No, it’s not a Scientology front.
Nor is it “a Christian Science thing.” Or the Angelus Temple (that’s in nearby Echo Park). Or an exclusive league of Theosophists, Rosicrucians or Illuminati, or followers of Rudolf Steiner or Gurdjieff or any other specific mystic, either local or exotic. It's definitely not a den of Aleister Crowley worship.
When people venture guesses as to what goes on at the University of Philosophical Research (formerly known as the Philosophical Research Society) — the strange-looking, Mayan-style mini compound on Los Feliz Boulevard, across from the southern boundary of Griffith Park, right next to the traffic jam–prone access to the 5 freeway — they often get it very wrong.
For a good part of the 20th century, the Philosophical Research Society was the physical extension of the largely metaphysical interests and activities of its formidable founder, Manly P. Hall.
Hall was a self-educated writer and lecturer who flourished in the extremely fertile spiritual soil of post-WWI Los Angeles, where New World (and New Age) religions mixed freely with the esoteric traditions of Europe and what used to be called “the wisdom of the East.”
Seekers hungry for enlightenment flocked to lectures that could range from yoga and meditation, to Jungian psychoanalysis, to the hidden rites of the Freemasons, to the secret codes hidden in Shakespeare plays or the fables of the ancient world.
When barely out of his teens, Hall, a tall, mesmerizing presence who learned all the eerie showmanship tricks of the classic Hollywood era (and was close friends with Bela Lugosi), found himself some wealthy local patrons and amassed an insanely thorough personal library concerning “the wisdom traditions of the world.”
Based on his research, Hall published a compendium officially titled An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy in 1928. Popularly known as The Secret Teachings of All Ages, this massive book, featuring mystical illustrations by American symbolist artist J. Augustus Knapp, has never been out of print since; to this day, it's the gateway volume for would-be initiates in all things esoteric.
Hall was only 27 years old when he finished this groundbreaking compendium.
The influence of The Secret Teachings of All Ages was immediate and far-reaching. The lavish original editions, which currently fetch astronomical prices in the rare-book market, were followed by mass-market versions that spread Hall’s researches among a vast array of fan types. Even Elvis Presley, deep into his own spiritual quests, was at some point excitedly pushing Manly Hall’s encyclopedia of esoterica onto his befuddled Memphis and Hollywood sidekicks.
Hall also excelled in showmanship, evident in the intense glamour portraits for which he posed in the 1930s, or in his many attempts to get spiritual subjects made into Hollywood movies. His only completed film project, a thriller where the detective uses horoscopes to find a criminal, is campy fun, but his biggest influence by far was indirect. Star Trek’s famously inclusive philosophy, for example, owes a lot to Hall’s ideas. Creator Gene Roddenberry and other writers for the show were students of Hall’s works.
Starting in 1934, Hall erected several unusual structures in an unlikely corner of Los Feliz, following a grand architectural plan that, alas, was never to be completed. The areas that were crucial to his educational mission, though, were finished by the 1950s: his own personal auditorium, a few seminar rooms and a world-class library to house his collection of rare and unusual tomes concerning man’s search for meaning.
What makes Hall special — one could say unique — among the throng of spiritual masters operating in Southern California in the mid–20th century is that he was content lecturing, writing, researching and taking care of the Philosophical Research Society headquarters, the center he had built.
Hall never tried to become a guru, even in the heady days of the 1960s, when spiritual seekers willing to part with assets and income were swarming the scene. In fact, Hall would advise anyone who came to him for guidance to be wary of get-clear-quick approaches to spirituality and to take all spiritual advice with common sense and humor — even his own teachings.
Unfortunately, after spending all of his life in pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, Hall’s final days were wrapped in controversy. By the time he died (under mysterious, sad circumstances) in 1990, he had become the subject of a tug-of-war between a domineering, unstable wife and a small group of alleged con men who had grafted themselves onto the PRS. For a while in the early ’90s, it looked as if the house that Hall built was going to be torn apart in a bitter, not uncharacteristic dispute among the followers of a great teacher of wisdom.
But then something you could call providential happened.
