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 7, “The Evolution of a Solar System,” pp. 35-38.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 6, “Cosmic Influences upon a Solar System,” pp. 49-54.
At this point we’ve completed the first six chapters (or five, if you’re using the Millennium Edition) and the first six months of work with The Cosmic Doctrine. Those readers who are still following along have put in six months of heavy philosophical lifting, learning to make sense of the magical vision of the Cosmos as expressed to the nearest approximate metaphor. The basic structures and concepts of Fortune’s symbolic philosophy have all been set out in emblematic form, and what follows will draw on symbols and metaphors a little easier to relate to the world as we experience it.
It’s important to keep the Cosmic background in mind as we go on, though, and there are two reasons for that. First of all, a solar system in its structure and evolution reflects the Cosmos that gave birth to it. Each of the stages of the process of Cosmic evolution we’ve discussed over the last six months has its equivalent in the stages of evolution that a solar system follows in turn. The stages are equivalent rather than identical, since each solar system starts out in a complex, intricately structured Cosmos rather than in a vast emptiness representing the Unmanifest. Still, as we proceed, it will be simple enough to point out how the evolutionary phases of the Cosmos are mirrored in the evolution of the solar system.
The second reason is that solar systems aren’t isolated from the Cosmos. Beings within a solar system are influenced by factors internal to that system, but influences from without still have a secondary role. It’s a subtle role—it works primarily by way of the influence of Cosmic processes on the Solar Logos, the Great Organism at the center of a solar system, and secondarily by way of the Star Logoi, who come into being within the solar system and will be discussed later—but it has its effect. The great phases of expansion and contraction driven by the movement of the Ring-Cosmos relative to the Ring-Chaos, the influence of the twelve great Rays as they stream out from the Central Sun to act on each of the seven Cosmic Planes, and the influence of Great Organisms and their solar systems on one another, are thus all significant in the life of a solar system. It’s by being aware of these factors that we can understand some of the oddities in our own collective evolution.
Since it’s crucial to recall the Cosmic context as we proceed, this chapter is a recapitulation of the material covered in the previous chapters, with a few additional notes of interest. It sums up the genesis of the Cosmos from the first flowing movement in empty space to the establishment of solar systems on the seven Cosmic Planes. From here on in we’re going to be talking about the evolution of one particular solar system—the one you and I happen to inhabit, one of countless solar systems to be found on the seventh Cosmic Plane.
One of the things stressed in this recapitulation is the role of numbers in this philosophy. Motion in space—the basis for the whole system—is represented by the number one. The great cosmic forces—the Rings, the Rays, and the Circles or planes—are represented by the numbers three, twelve, and seven respectively. These four numbers are the Primaries. Each of the Circles collects atoms whose orbits have a particular geometry, and thus a particular number—the three-sided atomic orbits settle out on the first plane, the four-sided on the second plane, and so on out to the seventh plane, where the atoms have nine-sided orbits. The numbers three through nine inclusive are therefore the Secondaries. Finally, the number ten is the Prime Tertiary, the number that guides and shapes evolution once the Primaries and Secondaries are in place.
Those readers who know their way around traditional occult philosophy will recognize these numbers at once. The numbers of the great cosmic forces, three and twelve and seven, added together make 22, the number of the paths of the Cabalistic Tree of Life; ten, of course, is the number of spheres in the Tree of Life. It’s more common in occult philosophies to make ten the primary number and twenty-two dependent on it, but Fortune’s making a specific point here. Her Cosmos of metaphors is made entirely of motion in space, and so she makes the paths, the currents of moving force on the Tree, primary; the spheres, which in one sense are stages of spiritual unfoldment, are dependent on the soul’s movement along the paths.
The secondaries also have their importance in occult philosophy, but they do so individually rather than collectively. If you add them together you get 42; this will doubtless delight Douglas Adam fans, but the number 42 has only a modest role in occult symbolism. The numbers three through nine are the numbers of the great planetary forces, from Saturn (which has a threefold symbolism and a magic square of three times three cells) to the Moon (which has a ninefold symbolism and a magic square of nine times nine cells). One, finally, is the number of divinity and, in a solar system, represents the influence of the god of that solar system, the Great Organism who, as the solar system is born, becomes its Solar Logos.
Notice that two numbers have obviously been left out of these categories: the numbers two and eleven. There is of course nothing in the least accidental about this exclusion. Two is the number of negative evil, the force of inertia or resistance against which every other force in the Cosmos and the solar system alike must test its strength. As a number, it represents nothing internal to the Cosmos or the solar system—it represents, rather, the background against which the Cosmos and the solar system unfold their possibilities.
Eleven, by contrast, is in occult tradition the number of positive evil. We haven’t talked much about that so far, and quite a few more chapters will have to be studied and understood before Fortune’s way of talking about positive evil will make sense. For now, think of it as the refusal of evolution, where negative evil is the resistance to evolution. While positive evil certainly exists in our solar system, it’s not a necessary part of things. It comes into being as a result of unforced choices on the part of individual beings, and thus it’s conceivable that there might be some solar system somewhere in the Cosmos where none of the individual beings happened to make those choices, where negative evil was a reality but positive evil remained a theoretical possibility and nothing more.
These numbers, therefore, provide the framework for the new solar system. The Great Organism at its core started off with a tenfold structure, and then developed reactions corresponding to each of the other numbers in the course of its journeys up and down the twelve Rays of the Cosmos as a traveling atom. It then continues to respond to each of the forces represented by these numbers as it settles into place on its plane with its cloud of static atoms around it. This is the basis for what Fortune calls sidereal astrology.
