A thought experiment may help make sense of what happened. Imagine for a moment that in the not too distant future, in the wake of an avalanche of cascading crises for which technology offers no solutions, science ends up being condemned as useless and evil by the vast majority of people. As that shift in attitudes spreads, governments cut off the flow of grant money, universities shutter science departments and turn their facilities over to other programs, public schools eliminate science classes from the curriculum. Worse, as attitudes against science harden, those people who try to keep the scientific tradition alive find themselves ostracized by their neighbors, fired from their jobs, and now and again chased down by mobs and beaten or worse.
In such a setting, those who wanted to preserve anything at all of the legacy of science would face an uphill struggle against formidable odds. They would have to work out ways of meeting with like-minded people in secret, identifying potential recruits, and teaching them the details of scientific theory and practice outside the familiar framework of university programs and graduate assistantships. Entire disciplines would have to be jettisoned in order to direct the few available resources to the handful of fields that could be taught and practiced effectively with a maximum of secrecy and a minimum of expense. As a result, by the time attitudes shifted again and it became possible for scientists to become public again, science itself would have undergone drastic changes.
Swap out science for occultism, and that’s what happened over the quarter millennium between 1600 and 1850. During those years, massive shifts in the intellectual culture of Europe drove the wholesale rejection of occultism by the vast majority of Europeans, abolished the framework that once provided economic support for occultists, and forced those few people who were still interested in preserving and practicing occult traditions into secret orders, on the one hand, and the ranks of the rural poor on the other. As a result, most of Renaissance occultism was lost; some parts of it have been laboriously reconstructed since the 1850s, while others remain completely obscure even to today’s occultists.
As a result, the revival of occultism that got kicked into gear by the publication of Eliphas Levi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic in 1855 wasn’t a straightforward return to the traditions that existed in the Renaissance and earlier. It was in large part a reinvention, in which the intellectual culture of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe had at least as much to say to the result as the older traditions on which the revival drew. Levi himself was in the forefront of that process, and that probably accounts for the immense success of Levi’s work. Such earlier authors as Thomas Taylor and Francis Barrett presented occultism in its classical and Renaissance forms respectively, and their attempts to revive the tradition failed; Levi reworked occultism from top to bottom in the light of the philosophy and physics of his own era, and triumphed.
Behind Levi, in turn, hovers the spectral presence of one of the most influential and least discussed philosophers of the modern era. Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in what is now the Polish city of Gdansk, got his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1813, published his most important book in 1819, settled in Frankfurt thereafter, and was ignored by almost everyone until the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 made his uncompromising analysis of the limitations of human thought and the power of the irrational will impossible to dismiss. From then until the Second World War, Schopenhauer’s ideas ran wild all through European and American thought and culture; if you know your way around his major book The World as Will and Representation, you’ll find the footprints of the old grouch of Frankfurt all over a territory that extends from Richard Wagner’s operas, through H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled horrors from three weeks before the dawn of time, to Eliphas Levi
Central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy is the recognition that the universe is not rational in any sense that matters to human beings—or, to make the same point from the other direction, that the human mind is not capable of knowing objective truths about the universe through the exercise of reason. All those philosophers from Plato on down who insisted that the universe has to make sense in terms of human reason, in Schopenhauer’s view, were barking up the wrong stump, stuck in a misleading metaphor that confused the universe with the mental models with which we attempt to make sense of it. The universe, to Schopenhauer, is not an idea but a will—that is to say, it resembles nothing else quite so much as the irrational but potent will to live that surges through every cell of our bodies in serene detachment from all the assembled notions of our chattering and self-important minds.
Grasp what Schopenhauer is saying—that human reason doesn’t reveal truths about the cosmos, and that reason is nothing more exalted than the habitual way our nervous systems, under the pressure of past experience and unprovable cultural presuppositions, happen to process the narrow range of stimuli that evolution has adapted us to notice—and you’ve got, by and large, three choices. You can deny it, in which case you end up chasing your tail in the manner typical of modern science, mistaking artifacts produced by your nervous system, your cultural background, and your experimental manipulations for cosmic truths. Alternatively, you can sidestep it by claiming that absolute truth about the cosmos can be obtained from some nonrational source such as religious revelation, in which case you end up with a dogmatism that demands acceptance on the basis of blind faith. Those are popular options, to be sure, and very comforting to those who can embrace them, but they’re not the only games in town.
The alternative is that you can accept what Schopenhauer has to say and then respond, “Given that the universe cannot be understood by the human mind, given that the best we can do when we try to make sense of things is to work out a tentative, fallible, and historically contingent consensus about how the parts of the universe we happen to notice seem to behave when we’re looking at them, how should we then live?” That’s the question that Schopenhauer tried to ask and answer; after him, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Carl Jung, among others, offered their own answers—and so, in his own way, did Eliphas Levi.
