This week we finish up 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 discussion that follows. The text varies somewhat between the two editions, but the concepts and images are the same, and I’ve referred to both.
Revised Edition: Chapter 30, “The Law of the Attraction of the Centre,” pp. 129-133.
Millennium Edition: Chapter 31, “The Law of the Attraction of the Centre,” pp. 180-185.
We have arrived, after almost three years of monthly posts, at the final chapter of The Cosmic Doctrine. Each of the two editions of our text has a collection of assorted material appended after the last chapter, labeled “Part II” in the revised edition and “Afterthoughts” in the Millennium Edition, but these are more or less random notes on the material we’ve covered. Those who want to make a thorough study of The Cosmic Doctrine should certainly study those final notes and meditate on them, but there is little I can say about them that will be useful.
As for this final chapter, any of my readers who are unwary enough to expect Dion Fortune to finish things up with a nice clear exposition of the points she wants to make are going to be disappointed. True to form, this chapter is intricate and richly ironic, a bravura performance of multilayered metaphors to wind up this extraordinary work. It deserves—and requires!—many readings in order to unpack what it has to say.
The concept that frames this chapter’s discussion is one that we’ve encountered repeatedly over the previous chapters. Once the Cosmos or a solar system or an individual being has finished the process of coming into existence, every new influence starts from its center, which is also its highest plane, and proceeds outward and downward to the periphery, which is also its lowest plane. There, once it has finished coming into manifestation, it returns inward and upward to the center. On the way down, it evolves the capacity to take on a body of each plane through which it passes; on the way back up, it is conditioned by the body it indwells on each plane, and then sheds that body once it has taken into itself the capacities of that body—or, to use a different metaphor, once it has learned the lessons of that plane.
We followed that same process many chapters ago, as we tracked the original traveling atoms of the Cosmos on their journeys up and down the twelve Cosmic rays. We followed it again with the Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind, and again, in more detail, as we talked about the path that each of our souls has followed from the upper spiritual plane down to the plane of dense matter, where we are now embodied for the time being. In several previous chapters we examined the turn from the outward to the inward arc in which each of us, and our species as a whole, are now engaged. Now our text turns to the same theme one more time, with an eye toward the path back up the planes—the path of return to the center.
There are three ways to follow that path. Two of them reach their destination, and the other fails to do so. Our text explores them one at a time.
The first, the one that has occupied most of our attention all along, is the way of evolution. In a certain sense, this is the easy way; it requires no particular effort on your part. All you have to do is let yourself be carried along with all the other souls in the swarm to which you belong. Now of course if you choose this route you can count on being tossed about like a twig in a torrent, flung this way and that, driven up against one obstacle after another, and then again left to circle aimlessly for a while until the current picks you up again and carries you on, but in due time you’ll reach the destination toward which the waters are flowing.
On the physical plane, the way of evolution follows a familiar pattern. Each participant in the current descends into matter, and there works out its own evolution for a time, until it has gone as deep into matter as it can—reaching, as our text says, the utmost complexity of material organization. Once it has reached that point it begins to synthesize that complexity into a unity, and that synthesis happens on the etheric sub-planes, not the sub-planes of dense matter. As that takes place, the physical expression begins to break down.
This is not just true of individual souls, by the way. As our text points out, it also describes the way that ideas descend into manifestation and take on conceptual form. Before a thought has taken on solidity in the realm of matter, it is what Fortune calls an inceptive idea—“vague intuition” might be a good translation of this technical term. Only after it has taken material form does it become a concept. Writers experience this process all the time: a scene in a story or an explanation in an essay is a blurred half-formed pattern of possibilities until the material effort of fingertips on a keyboard turns it into something solid and definite, which can then be refined further by the labor of revision. Once the idea has entered the realm of concepts, in turn, it can detach itself from the specific words that brought it to that point; this release from verbal form corresponds to the breaking down of the physical form.
Each of us, in this novelist’s metaphor, exists as a vague pattern of inceptive possibilities until the events of our lives write us down in black and white. Thereafter, having achieved form and definition, we can free ourselves from the page and go on to other things. That, to the nearest approximate metaphor, is what we are doing here in physical incarnation.
