A fair number of my readers also follow the writings of the English writer Paul Kingsnorth, who writes from time to time (as of course I also do) on the future of industrial society. Thus it came as no great surprise a little while back when several readers asked me to comment on his recent conversion to Orthodox Christianity and some of the things he’s written since then. His conversion came as no great surprise either. What Oswald Spengler calls the Second Religiosity, the flight of the cultured classes back to traditional religion once yet another Age of Reason has ended in moral and intellectual bankruptcy, is a standard feature in the historical trajectory of every civilization. We’ve reached that point now, and Kingsnorth is part of the first major wave of dissident intellectuals following that time-honored path.
I have no quarrel with Kingsnorth’s choice. His new religion is not mine, of course, but from the perspective of my faith that’s hardly a problem—for obvious reasons, polytheists are comfortable with religious diversity!—and I wish him all the best with his new god. It so happens, however, that one of the pieces he posted on his subscribers-only Substack (repeated in part here by Rod Dreher) was a parting shot aimed at something that matters a great deal to me. It’s one more restatement of a polemic that’s seen plenty of use during the last four centuries. The polemic in question is based on a falsehood, moreover, and I’m pretty sure Kingsnorth knows this.
Conversion is a funny thing. I think most of us have seen people convert to a new religion and suddenly start repeating the standard canned rhetoric of that religion, for all the world like one of those talking teddy bears of decades past that had little tape players in their bellies. Call them on it, and you can count on a hurt look and an irritable insistence that no, the dreary slogans they’ve been repeating by the quarter hour are their own latest, freshest, original thoughts. It’s one of the things that makes me glad that nobody converts to my faith. (Seriously, nobody ever converts to Druidry. People hear what Druidry is about and say, “You know, that’s what I’ve always believed anyway.” It spares us a lot of issues.)
Maybe that’s what happened in Kingsnorth’s case. The shopworn polemic he’s dealing out just now is a hostile definition of magic that was coined by Anglican divines in the seventeenth century for rhetorical purposes, and has been deployed by certain religious propagandists ever since. It’s the claim that magic is wholly a matter of exercising control over the spiritual world, and thus contrasts with religion (or “true religion”), however this may be defined for the moment. Kingsnorth deploys this canned argument partly to distance himself from his previous religion—he was a Wiccan before he took up with Orthodoxy—and partly to denounce modern science by equating it with magic.
Historians of religion have been rolling their eyes at this sort of rhetorical game with the definitions of magic and religion for something like a century now, and for good reason. It remains just as popular as it was in the days of Titus Oates, however, and there’s also ample (though by no means good) reason for this. It so happens that one distinct and uncharacteristic subset of traditional Western magic can be characterized in that way without too much distortion. Add a little cherrypicking and a bit of bad faith, and the entire tradition of Western magic can be (and with weary regularity is) tarred with the same brush.
That is to say, Kingsnorth’s argument is a familiar kind of cheap shot for those of us who know the history of occultism. A response to it—and it deserves a response, not least because the misunderstanding he’s pushing is unfortunately common among the clueless—needs to begin with a meaningful definition of magic. More than once I’ve referenced the one used by Dion Fortune, but she was very cagy when she crafted her approach to talking about magic and her definition takes some unpacking. For the moment, I’d like to propose a definition of my own: magic is the art and science of participation in the spiritual forces of the cosmos.
Participation in, please note, not power over. The difference is of quite some importance.
Imagine for a moment a limitless center of consciousness and power beyond space and time, blazing with the light of a billion suns, transcending personality and impersonality alike. From that immeasurable source, great streams of creative force surge outward through the planes of existence, passing through countless other subordinate centers of consciousness, divided and refracted on the way into equally innumerable individual currents. Some of these currents reach all the way to the densest plane of existence, the one we call material reality. There they take the form of things and beings, each one created and sustained by the outpouring of divine creative force, each one capable of evolving toward life and consciousness in its own way.
This is the universe as it is experienced in the Western magical tradition Paul Kingsnorth disparages so glibly. In that vision of the Universe, dear reader, you are one expression of one tiny sub-sub-sub-subcurrent spun off from that mighty outpouring of power. You are created and sustained by it from moment to moment, and you have no existence apart from it, any more than a ripple in a stream has an existence apart from the water that forms it. The same thing is true of me, Paul Kingsnorth, the computer screen on which you’re reading these words, and every other thing in this and every other plane and realm and world of existence.
These currents of force are not passive; they have their own dynamics and their own directions. In human beings, they push toward self-awareness and self-knowledge. They push toward what might be called ethical consciousness—not a narrow rule-following morality, but a recognition of how one’s own actions affect other beings and the world in general, and of the importance of those stances toward the universe we may as well call “virtues.” Ultimately, they push toward conscious participation in the flow of creative power, and conscious attunement with its source and the great centers of consciousness that direct portions of its outward flow.
