from The Theosophist Jan 1964

C.W. Leadbeater in Retrospect 

By Hugh Shearman

It has often been noted that in the period just after the death of a prominent author his work and reputation suffer a certain decline in popularity. This often continues for about a generation; and then, if he is not quite forgotten, there is often some revival of interest in him or he is at least conceded a certain historic status. One could illustrate this process by many contemporary examples.

C.W. Leadbeater has not been wholly immune from this fate among students of Theosophical literature, though his writing have never ceased too be widely read and regularly reprinted. In the generation which has elapsed since his passing our ways of thinking and of expressing ourselves have altered so profoundly with regard to some of the subjects he wrote about, that the lapse of time seems even greater then it has been. In an age of rapidly changing values, his own educational training and formative mental experiences belong to a period that lies ninety or a hundred years in the past. What is now impressive, therefore, is how timelessly intact so much of his work remains.

We have come today to take a rather changed view of the nature and significance of interpretations of "the hidden side of things" offered to us from various quarters. In effect, we have realized that the "occult" is much more occult than had perhaps once been imagined. We realize how utterly impossible it is that a wholly different order of experience should be conveyed to us in the language and images of our outermost daily lives. It was one of Mr. Leadbeater's misfortunes that his powers of expression were so lucid that some of his readers and hearers almost believed that this could be done and that, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, he had indeed captured for them and encaged in simple and pedestrian English the glories and mysteries of "the higher planes".

So appealing was the simplicity of Mr. Leadbeater's way of expressing things that his words and images were often rendered trite by other people's use and misuse of them. The quoting and reproducing of his idiom by others, and the confining by them within that idiom of what he had to tell, did much to obscure the fact of his immense originality.

C.W. Leadbeater had a personality early formed in a certain way, and he carried the eccentricities of that personality with him all through his later life. He wore about him the cloak of a conventionally high-minded Church of England clergyman, a sturdy conservative, a staunch upholder of Queen and Empire. It was a personality - or, as psychologists might now call it, a persona - which he found adequate and did not trouble to change. But repeatedly he outpassed its apparent limitations, carrying it lightly and showing himself capable of acting as if it were not there.

To understand him at all it seems necessary to recognize in him a powerful individually living largely in that wholly different order of experience of which he was from time to time the interpreter. He was one for whom the standards of his colleagues and critics often did not exists. He was able to take simply and naturally decisions which would have cost others great anxiety and much screwing up of courage. To drop the Church of England and every security which life seemed to hold for him and throw all his energies into the work of the Theosophical Society was probably a relatively easy course for him to take. Having reached a certain stage in the development of his new understanding of things, any other course would have been unthinkable to him, and there was probably little sense of conflict. His tranquil and good humored self-assurance in the most difficult and delicate situations arose from a "self" more deeply based than that of other people. He did not reply to critics; he did not defend himself or engage in controversy or argument; he did not criticize others. All these activities he regarded as ineffectual and irrelevant to the work that absorbed him. He was in no two minds about it. To him it was pointless to do these things and so he did not do them.

Such a person is deeply disturbing to others. His certainty is a standing reproach to their own instability. He was satisfied that he knew who he was, where he was going, what he had to do and why; and he was courteously content that others should similarly do whatever they had to do. It is an attitude which can render almost frantic those who do not know who they are and who are psychologically insecure.

The question which, of course, will now most concern those who read his writings is how far his teachings are true. Here at once it is necessary to remind ourselves that his own standard or criterion of truth was not always that of those who may now raise the question. Although a keen upholder of a certain kind of factual accuracy, C.W. Leadbeater was concerned mainly with pointing towards that kind of truth which it is not within the scope of words to express. His view of the factual as something frequently of secondary interest has to be remembered in judging much of what he wrote. While those greedy for new facts tend to think of "higher consciousness" as important mainly as a source of facts, Mr. Leadbeater seems to have felt that facts are more suitably sought in reference books. "Higher consciousness," about which he sometimes wrote, was concerned with that different order of experience in which, indeed, the fact collecting mind ceases to have a function and is virtually obliterated.

Concerning the levels of experience which we call "psychic", C.W. Leadbeater provided a framework of interpretation which has been extremely influential. Again and again the glimpses that one may oneself have of the "psychic" aspect of things, or the stories that one hears from others, can be fitted easily and illuminatingly into the Leadbeater framework. What he has written provides a satisfying answer. This is not to say that other aspects of the psyche do not exist to which he paid little attention. In his own simplicity, he was hardly temperamentally capable of interesting dreams at their very valid psychological level of significance; though quite unconsciously he provided many starting points from which one can build bridges across the apparent gap which lies between the "psychic" interpretation of the hidden side of things and that "psychological" interpretation with which we are now so familiar.

It is when he goes into rather deeper or, if one prefers it, higher spheres of experience that it becomes impossible in any factual sense to assess what he had to report. Yet even here there is open to us the possibility of a certain appeal to analogy, a certain testing of capacity to respond to our own deeper experience. As Count Keyserling, the German philosopher wrote, expressing himself as a disinterested and uncommitted outside critic:

"He wrote reads what C. W. Leadbeater has to say about these spheres can scarcely doubt that he is at home in them, for all his statements are so plausible that it would be more wonderful if Leadbeater were in the wrong."

And Keyserling went on, in his detached if somewhat patronizing manner:

"I find his writings, of all publications of this kind, the most instructive, despite their often childish character. He is the only one who observes more or less scientifically, the only one who describes in simple straight forward language. Furthermore he is, in his ordinary intellect, not sufficiently gifted to invent what he claims to see, nor, like Rudolf Steiner, to elaborate it intellectually in such a way that it would be difficult to distinguish actual experience from accretions. Intellectually he is hardly equal to the task. Nevertheless I find again and again statements in his writings which are either probable in themselves or which answer to philosophical truths. What he perceives in his own way (often without understanding it) is full of meaning. Therefore he must have observed actual phenomena".

