Four time mayor of a Midwestern town, publisher of the American frontier’s only periodical devoted to Plato, Thomas Moore Johnson was also president of the central council of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, a mystery school that taught sex magic (though their version of it wasn’t as sexy as you might think). Voters also elected Johnson county prosecutor twice, the second time 24 years after the first; after both terms he refused re-nomination. Johnson was a member of the board of education for a decade, before becoming its president for 25 years. He was also a director of a bank. Since letters were arriving from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johnson’s metaphysical interests were no secret. Spiritualism and philosophical pursuits were quite popular. In the west the better off wives of the bosses of some new towns started culture clubs to study Plato.
Johnson’s father was a United States senator who later became a member of the Confederate Congress. Thomas was born in Osceola, Missouri in1851, the year before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. He was a ten-year-old boy in 1861 when the notorious Jayhawkers burned and looted Osceola during their campaign to drive pro-slavery communities out of Kansas and Missouri. Osceola’s population of 2500 fell to 200. The attack on Osceola inspired the 1976 Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.
After that Osceola became a quiet hamlet. Forty miles southeast was Kansas City, the biggest cattle town south of Chicago, a frontier cacophony of cowboys and endless stockyards. Just sixteen years after the Civil War, Johnson published a magazine that had no current events and the only obituaries were of long dead philosophers. Instead it reprinted English translations of the Platonic and Neoplatonic teachers of the ancient pagan civilizations of Greece and Rome. Johnson named his chimerical publication The Platonist.
As Cathy Gutiarrez wrote in Plato’s Ghost: “Reports of Plato clubs were serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, magazines wrote multivolume accounts titled “Plato in History” and the Yale Review kept readers current on new translations. In 1869, the New Englander sported a densely packed, thirty-two page “defense” of Plato as a proto-monotheist, and in the same year a pamphlet titled “The Eclectic Philosophy” was circulated with “An Outline of the Interior Doctrines of the Alchemists of the Middle Ages.” The former endeavors to explain the entire history of Neoplatonism, beginning, oddly, several centuries before Plato and laying claim to a single, united truth known to the ancients and covered loosely under the umbrella of Neoplatonism… From vaunted literary minds to the conspiracy theorists of their day, Americans were awash in Platonic and Neoplatonic writings and thought.” The author of that eclectic pamphlet was Alexander Wilder, friend and collaborator of Thomas Johnson, and dependable contributor to The Platonist.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN NEOPLATONISM
Johnson first encountered the philosophy that would change his life in the spring of 1870 at age 19 when while browsing the stacks in the library of the University of Notre Dame he found a fifty-two year old copy of the Classical Journal in which he read the “Chaldean Oracles” translated by Thomas Taylor. Works by Porphyry and Plotinus soon followed. He mined every issue of the Classical Journal he could find for more material by Taylor and found essays and translations that introduced him to Plato by way of the Neoplatonists. Around the same time he read a vehemently hostile review of a new edition of Emerson’s writing, which inspired him to read the offending essays.
In Emerson’s essay “Intellect” Johnson read a passage that guided his journey through the great pagan authors of antiquity: “This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesius and the rest, have somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking, that it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions of rhetoric and literature, and to be at once poetry and music and dancing and astronomy and mathematics. I am present at the sowing of the seed of the world. With a geometry of sunbeams the soul lays the foundations of nature.”
Elsewhere Emerson wrote: “A reading of Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries would bring about a revival in the Churches.” He also wrote “I read Proclus for my opium.” In 1842 he wrote in his journal: “Thou shalt read Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, Aristotle….” Aristotle is at the end of the line in Emerson’s list of must reads from the ancient Greek side of antiquity, the Neoplatonists appear to take precedence. Of course, Emerson’s view of Plato was greatly influenced by the translations and essays of Thomas Taylor, a man who could be described as a disciple of Proclus displaced in time. Taylor inspired the poets Shelley, Blake, and Yeats.
Johnson, following Taylor, argued that Neoplatonism was an artificial distinction. Academics had dismissed the Neoplatonists as addled mystics and desperate plagiarists of Christianity. Iamblichus with his mysterious ritual of theurgy was considered the father of the superstitious ceremonial magicians of the middles ages, a not unreasonable honor given his great influence on them. But as scholarship has progressed, and cultural prejudices have been recognized by academia, a different picture has emerged. Ceremonial magic has as much to do with science as religion, as men attempt to understand the laws of nature and existence.
Following Taylor, Johnson argued that the Neoplatonists had access to all the lost writings of Plato and Aristotle, and all the lost work of their commentators, and he pointed to their persistent claim that the most important were never made public. Johnson believed the Neoplatonists were simply Platonists. Studying Plato with their guidance, he thought, led to a much deeper understanding of Platonic philosophy. A renaissance in Neoplatonic studies is now underway, and a trend toward recognizing the relevance and Platonic orthodoxy of the Neoplatonists continues.
