Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
It is unnecessary to examine in detail the mistakes—in ecclesiastical language, the heresies—into which men have been led by a feeble, a deformed, or an arrogant mystical sense. The number of these mistakes is countless; their wildness almost inconceivable to those who have not been forced to study them. Too often the loud voices and strange declarations of their apostles have drowned the quieter accents of the orthodox.
It seems as though the moment of puberty were far more critical in the spiritual than it is in the physical life: the ordinary dangers of adolescence being intensified when they appear upon the higher levels of consciousness. In the condition of psychic instability which is characteristic of his movement to new states, man is unusually at the mercy of the suggestions and impressions which he receives. Hence in every period of true mystical activity we find an outbreak of occultism, illuminism, or other perverted spirituality and—even more dangerous and confusing for the student—a borderland region where the mystical and psychical meet. In the youth of the Christian Church, side by side with genuine mysticism descending from the Johannine writings or brought in by the Christian Neoplatonists, we have the arrogant and disorderly transcendentalism of the Gnostics: their attempted fusion of the ideals of mysticism and magic. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there are the spurious mysticism of the p. 150 Brethren of the Free Spirit, the occult propaganda of Paracelsus, the Rosicrucians, the Christian Kabalists; and the innumerable pantheistic, Manichean, mystery-making, and Quietist heresies which made war upon Catholic tradition. In the modern world, Theosophy in its various forms is probably the most widespread and respectable representative of the occult tradition.
The root idea from which these varied beliefs and practices develop is always the same; and, since right doctrine is often most easily defined by contrast with its opposite, its study is likely to help us to fix more precisely the true characters of mysticism. Leaving therefore the specifically mystical error of Quietism until we come to the detailed discussion of the contemplative states, we will consider here some of those other supernormal activities of the self which we have already agreed to classify as magic: and learn through them more of those hidden and half-comprehended forces which she has at her command.
The word “magic” is out of fashion, though its spirit was never more widely diffused than at the present time. Thanks to the gradual debasement of the verbal currency, it suggests to the ordinary reader the production of optical illusions and other parlour tricks. It has dragged with it in its fall the terrific verb “to conjure,” which, forgetting that it once undertook to compel the spirits of men and angels, is now content to produce rabbits from top-hats. These facts would have little importance, were it not that modern occultists—annoyed, one supposes, by this abuse of their ancient title—constantly arrogate to their tenets and practices the name of “Mystical Science.” Vaughan, in his rather supercilious survey of the mystics, classed all forms of white magic, alchemy, and occult philosophy as “theurgic mysticism,” 306 and, on the other side of the shield, the occultists display an increasing eagerness to claim the mystics as masters in their school. 307 Even the “three-fold way” of mysticism has been adopted by them and relabelled “Probation, Enlightenment, Initiation.” 308
In our search for the characteristics of mysticism we have already marked the boundary which separates it from magic: and tried to define the true nature and intention of occult philosophy. 309 We saw that it represented the instinctive human “desire to know more” applied to suprasensible things. For good or ill this desire, and the occult sciences and magic arts which express it, have haunted humanity from the earliest times. No student of man p. 151 can neglect their investigation, however distasteful to his intelligence their superficial absurdities may be. The starting-point of all magic, and of all magical religion—the best and purest of occult activities—is, as in mysticism, man’s inextinguishable conviction that there are other planes of being than those which his senses report to him; and its proceedings represent the intellectual and individualistic results of this conviction—his craving for the hidden knowledge. It is, in the eyes of those who really practise it, a moyen de parvenir: not the performance of illicit tricks, but a serious attempt to solve the riddle of the world. Its result, according to a modern writer upon occult philosophy, “comprises an actual, positive, and realizable knowledge concerning the worlds which we denominate invisible, because they transcend the imperfect and rudimentary faculties of a partially developed humanity, and concerning the latent potentialities which constitute—by the fact of their latency—the interior man. In more strictly philosophical language, the Hermetic science is a method of transcending the phenomenal world and attaining to the reality which is behind phenomena.” 310
Though fragments of this enormous claim seem able to justify themselves in experience, the whole of it cannot be admitted. The last phrase in particular is identical with the promise which we have seen to be characteristic of mysticism. It presents magic as a pathway to reality; a promise which it cannot fulfil, for the mere transcending of phenomena does not entail the attainment of the Absolute. Magic even at its best extends rather than escapes the boundaries of the phenomenal world. It stands, where genuine, for that form of transcendentalism which does abnormal things, but does not lead anywhere: and we are likely to fall victims to some kind of magic the moment that the declaration “I want to know” ousts the declaration “I want to be” from the chief place in our consciousness. The true “science of ultimates” must be a science of pure Being, for reasons which the reader is now in a position to discover for himself. But magic is merely a system whereby the self tries to assuage its transcendental curiosity by extending the activities of the will beyond their usual limits; sometimes, according to its own account, obtaining by this means an experimental knowledge of planes of existence usually—but inaccurately—regarded as “supernatural.”
