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History of the Biosophical Institute

In its heyday, the “group,” as it was known to members of The Biosophical Institute, had an office and a community in New York City, and offices in Washington D.C., Chicago, and Cleveland. Meetings were held three to four nights a week and consisted of study groups focusing on Spinoza’s philosophy, inspiring teachings from different religious texts, and other relevant writers.  Weekly lectures about Biosophy were given by Dr. Frederick Kettner. And weekend social gatherings consisting of music, plays, or dancing attracted participants from the public (Del Mar & Kettner, 1936).

In the time between the world wars there were many groups advocating peace and utopian communities where people gathered with like minds and goals. “The leading historian of the American peace movement in the 1930s has identified three distinct groups of peace societies: radical, internationalist, and pacifist” (Harrison, 1984, p.30). It is not clear that the Biosophical Institute fit any of these groups, although, as mentioned by one of the members, “we were radical and didn’t think our families would understand” (Gottlieb, 2008). In some sense Dr. Kettner proposed radical ideas for the time, especially in connection with established religion and the church. The group was probably more aligned with the pacifist movement as there were many activities associated with peace such as building friendships, not warships demonstration and Dr. Kettner’s work towards the establishment of a department of peace and secretary of peace.

Veysey (1978) suggests that mysticism and anarchism were two cornerstones of many of the communities that were established at that time. He considered Biosophy among the mystical based communities in his book The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-century America. In it he states, “Biosophy, founded in 1932 by Frederick Kettner, was undoubtedly somewhat larger; like Theosophy, it held weekly lectures in many cities” (p. 42). He suggests that the spokesmen of the religious mystical groups “have always insisted that community is only a secondary goal in comparison with individual realization of the Divine [and that they differ from religious believers in that]…the ideal life does not consist in mere obedience to God, as if man were an eternally separated creature, but in a process of self-development which leads to actual union with the Infinite” (p.11).  He considers mysticism to imply “the presence of a guru, and therefore a much more leader-oriented and well-defined plan of everyday existence” (p. 12).

Although, it was mentioned that Dr. Kettner started a sect based on religious mysticism, he was sometimes misunderstood, as much of his work was focused on character and peace education with the ultimate goal of world peace (beginning with the individual). Dr. Kettner was a pioneer in character and peace education (from 1920-1957), founded Biosophy (the doctrine of intelligent living based on character qualities), and established The Biosophical Institute where individuals worked together to develop their inner peace nature. He was in the forefront of advocating for a secretary of peace in all governments and a department of peace in the United States. He also wrote plans for the establishment of a Peace University based on character and peace education. The Biosophical Institute inspired a paradigm shift from a culture of conflict to a culture of peace.

Throughout his life, Dr. Kettner searched for those deeper thinkers who could illuminate “his own quest for the fundamental meaning of Life” (“Frederick Kettner,” 1958, p. 13). Dr. Kettner was seeking for a spiritual truth that was not apparent in traditional forms of religion. He became interested in Theosophy and Buddism, during this time. He met Rudolph Steiner and was welcomed to the inner meetings of “Anthroposophische Gesellschaft” in Vienna. However, “the dogmas, theories and abstractions of the majority of philosophers, religious leaders, and educators left him empty” (“Frederick Kettner,” 1958, p. 13). Dr. Kettner continued throughout his life to search for others who might be seeking for spiritual truth within themselves (Ruskin, 1976).

Early in his life, Kettner was introduced to Spinoza’s Ethics by his brothers. The ideas inherent in the writings of Baruch de Spinoza would have the greatest single impact on his life. Kettner completed his PhD on “The Unity of the Five Books in Spinoza’s Ethics” in 1919. Shortly after completing his PhD, Dr. Kettner founded and established the first Ethical Seminar for character education based on the fundamentals of Spinoza’s Ethics and the New Testament. (Del Mar & Kettner, 1936). Students of this seminar started a group that was the forerunner of the Institute that would evolve years later in New York City.

