THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 6, April, 1940
(Pages 243-251; Size: 29K)
(Number 4 of an 8-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 8 articles have the same name.]



A PASSAGE from a French mystic of the time of Descartes will serve to show that the idea of the astral body was then not uncommon in Europe. This writer, Pierre Poiret, was a Christian minister who explained a difficult passage in the Scripture by means of the astral body. He believed "that the body which the soul parts with at death is only of the nature of an outer bark or envelope, beneath which is a real body of subtle matter to which the soul is inseparably united." It was, he thought, "these subtle bodies made visible which appeared to the favored disciples who beheld Moses and Elias discussing with Jesus at the Transfiguration."(1) A similar curiosity of belief in a much later time is cited by W. E. H. Lecky. After observing that the Cartesian doctrine "destroyed forever the old notion of an inner body," he notes as an exception its survival in nineteenth century Christian thought in the writings of Edward Hitchcock, American Congregational clergyman and geologist. In his Religion of Geology and Lectures on the Seasons, Dr. Hitchcock availed himself of Reichenbach's studies of "odic light" to construct a theory of the "bodies of the blessed."(2)

Known to the western world in such contexts, it was impossible that the doctrine of an invisible, subtle body could survive the criticisms of scientific rationalism. The astral body was condemned because medievalism was condemned. An extract taken from Lange's History of Materialism makes clear the spirit in which the astral body was and is regarded by men of science and modern philosophy. The great Descartes had defined animals as mere automata -- machines. As Lange says:

The step from the animal to man was then but a short one; and, moreover, here also Descartes had so prepared the way, that he may fairly be regarded as the immediate forerunner of outspoken materialism. In his treatise "Passiones Animae," he calls attention to the important fact that the dead body is not only dead because the soul is wanting to it, but because the bodily machine itself is partially destroyed. If we reflect that the entire sum of the idea of the soul possessed by primitive peoples is due to the comparison of the living and the dead body, and that the ignorance of the physiological phenomena in the dying body is one of the strongest supports of a "visionary soul" -- that is, of that more subtle man who is supposed by the popular psychology to be present as the motive force in the inside of the man -- we shall immediately recognize in this single point an important contribution to the carrying out of anthropological Materialism. And not less important is the unambiguous recognition of Harvey's great discovery of the circulation of the blood. With this the whole Aristotelo-Galenian physiology fell to the ground; and although Descartes still held to the "vital spirits," they are at least in him entirely free from that mystical antithesis between matter and spirit, and from the incomprehensible relations of "sympathy" and "antipathy" to half-sensible half-supersensible "spirits" of all kinds. With Descartes the vital spirits are genuine, materially-conceived matter, more logically imagined than Epikuros' soul-atoms, with their added element of caprice. They move themselves and effect movement, just as in Demokritos, exclusively according to mathematical and physical laws. A mechanism of pressure and collision, which Descartes follows out with great ingenuity through all the separate steps, forms an uninterrupted chain of effects produced by external things through the senses upon the brain, and from the brain back again outwards through nerves and muscular filaments.(3)
In brief, the intellectual outlook which followed the Renaissance discarded the cardinal conceptions of ancient philosophy because they had been misappropriated and distorted into artificial consistency with theological dogma and superstition. For the true idea of the Initiates who are the knowers and guardians of the traditional wisdom of the race, the Christians had substituted the Church as a divine institution, the repository of all ultimate truth, making the latter accessible to men only through its ordained priests, in particular the Roman pontiff, who was endowed with infallibility on the ultimate questions of faith and morals. For the body of knowledge known to Sages and Adepts, the Christians had substituted the revelation of the Bible, which was interpreted by the Fathers, given dogmatic form by the Church Councils, and made "logical" by the theologians. The result of these corruptions was that in rejecting the authority of the Church and the "truths" of revelation, the great champions of Reason left unconsidered the possible existence of a body of ascertained and ultimately verifiable knowledge such as Theosophy. The very idea that spiritual knowledge might be possessed by men who had no desire to act as spiritual "dictators" was virtually inconceivable to anyone who knew only European history.

