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Book Review - Clairvoyance, by CW Leadbeater


By CW Leadbeater

Reviewed by Daniel Hindes on 2005-06-18.

Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House 1903 ( 13th Reprinting, 1978).


This is a rather interesting book. It was published in 1903 (though written in 1899), a year before Rudolf Steiner's Theosophy and two before How to Know Higher Worlds. In reading it, it seems evident - between the lines as it were – that Leadbeater speaks of clairvoyance as one who has studied it as a subject, but not as one who has experienced it for himself.  There is, as seems to have been typical at the time, some effort to adapt the spiritualistic content to the scientific consciousness of the time.  Whereas Rudolf Steiner was quite clear as to where the sense perceptible world ended and the spiritual world began, Leadbeater appears to be trying to put clairvoyance sensibilities onto the electromagnetic spectrum. "It may help to dispel this sense of unreality if we try to understand that clairvoyance, like so many other things in nature, is mainly a question of vibrations..." (4).  The discussion of vibrations continues - after explaining that ether penetrates physical matter - and then the analogy is given that humans respond to those vibrations to which the organs of perception are attuned.[1] Examples from then-current psychology are given, including the demonstration of the variety of the human eye's sensitivity at the edge of the visible spectrum.


Already on the second page Leadbeater states that it is not his attempt to convince those who do not believe in clairvoyance of its existence deferring to many other such books that list all the arguments for and presumably against.  He says, "I'm addressing myself to the better-instructed class who know that clairvoyance exists..." (2). This does seem to indicate an attitude slightly different from that of Rudolf Steiner. Where Steiner appears humble in his own writings and genuinely wants everyone to understand what he says, Leadbeater will limit himself to those who already agree with him. Leadbeater also states on page three that he has seen examples of all the forms of clairvoyance he will describe, perhaps a tacit admission that he does not himself possess them.


The second chapter describes full clairvoyance. "We have defined this as a mere opening of the spirit or astral sight, which enables the possessor to seek whatever may be present around him on the corresponding levels, but is not usually accompanied by the power of seeing anything at great distance or of reading either the past or the future."(31).  Etheric vision is described, and it appears like a rather amazing magic trick. Inanimate objects appear transparent, as though seen through a mist. Such a clairvoyant can see through brick walls, describe accurately the contents of a locked box, read a sealed letter, and "with a little practice he can find a given passage in a closed book"(33). With claims like this it is little wonder that paranormal researchers would like to test such clairvoyance.  Also interesting from a historical perspective is that Rudolf Steiner was careful never to make such claims for himself. In fact Steiner's statement that "much error existed in the Theosophical society because people wrote things that they themselves did not understand" appears to be referring to this among other works.


In Leadbeater’s understanding, full clairvoyants are able to switch at will between their clairvoyant vision and their physical (34). Etheric sight is located in the physical organ of the eyes, so that damage to the physical organ will also damage the etheric vision (37). Etheric clairvoyants see new colors.

"He would find himself able to see several entirely new colors, not in the least resembling any of those included in the spectrum as we at present know it, and therefore of course quite indescribable in any terms at our command."(39).


Leadbeater’s understanding of the difference between etheric and astral sight is also quite interesting. Whereas etheric sight corresponds to the same three-dimensional space as physical sight - with the difference in that etherically you can see through things - in astral sight all dimensions are flattened. Everything has only one front and if the object being observed is physical and, for example is a cube with six sides, all six of them are simultaneously facing the clairvoyant in astral vision. This differs considerably from Rudolf Steiner's presentation of astral vision. For Rudolf Steiner the astral world was the world of feelings and as such a three-dimensional box with writing on it would not appear as an object to be “read". Leadbeater’s understanding of astral vision has the clairvoyant reading entire closed books effortlessly (etheric clairvoyants read only single pages). He sees astral clairvoyance as the answer to the question: What is the fourth dimension? (At the time the fourth dimension was a problem that vexed the science of the day, and was not, as it is today, commonly understood to be the movement of an object in space through time - it is more like the question of the nature of the 5th dimension today, though today science has quite a number of theories). In addition to the physical objects that the astral clairvoyant may see, he will also see astral beings, both those native to the astral plane and those who are physical beings who have died. The continuity of consciousness is also described (53) and Leadbeater’s description makes the whole process seem effortless. And finally, the ability of the clairvoyant to zoom in and out in his observation of both physical and astral matter is described. The clairvoyant is able to view the tiniest molecule at full-size or see the whole Earth the size of a basketball.


When considering the Akasha Chronicle, Leadbeater attempts to be very specific. First he notes the confusion concerning the term of Akasha in Theosophical contexts.