When invited to give a series of lectures on Spinoza in New York City, he “decided to go to America where he felt he would have greater opportunities and more freedom to realize his biosophical ideas” (Del Mar & Kettner, 1936, p. 16). As Dr. Kettner recounted in the 1955 radio interview, “One day some of the students decided to go to America to spread Biosophy. When they were here [in America] two or three years, believe it or not, one day I got a letter from them. When I opened the letter, I found in it a 100-dollar bill and a ticket for a boat!’ (“A Radio Interview,” 1958, p. 36). Much like his cherished Spinoza, who had turned down a prestigious professor’s position at Heidelberg to pursue his search for spiritual truth, Dr. Kettner sacrificed his European connections and happily accepted the invitation giving the first lecture at the City College of New York on the topic of Ethical Radicalism.

Dr. Kettner started a Spinoza club at City College (Gottlieb, 2008) and for several years he worked to build the Spinoza Group. New York City was a magnet for social idealism. Will Durant, Felix Adler, and Upton Sinclair were among those he interacted with in these early years. He would invite these thinkers to meet with the Spinoza group. Jiddu Krishnamurti addressed the group in 1927 and later that year Dr. Kettner met the Sufi leader, Inyat Khan who asked him to start a Sufi center in Brooklyn (Del Mar & Kettner, 1936).  Some of the students in the Spinoza club met at Dr. Kettner’s home, but Sunday public lectures were given at the Sufi Center or the Arcane School run by Alice Bailey.

In 1928 Dr. Kettner started the Spinoza Institute of America in New York City. The following year, the Spinoza group was invited to have its headquarters in the Roerich Museum by Nicholas Roerich, an artist and spiritual leader, who was deeply impressed by the Spinoza group’s work in character development. In April, 1930, the group became known as the Spinoza Center of the Roerich Museum, meeting at 310 Riverside Drive.

Dr. Kettner continued to speak on the subject of Spinoza’s idea of God and mysticism at the Conference on Spiritual Advancement in Switzerland. On the same trip he met P.D. Ouspensky in London. He also had the chance to visit Spinoza’s House in Holland where Spinoza lived and worked on his Ethics. In Amsterdam Dr. Kettner met many friends of Spinoza’s teachings and founded a Spinoza Group there that he kept in contact with for many years. He visited Vienna and met Dr. Alfred Adler, founder of the School for Individual Psychology, who he invited to speak with the Spinoza Group in New York the following year (Del Mar & Kettner, 1936).

Albert Einstein’s interest in Spinoza led him to invite Dr. Kettner to meet with him in his stateroom in 1931 before leaving for California. Walter Isaacson (2007), in his biography of Einstein, mentions a meeting Einstein had with a Spinoza group in the early 1930s. After this meeting, Einstein (1931) wrote to Dr. Kettner, “It was a great joy for me to have made your acquaintance and to have seen those young people who consecrated themselves to the study of Spinoza…I believe, however, that your group is the embodiment of that spirit which Spinoza served so passionately” (p. 5). Einstein’s love of peace and his and Dr. Kettner’s mutual interest in Spinoza served to keep them in contact when in 1939 The Biosophical Institute produced a peace film in which Einstein appeared along with other Nobel prize laureates.

In 1932, Dr. Kettner’s book, Spinoza the Biosopher, was published for Spinoza’s Tercentennial Anniversary celebration. A special Tercentenary issue of the magazine of the Spinoza Center, Spinoza Quarterly (previously known as Spinoza in America) was published. And Dr. Kettner gave a series of radio talks on the “Biosophical Conception of Man”. After five years at the Roerich Museum, the Biosophical Institute moved in 1935 to a building at 23 W. 87th St. in New York City. The Spinoza Center of the Roerich Museum became known as the Biosophical Institute and the Spinoza Quarterly became the Biosophical Review.

In a radio interview with Rev. Kenneth Hildebrand on April 18, 1955, in Chicago, Dr. Kettner talked about the roots of Biosophy:

I thought I would take the word Life – in Greek it means Bios – and the word truth or wisdom [Sophia] and put them together.…Biosophy is a new science, the science of the inner life. Years ago I came to the conclusion that man is not only what he seems to be outwardly, needing only food, clothing, shelter and amusement, but he is a soul. (“A Radio Interview,” 1958, p. 35).

Dr. Kettner began to realize the need for a new kind of education in order to develop the Peace Nature within man.

Communities

Throughout the history of the group, there were several iterations of communities where members lived in close proximity in order to share meals, conversations, and work toward the ultimate goal of peace.

