John Algeo about the TS, Blavatsky and more: an interview

John Algeo is vice president of the Theosophical Society. He recently ran for president but only got a third of the votes. I really liked the program he ran on, and since we correspond regularly, I thought it would be nice to interview him here.

1. Who’s your favorite spiritual teacher (theosophical or otherwise) of the last hundred years?

If, by “the last hundred years” you mean literally since 1908, that excludes H. P. Blavatsky, who would otherwise be my choice. Apart from her, I really cannot name a “favorite.” “The Golden Stairs” mentions “a loyal sense of duty to the Teacher,” but I believe that each of us is actually both student and teacher of everyone we come into contact with. And spirituality is not something distinct from the rest of life, but an integral part of it. So we owe a loyal duty to all our fellows. Thus my response to this question would have to be same as that of the Oxford student whose examination on scripture asked him to distinguish between the major and minor prophets. His answer was, “Far be it from me to draw invidious distinctions among holy men.”

2. There was quite a storm around the publication of ‘The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky’, which you and your wife worked so hard to create. Had you expected the storm and can you explain to my readers what the storm was about?

The first volume of the H.P.B. Letters needed, for various reasons, to be gotten out quickly. Consequently, it has a number of flaws, most of which have not been commented on, but of which we are keenly aware. We are working more slowly and deliberately on volume 2 now and expect it to be better. For example, we will take more care to comment on matters that may disturb some readers. However, the basic principles of this edition embrace the following: We will include all letters that have been reasonably attributed to H.P.B., even those that some Theosophists reject because they are not consistent with their view of her. Of H.P.B., one might say what Walt Whitman said of himself in Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself

(I am large, I contain multitudes).

H.P.B. was too great a person to fit into any narrow slots that we who admire her may imagine her as filling. Our including a letter in the volume is not a statement that we believe it to be genuinely hers, only rather that it has been reasonably attributed to her. Most of the surviving letters are not autograph copies (that is, in her own handwriting), but instead are transcriptions made by others and often “improved” or otherwise changed by the transcribers. It is impossible to affirm the genuineness of the texts of most of the surviving copies of letters. Our aim was and will be to include the earliest and most authentic texts we can find of all letters that have, with some cogency, been attributed to H.P.B. Readers are free to decide for themselves which are genuine or how much of any given letter is what she actually wrote. We will, however, try to provide readers with as much help in reaching such a decision as we can. But those decisions will often depend on a given reader’s prejudgment about what is or is not Blavatsky-like. As the old saying goes, de gustibus non disputandum est, that is, to each his own decision.

3. Would you have handled things differently if you had known the reservations people would have with the publication?

We would have included more admonitory warnings, but not changed the principles on which the edition is based, which I believe to be the only honest basis for making such an edition.

4.You’ve written a piece about the future of the Theosophical Society in which you talk a lot about the global nature of the Theosophical Society and modern communication methods. What do you think is missing from the TS on that front right now that you want to bring in?

Theosophical teachings about the Seven Rays are relevant here. The first Ray is a Ray of freedom, innovation, and self-assertion. The seventh Ray (which complements the first) is a Ray of tradition, formality, and conformity. Both Rays are necessary for a well-rounded and balanced life. With respect to the Society, while honoring and respecting its own past (all aspects of it, not just those we happen to find congenial), if it is to remain a vital and healthy body, it must adapt to changing circumstances. The Society is not Indian or European or American. It is global. Its message is one of worldwide unity. So Theosophists need to expand their visions in several ways. They need to replace parochial loyalties with international sympathies. And they need to embrace new technologies of communication. To an amazing extent, the Society still functions in nineteenth-century ways. Yet its basic message could not be more relevant to twenty-first-century needs. If the Society is not to become mummified, it must modernize.

5. You have written in theosophical magazines on all kinds of topics. Which would you pick as the most important for the future of the Theosophical Society?

The most important Theosophical topics are those implicit in The three fundamental propositions of The Secret Doctrine. They can be summarized as (1) the unity and spiritual basis of all life, (2) the orderliness of the universe in expressing that unity, and (3) the goal of human life as a realization, both personal and collective, of that unity and order. It has been said that all of Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato. We might also say that all of Theosophical literature is just footnotes to those propositions.