In the Middle Ages, scholars talked knowledgeably about goetia and magia, which were the respective Latin terms for these two approaches. You’ll find the same distinction in modern scholarly writings such as D.P. Walker’s Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella—Walker here meant “spiritual” and “demonic” in their precise Renaissance Latin senses, with spiritus meaning our old friend the Astral Light, and daemon any disembodied being who wasn’t either a ghost or a god. It’s almost impossible to make sense of the older works of magical philosophy unless you keep the distinction in mind: is magic a natural process that simply works with the flows of energy that sustain the world anyway, or is it a supernatural process that cajoles or coerces nonhuman intelligences into serving as your labor force? Depending on the specific book you’re reading, it could be either or both.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, certainly, both approaches were in common use all over the Western world. Now of course most people insisted loudly that magic couldn’t possibly work, that astrology was an exploded superstition, and as for angels, demons, and the like, whatever the Bible said about them—and of course it says a great deal on those subjects—they couldn’t possibly have the least bit of relevance to life in progressive, modern, up-to-date Europe and America. Yet it’s a matter of record that magic, astrology, and traditional ways of dealing with angels and demons were practiced all over progressive, modern, up-to-date Europe and America in those years. Magic is like sex; what’s socially acceptable to say about it need not have anything in common with what people actually do.
The main influence that a lack of public respectability has on magic is that fewer people talk about why it works. The Renaissance was one of the great eras of occult philosophy because the broad acceptance of astrology and astrological magic among intellectuals encouraged people to wonder about exactly how it functioned—how, let’s say, planting vegetables in the Moon’s first quarter, with the Moon in a watery or earthy Zodiacal sign and applying to a trine aspect with Venus, and free from hostile aspects with the malefic planets, could give you a great harvest three or four months later. The early nineteenth century was a barren period for occult philosophy because most intellectuals weren’t talking about such things; people just kept on watching the Moon through her phases and signs, and getting the bumper crops of vegetables as a result.
That’s roughly where magic was when one of the great figures of the tradition put in an appearance. His name was Alphonse Louis Constant, but most of my readers will know him better by his magical nom de plume, Eliphas Lévi.
Lévi, as we might as well call him, was a remarkable and many-sided thinker, but that’s a subject for another day. What matters here is the revolution in occult philosophy he launched with his first and most important book on magic, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic). I’m glad to say this is in print in English; I’m sorry to say that the English translation is by Arthur Edward Waite, whose prose has all the grace and elegance of a constipated rhinoceros, and who packed the thing with long footnotes parading his own supposed knowledge and disparaging Lévi at every turn. (He also changed the title to Transcendental Magic; Waite could never be satisfied with a good title when a bad one was available.) A new translation without Waite’s dubious contributions would be a very helpful thing for today’s occultists.
The reason why such a translation would be very helpful, and why it’s worth wading through Lévi even at the cost of putting up with Waite, is that Lévi showed that it was possible to take the philosophy of astrological magic and make it work in a Copernican universe. What’s more, he did it by an act of decentering that more or less paralleled the one Einstein carried out in physics half a century later. In Lévi’s theory of magic, the currents of creative force don’t move in a single direction, cascading down from the throne of God past stars and planets and the circle of the Moon to yank around things here on Earth like so many puppet strings. The Astral Light, the unseen continuum that unites all things, communicates influences from everything to everything else—from the Earth to the planets and stars just as much as the other way around—and that was, in Lévi’s view, the basis on which magic rests.
One implication of this shift in focus deserves special attention. I noted at the end of last month’s post that all of the ways of thinking about the sources of magical power that were in circulation before the dawn of modern magic assumed, as a matter of course, that human beings didn’t have magical powers. If you wanted to practice magic, you either had to figure out how to direct and concentrate the powers of the stars, or you had to figure out how to obtain help from, or mastery over, spiritual beings. For Lévi, by contrast, human beings were capable of magical action in their own right. The Astral Light, the universal medium of magic, could be shaped directly by the power of human will guided by the human imagination, without any need to call on other forces.
To Lévi, in turn, that was how magic worked. The operative mage was an exceptional human being who developed the faculties of will and imagination beyond the norm, and could therefore set currents in motion in the Astral Light to accomplish marvelous effects. Lévi didn’t talk much about gods or spirits except as symbols through which the imagination could be directed; what interested him was the training of the individual human being.
In that orientation toward the individual, Lévi was very much a man of his time. It’s indicative that he was born in 1810, three years before Arthur Schopenhauer wrote the first of his philosophical treatises, and died in 1875, three years after Friedrich Nietzsche did the same thing. Both these philosophers had the same focus as Lévi; what set them apart from their predecessors and most of their contemporaries was precisely that they rejected abstract theories about the cosmos in order to place human experience and the human condition, with all their paradoxes intact, at the center of the philosophical project. Both of them, in turn, came to see the unique, self-creating human individual as the only answer to the world’s perplexities that mattered—and so did Lévi.