The Declaration of the First Spinoza Community was announced and signed on November 24, 1932 in New York City. The Spinoza Community was described by one of its members, “The community represents an ethical experiment – an endeavor to achieve in reality the noblest standards of unselfishness and highmindedness” (Goodwin, 1932b, p. 10). “The work of such a community is character development” (Goodwin, 1932a, p. 22).

One of the members of the Spinoza Community also lived in other communities throughout the years. She described her experiences as follows, “There were several girls’ communities. I lived on 925 West End Ave. As couples we moved into the Hotel Dauphin [in 1939]. We had a community there. We would take turns cooking for 17 people.” (Gottlieb, 2008) “Living in the communities was like living in Shangri-La” (L. Mark, personal communication, August 15, 2008). As young people experimenting with a new type of living she spoke about the evolution of the group:

We were growing in our understanding and didn’t know how to talk about the group. We weren’t communists or socialists. We weren’t political, although we had the secretary of peace plan.…One of our members was an artist and musician.…We had dances for servicemen.…Those communities weren’t the best. We had to move out and on our own. We are still trying to discover how to be a movement. (Gottlieb, 2008)

Some of the activities included meetings held on many evenings throughout the week. One evening was devoted to Spinoza’s Ethics. Another to the study of great religious writings such as the Old and New Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, Laotze’s Tao-Teh-King, and the Buddhistic Way of Virtue, among others. There were cultural evenings, as well, containing great works of music, poets, dramatics, and educational subjects or current social issues. And on Sunday evenings Dr. Kettner held a lecture series on the subject of Biosophy that lasted for many years. The meetings are described in such detail in the magazine of the Institute. One such description provides the mood of the room and the manner of Dr. Kettner:

By now the room is full – the door opens – and …we meet Dr. Kettner – happy, joyful, youthful as only he who has found life can be….As he comes before us and stands ready to speak, there is silence.…Following this pause Dr. Kettner begins to speak. His voice is different from that of any other person whom we have ever heard before….All are seated, conversations stop, each one collecting his thoughts and trying to think with the Doctor as he speaks. We feel, “This is not a teacher speaking to a class – this is not a leader speaking to his followers – this is a friend speaking to his friends – speaking from his very heart and soul”. He speaks for a short while and then the work of the evening begins. (“The First Spinoza Group,” 1931, pp. 6, 10, 13)

Following the main program the individuals would “gather in small groups to discuss further the evening’s subject or to help each other with their individual problems” (Del Mar & Kettner, 1936, p. 58). This was the very core of the biosophical work.

The students of The Biosophical Institute (1954) described the group in the preface to Dr. Kettner’s book, Biosophy and Spiritual Democracy:

The biosophical group became a laboratory for the science of Biosophy….It became clearer to Dr. Kettner, as he continued his studies and observations of human behavior, that peace on earth would be impossible as long as the character of men remained warlike and unchanged. He further realized that the key to humanity is the individual. The individual, therefore would have to be educated to contact the source of peace within himself before peace could become a reality in human society. (pp. xiv, xi)

Dr. Kettner realized that in order to discover one’s inner nature, the obstacles embedded in human nature had to be removed. These lay at the root of human emotions and caused conflicts among the students. However, this was a difficult task and some group members did not understand the work, which caused more conflict and less cooperation. Because this was an experiment, Dr. Kettner employed different ideas including encouraging individuals to “pioneer” to other cities to start centers for Biosophy.

Centers

In the 1940’s several group members left New York City and “pioneered” to other cities to open centers of Biosophy. The Doctor encouraged them to do so. One member described this process as she lived in all four cities that had centers at one time or another:

We were all called strivers. After the war we wanted to go to other cities…[Some] went to Cleveland…[others] to Chicago…[and still others] to Washington DC…[In Washington DC] I was working at the office…Sunday meetings were called a Biosophicum. We also had meetings for the public…Dr. Kettner called me and invited me to move to the Chicago Center…We moved because we followed the call of Biosophy. We were in Chicago from 1950-1960 then we moved to Cleveland. When we went to Chicago we were there because Dr. Kettner was leading the whole thing. We went to Cleveland because we felt more in harmony with the people in the Cleveland center and they invited us to come here. (Gottlieb, 2008)

Cleveland is where the last group remained after Dr. Kettner passed away in 1957.