In the summer of 1874 the intrepid 23-year-old Johnson planned to write a biography of Thomas Taylor. He had already exchanged letters with the great Transcendentalist and colleague of Emerson, Bronson Alcott, in which Johnson declared his intention to translate and otherwise promote the Neoplatonists. Alcott enthusiastically encouraged him, but Johnson never finished his Thomas Taylor biography. Instead he published much of his research in issues of The Platonist ten years later. Johnson became the expert consulted and recommended by American Transcendentalists and Platonists when technical questions about text or definition needed clarification. In 1875 Johnson wrote Alcott to share his plans for a book to be titled Lives of the Platonists, but that never came to fruition either, except to provide useful notes for his periodical.
Johnson visited fellow Neoplatonic enthusiast Alexander Wilder in New Jersey in 1876, during the time Wilder was working with Madame Blavatsky on Isis Unveiled. Wilder became one of Johnson’s steadiest supporters, his most important collaborator, and Wilder contributed many essays and two translations to The Platonist. On his trip east Johnson also stopped in Concord to meet with Alcott and his daughter, Louisa, the famous author who had published Little Women seven years earlier.
When Johnson finally self published in 1880 his Three Treatises of Plotinus, which included writing never before translated into English, the critics panned him. A St. Louis newspaper wrote: “–doubt remains as to whether Thomas M. Johnson would not be in better business plowing corn and gathering hickory nuts than doing mystic Greek into unintelligible English.” Even Wilder disliked the translation, writing to Alcott: “I do not quite like his diction. I do not like a cramped artificial style–“. Johnson was hurt by the criticism. At age 29 he lamented that he was only reading eight books on philosophy a month.
1881 was an important year for Thomas Johnson. In February the first issue of The Platonist arrived, the same month as prohibition made Kansas a dry state. In May, Mrs. Johnson arrived in the person of his new wife Alice Barr, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.
Johnson’s Platonic magazine had a very small subscription base but it provided rare texts of profound pagan spirituality from the middle of the Midwest when the Midwest was still the Wild West. But its eclectic contents also included translations of works on the cabala, tarot and ceremonial magic by Parisian magus Eliphas Levi and a good translation, with notes, by Isaac Myer of On Dreams by Synesius, the student of Hypatia. Myer’s better known works include a book on scarabs and his often reprinted Qabbalah. The Philosophical Writings of Solomon Ben Yehudah Ibn Gabirol or Avicebron and Their Connection with the Hebrew Qabbalah and Sepher Ha-Zohar with remarks upon the antiquity and content of the latter, and translations of selected passages from the same. Also An Ancient Lodge of Initiates, translated from the Zohar. And an abstract of an Essay upon the Chinese Qabbalah, contained in the book called the Vih King; a translation of part of the Mystic Theology of Dionysios, the Areopagite; and an account of the construction of the ancient Akkadian and Chaldean Universe (1888), which has the distinction of being one of the first America books about not only cabala and Jewish Neoplatonism, but also I Ching, as well. According to the New York Public Library’s receipt record dated February 1904 Myer was a lawyer who practiced in New York City and Philadelphia. He’s described as “an amateur historian, orientalist, and active freemason. His literary fields of endeavor focused on United States constitutional history, federalism, and mystical and antiquarian subjects. A man of some personal wealth, he was publisher of the majority of his own works.”
In 1882 Hiram K. Jones wrote Johnson to tell him he had given away six hundred copies of the first issue of The Platonist, but subscriptions were few and far between, and scattered all over the continent and even overseas. Jones and Wilder proposed various ways to raise money to keep The Platonist going. Johnson proposed a higher subscription price but his friends thought that was a mistake. Since he didn’t like any of their ideas the second volume was delayed.
In 1883 when the American Akadame was established in Jacksonville, Jones promised Johnson fifty new subscribers. Johnson wasn’t interested until Jones came up with the idea of publishing all papers by the Akademe in The Platonist. That way all the members would be likely to subscribe. That got Johnson motivated. But subscribers were still scarce and soon Jones was sending Johnson more money to keep The Platonist going. Jones thought it should be turned over to the Akadame and renamed “Philosophy.” Johnson could stay on board as editor and director. Johnson refused.
PRESIDENT OF THE HERMETIC BROTHERHOOD OF LUXOR
Though he does not appear to have been actively promoting the Theosophical Society, Johnson was on its American Board of Control. But as the membership of H. B. of L. swelled with disgruntled Theosophists in fall 1885, after Blavatsky and Olcott left New York City for India, Johnson was appointed president of the American Central Council or the Committee of Seven of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. A letter signed by Johnson himself provides further proof of his involvement. It’s tempting to try to make something of the fact that Johnson wrote this letter on Christmas Day 1866, apparently he wasn’t taking a holiday from the occult. Here are selected excerpts:
“1. The H.B. of L. is an occult organization of great antiquity. It is of Egyptian Origin. This is all I can say on this point…”
“4. Any one desiring to become a member of the Order may send his application to the President of the Council, stating his age, sex, occupation, etc. He should also send data for horoscope, viz. time and place of birth should be given if known. If unknown, send photograph (which will be returned) and personal description–the fee for horoscope is $1.00, to be remitted with application. The initiation fee is $5.00, and annual due $1.25. Manuscript instructions are sent to Neophytes.
