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 20, “The Logoidal Relationship to the Manifested Universe,” pp. 92 to the second to last paragraph on p. 94, ending “…are produced in this way.”
Millennium Edition: Chapter 21, “The Logoidal Relationship to the Manifested Universe,” from the third paragraph on p. 124, beginning with “The teaching of the last two lectures…” to the end of the chapter on p. 127.
This is an extremely dense chapter full of information relevant to practical magic; in the Revised Edition, it’s also twice as long as most of the other chapters, and so we’ll be spreading out our discussion over two months. Pay close attention as we go—many of the details covered here have direct practical application not only to magical practice but to everyday life and to the wider realms of politics and society.
Fortune begins her discussion by talking about the influences from outside the solar system that were the subject of previous chapters. (She calls these influences “extra-universal,” remember, because the word “universe” in her day was still sometimes used as a label for the solar system rather than the entire cosmos.) For the sake of clarity, she distinguishes two phases in this process: first there are the Cosmic influences that act on the Logos, and then there are the influences of the Logos on the solar system that result from these Cosmic factors.
While the theological mainstream in her time and ours sees God as incapable of change and growth, Fortune’s theology has no place for any form of static perfection. Everything in her great cosmic metaphor is perpetually changing, reacting to variations in its environment, and growing into greater richness and complexity over time. Interestingly, this same point was made by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose process philosophy also rejected the idea of static divine perfection in favor of a vision of the Cosmos in which God and the Cosmos were both developing over time.
The possibility that Fortune read Whitehead’s work is not a detail her biographers seem to have discussed, but the dates work. Whitehead’s famous Tarner lectures of 1919, which set out the principles of process philosophy, were published in book form in 1920 as The Concept of Nature and saw some discussion in the literate end of the press and the general public, and the first version of The Cosmic Doctrine was written in 1922. Whether or not Fortune was influenced by Whitehead directly, her ideas drew on the same trends in the intellectual life of the time as his, and one direction in which work with The Cosmic Doctrine might proceed in years to come would involve a close comparison of Fortune’s ideas with Whitehead’s.
The transformations of the Solar Logos, the god of this solar system, are of course not all caused by influences streaming in from the Cosmos. There are also the influences that come out of the evolution of the solar system, mediated by the swarms of Divine Sparks that journey down the planes and then return. Like the influences of the Cosmos, the influences of the solar system’s evolution also shape the way the Logos acts on its solar system, and so both these sets of influences become part of the environment in which you and I, dear reader, lead our lives and pursue the work of spiritual evolution.
There are other influences that shape our evolutionary environment, and these other influences are the main subject of this chapter.
The concept of “tracks in space,” which was introduced at the beginning of The Cosmic Doctrine, is essential to recall as a basis for what follows. Any repeated action or reaction inscribes a “track in space,” and so tends to become stereotyped. Seen from within Fortune’s metaphor, the entire solar system—and indeed the entire Cosmos—is simply a pattern of tracks in space through which atoms and atomic composites (themselves made up of tracks in space) live and move and have their being. That pattern, which Fortune calls an abstract mould, has been built up over time by the Solar Logos, using the swarms of Divine Sparks as its instrument. This abstract mould includes all the laws of nature studied by scientists, and a great many other laws of which scientists are completely ignorant at present.
These laws were not all laid down at the beginning of time. Some of them came into being with the evolution of the Lords of Flame, others with that of the Lords of Form, still others through the epigenetic play of the Lords of Mind, and we ourselves, as members of a swarm, are laying down tracks in space that will someday be laws of nature for the beings that come after us. Think of these tracks in space as being stacked like the levels of a building; the ground floor consists of the laws of physics and astronomy, which were laid down by the Lords of Flame; the first floor, which requires the support of the ground floor, consists of the laws of chemistry and biology, which were laid down by the Lords of Form; the second floor, which requires the support of the previous two floors, consists of the laws of ethology (animal behavior) and psychology, which were laid down by the Lords of Mind, and so on. Each depends on the ones before it.
