The Odyssey of Annie Besant

Exactly a century ago, Annie Besant appalled her friends in the secularist and socialist movements of late Victorian England by converting to Theosophy. Hers was a particularly dramatic spiritual odyssey, beginning with the High Church fervour of her adolescence, passing through a much publicised endorsement of free-thought and materialism, to end at last in the eclectic occultism of Theosophy. Such a pilgrimage poses special difficulties for today's interpreters of her life. Besant's atheist stance is still attractive, with its impassioned plea for individual freedom of choice and its rousing appeal to human reason. In her Theosophical guise, she appears to have surrendered to mystical dogmatism, preferring obscurantism before rationalism. We honour her courage in the first instance and, in the second, deplore her relapse into an emotion-laden religiosity.

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