-exalted above all others , and a covenant that his " seed shall be as the dust of the earth" ; and that deity could have no better image henceforth than that of the symbol of generation, and, as representation, a number and numbers.

p.723: Another evidence of the cyclic law and the truth of our teachings. Esoteric history teaches that idols and their worship died out with the Fourth Race, until the survivors of the hybrid races of the latter (Chinamen, African negroes, etc. ) gradually brought the worship back. The Vedas countenance no idols ; all the modern Hindû writings do.

p. 725: The theory, scientifically based or not, of Peyrère may be considered to be equivalent to that which divided man in two species. Broca, Virey, and a number of the French anthropologists have recognized that the lower race of man, comprising the Australian, Tasmanian, and Negro race, excluding the Kaffirs and the Northern Africans, should be placed apart. The fact that in this species, or rather sub-species, the third lower molars are usually larger than the second, and the squamosal and frontal bones are generally united by suture, places the Homo Afer on the level of being as good a distinct species as many of the kinds of finches. I shall abstain on the present occasion from mentioning the facts of hybridity, whereon the late Professor Broca has so exhaustively commented. The history, in the past ages of the world, of this race is peculiar. It has never originated a system of architecture or a religion of its own. (Dr. C. Carter Blake)


Here's last panel of the SMBC strip that I started with:

The mouseover title: "St. Peter just taps the crudely drawn No Girls Allowed sign made by God."

And the aftercomic:

Among several connections to linguistics is the fact that Benjamin Lee Whorf became a theosophist at the end of his life, and the original publication of "Language, Mind, and Reality" was in the organization's journal The Theosophist. He wrote:

[O]ne of the important coming steps for western knowledge is a re-examination of the linguistic backgrounds of its thinking, and for that matter of all thinking. My purpose in developing this subject before a Theosophical audience is not to confirm or affirm any Theosophical doctrines . It is because of all groups of people with whom I have come in contact, Theosophical people seem the most capable of becoming excited about ideas — new ideas. And my task is to explain an idea to all those who, if western culture survives the present welter of barbarism, may be pushed by events to leadership in reorganizing the whole human future.

As you'd expect, Whorf's article avoids overt genetic or otherwise biological racism, and indeed lays out the standard 20th-century linguistic story (with the standard 20th-century default masculine gender):

[T]hrough this sort of understanding of language is achieved a great phase of human brotherhood . For the scientific understanding of very diverse languages — not necessarily to speak them, but to analyze their structure — is a lesson in brotherhood which is brotherhood in the universal human principle — the brotherhood of the "Sons of Manas ." It causes us to transcend the boundaries of local cultures, nationalities, physical peculiarities dubbed "race," and to find that in their linguistic systems, though these systems differ widely, yet in the order, harmony, and beauty of the systems, and in their respective subtleties and penetrating analysis of reality, all men are equal.

However, the Whorfian idea that language determines thought, to the extent that speakers of different languages have radically different modes and possibilities of thought, could be seen in a Blavatskian light.

[And you may find it interesting to peruse the Theosophy Wiki's page of "Famous People" (who may or may not have some connection to Theosophy…).]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 2:12 pm

    The phrase "Turanians so called" caught my eye for the overlap with some of the linguistic classifications that were floating around back then. I'm not quite sure what Blavatsky means by the "so called" hedge – perhaps some confusion about the degree of overlap between 19th-century "Turanians" and the direct descendants of the ancient "Turanian" subrace of the Atlantean root race? My guess is that she's referring in the modern context only to the ethnic groups that speak Uralo-Altaic languages (yes yes, another classification no longer broadly accepted, even by those who remain open to the possibility that freestanding "Altaic" is a thing), which approximates the "Northern" clade of Max Müller's original proposal for a Turanian language family. Like many more recent proponents of an "Altaic" family, Müller was not sure whether to include Japanese, but later Pan-Turanian enthusiasts (esp. in Hungary) who had an ethnic/racial conception of Turanism invariably did.

    One imagines Blavatsky would have thought the Japanese sufficiently aligned with the "sacred spark" to maybe fall within the "Turanians so called," but I don't have sufficient interest to investigate that more closely.

  2. Sean said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 2:20 pm

    Amateur linguist L. Sprague de Camp covered Theosophy several times eg. in his "Lost Continents." Its an ur-source for 20th century woo.

  3. Peter Grubal said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 5:33 pm

    More detail about theosophy can be found in "Madame Blavatsky's Baboon":

  4. Sean said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 10:16 pm

    Peter Grubal: Whorf's background sounds very similar to de Camp's (who had a MSc in aeronautical engineering but worked in correspondence teaching and patent preparation before becoming a full-time writer and lecturer)

  5. Sean said,

    November 25, 2023 @ 10:17 pm

    That should be "Mark:" sorry

  6. maidhc said,

    November 26, 2023 @ 1:02 am

    But skip to the important part–what kind of restaurant is it?