Our text is a little more specific than this. Our physical bodies, Fortune suggests, are like the molds used in casting. Once the hot metal has been poured into the mold and allowed to cool, the mold can be removed and thrown away, because the metal has taken on an enduring form. In the same way, our physical bodies confine the subtle levels of ourselves until they take on an enduring form, after which a physical body is no longer necessary—all its capacities for action and perception have been taken on by the next level up, and we have thereby unified the material and etheric sub-planes of the physical plane in ourselves. This in turn is simply the first of a long sequence of unifications, which will end with all the capacities of all our bodies on every plane being unified on the highest plane on which we are capable of existing. This is the condition of the Lords of Flame, Form, and Mind, and it will be our condition long ages from now when we have completed our evolutionary journey.
The same process also takes place on the level of the entire solar system. As each swarm of souls sweeps out to the periphery of existence, it brings with it certain patterns of movement that the Solar Logos has conceived. As they descend, the members of that swarm dance those patterns of movement, establishing tracks in space that proceed to influence the substance of each plane. Once they reach the physical plane, out here at the periphery, they awaken to objective consciousness, and begin to take an active role in the dance, embellishing it with their own epigenesis, and return dancing up the planes to the Solar Logos.
In this chapter Fortune introduces a new metaphor for this process. If the influences of the Logos at the center of the solar system are spreading outward, she suggests, this can be imagined as the extension of the center. The inward flow of each swarm of souls can thus be pictured as an outward flow of the center, a spiritualization of the planes, in which each plane gradually takes on the nature of the seventh plane. In a further metaphor that has seen a great deal of use in mystical writings, the solar system is gently reabsorbed into its god.
The symbolism of Days and Nights of Manifestation, which was introduced earlier in our text, returns here in a new form. Back in Chapter 3, we watched the Ring-Cosmos turning within the Ring-Chaos, creating a new Cosmic Day when the Ring-Chaos predominated and set a wave of changes in motion, and creating a new Cosmic Night when the Ring-Cosmos predominated and the changes settled down to stereotype themselves. In Chapter 29, while discussing the Law of Polarity, we revisited that image—but here, as so often before, Fortune shifts to a new metaphor.
Imagine, she suggests, that as the forces of the created solar system flow back into the center at the end of the Cosmic Day, the center itself flows outward, a tide of pure spirit that sweeps out over all the planes of manifestation. Fortune refers to that tide as the Waters of Darkness, and describes that term as “a symbol of spiritual peace, cleansing, and regeneration.” All the tracks in space that have been laid down during the Cosmic Day are filled with spirit and the positive evil in them is erased. Then the Waters of Darkness drain away to leave the planes of manifestation ready for the coming of dawn.
It’s a potent image, and even more potent if you remember the immense role that Atlantis played in Dion Fortune’s teaching. Central to the modern narrative of Atlantis is the vision of a mighty culture in the far past that descended into tremendous evil, and was then washed away by a close equivalent of the Waters of Darkness so that the fields of the world would be left clean for the coming of a new dawn. That image haunted many minds in Fortune’s time. J.R.R. Tolkien, in papers published after his death by his son Christopher, wrote of a dream he had many times in which he looked across green lands toward the sea, and saw a mighty wave looming up to sweep over everything. In our time, when global warming threatens a hundred-meter rise in sea level worldwide, that image has lost none of its relevance!
The Waters of Darkness, then, are Waters of Evil only in a certain very nuanced sense. Light and darkness, good and evil, are the two poles of the creative process, the two hands of the Father in Fortune’s Christian symbolism. A few chapters ago she reminded us that what look like life and death from our perspective may take on a very different appearance from the perspective of the inner planes, and she repeats that here: “the right [hand] sends out into manifestation and the left beckons back again; but you, looking as in a mirror, call right, left, and left, right.” Apply that to the vision of the Waters of Darkness flowing over the fields of manifestation and you have a theme that will bear many sessions of meditation.