Thus each kingdom of manifested existence in the solar system—radiant, mineral, vegetable, animal, and human—rises on a foundation consisting of tracks in space, which Fortune calls the elemental essence of the kingdom. Understand the laws that govern each kingdom and you have the capacity to work with those laws and make things happen in that kingdom. As Fortune points out, this is the basis of practical magic. Notice that magic as Fortune describes it is thus the opposite of supernatural, unless we take the “super” in supernatural to mean “extremely,” as in “supercharged” or “supercooled”; magic is extremely, wholly, utterly natural, the use of natural patterns to bring about natural results in accordance with the natural human faculty of will.
Of course the difficulty creeps in here because the established sciences of the modern Western world consider only the material world to be natural; everything else is supernatural, or unnatural, or simply nonexistent. As our text says, this is a strange fruit of epigenesis! To the occult philosopher, the material world is the lower three-sevenths of the densest and (metaphorically) lowest of the planes, the physical plane, which is one of seven subdivisions of the seventh and densest Cosmic plane; the modern sciences are thus limiting themselves to 3/343rds of the whole Cosmos, or 3/49ths of this solar system—which seems a little restrictive.
An equal but opposite mistake is made by those religious philosophies that insist that the material world is pure illusion and that only the higher planes are real. Dion Fortune was raised in one of these—the Christian Science church—and she encountered many others in her time, ranging from the more extreme end of New Thought to westernized versions of certain Asian spiritual traditions. To Fortune, both these views are mistaken. The material world has its own laws and principles, which have been studied intensively by modern science. When we are dealing with the behavior of matter and the denser sorts of energy, those laws need to be recognized and taken into account, but there are other modes and manifestations and planes of being which have their own laws, and which have powerful influences on human life.
Now comes a point of crucial importance. “The forces of each plane,” our text explains, “are supreme upon their own plane, controllers of the plane below, and, when in contact with the plane above, are in their turn controlled.”
Let’s take this a step at a time. The planes are not simply arbitrary divisions of an unbroken continuum; each plane is a reality unto itself, and under at least some circumstances, the forces of each plane govern that plane. In the case of the physical plane, for example, the forces known to modern science generally rule what happens on their plane. The same is true of every other plane. Occultists have summed up this insight in a convenient phrase: “The planes are discrete and not continuous.”
Under certain circumstances, however, the forces of one plane can spill over into a plane below it, and control what happens in that lower plane. When that happens, the forces of one plane can control the activity of certain phenomena on the next lower plane. There’s nothing supernatural or miraculous about this; it happens every time you decide to reach for something, and your hand moves: certain forces of the upper astral plane—those belonging to the personality—control the activity of your material body, which is part of the physical plane.
Notice that this control is limited by the nature of the plane below—your hand remains a hand, and can only do those things that hands are capable of doing—and it is also limited by the nature of the connection between the planes—you can move your hand, but you can’t move a coffee cup unless you use your hand to do it. At the same time, the hand guided by the personality can do things that the hand cannot do when the personality is not guiding it—say, in a state of sleep or unconsciousness.
The same relationship, finally, can extend above the lower mind as well as below it. The personality can reach upward to make contact with the Individuality and take direction from it. The personality remains itself, and does not stop being a personality; it continues to exercise all its usual functions on its own plane—but the influence of the Individuality guides its actions and makes it capable of doing things that a personality cannot do by itself. Many people have had the experience of receiving a sudden flash of intuition that enables them to find their way through a difficult situation successfully; this is an example of the upward contact we’re discussing.
The next paragraph of our text is just as complex, and requires equally careful unpacking. “For example, the laws of logic are supreme in the realm of mind. The images of mind control the forms of the emotions, but the images of mind are themselves controlled by the spiritual forces.” Here again, let’s take this a step at a time.
The laws of logic are the laws of that portion of the mental realm human beings can experience at this stage of our evolution; in Fortune’s taxonomy, they belong to the lower mental plane, and on that plane they are absolute. Where they make contact with the planes below, they also have power there—for example, the application of logic to the phenomena of the physical plane is the basis of modern science. At the same time, just as the control of the hand by the personality only goes so far, so does the control of matter by logic. There have, after all, been plenty of perfectly logical deductions about the world by qualified scientists that have turned out to be dead wrong.
