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 seat 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 are listed 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 15, “Evolution of the Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind,” pp. 70-75.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 16, “Evolution of the Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind,” pp. 97-103.
The construction of the solar system in Dion Fortune’s metaphor continues in this chapter. Over the last two chapters we’ve watched the first swarm of individual beings begin their pilgrimage down the planes of being; we’ve seen how their activities on each plane bring a planet into being, and we’ve watched each planet develop its own Planetary Spirit, which conditions each of the subsequent swarms of Divine Sparks as these descend the planes in turn. Now it’s time to look a good deal more closely at the three original swarms—the Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind.
Here Fortune is enriching her metaphor with material that has deep roots in Western occult tradition. I doubt that many of my readers will have encountered the technical terms epiphaniai, epiphonomiai, and ephiomai—literally “appearances,” “voices,” and “acclamations”—which were used for these beings by Renaissance occultists such as Robert Fludd, though I suspect that Fortune knew the terms. To summarize a great deal of lore too quickly, though, the Lords of Flame are the beings that both occultists and more orthodox believers call angels. The Lords of Form are the beings that occultists of various traditions call intelligences or devas. The Lords of Mind are beings to which occultists give various names, of which “inner plane teachers” is probably the most useful. The capacious logic of polytheism tends to give these and other beings such labels as numina or kami; “gods” will do in English.
Let’s begin with the angelic Lords of Flame, the first swarm of Divine Sparks to set out from the Solar Logos and descend through the seven planes of the solar system the Logos has dreamed into existence. (Remember that in our text, when Fortune writes “universe,” she means “solar system”—that was standard usage in her day, at a time when other galaxies had not yet been discovered.) This first swarm is made up of those atoms that became complex enough in the solar system’s first phases of evolution to take part in the journey up and down the solar system’s twelve rays; they are equivalents, in the smaller scale of the solar system, of the traveling atoms of the Cosmos—one of whom is now the Solar Logos, the god of our solar system. So they come to the work of creating a solar system with much more experience, and much more complexity, than subsequent swarms.
That’s the first thing that sets the Lords of Flame apart. The second is that they begin their work when the solar system consists solely of the Solar Logos and a cloud of atoms around it, dancing to the rhythms the Logos sets in motion. The sole influence on their evolution is the Solar Logos. Later swarms also receive the influences of the Planetary Spirits; the Lords of Flame don’t.
Those are the things that make life easy for the Lords of Flame. The thing that makes life hard for them is that they are the first. They go, if you will, where no Divine Sparks have gone before. They have to build bodies out of the raw material of the seventh plane, using atoms that have never before been organized into a body; since atoms are nothing more than habitual tracks of motion, remember, this means that the atoms have to be reshaped comprehensively to make their movement-tracks fit the needs of a seventh-plane body. That’s just the individual side of their work. They also have to work together to build the body of a planet on the seventh plane, and the atoms that are their raw material have never been part of a planet, either.
Thus the Lords of Flame have their work cut out for them. When they arrive on each plane, they are surrounded by a mass of unorganized atoms; when they leave it, they leave behind a pattern of forces so intricately coordinated that all subsequent swarms are drawn into it and formed by it. To use a metaphor from esoteric Masonry, they have the role of Solomon King of Israel, setting out the fundamental patterns and proportions that subsequent workers will follow.
The second swarm has a different task and a different destiny. The Lords of Form or intelligences of nature begin as ordinary atoms of the seventh plane that are drawn into the archetypal form of the seventh plane planet once the Lords of Flame leave it. They gather up bodies of other seventh plane atoms and attune themselves to the Planetary Spirit in the same way that the Lords of Flame did, but they don’t have to do it all from scratch; the tracks in space laid down on the planet of the seventh plane make building a body easier than it was for their predecessors, and they don’t have to create the Planetary Spirit, they just have to learn to work with her.
