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 29, “The Law of the Attraction of Outer Space,” pp. 126-128.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 30, “The Law of the Attraction of Outer Space,” pp. 176-179.
We are approaching the end of The Cosmic Doctrine, and this and the next chapter neatly sum up the implications of the philosophy that Dion Fortune has been expounding in the pages of her book. Those readers who have been following along closely will doubtless already suspect that she did not carry out that summation in any simple or straightforward way, and they are correct in that assessment. This chapter in particular is deliberately deceptive in certain ways. For reasons that will become clear as we proceed, Fortune tried to trick her readers into a particular reaction, and then used that reaction to make a point of immense importance. She also drops an unexpected hint that invites readers to go all the way back to the beginning of the book and reinterpret the entire project of The Cosmic Doctrine.
The chapter begins by recapitulating one of the core themes of the book. The Solar Logos, we are reminded, sets the ongoing process of creation into motion after a period of indrawn meditation by propounding to itself a new conception of existence, which then takes shape as an evolutionary impulse and cascades down the planes. That impulse is carried on its way by a swarm of entities, each of which starts out the journey as a seed atom united with a Divine Spark and provided with a simple body of seventh plane atoms. Down the planes it goes, embodying itself in ever more complex forms, until it finally reaches the first or physical plane, the one you and I perceive in our current incarnate forms.
When the Lords of Flame made that descent, near the beginning of the life cycle of the solar system, there was nothing waiting for them on each plane but a cloud of unformed atoms, ready to be gathered up into planetary spheres. Each subsequent swarm must cope not with a cloud of possibilities but a structured planet on each plane, with its own existing processes and patterns already established in place. In terms of the basic metaphor of our text, the Lords of Flame have to work with only such random tracks in space as have been laid down by the uncoordinated movements of the atoms on that plane, but the Lords of Form have to work with a coordinated system of tracks in space laid down by the Lords of Flame, and each subsequent swarm in turn has to deal with the tracks in space laid down by all the preceding swarms.
Previous chapters have discussed this, of course, but not in the terms Fortune uses here. In this chapter we are told to envision this situation in terms of a conflict of “will” and “form”—the quotation marks are Fortune’s. The idea of form has appeared repeatedly in these pages already, but will (or as she further defines it in later paragraphs, the will-to-live of the Logos itself) has seen very little use. We have seen some discussion of epigenesis, which Fortune equates with the free will of individual entities, and a very few times in our text, references appear to the will of the Solar Logos—a “Cosmic will,” defined as the momentum of the Logos implanted in it by its experience in the Cosmos before the birth of the solar system. We have not seen any previous discussion of a Logoidal will-to-live—but every reader of The Cosmic Doctrine among Fortune’s own students will have seen that phrase, stopped cold, and said some variant of, “Oh, so that’s what she’s been talking about.”
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer gets very little attention these days. During Dion Fortune’s lifetime, by contrast, his main work The World as Will and Representation was widely read and discussed, not by philosophers—Schopenhauer despised the professional philosophers of his day, and they and their successors by and large returned the favor—but by artists, writers, scientists, and occultists. (From Schopenhauer’s world as will and representation to Eliphas Lévi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, which presents the world as will and imagination, for example, is the smallest of steps.) A detailed discussion of his philosophy would take us far from our subject, but the core concepts of his analysis are relevant here. To Schopenhauer, the world of our experience consists of representations: we do not know a sun and an earth, as he phrases it, but an eye that sees a sun, and a hand that feels an earth. With one exception, everything we encounter and everything we can encounter is a representation, not a reality.
That one exception is will. If you consider your hand as an object, you can see it and touch it, and it behaves like any other representation. At the same time, your hand has another dimension. Obviously, you can move it; less obviously, you can attend to it, perceiving it from within. These are expressions of will. Schopenhauer starts from simple manifestation of will like these and reasons step by step to a conclusion that runs like a subterranean current all through the work of Dion Fortune and a great many other occultists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the reality behind all these representations is will, the Cosmic will-to-live, of which our human consciousness is one grade or expression, and which surges outward continually through all beings and things. Fortune sums up Schopenhauer’s vision more concisely than he ever did with a vivid metaphor that appears in several of her works: “God is pressure.”
To speak of the Logoidal will-to-live and its interaction with forms would have instantly evoked Schopenhauer’s ideas in the mind of any educated person at the time The Cosmic Doctrine was written. Fortune didn’t stop there, however, because the relationship between will and form she presents is not a comfortable one. The will-to-live always seeks to express itself freely, while form always seeks to confine the will-to-live within its existing patterns, and so the will, in Fortune’s phrase, is irked by forms it cannot escape. This is the source of the warfare between spirit and flesh that religious thinkers have discussed at such length over the years, and to which Schopenhauer devoted much of the fourth part of The World as Will and Representation.
Thus the Logoidal will-to-live, embodied in each of the swarms of souls, streams down the planes, descending ever deeper into worlds of established form, until it finally reaches the physical plane, the furthest extent of the creative process and the realm in which form is most rigid and resistant. There each of the souls that has made the descent faces the challenge of the initiation of the Nadir; it stands alone, in the terrible silence of a world that for the moment seems to be reduced to empty space and dead matter, and its task is to turn toward the illuminated beings of the seventh plane to receive the initiation that will complete its descent into matter and begin its ascent into spirit.