Peace Movement

“The group is the first expression of the beginning of a new movement in the world. And as all great movements must have a leader or originator, the organizer of this group is Dr. Frederick Kettner” (“The First Spinoza Group,” 1931, p. 6). Dr. Kettner, with support from the members of The Biosophical Institute, worked for peace on activities that would strengthen the resolve and desire of his students to draw out their spiritual nature and friendship motive. He realized that it would take many years for the science of Biosophy to take root and the activities inherent in the work for establishing peace on earth could work towards that goal. One of these activities was the need for Secretaries of Peace in all governments. Dr. Kettner conceived a plan for a Secretary of Peace and shared it with his students. “They became deeply inspired by the idea and began a major activity toward realizing it” (Students of The Biosophical Institute, 1954, p. xxi). They collected over 41,000 signatures on a petition for Dr. Kettner to present this plan at the Inter-American Peace Conference in Argentina in 1936. However, he found that, “Permanent peace can never be a superficial thing based on signatures to a piece of paper. Peace is a state of being that must begin in the heart and mind of man, out of which grows a deep valuation and caring for the individual” (Students of The Biosophical Institute, 1954, p. xxiv-xxv). This is probably what distinguished this movement from other peace movements.

The trip to Argentina was a success in other ways. Dr. Kettner was able to start a biosophical group in South America. Dr. Kettner stayed in Argentina, learned Spanish and translated his poems and some lectures into Spanish. He also wrote a book and started a magazine in Spanish that he had hoped would be a cooperative endeavor with the group in New York. He even met with the ambassadors of Bolivia and Mexico, who wrote articles for this new magazine. His letters to the group in New York are full of experiences and challenges he had over the next 10 months working to establish a Biosophical Center in Buenos Aires (Kettner, 1938).

Another activity that Dr. Kettner and the Biosophical Institute worked on was a peace film that was presented in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. The Institute presented a film introduced by Dr. Kettner on character and peace education. Featured in the film were Nobel prize winners: Albert Einstein – Physics, Thomas Mann – Literature, Harold C. Urey – Chemistry, Arthur H. Compton – Physics, Nicolas Murray Butler – Peace. Also Cordell Hull, US Secretary of State, Dr. Eduard Benes, Ex-President of Czechoslovakia, Robert A. Taft, US Senator from Ohio (L. Mark, personal communication, August 15, 2008). Cordell Hull was the Secretary of State who had given the address at the Inter-American Peace Conference.

Throughout the next decade, Dr. Kettner worked tirelessly for character and peace education. Over the years the Biosophical Review continued to contain articles from prominent thinkers of the time and inspiring ideas from Dr. Kettner and his students. In late 1945, the editorial offices moved to Chicago and in 1957 they moved to Cleveland. Throughout this time Dr. Kettner was constantly experimenting with new ideas and peace activities that he hoped would challenge his students’ thinking. In 1950, the School for Biosophical Research Within Man was opened and mentioned in the editorial notes of the magazine. “The School for Biosophical Research Within Man has been opened to the public. One of the main objectives of this school is to help its students become more realistic about building a better world” (Kettner, 1950, p. 2). In 1952 the word “Peace” was added to the name as in “the School for Biosophical Peace Research Within Man” and in 1953 Dr. Kettner published an Open Letter to Pope Pius XII where he challenged the dogmas of Catholicism and the practices of the church as not being in harmony with Jesus’ teachings. The legacy of the Biosophical Review magazine showed that Dr. Kettner was continually engaging his students in activities that worked for peace.

Although many of these activities had to do with working for change in the world, they were also meant to be challenges for the students in the group so they could always bring the work back to their own character improvement.

During the last five years of his life, as Dr. Kettner’s health deteriorated, he continued to give lectures, assisted by two members of the group who traveled with him. They traveled to various centers, particularly Chicago and Cleveland during the cool months. But when the weather got warm they had to travel to climates that were conducive to his health condition. During their travels they would stop in towns where there were universities and if Dr. Kettner was up to it he would contact the philosophy professors and very often would be invited to speak to the class on Spinoza (Gottlieb, 2008). One of the members he traveled with described his willingness to share ideas with others this way, “Despite his illness, especially in his last 10 yrs of his life – he never complained and never mentioned his illness – He was always ready to share his wisdom – share his caring, love with anyone – and by his spiritual will was able to surmount his physical obstacles and incapacity” (Ruskin, 1970).

