Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Scope of Occultism, Part Three: Occult Philosophy

Over the last two months, we’ve discussed the operative methods that have been central to occultism in the modern Western world:  those that survived from the Renaissance and before, on the one hand, and those that have been introduced since the modern magical revival got under way.  The discontinuity that fell between those two—the loss of most of the older occultism during the two centuries between 1650 and 1850—still casts a long shadow over occultism today, and there are few places where that shadow remains more opaque than the theme of this month’s post.

I discussed in a post late last year the way that occult philosophy, as distinct from occult practice, more or less got shoved into the trash with the rise of pop Neopaganism at the dawn of the Eighties. To some extent, that was simply the working out of a set of cultural patterns that have been in play since the dawning of what historians still like to call the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. (We can talk some other time about why those far from neutral terms still remain popular among historians who are acutely uncomfortable with such judgmental labels for historical periods as “Dark Ages.”)

For the last three centuries or so, self-proclaimed intellectual rebels in the Western world have by and large moved in lockstep along an utterly predictable trajectory. With embarrassingly few exceptions, they claim they will overturn the status quo, and then simply take the status quo one step further in the direction it’s already going, while angrily denouncing ideas, beliefs, and practices that most people had already stopped taking seriously. This oddly stereotyped routine has its virtues; in particular, it tends to decrease the overburden of social hypocrisy. By the time the sexual revolution of the Sixties happened, for example, a very large fraction—quite possibly a majority—of postpubescent Americans engaged in sex outside of marriage, but the social shibboleths of the time required them to pretend otherwise. By the time the Sixties were over, that pretense was no longer necessary.

For what it’s worth, I tend to think that this was a good thing. Not all products of the faux-revolutionary fervor of modern pop culture are anything like as productive, though.  When the founders and followers of pop Neopaganism and other soi-disant cutting edge occult movements of the Eighties and Nineties insisted that old-fashioned occult philosophy was a waste of time and should be abandoned in favor of an approach to occultism that centered on practical technique, many of them were rehashing talking points that were used to shout down occultism back in the seventeenth century, and the rest were by and large merely channeling today’s blind faith in progress: if it’s old it’s got to be worthless, right?

The unending attempts to find a scientific basis for magic come straight out of the same thinking. The theory is that magic has to be brought “up to date” by giving it a theoretical basis that real scientists consider acceptable, and once that’s done, real scientists will start taking magic seriously. Of course it doesn’t work that way, for a telling reason.

The foundations of modern scientific thought were specifically set up to deny the possibility of magic. There were good pragmatic reasons for that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when science as we know it was still basically a branch of occultism—when astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler cast horoscopes to pay the rent, and chemists like Robert Boyle were basically alchemists who had given up on the Great Work and were trying something easier for a change. Early scientists who dreamed of having the social status that wizards generally lacked in those days, not to mention a much lower risk of being hanged for witchcraft or burned at the stake for heresy, had a strong motivation to set up the groundrules of the scientific enterprise in such a way that they could prove that all those astrolabes, retorts, and books full of cryptic symbols were perfectly innocent.

That’s why, for example, it became a fixed dogma of scientific thought in the seventeenth century, and remains one to this day, that every material phenomenon must have a material cause. That doesn’t happen to be true, of course—every time you lift a fork to your lips, a material phenomenon has had a mental cause—but it’s an essential part of the firewall between science and magic. That’s why so many scientists have wasted so much breath and so many reams of paper coming up with labored arguments to prove that mental phenomena don’t exist, that it’s sheer illusion that makes you think that there’s this thing called “you” that decides to lift that fork, and so on endlessly into the night.

The old crusade against magic isn’t simply hardwired into the basic presuppositions of science, though; it’s still a live tradition in scientific circles today. Some of my readers may recall a long-defunct ad campaign for a soda drink that called it “the Un-Cola.” In much the same way, scientists and believers in what we may as well call scientism—the ideology that defines scientific claims about the universe as absolute truth, and the only kind of truth that matters—define themselves, sometimes quite overtly, as “The Un-Magicians,” the people who don’t believe in magic, astrology, and superstitious nonsense like that. They’ll do this even when it involves making the most fatuous statements about matters of fact—in a later post, when we talk more about astrology, I’ll have a funny story about that.

That’s why the quest to make magic look respectable by fitting it out with a foundation of scientific theory never gets anywhere: on the one hand, it’s rather difficult to build a scientific theory of magic when the core axioms on which science rests are set up to make magic impossible; on the other, even if you manage the trick—and it’s actually been done—scientists and believers in scientism are so committed to an identity that excludes magic that they’ll literally do anything they have to, no matter how absurd, in order to distance themselves from magic.