Less obvious but in many ways more significant is the role of the mind in controlling the emotions. As a trained psychotherapist, Dion Fortune had plenty of direct experience with the myriad ways that garbled ideas held in the mind can misshape the emotional life. Since her time, that linkage became the focus of several schools of psychotherapy, such as the Transactional Analysis of Dr. Eric Berne and the Rational-Emotive Therapy of Dr. Albert Ellis; both these, and many other modes of therapy as well, focus on teaching patients to untangle counterproductive thought processes so that the corresponding tangles of the emotional life will unravel in turn.
The same process, again, works upwards as well as down, and back before psychotherapy was taken over by the pharmaceutical industry, some of the most innovative and promising ventures in the field focused on finding ways to make that connection between the personality and the Individuality, so that inner guidance from the spiritual plane can sort out the tangles of the mental plane and allow the emotional life to right itself. That was also a central theme of Fortune’s own work with healing, as described in books such as The Circuit of Force and, on another plane, her Rites of Isis and of Pan.
That act of reaching upward is of critical importance, and not just when your emotional life is a mess. The next four paragraphs of our text explain why. Chapter 18 of The Cosmic Doctrine discussed the Left-Hand Path in an abstract manner; here Fortune begins a more detailed analysis of that Path. (The term “Left-Hand Path” has been used in many different ways over the last two centuries or so; in Fortune’s terminology, remember, the Left-Hand Path is the path of regression, of falling back into an earlier phase of evolution.)
To understand what follows, it’s necessary to remember that to Fortune, every act of creation descends through the planes of being to the physical plane, the plane of effects, and then cycles back up the planes to its source. When all goes as it should, the impetus that sets the act of creation in motion begins on the first or upper spiritual plane and descends all the way to the seventh or physical plane, and then rises all the way back up, as shown in the diagram to the left.
At our present stage of evolution, the proper completion of the circuit depends on the actions of the personality, which functions on the upper astral and lower mental planes. If the personality reaches upwards to connect with the descending influence from the Individuality, the result is a complete circuit, and the personality is energized and empowered with the forces of the higher planes. If the personality closes itself against the contact with the Individuality, on the other hand, the higher planes never come into play. In the absence of occult training or certain other influences, the result is the starved, empty state of the psyche so often encountered today, which leads so many people to try to fill the void at the center of their beings with the chatter of the mass media or the false certainties of ideology.
Bring occult training into play, however, and things become considerably more serious. The disciplines of any form of occult training link up the levels of the self from the personality on down, and the result is a half-circuit in which force flows down from the lower mental or upper astral plane to the physical plane and back up to where it started. Inevitably a short circuit occurs, and the force flows across at the level of the lower mental or upper astral planes, as shown in the diagram to the right. The force is guided, not by the higher planes, but by the patterns laid down in the subjective mind during our species’ descent through the planes; it is therefore subconscious rather than conscious.
Thus the forces that come through to the conscious mind are shaped by subconscious drives and automatisms rather than the expanded awareness of the upper mental and spiritual planes. The result is a debasement of the personality, in which complex mental abilities end up being used for crude and unthinking ends. I suspect many of us have met people like this, who display a surface patina of intellectual brilliance or personal charisma that conceals a complete inability to think reflectively and an equally complete unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions.
If Fortune’s correct—and her comments here are supported by those of many other occult authors—those who follow this path are not simply left to their own karma. Because their actions can affect the broader life-wave of which we are all parts, those greater beings who have responsibility for overseeing human evolution can intervene and send the corrupted soul back down the ladder of evolution to try again. Notes Fortune, “Certain types of mischievous malicious idiots are produced in this way”—and “idiot” was in Fortune’s time a specific medical diagnosis, equivalent to profound mental retardation.
The moral to this story is that there’s a point to the injunction in the Golden Dawn rituals to begin every working with an invocation of the Higher. Reach up the planes through prayer, contemplation, and meditation, and you’ll stay on the track of evolution.
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 April 8, 2020. Until then, have at it!