Even this modified claim needs justification. For most persons who do not specialize in the eccentric sciences the occultist can only be said to exist in either the commercial or the academic sense. The fortune-teller represents one class; the annotator of improper grimoires the other. In neither department is the thing supposed p. 152 to be taken seriously: it is merely the means of obtaining money, or of assuaging a rather morbid curiosity.
Such a view is far from accurate. In magic, whether regarded as a superstition or a science, we have at any rate the survival of a great and ancient tradition, the true meaning of whose title should hardly have been lost in a Christian country; for it claims to be the science of those Magi whose quest of the symbolic Blazing Star brought them once, at least, to the cradle of the Incarnate God. Its laws, and the ceremonial rites which express those laws, have come down from immemorial antiquity. They appear to enshrine a certain definite knowledge, and a large number of less definite theories, concerning the sensual and supersensual worlds, and concerning powers which man, according to occult thinkers, may develop if he will. Orthodox persons should be careful how they condemn the laws of magic: for they unwittingly conform to many of them whenever they go to church. All ceremonial religion contains some elements of magic. The art of medicine will never wholly cast it off: many centuries ago it gave birth to that which we now call modern science. It seems to possess inextinguishable life. This is not surprising when we perceive how firmly occultism is rooted in psychology: how perfectly it is adapted to certain perennial characteristics of the human mind—its curiosity, its arrogance, its love of mystery.
Magic, in its uncorrupted form, claims to be a practical, intellectual, highly individualistic science; working towards the declared end of enlarging the sphere on which the human will can work, and obtaining experimental knowledge of planes of being usually regarded as transcendental. It is the last descendant of a long line of teaching—the whole teaching, in fact, of the mysteries of Egypt and Greece—which offered to initiate man into a certain secret knowledge and understanding of things. “In every man,” says a modern occultist, “there are latent faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself knowledge of the higher worlds . . . as long as the human race has existed there have always been schools in which those who possessed these higher faculties gave instruction to those who were in search of them. Such are called the occult schools, and the instruction which is imparted therein is called esoteric science or the occult teaching.” 311
These occult schools, as they exist in the present day, state their doctrine in terms which seem distressingly prosaic to the romantic inquirer; borrowing from physics and psychology theories of vibration, attraction, mental suggestion and subconscious activity which can be reapplied for their own purposes. According to its modern teachers, magic is simply an extension of the theory p. 153 and practice of volition beyond the usual limits. The will, says the occultist, is king, not only of the House of Life, but of the universe outside the gates of sense. It is the key to “man limitless” the true “ring of Gyges,” which can control the forces of nature known and unknown. This aspect of occult philosophy informs much of the cheap American transcendentalism which is so lightly miscalled mystical by its teachers and converts; Menticulture, “New” or “Higher Thought,” and the scriptures of the so-called “New Consciousness.” The ingenious authors of “Volo,” “The Will to be Well,” and “Just How to Wake the Solar Plexus,” the seers who assure their eager disciples that by “Concentration” they may acquire not only health, but also that wealth which is “health of circumstance,” are no mystics. They are magicians; and teach, though they know it not, little else but the cardinal doctrines of Hermetic science, omitting only their picturesque ceremonial accompaniments. 312
These cardinal doctrines, in fact, have varied little since their first appearance early in the world’s history: though, like the doctrines of theology, they have needed re-statement from time to time. In discussing them I shall quote chiefly from the works of Eliphas Lévi; the pseudonym under which Alphonse Louis Constant, the most readable occult philosopher of the nineteenth century, offered his conclusions to the world.
