With this post we continue a monthly chapter-by-chapter discussion of The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic by Eliphas Lévi, the book that launched the modern magical revival. Here and in the months ahead we’re plunging into the white-hot fires of creation where modern magic was born. If you’re just joining us now, I recommend reading the earlier posts in this sequence first; you can find them here. Either way, grab your tarot cards and hang on tight.
If you can read French, I strongly encourage you to get a copy of Lévi’s book in the original and follow along with that; it’s readily available for sale in Francophone countries, and can also be downloaded from Archive.org. If not, the English translation by me and Mark Mikituk is recommended; A.E. Waite’s translation, unhelpfully retitled Transcendental Magic, is second-rate at best—riddled with errors and burdened with Waite’s seething intellectual jealousy of Lévi—though you can use it after a fashion if it’s what you can get. Also recommended is a tarot deck using the French pattern: the Knapp-Hall deck (unfortunately now out of print), the Wirth deck (available in several versions), or any of the Marseilles decks are suitable.
“Chapter 3: The Triangle of Solomon” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 48-55).
With this chapter Lévi introduces one of the most important concepts in our text, which is also one of the most important concepts in Western occult thought in general. This is the idea of ternary logic. Our usual habits of thinking sort things out into binaries—this or that, right or wrong, pleasant or painful, and so on. That’s hardwired into our psyches, and it’s useful in emergency situations where a snap judgment has to be made in a hurry. (Very likely this is why it’s so prevalent: those of our ancestors who were able to make such snap judgments survived more often than those who spent time they didn’t have doing more sophisticated analyses.)
That comes with a price, however, because outside of emergency situations, binary thinking isn’t actually that helpful. It’s as easy as it is unproductive to get stuck in rigid binaries in dealing with things and experiences that demand a more subtle approach. The habit is deeply engrained enough, however, that it takes a certain amount of subtlety to get out of it. Making the transition from binary to ternary, from two options to three, became the classic way to do it in traditional Western occult schools. That, too, can take a bit of subtlety, and Lévi is happy to oblige.
He begins in his usual manner, with a series of symbolic expressions of the ternary. Speak a word aloud in someone else’s hearing: the speaker’s intended meaning, the word itself, and the listener’s understanding of the word are three different things. Consider the sun shining in the sky: the sun, its light, and its heat are three different things. Think of the three persons in grammar—I say, you say, he or she or it says—and you have a comparable set of three: one that speaks, one that is spoken to, and one that is spoken of. Every movement in time has a beginning, a middle, and an end; every action has a source, a trajectory, and a result. Reflect on these images and it becomes easier to understand the ternary. Each of them expresses the crucial difference between binary and ternary: the binary is static, but the ternary is always in motion.
(Notice also how Lévi dangles a baited hook in this first section, asking you to imagine a ternary involving the zenith, the point directly above you in the heavens, connected with lines to the east and west—in astrological language, the ascendant and descendant, the degrees of the zodiac that are rising and setting at each moment. That implies in turn an equal and opposite ternary connecting the two points on the horizon with the nadir, the point directly beneath you in the unseen heavens on the far side of the earth. That image is meant to spark thoughts that will be visited again in chapters 4 and 6.)
Of course the Christian Trinity is one of the classic examples of the ternary in thought and symbolism, and as a devout if eccentric Christian, Lévi makes the most of this. Since the second Person of the Trinity is described in Christian theology as the Word, Lévi formulates the Trinity as a ternary using one of the other patterns he’s described already. God speaks of himself to himself: as speaker, the Father; as spoken Word, the Son, and as listener, the Holy Spirit. He also argues that sacramental Christianity is the most perfect religion available to his readers because it embodies the ternary doctrine most completely. In France in 1854, that was arguably true, and it may well still be true for some of his readers today.
There are many forms or patterns of the ternary in magical theory. Lévi focuses most of his attention in this chapter on one of them. He describes it neatly as that which is above, that which is below, and that which connects them. These are the three worlds of Renaissance magic: the divine or religious world above, the natural or physical world below, and the spiritual or metaphysical world connecting them. In the modern religious mainstream of the West and in popular thought generally, these are interpreted in typical binary fashion: God above, humanity below; spirit above, matter below; immortality above, death below, and so on. That typically motionless binary forbids any resolution, except for the hope of moving from one category to another.
Lévi, and the Western magical tradition in general, recognizes the existence of a middle ground that bridges these two realities. Once that middle ground is admitted, it becomes possible to sort it out in different ways and modes, and recognize the varying states and conditions of being that unite heaven and earth. Since the ternary is always in motion, the recognition of the ternary also makes it possible to see creation as a continuous process following a cyclical movement, a speaking of the Word that is ongoing and ever-changing rather than an event in the past that is over and done with. This is essential in the high magic that Lévi wishes to communicate, since the secret of that magic is the participation of the mage in the ongoing process of creation.