In the process, he took a familiar trope from the traditions of occultism and reframed it in a new and explosive way. From ancient times on, occult lore had included colorful tales about masters of the secret arts who pushed straight past the boundaries of ordinary humanity to wield marvelous powers. From Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana to the secretive adepts of Renaissance alchemy and the Unknown Superiors of the eighteenth-century Masonic fringe, such figures have always been popular. What made Lévi’s work revolutionary is that he set out to explain to his readers how they could become such a figure themselves.
For more than a century after Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie first saw print, as a direct result, that was what occultism was about: becoming such a figure. All across the Western world, people who were dissatisfied with the mainstream culture of their time flung themselves into the quest to become occult adepts. The law of supply and demand being what it is, schools claiming to offer the necessary training popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Some of those schools were utterly forgettable, and have been duly forgotten; others were epic flops, and we’ll be talking about some of those down the road a bit; but a respectable number of them succeeded in putting together a workable collection of occult practices, infused the set with some variant of Lévi’s basic approach, and proceeded to turn out competent occultists, astrologers, operative mages, or what have you.
Now of course one of those schools has gotten almost all the press in recent decades. That’s the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1887, blew itself to smithereens in a series of pointless political quarrels between 1900 and 1902, and managed to create the modern world’s most influential system of operative magic in the interval. There’s plenty that can be said about the Golden Dawn system, and we’ll be considering its strengths, its weaknesses, and the reasons why too many of the people who take it up nowadays become competent mages but severely troubled human beings, in later posts. The crucial point for our present purposes, though, was the way the Golden Dawn teachings understood the sources of magical power, because that understanding—along with Lévi’s—became the standard theories of magic across most of the Western world during most of the twentieth century.
The core of the Golden Dawn approach was a return to something like the astrological theory of magic, but with a crucial difference. Where the old astrological mages had understood the different realms of being as separate in space—the elemental world below the Moon, the ethereal world above the Moon but below the stars, the empyrean world beyond the stars—the Golden Dawn interpreted them as planes or modes of being that were simultaneously present in every corner of space. In the order’s Cabalistic jargon, you’ve got the divine realm of Atziluth, the archangelic realm of Briah, the angelic realm of Yetzirah, and the material realm of Assiah; the latter was the only one human beings normally perceive, but all are present at every point in space and time.
Thus Golden Dawn initiates didn’t need to direct their attention to the realm beyond the stars, or wait for the planets to come into the right relative placements, in order to work magic. Instead, they had to open up contact with more exalted planes of being, using ornate ceremonial and an assortment of more or less intricate psychophysical techniques. They weren’t using their own wills and imaginations to transform the world directly; they were, like the astrological mages of old, tapping into the creative process that brought the world into being—but they were doing it in a way that wasn’t inconvenienced by the Copernican cosmos or dependent on the cycles of the heavels. Notice also that the Golden Dawn model gives a more important role to the individual mage than the old astrological magic did; a Golden Dawn adept didn’t simply wait patiently for the influences to descend, he or she tore open the walls of the sky to summon down the influences needed for a particular working.
As the twentieth century got under way, therefore, operative mages in the Western world had access to two coherent theories of where magic gets its power. As a very rough generalization, mages in the English-speaking world used some variant of the Golden Dawn theory, while mages in continental Europe used some variant of Lévi’s theory; there were always exceptions, and plenty of people who combined the two in an assortment of ways. Still, a third approach was about to appear, courtesy of the immense intellectual earthquake being set in motion at the twentieth century’s dawn by a Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud.
The depth psychology revolution has transformed the Western world’s collective imagination so drastically over the last century or so, and become so much a part of our ordinary notions of ourselves, that it’s hard for many people to grasp just how explosive it was when it first emerged. In 1900 most psychologists believed that the phrase “unconscious thinking” was a flat contradiction in terms. The idea that people’s thoughts and perceptions could be distorted without their knowledge by the lingering aftermath of emotional trauma was profoundly unsettling to cultures that had spent many centuries treating thought and perception as simple, straightforward, and rational by definition. As Freud and his first generation of followers broke through into the buried vaults of the unconscious mind, though, their discoveries upended millennium-old certainties—and, in the process, provided operative mages with another way to understand their art.
Central to the depth psychology revolution was the discovery that the deeper strata of the mind think in symbols and symbolic relationships, rather than logical categories and logical relationships. Though Freud himself tried to turn his theories into a bulwark against occult ideas, plenty of his students and even more of the people who read his books weren’t anything like so squeamish. If the unconscious mind thought in symbolic terms, the reasoning went, and a very large part of magical practice makes use of symbols and symbolic actions, might that mean that magic was simply a richly developed and sophisticated way of working with the unconscious mind?