This enthronement of skeptical rationalism produced several important consequences. The doctrine of the noumenal causes of phenomena -- the Platonic Ideas -- was dropped in favor of the exoteric atomism of the Greek materialists.(4) The Newtonian physics with its demonstrable laws of motion gave an attractive mathematical scheme to this mechanical view. The ancient conception of the soul in man as an independent principle, with powers and knowledge of its own, gave way to the bare abstraction of Self-consciousness as formulated by Descartes. Although Descartes granted that certain ideas, such as that of God, are innate, the Platonic doctrine of Reminiscence could find no place in his philosophy. With the denial of inner soul-knowledge, theorists turned to sensation, to bodily experience, as the source of all our ideas. This led to empiricism in science, to sensationalism in psychology, and to skepticism in philosophy. Lamettrie may be taken as a type of the founders of modern materialism, on the side of its logical justification; the English succession of Locke, Berkeley and Hume represents the line of thought which seemed to end in pessimistic skepticism, offering blind belief in revelation as the sole alternative to the delusions of the senses; and Kant, by a careful analysis of the nature of thought, showed that purely logical inquiry is incapable of establishing the first principles of philosophy -- that for this, knowledge of another order than the intellectual is required. Hence, from the rational point of view, we can know nothing about God, the Soul, and Immortality. Our beliefs on these subjects, Kant insisted, must have their ground in the moral nature of man, in the intuitive "ought" which is immediately given in human consciousness. Then came the great materialistic tour de force of the nineteenth century -- Darwinism. It remained only for the anthropologists to argue that human consciousness is an efflorescence of animal evolution, that the moral sense is a development of the "herd" instinct, for the victory of materialism to be complete.

Surveying this course of intellectual inquiry in the West, one sees why the Adepts speak with such immeasurable pity of the "great orphan, Humanity."

There was one brave soul who in the sixteenth century set going a strong current of truth, but whose efforts, except for their leavening influence, were in vain. The philosophical side of the teachings of Paracelsus was submerged in the rising tide of materialism, although historians of medicine today admit that he was a great contributor to that science. The doctrine of the astral body, however, is regarded as merely one of the many fancies which mar his works. The occult synthesis of Paracelsian teachings was fated to be lost to the West until the time of H.P.B. Only so long as there were true disciples of Paracelsus in the world could the living value of his work be maintained. His occult influence probably ended with the death in 1692 of Elias Ashmole, the last of the real Rosicrucians.(5)

The portion of the teaching of Paracelsus which deals with the astral body is summarized by H.P.B.:

"Three spirits live and actuate man," teaches Paracelsus; "three worlds pour their beams upon him; but all three only as the image and echo of one and the same all-constructing and uniting principle of production. The first is the spirit of the elements (terrestrial body and vital force in its brute condition); the second, the spirit of the stars (sidereal or astral body -- the soul); the third is the Divine spirit (Augoeidés)." Our human body, being possessed of "primeval earth-stuff," as Paracelsus calls it, we may readily accept the tendency of modern scientific research "to regard the processes of both animal and vegetable life as simply physical and chemical." This theory only the more corroborates the assertions of old philosophers and the Mosaic Bible, that from the dust of the ground our bodies were made, and to dust they will return. But we must remember that
"'Dust thou art, to dust returneth,'
Was not spoken of the soul."
Man is a little world -- a microcosm inside the great universe. Like a foetus, he is suspended, by all his three spirits, in the matrix of the macrocosmos; and while his terrestrial body is in constant sympathy with its parent earth, his astral soul lives in unison with the sidereal anima mundi.(6)
Plants and animals, in common with man, have an astral body, according to Paracelsus. In man it is the medium for the reception of sidereal influences and accounts also for telepathy, prophetic dreams, and other forms of prescience. "To our elementary and grosser body these gifts are not imparted, for at death it descends into the bosom of the earth and is reunited to the physical elements, while the several spirits return to the stars." "The animals," he adds, "have also their presentiments, for they too have an astral body."