“5. The chief qualifications required in an applicant for admission are moral character, and an earnest, genuine desire to know the truth. An inspection of his horoscope determines whether an applicant has any tendency towards the occult.
“6. The order is not connected with Masonry.
“7. The order has in this country a comparatively large membership, and the number of applicants is rapidly increasing.”
This is a rather extraordinary document, and certainly suggests that Thomas Johnson was not publishing translations of Eliphas Levi in The Platonist merely to lure subscribers. The month he wrote his letter to the would be neophyte of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor was also the birth month of revolutionary artist Diego Rivera and baseball legend Ty Cobb. Around Osceola the 1886 Great Southwest Railroad Strike, involving two hundred thousand workers from Texas to Illinois, had erupted into violence, only to subside once the governors began ordering in their militias. The world was about to change more rapidly than Thomas Johnson could possibly imagine.
An upcoming blog in this series will examine the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and especially the influence of the Scottish immigrants Peter Davidson in Georgia and Thomas Burgoyne in California. Here is a short summary.
The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor is a dense cluster of contradictions. In America the “brotherhood” was predominately female, one of the two main lodges was presided over by a woman, the other, in Osceola was Thomas Johnson’s responsibility. The H. B. of L. claimed to ultimately derive from the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor, yet there was hardly anything at all Egyptian about what they taught. The society admitted that the most recent incarnation of the outer order began in the 1880s, crediting that charismatic enigma Max Theon as its visible founder, (the order’s highest masters were not visible to the uninitiated), yet the H. B. of L. instructions reflected very little of Max Theon’s cosmic philosophy.
Davidson and Burgoyne appear to have cobbled together the order’s hermetic teaching from books by Eliphas Levi, the pseudo Rosicrucian and highly suspect scholar Hargrave Jennings, Comte de Gabalis the 17th century “true story” of a conversation with a master who reveals the world of elementals susceptible to ritual and the secret society of philosophers working to uplift humanity, and especially the works of Paschal Beverly Randolph and of Emma Hardinge Britten, a leading light of the Spiritualist movement, she was a founding member of the Theosophical Society.
Paschal Beverly Randolph will be the subject of a future blog in this series. Randolph’s mother died not long after he was born so he was homeless as a child. Biracial he was accepted by no community. He grew up impoverished in New York City doing menial labor; he worked, for example, as a boot black. Still a teen he took jobs on ships so he could travel. He visited Europe and the Near East, learning from every metaphysical master he could find. The story has been told that Eliphas Levi initiated him in Paris, but we have no proof that they met, and Randolph certainly did not reflect Levi’s insistence on the magical importance of a quiet life. In France, Randolph was introduced not only to mesmerism, magic mirrors, and the occult doctrines of Europe, but also the importance of hashish in clairvoyance.
In his 20s Randolph became a well-known trance medium, and like many spiritualists of the day his lectures denounced slavery and supported abolition. In 1853 he helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army. After emancipation Randolph lived in New Orleans where he taught newly freed slaves how to read and write. Randolph took training in medicine and maintained a practice of one sort or another most of his life. He fought for birth control when even mentioning it meant risking arrest. The author of a shelf full of books on health, sexuality, channeling and the occult, he ran his own independent publishing company. He wrote two novels, making him one of the first African American novelists published. His Rosicrucian apologists have spread stories about his membership in a secret society of initiates that included Abraham Lincoln. General Ethan Allen Hitchcock is supposed to have introduced Randolph to Lincoln. Randolph is said to have been on the Lincoln memorial train on the way to Springfield, but allegedly he was kicked off the train because he was the only black man aboard, a strange event given that the nation was mourning the Great Emancipator. But these appear to be folk tales rather than facts.
When Randolph returned to London in the 1870s he might have initiated Burgoyne and Davidson, some have suggested he initiated Max Theon, and others that Max Theon initiated him. Burgoyne and Davidson certainly took most of the content of the H.B. of L. from Randolph’s works, especially the materials on sex magic, though they took pains to distance themselves from him, alleging that he had fallen into black magic by using sex magic for material ends, but that was a gross oversimplification of the very complicated life of a man who publicly and enthusiastically endorsed sex, drugs and the occult before Aleister Crowley was born.
A popular spiritualist, Randolph denounced the principles of spiritualism losing their support. When his work for abolition and then for the freed slaves earned him the respect of average Christians in the communities he worked with he alienated them by declaring in a lecture that God is electricity, motion and light, not Jesus. Later in life he would complain bitterly about his abandonment by the Theosophists, the spiritualists, the abolitionists and even his Hermetic brethren, often blaming his rejection on his race; he didn’t seem to understand his own penchant for burning bridges. Without him the H.B. of L. would have been of an entirely different character, yet his involvement seems to have been minimal, and his rejection by Burgoyne and Davidson final.
Randolph’s death, like his life, was full of contradictions. Fifty years old, married to a girl not yet twenty, father of a newly born son he named Osiris Budha (who would grow up to be a respected physician) this champion of women’s rights and spiritual love had become a depressed alcoholic. Did he shoot himself in the head standing on the sidewalk one morning? The neighbor woman who claimed he came to her house and committed suicide right in front of her wrote that while sober he was a sweet man but drunk he was angry, jealous and grief stricken. He had been desperate to raise money, offering to sell the rights to all his books, offering to sell his medical practice, deeply bitter that those who had borrowed freely from his work seemed to be flourishing while he was becoming ever more obscure and poor. But true believers insisted that he was actually by someone who confessed to the crime on their deathbed.