On March 25, 1957, Dr. Kettner gave his last lecture at a luncheon for a church group of businessmen at the Manger hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. A week later on March 28, he passed away. Dr. Kettener’s last message before he died, was a note he wrote on the back of his press card. It said, “I am myself the eternal now and no more human”.

On April 5, 1957, it had been only a week since the Doctor’s passing, a letter arrived from the State Department inviting him to come to Washington DC. It was an answer to a letter he had written to President Eisenhower asking to see him about the idea of creating a Peace University in America. On the morning of September 16, a committee from The Biosophical Institute met with the Public Affairs Division of the Department of State in Washington DC. The government officials were receptive to the presentation of Dr. Kettner’s Peace University idea. The group members left with them a “Proposal for the establishment of the first peace university in America” based upon ideas, research and education experiments conducted by Dr. Kettner (Ruskin, 1970). In it were 15 points that a secretary of peace would be responsible for.

The offices in New York, Washington DC, and Chicago all officially closed just prior to Dr. Kettner’s death, as he didn’t want Biosophy to continue if it wasn’t understood. In his journal, one member described Dr. Kettner:

His greatness really was in his great humility. He studied all the great writings of all ages and integrated them in his thinking.…I think his greatest trait was to help us think for ourselves as individuals – he didn’t want praise – he didn’t want followers – he wanted us to also become spiritual giants or at least to evolve spiritually.…He wanted us to become thinking individuals. He cared for us with a love that penetrated to his own deepest consciousness. It was an example of the Love of God from man. He was more human than anyone I ever met because his own divinity came first in his thinking and actions” (Ruskin, 1970).

Those in Cleveland remained and met often based on the principles that Dr. Kettner espoused. In the years since, all of the original Cleveland group members have passed on. The children of the group members remain, all working for peace in themselves and in the world, as a testament to the influence of one man, his spiritual message, and the peace movement he started. The implications of Dr. Kettner’s life and work could be far reaching in the field of peace education. Therefore the Biosophical Institute, through a generous donation from one of the Cleveland group members, continues to support peace education and a culture of peace through its work as a foundation.

References

A radio interview with Dr. Kettner. (1958). The Biosophical Review, 13 (1), 35-40.

Del Mar, E. & Kettner, S. (1836). Frederick Kettner, founder of Biosophy. Hollywood, CA: Franklin Printers.

Frederick Kettner, founder of Biosophy. (1958). The Biosophical Review, 13 (1), 11-26.

Einstein, A. (1931). Letter to Dr. Kettner. Published in Spinoza In America, 1 (1), 5.

Goodwin, E. (1932a). The dedication of the first Spinoza community (II). Spinoza in America, 1 (3), 21-22.

Goodwin, E. (1932b). The Spinoza community. Spinoza in America, 1 (4), 10-12.

Gottlieb, L. (Producer). (2008). Biosophy: The Religion of Friendship [Documentary].

Harrison, R.A. (1984). From Paladin and Pawn: Admiral Richard E. Byrd and the quagmire of peace politics in the 1930s. Peace and Change, 9 (4), 29-49.

Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His life and universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kettner, F. (1932) Spinoza the Biosopher. New York: Roerich Museum Press.

Kettner, F. (1938). Letters by Frederick Kettner, Volume I, 1934-1938. New York: Unbound volume compiled by students of The Biosophical Institute.

Kettner F. (1950). Editorial. The Biosophical Review, 9 (3), p. 2-4.

Kettner, F. (1953) An Open Letter to Pope Pius XII. The Biosophical Review, 10 (2), 3-20.

Kettner, F. (1954). Biosophy and spiritual democracy: A basis for world peace. New York: Vantage Press.

Mark, L. (2008). Personal communication.

Roerich, N. (1931). Vital wisdom. Spinoza In America, 1 (1), 3-4.

Ruskin, L. (1970). Unpublished diary.

Ruskin, L. (n.d.) The biography of Dr. Kettner. Unpublished paper.

Ruskin, L. (1976). The Inward Search. Cleveland, OH: The Biosophical Institute

The first Spinoza group. (1958). Spinoza In America, 1 (1), 6-16.

The Students of the Biosophical Institute. (1954). Preface. In F. Kettner. Biosophy and spiritual democracy: A basis for world peace. (pp. ix-xxvi). New York: Vantage Press.

Veysey, L.R. (1978). The communal experience: Anarchist and mystical communities in twentieth-century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

 

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