Chief among the English followers of Paracelsus was Robert Fludd, early seventeenth century adept-physician. In this period there was a wide circle of Rosicrucian and Kabalistic students of the occult doctrines of Paracelsus in England as well as on the continent. The streams of influence coming from Paracelsus, from the Kabalism of Reuchlin and Pico, and from the Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy revived by the Florentine School, met in the thought of the English Cambridge Platonists. According to Dr. J. A. Stewart, Henry More borrowed the term "astral body" from the Paracelsians.(7) The Cambridge Platonists, therefore, in their opposition to the mechanical philosophy inspired by Descartes and Hobbes, drew arguments for a "plastic principle" from the teachings of Paracelsus.

Jean Baptiste van Helmont, born in Brussels in 1577, was perhaps the most notable of the disciples of Paracelsus. Fournié, the French physiologist, credits van Helmont with "connecting the principle of life, directly and in some sort experimentally, as he tells us, with the most minute movements of the body."

It is the incessant action of this entity [Fournié wrote], in no way associated by him with the material elements, but forming a distinct individuality, that we cannot understand. Nevertheless, it is upon this entity that a famous school has laid its principal foundation.(8)
The "life principle" appears also in works attributed to Basil Valentine, a mysterious Benedictine once supposed to have lived before Paracelsus in the fifteenth century. Historians now believe, however, that the Valentine writings are a seventeenth century plagiarism of the books or Paracelsus.(9) The term archaeus, meaning "life principle," is common to both.

Following is a summary of van Helmont's doctrine of the life principle:

Van Helmont ... held that there was no soul residing in plants and in brute beasts, which possess only "a certain vital power ... the forerunner of a soul." In man, the sensitive soul is the prime agent of all the functions of the body. It works by means of archaei its servants, which, in their turn, act directly in the organs of the body by means of ferments allied to that which gives us wine. The soul dwells in the archaeus of the stomach, in some such way as light is present in a burning candle. The sensitive soul is mortal, but co-exists in man with the immortal mind.(10)
The sensitive soul is thus the astral body, and, as H.P.B. explains, "Van Helmont's 'principle of life,' or archaeus, is neither more nor less than the astral light of all the kabalists, and the universal ether of modern science."(11) The basic conception of modern vitalism, therefore, goes back to Paracelsus. Historians of science, however, trace it to G. E. Stahl, who lived from 1660 to 1734, and was physician to the King of Prussia. Stahl also formulated the "phlogiston" theory of fire, which was discarded after the studies of friction by Count Rumford. In biological theory, Stahl stated the general principle held in one or another of its aspects by all the vitalists since his time:
He [Stahl] maintained the view that all the changes of the living body, though they might superficially resemble ordinary chemical reactions, were yet fundamentally different, because they were directly governed by a sensitive soul, anima sensitiva, which pervaded all parts.

Stahl's "sensitive soul," unlike that described by van Helmont, had no need of intermediaries -- archaei or ferments. It controlled directly the chemical and other processes of the body. It differed entirely from the "rational soul" of Descartes' philosophy. To Descartes with his sharp dualism, the human body apart from the soul was a machine, governed by ordinary mechanical laws. To Stahl it was not governed by ordinary physical and chemical laws; but, as long as it was alive, it was controlled in all details by the sensitive soul on a plane far above physics and chemistry. The living body was fitted for special purposes -- to be the true and continued temple of the soul, which built up the body and used it for vital ends. The link between soul and body, according to Stahl, was to be found in motion; the preservation and repair of structures, sensation and its concomitants, are modes directed by the sensitive soul. Thus Stahl was the founder of modern vitalism, though his "sensitive soul" passed later into a vaguer "vital principle."(12)

This brings us to the chief issue of modern biology -- the controversy between the mechanists and the vitalists. The latter demand recognition for an indefinable "vital force" which, they say, is necessary to explain the phenomena of life. The mechanists deny this contention, and Aristotle-like, philosophers of science withhold judgment, awaiting further discoveries by biological science. Vitalists are generally viewed with disfavor because most biologists think a mysterious "vital force" has theological implications, and they cling to materialism as to dear life itself. It is not that they love materialism, but that they hate theology, which is regarded as the only alternative to the doctrines of dead matter and blind force. Once scientists become persuaded that a metaphysics without the familiar taint of dogma is entirely possible, then they may look a little higher for truth than in the blind method of empiricism and the mechanistic conception of natural law.