THEON, DAVIDSON AND BURGOYNE
What of the other founders of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor? Max Theon was the son of a Warsaw rabbi who traveled the world to learn from Arabic, Hindu and Jewish masters. His wife Mary Ware was a formidable Scottish medium and lecturer on the occult, as well as founder of the Universal Philosophical Society, all before she met him. Mary trance channeled much of the content of their teachings and of their periodical The Cosmic Review. Together they ran a successful lodge of the H. B. of L. in Paris then settled in Algeria, attracting supporters from all over the world. Max took students as he saw fit, he didn’t follow the H.B. of L. protocol and while Davidson and others continued to seek out his advice about the order Max does not appear to have been active, although when the American branch collapsed he was the one who ordered the lodges closed.
Max’s first initiation may have been as a Zoharist, an erotically ecstatic sect of Chassidic Jews from whom he seems to have received important ideas about the cabala and about the integration of sexuality and spirituality. Some have argued that Max when studying in Egypt had become one of Madame Blavatsky’s masters, a story told by Max’s most famous student, Mirra, better known as The Mother, the colleague of the legendary Sri Aurobindo. Mirra reported that Max had occult powers, but she claims Mary was more powerful. Much speculation surrounds Blavatsky and Max Theon, the possibility that he was an early influence on her, and indications that Blavatsky and Olcott were early members of H. B. of L. At first the organizations were mutually supportive, but soon they were undermining each other, accusing each other of suffering under the leadership of inferior masters.
Davidson is a wonderful character. A Scottish violinmaker who wrote a popular handbook about violins, which in its last reprinting he stuffed with occult lore, unrelated to the instrument. He brought his family to America where they hoped to start a colony that would enshrine their principles but the effort to raise money and to convince immigrants to join them for the most part failed and their proud plans for a compound in California became instead the Davidson household in rural Georgia. There, on a printing press he imported, Davidson published two periodicals, one of occult esoteric interests, and the other more traditional and Christian friendly, for the benefit of the locals. As far as Davidson was concerned both publications had the same message cloaked in different metaphors. Davidson was renowned for his herbal formulas. Like John Winthrop Jr. he cooked up an elixir prized in the area. He was also considered the best moonshiner around. He wrote a book that indicated extensive experience with making and using various drugs including a concoction of mistletoe he said could purify the mind and harmonize body and soul. Good ginseng hunters could always find work with him. But in some ways his was a lonely existence. His library of rare books required only one chair. His family not only had no interest in his pursuits, after his death they gathered together his considerable collection of writing on esoteric subjects and burned them in a bonfire.
Illustration from The Light of Egypt.
Burgoyne is another H.B. of L. enigma. His real name was probably Tom Dalton, but he had more than one alias. H.B. of L. made a point of denying reincarnation, thereby throwing into doubt one of the central attractions of Theosophy. So Theosophists were delighted when a photograph of Burgoyne as Dalton the jailbird, in his prison uniform no less, began to circulate. The American branch of the H. B. of L. did not survive but Burgoyne did ending up in Monterey, California where under the patronage of an admirer he recast the H. B. of L. teachings into his classic book The Light of Egypt. Assisting him was C.C. Zain, another man with multiple aliases, founder of the Church of Light with its 21 home study courses of Brotherhood of Light instructions that teach “astrology, alchemy and tarot”. The Church of Light is still active in Albuquerque, New Mexico and online.
But Burgoyne’s wife was perhaps the most influential person among all these spiritual reformers. Genevieve Stebbins created Harmonial Gymnastics and in many ways she was the founder of the westernized yoga for health and happiness tradition that has blossomed several times in the history of American Metaphysical Religion, most notably in the New Age movement of the late 20th century, and currently flourishing. As the author of books like Society Gymnastics and Genevieve Stebbin’s System of Physical Training she was a pioneer of the fitness guru industry.
Mark Singleton wrote in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice: “Stebbins’s Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics (1892) is a combination of callisthenic movement, deep respiration exercises, relaxation, and creative mental imagery within a harmonial religious framework. It is, in Stebbin’s words, “a completely rounded system for the development of body, brain, and soul; a system of training which shall bring this grand trinity of the human microcosm into one continuous, interacting unison” and remove the “inharmonious mental states” that lead to discord.”
Stebbins compared her exercises to movements practiced in temples and sanctuaries, in her own words, “where magnetic power, personal grace and intellectual greatness were the chief objects sought.” Her exercises are “religious training,” inspiring “a life-giving, stimulating ecstasy upon the soul.” Echoes of the H. B. of L.?
SEX MAGIC VICTORIAN STYLE
These days sex magic can mean masturbating so the universe will answer your desire for a new laptop, or sexual experimentation as initiation. But that’s not what sex magic meant to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Their sex magic was conservative enough to appeal to a devoted Platonist like Thomas Johnson. Sex magic as eugenics claimed to improve the human race. Married couples only need apply. Bachelors were left with their magic mirrors. According to the H. B. of L. children conceived by sex magic would be a step up the spiral of human evolution.