The connection between Schopenhauer and Levi is more than a matter of basic theme, though; it goes straight to the core details of Levi’s theory of magic. The book of Schopenhauer’s that matters here is one of his minor works, On the Will in Nature, published in 1825, which he wrote to back up his thesis by drawing up-to-date information from what was then modern science. In the course of the discussion, he included a chapter on magic. You’re not allowed to discuss magic in any kind of academic writing these days, outside a few corners of the history of ideas, but that prohibition hadn’t yet been handed down in 1825; philosophers—since philosophy had not yet settled into the swamp of self-referential obscurantism that’s swallowed it in our time—were expected to account for all of human experience, not just those that late twentieth century materialist ideologies find convenient to discuss.
Schopenhauer’s examination of magic in On the Will in Nature, typically, broke new ground, and the theory of magic he proposed there was the same one that, thirty years later, Levi put into the pages of Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic: the idea that the force behind magic was the individual human will. I’m pretty sure that Levi got the idea either directly or indirectly from Schopenhauer, for the arguments the older man deployed in On the Will in Nature frame Levi’s entire approach, and it’s an easy step from Schopenhauer’s concept of the world as will and representation—“representation” here meaning mental image—to Levi’s vision of magic as will and imagination.
It’s important to grasp just how massive a redefinition of magic Levi’s refocusing brought about. From ancient times to the end of the Renaissance, occultism in general and magic in particular were both understood as dealing with the forces of the macrocosm—that is, the universe as a whole, in which the individual human being was an all but infinitesimal part. The four types of magic discussed in last month’s post—astrological magic, natural magic, evocatory magic, and invocatory magic—all drew on sources of power outside the self. Astrology as understood from Sumerian times to the end of the Renaissance, and alchemy from Hellenistic Egypt to the same point, likewise focused on forces and phenomena external to the self.
From Levi on, that changed, because mages in the wake of the Schopenhauerian revolution—whether or not they understood his thesis, or had heard of him at all—recognized that much of what they thought was out there in the universe was actually part of themselves, and reworked their magic accordingly. A case could be made that in at least some cases they took that further than it had to go, but that’s the way such changes generally happen. Modern occultism thus focused its operative methods and its philosophy on the microcosm rather than the macrocosm, resulting in significant changes and additions to the toolkit of the operative mage.
As we did last month, we’ll examine the operative methods of magic by way of a rough outline of basic approaches, and once again we’ll begin with magic. There are two distinctive post-Renaissance magical methods; a quick taxonomy might run as follows:
Intentive magic. I’ve coined this phrase to refer to the kind of magic that works by formulating a picture in the imagination and directing the will toward it in one way or another. There are many different varieties of intentive magic, ranging from the “creative visualization” practiced by many New Agers, through the sigil workings made popular by the recent chaos magic movement, to the hour-long dramatic incantations popularized by Israel Regardie in his books on the Golden Dawn. If it works by focusing the will through the imagination to create change in accordance with will, it’s intentive magic.
Etheric magic. One of Eliphas Levi’s core contributions to magical philosophy was the concept of the astral light, the subtle field of energy that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together. (Ahem.) Drawing on Asian concepts such as prana and ch’i, and also on the specific practices evolved in Asian spiritual traditions to make practical use of these concepts, various forms of etheric magic tap into the ether, od, astral light, vital life force, or whatever you choose to call it in a dizzying assortment of ways. Deliberate combinations of intentive and etheric magic are extremely common—the Golden Dawn, to cite only one example, routinely fuses the two—and both of these methods are also routinely combined with the four modes of magical practice discussed in last month’s post, yielding quite an assortment of options. Each of them, though, also appears independently in some systems.
From this latter derives another set of practices which have become very important in operative magic in modern times, though you won’t find very little trace of them in Western occultism before Levi:
Etheric development. From Asian sources, again, came the idea that the astral light concentrates in specific centers in the body. Since this material found its way into Western languages, a great many practices designed to energize, purify, and strengthen these centers have entered into common practice in the occult community. In many schools—the Golden Dawn, with its Middle Pillar exercise, is a well known example—some such etheric development practice is the foundation of magical training. What differentiates this from etheric magic is that it’s not aimed at specific goals; rather, it’s intended to build a foundation for goal-oriented magical workings later on.
More generally, the daily practice of magical disciplines for the purpose of developing powers and perceptions the uninitiated don’t have has become far more central in modern magic than it was in the Renaissance and before. Aside from etheric development and the regular performance of simple magical rituals, these disciplines fall into two broad categories:
Meditation. There are a great variety of different meditative exercises in the modern occult traditions these days, some closely resembling Asian ways of meditation—often by way of direct borrowing—while others go their own ways. The mainstay of occult practice until 1980, it has been neglected by many of the recent crop of occult schools, with unhelpful results; fortunately it is coming back into general practice as its advantages as a tool of magical training become more generally recognized.