Returning to the origin of form, which the Platonists explained by the astral body, we find that this problem, along with that of the nature of "life," is involved in the dispute between the vitalists and the mechanists. The mechanistic objective was stated by Berthelot in 1860: "The objective of our science is to banish 'Life' from the theories of organic chemistry."(13) Until his time, chemists and biologists had regarded the "Life Force" in plants and animals as different from and independent of the merely physical and chemical forces of matter. It took several generations for the life sciences to eliminate the influence of Greek philosophy, with its several "souls" or "forms," and to assimilate the mechanical atomism and principles of physical motion established by the physicists and natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the last century the attempt to "purify" biology of the Life Force theory -- the last vestige of ancient truth -- began in earnest. As biologists succeeded more and more in discovering the mechanics of living processes, the vital principle became more and more "abstract." The controversy, as it stood in 1925, is outlined by Bertrand Russell in his Introduction to Lange's History of Materialism:

In our own time, the old battle of materialism persists chiefly in biology and physiology. Some men of science maintain that the phenomena of living organisms cannot be explained solely in terms of chemistry and physics; others maintain that such explanation is always theoretically possible. Professor J. S. Haldane may be regarded, in this country [England], as the leading exponent of the former view; in Germany it is associated with Driesch. One of the most effective champions of the mechanistic view was Jacques Loeb, who showed (inter alia) that a sea urchin could have a pin for its father, and afterwards extended this result to animals much higher in the scale. The controversy may be expected to last for a long time, since, even if the mechanists are in the right, they are not likely soon to find explanations of all vital phenomena of the sort that their theory postulates. It will be a severe blow to the vitalists when protoplasm is manufactured in the laboratory, but they will probably take refuge in saying that their theories only apply to multi-cellular organisms. Later, they will confine vitalism to vertebrates, then to mammals, then to men, and last of all to white men -- or perhaps it will be yellow men by that time. Ordinary scientific probability suggests, however, that the sphere of mechanistic explanation in regard to vital phenomena is likely to be indefinitely extended by the progress of biological knowledge.(14)
It is easy to see where Mr. Russell's sympathies lie -- or lay, in 1925. Typical of most modern philosophers, this view is not difficult to understand when we examine its genesis, which may be found illustrated in Lamettrie's L'Homme Machine, published in 1748. Defending Atheism, Lamettrie attacks the claim that we know God exists because of the design manifest in Nature. He quotes from Diderot the assertion that "one could slay the Atheist with a butterfly's wing or with the eye of a gnat, while one had the weight of the universe with which to crush him."(15) The French materialist then proceeds to refute Diderot's arguments, citing as evidence against the creative artifice of a personal God precisely the sort of scientific discovery that is today used by the vitalists to support their arguments!

Lamettrie did not deny the existence of Deity, but objected to the God of Christian dogma. He maintained that the world would never be happy until it was atheistic. "If Atheism were universally disseminated," he said, "all the branches of religion would be torn up by the roots. Then there would be no more theological wars: there would no longer be soldiers of religion, that terrible kind of soldier."(16) Obviously, religion does not bring morality, and there is historical evidence that Atheism does not exclude it.

With these motives for his materialism, Lamettrie turned to the then meager resources of experimental science for his arguments against the Christian doctrine of creation. In the years 1744-7, Abraham Trembley, a Swiss naturalist, had published his Memoirs on Fresh-Water Polypes, providing Lamettrie with the needed material. Trembley had cut a polyp in several pieces, and in eight days each fragment grew into a whole organism capable of reproducing itself. Lamettrie urged this wonderful fact as proof that we have not sufficient knowledge of the powers of Nature to deny that she produces everything out of herself. What need of a God of whom we know nothing, when Nature demonstrates such creative potency? His own opinion was that the forms of nature arise from the pressures of the particles of one body on the particles of another -- Atomism, in short. The life principle is reduced to animating tiny fibres of the body, stirring to action these biological "atoms."(17) The affinities of this theory with current speculations about viruses and genes are clearly apparent.

