Revolutionaries of the Soul (Quest 2014) is a collection of my essays and articles over the last twenty years or so, taken from Fortean Times, Quest Magazine, Lapis and other journals. The essays amount to potted biographies of many esoteric greats, from Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, to C.G. Jung and Dion Fortune. There are also pieces on Manly P. Hall, the brilliant historian of the occult James Webb, and the late Colin Wilson, as well as many others. The unintended result amounts to a brief history of modern esotericism - but I imagine I should leave that to the reader to decide. Here is an excerpt from my piece on Julius Evola, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in occult philosophy. I hope you enjoy it.
Julius Evola: Mussolini’s Mystic
In the late spring of 1980, Italians felt the return of a terrorist threat that for the previous decade had kept a low profile. Since the end of World War II and the rise of the cold war, neo-fascism had been a fact of life in Italian politics, the right-wing ideals of “tradition” and “order” seeming the only alternative to American domination or the threat of communism. In December 1969, the destabilizing tactics employed by the neo-fascists reached a new height with the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan, a violent spark that ignited a wave of far-right terrorism. By the mid-1970s, however, the neo-fascist threat appeared to have faded, only to be replaced by its left-wing opposite when radical groups took to shattering university professors’ kneecaps for teaching the doctrines of “the establishment.” Their counterparts, however, were merely lying low, and on May 28, 1980, it was clear that they were back and ready for action. On that day, an Italian policeman Franco Evangelista – nicknamed “Serpico” after the legendary New York cop, for his success in arresting drug dealers – was assassinated by right-wing terrorists in Rome. Then, in June, a judge who had led an investigation into right-wing terrorist activities was murdered. But the major attack came last, on August 2, when a bomb in the Bologna railway station killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more. Many of the victims, including children, were maimed horribly. Like the Omagh bombing and 9/11, the event punched a hole in the nation’s psyche – which was precisely what its authors intended.
Keeping to its “strategy of tension,” the group responsible for the blast kept its identity secret, yet the police had a good idea who to look for. Names were mentioned: Paolo Signorelli, Franco Frela, Claudio Mutti, Stefano delle Chiaie and others from the right-wing “usual suspects” list were questioned. And, when the investigation began to close in, several members of the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, an influential far-right group, fled the country for Britain. One man, however, whose name was mentioned by all, had no need to fear the police, as he had been dead for the last six years. But if a single person could be held accountable for the Bologna bombing, the dead man was a good candidate. His name was Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola, better known to his more recent English speaking readers as Baron Julius Evola, author of several books on magic, esotericism and the occult, as well as a withering attack of Western civilization, Revolt Against the Modern World (1934).
Born on May 19 1898 to a noble Sicilian family, Julius Evola was a bright but self-willed child who early on rebelled against his strict Catholic upbringing. This resentment against Christianity remained with him throughout his life, and fuelled a Nietzschean disdain for the “weak” and ignorant masses. Although he left university before earning a degree, a sense of precision and objectivity, a cold clarity and logic, came from his studies in industrial engineering. But it was the new movements in modern literature that had the most influence on Evola’s early years. In later life he was to become a staunch defender of tradition, but in his teens Evola came under the spell of the literary avant-garde, absorbing the work of writers like Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini. Papini introduced him to new ideas in art and fashion, as well as to the writings of Meister Eckhart and several Oriental sages. But the most influential discovery was the work of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose Futurist movement would later find favor with Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, a position Evola himself would occupy in years to come. Marinetti, who sang the praises of the modernity Evola would eventually come to despise, may seem an unlikely mentor for a philosopher whose polemics against the modern world would later guide several violent attacks on it. Yet Marinetti’s own fascistic sensibility – a virulent rejection of nature, a celebration of regimen and machine-like efficiency, and above all an embrace of speed and violence for their own sake – are in keeping with Evola’s character.
Marinetti’s Futurists scandalized the bourgeoisie with their penchant for avant-garde hooliganism and artistic thuggery, starting fights at art galleries, and shouting abuse at poetry readings, tactics that less cultured individuals would later employ against a variety of human targets. War, for Marinetti, was an aesthetic affair, and his reports from the Turkish front in World War I spoke of the “joy” of hearing “the machine guns screaming a breathelessness under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tum…” These and other brutal onomatopoeia informed Marinetti’s ideas of parole in libertia, “free words”, which later formed the basis of much of today’s rap and “performance poetry”.
At 19, Evola had an opportunity to test Marinetti’s theory when he joined the Italian army in the last days of the war. Although serving as an artillery officer at the Austrian front, Evola saw no action, yet the discipline, order and hierarchy of the military impressed him and left him unsuited for civilian life, with its muddling chaos and growing egalitarianism. It was then that he began his search for “transcendence”, first through drugs, then through a study of the occult.
These experiences seemed only to increase Evola’s sense of purposelessness and the idea of suicide came to dominate his consciousness, a morbid opinion made attractive through his interest in the brilliant but disturbed Austrian writer Otto Weininger. The Jewish Weininger wrote an influential book, Sex and Character (1903), in which he argued that man alone is a spiritual creature, yearning for the celestial heights, while woman, a denizen of the Earth, tries to trap him in her corrupting embrace: the archetype of the femme fatale. He also argued that the Jews as a race displayed distinctly “feminine” characteristics, most importantly a hatred of all things of a “higher” nature: hence Marx and his reduction of religion to the “opium fo the people.” An unhappy individual, obsessed with sex and his own Jewishness, Weininger committed suicide at 23, in a room in Vienna once occupied by Beethoven. His ideas about women and Jews, however, lived on in several minds, not the least of which was Evola’s.