The logic of the ternary also makes it possible to make sense of that perennial chestnut, the argument from evil. This is the argument that holds that the claim that there is one onmipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God is contradicted by the existence of pervasive, pointless misery in the world. From within the patterns of binary thinking, it’s a forceful argument: if God is omnibenevolent, he would want to eliminate misery, and if he is omnipotent and omniscient, nothing can stop him from doing so—he could have set up the cosmos however he liked, and the words “had to” cannot be applied to him or any of his actions. In that case, why is there so much pointless suffering in the world?
The logic of the ternary allows a resolution to the conundrum. Good and evil, in this way of thinking, are the two hands of God; in Lévi’s words, “the first cause is beneficial and harsh, it vivifies and it destroys.” These two aspects are controlled by divine wisdom, which pits each of them against the other and maintains the equilibrium by which the universe is sustained. Lévi’s God is not good in a simplistic Sunday school sense; he is the source of all that is good and all that is evil, and indeed of all that is, without exception.
Since Lévi was a Christian, his God is also symbolically masculine—that is, active. Here we bump against one of the longstanding quarrels between Eastern and Western Christianity. Orthodox Christianity typically thinks of the third person of the Trinity as feminine and as proceeding from the Father alone: in effect, God the Father begets twins, a son and a daughter. The Western churches, by contrast, typically think of the third person of the Trinity as masculine and as proceeding from both the Father and the Son.
Lévi follows the Western vision here and sees the Trinity as wholly masculine, balanced against a subordinate manifestation that is wholly feminine or receptive. He is sufficiently creative in his theology to formulate a feminine Trinity to balance the masculine one; it consists of Nature, the Virgin Mary, and the Church—the latter being traditionally the Bride of Christ, which in Lévi’s colorful phrase is humanity regenerated and fertilized by the Holy Spirit. It’s typical of the man that he assigns these two ternaries to two of the trigrams of the I Ching, those that represent Heaven and Earth. (That I know of, nobody has picked up his hints and used them to create a Hermetic Christian I Ching, but the thing could quite readily be done.)
Lévi goes on at once to insist that he is not trying to set up a rival theology. He is offering an alternative interpretation of theological symbols for students of magic who choose to remain members of their church, as of course he himself did—not “raising altar against altar” but recognizing ordinary religious teaching as an appropriate set of beliefs for people at one level of development, while the same symbols and rites can be understood in another way by those at another level of development. This approach was standard all through the Christian end of the occult scene until quite recent times; a case could doubtless be made that it would be worth reviving today.
The difficulty faced by all religious and spiritual teachings is that symbols and statements that are true at one level of consciousness harden into falsehoods when they are taken down to a lower level of consciousness. The spirit, our text suggests, is like wax which hardens into rigid forms when exposed to cold air. Ideas can petrify or, to use Lévi’s word, “carnify” in this way; so can human souls; so can souls that were never human—our text here makes reference to the Qlippoth, the demons of the Cabala, and reminds us that their name literally means “husks” or “shells.” Lévi’s suggestion that there is something demonic about the hardened shells of old truths is one that bears close meditation.
The world that Lévi has sketched out for us here, the world of the operative mage, differs in important ways from the one most people in the modern Western world think they inhabit. Replace the binary of heaven and earth with a ternary that includes a middle ground, a spectrum of spiritual states through which souls and their actions can move and reverberate, and quite a few familiar ideas take on a very different form. Our text explores two of these in detail.
First, since it has been discussing the Christian Trinity and the argument from evil, it proceeds to that other common stumbling block, the doctrine of Hell. To Lévi damnation is a natural process: the soul that descends to a lower level of consciousness has its subtle body, which our text terms the Diaphane, harden in exactly the way just described, becoming a prison for the soul. Can the soul escape? Yes, it can do so any time it wishes to, provided only that it is willing to let the husk that surrounds it melt in the fire of divine grace. This is not an easy process or a painless one, and many souls refuse it, remaining in the prison of their husks, tormented by the fire of their own thoughts and passions.
The second idea Lévi wishes to explore here is the traditional teaching that human thoughts, words, and deeds can have influence over the spiritual as well as the physical worlds. Once again, the presence of an intermediate realm between spirit and matter provides the medium through which this takes place. Because spirit and matter are not separate from each other, but the two ends of a spectrum, actions on one plane can influence events on another. This is among other things the basic principle of magic, and we will be seeing it again in various forms as our text proceeds.
