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 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 6, “The Beginnings of a Solar System,” pp. 31-34.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 5, “The Genesis of a Solar System,” from the second complete paragraph on p. 43 (which starts with the words “You have heard how these atoms…”) to the end of the chapter.
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 astrophysics. When Fortune discusses solar systems in this chapter, she’s using concepts borrowed from astronomy as a set of metaphors, not trying to compete with the astronomers of her time (or ours) by offering up a physical theory of the formation of solar systems.
There’s a further level to the metaphor, however, and it’s one that will become increasingly important as the book proceeds. From ancient times onward, it’s been common in Western esoteric writings to identify the sun as the representation, the habitation, or even the material body of the principal divine power active in the world we know. That habit almost certainly has Egyptian roots, tracing its origins to the veneration of the sun god Ra; you can find the same solar vision all the way through classical Western occultism from the emperor Julian’s hymns to Helios the sun god straight through to Robert Fludd’s identification of the sun as the habitation of the Logos, the second person of the Christian trinity.
Fortune’s work is squarely in this tradition. For her, the Solar Logos—whom she also identifies as the second person of the Christian trinity, by the way—is the god of this solar system, the Great Organism who organizes and conditions everything on Earth and the other planets that orbit our sun. In the chapters we’ve already studied, Fortune has sketched out in metaphoric terms the evolutionary process by which the Solar Logos (and countless other Great Organisms of the same type) comes into being; we now proceed to the chapters in which she explores how the Solar Logos creates a solar system in the image of the greater Cosmos.
That process begins as the traveling atoms discussed in last month’s commentary find their way back to the Central Sun. Each traveling atom has gone out and back again along each of the twelve Rays, absorbing the influences of each Ray on each of the seven Circles or Cosmic planes of existence. Each of these atoms started out as a vortex of movement in space based on a simple geometrical pattern; each finishes its journey as a fantastically complex structure of forces in equilibrium, having experienced every possibility the cosmos has to offer and made each one of those possibilities part of its internal structure.
These Great Organisms, as we may now call them, started their outward journey when the Ring-Cosmos was turning toward the Ring-Chaos. As they complete the journey, they come to rest in the Central Sun and stay there as the Ring-Cosmos begins pivoting away from the Ring-Chaos and the Cosmos sinks into its negative phase. Once the Ring-Cosmos begins moving toward the Ring-Chaos again, the Great Organisms leave the Central Sun again, following the lines of the twelve Rays.
In the previous phase of activity, the atoms moved outwards to fill empty space, and some of them became complex enough to go all the way out to the Ring-Pass-Not and begin the career as a traveling atom that would transform them into Great Organisms. In this new phase of activity, the atoms that didn’t become traveling atoms are still there, distributed by density (or geometrical structure) among the seven Circles. As the Great Organisms go out along the Rays, they gather up as many of the atoms of each plane as their mass can attract, and their outward movement slows down accordingly. Eventually each of the Great Organisms, with its cloud of accompanying atoms, comes to rest in one of the Circles and begins to revolve around the Central Sun at a fixed distance, passing through each of the Rays in turn.
What determines the Circle in which any given Great Organism settles down to stay? Here again, we have the trap mentioned in last month’s commentary, the one Fortune laid with exquisite care for would-be fundamentalists. Remember how an earlier chapter had only the ten-sided atoms becoming traveling atoms, while all the other atoms settled out to stay in one or another of the circles, from the three-sided atoms in the first circle, all the way out to the nine-sided atoms in the seventh. Here, all of a sudden, the Great Organisms can have atoms of any shape at their core, and each one settles out into a circle determined by the number of sides of its basic form. “If the vortex set up in the angles of the Rays moved in a three-sided path, it could go no further than the first plane beyond the Central Stillness,” our text says; “it would have to be a ten-sided figure to reach the seventh plane and evolve there.”
Did you hear that click? That was the trap closing shut.
The difficulty Fortune has placed in the way of a simplistic literalism here is straightforward enough: the numbers don’t work. If atoms based on three-sided figures settle out in the first Circle, atoms based on four-sided figures in the second Circle, those based on five-sided figures in the third Circle, and so on, then the atoms assigned to the seventh Circle would be nine-sided, and ten-sided atoms would have no place to go. Try to turn The Cosmic Doctrine into an allegedly infallible sacred scripture and you crash headlong into that obvious problem. Accept instead that it’s a set of metaphors meant to train the mind, and you’re fine; sure, the numbers don’t work, but they don’t need to.
You can imagine, with perfect serenity, the Great Organism that created our solar system having a ten-sided figure at its core. You can see it drifting out along one of the Rays, gathering a cloud of other atoms with it as it goes, and settling into its permanent orbit on the seventh Circle. Since the rest of the book focuses on events inside our solar system, that’s as much as you need. Since all this is metaphor, getting bent out of shape because every detail doesn’t mesh precisely with every other detail is like responding to Robert Burns’ claim that his love is like a red, red rose by seeing if she has thorns and green skin.