That’s one of the reasons that the study of occult philosophy matters, by the way. If you think about the world in a way that excludes magic, and then try to practice magic, you’re going to have a hard time getting results. If you learn a different way of thinking about the world, one that makes ample room for magic, magic becomes easier. To give it credit, the pop Neopaganism of the Eighties and Nineties tried to come up with its own informal version of occult philosophy; unfortunately—as I noted in a post a while back—it borrowed way too much of that from fantasy fiction, with predictably unhelpful results.

There is, of course, another option, and that’s to make use of philosophical teachings that were devised by working mages to make sense of their own experience of practical magic and the other branches of operative occultism we’ve discussed over the last two months.

One of the things that has to be grasped in making sense of occult philosophy is that the obvious differences—the divisions between schools, traditions, and movements within the broader realm of Western occultism—don’t matter anything like as much as most people expect. There are a bunch of labels.  There’s Hermeticism (or, occasionally, Hermetism), which derives its name from the hybrid Greek-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus and its original impetus from a collection of Greek dialogues that were supposedly written by that worthy.  There’s the Cabala, variously spelled—Hebrew, like the other Semitic languages, is notoriously hard to transcribe into the Latin alphabet, which is why no two news media spelled the name of the late Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi the same way—which surfaced in the twelfth century in Judaism, and drew more heavily than most of the others on the Jewish scriptures.

There’s Rosicrucianism, which popped up in seventeenth-century Europe and was pretty heavily Christian in its first incarnations, then very quickly turned into a label for “whatever you want it to be” once the catchy symbol of the Rose Cross began to attract people who didn’t recognize its Lutheran roots. There’s the granddaddy of them all, Neoplatonism, which can trace a pretty straightforward line of descent back to classical Greece. There’s Theosophy, which uses Sanskrit terminology, and a whole panorama of movements that spun off Theosophy in one way or another and as often as not replaced the Sanskrit with something more homegrown—and these are just the more common flavors.

None of that actually matters that much, because every one of these systems contains some set of fairly simple variations on the same common themes.

A Cosmogony of Emanation. That’s a fancy philosophical label for the idea that the universe as we know it came into being as an emanation—an outpouring of force, if you will—from a transcendent source: that is, a source that stands outside of all phenomena and can’t really be described in any of the terms we use for phenomena. Don’t confuse this source with God in the usual Biblical sense of that vexed word; the source we’re talking about isn’t a person—nor, by the way, is it a nonperson. (You can repeat this for any other distinction you care to use.) Those systems of occult philosophy that use Biblical symbolism generally draw distinction between the God of the Bible and the transcendent unity behind that divine personage: in the Cabala, between the Greater Countenance and the Lesser Countenance. Those systems that don’t have Biblical luggage use other ways to talk about the relation between the transcendent source and the divine being or beings that humans reverence.

A Cosmology of Levels. “Cosmogony” talks about how the universe came into being, “cosmology” talks about what it looks like once it comes into being. Every system of Western occult philosophy I know of understands the cosmos in terms of different levels, modes, or planes of being—the terms differ—with the world of matter as we know it being one of these. The theory is that the outpouring of force that brought the universe into being created the levels of being one at a time, from least material to most material, with—you got it—the world of matter the last formed, densest, and furthest from the source. Different systems describe the levels differently; even so simple a question as how many there are is a matter of some disagreement, though that’s more a matter of symbolism than anything else.

Subtle Connectedness. These levels and modes and planes of being aren’t like the “other dimensions” of bad science fiction, places just like here but with dancing penguins in tutus or what have you. They’re as different from each other as the shoe on your foot is different from a shoe you picture in your mind’s eye, and if you ignore that and treat either as the other, it doesn’t work well. “The planes are discrete and not continuous,” says a useful axiom of magic. That said, there are subtle connections linking the planes together, and under certain very carefully arranged circumstances, action on one level can have consequences on a different level. (This is the fundamental axiom of magic.)

Macrocosm and Microcosm. This concept gets a lot of heat from believers in scientism. The idea here is that everything in the cosmos came into being by the same process that brought the cosmos into being, and shares the same levels. Yes, that includes you and me. Human beings aren’t outside the order of the universe; we were emanated into being along with everything else—note that “creation” in the occult sense is a continuing process, not something that happened at 9 am sharp on an autumn day in 4004 BCE—and all those levels of being? We’ve got them too. Our material bodies are our expression of the materiel level, and so on up the levels; for convenience the different levels are often described as “bodies,” so you’ll read discussions of the astral body, mental body, etc.

Metempsychosis. This, on the other hand, is the one that gets the orthodox in an uproar. The word is a fancy philosophical label for the variety of reincarnation that isn’t limited to human bodies. According to most versions, we’ve all been here before, in an almost limitless variety of forms and bodies, and we’ll each be here again until we reach a sufficient level of development to head onto the next step. The interesting thing to me is that you get this even in devoutly Jewish versions of the Cabala and devoutly Christian forms of Rosicrucianism and Christian Hermeticism. Why? My guess is that it’s because regular practice of certain very common kinds of meditation taught in occult schools quite often stirs up apparent memories that, whatever their actual source, certainly look and feel like memories left over from some previous life.