Sex, the engine of evolution, can also reunite the divided self. Love makes the adept immortal. As Davidson wrote: “The sexual and love nature are the foundation of our existence, for it is so ordered that Man’s greatest physical happiness, as well as his greatest woes, all spring from this source…. Of all acts, the sexual is the most potent, for herein Man approaches the very portals of Divine Creative Energy…. Far is it then from there being anything degrading in this, for God has made nothing of which man may be ashamed, for in this relation, soul meets soul in an ecstatic blending of Spirit.” This belief did have the virtue of replacing the Victorian “lay down and think of England” mentality with the realization that women deserve ecstasy, too.
Was Thomas Johnson practicing sex magic? His friend Alexander Wilder wrote introductions for Serpent and Siva Worship and the notorious Ancient Art and Mythology, two books examining the sexual symbolism of world religions. As John Patrick Deveney wrote: “Wilder was thoroughly convinced of the central role of phallicism in mythology and of the importance of sex in occultism in general.” But Wilder favored celibacy over sexual experimentation, perhaps because of his experiences in the Oneida Cult as a young man. Johnson’s interest in sex magic may have also been theoretical rather than practical, but only Mrs. Johnson knows for sure.
It’s hard to imagine the four-time mayor and Platonic scholar Johnson leading a ceremonial magic lodge, dispensing hashish pills, and teaching tantric sexuality, but if it was theurgy that Johnson was after, Iamblichus certainly provided a good introduction to Eliphas Levi. Theurgy, the art of self purification, the epiphany of spiritual remembering, the cultivation of cosmic consciousness, as some have called it, was the way to earn the gift of light, and every member of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor understood that Lux was Latin for light. Johnson did publish translations of Levi in The Platonist where he also promoted Davidson and Burgoyne’s periodical The Occult Magazine, as well as printing articles by Burgoyne on the cabala and tarot though Johnson must have known they were mostly rehashed writing by Levi and his student the famous astrologer Paul Christian.
The H.B. of L. mail order course was accompanied by astral studies with an assigned teacher, letter writing was allowed, too, but this incarnate teacher was only a helper. True initiation would come from the inner dimension where the real masters of the order reside. These practices do not seem so exotic when placed in context. Mediums had popularized the idea of communication with the departed. Many books written by alleged discarnate spirits were published in America. The idea that a magic mirror could be used to scry for information, or that a couple working together could develop extraordinary faculties of sensitivity and magnetism, were themes well within the context of widespread American preoccupation with the supernatural, or what promoters preferred to define as a deeper level of the natural, insisting that what they were practicing was science.
So what was the ultimate origin of the H. B. of L’s curriculum? Max Theon’s Zoharist erotic cabalism? Paschal Beverly Randolph’s adaptation of scholarly theories about phallic myths in religion into actual practice of sexual magic? Perhaps both, and other as yet unrecognized influences, after all, sex magic and magic mirrors had been ceremonial preoccupations since the days of John Dee and Edward Kelly’s Aztec obsidian mirror and angel appointed wife swap.
A PLATONIC PARTY IN FRONTIER MISSOURI
The Platonist limped along, often delayed, until the last issue, number six of the fourth volume, in summer 1888. By then the cattle of Kansas City had been overwhelmed by fields of cotton. Leadbelly was born, and so was Phillip Francis Nowlan the science fiction writer who created Buck Rogers. The first Sherlock Holmes stories were published. That year Jack the Ripper terrified first London, then the world. Women held strikes in the matchstick factories of England where their skin and jaws were eaten away by phosphorus so that their disfigured faces glowed in the dark. They were organized by Annie Besant who a year later became a member of the Theosophical Society, and then one of its most popular authors and leaders.
By 1889 Johnson had launched a new publication Bibliotheca Platonica: an Exponent of the Platonic Philosophy. But only four issues made it into print. As Paul Anderson wrote: “Johnson is less to be criticized for their failure than praised for their existence.”
This record of a Platonic happening in 1889 appeared in Bibliotheca Platonica, giving us an intimate peek at how 19th century Midwestern Platonism looked as a social experience. Johnson was president of the central council of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor by this time, but what we see is more of a wholesome festival than a transgressive occult event.
“We note with great pleasure that the holding of an annual Symposion or festival in celebration of the “birthday” (mundane descent) of the Divine Plato, revived by the Editor of this journal in 1888, will probably become a permanent custom. We hope to see the time when the birthday of Plato will not only be made a national holiday, but will also be celebrated throughout the civilized world by Platonists and all others who love Wisdom, and worship in the temple of truth. We are indebted to Mrs. Julia P. Stevens for the following report of the Symposion held at Bloomington, Ill., under the auspices of the Plato Club of that city. In justice to Mrs. Stevens it should be said that much of the success of this celebration is due to her indefatigable work and enthusiasm.
