This week we continue a monthly discussion of The Cosmic Doctrine by Dion Fortune, which I consider the most important work of 20th century occult philosophy. Climb in and fasten your belts; it’s turning out to be as wild a ride as I expected. If you’re just joining us now, please go back and read the previous commentaries, which you can find here; the material covered in these earlier posts is essential to making sense of what follows.
As noted in earlier posts, there are two widely available editions of The Cosmic Doctrine, the revised edition first published in 1956 and the Millennium Edition first published in 1995, which reprints the original privately printed edition of 1949. You can use either one for the discussions that follow. The text varies somewhat between the two editions, but the concepts and images are the same, and I’ll be referring to both.
Revised Edition: Chapter 5, “Atomic Evolution upon the Cosmic Planes,” p. 27-30.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 4, “The Evolution of the Atom,” beginning with the first complete paragraph on p. 38 (which starts with the words “Evolution on the Cosmic planes…”) and the beginning of Chapter 5, “The Genesis of a Solar System,” ending with the second paragraph on p. 43 (which ends “…start back up the spiral to the Central Sun.”).
As with previous chapters it’s probably wise to revisit two points before going on. First, it’s essential to keep in mind the basic rule Fortune puts at the beginning of the text—“These images are not descriptive but symbolic, and are intended to train the mind, not to inform it.” Second, this is a textbook of occult philosophy, not of physics. When Fortune discusses atoms in this chapter, she’s using the concept of the atom as a metaphor, not talking about atoms as imagined by the scientists of her time, or for that matter of ours.
Too many students of The Cosmic Doctrine lose track of this basic rule somewhere in these early chapters, and end up trying to force Fortune’s metaphor to fit current scientific notions of atomic structure, or vice versa. This isn’t helpful at all when you’re trying to make sense of the basic concepts of occult philosophy expressed in terms of visual metaphors—which is after all what we’re doing here.
With this in mind, let’s proceed to the text. At this point in the development of the Cosmos, an immense number of atoms have been generated by the interplay of the forces of the twelve Rays, and begin to drift outward under the influence of centrifugal force. (My copy of the revised edition, dated 1966, has one of my favorite typos in this chapter, in place of centrifugal: “centrifrugal.” I decided many years ago that this refers to people who are too cheap to live in the big city.)
Our text gives us two accounts of the way this works, and they aren’t entirely compatible. According to the first account, the primal atoms, which are vortices of repeated movement with from three to ten angles, emerge from the Central Sun and fill the first Circle. They then combine with one another to form composite atoms, which are influenced by centrifugal force and drift out to the second Circle. The composite atoms then unite with one another to form more complex atoms, which drift out to the third Circle, and the same process continues until all seven Circles are filled with atoms. The fantastically complex atoms of the Seventh Circle then proceed along the evolutionary track we’ll be discussing next.
The second account focuses not on the complexity of the atoms but of the number of angles in the prime atom around which each composite atom takes shape. In this version, the atoms sort themselves out among the circles based on their number of angles. The three-sided atoms settle in the First Circle, the four-sided atoms settle in the Second Circle, and so on out to the nine-sided atoms, which take up their station in the Seventh Circle. And the ten-sided atoms? Those are the ones that go on to follow the evolutionary track we’ll be discussing next.
Both these accounts are stated in so many words in the text, and there are specific passages that fit one and not the other—for example, in some places the traveling atoms (the ones that follow the evolutionary track) are described as forming around prime atoms of all different numbers of sides, and in others the traveling atoms are described as forming around ten-sided prime atoms only. This isn’t accidental; Dion Fortune has laid a trap.
It’s a trap you can evade with perfect ease so long as you remember that all the things we’re talking about are metaphors. When Robert Burns wrote—
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
—he was using two different similes to communicate the same emotion from different angles. I’ve yet to hear of anyone getting outraged by this and insisting that Burns’ lady friend couldn’t be like a rose and like a melody, since one’s a flower and the other’s a sequence of sounds. Unfortunately such squabbles are far too common when we’re dealing with the intricate metaphors human minds need to use to make any kind of sense of spiritual realities.