This is not the only option for a soul at this stage, however. The momentum of the Logoidal will-to-live, striving to overcome the irksome burden of form, pushes it the other direction, away from the seventh plane and toward the abysses of outer space. So does the pressure of the forces of a manifested universe, which naturally seek equilibrium with the emptiness of the vold. So, finally, does a factor Fortune has mentioned under other names and in another context: the Penumbra.
Back in Chapter Eighteen (Chapter Twenty in the Millennium Edition) we discussed the role that comets play in the economy of the universe, as scavengers that gather up those few souls who systematically turn their backs on evolution and take them to the Unknown Death. The Penumbra is the consequence of that process: all these failed projects of evolution remain visible just beyond the Ring-Pass-Not of the solar system. There is a difference of some importance here between our two editions; in the Millennium Edition, which reprints the original privately printed version, we read that these are the forms “which having been disintegrated against the inner shell of the Ring-Pass-Not remain as an image” while in the revised edition the same passage reads “which having not been disintegrated against the inner shell of the Ring-Pass-Not remain as an image”. I suspect the Millennium Edition is correct here, and the images of the Penumbra are phantoms, the last echo of those beings and forces that have undergone the Unknown Death.
That’s not what it looks like to souls who face the temptation of the Nadir, and Fortune is at some pains to phrase things so that we feel the temptation ourselves. This is the point at which each soul gazes out into the void and imagines what it would be like to leap out of the solar system entirely, to shake off every limitation, “to leap that gulf,” as our text says, “into the freedom of Outer Space where there is no law, and men are as gods.”
Those readers who remember the laws already tabulated in The Cosmic Doctrine will instantly sense the trap here. “Limitation is the first law of manifestation, therefore it is the first law of power.” That was the opening sentence of Chapter Twenty-Four (Chapter Twenty-Six in the Millennium Edition), and it is arguably the most important law taught in our text. The freedom of outer space is a fictitious freedom, for where there is no law and no limitation, there is no power and no manifestation—only dissolution into the void. Freedom is found not by overturning law and limitation but by accepting them, internalizing them, mastering them, and thus becoming free to use them and work with them. To recognize this is to overcome the temptation of the Nadir, receive the initiation of the Nadir, and begin the journey to genuine freedom.
It’s worth taking some time to understand this, since the mental habits of today’s popular culture make the temptation of the Nadir considerably easier to fall into and the initiation of the Nadir considerably less easy to receive. Think back to the first chapters of our text, where Fortune explored the role of negative evil as a thrust-block for action. The laws and limitations experienced by incarnate beings in the planes of manifestation function exactly the same way. Each of us is conditioned by the forms of the physical plane, and through that conditioning, we are able to bring our own energies into perfect equilibrium. Then, having overcome the conditions of the physical plane by internalizing them, we rise to less restrictive planes, where we have the capacities we developed on the phusical plane and can use them more freely.
To put all this in terms of a concrete metaphor, the laws and limitations of the physical plane are to souls what the barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells of a weight room are to bodybuilders. It’s certainly possible to put down the irksome burden of, say, a couple of hundred pounds of cast iron disks on a steel bar, rather than doing three sets of difficult lifts with them. The consequence of putting it down, however, is that you don’t get the gains. The material plane may be an unusually heavy and clumsy weight to lift, but those awkward features simply make it a better instrument for exercise!
All this, finally, relates back to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer in ways that Fortune’s own students would again have realized at once. One of the central themes of The World as Will and Representation is precisely the process by which the will-to-live overcomes itself or, to use Fortune’s metaphor, overcomes its own outward momentum in order to turn back toward its Logoidal source. In Schopenhauer’s view, this self-overcoming is the source of music, literature, and the arts, on the one hand, and holiness and the salvation of the soul on the other. The Cosmic Doctrine does not discuss the arts, and Fortune’s conception of holiness and salvation is both more complex and more subtle than Schopenhauer’s, but the connection is clear.
I suspect Fortune put the reference to Schopenhauer’s philosophy so late in our text precisely because the connection is so clear. The Cosmic Doctrine is not a book to be read once and then set aside, having been mastered at a single go. Getting out of it all that has been put into it requires repeated readings and a great deal of thought and meditation. The first time through, most readers will have missed the quiet hints that show the underlying presence of Schopenhauer’s ideas here, as in so many other occult writings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the second reading, those hints will stand out, and help the reader penetrate to a second level of understanding of the text. On the third reading, and those that follow, other elements will be more visible. That’s the way any classic of occult literature is meant to work.
For those readers who are on their first journey through the Cosmic Doctrine, however, the point that matters most in this chapter is the temptation of the Penumbra. This is a serious matter, and Fortune wants us to feel it: to wallow at least briefly in fantasies of tumbling out into the void and fulfilling all those empty images of impossible desire. She leaves us deliberately in that state at the end of this chapter. In the next—the final chapter of this book—she brings everything back together in a final synthesis.
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 final chapter of our text on March 10, 2021. Until then, have at it!