“In imitation of the nine Muses, nine persons are accustomed to assemble at stated times for the purpose of making a study of the works of Plato. Their names are:
Miss Sarah E. Raymond, Miss Effie Henderson, Dr. E.W. Gray, Mrs. Mary A. Marmon, Miss Nellie Fitzgerald, Miss Clara Ewing, Prof. A.S. McCoy, Mrs. Emelie S. Maddox, Mrs. Julia P. Stevens.
“This Club gave a Festival on November the 7th in commemoration of the Terrestrial Descent of Plato.
“They met in a Symposion, with about fifty guests, among whom were the most cultivated people in the city. Three daily newspapers kindly lent their aid in presenting to the public the object of the meeting, viz. to attempt to awaken an interest in the Platonic Philosophy.
“Music of a very high order was rendered by resident musicians, Prof. Benter, Miss Carrie Crane, Mrs. Eva Mayers Shirley, Mrs. Lydia Sherman.
“Miss Raymond welcomed with cordial greeting, not only the Philosophers who appeared in response to the invitation, but those from suburban towns, distant cities, and our own home friends.
“She gave likewise a short sketch of the Life of Plato. Mrs. Stevens stated briefly the reasons for fixing the Celebration on the 7th of November, rather than in May, November corresponding to Thargelion the eleventh month of the Attic year, and the time observed by the Florentine Platonists.
“Several letters expressive of sympathy and an appreciation of the movement were read from friends deprived of the pleasure of attendance. One says: “Your invitation is both beautiful and original. I like the idea of celebrating Plato’s birthday in Illinois.” [ . . .]
“Rev. George Stevens read a paper by Alexander Wilder M.D., of New York City, entitled, “Philosophic Morality.” Then an anonymous essay was presented on “Euthyphron or Holiness.”
“Both these papers provoked discussion. Many insisted upon concisely formulated definitions of the two qualities, morality and holiness; and some murmured at not having them shaped into jewels, to be borne away as keepsakes.
“Mrs. South, of Jacksonville, Ills., recited a little poem, “Looking Backward,” contrasting the socialistic scheme of Edward Bellamy, with Plato’s Republic.
“At the evening session, although the rain fell in torrents, there were about sixty souls present. The session opened with the following poetical tribute to Plato, which was read by Mrs. Julia P. Stevens:
“Immortal Plato! Justly named divine!
What depth of thought, what energy is thin!
Whose God-like soul, an ample mirror seems,
Strongly reflecting mind’s celestial beams,
Whose periods too redundant roll along,
Grand as the ocean! as the torrent strong.”
A few are always found in every age,
“To unfold the wisdom of thy mystic page.”
And now, though hoary centuries have fled,
We wish to honor still, the illustrious dead,
Dead! Did I say? Ah no! He yet inspires
All lofty souls, with heavenly desires
To mount on Reason’s wing, beyond the sky,
Where truly beauteous forms can never die,
Where prophet, saint, and sage in bright array,
Behold the splendors of eternal day. [. . .]
“Mr. Johnson, Editor of the Bibliotheca Platonica, read a paper entitled, “Plato and His Writings.” Much interest was manifested by various questions, at the conclusion of the reading.
“Dr. Hiram K. Jones, of Jacksonville, Illinois, who declared that his “lucid interval” was in the morning, rather than in the evening, delivered a most eloquent extemporaneous discourse on the “Symposion of Plato.” [ . . .]
“The audience after joining in the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” dispersed.
“The next day, November 8th, was almost entirely occupied in conversations and discussions on Platonic topics; and I hold in grateful remembrance all the good things uttered both by Mr. Johnson and Dr. Jones.
“The success of the Symposion was mainly due to the energy of Miss Raymond, who, gifted with appreciation, is the embodiment of generosity, and ever seeks to bring the best of everything to the citizens of Bloomington.
“The next Celebration will be held on the 7th day of November, 1890, at Jacksonville, Ills.”
JOHNSON VS. SHOREY
Johnson continued his book collecting. In 1898 he built a four room stone building to house his library. His 8000-volume collection included a thousand books by or about Plato. His collection of Thomas Taylor editions was probably the finest in America at the time. He was especially proud of his copy of Ficino’s translation of Plotinos published in 1492.
For Jones, Alcott, and Emerson philosophy was a defense, or even a replacement, for religion. Johnson, so much younger, saw the transformation of philosophy into an institutionalized profession. Tom was a lawyer who wanted to be a professor of philosophy. In his journal he admitted reading philosophy books at his law office, which he maintained until 1905. But Johnson longed for a like-minded community. He wrote letters to Alcott complaining about the isolation of his life in Osceola. Johnson delivered a few important lectures at key events, for example for the Western Philosophical Association, which became the American Philosophical Association, still the most important organization for philosophers in the U.S. His friends, some of them well placed and important, nominated him for academic positions repeatedly but despite his publishing history he had no teaching credentials. Even credentials may not have helped him since at the time philosophy professors trained in Germany were in demand. A friend writing about Johnson in 1900 reported he was “preparing translations from Greek of the works of Plotinus and Damascius, and an original work on the life and writings of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist.” Apparently he had not given up on the project that he had first written to Alcott about as a young man, when he was the Platonic boy wonder of the Transcendentalists.