The tradition of magic, like most other ways of escape which man has offered to his own soul, appears to have originated in the East. It was formulated, developed, and preserved by the religion of Egypt. It made an early appearance in that of Greece. It has its legendary grand master in Hermes Trismegistus, who gave to it its official name of Hermetic Science, and whose status in occultism is much the same as that occupied by Moses in the tradition of the Jews. Fragmentary writings attributed to this personage and said to be derived from the Hermetic books, are the primitive scriptures of occultism: and the probably spurious Table of Emerald, which is said to have been discovered in his tomb, ranks as the magician’s Table of Stone. 313 In Gnosticism, in the allegories of the Kabalah, in theosophy, in secret associations which still exist in England, France, and Germany—and even in certain practices embedded in the ceremonial of the Christian Church—p. 154 the main conceptions which constitute the “secret wisdom” of magical tradition have wandered down the centuries. The baser off-shoots of that tradition are but too well known, and need not be particularized. 314
Like the world which it professes to interpret, magic has a body and a soul: an outward vesture of words and ceremonies and an inner doctrine. The outward vesture, which is all that the uninitiated are permitted to perceive, consists of a series of confusing and often ridiculous symbolic veils: of strange words and numbers, grotesque laws and ritual acts, personifications and mystifications. The outward vestures of our religious, political, and social systems—which would probably appear equally irrational to a wholly ignorant yet critical observer—offer an instructive parallel to this aspect of occult philosophy. Stripped of these archaic formulae, symbols, and mystery-mongerings, however, magic as described by its apologists, is found to rest upon three fundamental axioms which can hardly be dismissed as ridiculous by those who listen respectfully to the ever-shifting hypotheses of psychology and physics.
(1) The first axiom declares the existence of an imponderable “medium” or “universal agent,” which is described as beyond the plane of our normal sensual perceptions yet interpenetrating and binding up the material world. This agent, which is not luminous and has nothing to do with the stars, is known to the occultists by the unfortunate name of “Astral Light”: a term originally borrowed from the Martinists by Eliphas Lévi. To live in conscious communication with the “Astral Light” is to live upon the “Astral Plane,” or in the Astral World: to have achieved, that is to say, a new level of consciousness. The education of the occultist is directed towards this end.
This doctrine of the Astral Plane, like most of our other diagrams of the transcendent, possesses a respectable ancestry, and many prosperous relations in the world of philosophic thought. Traces of it may even be detected under veils in the speculations of orthodox physics. It is really identical with the “Archetypal World” or Yesod of the Kabalah—the “Perfect Land” of old Egyptian religion—in which the true or spirit forms of all created things are held to exist. It may be connected with the “real world” described by such visionaries as Boehme and Blake, many of whose p. 155 experiences are far more occult than mystical in character. 315 A persistent tradition as to the existence of such a plane of being or of consciousness is found all over the world: in Indian, Greek Egyptian, Celtic, and Jewish thought. “Above this visible nature there exists another, unseen and eternal, which, when all things created perish, does not perish,” says the Bhagavad Gita. According to the Kabalists it is “the seat of life and vitality, and the nourishment of all the world.” 316 Vitalism might accept it as one of those aspects of the universe which can be perceived by a more extended rhythm than that of normal consciousness. Various aspects of the Astral have been identified with the “Burning Body of the Holy Ghost” of Christian Gnosticism and with the Odic force of the old-fashioned spiritualists.
Further, the Astral Plane is regarded as constituting the “Cosmic Memory,” where the images of all beings and events are preserved, as they are preserved in the memory of man.
“The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky”—
all are living in the Astral World. There too the concepts of future creation are present in their completeness in the Eternal Now before being brought to birth in the material sphere. On this theory prophecy, and also clairvoyance—one of the great objects of occult education—consist in opening the eyes of the mind upon this timeless Astral World: and spiritualists, evoking the phantoms of the dead, merely call them up from the recesses of universal instead of individual remembrance. The reader who feels his brain to be whirling amidst this medley of solemn statement and unproven fairy tale must remember that the dogmatic part of the occult tradition can only represent the attempt of an extended or otherwise abnormal consciousness to find an explanation of its own experiences.