Both of those advantages come with corresponding drawbacks. The tracks in space that help the Lords of Form build their bodies were laid down by the very different consciousness of the Lords of Flame, and so the Lords of Form have to balance out the resulting vagaries. The same thing on an even larger scale happens when they deal with the Planetary Spirit. On each plane, the Lords of Flame condition the Planetary Spirit, but the Lords of Form and all subsequent swarms are conditioned by her. Each Lord of Form thus has to balance the sometimes conflicting influences of the Solar Logos and of the Planetary Spirit of the planet on which it is incarnate.
The Lords of Form also have a unique function as they work their way down the planes. They come into being on the seventh plane when the Lords of Flame have gone on to the sixth, and build seventh plane bodies; when the Lords of Flame go on to the fifth plane, the Lords of Form proceed to the sixth, enter into the planet that has been built there, and get to work building sixth plane bodies and attuning with the Planetary Spirit of that plane. Then the Lords of Flame go on to the fourth plane, and the Lords of Form are caught between the gravitational attraction of the fifth and seventh plane planets. The conflicting pulls are strong enough that the seventh and sixth plane bodies they’ve built dissolve into their component atoms, and those atoms are caught up in the structure of the sixth plane planet and remain there.
Meanwhile the Lords of Form circle back to the Solar Logos, pick up the Logoidal vibration again, and start out anew. Since they’ve already built seventh and sixth plane bodies, they do this quickly enough, and land on the fifth plane while the Lords of Flame are still busy at their pioneering work on the fourth. When the Lords of Flame go on to the third plane, though, the same thing happens to the Lords of Form; their seventh, sixth, and fifth plane bodies dissolve, the atoms of which those bodies are made become the raw material of the fifth plane planet, and back the Lords of Form go to the Solar Logos to repeat the same process. In the language of esoteric Masonry, the Lords of Form have the role of Hiram King of Tyre, who provided the raw materials for the building of the Temple.
Meanwhile the third of the three primal swarms is getting under way. When the Lords of Form move from the seventh plane to the sixth, another batch of seventh-plane atoms are drawn into the Planetary Spirit on that plane to form a new body for her, and like the Lords of Form, they take on the patterns already laid down, becoming individualized beings, building seventh-plane bodies, and entering into rapport with the Planetary Spirit. This third swarm has an easy time of it on each plane, since the atoms it forms into its bodies are already conditioned by having been part of the body of a Divine Spark. They finish their work faster than the first two swarms do, but they can’t move on until the swarm before them takes another step, so there they remain.
Those of my readers who have ever witnessed what happens with a room full of seven-year-olds who have nothing to do, or who remember how their own seven-year-old selves responded to such a situation, know what happens next. They start to play, and tolerably often, this means they get into trouble. That’s what happens to the third swarm. They get rambunctious with one another and with the Planetary Spirit, and the result is what Fortune calls epigenesis.
That’s a sufficiently important concept in The Cosmic Doctrine that it deserves a more complete description here. Epigenesis is what less careful philosophers call “free will.” Consider the way that trainers in aquariums teach seals to perform tricks. They don’t show them tricks and try to bully them into doing them; no, what they do is set things up so that the individual seals are rewarded randomly by a machine that spits out fish at unpredictable intervals. The seals, trying to figure this out, will repeat various things they were doing when the fish showed up. As the machine keeps reinforcing at random and the seals try harder and harder to make the thing cough up fish, they will work out various repetitive routines, many of which look cute to human beings. The trainer then starts deliberately reinforcing the cutest maneuvers, and the seals go on display, splashing about and balancing balls on their noses in the serene conviction that they’ve figured out how to get the humans to fork over the fish.
That’s epigenesis. Any time a being capable of action ends up in a setting that provides random or quasi-random responses to action, you get epigenesis. Each individual being responds differently to it, and so epigenesis leads to differentiation, and to the beginnings of personality. Over time, furthermore, as one layer of epigenesis overlays another, complex feedback loops form, so that this set of epigenetic behavior sets off that set, but only under conditions that don’t put a third set into action. As individual complexity increases, linear cause and effect dissolve into the kind of strange loops Douglas Hofstadter explored so colorfully in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, producing the unpredictable, reflective, innovative behavior we call thinking.