But after Bibliotheca Platonica failed Johnson avoided print for almost two decades until 1908 when he published his translation of Exhortation to Philosophy by Iamblichus, and then a year later Opuscula Platonica: The Three Fundamental Ideas of the Human Mind – Hermeias’ Platonic Demonstration of the Immortality of the Soul. Johnson could not resist including a bonus track: Thomas Taylor’s Dissertation on the Platonic Doctrine of Ideas. The Three Fundamental Ideas of the Human Mind was a lecture Johnson had given for The Southwest Teachers’ Association that was so popular it was reprinted at the association’s request in the Missouri School Journal.
Why did Johnson emerge from his self-imposed literary exile? One friend wrote of his long illness without giving details. But Jay Bregman in his seminal essay The Neoplatonic Revival in North America has argued convincingly that Johnson was reacting to what he called “preposterous and fallacious allegations” by Paul Shorey. As a classical scholar Shorey had everything Johnson did not, including not only that coveted German education; he was also one of the first class of students at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Shorey also had a job at the University of Chicago, and a degree from Harvard. His books were published by universities while Johnson continued to self publish.
Shorey ushered in the next era of scholarship, when philology brought the study of classical philosophy the perspective of archeology, rather than soul and social transformation. Perhaps most troubling to Johnson was Shorey’s argument that the Neoplatonists were not to be trusted when interpreting Plato. According to Shorey Neoplatonic “sentimentality” had tarnished the reputation of Plato.
Shorey took a direct swipe at Johnson when he wrote, “the most conspicuous Platonists have always been those whom Coleridge calls the Plotinists. From Alexandria to Florence, from Concord to Jacksonville and Osceola, they have made Platonism synonymous with mysticism.” The only famous Platonist from Osceola was Thomas Johnson.
Shorey’s interpretation of Plato fit right in with America’s growing love of Utilitarianism. Forget the metaphysics of the Myth of Er, the true Plato was to be found in his practical approach to examining ethics. Shorey’s skeptical view of Neoplatonic claims helped inaugurate decades of academic dismissal of the Neoplatonists. Discredited as late pagan apologists, few historians or philosophers stooped to study them at all.
An obituary written by a friend fondly remembers Johnson’s library, giving us a glimpse of his charm. “There men of kindred interests were welcomed as visitors, and for years he maintained an extensive correspondence with such men in many places. However, his associates were by no means all of this sort. He had a genial and friendly feeling toward many whose intellectual attainments and aspirations were slight; toward virtually everyone, indeed, except those whom he regarded as pseudo-philosophers or pseudo-intellectuals. He included in this category one or two conspicuous figures among contemporary scholars, and remarked on them with some vigor.” We can safely assume that Paul Shorey was the recipient of the most vigor.
WALDO PLATO AT THE JAPANESE WAR CRIMES TRIALS
Johnson died in 1919, having lived long enough to read about the trench warfare, poison gas and the other horrors of World War 1. Did he share the general optimism inspired by the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles, that this was the war that would end all wars?
The names Johnson gave his sons reflect both his predominate philosophical interests and his high expectations for them: Ralph Proclus, Franklin Plotinus, and Waldo Plato. It’s tempting to wonder if the sex magic teachings of the H.B. of L., the goal of creating a better human being, might be glimpsed in Johnson’s choice of middle names for his sons. But Ralph, the eldest, and first given a fancy middle name, was born in 1883, a year before Max Thelon started the H. B. of L. in England.
Helen M. Johnson, her father’s only daughter, grew up to become a Sanskrit scholar who lived in India for several years. Her collection of 300 books on India is now in her father’s library. Her Brief History Of Jainism, The Jain Saga, and her classic translation of Hemacandra’s “Trishashthi Shalaka Purusha Caritra” were reprinted as recently as 2009, in India, as a 1700 page deluxe soft cover three book set in a slipcase.
Waldo Plato Johnson, named for his paternal grandfather U.S. Senator and member of the Confederate Congress Waldo Porter Johnson, appears as one of two new members of Alpha Kappa fraternity at the University of Missouri in 1903. Later he was president of a bank in Osceola. According to Hursh vs. Crook Supreme Court of Missouri. Division No. 2, July 9, 1956, Waldo had been involved in the War Crimes trials in Japan in 1946. Waldo died on a cold January day in 1953; just five days after Truman announced the United States, apparently underwhelmed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had developed a hydrogen bomb.
Ralph Proclus Johnson was vice president of the Citizens State Bank of Osceola in 1916. He seems to have preferred the law. Ralph appears in the 1940 U.S. Federal Census living in Osceola with his wife Erin, who in 1948 was a Missouri delegate at large for the Democratic National Convention. Hursh vs. Crook refers to Ralph as a lawyer with fifty years of practice. The case involved what might have been faked signatures, but the Johnsons were merely witnesses, apparently there was some doubt whether the signature on Waldo’s will had been forged, perhaps by the same person who allegedly forged the signature litigated in Hursh vs. Crook. His gravestone reads Ralph P. Johnson: An Honorable and Just Man.