In some ways, that’s an unfortunate label, since it has also been taken up by a school of astrology that uses the constellations rather than the equinoctial and solstitial points to set out the wheel of the zodiac. Still, there’s a connection. The tropical zodiac—that’s the technical term for the zodiac used in classic Western astrology, in which the sign Aries starts at the point where the Sun is at the moment of the spring equinox—is based on factors entirely internal to our solar system. The sidereal zodiac tries to take into account forces from outside the solar system, and what Fortune calls sidereal astrology is all about those outside forces. The influence of those forces shifts over vast intervals of time, and can be tracked by a number of means, starting with the precession of the equinoxes.
History offers interesting reflections of what Fortune is saying here. It’s an interesting detail of the history of astrology, for example, that in the early days of Western astrology, when it was practiced by astronomer-priests standing on mud-brick ziggurats along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Venus was a planet of war as well as love. Recently deciphered Mayan inscriptions show similarly that the movements of Venus were used in Mesoamerican astrology to choose good times to declare war and to predict victory in battle.
I don’t know of any astrologer at present who would try to read placements of Venus with that in mind, since that’s not the way the energies of Venus influence people’s lives today. The most likely explanation for the difference is that the energies have changed over the last several thousand years—that the Cosmic influences flowing in from the fifth Cosmic plane, and brought into focus in our solar system by way of the planet Venus, have shifted over time, downplaying the violent aspect of Venerean passions and amplifying the gentler aspects.
Keep in mind, though, that these changes are in some sense cumulative. In the chapters we’ve already studied, a central theme is that the changes set in motion by one phase of Cosmic evolution become the foundation on which the next phase of Cosmic evolution builds. This same principle remains in effect as we move into the evolution of the solar system, and also as we go from there to the evolution of individual beings within the solar system. Our text summarizes this in a crisp phrase: “you start where God leaves off.” You come into the world, in other words, with the entire past of the Cosmos implicit in you, and then you add to it by your own actions. Those actions are directed by something that usually gets called “free will,” though Fortune notes that this is an unhelpful label for it; her own label—epigenesis—will take quite a bit of explanation as we go further.
There is more going on here than unforced choices in an otherwise deterministic Cosmos, though. Fortune asks us to imagine our solar system in its formative stages, as the Great Organism who will become its Solar Logos sweeps outward from the center all the way to the seventh Cosmic Plane, gathering up as many of the static atoms of each plane as it can draw with it by a metaphoric equivalent of gravitational attraction. Once it reaches the seventh Circle it settles into its orbit, and the static atoms it brought with it sort themselves out into great belts of Cosmic atoms of different kinds, each belt consisting of atoms of one kind, orbiting the Solar Logos at a distance set by its (metaphoric) density. As the Logos and its attendant atomic belts sweep around the vast arc of the seventh Circle, they pass through each of the Rays in turn. All this is perfectly orderly.
At the same time, something much less orderly is also going on. All the other Circles are also full of solar systems of their own, which differ from ours in that they lack static atoms from the seventh Circle, the Circle that corresponds to the plane of physical matter. Those other solar systems move at different speeds, and as they swing close to our solar system, their influence affects the atoms in our solar system that come from the plane where the passing solar system exists. If a solar system on the sixth Circle swings past, all the atoms in our solar system with eight-sided orbits will be affected; think of it as gravity, first pulling the eight-sided atoms back along the track of our solar system’s orbit, then pulling them in toward the Central Sun, and then pulling them forward as the sixth-plane solar system speeds past ours.
The same is true, in turn, of atoms in our solar system with three-sided orbits whenever a solar system of the first Cosmic Plane swings past. As the solar system proceeds with its evolution, in other words, it’s constantly being pulled and pushed and buffeted in complicated ways by the influence of other solar systems on the Circles further in. As we’ll see, this makes things challenging for the Solar Logos, and also for the individual beings who arise within the solar system and pass through their evolution there.
One measure of that complexity can be judged from one of Fortune’s passing remarks in the revised edition. Since it’s not in the Millennium Edition, I’ll quote it in full:
“You can see that there are times when the Lower Astral would receive a stimulus and times when the Upper Spiritual would likewise, although this is not so strong as the corresponding Cosmic plane is not so near. This is one of the things that check evolution and often set up trouble in a system.”
This may take some unpacking. Here, as she usually does, Fortune is using a taxonomy of the planes of being which identifies seven planes: upper spiritual, lower spiritual, upper mental, lower mental, upper astral, lower astral, and physical/etheric. These exist on our plane, the seventh Cosmic Plane, but all of them but the last also reflect the influence of one of the other Cosmic Planes—thus the upper spiritual plane reflects the influence of the first Cosmic Plane, the lower spiritual plane that of the second, and so on. Since each of us exists on every plane from the physical to the upper spiritual, we are subject to influences from outside our solar system whenever a solar system on one of the higher Cosmic Planes. When human beings act collectively in very strange ways, this can be one of the causes.
We’ll be exploring those complexities further as this series of posts proceeds. For the time being, it’s most important to get a clear sense of the way that the opening phases of solar evolution unfold. The last two paragraphs of our chapter sketch out the emerging solar system in a clear visual image, which is meant to remind you of the corresponding stages in the emergence of the Cosmos. Take the time to build up that image in your imagination; from it, a great deal will unfold as we proceed.
Notes for Study:
As already noted—and as most of you will already have found out!—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 January 9. Until then, have at it!