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 11, “The Evolution of Consciousness,” pp. 52-54.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 12, “The Birth of Consciousness in the Universe,” pp. 73-76.
This is a difficult chapter for many students, but it’s also a very important one, for in it Fortune develops her set of metaphors for consciousness in directions that will have important practical implications. We’ll take it a little at a time.
It’s important, to begin with, to remember the definition of consciousness Fortune introduced in the previous chapter: “consciousness is reaction plus memory.” Think about that for a moment. If you had reactions but no memory, the sensations of each instant would erase the sensations of the previous instant. What’s more, none of the sensations would mean anything to you, because meaning is what occurs when you connect a present reaction to a memory from the past: when we say the letter A means a particular sound used in speech, or the word “cat” refers to a four-legged creature that meows, what that indicates is that you connect the shape of the letter or the word to the memory of a sound or an animal.
Alternatively, if you had memory but no reaction, your awareness would be fixed on whatever happened to be in your memory, if anything was, and you would be completely oblivious to what was happening to you at the moment. Combine reaction and memory, though, and you have consciousness; you can perceive at least a little of what is going on around you, and what you perceive can be linked to past perceptions so that it means something to you.
That’s one of two definitions of consciousness that Fortune provides. The other is included again in the present chapter: “consciousness is an integration of reactions, so that any change in any part is responded to by the corresponding adjustments of the whole.” This definition approaches the same subject from a different angle. Those corresponding adjustments of the whole are the basis of memory; something happens, and the whole system becomes a little different. It is affected by the change: that’s reaction. Its structure is changed in an enduring way by the thing that has happened: that’s memory.
Human consciousness is this same process made complex by billions of years of evolution, but the same patterns can be seen at work in the brain. Sensory organs respond to specific ranges of stimuli: that’s reaction. The brain responds by laying down complex electrobiochemical patterns that enable the reaction to be recalled at a later date: that’s memory. Combine the two and you’ve got the material basis for consciousness. These same two processes can be seen at work in many things other than human beings, some of them not even defined as living by our current notions of what life is. Does that suggest that these things are also conscious, each in its own way? Why, yes, that is indeed what it suggests.
Fortune goes on to differentiate between two levels of consciousness, one of them in the background, the other in the foreground. Each conscious being, whether we’re discussing a Solar Logos or one of the countless beings who inhabit the solar system the Logos has created, has some capacities for reaction that have already been worked out in all their permutations over past cycles of experience, and other capacities for reaction that have just been developed by contact with new experiences and have not yet settled into stable relationships. In the case of the Solar Logos, the first of these categories—the background of capacities for reaction that have settled into stable patterns—are the results of its experiences as a traveling atom journeying out and back along the twelve Rays. The second of these categories—the new capacities for reaction still needing to be integrated into a balanced whole—are the results of its experiences as it reflects on itself, and notices its own reactions to the great Cosmic tides.
Human beings, like all other beings in the solar system, also have these two levels of consciousness or, to put things another way, these two parts of the self. The background of capacities for reaction gained in previous lives is called the Individuality, or the Higher Self; the foreground of new capacities being sorted out by conscious action in this life is called the Personality, or the Lower Self. These can be called, without too much inaccuracy, the unconscious and the conscious selves.
It’s important to understand how these two parts of the self relate. The Personality in each life lays down reaction-capacities that become part of the Individuality in future lives. In each new life, in turn, the Personality unfolds from the reactions of the Individuality to new experiences. We don’t experience the Individuality directly, because our attention is fixed by the foreground of new reactions to new experiences. but it forms the enduring background to the mental activities we perceive.
It would not be going too far, in fact, to speak of the Individuality by using that old-fashioned term “character.” Your Individuality is the basis of your character, the source of those enduring habits of thought and action that frame the way you relate to the world. Your Personality can be thought of as a set of potential additions to your Individuality, which you are trying out in the changing conditions of your present life. “That which is the Personality today will be part of the Individuality to-morrow,” Fortune writes; readers who know their way around the literature of Freudian psychology, which Fortune studied extensively at one point in her career, will recognize this as a wry commentary on Freud’s overconfident dictum “where Id was, there shall Ego be.”
The Solar Logos or Great Entity goes through the same process on a much vaster timescale. Its Personality comes into being as it contemplates the effects of the changing Cosmic tides on itself, and this Personality is built up along the lines already laid down by the Great Entity’s experience of the Cosmos. So, in this Personality, there are currents of motion that arc around after vast ages to become three vast Rings; there are twelve Rays that stream out from a center and return to it; there are atoms born of tangential movements set in motion by the Rays, which are caught up and swept along in the currents of motion. All told, there is a mirror image of the Cosmos, reflected in the consciousness of the Great Entity, and this becomes a universe of its own—but the Solar Logos is not the only inhabitant of that universe.
There are also the Cosmic atoms that were swept up by the Great Entity on its way out to its orbit on the seventh Cosmic plane. They sort themselves out into orbits surrounding the Great Entity according to their own Cosmic plane of origin. As the Great Entity evolves a Personality—or, to put the same point in a different way, as the Great Entity brings its solar system into being, for the Great Entity’s Personality and its solar system are one and the same thing—the other Cosmic atoms are caught up again in the patterns of movement laid down by the Great Entity in its dance. They become the Divine Sparks of the beings who will inhabit the solar system, and in over the vast cycles of the solar system’s evolution they evolve too, developing their own capacities for reaction and memory.
In the period we are discussing, the period of the first stirrings of consciousness, all this is far in the future. The first development of consciousness in the newborn solar system does not take place in individual Divine Sparks, although it affects them. Instead, the patterns of movement in space laid down by the Solar Logos in his contemplation become organized among themselves, forming a whole system in which a change to any part affects all the other parts. Consciousness is born, in the form of a vast Oversoul that links everything in the solar system. Eventually individual souls will emerge from that Oversoul, but the time for that has not yet arrived.
Two points deserve to be noticed here. First, since the solar system is projected as a thought-form by the Great Entity, it and everything in it contain all the reaction-capacities of the Great Entity in latent form. The Divine Sparks and the embodiments they create around themselves go through the same stages of evolution as the traveling atom that became the Great Entity, but they do so much more quickly, because they are recapitulating rather than breaking new ground. “And God made man after His image, according to His likeness,” says the Book of Genesis; The Cosmic Doctrine agrees entirely with this statement, but interprets it in a way that draws an unexpected kind of sense out of it.
Second, in the relationship between pure movement in space and the stable atoms generated by movement we have the first sketch of the relation of soul to body. Fortune asks the reader to imagine that each atom, as it moves through space, leaves an invisible “track” of pure movement which remains behind it, frictionless and therefore persistent. If a second atom gets drawn into the same “track” as the first, the “track” deepens and strengthens, while at the same time the track is changed at least a little by the vagaries of the atom. Repeat this countless times, and the track in space becomes a rut along which atom after atom moves.
This is the way the Oversoul affects the individual atoms it overshadows. As the atoms develop new capacities for movement from their encounters with the Oversoul, they lay down their own internal patterns of tracks in space, simple at first and then mounting to dizzying levels of complexity. In this way the atom begins to develop its own mental dimension, and from the Oversoul emerges an individual soul capable of passing through the cycles of evolution itself.
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 June 12. Until then, have at it!
In (more or less) unrelated news, I’m delighted to announce that the fifth book in my series of epic fantasies with tentacles, The Weird of Hali: Providence, is now available for preorder in trade paperback; the ebook editions should be available for preorder in a few days. The planned release date is June 5, 2019. Interested? Check out the details here.