Franklin Plotinus Johnson born in 1896 was a private first class in the U.S. Army during World War One. After the war he too became a scholar. Like his father he favored classical history but he preferred archeology to philosophy. In 1927 Duke University Press published his Foundations for a Study of Lysippus based on his 1921 dissertation at Johns Hopkins University. His father’s beloved The Classical Journal wrote: “perhaps the most significant book on Greek sculpture to be produced by an American scholar within recent years.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies called it “judicious and acute…an important piece of research.” In 1931 the American School of Classical Studies at Athens with Harvard University Press published Franklin’s book Corinth – Results of Excavations: Volume IX: Sculpture, 1896-1923. At the time Franklin was at the University of Chicago where his late father’s nemesis Paul Shorey had been an important Classical Studies professor. Franklin achieved his father’s dream of academic community and legitimacy.
Alice Johnson, Tom’s wife, lived long enough to spend the last year of her life in a world so different from the one she had inhabited with her husband that it included the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet by Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor and the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ralph who died in 1960 lived long enough to have possibly seen Elvis on the Sullivan Show, though we don’t know if he ever did. Franklin who died in 1975, could have been startled some late night by a glimpse of David Bowie or Alice Cooper glam rocking on The Midnight Special or In Concert. The world of Tom’s quiet library and the refined company of his Platonist friends were forgotten in this new world.
Unfortunately it appears his widow and sons were never asked to participate in any research regarding Thomas Johnson and his colleagues. Modernity swept away his father’s Neoplatonic intentions. Even on their grave markers all three of Johnson’s sons dropped their middles names; Proclus, Plato and Plotinus, were replaced with the initial P.
THOMAS JOHNSON AND AMERICAN METAPHYSICAL RELIGION
In Plato’s Ghost, Cathy Gutierrez argues convincingly that Platonism deeply informed American spiritualism. Not only did mediums find reincarnation in Plato’s work, they also found the idea of soul mates in his description of how all human souls were split in two so they strive to join again through many lifetimes. In Platonic recollection American spiritualists found the best description and endorsement of the activities of mediums who claimed to be reacquainting souls with their true histories, explaining suffering as not chaos but the consequences of forgotten mistakes, often in a past life, sometimes in another world. If spiritualism broke open the doors of the average American’s imagination, Plato, through his admirers like Emerson, Hiram K. Jones, Bronson Alcott, Thomas Johnson and Alexander Wilder, provided the battering ram.
When archeologists announced the discovery of the road to Plato’s Academy, Johnson wrote an editorial arguing that the Academy should be restored not only as an historical site but also as a functioning school. “There is no good reason why, in due time, the Platonic school should not again flourish on its original site, and again become, as it once was, the nursery of science and wisdom for the whole world.”
The mysterious L.A. Off in his note “A School of Philosophy” in an 1887 issue of The Platonist proposed a new kind of educational institution, a school in California where professors could compare eastern and western religious symbolism and practice. Johnson doubted the plan would work. Modern professors, he sneered, consider philosophies mere examples of the idiosyncrasies of the human mind. Off was another true believer in the dawn of an age of enlightenment. “The dust no longer accumulates upon the volumes of Paracelsus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jacob Boehme,” he wrote. “Mankind is suddenly realizing the wonderful virtues of their knowledge–” After a discussion of maya and bodhi Off proposed Los Angeles as the ideal location. His school was never established, at least not by Off. In 1934 the Philosophical Research Society established in Los Angeles by Manly P. Hall fulfilled many of the goals described by Off. Because of MPH and PRS I knew what The Platonist was when I saw it on that shelf in Hippocampus, and because of them I wanted to read it.
Somehow someone’s collection of The Platonist volumes one and two found its way all the way to Sunset Boulevard and Hippocampus. Like a message in a bottle sent through time by Thomas Johnson and his friends. What Johnson wrote about his own time and place resonates with ours. In his introduction to the second volume of The Platonist he wrote.
“The late Count Cavour, it is said, predicted a new religion for the coming century. The gradual waning of faith everywhere, and the honeycombing process which is steadily wearing away present institutions seem to afford a warrant for the declaration. The antipathies between races and creeds are steadily weakening. The West is constantly adopting the notions, habits and luxuries of India and China; and the bustling activity of Europe and America is shaking the whole fabric of Oriental custom. There is a steady unifying influence operating among the nations; the exigencies of commerce and daily communication require and render more probable their acceptance and employing of a single language, which event would be the precursor of a common literature. The new worship must be accordant with the genius of the period. It will be at one with Science, but all the time intellective. There may be no single apostle or hierophant to establish it, but it will be the outgrowth of agencies now in operation.”
Thomas Johnson didn’t call it American Metaphysical Religion, but that’s what he was writing about.
The next blog in this series will focus on the twilight stage of 19th century American Neoplatonism, the checkered careers of the Guthrie brothers. One hawked Neoplatonic translations as if they were snake oil. The other was a minister disciplined by his superiors for presiding over an ancient Egyptian sun god ritual in his church on a Sunday afternoon. But the days of Emerson praising Plato and of Plato Clubs in frontier towns were over.
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Written by Ronnie Pontiac
Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge. He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.