With that in mind, let’s return to the metaphor. Once each Great Organism settles into its permanent orbit, the cloud of atoms that surrounds it sorts itself out into a miniature Cosmos, with the Great Organism at the center and a disk of less complex atoms around it, reflecting the Central Sun and the disk of the Ring-Cosmos. That’s a newborn solar system, as Fortune comments elsewhere, to the nearest approximate metaphor: the Great Organism as the sun-to-be, and the cloud of atoms surrounding it as the great swirling cloud of cosmic dust and debris that will eventually coalesce into planets, asteroids, and comets.
With this picture sketched out, Fortune proceeds to drop several important hints. The first is that the solar system we happen to inhabit is nothing special. Even the subset of them that settle into orbits on the seventh plane are so numerous that the stars known to human beings are but an infinitesimal fraction of the total, and each of the other Cosmic planes has a comparable number of Great Organisms building solar systems there, outside the reach of our awareness in this phase of our evolution. The point being made here is one that nineteenth- and twentieth-century occultism liked to stress: human beings are not the be-all and end-all of existence, and the cosmos does not exist solely for our benefit.
We have a place in the scheme of things. As we’ll see in more detail later on, it’s by no means a shabby place, all things considered, but it’s not unique to us, and there are other beings who rank far above us in the scale of things and will always do so. The sort of giddy anthropocentric arrogance that claims vast cosmic importance for human beings, and only for human beings, was already far too common when the nineteenth-century occult revival got under way, and it’s become even more so since then. Where Renaissance occultists such as Giovanni Pico di Mirandola spoke of the dignity and potential power of humanity, to try to counter the contempt for the human condition so common in the Middle Ages, modern occultists have had to grapple with the opposite problem, and labored to deflate the overblown collective ego of our species.
That’s the first hint. The second one is another of those remarkable prefigurations of systems theory that pop up all through The Cosmic Doctrine. In Dion Fortune’s time, the very first tentative efforts toward systems theory were trying to find a way to describe the way that every system divides itself into subsystems structured like the original system, and these subsystems do the same thing in turn. When I studied systems theory in college in the early 1980s, systems theorists had assigned that property a variety of names, such as self-similarity and recursive structure.
Not long thereafter, though, a branch of mathematics that had begun to explore the same process in numerical and geometrical forms got its fifteen minutes and more of fame, and gave the rest of us a straightforward way to talk about the property in question. Were Dion Fortune to reincarnate now for the purpose of bringing out an enlarged and revised edition of The Cosmic Doctrine, she could sum up half a dozen lengthy paragraphs with a single sentence: the Cosmos is fractal.
In a fractal picture, each part of the image—all the way down to the smallest—duplicates the overall structure of the picture, and vice versa. That same dynamic structures the relationship between the Cosmos, individual solar systems, and individual beings that exist within a solar system. That’s what Fortune is getting at in the last half dozen paragraphs of this chapter. The Cosmos has Rings and Rays and Circles, and so each solar system develops its own rings and rays and circles; within each solar system, in turn, the atoms that got scooped up with the Great Organism who is that system’s Solar Logos go through a reflection of the same experience that made a Solar Logos out of a traveling atom, and themselves become Great Organisms, and the process continues.
The Cosmos is fractal, and so everything we have discussed in terms of the overall structure of the (metaphorical) universe is also part of the structure of each individual human being, and each human society, and each ecosystem, and any other whole system you want to understand. As a human being, a microcosm of the macrocosm, you have your own Ring-Cosmos, Ring-Chaos, and Ring-Pass-Not; you have your own Rays (the cusps of your natal horoscope) and your own Circles (the various bodies, dense and subtle, of the human being); your actions spiral outward from your Central Sun to your Ring-Pass-Not and back again, evolving into habits that find their proper orbit and continue in it thereafter. As above, so below: the great axiom of the Hermetic tradition is a continuing theme of The Cosmic Doctrine, and this is one of the places where it’s central.
Though the Cosmos and the individual have the same basic structure, in turn, there’s a crucial difference between them: the Cosmos forms the environment that conditions and influences the individual, not the other way around. At every moment your consciousness and your life are being shaped by the forces of the cosmos; some of the ways in which this happens are obvious, but a great many more are not. The essence of the Secret Wisdom—that is to say, the essence of occultism, since “occult” simply means “that which is hidden”—is the knowledge of those hidden influences, and of the times and places and forces that cause them to change. To know those influences is to attain wisdom. To wield them in harmony with the innate patterns and directions of the Cosmos is to become the equivalent of a traveling atom: in a phrase traditional among occultists, it is to enter onto the Path.
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 December 12. Until then, have at it!