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 8, “The Evolution of a Great Entity,” pp. 39-43.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 7, “The Evolution of a Great Entity,” pp. 55-57, and the first half of the following chapter, to the bottom of p. 60.
With this chapter the text shifts in an important way. Up to now, The Cosmic Doctrine has made use of physics as a basis for its “nearest approximate metaphors.” The images that we’ve been presented all have to do with space and movement. Within that framework, a kind of visionary astronomy has been unfolded, setting out the principles of occult philosophy as though we’re talking about the formation of suns and planets.
There are good reasons for that approach. For most people in the industrial world, the narratives of modern science provide the raw material for our thinking, in exactly the same way that the mythic narratives of ancient Greece, let’s say, provided the raw material for Classical thought. Many Americans who grew up when I did will recall the glorious Chesley Bonestell paintings of the newborn Earth commissioned by Life Magazine and published in a very widely read coffee-table book, The World We Live In; equivalent images were commonplace in Fortune’s time and today as well. These are our creation myths, and it was a wise choice on Fortune’s part to use them to provide a half-conscious mental background for her teaching.
The challenge that has to be faced by any set of metaphors that relies on physics, though, is the barrier that materialist science has tried to raise between matter and mind. That’s the barrier Fortune needs to get past in order to make her account of the cosmos relevant to magic—the art and science, remember, of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. She does the job with considerable aplomb by the straightforward tactic of driving right through the middle of the barrier, sending fragments flying in all directions.
Let’s see how this works. She starts by asking us to imagine the consciousness of a Great Entity, one of the traveling atoms of the Cosmos that has passed through the whole process of Cosmic evolution and settled down on one of the seven planes of being to create a solar system of its own. At first, the consciousness of that Great Entity would simply be a dim sense of whirling, reflecting the movement of the Ring-Cosmos. That becomes established, and fades from awareness in the same way that any repeated stimulus does. (Pay attention to your tongue. Before I mentioned it, were you aware of the sensations it was receiving?) Then the secondary movement of the Ring-Chaos follows, entering consciousness and then fading out as the Great Entity becomes habituated to it. From there, step by step, every other phase in the evolution of the Cosmos is reflected in the consciousness of the Great Entity.
Why? Because the consciousness of the Great Entity is nothing other than these patterns of habituated movement. Fortune points out: “(T)here is an unbroken line of development from movement to thought. Tangential movement is a simple form of reaction. Thought is an infinitely complex form of reaction. It is a question of difference of degree, not of difference of kind” (p. 40 revised edition, p. 56 Millennial edition). Think of your consciousness as an extremely complex set of movements that have worked out all their interactions and whirl smoothly and silently on, until disrupted by some new influence.
It’s common for people to treat this sort of understanding as though it’s a dismissal of the very idea of consciousness—as though it’s saying “consciousness is nothing more than very complex movement.” It would be just as accurate to say that movement is nothing less than very simple consciousness, and that physics studies those forms of consciousness that are simple enough that their results can be predicted by mathematical formulae. To say that movement and consciousness are the same thing doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t exist—it means that everything is conscious to one degree or another.
The point to take from this discussion is that Fortune’s account doesn’t set out two separate realms of mind and matter (philosophers call this dualism); nor does it see mind as an effect or product or illusion created by matter (in philosophers’ jargon, materialism); nor does it see matter an effect or product or illusion created by mind (to philosophers, this is idealism). Rather, to Fortune, mind and matter are the same thing experienced in slightly different ways—or, in modern industrial society, chopped in half to make the universe fit an ideology with a covert agenda. (This makes Fortune’s account, in philosophers’ language, a variety of monism—though, as we’ll see, Fortune shows that philosophical monism and religious theism are perfectly compatible if you approach them both in the right way.)
We’ll get to these latter points as we proceed. For now, let’s turn back to the text and watch the slow dawning of complex consciousness in the mind of a Great Entity. As it finishes the process of Cosmic evolution and settles down into a stable orbit on one of the planes of being, and the other atoms that accompanied it out to that plane settle into their own stable orbit, the Great Entity repeats the motions that it absorbed from the Cosmos, and imparts those same motions to the swarm of atoms that surround it. The swarm proceeds to sort itself out into the miniature Cosmos we call a solar system and Fortune, like the astronomers of her childhood, called a Universe. (The term “universe” didn’t get its modern meaning until the discovery of other galaxies in the mid-20th century; the term literally means “that which rotates together,” and was already being used in the Middle Ages for the Earth-centered cosmos imagined in those days.)
Fortune talks about this same process in two ways, once in terms of motion, once in terms of consciousness; these are the same thing, but our habits of thought make it difficult to grasp that, thus the repetition. The Great Entity repeats the motions of the Cosmos, and thus—this is simply another way of saying the same thing—formulates the concept of those motions. The repetition of a motion, after all, is the simplest form of reflection on that motion. So we can begin to see the Great Entity meditating on the conditions of its being, the vast movements of the Cosmos it absorbed during its long pilgrimage through time. As they respond to these motions, the atoms surrounding the Great Entity recapitulate that pilgrimage in a reflected form. They absorb the fruits of its experience; we might even say that they receive an initiation from the Great Entity, and are introduced to the modes of consciousness of the Great Entity. Certain aspects of religion can be understood in this way; others—well, we’ll get to that further on.
