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 turned 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 28, “The Law of Polarity,” pp. 125.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 29, “The Law of the Aspects of Force or Polarity,” pp. 171-175.
As mentioned last month, there are two chapters in our text in which the two editions of The Cosmic Doctrine differ significantly. The chapter we discussed last month is the first, and this month’s chapter is the second. In both cases, the difference is that some material in the original, privately published edition was left out of the revised edition, and then put back into the Millennium Edition. In both these chapters, the material that was left out has to do with polarity magic, the central secret of Dion Fortune’s magical teaching. The previous chapter covered the technical methods; this chapter covers certain details of theory that allow those technical methods to be put to work in a remarkable diversity of ways.
The single page of material that got into the revised edition includes the beginning and the end of the wider discussion, so we can begin with the first two paragraphs included there, which are identical to the first two paragraphs of this chapter in the Millennium Edition. The first point made here is that just as the Law of Impactation we discussed last month depends on the Law of Polarity for its function, the Law of Polarity depends on two more laws, the Law of the Attraction of the Center and the Law of the Attraction of the Circumference, which we have not yet studied. Notice here the difference between the occult approach to instruction and the standard approach: instead of covering the theory first and then proceeding to the practice, the occult approach is to present the method of practice, make sure that it has been learnt, and then provide the theoretical perspectives that make the practice work.
The attraction of the center and the attraction of outer space have already been discussed repeatedly in our text, of course. Back in Chapter 3, when the twelve Cosmic rays were first introduced, we saw that the Cosmic Days and Nights set the rhythm of the Cosmos: during a Cosmic Day, the influence of the Ring-Chaos sets in motion a new cycle of manifestation, while during a Cosmic Night, the influence of the Ring-Cosmos causes the cycle to end. Later we saw that currents of motion in space stream out from the Central Sun, go as far as they can before reaching the boundary of the Ring-Pass-Not, and then turn and stream back in toward the Central Sun, whence they flow out again. That same dynamic set the traveling atoms on their way, and later still, once the traveling atom that became the Logos of our solar system reached the seventh Cosmic plane and began to dream a dream of worlds, that same dynamic sent the seed-atoms that became conscious beings like you and me down the planes to the realm of dense matter and then back up again to the Logos.
In making sense of this passage, it’s important to remember that to Fortune, the words “positive” and “negative” are not moral labels. “Positive” is the pressure that moves things down toward manifestation. “Negative” is the pressure that moves things up toward abstraction. Those two pressures—the downward motion from the Logos into manifestation, and the upward motion from manifestation back to the Logos—are the prime polarity in every working. Both are always present. Whenever something moves down the planes into manifestation, something else moves back up the planes in response, and vice versa. Whichever of these is the intention of your working, the other must always be taken into account.
For the moment, think of the flow of energies into and then out of manifestation as a rope that runs through a pulley overhead. If you pull down on one side of the rope, the other will go upwards. If you want to lift something, you connect it to one side and then pull down on the other. If you want to lower something, you connect it to one side and then let the other rise up in a controlled fashion. This is what Fortune called the circuit of force, and it is an essential principle in magical workings. When you want something to descend into manifestation, what will you send up out of manifestation to balance it? When you want to lift yourself up to higher levels of awareness, what will you bring down into manifestation to balance it?
The pulley makes a good first approximation of the process, but as Fortune points out, things are not so linear as that, because of the way that each plane relates to the planes above and below it. This is where the caduceus, the rod of Mercury, comes into the picture. The caduceus is central enough to the symbolism of Fortune’s great metaphor that the first published edition of The Cosmic Doctrine had a caduceus printed on the cover. If the rod at the center of the caduceus is the straight line of ascent and descent, the two serpents that twine about it are the interchanging currents that move from plane to plane.
At this point we leave behind the material printed in the revised edition and begin to explore the text found only in the Millennium Edition. To make sense of this, it’s necessary to know something of the symbolism Fortune assigned to the planes. Each of the seven planes of being has an exemplar from mythology who represents its influences in a vivid and magically effective form. Hermes or Mercury, the bearer of the caduceus, is the exemplar of the lower mental plane; Orpheus, the demigod of music and master of the elementals, is the exemplar of the upper astral plane. Fortune’s explanatory diagram takes the caduceus of Mercury and places it on the lyre of Orpheus, whose seven strings are the seven planes of our solar system, as shown below. (Yes, I know that this is not what Greek lyres actually looked like. Fortune was writing a manual of occult philosophy, not a treatise on historical musicology, and some degree of artistic license has to be expected from her.)
Notice that on each plane, the black and white serpents exchange sides. This is crucial for the metaphor, because under most conditions the planes sort themselves out into alternating polarities—thus, for example, if the physical/etheric plane is negative, the lower astral will be positive, the upper astral negative, and so on. This is why Fortune’s workings normally involved two or more people who had opposing polarities. Imagine two people doing magic together. On the etheric sub-planes of the physical plane, one of them is positive and one is negative—that is, one is projecting force and the other is receiving it and giving it form. On the lower astral, though, the flow goes the opposite direction, and so on up the planes. This allows power to come down the planes all the way from the upper spiritual plane, passing back and forth from one participant to the other so that it is always flowing through a body of positive polarization. Then the force flows back up the planes the same way, passing back and forth so that it is always flowing through a body of negative polarization. That back-and-forth process creates the symbolic caduceus, and the power flows.