The third of the three primal swarms are therefore the Lords of Mind. They are the first of the swarms to become fully individualized beings with their own distinct characters, because they are the first to go through epigenesis. The Lords of Flame lay down the basic patterns of existence, the Lords of Form provide the substance of existence, but the Lords of Mind elaborate, individualize, and create. In the metaphors of esoteric Masonry, where the Lords of Flame have the role of King Solomon, and the Lords of Form that of King Hiram, the Lords of Mind have the role of the third grand master, Hiram Abiff the widow’s son, who was responsible for the ornamentation, the metalwork, and the day-to-day construction of the Temple.
There’s a warning implied in that identification, though. As my brother Masons are well aware, and as other readers who know their way around Masonic symbolism also know, Masonic tradition has it that Hiram Abiff did not survive to see the Temple completed. Epigenesis need not result in increased complexity and the awakening of mind. As the metaphor of seven-year-olds left to their own devices suggests, it can also result in chaos and disintegration.
Fortune makes a profound comment on this distinction. Epigenesis, she says, is what happens when energies that are trying to continue in one direction are stymied, so that they play among themselves and develop new aspects and relationships. The technical term for this process is “sublimation.” If the blockage of the energies continues too long, however, the process reverses and the energies revert to a more primitive mode of functioning; the technical term for this retrograde process is “degradation.”
In some of her other writings, Fortune uses the example of human sexuality to show the way that epigenesis starts with sublimation and ends with degradation. When children first reach puberty they are in no way ready for the intricacies of sexual relationships, and so healthy societies prevent them from pursuing their urges to their natural fulfillment. The result is sublimation: the sexual energies, prevented from finding the usual outlet, flow instead into other pursuits, such as creativity, spirituality, and personal maturation. Once these other pursuits have become stable enough, the child is a child no longer, and is ready to enter into sexual life. Keep the barrier in place thereafter, though, and you get all the neurotic consequences of enforced celibacy, which can be described neatly enough (and were in fact so described by Freud and his pupils) in terms of reversion to childhood stages that should have been long outgrown.
Degradation isn’t a risk for the Lords of Mind. They come into being in a solar system that is still simple enough, and strongly enough pervaded by the patterns set out by the Solar Logos, that they complete their epigenesis on each plane in perfect harmony, laying down patterns that will awaken thought and personality in the subsequent swarms. It is these subsequent swarms are the ones that run the risk of degradation if they remain too long in transitional stages, and of entering into modes of epigenesis that will take them out of balance with the rest of the solar system and send them spinning off on strange and self-destructive destinies of their own.
The second half of the building of the solar system, as the swarms reach the first plane and then begin the long ascent back to the Solar Logos, will be the subject of the next chapter, and of further chapters after that. The outward journey deserves close attention, though, because this is one of the places that Fortune’s great metaphor can be applied most obviously to the details of human life. Most of my readers, for example, will have had the opportunity to interact with organizations at various points in their growth and development. The three primal swarms are, among other things, the stages in that process of growth.
Perhaps, dear reader, you have had the experience of helping to found a new organization. You already know in a small way the work of the Lords of Flame: how much effort it takes to establish brand new patterns of action and communication, encourage members to use those and not bring in other patterns from elsewhere, and learn to think of themselves as members of a group rather than individuals who happen to be drifting through a given set of interactions.
Or perhaps, dear reader, you have joined a group that has already been established but is hitting its growth curve. You know in a small way the work of the Lords of Form: what it takes to gather adequate human material together and bring it into harmony with the existing structures of the organization, and how often you have to go back to the beginning and repeat a familiar process before everything works smoothly at last.
Or finally, dear reader, perhaps you have had the experience of joining a well-established organization, and finding that the work that is open to you is a matter of elaborating an existing structure and working out the subtle variations that make the guiding principles a little better suited to each of the situations it encounters. You thus know in a small way the work of the Lords of Mind.
The same metaphor can be applied in other ways, of course. The thing that matters, as you study The Cosmic Doctrine, is that you learn to apply the metaphors of the work yourself, to use them as tools for thinking, and make sense of your world in the distinctive way Fortune sketches out.
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.
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 October 9. Until then, have at it!