Sometimes when we use different meanings and applications of certain words and terms, we come to forget their original and real meaning.
One example of this is the word “materialism.”
Most people today – including most spiritual people, who should know better – believe that “materialism,” “materialist,” and “materialistic” refer to a person, people, culture, or society, which is chiefly motivated by the acquisition of money, possessions, material goods, and exterior success, whilst quite probably at the same time having a very superficial outlook on life, one which values and prizes appearance, fame, and wealth, above all else.
Whilst it’s true that this is an expression of materialism, it is not what the word actually means.
“Materialism” is originally and primarily a philosophical term and means the belief and conviction that there is nothing above or beyond material objective life, that matter is all there is, that everything is essentially physical, biological, chemical, and mechanical, and that the idea of soul and spirit are ignorant delusions.
A true materialist, then, is one who holds to this worldview and outlook. Materialism is basically a synonym for atheism but, unlike the latter term, it defines and gives some description of the atheist’s “philosophical” stance.
When Theosophy speaks of materialists and materialism and declares that materialism is the enemy Theosophists have to fight in the world today, in order to save humanity from its own self-destruction, this is what it is referring to. That way of living and thinking which is today commonly described as “materialism” is merely the by-product of real materialism and can fade away when enough people see the materialistic worldview for what it is and turn their focus, attention, and consciousness towards its opposite.
But what is the opposite of materialism?
Literally speaking, the opposite philosophical pole to materialism is spiritualism, but this is yet another word which has become misused, far more so than “materialism,” and which to the modern Western mind summons up images of séances, mediums, and people attempting to communicate with the deceased.
The movement which began in the middle of the 19th century and which centred around such practices defined itself as Spiritualism but this is actually a gigantic misnomer. There is nothing genuinely spiritual about so-called Spiritualism. It is all on the psychic, astral level and is a dangerous, deluding, and delusional practice which Theosophy has been challenging and warning against ever since the inception of the Theosophical Movement, one of the original main aims of which was to put a firm halt to the ignorance and unphilosophical sentimentalism of so-called Spiritualism and to demonstrate and prove that mediumship and contact with “departed souls” has never been looked upon in any religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition of any era or any nation as anything other than a foolish, destructive, and dark practice.
For further explanation of why Theosophy is so strongly opposed to Spiritualism and mediumship – including the pernicious contemporary practice of channelling – please see such articles as Death and the Afterlife, The Danger and Deception of Channelling, When We Die, What happens to people who commit Suicide?, and The Psychic is not the Spiritual.
As H.P. Blavatsky, William Quan Judge, and the Masters behind the Theosophical Movement repeatedly pointed out, mediumship and the necromantic practices commonly miscalled “Spiritualism” have always been strongly frowned upon and viewed with rightful horror in the East, particularly in Hinduism. This is one reason why the term “spiritualism” is still used in its correct, original, and philosophical meaning in India, as the 19th century “Spiritualistic” craze never spread from the West to the East, the Indians being far too wise and knowledgeable to be sucked into such nonsense which is very frequently harmful to both the living and the dead.
Hence we find Indian philosophers past and present, notably the highly revered Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), extolling the virtues of true spiritualism and promoting what they rightly call spiritualism as the solution and answer to the problems, ignorance, and suffering caused by materialism.
So having discovered what true materialism is, we may ask what is true spiritualism.
Describing what the West misguidedly calls “Spiritualism” as “the most insane and fatal of superstitions,” the Master K.H. wrote that “it is the Occultists and the Theosophists who are true Spiritualists, while the modern sect of that name is composed simply of materialistic phenomenalists.”
Any attempt on the part of a religion or form of spirituality to drag things down to the physical, material, visible level – and this includes the belief in a personal or anthropomorphic God and the taking of all scriptural texts and statements literally – is a form of materialism. Instead of attempting to drag and lower that which is purely spiritual and divine down to our human, everyday level, we should be attempting to raise and elevate ourselves in consciousness up (a figure of speech) towards the purely spiritual and divine.