Further, our whole selves—not merely our sentient selves—are regarded as being bathed in the Astral Light, as in the ether of physics. Hence in occult language it is a “universal agent” connecting soul with soul, and becomes the possible vehicle of hypnotism, telepathy, clairvoyance, and all those supernormal phenomena which are the subject-matter of “psychical research.” This hypothesis also accounts for the confusing fact of an initial similarity of experience in many of the proceedings of mystic and occultist. Both must pass through the plane of consciousness which the concept of the “Astral” represents, because this plane p. 156 of perception is the one which lies “next beyond” our normal life. The transcendental faculties may become aware of this world; only, in the case of the mystic, to pass through it as quickly as they can. But the occultist, the medium, the psychic, rest in the “Astral” and develop their perceptions of this aspect of the world. It is the medium in which they work.
From earliest times, occult philosophy has insisted on the existence of this medium: as a scientific fact, outside the range of our normal senses, but susceptible of verification by the trained powers of the “initiate.” The possessor of such trained powers, not the wizard or the fortune-teller, is regarded as the true magician: and it is the declared object of occult education, or initiation, to actualize this supersensual plane of experience, to give the student the power of entering into conscious communion with it, and teach him to impose upon its forces the directive force of his own will, as easily as he imposes that will upon the “material” things of senses. 317
(2) This brings us to the second axiom of magic, which also has a curiously modern air: for it postulates simply the limitless power of the disciplined human will. This dogma has been “taken over” without acknowledgment from occult philosophy to become the trump card of menticulture, “Christian Science,” and “New Thought.” The preachers of “Joy Philosophy” and other dilute forms of mental discipline, the Liberal Catholic “priest” producing “a vast bubble of etheric astromental matter, a thought-edifice, ethereal, diaphanous, a bubble which just includes the congregation—“ 318 these are the true hierophants of magic in the modern world. 319
The first lesson of the would-be magus is self-mastery. “By means of persevering and gradual athletics,” says Eliphas Lévi, “the powers of the body can be developed to an amazing extent. It is the same with the powers of the soul. Would you govern yourself and others? Learn how to will. How may one learn how to will? This is the first secret of magical initiation; and it was to make the foundations of this secret thoroughly understood that the antique keepers of the mysteries surrounded the approach to the sanctuary with so many terrors and illusions. They did not believe in a will until it had given its proofs; and they were right. p. 157 Strength cannot prove itself except by conquest. Idleness and negligence are the enemies of the will, and this is the reason why all religions have multiplied their practices and made their cults difficult and minute. The more trouble one gives oneself for an idea, the more power one acquires in regard to that idea. . . . Hence the power of religions resides entirely in the inflexible will of those who practise them.” 320
This last sentence alone is enough to define the distinction between mysticism and magic, and clear the minds of those who tend to confuse the mystical and magical elements of religion. In accordance with it, real “magical initiation” is in essence a form of mental discipline, strengthening and focussing the will. This discipline, like that of the religious life, consists partly in physical austerities and a deliberate divorce from the world, partly in the cultivation of will-power: but largely in a yielding of the mind to the influence of suggestions which have been selected and accumulated in the course of ages because of their power over that imagination which Eliphas Lévi calls “The eye of the soul.” There is nothing supernatural about it. Like the more arduous, more disinterested self-training of the mystic, it is character-building with an object, conducted upon an heroic scale. In magic the “will to know” is the centre round which the personality is rearranged. As in mysticism, unconscious factors are dragged from the hiddenness to form part of that personality. The uprushes of thought, the abrupt intuitions which reach us from the subliminal region, are developed, ordered, and controlled by rhythms and symbols which have become traditional because the experience of centuries has proved, though it cannot explain, their efficacy: and powers of apprehension which normally lie below the threshold may thus be liberated and enabled to report their discoveries.