Here Fortune gets very technical. Remember that to create anything on a lower plane, it’s necessary to take two things on a higher plane and bring them into relationship, creating a vortex that manifests itself on the next plane down. To balance that process with an upward motion, you take two equivalent things on the next plane down and bring them into relationship, then establish a unity on the higher plane that expresses itself in the form of those two things. Thus you’re balancing the descending triangle with an ascending triangle.
All this can be understood more easily through an example, and the one I have in mind is one we discussed last month, the communion ceremony practiced by sacramental Christian churches. In this working the horizontal polarity is provided by the congregation, the positive pole that provides the energy, and the priest, the negative pole that draws forth that energy and gives it form. The vertical polarity is provided by Christ and the world. The method of the pulley is in evidence here: through the communion ceremony, the ideals of Christianity descend into manifestation in the Christian community, and the consciousness of each participant is raised to an extent determined by their individual readiness to accept such an ascent.
But there’s more going on here than a simple pulley-dynamic, of course. To begin with, while the priest is receiving the energies of the congregation on certain planes—the physical, the upper astral, and (if he and they can reach this high) the upper mental planes—he is simultaneously giving energies to the congregation on the lower astral, the lower mental, and (if he and they can reach this high) the lower spiritual planes. This allows a current of force to descend, shuttling back and forth between them, all the way from the upper spiritual plane to the physical plane and to rise back up again. The more effectively this is done, the more potent the effect of the rite.
The ritual is also designed to work with the relation between two polarized concepts on the lower mental plane—sin and redemption are the usual set. Those concepts have exact equivalents on the upper astral plane of emotion—contrition for one’s sins on the one side, and the exaltation that comes from deliverance on the other. So we have the descending triangle in which the concepts of sin and redemption guide the manifestation of Christian ideals in the world, and the ascending triangle in which the emotional reactions of the congregation and the priest assist the birth of higher modes of consciousness in all the participants.
This is of course only one example, though it is one that most people in the contemporary Western world know well enough to follow. Others can be found detailed in Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan, edited by Gareth Knight; in The Magical Battle of Britain, also edited by Knight; and in Fortune’s novels The Goat-Foot God, The Winged Bull, The Sea Priestess, and Moon Magic. Go through a few of these examples with the framework just above in mind, and you will have no problem figuring out how polarity magic works in practice.
This is only one application of the theory of polarity, however. Another has to do with ordinary relationships among human beings—sexual and otherwise. If a relationship only functions on one plane it will be temporary, because no circuit of force is formed: one participant has a surplus, the other has a lack, and once the surplus flows away and the lack is filled, the relationship dissolves. A stable relationship requires the involvement of at least two planes, so that the flow one way can be balanced by a flow the other way on another plane. Fortune’s book The Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage expands on this in detail.
Another, broader application has to do with understanding phenomena of every kind, and will be found especially useful in meditation. If you take any phenomenon and explore it in detail, you will find that it can be understood as the result of two polarized phenomena on the next higher plane. If you understand this, and trace out the hidden duality on the subtler plane that lies behind the outward unity on the denser plane, you can understand aspects of the thing’s behavior that a less nuanced analysis will miss.
Still another, far more focused application has to do with the potential for polarity between the personality and the Individuality—between the lower self of a given incarnation and the Higher Self. If the lower self systematically neutralizes all its characteristic activities on all the planes on which it is normally active, the Higher Self will sometimes manifest. This is the key to certain kinds of religious and mystical practice, but it also has another application to which Fortune alludes only in the most cryptic style: “You will perceive that here you have certain important clues to the practice of that which induces that which is not in that which thinks it is, but is not.” For reasons I don’t propose to discuss, I’m going to leave that just as obscure as Fortune did; those who want to understand it have the necessary tools in discursive meditation, and the necessary data in this and the previous chapters of this book.
Finally—and here we return to the material that was preserved in the revised edition—the workings of an occult lodge, or any other spiritually oriented group, are subject to certain applications of the same principle. Under normal circumstances such a group will gather around a teacher or leader who has achieved an insight, or a group of insights, on a plane above that on which the members of the group normally operate. The principles discussed in this and the previous chapters set out what happens next—the horizontal polarity between the teacher and the students, the vertical polarity between higher and lower planes, the force that descends the planes through teacher and students alternately and rises back up again the same way, the paired concepts on one plane and the paired emotions on the other, all these play their usual roles.
In a group of this kind, however, the flow cannot be sustained indefinitely. Sooner or later the members of the group will have absorbed everything they can from the teacher, and the teacher will have given everything he or she has to offer to the group; a Cosmic Day in miniature has ended, and a Cosmic Night begins, in which the patterns thus established can stereotype themselves so that a further wave of evolution can build on the foundation thus laid. The familiar rhythm of spiritual groups, in which they alternate periods of intensity with periods of relative quiescence, comes from this process.
At the very end of the chapter, Fortune gives two sentences that are worth a month of meditation all by themselves. Here they are: “You will observe that throughout all manifested life the co-operation of two factors is essential for all ‘form’ building. Force, however, works as a unit because its polarity is in the Logos.” At the very beginning of The Cosmic Doctrine Fortune set out a prime duality between space and movement, and here we encounter it again, reworked to fit the distinctive characteristics of this little corner of the cosmos. As the background for all existence in this solar system, conditioning everything else, the Solar Logos corresponds to space, and the currents of force that flow out from the Logos are forms of movement. The relation between them is one of polarity, and every point made in this chapter about the practice of polarity can therefore be applied to the creation of the solar system—and, indeed, of the cosmos itself. The working out of the details of that application is left as an exercise for students.
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 February 10, 2021. Until then, have at it!