That’s the trap. Those who are too prone to take The Cosmic Doctrine as a textbook of physics or cosmology will run into the deliberate contradiction between the two metaphors we’re discussing, and either fling the book across the room because it contradicts itself, or get into a fight with some other student of The Cosmic Doctrine over whether or not the seed-atom at the core of a traveling atom can have less than ten sides. It’s painfully easy, especially at the moment, to imagine Decimalists and Multinumerists shrieking denunciations at each other for falling away from the One True Interpretation of our text, and spending so much time wallowing in the quarrel that they never get around to studying the text. The thing has happened so often…
Fortunately we can sidestep the whole issue by remembering that these are metaphors, and that they can both be good metaphors for a truth that, like all spiritual truths, cannot be grasped by the human mind by any means except metaphor. Here’s one metaphor; here’s another; imagine them both as clearly as possible, think about them, see what sense they make, and then try to get as much of a sense as you can of the structure of consciousness that both metaphors represent.
In both metaphors, we have atoms gradually working their way out from the Central Sun to the seventh Circle, on the edge of the Ring-Pass-Not. So at any given point during this phase of the formation of the Cosmos, you have certain atoms that have settled into their final places, and certain others that have worked their way out from the Central Sun but haven’t yet stopped moving. As they move outward along the tracks of one of the Rays, they absorb the influences of each of the Circles they pass through. Eventually most of them settle into a stable orbit—but not all of the atoms do this.
Whether it’s sheer density or a ten-sided prime atom at the center of their structure that does it, some atoms keep on moving even after they’ve reached the Seventh Circle. Beyond the Seventh Circle, though, there’s nowhere for them to go but the Ring-Pass-Not, and except in certain very special circumstances to be discussed later on, When they reach the outer edge of the Seventh Circle, the Ring-Pass-Not sends them spinning back down the ray toward the Central Sun, and they go straight through and out the other side along the opposite Ray.
When the Ring-Pass-Not sends them back along that Ray, in turn, they reach the Central Sun, veer a little and go out on a different Ray. This continues until each of the ten-sided traveling atoms has passed out and returned along all twelve of the Rays. They go outward along each Ray in a straight line, but the Ring-Pass-Not imparts a spin to them, and they make a circular movement on the seventh Circle, and repeat it on every subsequent Circle as they return to the Central Sun, absorbing the influence of each Circle from every side. (All this, remember, is still more metaphor.) Since the atoms themselves consist of nothing but movement in space, and each movement of an atom lays down a track in space that pulls further movement along its trajectory, the result is another immense increase in the complexity of the traveling atoms.
Once a traveling atom has completed the full circuit of twelve Rays, its evolution is finished for the time being, and it settles into temporary stillness in the Central Sun. Once all the traveling atoms have finished the full circuit, a phase of evolution is finished, and the Cosmos as a whole settles into a temporary stillness. As our text points out, this is the third phase in the evolution of a Cosmos. The first is the formation of the Ring-Cosmos, Ring-Chaos, and Ring-Pass-Not; the second is the transformation of the Ring-Cosmos into a disk and the genesis of the twelve Rays, the seven Circles, and the Central Sun; the third is the creation of the atoms and their sorting out by complexity.
In each case, we have an active phase of construction, and then a passive phase of equilibrium in which the patterns of movement created in the active phase settles down into a stable structure. As explained in an earlier chapter, these are governed by the rotation of the Ring-Cosmos relative to the Ring-Chaos.
As the Ring-Cosmos turns toward the plane of the Ring-Chaos, the static condition established at the end of the last cycle breaks up and a new phase of development begins. As the Ring-Cosmos passes the Ring-Chaos and begins to move away from its plane, the patterns set in motion during the phase of development settle into stability and move toward equilibrium. Then the Ring-Cosmos reaches and passes the point of maximum distance from the Ring-Chaos, and the influence of the latter sets the cycle in motion again.
Apply this same pattern to everyday life, to magical training and practice, or to the cycles of history, and you will find that it makes sense of phenomena that the ordinary linear thinking of our culture leaves unexplained. There is always the period of change in which fresh combinations, permutations, and rhythms of action and reaction unfold, and there is always the subsequent period of rest in which the new forces find their equilibrium and settle into a relative stillness. If you want to make change in any context, you need to allow for intervals of calm between bursts of change.
Lacking those, instead of a rhythm of change and repose, you can count on setting up a rhythm of change and counter-change, in which the imbalances set in motion by too prolonged a movement to one extreme generate an equally prolonged and unbalanced movement to the other extreme—a pendulum motion going nowhere. To avoid this, stop the movement you desire while it still has room to run, so that the rest of the Cosmos can settle into stability around it in its new position, rather than dragging it back the other way. That stability then becomes the thrust-block against which a new round of change can push.