“The fundamental principle,” says A. E. Waite, speaking of occult evocations, “was in the exercise of a certain occult force resident in the magus, and strenuously exerted for the establishment of such a correspondence between two planes of nature as would effect his desired end. This exertion was termed the evocation, conjuration, or calling of the spirit, but that which in reality was raised was the energy of the inner man ; tremendously developed and exalted by combined will and aspiration, this energy germinated by sheer force a new intellectual faculty of sensible psychological perception. To assist and stimulate this energy into the most powerful possible operation, artificial means were almost invariably used. . . . The synthesis of these methods and processes p. 158 was called Ceremonial Magic, which in effect was a tremendous forcing-house of the latent faculties of man’s spiritual nature.” 321
This is the psychological explanation of those apparently absurd rituals of preparation, doctrines of signs and numbers, pentacles, charms, angelical names, the “power of the word” which made up ceremonial magic. The power of such artifices is known amongst the Indian mystics; who, recognizing in the Mantra, or occult and rhythmic formula, consciously held and repeated, an invaluable help to the attainment of the true ecstatic state, are not ashamed to borrow from the magicians. So, too, the modern American schools of mental healing and New Thought recommend concentration upon a carefully selected word as the starting-point of efficacious meditation. This fact of the psychical effect of certain verbal combinations, when allowed to dominate the field of consciousness, may have some bearing upon that need of a formal liturgy which is felt by nearly every great religion; for religion, on its ceremonial side, has certain affinities with magic. It, too, seeks by sensible means to stimulate supra-sensible energies. The true magic “word” or spell is untranslatable; because its power resides only partially in that outward sense which is apprehended by the reason, but chiefly in the rhythm, which is addressed to the subliminal mind. Symbols, religious and other, and symbolic acts which appear meaningless when judged by the intellect alone, perform a similar office. They express the deep-seated instinct of the human mind that it must have a focus on which to concentrate its volitional powers, if those powers are to be brought to their highest state of efficiency. The nature of the focus matters little: its office matters much.
“. . . All these figures, and acts analogous to them,” says Lévi, “all these dispositions of numbers and of characters [ i.e. sacred words, charms, pentacles, etc.] are, as we have said, but instruments for the education of the will, of which they fix and determine the habits. They serve also to concentrate in action all the powers of the human soul, and to strengthen the creative power of the imagination. . . . A practice, even though it be superstitious and foolish, may be efficacious because it is a realization of the will. . . . We laugh at the poor woman who denies herself a ha’porth of milk in the morning, that she may take a little candle to burn upon the magic triangle in some chapel. But those who laugh are ignorant, and the poor woman does not pay too dearly for the courage and resignation which she thus obtains. 322 p. 159
Magic symbols, therefore, from penny candles to Solomon’s seal, fall in modern technical language into two classes. The first contains instruments of self-suggestion, exaltation, and will direction. To this belong all spells, charms, rituals, perfumes: from the magician’s vervain wreath to the “Youth! Health! Strength!” which the student of New Thought repeats when she is brushing her hair in the morning. The second class contains autoscopes: i.e. , material objects which focus and express the subconscious perceptions of the operator. The dowser’s divining rod, fortuneteller’s cards, and crystal-gazer’s ball, are characteristic examples. Both kinds are rendered necessary rather by the disabilities of the human than by the peculiarities of the superhuman plane: and the great adept may attain heights at which he dispenses with these “outward and visible signs.” “Ceremonies being, as we have said, artificial methods of creating certain habits of the will, they cease to be necessary when these habits have become fixed.” 323 These facts, now commonplaces of psychology, have long been known and used by students of magic. Those who judge the philosophy by the apparent absurdity of its symbols and ceremonies should remember that the embraces, gestures, grimaces, and other ritual acts by which we all concentrate, liberate, or express love, wrath, or enthusiasm, will ill endure the cold revealing light of a strictly rational inquiry.
(3) The dogmas of the “Astral Light” or universal agent and the “power of the will” are completed by a third: the doctrine of Analogy, of an implicit correspondence between appearance and reality, the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the universe the seen and the unseen worlds. In this, occultism finds the basis of its transcendental speculations. Quod superius sicut quod inferius —the first words of that Emerald Table which was once attributed to Hermes Trismegistus himself—is an axiom which must be agreeable to all Platonists. It plays a great part in the theory of mysticism; which, whilst maintaining an awed sense of the total “otherness” and incomprehensibility of the Divine, has always assumed that the path of the individual soul towards loving union with the Absolute is somehow analogous with the path on which the universe moves to its consummation in God.