And magic? Magic is among the means human beings have developed for pursuing that state of conscious participation and attunement. That’s why the basic practices of classical Western magic are what they are. The mage in training begins with meditation, which develops clarity of thought and thus fosters self-knowledge; divination, which develops intuitive attention to the movements of creative power; and ritual. The basic rituals practiced by mages in the classic tradition, furthermore, focus explicitly on participation, not control. You don’t exert control over anything by a daily practice of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram and the Middle Pillar exercise—the basic rituals of the Golden Dawn magical tradition, the most popular system of classic Western occultism in today’s world—or the Sphere of Protection, the basic ritual of the system I currently teach. Rather, by doing these, you learn to participate more fully and consciously in the dance of energies that creates and sustains the cosmos.
It doesn’t require extreme effort to find this out. Kingsnorth could have learned it from the writings of the Pagan philosophers who laid the foundations of contemporary Western magic—Iamblichus of Chalcis, Proclus Diadochus, and the anonymous authors of the Corpus Hermeticum are particularly clear on the subject. He could have learned it from any number of later works, from Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy to the writings of twentieth-century mages such as Dion Fortune. He could have learned it from my writings as well—my books on magic aren’t especially original, and draw heavily on the insights of Dion Fortune in particular. What hones the irony to an edge sharp enough to shave with is that he could also have learned it from the one significant occultist he did get around to quoting, at least in the excerpt Dreher quoted. Yes, that would be the notorious Aleister Crowley.
I’m no fan of Crowley. I dislike his writings, not least because his personality comes through his prose with great clarity, and it’s not a personality I like to spend time with. I do feel, however, that even a world-class jerk like Crowley deserves to have his ideas presented fairly, not twisted to suit a sectarian purpose. Thus his famous dictum “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” ought to be taken in the sense he meant it. He explained at great and even tedious length in his writings that the dictum did not mean “Do what you want shall be the whole of the law”—that he was speaking of what he called the True Will, the basic dynamic of the self, his version of the current of creative force I discussed earlier in this essay. Find your True Will, the Will that creates and sustains you, and express that and that alone: that was what he meant.
The bit that Kingsnorth quoted, by the way, is only the first half of what he actually said—another detail that gets left out by those who like to use Crowley as a convenient whipping boy. The second half is “Love is the Law, Love under Will.” (Those of my readers who know their church fathers may recall Augustine of Hippo’s “Love, and do as you will.”) Note the distinction in verb tense: “do what thou wilt” is not the law, but someday it shall be. Here and now, love is the law. I suppose there must be people who have read more than a page or two of Crowley and still don’t know that, but I wouldn’t have expected Paul Kingsnorth to be among them.
There are deeper waters here, and it’s worth glancing into them briefly. Part of the mythology Crowley built around himself was the claim that by uttering that dictum—both halves of it—he was declaring himself a Magus, the penultimate level of magical attainment, and proclaiming the Word of the Aeon, the principle governing human life for the age of the world that dawned in his time. It was a typically Crowleyan bit of self-aggrandizement. If he’d studied the old Gnostics a little more carefully he’d have learned that an aeon is not a period of time but an eternal spiritual reality. If he’d been less burdened with the emotional legacies of a miserable childhood, for that matter, he might have realized that every being in the manifested universe proclaims the Word of an Aeon: the logos or essential pattern of the spiritual principle that sustains its existence.
Every Magus therefore proclaims the Word of an Aeon, but so does every blade of grass, every earthworm, every dust particle, and so on. What sets the higher reaches of magical attainment apart is merely that people who have reached those levels of knowledge and wisdom know what Aeon they embody and consciously participate in speaking its Word. Nor, of course, do they all speak the same Word, since every aeon—every basic principle of existence—is eternally present and eternally active. My aeon is not Crowley’s. Your aeon, dear reader, is probably not mine, and the Words that we speak with every breath and every action, and eventually will speak with full conscious intention as knowing and willing participants in the ongoing creation of the cosmos, are probably not the same, either. It’s a big cosmos and it has room for many Words.
Let’s circle back to the central theme of this essay, however. Where did Kingsnorth get his idea of magic as control, magic as manipulation of the cosmos by the isolated and deracinated ego? It’s fair to note that he didn’t make it up. Nor did the tradition of tendentious Christian polemic he’s embraced so enthusiastically make it up. That form of magic exists, and you can find books explaining how to do the various forms of it without too much difficulty. It’s the pop-culture magic of the Western world—and by this I don’t mean modern pop culture alone.