The work of initiation depends on that outflowing, as our text explains, for beings who have already completed the descent into manifestation and the return to the center—the Lords of Mind, who are the initiators of our evolution, and those individuals of our swarm who have followed the path of evolution to its end ahead of the rest of us—proceed out from the center as heralds of the rising waters. Again, the echoes of the Atlantis legend are hard to miss; the initiators here fill the role of the seedbearers who sailed from Atlantis in its last days to bear the secret teachings to new lands. Tolkien’s Dúnedain, who sailed from Númenor to Middle-earth with the White Tree and the nine Palantíri, are cut from the same cloth.
It’s important here to remember that Fortune, like most occultists of her time, drew a firm distinction between the lesser initiations that could be conferred by magical lodges such as the one she headed, and the greater initiations—or, in the language she uses here, Illuminations—that are conferred by souls that have progressed far beyond the human level. These latter do not take place in physical lodge rooms, and our text gives the reason; they can only take place on planes that the Waters of Regeneration have already reached. In our present phase of evolution, those waters have not yet begun to percolate through the cracks of the material world, and so for the time being the greater initiations can only take place when the initiate is in an out-of-body experience and has risen, or been brought, to the necessary plane.
As we have already learned, however, there are at least two ways to return to the center—the way of evolution and the way of devolution, the way of the Right-Hand Path and the way of the Left-Hand Path (in Fortune’s specific and rather idiosyncratic sense of these terms). The former, as we have seen, moves forward along the trajectory of our further development as souls; the latter moves back toward older, archaic influences. Both these Paths respond to the attraction of the Center, but those who take the Right-Hand Path have completed involution into matter, undergone the initiation of the nadir, and passed beyond it, while those who take the Left-Hand Path turn back up the path of involution before they have finished it.
The Right-Hand Path is a path of unification, in which all the complexities of material existence are brought into the greater unity of the spirit; the Left-Hand Path is a path of simplification, in which those same complexities are discarded. The Right-Hand Path seeks wholeness, while the Left-Hand Path seeks that flawed image of perfection that involves assigning all the problems of the individual to some portion of the self—sexual desire, say, or the thinking mind, or the ego—and insisting that this portion of the self is irredeemable and can only be cast aside. In Fortune’s vision, the Right-Hand Path leads to realization, while the Left-Hand Path leads only to dissolution. The former is the path of love, the latter the path of death. “Therefore choose love and live,” our text ends.
If you’ve been paying attention, this will have you scratching your head. Didn’t an earlier chapter point out that death is life and life is death, and didn’t this chapter note that we confuse the right and left hands of God, mistaking the light for the darkness and the darkness for the light? Of course they did. The Cosmic Doctrine does not offer anyone a set of simple rules for simple minds. At the end of his enigmatic treatise The Hieroglyphic Monad—another essay meant “to train the mind and not to inform it”—John Dee notes: “Here the common eye will see nothing but obscurity and will despair considerably.” The same note could be appended here. Which path is life, and which is death? That, of course, is left for students to explore in meditation themselves.
Yet there’s a hint woven into the structure of this last section of our text. The Cosmic Doctrine is again meant to train your mind rather than to stock it with ideas that can be used in familiar ways. To go backward now—to think of what you have learned while reading the text as though it was a set of doctrines to be accepted blindly in the useless “Fortune said it, I believe it, that settles it” manner—is to take the way of simplification and to enact, in a very small way, the Left-Hand Path. Do that and your efforts will be wasted, for the images and ideas you have studied will dissolve into mere opinions. To go forward now—to take the mental training you have received and apply it, through repeated study and meditation on The Cosmic Doctrine and other occult writings, by Dion Fortuine and by other authors, including those who influenced her and those she influenced in turn—is to take the way of unification and to enact, in a very small way, the Right-Hand Path. Do that, and the work you’ve invested in the most important work of twentieth century occult philosophy may just do what Dion Fortune meant her writings to do, and set your feed firmly on the first steps of the Path.
Notes for Study:
As noted in the previous chapters, 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 something new on April 14, 2021. Until then, have at it!