The notion of analogy ultimately determines the religious concepts of every race, and resembles the verities of faith in the breadth of its application. It embraces alike the appearances of the visible world—which thus become the mirrors of the invisible—the symbols of religion, the tiresome arguments of Butler’s “Analogy,” the allegories of the Kabalah and the spiritual alchemists, and that childish “doctrine of signatures” on which p. 160 much of mediaeval science was built. “Analogy,” says Lévi, 324 “is the last word of science and the first word of faith . . . the sole possible mediator between the visible and the invisible, between the finite and the infinite.” Here Magic clearly defines her own limitations; stepping incautiously from the useful to the universal, and laying down a doctrine which no mystic could accept—which, carried to its logical conclusion, would turn the adventure of the infinite into a guessing game.
The argument by analogy is carried by the occultists to lengths which cannot be described here. Armed with this torch, they explore the darkest, most terrible mysteries of life: and do not hesitate to cast the grotesque shadows of these mysteries upon the unseen world. The principle of correspondence is no doubt sound so long as it works within reasonable limits. It was admitted into the system of the Kabalah, though that profound and astute philosophy was far from giving to it the importance which it assumes in Hermetic “science.” It has been eagerly accepted by many of the mystics. Boehme and Swedenborg availed themselves of its method in presenting their intuitions to the world. It is implicitly acknowledged by thinkers of many other schools: its influence permeates the best periods of literature. Sir Thomas Browne spoke for more than himself when he said, in a well-known passage of the “Religio Medici”: “The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes [ i.e. , Trismegistus] that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible, wherein, as in a portrait, things are not truly but in equivocal shapes, and as they counterfeit some real substance in that invisible framework.” Such a sense of analogy, whatever the “severe schools” may say, is indeed the foundation of every perfect work of art. “Intuitive perception of the hidden analogies of things,” says Hazlitt in “English Novelists,” “or, as it may be called, his instinct of the imagination, is perhaps what stamps the character of genius on the productions of art more than any other circumstance.”
The central doctrine of magic may now be summed up thus:—
(1) That a supersensible and real “cosmic medium” exists, which interpenetrates, influences, and supports the tangible and apparent world, and is amenable to the categories both of philosophy and of physics.
(2) That there is an established analogy and equilibrium between the real and unseen world, and the illusory manifestations which we call the world of sense.
(3) That this analogy may be discerned, and this equilibrium controlled, by the disciplined will of man, which thus becomes master of itself and of fate. p. 161
We must now examine in more detail the third of these propositions—that which ascribes abnormal powers to the educated and disciplined will—for this assumption lies at the root of all magical practices, old and new. “Magical operations,” says Eliphas Lévi, “are the exercise of a power which is natural, but superior to the ordinary powers of nature. They are the result of a science, and of habits, which exalt the human will above its usual limits.” 325 This power of the will is now recognized as playing an important part both in the healing of the body and the healing of the soul; for our most advanced theories on these subjects are little more than the old wine of magic in new bottles. The ancient occultists owed much of their power, and also of their evil reputation, to the fact that they were psychologists before their time. Effective methods of suggestion, recipes for the alteration and exaltation of personality and enhancement of will-power, the artificial production of hypnotic states, photisms, automatism and ecstasy, with the opening up of the subliminal field which accompanies these phenomena—concealed from the profane by a mass of confusing allegories and verbiage—form the backbone of all genuine occult rituals. Their authors were aware that ceremonial magic has no objective importance, but depends solely on its effect upon the operator’s mind. That this effect might be enhanced, it was given an atmosphere of sanctity and mystery; its rules were strict, its higher rites difficult of attainment. These rules and rites constituted at once a test of the student’s earnestness and a veil guarding the sanctuary from the profane. The long and difficult preparations, majestic phrases, and strange ceremonies of an evocation had power, not over the spirit of the dead, but over the consciousness of the living; who was thus caught up from the world of sense to a new plane of perception. Thus, according to its apologists, the education of the genuine occult student tends to awaken in him a new view and a new attitude. It adjusts the machinery of his cinematograph to the registering of new intervals in the stream of things, which passed it by before; and thus introduces new elements into that picture by which ordinary men are content to know and judge the—or rather their— universe.