"Like so many others of our Theosophical terms, the word akasha has been very loosely used. In some of our earlier books it is considered as synonymous with astral light, and in the other is it was employed to signify any kind of invisible matter, from mulaprakriti down to the physical ether. In later books its uses been restricted to the matter of the mental plane, and it is in that sense that the records may be spoken of as akashic, for although they're not originally made on a plane any more than on the astral, yet it is there that we first definitely come into contact with them and find it possible to reliably work with them." (pages 118-119)


The Akasha Chronicle on the astral plane is only a "reflection of a reflection" (p. 124) and therefore frequently unreliable. However:

"On the next plane, which we call the mental, conditions are very different. There the record is full and accurate, and it would be impossible to make any mistake in the reading. That is to say if three clairvoyants possessing the powers of the mental plane agreed to examine a certain record there, what would be presented to their vision would be absolutely the same reflection in each case, and each would require a correct impression from reading it. It does not, however, follow that when they all compare notes later on the physical plane their reports would agree exactly. It is well-known matter, if three people who witnessed an occurrence down here in the physical world set to work to describe it afterwards, their accounts will differ considerably, for each will have noticed especially those items which most appeal to him, and will insensibly have made them to the prominent features of the event, sometimes ignoring other points which were in reality much more important." (126-127)


Reading the Akasha Chronicle is also described in great detail:

"When the visitor to [the mental, a.k.a. Devachanic] plane is not thinking specifically of them in any way, the records simply form a background to whatever is going on, just as the reflections in a pier-glass at the end of the room might form a background to the life of the people in it. It must always be born in mind that under these conditions they are really merely reflections from the ceaseless activity of a great Consciousness upon a far higher plane, and have very much the appearance of an endless succession of cinematographs, or living photographs. They do not a melt into one another like dissolving views, nor do a series of ordinary pictures follow one other; but the action of the reflected figures constantly goes on as though one were watching the actors on a distant stage. But if the trained investigator turns his attention especially to any one scene, or wishes to call it up before him, an extraordinary change at once takes place, for this is the plane of thought, and to think of anything is to bring it instantly before you. For example, if a man wills to see the record of that event to which we before referred – the landing of Julius Caesar – he finds himself in the moment not looking at any picture, but standing on the shore among the legionnaires, with the whole scene being enacted around him, precisely in every aspect as he would have seen it if he had stood there in the flash on that autumn morning in the year 55 B.C. Since what he sees is but a reflection, the actors are of course entirely unconscious of them, nor can any effort of his change the course of their action in the smallest degree, except only that he can control the rate which the drama shall pass before him – can have the event of the whole year rehearsed before eyes in a single hour, or can at any moment stop the movement altogether and hold the particular scene in view as a picture as long as he chooses." (pp 141-142)


This description is probably the basis of Rudolf Steiner's clarification in his lecture cycle The Theosophy of the Rosicrucian:

"What is the Akasha Chronicle? We can form the truest conception of it by realizing that what comes to pass on our earth makes a lasting impression upon certain delicate essences, an impression which can be discovered by a seer who has attained Initiation. It is not an ordinary but a living Chronicle. Suppose a human being lived in the first century after Christ; what he thought, felt and willed in those days, what passed into deeds — this is not obliterated but preserved in this delicate essence. The seer can behold it – not as if it were recorded in a history book, but as it actually happened. How a man moved, what he did, a journey he took-it can all be seen in these spiritual pictures; the impulses of will, the feelings, the thoughts, can also be seen. But we must not imagine that these pictures are images of the physical personalities. That is not the case. To take a simple example. – When a man moves his hand, his will pervades the moving hand and it is this force of will that can be seen in the Akasha Chronicle. What is spiritually active in us and has flowed into the Physical, is there seen in the Spiritual. Suppose, for example, we look for Caesar. We can follow all his undertakings, but let us be quite clear that it is rather his thoughts that we see in the Akasha Chronicle; when he set out to do something we see the whole sequence of decisions of the will to the point where the deed was actually performed. To observe a specific event in the Akasha Chronicle is not easy. We must help ourselves by linking on to external knowledge. If the seer is trying to observe some action of Caesar and takes an historical date as a point of focus, the result will come more easily. Historical dates are, it is true, often unreliable, but they are sometimes of assistance. When the seer directs his gaze to Caesar, he actually sees the person of Caesar in action, phantom-like, as though he were standing before him, speaking with him. But when a man is looking into the past, various things may happen to him if, in spite of possessing some degree of seership, he has not entirely found his bearings in the higher worlds."[2]


Without mentioning Leadbeater, Steiner has very clearly differentiated his experience from Leadbeater's descriptions of clairvoyance. To Leadbeater, reading the Akasha chronicle is a matter of perceiving visual pictures, like a cinematograph. To Steiner there is no visual component; it is all a matter of inner experience. This is just one of many such examples where Steiner takes issue with mainstream Theosophy. Thus for students of Rudolf Steiner, this book should be quite interesting. It serves to accentuate the differences between Steiner's Anthroposophy and classical Theosophy as it was promulgated about the time when Steiner "found it necessary" to join the Theosophical Society. And a study of these differences belies the claim that Steiner "preached Theosophical Doctrine" during his years as General Secretary. As Steiner himself noted: "No one was left in uncertainty of the fact that I would bring forward in the Theosophical Society only the results of my own research through perception. For I stated this on all appropriate occasions."[3]


[1] To which Rudolf Steiner wrote:

"We must not fall into the error of certain theosophical circles, and imagine that the etheric and astral bodies as consisting simply of finer substances than are present in the physical body. For that would be a materialistic conception of these higher members of man's nature. The etheric body is a force-form; it consists of active forces and not a matter. The astral or sentient body is a figure of inwardly moving, colored, luminous pictures."

Rudolf Steiner. "The Education of the Child in Light of Anthroposophy." London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965. Pages 13-14. Translated by George and Mary Adams. Originally published in 1909.

[2] Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy of the Rosicrucian, London 1981, p. 40.

[3] Rudolf Steiner, The Course of My Life, New York: Anthroposophic Press Page 297.

Copyright 1989-2007 Daniel Hindes