The solar system doesn’t simply settle down into habituated motion and unconsciousness, though, because it isn’t isolated. Three main sets of influences from the Cosmos, as noted in previous commentaries, affect the solar system as it sweeps around the Central Sun on its orbit. First of all, the great phases of the Rings continue to affect it. When the Ring-Cosmos is moving toward the Ring-Chaos, all the solar systems within the Cosmos are stirred into new activity and the generation of novelty; when the Ring-Cosmos moves away from the Ring-Chaos, all the solar systems settle down to the elaboration and synthesis of the new influences absorbed in the previous phase.
Second, the Great Entity and its solar system pass through the twelve Rays one after another. These rays are far from interchangeable; each one has its own distinctive influences, which are reflected within the solar system in the form of the twelve Zodiacal influences. Think of the way that the Earth passes through each of the twelve forces of the Zodiac as it circles the Sun; the same thing happens, on a vastly greater time scale, as the Great Entity in the Sun follows its own orbit around the Central Stillness. This is the Cosmic factor behind the astrological ages marked by the precession of the equinoxes: the change from one age to another happens when our solar system, in its orbit around the Central Stillness, passes from one Ray to another.
Third, other solar systems are sweeping around the Central Sun on their own orbits, and those on each plane move at a different rate of speed—the closer to the Central Sun, the faster the rate of movement. Here in the seventh Cosmic plane, we’re subject to the influences of solar systems on every other plane of being. Those influences have two parts, one of which we’ve discussed already and one of which we haven’t.
The one we’ve discussed is the (metaphorical, remember) gravitational attraction exerted by systems of each plane on the atoms that share the same geometric keynote of that plane. A Great Entity on the seventh Cosmic plane has matter of every other plane in its solar system, and so when a Great Entity on the sixth Cosmic plane goes past, all atoms that have a hexagonal keynote are influenced by it; when a Great Entity on the fifth Cosmic Plane goes past, it’s the turn of atoms with a pentagonal structure to be affected, and so on. Only the atoms of dense matter are unaffected by these influences.
The form of influence we haven’t discussed so far is what happens when a solar system of a higher plane passes (metaphorically) between our solar system and the Central Stillness. That weakens the gravitational influence of the Central Stillness, so that every atom of the higher plane tends to move inward toward the solar system moving past, but every atom of every other plane tends to drift further out toward the Ring-Pass-Not, the boundary of the Cosmos. Our solar system doesn’t fly apart when this happens, because it has its own gravitational attraction, and a complex network of stresses in equilibrium holding it together. Those keep it on one piece, but the pressure of the contending forces puts strains on the structure of the solar system and sets up various unbalanced patterns of movement.
These, in turn, are the origin of positive evil. We’ve talked already about negative evil and positive evil—the basic inertia and resistance that provides a thrust-block for creative action, on the one hand, and the actions of individual beings that follow the momentum of the Ring-Chaos rather than that of the Ring-Cosmos, on the other. Negative evil is necessary for anything to come into existence—if there were no inertia, no thrust-block against which the forces of the Ring-Cosmos can push, there would be no Cosmos at all. Positive evil, by contrast, isn’t built into the structure of existence; it’s accidental, though in a sufficiently complex Cosmos the accidents that bring it into being are inevitable.
Fortune gives us two new labels for negative evil and positive evil; she calls the former Cosmic evil, and the second universal evil. (A universe, again, is what early 20th century astronomers called what we call a solar system.) Negative or Cosmic evil is always present in every solar system, forming the background inertia against which the solar system’s evolution unfolds.
Positive or universal evil, by contrast, comes and goes; it appears when a set of discordant stresses moves through a system, and disappears as the discords are gradually brought back into balance. Positive evil thus takes the most extreme forms in the early phases of any evolutionary process, when the patterns of force that will eventually bring the whole system into balance haven’t yet become habituated. Over time, the balance becomes harder to disrupt, until finally the entire system has settled into perfect balance—and then, of course, a new Cosmic phase begins and the process starts over again.
Positive evil takes two forms, which Fortune calls by indicative names. Perverted force she calls sin; perverted form she call disease. (Remember that the word “perverted” means simply “diverted from its normal course”—the common sexual meaning of the term is secondary to that basic meaning, and isn’t what Fortune is talking about here.) While the term “sin” is unpopular these days, it does a better job of communicating the particular kind of imbalance Fortune is discussing here than any of its partial synonyms. Sin and disease, unbalanced force and unbalanced form, are the tangles that work their way into a solar system and have to be pulled out straight again in the course of evolution.
There’s a subtle point here that we’ll be exploring in more detail later on. In one sense, as we’ve just seen, positive evil is the product of forces from outside the solar system setting discordant patterns at work within it. In another sense, as discussed earlier on, positive evil is the product of unforced choices on the part of individual beings. That seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? As we’ll see, though, that apparent contradiction resolves itself as we begin to come to grips with the process Fortune calls epigenesis and less careful philosophies call free will.
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 March 13. Until then, have at it!