First academic review of Letters to the Sage

“Johnson has been a neglected figure, known only to scholars of Neoplatonism and esotericism. This most useful, well produced volume—and forthcoming volumes—will provide new source material for scholars and introduce him to a wider public.”– Jay Bregman, University of Maine, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 250-253

Jay Bregman is Professor of History at the University of Maine. A preview is available through Project Muse that includes the entire first page, which covers the overall gist of the book. The review runs almost four pages. Later pages go into detail about specific correspondents in the collection, and provide more depth about their importance, but these first three paragraphs assess Johnson and his networks of acquaintances:

Letters to the Sage comprises the first volume of correspondence to the nineteenth-century American Platonist Thomas M. Johnson (TMJ), who was also active in the contemporary occult revival. The volume consists of letters from occultists, American and foreign, some of them famous. It also provides some clues to the status and nature of his Platonic activities, and recounts conversions from orthodox Christian denominations to religious syncretism, occult thought, and Neoplatonism (e.g. “I finally exchanged my faith in Jesus Christ for … spiritualist freethinking,” S. H. Randall, Oct. 29, 1883, 371).

Bowen’s introduction and notes provide a useful overview of the occult revival and the individuals corresponding with TMJ (including useful comparative schematic diagrams of courses of study and texts). The Introduction attempts to make sense of the maze of relationships, and helps out by highlighting some important passages in the letters, with some analysis. It presents “the sage of the Osage” not only as the translator and missionary of Neoplatonism who edited the Platonist and an American Thomas Taylor (the great English Neoplatonist, who most influenced him), but also as a person of “many hats” (9): attorney, mayor, school board president of Osceola, Missouri, and a leader in the American esoteric community. There are two hundred eighty-six letters from forty-eight correspondents (most of them to Johnson). 1 Collectively they offer “a clear glimpse into the previously little understood rebirth of organized American esotericism in the 1880’s” (10). The letters are organized by correspondent to better highlight insight into specific developments.

Some letters provide an intimate look into the dynamics of the 1880s US rebirth of Theosophy; others from obscure figures help fill in the in gaps of the spread of esoteric movements and their offshoots nationwide. Thus they advance our knowledge of “American Metaphysical Religion.” The correspondence with the first American Muslim convert, A. R. Webb, involved with Johnson’s Theosophical Society Lodge, speaks to the history of Islam in America. In one letter from an Indian Muslim Sufi, “Ruswa” correctly states that Ishraq (“Illuminationism”) is the Persian form of Neoplatonism. TMJ also published Sufi material in the Platonist.

(see linked article for footnotes and the rest of page 1)

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