That’s why some of the leading lights of early 20th century occultism were trained depth psychologists. Violet Firth, better known by her magical pen name Dion Fortune, was a Freudian lay therapist; Israel Regardie was a Reichian therapist; and then there’s the most successful figure of the lot, who managed to become one of the century’s most influential occult philosophers while convincing nearly everyone that he really, truly was just a working psychotherapist—yes, that would be Carl Jung. He’s going to get at least one post of his own here one of these days. For now, let’s just say that it was more or less a matter of happenstance, rather than any real difference of approach, that Violet Firth and Israel Regardie didn’t found Firthian psychology, a cutting-edge but more or less respectable school of post-Freudian psychotherapy, and Carl Jung and Hermann Hesse didn’t win lasting fame in occult circles as the leading adepts of that famous European magical order, the Ordo Peregrini Orientem.
By 1950, as a result, three theories of how magic worked were commonly held in the Western world. There was Lévi’s theory of the Astral Light, a subtle continuum that unites all things and can be shaped by the will and imagination; there was the Golden Dawn theory of higher planes of being from which currents of force could be drawn down by the right magical techniques; there was the psychological theory of unconscious forces in the psyche that could be influenced by symbols and symbolic action. You’ll notice that it’s not actually that hard to restate any one of these in terms of any of the others: to redefine the Astral Light as one of the higher planes of being or as the unconscious mind, to redefine the higher planes of being as modalities of the Astral Light or the unconscious, or to redefine the unconscious as a function of the Astral Light or one of those higher levels of being.
This sort of intellectual promiscuity was extremely common in occult circles all through the century. Dion Fortune herself made room for both the Astral Light and depth psychology in her own theory of magic, and she had plenty of company, some of whom took the process a good deal further than she did. It became widely recognized in occult circles in the 1960s and 1970s that all three of these descriptions could be seen as ways of talking about the same thing, and a great many intellectuals—not all of them part of the occult community—began probing the possibility that the other ways of thinking about the sources of magical power might also be ways of talking about that same thing.
It’s an unfortunate fact of the history of ideas that when such exercises get going, they almost always end up with a reductionist bias. The most restrictive of the models generally becomes the default option, and if any of the other models permit possibilities that go beyond what the most restrictive model will justify, those possibilities get ignored when they don’t get denounced or derided. That’s more or less what happened in the present case. Psychology, as the most restrictive model for magical practice, turned into the default model in many circles, and the possibility that magical action could affect things outside the limits of any one skull came in for the usual treatment—this despite the fact that the psychologists who worked most closely with occultism, Jung paramount among them, tried over and over again to draw attention to the fact that the limits of the skull are not the limits of mind.
Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, though, these movements toward a unified theory of magic suffered the usual fate when the Seventies gave way to the Eighties, The Tao of Physics was replaced by the Amazing Randi’s antics, and magic lost what shreds of respectability it had managed to attain in the two previous decades. As noted above, theories of magic tend to flourish when intellectuals are willing to think about such things, and tend to dry up and blow away when fashions change and intellectuals, being creatures of fashion despite their usual protestations to the contrary, go pay attention to something else instead.
This duly happened after 1980, and has only just begun to reverse itself. There’s been a great deal of magic practiced during these last few decades, but a great deal of it was very unimaginative and intellectually shallow. It also suffered, at least here in the US, from a weird sort of historical myopia. For quite a while, nearly everyone in the American occult scene acted as though magic, by definition, consisted solely of what had been invented in England between the founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the publication of Gerald Gardner’s The Meaning of Witchcraft. If it wasn’t Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and her pupils, or the first generation or so of British Wiccan figures, most American occultists had never heard of it and weren’t interested.
Fortunately that’s breaking down at last. In the process, the three ways of thinking about the sources of magical power mentioned above have had to make room for a great many other ways of understanding magic. These days, the astrological magic of the Renaissance and the goetic magic of the grimoires are both widely practiced; so are magical systems and practices rooted in any number of non-European cultures, which come with their own distinctive understandings of the sources of magical power. Practitioners of hoodoo, kototama, qigong, and an assortment of left- and right-handed tantras, among many other things, are part of the occult conversations these days, and their contributions have much to offer just now.
What’s more, the pendulum of the collective imagination seems to be swinging back from its long stay in the realms of dogmatic materialism, so it’s not impossible that serious discussions of how and why magic works might be on the broader cultural agenda in the not too distant future. If that happens, I suspect that the discussions may head in some unexpected but profoundly important directions. We’ll talk about those next month