So much for the principles which govern occult education. Magic therapeutics, or as it is now called, “mental healing,” is but the application of these principles upon another plane. It results, first, from a view of humanity which sees a difference only of degree between diseases of body and of soul, and can state seriously and in good faith that “moral maladies are more contagious than physical, and there are some triumphs of infatuation and fashion which are comparable to leprosy or cholera.” 326 Secondly, it is p. 162 worked by that enhancement of will power, that ability to alter and control weaker forms of life, which is claimed as the reward of the occult discipline. “All the power of the occult healer lies in his conscious will and all his art consists in producing faith in the patient.” 327
This simple truth was in the possession of occult thinkers at a time when Church and State saw no third course between the burning or beatification of its practitioners. Now, under the polite names of mental hygiene, suggestion, and psycho-therapeutics, it is steadily advancing to the front rank of medical shibboleths. Yet it is still the same “magic art” which has been employed for centuries, with varying ritual accompaniments, by the adepts of occult science. The methods of Brother Hilarian Tissot, who is described as curing lunacy and crime by “the unconscious use of the magnetism of Paracelsus,” who attributed his cases “either to disorder of the will or to the perverse influence of external wills,” and would “regard all crimes as acts of madness and treat the wicked as diseased,” 328 anticipated in many respects those of the most modern psychologists.
The doctrine of magic which has here been described shows us the “Secret Wisdom” at its best and sanest. But even on these levels, it is dogged by the defects which so decisively separate the occultist from the mystic. The chief of these is the peculiar temper of mind, the cold intellectual arrogance, the intensely individual point of view which occult studies seem to induce by their conscious quest of exclusive power and knowledge, their implicit neglect of love. At bottom, every student of occultism is striving towards a point at which he may be able to “touch the button” and rely on the transcendental world “springing to do the rest.” In this hard-earned acquirement of power over the Many, he tends to forget the One. In Levi’s words, “Too deep a study of the mysteries of nature may estrange from God the careless investigator, in whom mental fatigue paralyses the ardours of the heart.” 329 When he wrote this sentence Lévi stood, as the greater occultists have often done, at the frontiers of mysticism. The best of the Hermetic philosophers, indeed, are hardly ever without such mystical hankerings, such flashes of illumination; as if the transcendental powers of man, once roused from sleep, cannot wholly ignore the true end for which they were made.
In Levi’s case, as is well known, the discord between the occult and mystical ideals was resolved by his return to the Catholic Church. Characteristically, he “read into” Catholicism much p. 163 that the orthodox would hardly allow; so that it became for him, as it were, a romantic gloss on the occult tradition. He held that the Christian Church, nursing mother of the mystics, was also the heir of the magi; and that popular piety and popular magic veiled the same ineffable truths. He had more justification than at first appears probable for this apparently wild and certainly heretical statement. Religion, as we have seen, can never entirely divorce herself from magic: for her rituals and sacraments must have, if they are to be successful in their appeal to the mind, a certain magical character. All persons who are naturally drawn towards the ceremonial aspect of religion are acknowledging the strange power of subtle rhythms, symbolic words and movements, over the human will. An “impressive service” conforms exactly to the description which I have already quoted of a magical rite: it is “a tremendous forcing-house of the latent faculties of man’s spiritual nature.” Sacraments, too, however simple their beginnings, always tend, as they evolve, to assume upon the phenomenal plane a magical aspect—a fact which does not invalidate their claim to be the vehicles of supernatural grace. Those who have observed with understanding, for instance, the Roman rite of baptism, with its spells and exorcisms, its truly Hermetic employment of salt, anointing chrism and ceremonial lights, must have seen in it a ceremony far nearer to the operations of white magic than to the simple lustrations practiced by St. John the Baptist.
There are obvious objections to the full working out of this subject in a book which is addressed to readers of all shades of belief; but any student who is interested in this branch of religious psychology may easily discover for himself the occult elements in the liturgies of the Christian—or indeed of any other—Church. There are invocative arrangements of the Names of God which appear alike in grimoire and in Missal. Sacred numbers, ritual actions, perfumes, purifications, words of power, are all used, and rightly used by institutional religion in her work of opening up the human mind to the messages of the suprasensible world. In certain minor observances, and charm-like prayers, we seem to stand on the very borderland between magician and priest.