A Buddhist text saved Evola from suicide, and the discovery of a new avant-garde movement gave him a sense of direction. Futurism, he came to believe, was vulgar and showy. But Dada, the new anti-art movement seeping across the border from Switzerland, struck him as more intellectual, as well as more ambitious. Dada seemed more than a mere art movement, something along the lines of a total reconstruction of the world, the need for which Evola had come to believe in passionately. It is also quite possible that in Dada’s leader, Tristan Tzara, Evola found a new role model: photographs of Evola displaying his elegant, smooth shave face, immaculate dress and imperious gaze – complete with monocle – are strikingly similar to Tzara. For the later advocate of tradition this is ironic, as Tzara, with his hunger for notoriety and scandal, would today more than likely be more at home on talk shows and Twitter, than in the workshops of anti-art.
Evola plunged into Dada, reading his poetry to the music of Schönberg, Satie and Bartok at the Cabaret Grotte dell’Augusteo, Rome’s version of Zürich’s infamous Cabaret Voltaire. He also took up painting, and exhibited his work in Rome, Milan, Lausanne and Berlin; today his “Inner Landscape at 10:30 am” still hangs in Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Evola also wrote an influential essay on abstract art, arguing that it is only in abstraction that the existence of an “eternal self” could be expressed – an indication, again, of his anti-natural, anti-earthly bias.
Yet Dada was not enough. Disgusted with the increasing commercialization of the avant-garde, in 1922 Evola abandoned painting and poetry. He now gave himself to philosophy, writing several books of an idealistic character in which he spelled out the metaphysics of the “absolute individual.” This boiled down to the doctrine that such an individual enjoyed “the ability to be unconditionally whatever he wants,” and that for him “the world is my representation.” For the nobly born Evola, this spiritual solipsism seems appropriate: it provided an ontological underpinning for his near-absolute lack of interest in other people.
This focus on the “unconditional” freedom of the self led to a still deeper study of occultism. Evola became involved with an Italian theosophical group, and wrote an introduction to a translation of the Tao Te Ching. A correspondence with Sir John Woodroffe – as Arthur Avalon, author of several works on Hindu philosophy – led to a fascination with Tantra, which surfaced in Evola’s books The Yoga of Power (1949) and The Metaphysics of Sex (1958) – this last also shows the influence of Weininger. Evola soon lost interest in theosophy, but not in the occult, and by the mid-1920s he had become involved in an esoteric society, the UR group, who looked at magic as “the science of the ego.” Formed around the occultist Arturo Reghini, editor of two influential occult journals, Atanòr and Ignis , the UR group embarked on a variety of esoteric investigations. Along with Tantra, Evola studied alchemy, Taoism and Buddhism. The link between these studies was the idea of “initiation”, the sense that through them Evola was participating in ancient initiatory practices, living manifestations of a lost, primal tradition.
Here is an excerpt from my new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and The Wickedest Man in the World (Tarcher/Penguin). In it I ask why Crowley became a rock and roll mainstay, unlike Jung, Madame Blavatsky, and other esoteric figures embraced by the 1960s counter culture, and what his philosophy of "do what thou wilt" can mean for us today. Here's the opening to Chapter One, "The Unforgivable Sin."
In recent years visitors to London’s National Portrait Gallery may have wondered about a painting that was added to its collection in 2003. There amid portraits of Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Fredrick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ernest Shackleton, Ernest Rutherford, and other important British figures is a striking canvas whose bright colors and unusual subject jump out at the viewer. The portrait shows its subject in a yogic pose, the fingers of both hands curled in a chin mudra, a meditative gesture designed to aid in pranayama, a breathing technique to gather the vital force, or prana, in the body. A bright red robe drapes over the figure, his dark hair and eyebrows contrasting strongly with the golden- yellow backdrop, and a single black forelock offers a faint suggestion of a horn. Not much is known about the artist, Leon Engers Kennedy, but like his subject he was interested in mysticism, magic, and the stranger side of life. The portrait was done in New York in 1917, during the subject’s difficult years in America, and a look at the biographical note tells us that he was a writer, mountaineer, and occultist. He also had a taste for adopting names, at different times calling himself the Master Therion, the Great Beast 666, and Baphomet.
The portrait is of Aleister Crowley although the curators, no doubt sticklers for accuracy, have him down as “Edward Alexander (‘Aleister’) Crowley,” a name that on some occasions, usually legal ones, he did in fact use. When I visited the gallery not too long ago for the first time in some years and came upon Crowley’s image, the same one used as the frontispiece for Vol. III No. I of his magical magazine The Equinox (the “blue Equinox” as it is called), I was surprised that it was there, and at first couldn’t believe it. The National Portrait Gallery was established in 1856 with the idea of collecting portraits of “famous British men and women.” But surely Crowley wasn’t just famous. He was infamous. A black magician, drug addict, sexual pervert, traitor, and all-around troublemaker— Crowley famous? That the curators of a gallery designed to house Britain’s best and brightest should include the “wickedest man in the world” struck me as odd, almost aberrant. It was as if they had discovered a portrait of Jack the Ripper and decided to hang that, too.
Crowley was no Ripper, although there is more than a little suspicion that he was responsible for some deaths, and Crowley himself went out of his way to suggest this. Yet during the height of Crowley’s infamy, in the 1920s and ’30s, the idea that his portrait could hang in the same room as the painter Roger Fry, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, and the biologist Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous Huxley) as an example of a famous Briton would have been unthinkable. He was indeed “a Man We’d Like to Hang,” as an article in the newspaper John Bull, which had a peculiar hatred of Crowley, called him, but certainly not in that way. More likely Crowley’s portrait would have found a place on Scotland Yard’s “most wanted” list, if John Bull and the other scandal sheets that “exposed” his exploits had it their way. Nevertheless, I had to chuckle. Although Crowley did practically everything he could to disgust and infuriate the British society he loathed with an often tedious obstinacy, he also always wanted its acceptance, and to be taken for what he never quite was: an English gentleman. I wondered, assuming he still existed in some sentient form in the cosmos— he was a great believer in reincarnation and claimed quite a few prestigious names for his past lives— musn’t he must be chuckling too, seeing that he had finally been accepted into the club that for the longest time wouldn’t have him as a member?
