[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next]

History classroom vs. courtroom (to Bruce)

Feb 10, 2006 03:00 PM
by kpauljohnson

Dear Bruce,

I wrote this offline to post later, so am paraphrasing your remarks 
from memory rather than quoting, hoping to get the gist.  You wrote 
about HPB that she is innocent until proven guilty and that anyone 
who believes (or even entertains the possibility?) that she is guilty 
of anything is unfit to be called a Theosophist.  This 
guilt/innocence approach frames historical discussion as if it were 
identical to criminal trials, which I suggest leads in unfortunate 

One problem with this approach is that it is logically self-
defeating.  In a courtroom, only one person is on trial,  to be 
judged either guilty or not guilty of a particular offence in 
isolation from any other individuals.  In a courtroom there's no such 
thing as a little bit guilty; you either are or aren't.  In 
historical interpretation or reconstruction, anyone being appraised 
is studied in a network of other persons whose points of view are 
considered equally relevant.  Testimonies always conflict and 
evidence has to be weighed.  Everyone is a mixture of light and 
shadow, and no one is exempt from scrutiny based on supposed 
spiritual status. 

In the case of HPB you would have to rely on special pleading saying 
she and only she is to be handled with kid gloves like this.  Because 
the same courtesy is not extended to all the people whose testimony 
conflicts with hers, it is clearly not a workable *general* principle 
you are advocating, but rather a special exemption from normal 
historical scrutiny.  Religions frequently promote such special 
exemptions for their founders, but Theosophy was not intended to be 
another religion or to promote the kind of special pleading religion 
encourages.  The list of people who accused HPB of deception in one 
situation or another during her life is quite long.  Not just the 
Coulombs and Hodgson, but (to name a few) Emma Hardinge-Britten,  
C.C. Massey, Swami Dayananda, Mabel Collins, A.P. Sinnett, A.O. Hume, 
Solovyoff, many of the SPR founders, Babaji Nath,  on and on.  In 
every case where someone else's testimony conflicts with hers, your 
position implies HPB is entitled to the presumption not only that she 
is innocent until proven guilty, but the other person is guilty until 
proven innocent.   What about their rights to a fair hearing?  What 
we owe these people, IMO, is not any a priori presumption of guilt or 
innocence but rather the attempt to understand their relationships 
with one another in all their complexity, ambiguity, and subtlety.  
No easy task!  (I note that you and Carlos assert that certain things 
are "proven lies" but that sounds like wishful thinking to me-- few 
historical questions are resolved with absolute finality and 
certainly not about HPB.)

The second problem with the frame of guilt/innocence as applied to 
history is that it makes every biographer or historian a sinner or 
criminal, unless s/he writes totally fawning hagiography.  There is 
almost always reasonable doubt about any historical question.  Should 
that silence authors and prevent them from presenting their best 
guess as to the answer?  To say "my reading of the evidence is that 
Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children" becomes, in your frame, 
a terrible crime against his memory.  The DNA evidence only shows 
that *some* Jefferson was the father, and it *might* have been one 
other than Thomas—although circumstantial evidence makes it clear who 
is the most likely candidate.  (Some of the outraged white Jefferson 
hagiographers treated Barbara Chase-Riboud like a heretic and 
criminal when she first proposed the Hemings theory years ago.  TJ 
couldn't *possibly* have done such a thing.)  This makes a courtroom-
like two dimensional dichotomy out of the multidimensional continua 
of real life. 

I certainly would't want to belong to any movement in which daring to 
doubt or criticize the founder is a one-way ticket to permanent 
exile.  Your suggestion that anyone who doesn't give HPB the benefit 
of every doubt can't be a Theosophist implies that attitude.  It 
really doesn't seem to fit the values suggsted in the three objects 
or much of HPB's writings.  I think an educational model, rather than 
a legal one, fits the Theosophical movement better.  And in an 
educational setting there is nothing wrong with entertaining many 
different POVs about historical figures, without regarding criticism 
as sacrilege.  

Glad to see you here,


[Back to Top]

Theosophy World: Dedicated to the Theosophical Philosophy and its Practical Application