Cycles of Time.  Evolution isn’t a straight line, and our species isn’t its endpoint. Human history isn’t a straight line, either, nor is modern society its grand finale in any sense. Species and civilizations rise and fall with the same inevitability that individuals are born and die, and according to many modern versions of occult philosophy, yes, there were civilizations on this planet in the distant past, not all of them human, that did the same kinds of things we’re doing now and went under in due time. Oh, and grand apocalyptic transformations that put an end to history, along the lines of the Rapture, 2012, or what have you? They’re vanishingly rare in occult writings, and those that do appear are generally regarded with some mix of embarrassment and rolled eyes.

A Crowded Cosmos.  If you want to make most people in today’s industrial societies back away in a cold sweat, get them to imagine that they aren’t the most intelligent, powerful, and (ahem) important beings in the universe. I think one of the reasons we have such a fetish for machinery, and for the kind of artificial surroundings that don’t respond to us in any way we don’t specifically request, is exactly this terror that something bigger than we are might be looking at us. If any of my readers share that attitude, occult philosophy is going to give you nightmares. Those systems that draw from Jewish and Christian sources talk about angels and archangels, those that draw from other sources talk about gods and goddesses, and no few equate the two sets of terminology. All those levels of being I mentioned a few paragraphs back? They’re inhabited, and some of the inhabitants compare to us the way we compare to pond scum. In the crowded cosmos of magic, human beings have a very modest place in the overall scheme of things; the universe emphatically does not revolve around us.

Individual Attainment. This means, among other things, that the universe is not going to solve your problems for you, or give you a pass on the awkward features of being human. You get to deal with all that yourself.  Metempsychosis means you get as much time and as many tries as you need; screw up in this life, you’ll get other chances later—though this also means that you’re going to face that problem over and over again until you get around to dealing with it, and the habit of dealing with it is part of your character. (Memories don’t pass intact from one life to another, but character does.) When you were a single-celled organism, you got to face the challenges of being a single-celled organism, and those unfolded certain latent potentialities in you; now that you’re human, the same rule applies—and it will apply when you’re something far more complex and interesting than a talkative social primate, too, which you will be in due time.

The Way of Initiation. Sooner or later, you’re going to figure out how to do the human thing capably—if you’re like the rest of us, it’ll take you plenty of tries, but eventually it all does work out and you can move up another notch. Still, you can speed things up a bit, or more than a bit, by pursuing certain studies and performing certain practices that focus your awareness on the world and yourself in unusual ways, and make it easier to figure out a bit more of what’s going on and what you can do about it. That’s what occult training is for.  It’s not easy, and it’s also not mandatory, but if you want to wake up to the wider cosmos and then help other people do the same thing, occultism is an option. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Brother blah blah blah at Post Office Box mumble mumble mumble for a free informative brochure and application!

So those are basically the chapter headings of modern occult philosophy, the broad current of occult thought that burst onto the scene after Eliphas Levi’s time and got shoved into the dumpster—temporarily, I hope!—with the pop Neopagan boom of the Eighties. At this point, though, I suspect that most of my readers have precisely one question on their mind: is this true?—or, to put things in something like their usual phrasing, do I actually believe that any of this is more than hogwash?

This is where things get interesting.

Every theory about the nature of the universe is a set of value-laden narratives that focus on certain human experiences to the exclusion of others, and draw connections and divisions that have much more to do with our ingrained habits of thought than they do with the world “out there.” As Thomas Kuhn pointed out a long time ago, this is as true of scientific theories as it is of every other kind—the whole point of the scientific method is that it allows us to check some kinds of theories against some kinds of experiences over and over again, and so produces theories that usually work in practice. Neutrinos, quasars, the Cambrian era, the laws of thermodynamics: these are all invisible, notional realities we’ve constructed because they make sense of certain kinds of repeated human experiences—and exactly the same thing is true of the invisible, notional realities discussed in occult philosophy.

If you study paleontology and learn all about the Cambrian era, and then go prospecting for trilobites, what you know about the Cambrian era will help you make sense of what you experience when you split open a bit of Cambrian shale and find the fossilized remains of a long-extinct sea critter there. In exactly the same sense, if you study occult philosophy and learn all about the astral plane, and then take up the practices that will allow you to perceive it (or, more precisely, realize that you’ve actually been perceiving it all along but were taught not to pay attention), what you know will help you make sense of what you experience. Further than that, despite assorted claims of absolute truth for this or that set of opinions, no theory will actually go.