Living bodies, whether animal or human, are simply machines developed by Nature herself. This, Lamettrie claimed, is what we learn from experiment and observation. A century and a half later a German biologist, Hans Driesch, claimed that exactly the same kind of experiment and observation disproved the machine hypothesis. In the first decade of the twentieth century Driesch began publishing the results of experiments on sea urchins. He had found that any fragment cut at random from the blastula (an early stage of embryo) always grew into a complete embryo. This and similar experiments became the foundation for a closely reasoned argument that the functions of protoplasm cannot be explained mechanically. The organism, he holds, is "a harmonious equipotential system possessing a vital individualizing entelechy which works through matter with a view to the whole."(18) Thus, Driesch's proofs of vitalism are Lamettrie's proofs of mechanism.

"Explanations" revolve around unchanging facts as planets about a sun, first one, then another interpretation, often of opposite significance, becoming the prevailing "climate of opinion." In Lamettrie's time, freedom-loving men saw in Materialism a highroad to Utopia: a godless world, they thought, would be a world emancipated from the nameless horrors of religious wars and persecution. Thus modern mechanism had originally a moral sanction! In the present, the tragic consequences of Materialism are painfully evident, with signs of reaction appearing even in scientific thought. Here and there are those who regard Nature through unbiased eyes, and occasionally one hears the mechanical theory condemned as an absurdity. Mindful of the past, and dreading the inevitable priestly exploitation of every hypothesis hinting at metaphysics, they proceed with great caution; nevertheless, they proceed.

It is during these periods of transition that much of the work of the Theosophical Movement is accomplished, for the minds of men are open and there is opportunity to present the philosophic principles which synthesize the half-truths of both religion and science. The remaining articles of this series will show how closely modern biology has approached the "fact" of the astral body, although only a glimmer of the true significance of this research is as yet reflected in scientific literature.

Next article:
(Part 5 of an 8-part series)

Back to
series complete list of articles.

Back to the full listing containing all of the
"Additional Categories of Articles".


(1) Quoted by Herbert Wildon Carr, The Monadology of Leibniz (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 1930), p. 85.
Back to text.

(2) Rationalism in Europe (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1884), I, 346.
Back to text.

(3) Op. cit. I, 245-6.
Back to text.

(4) Cf. Isis Unveiled I, 8; The Secret Doctrine I, 117-18, 567-8.
Back to text.

(5) Isis II, 349.
Back to text.

(6) Ibid., I, 212.
Back to text.

(7) The Myths of Plato (London: Macmillan & Co., 1905), p. 95.
Back to text.

(8) Physiologie du Systeme Nerveux (Paris: 1872), p. 717; quoted in Isis I, 400.
Back to text.

(9) J. M. Stillman, "Basil Valentine," Popular Science Monthly, December, 1912.
Back to text.

(10) William Dampier, History of Science (New York: Macmillan Co., 1936), p. 134.
Back to text.

(11) Isis I, 400.
Back to text.

(12) Dampier, op. cit., p. 202.
Back to text.

(13) For a statement of the mechanists' position by a biochemist, see "The Revolt of the Biochemists," by Dr. P. A. Levene, Science, July 10, 1931.
Back to text.

(14) Op. cit. I, xvii-iii.
Back to text.

(15) Ibid. II, 71-2. It is curious to find Diderot, the greatest of the Encyclopedists, appearing to attack Atheism. Lamettrie seems to have taken too seriously Diderot's half-hearted pose of Deism.
Back to text.

(16) Ibid., 73.
Back to text.

(17) Ibid., 72-6.
Back to text.

(18) Encyclopaedia Britannica VII, 662 (14th edition).
Back to text.

Main Page | Introductory Brochure | Volume 1--> Setting the Stage
Karma and Reincarnation | Science | Education | Economics | Race Relations
The WISDOM WORLD | World Problems & Solutions | The People*s Voice | Misc.