  7. M. said,

    November 26, 2023 @ 8:59 am

    At least one serious linguist, John Algeo (, was a theosophist. So far as I can tell, his theosophy did not influence his linguistics.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 4:56 pm

    If anyone has a lead on a link to non-paywalled version of Hutton & Joseph's 1998 article "Back to Blavatsky: the impact of theosophy on modern linguistics," please do share.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    November 28, 2023 @ 12:44 pm

    @maidhc: "But skip to the important part–what kind of restaurant is it?"

    The Wikipedia page gives a decent history and an OK description.

    Here's the current website, which will also give you some clues. And you can learn more from my 2004 post "Modification as Social Anxiety", which explains:

    At the bottom of the social scale, we have simple places like Wendy's, whose menu includes items like "Single Hamburger on a Bun" and "side salad". When I was a boy in rural Connecticut, we ate out a couple of times a year at the only restaurant in town, the Village Treat, whose menu consisted entirely of simple phrases like "spaghetti and meatballs", "hot dogs and beans", and (my favorite) "grilled cheese sandwich".

    Things are very different at the White Dog Café, whose lunch menu lists a hamburger as "Big Juicy Burger of Buck Run Farm’s Grass Fed Beef on our House made Poppy Seed Bun", a grilled cheese sandwich as "Butter Toasted Sandwich of Grilled Amish Cheddar, Sweet Red Onions and Tomatoes on Organic Sourdough Bread", and a side salad as "Mixed Salad of Many Lettuces from the Farm with lemon-olive dressing". The menu items are so elaborately expressed that it takes even hyper-literate academics a long time to process the choices, and foreign visitors often require a translation or at least an exegesis. Underneath the elaborate descriptions, the food is excellent. For many years, the White Dog has been one of the best restaurants in Penn's West Philadelphia neighborhood.

    About 20 blocks east, and another notch up the scale in price, status and quality, is Le Bec Fin, generally regarded as one of the best restaurants in North America. Henry Gleitman is fond of saying that the two restaurants in Philadelphia that give the best value for the money are McDonald's and Le Bec Fin.

    Le Bec's menu is given in both French and English, but the items in both languages combined are often shorter than analogous descriptions on the White Dog's menu. For example, where the White Dog has "Organic Wild Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Oil and Winter Herb Pesto" (11 words, 69 characters), Le Bec Fin has "Risotto aux champignons sauvages/Wild mushroom risotto" (7 words, 56 characters in both languages). Where the White Dog has "Pan-Seared Wild Caught White Albacore Tuna Loin in Coconut Lemongrass Herb Broth", Le Bec Fin has "Tartare de thon parfume au citron/Tuna tartar scented with citrus". The White Dog has "Anise-Black Pepper Seared Neptune Farms Organic Filet of Beef Carpaccio with Peppery Baby Greens", while Le Bec Fin has "Carre d’agneau servi avec une fricassée d’haricots jus de thym/Rack of lamb, bean fricassee with thyme flavored jus".

    The White Dog's new owners have made a few changes that are unwelcome to me. For example, there used to be three (individual user) bathrooms, labelled "Pointers", "Setters", and "Republicans". I always used the third of those, since it was always empty and always clean.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2023 @ 7:05 pm

    I agree with what Mark says about the White Dog after the change of ownership. It used to be one of my favorite restaurants east of Berkeley (Alice Waters' Chez Panisse), but now I probably won't go back again. I went there several months ago and was sorely disappointed. The food simply wasn't as good as when Judy Wicks owned it. However, I just looked at the current menu, and it seems as though they're trying to bring it back to speed.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2023 @ 4:14 pm

    JWB — "Back to Blavatsky: the impact of theosophy on modern linguistics" — downloaded. Dropbox URL available on request (e-mail address available via either of the two active moderators).

  12. V said,

    December 2, 2023 @ 12:48 pm

    Quoting: "DP" from Charlie Stross' blog:

    "If SF made Fascism then fantasy made Nazism.

    (Before any cites Spinrad's brilliant parody "The Iron Dream" as an example of Nazi SF, remember that he was not using mil-SF to parody Nazism – he was using Nazism to parody mil-SF.)

    If you look at the occult societies, literature and "philosophy" predating Nazism you'll see deep roots in fantasy and mysticism:

    Ice moons, the earth is concave and surrounded by infinite rock, Shamballah in Tibet, Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Madame Blavatsky, civilization at the center of the Earth entered via the north pole, the spear of Longinus, Thule Society, Atlantis, Ernst Schäfer's expedition to Tibet and the whole SS Ahnenerbe "research" department. Even the use of the swastika had occult significance.

    "Raiders of the Lost Ark" wasn't that far off."

  13. V said,

    December 2, 2023 @ 12:52 pm

    Let's not leave communism out — Georgi Dimitrov and Petar Danov were roommates next to what is now the Sofia museum of technology.

  14. Y said,

    December 3, 2023 @ 6:28 pm

    "nuttier than squirrel poop" is so over the top, I only realized the intended joke when writing this comment.

    As others surely have said before me: nuts in, nuts out. Doesn't quite have the ring as the same saying about sh*t.

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