If we have any doubt that the Great Beast is finding a new place for himself in British history, we have only to look at the 2002 BBC Poll of the Top 100 Britons. Crowley came in at number 73, beating out J.R .R . Tolkien, Johnny Rotten, Chaucer, and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. Crowley is in danger of becoming just another English eccentric, which is how the British public usually neutralizes some challenge to its complacency. When I mentioned this to a friend, he added that the next step is to be deemed a national treasure. With Crowley’s image hanging among the portraits of many other national treasures, it looks like he is indeed on his way.
That Crowley was an egotist and mistreated the people in his life - was, indeed, wicked - are not the most important aspects of his career. Other less interesting characters have done the same without having Crowley’s flashes of genius, although, to be sure, Crowley’s ignominy was considerable. Yet for all his inexcusable behavior, Crowley was not “evil,” in the sense that, say, Sherlock Holmes’ adversary, Professor Moriarity was, or the black magicians of the many occult horror films that Crowley inspired were. Crowley was not evil, only insensitive, selfish, and driven by a hunger he seemed unable to satisfy and an incorrigible need to be distracted. He seems an embodiment of the religious thinker Blaise Pascal’s remark that “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” Crowley never sat still in a room, or anywhere else. One of the most telling remarks Crowley ever made was in a letter he wrote in 1905 to his then friend and soon to be brother-in-law, the artist Gerald Kelly. In the midst of a complaint about wasting the last five years of his life on “weakness, miscalled politeness, tact, discretion, care for the feeling of others”—a mistake he would not make again— and a rejection of Christianity, Rationalism, Buddhism, and “all the lumber of the centuries,” Crowley speaks of a “positive and primeval fact, Magic”—he had not yet added the k—with which he will build “a new Heaven and a new Earth.” “I want none of your faint approval or faint dispraise,” he told Kelly. “I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong.” Crowley needed “strong” things. Nothing could touch him unless it was “strong.” Crowley had to have a lot of sex and it had to be wild; the women he had it with had to be seething with “forbidden lust” of the kind associated with the Marquis de Sade or the poet Baudelaire, and the men he had it with had to humiliate him and bend him to their will. He had to have a lot of drugs; famously, by the end of his life he was taking enough heroin to kill a room full of nonusers. He had to have a lot of drink; he was known to hold an eye- watering amount of liquor. And he had to have a lot of experiences. Crowley’s life was one long hunt for “experiences.” As his biographer and critic John Symonds remarked, Crowley “needed some strong or horrific experience to get ‘turned on’.” Most people, as Symonds remarks, are “turned on”— become interested in something— by sitting at home, reading a book, listening to music, or watching a film. That is, most people embody some form of Pascal’s “sitting still in a room.” Crowley’s need for constant “strong” stimulation suggests that he lacked imagination and that his mind, formidable as it was, was curiously literal. Crowley seems, I think, to have suffered from a kind of autism. I don’t necessarily mean in some pathological sense, but he seemed to lack the kind of nuanced, “tacit knowing” that most of us enjoy and which allows us to grasp the essence or meaning of some idea or experience, without having to go to extremes or into precise detail in order to “get it.” Crowley only got it by going to extremes. In fact, as his friend Louis Wilkinson, who shared with Crowley some of his worst traits, remarked, Crowley’s “cult, his mania, one might say, was for excess in all directions.” Crowley was not evil, but his need for excess, for “strong” things, more times than not, was a source of suffering for those around him.
It may be this characteristic that leads some of Crowley’s recent biographers to remark that his credo of “Do what thou wilt,” “so redolent, seemingly, of license and anarchy, dark deeds and darker dreams, terrifies on first impact, as does Crowley the man,” and that one must feel “terror, a sense of evil, creepiness or disgust” at the mention of his name. This seems a bit extreme itself. With the possible exception of some fundamentalist Christians, I can’t think of anyone who is afraid of Crowley anymore, let alone terrified, or who is so conventional or repressed that they will “experience visceral disgust at the thought of sexual emissions as sacred components of worship,” as Crowley and those who practice his sex-magick thought of them. We live in an “anything goes” society, whose central maxim, “Just Do It,” has been embraced by some contemporary Crowleyans. A great deal of what Crowley got up to is today par for the course, and the extreme behavior he indulged in is, more or less, commonplace. But the important question is: does one have to be frightened of thelema, the name of Crowley’s religion of excess, in order to question it? It strikes me that in order to portray Crowley as some liberator of an uptight mankind— as some of his champions do— our “fear” of the shocking truths he was sent to reveal must be puffed up, and a kind of straw Mr. Conventional must be erected, who trembles at the thought of anyone doing their “true will.” Such imaginary Mrs. Grundys are in fact necessary for a philosophy of “transgression.” They are the windmills against which such radical behavior tilts. It needs them to rebel against; without them, it collapses, its “acts of liberation” deflating to mere personal predilections, its “transgressions” indicating little more than that the people engaging in them have a taste for such things. But no such persons exist, only people who wonder if the kind of life Crowley led is really worth living. I have never been afraid of my or anyone else’s “true will,” and I have lived in both the magical and rock and roll milieus that provide fertile soil for those who are pursuing theirs. This is why I can be critical of Crowley and the liberationist philosophy he embodied— thelema is only one expression of it; it is not a distinctive new creed—and not be dismissed as someone terrified of it. I have been there, done it, and seen it from the inside. I am not a thelemaphobe, to coin a word. I merely find it wrongheaded.
But “excess in all directions?” Sounds like a good album title. No wonder Crowley found a place in rock and roll.
The Forest is Everywhere
“It is essential to know that every man is immortal and that there is eternal life in him, an unexplored yet inhabited land, which, though he himself may deny its existence, no timely power can ever take from him.” Ernst Jünger
The German conservative writer Ernst Jünger is often mistakenly tarred with the same brush as the Nazis, so let me start this review with some reconstruction work. Jünger was never a member of the NSDAP and he twice turned down a seat in the Reichstag. He was courted by Himmler and Goebbels but snubbed both and declined an invitation to join the Deutsche Akademie der Dichtung – the German Writer’s Academy – which was led briefly by Jünger’s equally nationalistic but less fastidious colleague Gottfried Benn. (Early on Benn, another conservative, broke bread with the Nazis but was soon disgusted.) He was a WWI hero – Jünger was wounded fourteen times in the trenches and was the youngest recipient of the pour le Mérite - and unfortunately it is his Dionysian appreciation of the perils of battle – vividly described in his first book Storm of Steel - that informs most English speaking opinions of him today. I say 'informs' but this is a misnomer, as most English readers and critics avoid him because of his unwarranted bad reputation, and so are hardly informed. Yet Jünger was something more than a celebrant of Heraclitus’ dictum that ‘war is the father of all things.’ His allegorical poetic novel On The Marble Cliffs was a thinly veiled and beautifully written critique of totalitarianism in general and the Nazis in particular, but Jünger was so prestigious a national hero that they couldn't ban it. Eventually, he did fall foul of the Reich; he was a conservative thinker who considered Hitler and Co. political thugs and his very visible refusal to collaborate with them was as pointed a criticism as he could make and still survive. He was suspected of involvement in the July 20 1944 attempt on Hitler's life – he was actually on the fringes of it - and one of his sons was imprisoned for 'subversive conversations' regarding the Fuehrer and died soon after. Jünger was a nationalist writer who loved Germany but hated the Nazis and would have nothing to do with them, just as one could, say, love America during the Bush years but have nothing to do with the Neocons. But because in his early career he extolled the virtues of traditional battle - questionable virtues indeed, but he was not alone in this (Homer, anyone?) - his stock among English readers remains low. This is unfortunate. Jünger is one of the most stimulating (and long lived: he died in 1998 at 102) poetic thinkers of the last century, anticipating a number of themes common to our times: altered states, surveillance societies, the unchecked rise of technology and diminishment of nature, and the need to preserve individual freedom in an increasingly mechanized and managed global world.
The quotation above is from The Forest Passage, Jünger's post-WWII essay on how to maintain inner freedom in a society increasingly bent on instituting conformity. First published in 1951, it was aimed at Germany’s recent Nazi past, its possible Soviet future, and the cultural leveling and consumer consciousness sadly associated with western democracies. Its first English translation (by Thomas Friese) is published by the Telos Press, who should be applauded for making more of Jünger available to English readers; their previous efforts include Jünger’s Nietzschean essay On Pain and the unclassifiable The Adventurous Heart, a collection of short prose pieces on a wide variety of subjects, displaying Jünger’s enviable ability to ‘read’ the surfaces of things in order to extract their inner meaning. (My review of it can be found here: http://realitysandwich.com/165435/rs_review_2/)
Like many in the post-war years, Jünger was concerned with the rising anonymity and pervasiveness of the State and it is against its seemingly unstoppable encroachment into our personal lives that The Forest Passage is aimed. The ‘unexplored yet inhabited land’ that lies within us is Jünger’s ‘forest’, an inner (yet sometimes outer) ‘temporary autonomous zone’ ( in Peter Lamborn Wilson’s phrase) that one can enter, provided one has the courage, determination, and will to take on the challenges of being an ‘internal exile’. Readers of Jünger will know that the figure of the ‘forest rebel’ is a kind of prototype of Jünger’s more realized character of the ‘anarch’, the central theme of his late novel Eumeswil. Jünger’s ‘anarch’, however, is not the same as an anarchist. The anarchist needs society, if only as something to tear down, while the anarch seeks a way to maintain his or her freedom within it, while avoiding its dehumanizing effects. The anarch’s resistance can be invisible, unlike the anarchist’s, and his ‘state’ is the one that lies within him, not the one in which he is forced to live. In a way, The Forest Passage aims at providing the reader with a guide to preserving his or her ‘self’ while subjected to the unavoidable pressures of modern government, much as Jünger’s more belligerent and cantankerous English contemporary Wyndham Lewis did in his early work The Art of Being Ruled. (Lewis too served in WWI and his account of his experience – very different from Jünger’s - can be found in his memoir Blasting and Bombardiering.)
“To have a destiny, or to be classified as a number – this decision is forced upon all of us today,” Jünger tells us, “and each of us must face it alone.” This may smack of idealistic elitism yet Jünger is not selling us reserved seats in an ivory tower. As a captain during the occupation of Paris, Jünger knew too well the results of political violence – he risked his own safety more than once by helping some escape it – and he informs his readers that “we cannot limit ourselves to knowing what is good and true on the top floors while fellow human beings are being flayed alive in the cellar.” (Readers of On the Marble Cliffs will recall that ‘flaying’ is the Head Ranger’s chief means of torture.) Nor does Jünger shy from offering images of very visceral resistance, remarking that in olden times the ‘inviolability of the home’ was ensured by the ‘family father who, sons at his sides, fills the doorway with an axe in his hand.” Yet such muscular defense may be less appropriate to our own time, and can too easily be used to support undesirable aims, such as the ‘right’ to bear arms, even if, as Jünger surmises, one such ‘father’ per street in Berlin circa 1933 would have led to a very different result.
More relevant for us, I believe, is Jünger’s emphasis on the encounter with the self, that is at the heart of the ‘forest passage’. Against the forest, that symbol of ‘supra-temporal being’, whose teaching is ‘as ancient as human history’, Jünger posits ‘the Titanic’, a symbol of technological might heading for disaster. Although many today take the idea of a ‘forest passage’ literally, and in different ways, try to be ‘off the grid’ and ‘self-sufficient’, that option is not open to all. Can we, Jünger asks, remain on board our careering ocean liner, and retain our autonomy, by strengthening our roots in the ‘primal ground’ of Being which we find by discovering our self? The means Jünger suggests for achieving this are myth, religion, the imagination, intuition, and even esotericism; Jünger has a surprisingly early mention of Gurdjieff. All of these are ways of contacting and drawing on the deep, primal forces that lie within us and which our increasingly standardized existence seeks to obscure. It is only through our ‘victory over fear’ – engendered by daily doses of ‘the news’ - that the threat of catastrophe diminishes, and we best achieve this by entering the forest’s path and following it to its end. It is then that we can determine whether freedom is more important to us than mere existence, can decide whether how we are is more important than that we are. As Jünger writes ‘the edge of the abyss is a good place to seek your own counsel’ – he is nothing if not quotable – and these days its seems the abyss is everywhere. But, as Jünger tells us, so is the forest, that ‘harbour’ and ‘homeland’ we all carry within us. Read this book. By entering the forest we may yet find our way out of the woods.
The Forest Passage
The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World (Floris 2013). Its central theme is that humans - we - have a unique and indispensable responsibility to existence: that of saving it from meaninglessness. In this section, through the work of the biologist Jacques Monod, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, and the contemporary social philosopher John Gray, I look at some arguments against our having any reason to exist at all.
Give Life a Chance
According to the latest estimates, our earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, roughly ten billion years after the Big Bang, from cosmic dust and gas left over from the sun’s formation. It is believed life appeared on earth within a billion years after our planet formed. The standard account of the ‘birth of life’ suggests that self-replicating molecules accidentally emerged from the primordial soup some 3.5 billion years ago, and through an equally accidental process, over millions of years eventually turned into myself writing these words and you reading them – with, of course, quite a few different organisms in between. As with the Big Bang, the emergence of life is another example of the ‘something from nothing for no reason’ scenario popular with many scientists today. According to the same scenario, the consciousness I am exhibiting in writing these words – humble, indeed – and which you are employing in reading them, also emerged purely through accident, as an epiphenomenon of purely physical interactions of our brains’ neurons, which are themselves the result of the purely mechanical process of evolution, the Darwinian version. (An epiphenomenon is a kind of side show to the main attraction. Steam is an epiphenomenon of boiling water; it has no existence in itself, and without the boiling water, there would be no steam. For many neuroscientists and philosophers of mind today, our consciousness is little more than a kind of steam given off by the brain.)
To dot the i’s and cross the t’s on this, let me say it in the simplest way possible. According to the most commonly accepted scientific view, no one wanted the Big Bang to happen. No one wanted the earth to form. No one wanted life to appear on the earth. And no one wanted life to evolve into us. There is no reason for any of it. It just happened.
This is a conclusion that the French Nobel Prize winning scientist Jacques Monod (1910- 1976), one of the fathers of molecular biology, put perhaps more eloquently. Monod writes that
Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition – or the hope – that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised…The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.
From this insight, which is radically opposed to any kind of ‘anthropic principle’, Monod developed a rather bleak picture of our position in the world. ‘Man’, he tells us, ‘at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose’.
Although his countryman Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the most well- known existentialist, had a low opinion of science – according to his lover Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre ‘flatly refused to believe in science’ and believed that ‘microbes and other animalculae invisible to the naked eye didn’t exist’ - he nevertheless agreed with Monod on at least this proposition. For Sartre, man has existence, but no essence (‘his destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty’), and is ultimately a ‘useless passion’. Like Monod, Sartre believes that we must face this grim situation stoically and make the best of it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Suffice it to say, neither Monod’s view nor Sartre’s is one that sits well with our being caretakers or repairmen of the cosmos.
Matters Dark and Meaningless
Aptly, one character who shares Monod’s gloomy vision of a chance-ridden universe and of ourselves as purposeless creatures within it, is the American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Although Lovecraft was not a scientist (he was, though, a keen amateur astronomer) throughout his short life he professed an astringently materialist view of life and the cosmos. To a correspondent Lovecraft wrote:
I am an absolute sceptic and materialist, and regard the universe as a wholly purposeless and essentially temporary incident in the ceaseless and boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules which constitute the blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity. Nothing really matters, and the only thing for a person to do is to take the artificial and traditional values he finds around him and pretend they are real; in order to retain that illusion of significance in life which gives to human events their apparent motivation and semblance of interest.
Note that for Lovecraft, we maintain our ‘illusion of significance’ by maintaining values that are ‘artificial’ and which we only ‘pretend’ to be real. For anyone who embraces the belief that pure ‘chance’ is responsible for our existence – and that includes quite a few of the most prestigious minds of our time - it logically follows that ‘nothing really matters’ as our actions can have absolutely no effect, one way or the other. It is difficult to see how values like love, freedom, truth, justice, beauty and others, that we hold give meaning to life, can have emerged from an existence accounted for by the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns’ of ‘electrons, atoms, and molecules’, a vision of things that goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. In such a world, ‘values’ can have only a ‘subjective’ and consensual existence, as ‘fictions’ we agree on maintaining, as the only ‘real’ things are purely physical, and, so far as we know, beauty, love, and other values are not made of atoms or molecules. If values are real, they exist in some non-physical kind of reality, of the kind Plato had in mind when he spoke of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Although the conclusion, that the values which give life meaning are really illusions, follows from the premise that chance is responsible for life and the universe, it rarely gets mentioned by the scientists who accept that premise.
Most of Lovecraft’s weird fiction (of which I am a great fan) was published in the ‘pulp’ horror magazines of the 1920s and 30s, of which Weird Tales is the best known. But while other Weird Tales writers, like Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) and Clark Ashton Smith, still have readers (I myself am occasionally one of them), Lovecraft’s frankly overwritten stories acquired a serious critical cachet denied his friends and colleagues. Perhaps understandably, this critical importance was first recognized in the 1950s by the French, who a century earlier had embraced Edgar Allan Poe, a major influence on Lovecraft, when he was ignored by his fellow Americans.21 Lovecraft’s acceptance by the French, I would argue, had something to do with the bleak vision his stories portray, which is in essence the same as that of Sartre’s grim philosophy and Monod’s biological lottery. It is this atmosphere of existential dread, of some dark and terrifying knowledge breaking into our consciousness, that gives Lovecraft’s tales a flavour as unmistakable as Kafka’s, and which he shares with Sartre, whose existentialism Lovecraft would no doubt have turned his nose up at. For both the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories and Sartre’s novels, knowledge is a trigger for a cosmic pessimism.
For Sartre this cosmic pessimism is the ‘nausea’ of his most famous work, his first novel Nausea (1938), which I first read as a teenager. The hero of this novel has come to the startling recognition that things exist. But their existence has nothing to do with him, or with the stories or ideas he tells or has about them. They exist aggressively, in their own right; the names and categories and meanings we usually use to understand them – tree, stone, cloud, star – are simply falsehoods we tell in order to keep their strangeness at bay. But now he knows, and the knowledge paralyzes him. At one point in the novel, Roquentin, the protagonist, looks at the root of a chestnut tree and is perplexed by it. ‘I no longer remembered that it was a root’ he tells us. Its existence frightens him. Like everyone else, he had taken existence for granted, and now it suddenly presses in upon him. It has lost its ‘harmless appearance as an abstract category’. It had become the very ‘paste’ of things, and he cannot get away from it. At another point in the novel he is about to open a door when he looks at the strange thing in his hand and has no idea what it is. It was the door knob. Sartre’s ‘nausea’ is not unlike states of mind associated with schizophrenia, when the connection between perception and feeling is unhinged. It is also suggestive that much of the inspiration for Nausea came from a bad mescaline trip Sartre had in 1936, in which he was attacked by devil fish and followed by an orang-utan, and in which umbrellas turned into vultures and shoes into skeletons.
The Misanthropic Cosmological Principle
Lovecraft’s protagonists are also discomfited by knowledge. But while for Sartre a root or a doorknob spells doom, Lovecraft’s dark insights are occasioned by more eccentric items. What knowledge means for Lovecraft can be best expressed by quoting the opening paragraph of his most famous story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, first published in Weird Tales in 1928. ‘The most merciful thing in the world’, Lovecraft writes:
…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but one day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The theme linking the stories making up Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, a literary mythology that Lovecraft’s fellow Weird Tales writers contributed to and to which contemporary writers still add today, is that in dim ages past, well before man appeared, the earth was inhabited by strange, monstrous creatures, The Great Old Ones, who were expelled from it but who ‘yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’ The Great Old Ones are terrifying indeed. Cthulhu him – or it – self is usually described as ‘blasphemous’, ‘eldritch’ , ‘loathsome’, or another string of evocative adjectives, and is usually depicted as a kind of winged, tentacled, squid-like monstrosity of enormous size, who resides in the lost city of R’lyeh, sunken beneath the South Pacific. But while the actual beings of the Cthulhu Mythos – Yog-Sothoth , Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, ‘the black goat of a thousand young’, and the rest – are disturbing indeed, what is truly frightening about Lovecraft’s cosmos is that these entities are not, as in traditional horror tales, supernatural, but merely products, like ourselves, of the chance work of accidental evolution in a ‘wholly purposeless’ universe. In our case, the ‘boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules’ that constitute the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity’ gave rise to us, and our ‘artificial values’ that allow us to live give us the false idea that, all in all, the cosmos is a relatively friendly and cosy place. But there we’re wrong. The same blind forces that gave rise to us – and to Beethoven, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, the Buddha, and Mother Theresa – also gave rise to these loathsome beings for whom we are negligible insects, when we are not mindless slaves or a tasty hors d’oeuvre. What is scary in the best of Lovecraft is this sense that we are ignorant of the truth about reality – like Sartre’s Roquentin – and if we only knew, we would be afraid.
Lovecraft called his philosophy ‘cosmicism’, by which he basically meant that if we truly grasped the size, age, and sheer strangeness of the universe – an idea of which I tried to present earlier in this chapter - we would recognize that human life can play no important part in it, and that we are only temporary residents on a planet whose previous occupants are planning to return. Possibly the earliest proponent of ‘cosmicism’, although he didn’t use the term, was H.G. Wells (1866-1946), whose novel The War of the Worlds (1898) tells us that our world was ‘being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s’ – the Martians - ‘and yet as mortal as his own…minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic…’ When Lovecraft wrote ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, no one had yet thought of a Big Bang – the astronomer Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the idea, coined the phrase in 1949 - although Einstein’s relativity was seeping into popular consciousness and quantum theory was raising its head. One can imagine contemporary Lovecrafts having a field day with our current cosmologies. And we can say that if there is an ‘anthropic cosmological principle’ that suggests human life – or at least life like ours – is somehow necessary to the cosmos, Lovecraft’s ‘misanthropic principle’ suggests the exact opposite.