In 1993, concerned members of the PRS board reached out for a dark-horse candidate to continue Hall’s mission, Arizona State University administrator and teacher Dr. Obadiah Harris. Like Hall, Harris had spent decades devoting himself to the wisdom traditions of the world; unlike the society’s founder, he knew the ins and outs of university accreditation. And, although he was a bookish man in his 60s, Harris was an early advocate of the internet who had the foresight to imagine a not-distant future in which long-distance education would be possible, even inevitable.
“When they called me in Arizona, I told my wife, ‘I think I’m gonna get in bed with the devil,’” Dr. Harris says, sitting at his desk in Manly Hall’s old PRS study, right next to the secret vault where some of the rarest spiritual books in the world are kept. “I knew about the mess with the wife and about [those people] that were still holding on to their seats at the board.”
The canny Harris used a combination of his deep knowledge of human psychology and his experience navigating academic bureaucracies to right the ship. “I knew I couldn’t antagonize [some people] right away, so I put as a condition to come in that the entire board should resign and then I would appoint my own board,” he recalls. The men who may have taken advantage of the elderly Hall offered some resistance but eventually were pressured to leave, according to Harris, after the judge handling the investigation into Hall’s final days (including rumors that he might have been murdered) “told them the trouble they were in.”
With the problematic board members out of the way, there remained the matter of Hall’s wife, who was a divisive figure. The PRS settled her claims by giving her part of Hall’s priceless manuscript and book collection, which she eventually sold to the Getty Museum. Harris is currently attempting to persuade the Getty to return the arcane tomes, including some curious documents related to the mysterious Count of Saint-Germain, so that they can be reunited with the rest of Hall’s collection.
Having tied up those loose ends, in the mid-1990s Harris embarked on a tireless crusade to turn Manly Hall’s Los Feliz retreat into an accredited university. The PRS decided to take an early leap into the world of online long-distance education. This was a gamble that Harris proposed when he came in, and that the older, spiritually minded board members wholeheartedly embraced (a 92-year-old Tibetan Buddhist who had been at Hall’s side for five decades was especially enthusiastic).
Harris’ steady, relentless work paid off. “In July of 2000,” PRS’ literature says, “the state of California approved the University of Philosophical Research to issue a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness Studies. Since that time the Philosophical Research Society has been doing business as the University of Philosophical Research.” Harris’ current focus is on developing a legitimate Ph.D. program that follows the Oxford model of guided tutorials.
The most popular degree given by the university is in transformational psychology, but the school also offers coursework on all manner of spiritual paths from around the world, in the original spirit of Hall’s mission. “He had no credentials,” Harris says of his predecessor. “He only had wisdom.”
The modern world can often give the perception that “wisdom” is a devalued goal. People are much more comfortable with the adjectives “smart” or “clever” than “wise” (remember the brouhaha during the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court confirmation hearings when she referred to “a wise Latina woman”?) Yet as eminent L.A.-based spiritual seeker Leonard Cohen reminded us, America can be “the cradle of the best and of the worst/It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.”
Manly Hall’s quiet, gorgeous little library in Los Feliz has recently been showcased by the cult travel website Atlas Obscura, attracting yet another wave of curious digital-era visitors to this peaceful temple to the printed word.
The online-education aspect of the university means that Hall’s precious books sit unbothered in silent splendor most of the time, unless a diligent researcher has made an appointment with the helpful staff. “Sometimes some people come with certain agendas,” says one of the librarians, referring to Satanists and other dark-path obsessives who misunderstand the enlightened mission of the place, “but we can tell, and they get quickly discouraged when they see what the library is really about.” (Hall’s collection of Crowley material is deep in the vault, for obvious reasons.)
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In his old age, Hall wrote a moving pamphlet about his Los Feliz sanctuary called The Little World of PRS. “The Philosophical Research Society,” he wrote, is “dedicated to the ensoulment of all arts, sciences and crafts. In harmony with the classical point of view, we feel that there is a pressing need for a nonaligned institution, without creed or dogma, where persons of all beliefs can seek a better understanding of life’s plan. The Society requires no membership, and no one is expected to accept any arbitrary dogma.”
And then Manly P. Hall added his entire life philosophy, in a nutshell: “We are all here to grow — to become better and more useful.”