France, Theosophy in
In the last half of the 19th century France was a fertile field for esoteric inquiry. Four currents in particular were running strongly at the time the Theosophical Society (TS) was founded: FREEMASONRY, Mesmerism (also called Magnetism), SPIRITUALISM and the Hermetic tradition.
Although the French Section of the Theosophical Society did not officially come into being until August 2, 1899, there was much theosophical activity stimulating public interest in the writings and personality of Helena P. BLAVATSKY and her teachers from the early years of the Society’s existence. A number of colorful personalities created a relatively high profile for the TS and for theosophical ideas.
The first of these figures to join the Society was Commander Dominique A. Courmes (1843-1914), who became a member on November 8, 1876. Under the guidance of such individuals as Lady CAITHNESS, Dr. Fortin, Dr. Gérard ENCAUSSE (also known as Papus), F. K. Gaboriau and Louis Dramard, several branches were formed in the late seventies and eighties whose titles reflect the major fields of interest at the time: La Société Théosophique des Spirites Français (1879), La Société Théosophique des Occultistes de France (1883), La Société Théosophique d’Orient et d’Occident (1883), l’Isis (1887) and La Société Théosophique Hermès, the latter formed by the TS President Henry S. OLCOTT himself in September 1888. Unfortunately these groups did not embody the principle of peaceful co-existence: various quarrels spanned the early years as theosophical journals and branches came and went and people joined the Society and left again. In 1890 Encausse was expelled from the Society amidst great tumult, a number of workers leaving with him.
Blavatsky herself came to France in 1884 working briefly, with William Q. JUDGE (who was on his way to Adyar), on the outline of The Secret Doctrine. While in Paris, she attended meetings at the home of the Duchess of Pomar (Lady Caithness), coming to know people like the Countess of Adhémar, Dr. Charcot, Charles Richet, Camille FLAMMARION and F. J. Leymarie, to cite only the best known. In July 1889, Blavatsky stayed at Fontainebleau where she wrote a significant part of The Voice of the Silence.
In spite of its early tribulations, the movement managed to expand. Theosophical work really started in earnest in 1887 with the foundation of the Isis branch. After a lecture tour by the Countess WACHTMEISTER in the late 1890s, a number of branches sprang up here and there in the provinces and by 1899 there were enough of them to form the French Section of the TS with Théophile Pascal as its first General Secretary. He remained in office until 1908.
The magazine, Le Lotus Bleu, was launched in March 1890 by Arthur Arnould, aided by H. P. Blavatsky. As official organ of the TS, its publication continues to this day, interrupted only by the German invasion of 1940 when the Society was banned by the French Government and its headquarters used for police activities including the storing of archives of “secret” societies. Since 1967 the magazine has served French-speaking members not only in France but in Belgium and Switzerland as well.
The first French theosophical publishing house was started in 1893, issuing H. P. Blavatsky’s La Voix du Silence, (The Voice of the Silence), W. Q. Judge’s Epitome des Doctrines Théosophiques, (An Epitome of Theosophy) and Amaravella’s Le Secret de l’Absolu (The Secret of the Absolute). Gradually almost all the theosophical standard texts were published in translation, including Isis Unveiled in 4 volumes. Finally, in 1922, Charles Blech founded La Famille Théosophique comprising three departments, Les Editions Adyar to publish mainly theosophical literature, Les Editions de l’Etoile to publish Krishnamurti’s writings and Les Editions St. Alban to publish Liberal Catholic Church literature. Now only Les Editions Adyar is still operating.
Notable General Secretaries over the decades include Charles Blech (in office from 1908 until 1934) whose major undertaking was the construction of the impressive headquarters building situated in the heart of Paris and still owned by the TS today; J. E. Marcault (Gen. Sec. 1934-1945) a professor of English and well-versed in astrology; Paul Thorin (Gen. Sec. 1946-1951 and 1959-1971); Francis Brunel (Gen. Sec. 1952-1959), an internationally known photographer, interpreter and translator, who saw the TS through a major crisis in the early 50s; and Salomon Lancri (1971-79), a Blavatsky scholar and author.
The TS in France reached its membership peak in 1927 when it numbered 3,456, and again after World War II when it reached 2,000 members. In mid-1992, membership stood at 706, including approximately 150 African members, admitted by General Secretary Françoise Caracostea (in office 1980-92) who made it her mission to bring theosophical branches to life in French-speaking Africa. For a time several Lodges directly affiliated to the French Section existed in Togo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and the Congo. In April 1990 a committee was founded by the Section to help the countries of Eastern Europe obtain theosophical literature. This committee was later placed under the auspices of the European Federation.
Theosophy is not just represented in France by the Theosophical Society (Adyar). There is a branch of the United Lodge of Theosophists also headquartered in the center of Paris. In the early 1920s, Bahmanji P. Wadia lectured in France and acquired a following of students. Later, in Los Angeles, when he left the Society to join the United Lodge, some of his French followers left also and formed the present Lodge (in September 1928).
The U.L.T. in France has a small publishing house, named Textes Théosophiques, which specializes in French translations of the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge. In addition to its public classes, the United Lodge has a vigorous correspondence course running with students enrolled from as far away as French-speaking Africa. It runs a “Theosophy School” for children and teenagers and a Web site offering many of the source texts of Theosophy.
List of the General Secretaries of the French Section of the Theosophical Society (Adyar):
- 1899 - 1908 Théophile Pascal
- 1908 - 1934 Charles Blech
- 1934 - 1945 Jean-Emile Marcault
- 1945 - 1946 Leon Benzimbra
- 1946 - 1951 Paul Thorin
- 1952 - 1959 Francis Brunel
- 1959 - 1971 Paul Thorin
- 1971 - 1979 Salomon Lancri
- 1979 - 1992 Françoise Caracostea
- 1993 - 1997 Phan-Chon-Tôn
- 1997 - 2004 Danielle Audoin
- 2004 - Jeannine (“Nano”) Leguay
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