William Judge begins the final chapter of his highly recommended book “The Ocean of Theosophy” by saying that “In the history of psychical phenomena the records of so-called “spiritualism” in Europe, America, and elsewhere hold an important place. Advisedly I say that no term was ever more misapplied than that of “spiritualism” to the cult in Europe and America just mentioned inasmuch as there is nothing of the spirit about it. The doctrines given in preceding chapters are those of true spiritualism; the misnamed practices of modern mediums and so-called spiritists constitute the Worship of the Dead, old-fashioned necromancy, in fact, which was always prohibited by spiritual teachers. They are a gross materializing of the spiritual idea, and deal with matter more than with its opposite.”
The entry for “Spiritualism” in HPB’s “Theosophical Glossary” sums it up well:
“Spiritualism. In philosophy, the state or condition of mind opposed to materialism or a material conception of things. Theosophy, a doctrine which teaches that all which exists is animated or informed by the Universal Soul or Spirit, and that not an atom in our universe can be outside of this omnipresent Principle – is pure Spiritualism. As to the belief that goes under that name, namely, belief in the constant communication of the living with the dead, whether through the mediumistic powers of oneself or a so-called medium – it is no better than the materialisation of spirit, and the degradation of the human and the divine souls. Believers in such communications are simply dishonouring the dead and performing constant sacrilege. It was well called “Necromancy” in days of old. But our modern Spiritualists take offence at being told this simple truth.”
Thus “Spiritualism” is itself originally and primarily a philosophical term meaning the belief and conviction that the ultimate reality is not something material, physical, and objective, but rather something purely spiritual and transcendent, and that this is the source, essence, true nature, animating life, and final destiny, of everything and everyone within the Universe. It does not deny the existence of objective matter and physical phenomena but it maintains that these are only impermanent and evanescent appearances, which are the vehicle for the experience and evolution of that which is in essence purely spiritual and divine.
Since this term has largely lost its meaning for many people in the West, some use the ancient philosophical terms “idealism,” “idealist,” and “idealistic,” in place of “spiritualism,” “spiritualist,” and “spiritualistic.” Yet even this substitute is extremely liable to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by the majority of people, since “idealistic” has come to mean “unrealistic,” “impractical,” and “romantically utopian” in modern vocabulary and thought.
Nevertheless, some remarks we made in the article The Ignorance and Conceit of Modern Science are perhaps worth repeating here in closing:
Theosophy stands in-between scientific materialism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other and offers a Middle Way leading to the discovery and experience of Truth itself.
Look at the senseless and horrific murders, violence, torture, and abuse that goes on in the world today. We can’t even open a newspaper or turn on the internet each day without seeing some of the most chilling headlines imaginable… “Teenage girl’s body found burning in alleyway” … “Elderly man stabbed to death by local youths” … “Child raped in park” … “Woman shot in face by husband” … “Hundreds killed in cold blooded arson attack” and so on and so on.
Such things are no longer rare and unthinkable. In 21st century society they are daily occurrences. This is the legacy and logical conclusion of atheism and materialism.
For if human beings are in fact nothing more than purposeless, soulless, meaningless lumps of matter and just highly evolved apes and animals – as the scientists are so keen for us to believe – then why shouldn’t we mistreat and abuse others however we want in order to satisfy our own lusts for sexual gratification, violence, cheap thrills, and revenge? If we are just here on this meaningless planet for no reason at all and at death we simply cease to exist forever, then what valid reason can be given for living a good, decent, moral, compassionate, helpful, loving life? We may as well just do what we want, when we want, why we want, and “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
Materialism is animalism, for it reduces man to the level of an animal and often makes him act and behave even worse than the animals, more like a monster in some cases. It is the enemy of humanity and, worst of all, has undeniably become the “God” of modern man…a “God” which will just keep on leading the world further into spiritual death unless it is challenged intelligently and competently by spiritual people.
Even the best and greatest of the world’s religions and spiritual movements are incomplete and cannot answer every question or solve every problem of mankind. Only Theosophy – the Theosophia, “Divine Wisdom” – can do this, for it is the primeval and archaic source and fountainhead of all religions, philosophies, and sciences, and is the one esoteric Teaching which underlies them all.
~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~
Explanations about the real and original meanings of some other commonly misunderstood terms can be found in the following articles: