There aren't too many books which you can describe as life-changing. Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages was one of those books for me. When I first encountered an earlier edition of this old tome at age twelve, I had to deal with a huge book filled with occult imagery and complemented by a suitably thick layer of dust, unearthed in a dim recess of the local library. While certainly a nice prop in the movies, it certainly was an awkward thing to read at a small study desk.
For those wishing to add a copy of this influential book to their collection, the good folks over at Penguin-Tarcher have done us all a massive favour in releasing a "Reader's Edition" (see Amazon US and UK) of Hall's masterwork - somehow squeezing the text (and a fair number of the images) into a very portable 672-page paperback of less-than 6 by 10 inch dimensions. Not to mention you can pick it up for well under $US20 at Amazon. But enough of the superficial details - what is it about this book that has inspired so many?
For me personally - looking in retrospect - I think I found in Hall a kindred spirit, and in his book an encyclopediac survey of all those teachings "wholly beyond the pale of materialistic theology". I'm sure, as an impressionable twelve-year-old, the majestic esoteric look of the book helped plenty as well. But Hall's attitude to our modern dogma of materialism, and the urgent need to reclaim the sacred, was eerie in its prescience. In the preface to the Diamond Jubilee edition of The Secret Teachings, he reflected on the circumstances which led him to write the book:
The original edition was planned and issued in the interval between the termination of World War I and the Great Depression of 1929. During this time I had a brief career on Wall Street, the outstanding event of which was witnessing a man depressed over investment losses take his life
My fleeting contact with high finance resulted in serious doubts concerning business as it was being conducted. It was apparent that materialism was in complete control of the economic structure, the final objective of which was for the individual to become part of a system providing an economic security at the expense of the human soul, mind, and body.
In the eight decades since the book was first published it would seem that Hall's concern was well justified, and the urgency for a solution to rampant materialism has grown exponentially. That is not to say that Hall failed in his goal, for The Secret Teachings of All Ages has become one of the classics of esoteric literature, and influenced many in varied ways. Are we to expect the masses of our reality TV generation to pick up this work and read with interest about the Cabiric Mysteries of Samothrace? Not likely. But perhaps it has and will continue to influence enough of the right people, that some of the sacred will be reclaimed through their own contributions.
To provide a suitable summary of the content of this book would take a book itself. All that can be offered in this space is that The Secret Teachings of All Ages will tutor you on the ancient mysteries, secret societies, philosophy, myth and religion. Chapters on Pythagoras, the Rosicrucians, Alchemy, Qabbalism, mystic Christianity, the Tarot and Zodiac (almost 50 chapters all up) will leave the reader not just enlightened, but perhaps even initiated. However, while it may bear all the hallmarks of a Bible of the mystical, this is not God's infallible word. It is the awe-inspiring writings of a disaffected twenty-something, who is wise enough to preface his work by saying:
I make no claim for either the infallibility or the originality of any statement herein contained. I have studied the fragmentary writings of the ancients sufficiently to realize that dogmatic utterances concerning their tenets are worse than foolhardy. Traditionalism is the curse of modern philosophy, particularly that of the European schools.
Did I say twenty-something? Certainly - Manly P. Hall had not even turned 28 when The Secret Teachings of All Ages was first published. To many, such a fact would perhaps turn them off the book, fearing a superficial and immature survey of the world's most spiritual ideas and traditions. However, this is not the case. Somehow - whether you label it channeling, past-life knowledge, or just plain precocious talent - Hall was able to assemble a masterwork worthy of a 70-year-old professor of religion and philosophy (for more about this, read the TDG blog of Penguin-Tarcher editor Mitch Horowitz titled "The Inscrutable Manly P. Hall").
The other refreshing aspect of The Secret Teachings is its objective presentation. While most modern authors use the ancient traditions to justify their own personal theory (or best-selling self-help CD range), Hall worked from a different angle. The Secret Teachings of All Ages was meant as a codex of mystical philosophies - a comprehensive guide for the neophyte to the often fragmentary writings of the ancient sages and mystery schools. Hall again explains:
Having no particular 'ism' of my own to promulgate, I have not attempted to twist the original writings to substantiate preconceived notions, nor have I distorted doctrines in any effort to reconcile the irreconcilable differences present in the various systems of religio-philosophic thought.
The entire theory of the book is diametrically opposed to the modern method of thinking, for it is concerned with subjects openly ridiculed by the sophists of the twentieth century. Its true purpose is to introduce the mind of the reader to a hypothesis of living wholly beyond the pale of materialistic theology, philosophy or science.
This is a work to be treasured, and for anyone interested in esoteric philosophy I sincerely recommend this new readers edition of The Secret Teachings of All Ages. If you have the money, then the hardcover edition (see Amazon US and UK) would certainly be a worthwhile acquisition. But for the rest of us, Tarcher-Penguin have offered the next best thing. Boasting the full text of the original, plus 100 line drawings and 14 of the original colour plates by artist J. Augustus Knapp, the new reader's edition of The Secret Teachings of All Ages takes pride of place on my reading table - and will be a work that I pass on to my own children.