All these points have an immediate practical application. As a Christian, Lévi places this in the context of his own faith, and sees the ternary pattern he has been tracing out as the foundation of the Christian revelation, shown in the Book of Revelation—the most cryptic of the books of the New Testament, and inevitably the most often and most colorfully misunderstood—and also in a passage that appears in some early copies of the Book of Matthew and not in others, but found a place early on in Christian ritual practice. The words in Hebrew and Greek given here are repeated by many people every day as a coda to the Lord’s Prayer: “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever, Amen.”
“Kingdom,” Malkuth in Hebrew, is the name of the tenth and lowest sphere of the Tree of Life, a diagram of the cosmos Lévi will be discussing in much more detail later on; “Power,” Geburah in Hebrew, is the name of the fifth sphere and also of the pillar on the right side of the Tree, and “Glory” is a somewhat clumsy translation of the Hebrew word Chesed, more properly “magnificence,” the name of the fourth sphere and also of the pillar on the left side of the Tree. At first glance, something seems to be missing—an indication of the highest sphere—but it’s there: “Thine,” Ateh in Hebrew, is traditionally used as a reference to Kether, the first and highest of the ten spheres. Christian mages of a generation after Lévi took this discussion, combined it with the habit of making the sign of the cross, and created the Cabalistic Cross, one of the fundamental ritual practices of modern Christian magic.
Yet Kether is not expressed directly in this set of words or the ritual made from them. Instead, the ternary of Kingdom, Power, and Glory (Malkuth, Geburah, and Chesed) is manifest, with a higher fourth element latent. In the same way, as our text points out, the Gnostics and the Cabalists understood the spiritual path as involving three steps that human souls could take and a fourth that was forever beyond their reach. To understand the ternary, Lévi is suggesting, it is necessary to go beyond it to the quaternary, the fourfold pattern made famous above all in the Tetragrammaton—the holy unspeakable name of God which unites the three and the four, since it is written with three letters, one of which repeats itself. That will be our theme in next month’s chapter.
Notes for Study and Practice:
It’s quite possible to get a great deal out of The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic by the simple expedient of reading each chapter several times and thinking at length about the ideas and imagery that Lévi presents. For those who want to push things a little further, however, meditation is a classic tool for doing so.
The method of meditation I will be teaching as we read Lévi is one that is implicit in his text, and was developed in various ways by later occultists following in his footsteps. It is a simple and very safe method, suitable for complete beginners but not without benefits for more experienced practitioners. It will take you five minutes a day. Its requirements are a comfortable chair, your copy of Lévi’s book, and a tarot deck of one of the varieties discussed earlier.
For your work on this chapter, take Trump III, L’Imperatrice, “The Empress.” Your first task is to study it and get familiar with the imagery. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Spend five minutes doing this on the first day you devote to this practice.
Your second task is to associate a letter with it. Lévi gives you two options, the Hebrew letter ג (Gimel) or the Latin letter C. As noted earlier, you should choose one alphabet and stick to it. The sound values aren’t of any importance here, nor is there a “right” choice. You’re assigning labels to a mental filing cabinet. Most people can make the necessary association quite promptly, but spend a session exploring it. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Relate it to the letter in any way that comes to mind.
The third, fourth, and fifth sessions are devoted to the three titles Lévi gives for the card: Plenitudo vocis, Binah, Physis. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does fullness of voice relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Binah, Understanding? Or nature? Those are the next two.
Don’t worry about getting the wrong answer. There are no wrong answers in meditation. Your goal is to learn how to work with certain capacities of will and imagination most people never develop. Stray thoughts, strange fancies, and whimsical notions do this as well as anything.
Sessions Six through the end of the month are done exactly the same way, except that you take the concepts from the chapter. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Then open the book to Chapter 3 of the Doctrine and find something in it that interests you. Spend five minutes figuring out how it relates to the imagery on the card, the letter, and the three titles. Do the same thing with a different passage the next day, and the day after, and so on.
Don’t worry about where this is going. Unless you’ve already done this kind of practice, the goal won’t make any kind of sense to you. Just do the practice. You’ll find, if you stick with it, that over time the card you’re working on takes on a curious quality I can only call conceptual three-dimensionality: a depth is present that was not there before, a depth of meaning and ideation. It can be very subtle or very loud, or anything in between. Don’t sense it? Don’t worry. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Do the practice and see where it takes you.
We’ll be going on to “Chapter 4: The Tetragrammaton” on September 8, 2021. See you then!