Having reviewed the process by which the turning of the Ring-Cosmos sets the great cycles of the Cosmos in motion, the text briefly notes the previous teachings about the Three Rings, and starts drawing connections between the metaphors of The Cosmic Doctrine and a variety of other concepts from religion, occultism, and science. First, the interactions of the Three Rings are briefly discussed, and compared to the Athanasian Creed, the longest and most intricate of the creeds used in western Christian churches. Here’s the part of it that Fortune is referencing:
“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.”
Apply the same logic to the Three Rings and Fortune’s point is clear. From the initial movement in space, all Three Rings come into being; while the Ring-Cosmos is in some sense first, the Ring-Chaos second, and the Ring-Pass-Not third, all of them are implied in that original motion, and you can’t have any one of them without the others. Each is an essential part of the whole system that frames the Cosmos.
Fortune’s reference to the Athanasian Creed, though, may also be intended to hint at another part of that document:
“The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.”
Notice here that the structure of the Christian Trinity is mirrored in the structure of the Three Rings. The Ring-Cosmos, like the Father, comes into being out of nothing—“made of none” is quite an expressive way of putting it; the Ring-Chaos, like the Son, is begotten by the motion of the Ring-Cosmos; and the Ring-Pass-Not proceeds from the interaction of the two other Rings as, in Western Christianity, the Holy Ghost proceeds from the other two members of the Trinity.
(Dion Fortune was herself an Anglican Christian; her book Mystical Meditations on the Collects is a good introduction to that end of her thought. She was also a careful student of early 20th century Rosicrucianism, a widely practiced form of Christian occultism, which she absorbed from her teacher Dr. Theodore Moriarty. Those of my readers who are familiar with either or both of these traditions will find plenty of points of contact in the chapters ahead.)
So the Rings are compared, if not quite equated, to the Christian Trinity. The Rays are equated to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The Circles are equated to the seven Cosmic Planes of Theosophical and Rosicrucian teaching. Then, in a sudden leap that seems to leave all talk of metaphors in the dust, it places the Central Sun in astronomical space, at a point somewhere off beyond Alpha Centauri. Once again, Fortune has laid a trap for the unwary; this also is a metaphor, and can and should be explored as such.
Notice, more generally, what our text has done in these paragraphs. Over the last five chapters, Fortune has sketched out an abstract image of the genesis of a Cosmos without connecting it explicitly to any other body of spiritual, philosophical, occult, or scientific ideas. Now, in a few short lines, she hints at a glaaxy of connections—to Christian theology, to astrology, to occult philosophy, and to science. She doesn’t work out these connections in any detail; she simply shows that they are possible, and leaves the rest to her readers—that is to say, to you.
Notes for Study:
As already noted, The Cosmic Doctrine is heavy going, especially for those who don’t have any previous exposure to occult philosophy. It’s useful to read through the assigned chapter once or twice, trying to get an overview, but after that take it a bit at a time. The best option for most people seems to be to set aside five or ten minutes a day during the month you spend on this chapter. During that daily session, take one short paragraph or half of a long one, read it closely, and think about what you’ve read, while picturing in your mind’s eye the image you’ve been given for that passage of text. There are a lot of images in this chapter, so take your time and try to imagine each one as clearly as you can.
It’s particularly useful in this chapter to take a little while to imagine one of the ten-sided traveling atoms leaving the Central Sun for the first time, drifting straight out along one of the Rays, reaching the Ring-Pass-Not, making a circular movement there, and then moving Circle by Circle back down the rays, making a circular movement in each Circle before returning to the Central Sun. Do this several times in your imagination, and notice whether it gives rise to any other images or ideas.
As you proceed through the chapter and its images, you’re likely to find yourself facing questions that the text doesn’t answer. Some of those are questions Fortune wants you to ask yourself, either because they’ll be answered later in the book or because they will encourage you to think in ways that will help you learn what the text has to say. It can be helpful to keep a notebook in which to write down such questions, as well as whatever thoughts and insights might come to you as you study the text.
Questions and comments can also be posted here for discussion. (I’d like to ask that only questions and comments relevant to The Cosmic Doctrine be posted here, to help keep things on topic.) We’ll go on to the next piece of the text on November 14. Until then, have at it!