The higher "spheres" of experience are by their nature not capable of being brought down into a system. By definition they lie beyond the capacity of the systematizing mind. C.W Leadbeater never tried to produce a system, though others, such as A.E Powell and Alice Bailey, attempted to build systems our of material that he had provided. His concern was fundamentally with assisting others to cross over into a different order of experience. This motive was appreciated by P.D. Ouspensky when he sympathetically discussed, in his Tertium Organum, C.W. Leadbeater's view of the fourth spatial dimension.

In a good many of Mr. Leadbeater's books there is included a chapter upon how the reader may set about awakening the capacity to know these things directly for himself. To C.W. Leadbeater it seemed quite simple. All you had to do was to become a complete saint, and then certain psychic capacities would probably dawn for you. And, if they did not do so, at least you would have done no great harm meanwhile by becoming a saint! But always the principle was "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you". No wonder some people got rather cross with him,

What C.W. Leadbeater "brought through" about any deeper aspect of life was necessarily clothed in his own personal idiom and with the contents of his own mind and memory. His great effort to give an account of physical matter-embodied in Occult Chemistry - seems to be the record of an experience put into the language of his time. He referred readers quite candidly to a book published in 1878 where they would find a picture of the sort of atom he described. With modern physics his description has no correlation. Yet his chemistry has an extraordinary self-consistency and carries, in its vast complexity and incredible ingenuity, many evidences of being the product of a profound and vivid experience. It is not just something that was cleverly thought up but seems to represent an inextricable blend of direct experience and personal idiom.

In each field of interest that he touched one seems to see a vivid and incommunicable experience working its way down into the details of personal expression. Even where some of the details have aroused scepticism by certain inherent improbabilities - as have, for example, some of the genealogical charts associated with accounts of past incarnations - the detailed elaborations seems to have been vivid and real. One feels that fundamentally, and making due allowance for the Leadbeater personality, the thing described was somehow like that or was capable of being seen by one individual in that way.

In the same way, in connection with the subject of which he wrote most reverently and with the deepest evidence of its being beyond any possibility of easy description - the Masters of the Wisdom - the intensity of the experience seems to outpass very far the capacity for communication. In his reverence for Them he gives to the Masters a certain statuesque or stained-glass window quality. Yet it was from this source that all the most effective decisions and undertaking of his life drew their inspiration.

Take, for example, one of his greatest achievements, the creation in its present form of the Liberal Catholic Church. This is a church which differs from all other Christian churches in that it exists, in effect, to provide not a religious policy or a creedal teaching but a field within which a supra-rational experience may be freely sought and found. Its value thus cannot be deeply known to those who are not in it. It is not a temperamentally congenial approach to experience for everybody; but by those who have come to know it deeply its powerful creative and transforming capacity is appreciated as a matter of daily experience.

Nearly everybody of experience in the Theosophical Society has on a number of occasions been approached by people claiming guidance from exalted personages who are obviously merely the mental creation of the guided persons. Such synthetic "Masters" are always exuberant in their approval of the persons who proclaim them or of the undertakings of those persons. They smile their assent; benignly they nod their heads and break into portly and long-winded eloquence. All the responsibilities of the world may be upon them, but they are never in a hurry, never have something else on hand, when there is occasion to express approval of the opinions or projects of their devoted followers. Yet there are some who know that when they experience the truest kind of higher guidance brevity to the point of curtness is often one of its characteristics.

Some have remarked upon C.W. Leadbeater's capacity to recognize a potential in other people, his ability to pick out a Jinarajadasa or a Krishnamurti from what was superficially most unlikely material; but , while real enough, this capacity of his did not operate according to the standards of the external world. He was not always or even often concerned with immediate potentialities or results. In many cases he selected individuals and gave them attention for a while because he held that this would be likely to bear fruit in some far distant future. This was something that the casual spectator of his actions could not really judge. For the rather sensational and now sometimes deplored public statements of Mrs. Besant and others in 1925 Mr. Leadbeater had no responsibility. He was in Australia at the time, and those who were with him noted and interpreted his silence when the news of events at Ommen was received.

One is reminded of a passage in the Bhagavad-Gita (iii.28) where the true sage is represented as holding that "the gunas move among the gunas". That is to say, the one who truly sees recognizes that in all that happens, whether in a distant place or in the heart of another person or in his own thoughts and feeling, the forces of one vast creative process are at work. Thus beholding a unity and purpose in all that happens, he is increasingly open to an intuitive realization of the one Actor within and behind the whole great work, or of the one living Purpose which is ever fulfilling Itself through the minutest as well as through the greatest events. This transforming experience enables him to see the picture in successively new and different ways which would previously have been unthinkable to him and thereby to uncover layers of subjective reality hitherto unconscious within him.

Madame Blavatsky taught with regard to The Secret Doctrine that it was not devised to provide any final set image of the real but was intended "to lead towards the Truth". It was not a map but a signpost. Similarly the Theosophy of any other great teacher can assist first steps on a path of experience for anybody who responds to it; and that path leads towards a primary Theosophy which must render unnecessary all secondary Theosophies of written teachings. Possibly the very lucidity and simplicity of C.W. Leadbeater's Theosophy, which have made it so suitable and so helpful for a large number of students, have also given rise to some illusions; but this is less likely to happen today than when that Theosophy was first exposed to the personal hopes and enthusiasms of an age markedly different from our own. The achievement of C. W. Leadbeater is likely to stand on its merits through a long future and guide many forward on their respective journeys.


More Hugh Shearman