Of course not all fiction written from a ‘cosmic’ view is as dark as Lovecraft’s. His contemporary Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), for example, took a similar theme, yet didn’t use it to scare his readers. Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) are vast, cosmic future histories, in which different races, species, planets, and galaxies, arise from and sink into the cosmic depths. But reading Stapledon produces a sense of wonder and exhilaration, not terror. To be fair to Lovecraft, in his last work he too begins to see that the awareness that it’s a big universe can lead to some insights more productive than the need to ‘flee’ into the safety of a ‘dark age’, as his story ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ (1936) makes clear. Some of his other misanthropic views also seemed to have softened with time. Sadly, by this time, Lovecraft was dying, and the insight came too late for him to make much use of it.
It’s a Tough Cosmos Out There
Mention of a ‘misanthropic cosmological principle’ leads us to an insight into Lovecraft’s character. He was by all accounts an eccentric type, and for most of his life he lived in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was born, doted on by two aunts and surrounded by the remnants of his childhood. A brief marriage and life in New York proved disastrous. The asexual Lovecraft was not cut out for married life, and the immigrant population of New York offended his prim sensibilities. Lovecraft always fantasised himself as an aristocratic English gentleman of the eighteenth century, and to share the streets and subways of Brooklyn with Jews, blacks, Italians, Spaniards, and who knows who else was an affront to him. This aristocratic self-image was associated with a sense of an intellectual, or at least a cultural and aesthetic superiority. Lovecraft loathed the modern world, and as one critic has pointed out, we can read his ghoulish stories as a full out assault on it. He knew that the values that make life meaningful for most of us were sheer illusions. He knew that our sense of being at home in the world was born of sheer ignorance. But unlike the ignorant fools who needed God or some other supernatural reality, and who believed that meaning and purpose were at work in the universe and not mere chance, he was tough enough to face this truth. He detested those fools who weren’t, and so he wrote stories of cosmic terror to scare them.
The idea that those who embrace chance as the sole force at play in existence are tough enough to do without the illusions the rest of us enjoy, is a theme that comes up again and again. Even Lovecraft himself was accused of not quite making the grade. Of one story, ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ (1931), his biographer, S.T. Joshi, remarks that in it, Lovecraft couldn’t ‘quite bring himself to admit that human penetration of the unknown gulfs of the cosmos is anything but an appalling aberration.’ Often those who reject meaning and purpose accuse those who look for it of wanting the world to be that way – who wouldn’t, they concede – but of not being strong (or honest, or hard, or brave, etc.) enough to face the truth. But it strikes me that the opposite can be just as true, although it rarely gets a mention: that those who embrace meaninglessness and chance want to be seen as tougher (or more intelligent, honest, brave, etc.) then those who ‘need’ meaning and purpose. Frequently the search for or expectation of meaning is seen as a weakness. Yet again, the opposite can be just as true. The embrace of meaninglessness can be an expression of a hunger for superiority, the need to feel more intelligent and strong than the rest of us fools, just as it can be seen as a form of misanthropy, of a dislike of human beings. Both motives seem to me to be at play in the work of John Gray, considered one of the most important social philosophers of our time.
Shades of Gray
As in the case of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements on how the universe began, I find myself perplexed as to why John Gray’s philosophy has acquired the aura of importance it has, at least for some readers. Prestigious names have sung his praises. For the late novelist J. G. Ballard, Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) was ‘the most exciting book since Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.’ James Lovelock of Gaia fame tells us that Gray ‘forces us to face the mirror and see ourselves as we are’. And for the critic Bryan Appleyard, whose opinion on other matters I’ve found cogent, Gray’s book was ‘unquestioningly one of the great works of our time’. Others have expressed similar appreciation. It may seem aberrant to fly in the face of such universal celebration, but as far as I can tell from reading Gray’s books, he is basically a misanthropic pessimist, whose pro-nature and pro-animal remarks express little more than an emotional dislike for human beings. This misanthropy is something we’ve already seen in Lovecraft and is obvious to anyone who reads Sartre, his championing of human freedom notwithstanding.
I say I am perplexed by the importance Gray is given, because his philosophy seems as grim as Schopenhauer’s, who also believed existence was meaningless, and expresses a ferocity toward human values reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. I would even go as far as to say that remarks similar to Gray’s anti-human rhetoric have been used in other contexts to justify murder, although I don’t believe Gray himself intended his own comments for that purpose. Yet Gray’s dislike of human beings leads me to suspect that he would not be too troubled if some of them quietly disappeared. Sadly, his animosity toward humans is predictably welcome because of our environmental concerns and guilty conscience about the planet. We have such a bad conscience about ourselves that one could say practically anything negative about human beings and be applauded for it as a deep thinker. Concern for the planet, however, can lead to some troubling places.
In Straw Dogs Gray remarks that from ‘Gaia’s’, or the earth’s, point of view ‘human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould’. When I wrote an article about Gray’s idea some years ago, I pointed out that a similar assessment of human importance was championed by Charles Manson, currently serving a life sentence for the murders of Sharon Tate and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in 1969.32 Of the many pseudo-philosophical remarks Manson made and which were taken seriously by otherwise intelligent people, one was that a scorpion’s life was more important than a human’s. While in prison, Manson had time to reflect on this insight, and to elaborate on its application. According to Manson, people and the ‘system’ were killing the planet. When Manson’s ‘Family’ killed Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant – as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, according to Charlie they ‘gave their lives’ and ‘took lives’ in order to ‘clean up ATWA…the whole life of the earth, in love and concern for brothers and sisters of soul’.
ATWA is Manson’s acronym for Air, Trees, Water, Animals (sometimes All The Way Alive), the name Manson gave to his radical ‘ecological movement’, shepherded by himself and two members of his Family, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sandra Good. It may seem unbelievable, but as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke points out, in recent decades Manson has been re-invented as an ‘eco-warrior’, and much of his rhetoric is eerily resonant with that of influential eco-groups such as Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, the Greens, and a good portion of New Age philosophy. The Earth First! founder Dave Foreman declared that ‘we are all animals’ and agreed with Manson that human life is of no particular importance. ‘An individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear (indeed, some of us would argue that an individual Grizzly Bear is more important…).’ Although Gray would probably agree with this, I don’t believe he would go to the lengths Manson did to make his point. But some of Gray’s remarks make clear that being nature-oriented is not all sweetness and light. Whether we want to recognize it or not, there is a dark side to Gaia.