It is surely inevitable that this should be so. The business of the Church is to appeal to the whole man, as she finds him living in the world of sense. She would hardly be adequate to this task did she neglect the powerful weapons which the occultist has developed for his own ends. She, who takes the simplest and most common gifts of nature and transmutes them into heavenly food, takes also every discovery which the self has made concerning its own potentialities, and turns them to her own high purposes. Founding her external system on sacraments and symbols, on p. 164 rhythmic invocations and ceremonial acts of praise, insisting on the power of the pure and self-denying will and the “magic chain” of congregational worship, she does but join hands with those Magi whose gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the first gifts that she received.
But she pays for this; sharing some of the limitations of the system which her Catholic nature has compelled her to absorb. It is true, of course, that she purges it of all its baser elements—its arrogance, its curiosity—true also that she is bound to adopt it, because it is the highest common measure which she can apply to the spirituality of that world to which she is sent. But she cannot—and her great teachers have always known that she cannot—extract finality from a method which does not really seek after ultimate things. This method may and does teach men goodness, gives them happiness and health. It can even induce in them a certain exaltation in which they become aware, at any rate for a moment, of the existence of the supernatural world—a stupendous accomplishment. But it will not of itself make them citizens of that world: give to them the freedom of Reality.
“The work of the Church in the world,” says Patmore, “is not to teach the mysteries of life, so much as to persuade the soul to that arduous degree of purity at which God Himself becomes her teacher. The work of the Church ends when the knowledge of God begins.” 330
R. A. Vaughan, “Hours with the Mystics,” vol. i. bk. i. ch. v.
In a list published by Papus from the archives of the Martinists, we find such diverse names as Averroes, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vincent of Beauvais, and Swedenborg, given as followers of the occult tradition!
See R. Steiner, “The Way of Initiation,” p. 111.
Supra, pp. 70 seq .
A. E. Waite, “The Occult Sciences,” p. 1.
Steiner, “The Way of Initiation,” p. 66.
See E. Towne, “Joy Philosophy” (1903) and “Just How to Wake the Solar Plexus” (1904); R. D. Stocker, “New Thought Manual” (1906) and “Soul Culture” (1905); Floyd Wilson, “Man Limitless” (1905). The literature of these sects is enormous. For a critical and entertaining account, see C. W. Ferguson, ‘The Confusion of Tongues.” (1929).
It must here be pointed out that the genuine “Hermetica”—a body of ancient philosophic and religious pieces collected under this general title—are entirely unconnected with occultism. Cf. “Hermetica,” ed. with English translation by W. Scott. 3 vols. 1924-8.
A. E. Waite, a life-long student of these byeways of thought, gives, as the main channels by which “an arcane knowledge is believed to have been communicated to the West,” Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, the occult associations which culminated in Freemasonry, and, finally, “an obscure sheaf of hieroglyphs known as Tarot cards.” He places in another class “the bewitchments and other mummeries of Ceremonial Magic.” (“The Holy Kabbalah,” pp. 518-19.)
For a discussion of the Gnostic and Theosophic elements in Blake’s work see D. Surat, “Blake and Modern Thought” (1929).
A. E. Waite, “Doctrine and Literature of the Kabbalah,” p. 48.
I offer no opinion as to the truth or falsity of these “occult” claims. For a more detailed discussion the reader is referred to Steiner’s curious little book, “The Way of Initiation.”
C. W. Leadbeater, “The Science of the Sacraments,” p. 38.
Compare the following: “Imagine that all the world and the starry hosts are waiting, alert and with shining eyes, to do your bidding. Imagine that you are to touch the button now, and instantly they will spring to do the rest. The instant you say, ‘I can and I will,’ the entire powers of the universe are to be set in motion” (E. Towne, “Joy Philosophy,” p. 52).
“Rituel de la Haute Magie,” pp. 35, 36.
“The Occult Sciences,” p. 14. But references in Mr. Waite’s most recent work to “the puerilities and imbecility of ceremonial magic” suggest that he has modified his views. Cf. “The Holy Kabbalah” (1929), p. 521.
“Rituel de la Haute Magie,” p. 71.
“Rituel de la Haute Magie,” p. 139.
“Dogme de la Haute Magie,” p. 361 et seq.
“Rituel de la Haute Magie,” p. 32.
“Dogme de la Haute Magie,” p. 129.
“Rituel,” p. 312.
“Dogma,” p. 134.
“Histoire de la Magie,” p. 514.
“The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Knowledge and Science,” xxii.