Seership. There’s quite a diversity of ways by which people can learn to see things that aren’t physically present, interact with them, and accomplish things by this means. Nearly all modern occult schools include some form of seership practice as a basic means of development, whether this involves the training and cultivation of the imagination or the use of some tool such as a crystal ball or a scrying mirror. Some schools have made this the entire focus of occult training, with dubious results; more often, and more usefully, it becomes one aspect in a well-rounded occult curriculum.
While alchemy was revived in the late 19th century and remains a living current today, all the occult traditions I know of that use it have focused on recovering the classic tradition in its various forms. Astrology is another matter, and especially in the last half dozen decades, the vast majority of astrological work has focused on a branch of the art that received very little attention before then.
Psychological astrology. The astrologers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, not to mention their clients, turned to the stars because they wanted to know what was going to happen to them and how they could manage their activities successfully in harmony with the tides of planetary force. These days, many astrologers and most clients turn to the stars because they want to know who they are. A great deal of very subtle and insightful work has gone into this sort of astrological analysis; though it’s not the be-all and end-all of astrology, as some of its more enthusiastic modern practitioners sometimes seem to think, in another few centuries, it will no doubt be a recognized branch of the art.
Then there’s another field that has undergone even more revolutionary changes:
Divination. Back in the Renaissance, if you were an occultist and wanted to practice divination, you either erected a horoscope or cast a geomantic chart. Tarot was a card game, and most of the plethora of oracles that currently elbow each other at the feeding trough of the New Age market hadn’t been thought of yet. The reinvention of Tarot cards as divination tools was the decisive shift, because card divination is faster and more flexible than geomancy, and vastly easier than erecting a horoscope was in the days before personal computers. The last century will probably be remembered for millennia to come as the golden age of divination, in which almost every imaginable set of symbols and images was printed on a card deck or the like and used to catch glimpses of the unseen.
Then there are two distinctive physical applications of occult thought that were minor at best in the older tradition, but became massive presences in the 19th and early 20th century. One of them retains that status today, while the other has lost ground in recent decades but looks like it may be staging a comeback:
Alternative medicine. Mages have generally been healers in every culture, but in most societies outside the modern industrial West, they either concentrated on magical healing or made use of the same healing modalities as the mainstream healers—when, that is, they weren’t the mainstream healers. The first stirrings of the modern medical industry in the 19th century changed that, as physicians and pharmaceutical companies started denouncing any healing modality from which they didn’t profit, and eventually managed to get legal codes in most countries to view things the way they did. That forced a range of effective healing modalities underground, where the social dynamics of rejected knowledge encouraged participants in every other underground subculture to take an interest in these healing arts. To this day, if you meet an occultist of any kind, the odds are rather better than 1 in 2 that he or she uses herbs, homeopathy, accupressure, or the like for home health care instead of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and mainstream medical interventions.
Physical culture. That’s the old term for what we’d now call exercise, and for something like a century it was an important part of modern occultism. You can still find old books on occultism that teach an assortment of stretches, breathing exercises, and calisthenics as part of occult training, and some of the old material has made its way into very recent books—for example, the Five Rites, a pleasant set of stretching and toning exercises that were popular in occult circles in the early 20th century, have been introduced to several generations of ceremonial magicians by the late Don Kraig’s book Modern Magic. In some occult schools, hatha yoga has taken over from physical culture; many others have simply allowed the whole subject to drop, and a few have retained or regained an interest in this end of the tradition, if only because light physical exercise as part of a daily regimen of magical training pays off handsomely in terms of improved health and vitality.
Finally, another borrowing from nonmagical sources has had a huge impact on modern occultism, though it’s poorly understood by many of today’s occultists:
Lodge ritual. Even before Levi’s time, people who were interested in occultism tended to get into one or another of the burgeoning world of voluntary social organizations that sprang up in western Europe in the 18th century. Freemasonry, which had the most elaborate rituals of any of these organizations, was a logical target but far from the only one. The formal ceremonies that were used to open and close meetings, initiate new members, welcome new officers to their annual terms, and the like soon were adopted by an assortment of occult groups and became pervasive in the occult scene. A great many of these things are still to be found in occult organizations, though the decline of the fraternal lodges has left a great many occultists without the training previous generations of mages had, and resulted in a general decline in the effectiveness of lodge ritual work, but lodge ritual retains a massive presence, especially in older occult schools.
So that’s a summary of the main additions to occultism in the post-Levi era—that is, from 1855 to last Thursday or thereabouts. Next month we’ll plunge into the murky waters of occult philosophy and try to work out a similar taxonomy.