In what historians awkwardly call the early modern period, when printing presses were a hot new communications technology, one of the more reliable cash cows for unscrupulous printers was the literature of grimoires. That word, by the way, comes from the same source as “grammar;” grimoires purported to be grammars, that is, basic texts, of magical practice. What counted as magical practice, according to most of the grimoire literature, was limited to the art of conjuring spirits and demanding various goodies from them—usually cold, hard cash, though they also promised such entertainments as making women show themselves naked. (I get the impression that a lot of grimoires were sold to young men.)
It’s entertaining literature if you like the spectacle of people making fools of themselves. As far as I know the success rate for such antics was right down there with the success rate among the people who plopped for Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious The Secret, which was basically the same thing with simpler rituals and fewer unpronounceable words of power. The broader similarities between early modern grimoires and the recent spate of New Age “abundance” literature are hard to miss. Both were rooted in debasements of older and more serious traditions, both catered to the clueless by seeming to promise something for nothing, and both stand apart from the older and more serious traditions just mentioned precisely because they appeal to the fantasy of control rather than offering the challenge of participation.
That fantasy is found in most cultures—maybe in all—but it’s particularly strong in the cultures we label “Western,” the ones that had their first gray dawn in the watersheds of the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine around 1000 AD. It was one of Oswald Spengler’s many brilliant insights to label the results of that upsurge the Faustian Culture. He had Goethe’s Faust in mind, of course—as a German intellectual in his place and time, he could hardly have based the label on anything else—but the older connotations of the name are far from irrelevant here. The great temptation that people in Western cultures have faced all along is that of turning away from participation toward control: in the phrasing Martin Buber made famous, refusing an I-you relationship with the cosmos in order to pursue an I-it relationship instead.
Did magic play a part in fostering that temptation? Of course—but the magic that did so was the pop-culture stuff I’ve just discussed, the grimoire literature and the other mass-market schlock of the era that gave rise to modern science. You’ll find the same thing affecting other branches of occultism at the same time. Serious alchemists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, rolled their eyes at the misguided antics of those they called “puffers,” who failed to grasp the profound spiritual dimensions of alchemy and pursued it purely as a means of trying to make gold and get rich. And it was these latter—the also-rans of occultism, those who failed to rise to the challenge of participation and instead pursued various grubby fantasies of power and profit through the manipulation of nature as an object—who played a role in setting the stage for the first stirrings of modern science.
Now of course it’s possible to take that detail, as Kingsnorth has done, and flop it down on the Procrustean bed of sectarian polemics. With enough stretching and chopping, what’s left can be blamed as the source of everything that’s wrong with modern Western technology, as Kingsnorth has also done. It’s equally possible to use the same sort of dubious logic to insist that Christianity consists of nothing but inquisitions, witch burnings, and the misbehavior of clergymen with small boys. That latter sort of argument has of course been deployed with enthusiasm by atheists, and Christians have quite rightly objected to this. A certain comment about sauce for geese and ganders comes to mind, and so does a very wise parable about a mote in one eye and a beam in another, but we can let that pass for now.
The broader issue is that the contention between participation and control, between I-you and I-it relationships, runs through every dimension of Western culture. Lynn White’s famous essay “On the Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” shows that Christian theology also made a robust contribution to the habit of treating nature as an object of dominion rather than a subject that deserves respect, understanding, and dialogue. The same point can be made far more broadly, for the long struggle between the competing visions of control and participation has structured the entire intellectual and cultural history of the Western world. It’s a long and complex story, and doesn’t lend itself to simplistic analyses of the “me good, you bad” variety.
If Paul Kingsnorth feels he has to resort to analyses of that sort to please his new friends, on the other hand, that’s his call, not mine. My hope is simply that those who are potentially interested in magic will recognize that what he’s saying is a falsification. Since not long after the first ancient Greek thinkers began weaving the legacies of Egypt and Mesopotamia together with the spiritual traditions of their own culture, and created the first tentative versions of Western occultism, people have been mischaracterizing the tradition those thinkers founded in various ways, for reasons not too different. Those of us who study and practice classic Western occultism are used to such antics. It’s just unfortunate that an otherwise thoughtful writer such as Kingsnorth should stoop to them.
Two reminders on (mostly!) unrelated issues. First, the Kickstarter for Weird of Hali: Roleplaying the Other Side of the Cthulhu Mythos is still ongoing; it’s doing well but it still needs support to pass the finish line. You can read all about it here.
Second, my latest short fiction contest, for stories making merry mock of the late and embarrassingly lame Grist cli-fi contest, has already received some first-rate submissions but there’s still room for more. The details are here, and the anthology — tentatively titled The Flesh Of Your Future Sticks Between My Teeth: Stories from the Gristle Cli-Fi Contest — will be appearing in due time.