Gray’s central idea is that ‘humans think they are free conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals,’ a borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who, in his Genealogy of Morals (1887) said that ‘man is the sick animal’. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra called us the ‘cruellest animal’ as well, a sobriquet with which Gray would no doubt also concur.) Free will, morality, and other specifically human concerns are for Gray simply illusions, just as they are for H. P. Lovecraft and the neuroscientists who believe consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon. We are, for Gray, fundamentally a rapacious species, intent on eradicating other forms of life, and we should own up to this, and forget all the nonsense about being anything other. Rather than call ourselves homo sapiens Gray suggests homo rapiens. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and not all critics of this position are weak-kneed spiritual types. At the New Humanist website – where one finds ‘ideas for Godless people’ - Raymond Tallis, a secular humanist philosopher, takes Gray to task for arguing that we are nothing more than animals, a symptom of what Tallis calls ‘Darwinosis’. A similar sensibility informs the historian of science Kenan Malik’s book Man, Beast, and Zombie (2001). Yet both Tallis and Malik would, I suspect, be surprised to find themselves in the company of a spiritual thinker like the poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), who agrees with them and against Gray that ‘nowadays the term ‘human’ has been inverted to the point of signifying precisely what is least human in us, our bodily appetites…and all that belongs to natural man.’
All our problems, and those of the planet, according to Gray, stem from our misconceptions about ourselves, and from our inveterate fantasy about being able to ‘transcend’ the ‘human condition’, which, as far as I can tell, is for Gray of the ‘only human’ character spelled out in the Introduction. Gray apparently has no capacity to grasp human greatness, and any reference to it is merely the cue for some remark to cut us down to size. What Maslow’s ‘fully human’ would elicit from him I can only guess. ‘A glance at any human,’ he tells us, ‘should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being’. This remark would not be out of place in the writings of the Romanian arch-pessimist and one-time fascist enthusiast Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the titles of whose books – The Trouble with Being Born, A Short History of Decay, On The Heights of Despair – would not be incongruent with Gray’s own. ‘In every man sleeps a prophet, and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world,’ ‘By all evidence we are in the world to do nothing,’ ‘So long as man is protected by madness, he functions, and flourishes’ – these are all taken at random from A Short History of Decay (1949). Cioran’s misanthropic reflections are on first glance effective, because their aphoristic style has a shock effect, like a sharp jab to the ribs. Prolonged reading, however, reveals their basic hollowness. The same, I think, can be said of Gray’s work. Cioran’s misanthropy and cynicism about human values paved his way to a profoundly anti-democratic political philosophy that had no qualms about eradicating undesirable human beings, like Jews. The flipside of not liking human beings is not always saving the planet.
What seems to raise Gray’s ire is the idea that we can in any way be ‘masters of our destiny’. In 1957, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), brother of Aldous Huxley, and one of the most important biologists of the twentieth century, said that the universe was ‘becoming conscious of itself…in a few of us human beings’, and that we had been appointed ‘managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution…’ He made these remarks in an essay entitled ‘Transhumanism’, in which he expressed his belief that ‘the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself.’ For Huxley this meant ‘man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature’, a sentiment with which I, and this book, are in accord – although Huxley’s term ‘transhumanism’ has been adopted by proponents of a ‘man-machine merger’ with which I am not in sympathy. Huxley even spoke of ‘the cosmic office’ to which we find ourselves ‘appointed’, a phrase with obvious similarity to the idea of ourselves being cosmic caretakers. Gray will have none of this and would, I suspect, greet any idea that we can direct our evolution with derisive scorn. Like Jacques Monod and Lovecraft, Gray sees little but chance at work in ourselves and the world. Not surprisingly, at the beginning of his chapter headed ‘The Human’ in Straw Dogs, Gray quotes Monod on mankind’s desperate efforts to deny its ‘contingency’, a favourite word of Sartre’s, which expresses, for Sartre at least, the fact that we are in no way essential to the world.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my my new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher/Penguin 2012). Blavatsky is a remarkable character, and one of my aims in writing the book was to get past all the myths and misconceptions about her, and re-introduce one of the most fascinating and important figures of the nineteenth century to readers, like myself, who thought they knew all about her. I was very happy to discover that in many ways, I didn't know her at all. Enjoy. Other excerpts can be found on my blog at Reality Sandwich and at the Tarcher/Penguin preview site.
I first came across a reference to Madame Blavatsky in 1975. I was living in New York, playing in a rock band, and had just become interested in magic, the paranormal, and what I later learned was called “esotericism,” and was busy reading my way through Colin Wilson’s The Occult. There, amidst accounts of Gurdjieff, Nostradamus, Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was Blavatsky. But although Wilson was convinced of her importance, there was an ambivalence about his account of her that was lacking in his analysis of Gurdjieff or Crowley. He was convinced that she “could not have held so many disciples entirely by means of confidence trickery” – she had, about mid-way through her career, been accused of fraud and the tag had stuck - but he also compared her to the 18th century Freemason, magician, and, by most mainstream accounts, charlatan Cagliostro, an identification Blavatsky herself would have approved of. She had “the same charisma, the same adventurousness, the same mixture of humour, roguery, and genuine psychic ability.” This uncertainty about Blavatsky must have stayed with Wilson. Years later, in a book called The Devil’s Party: A History of Charlatan Messiahs, she appears in the company of David Koresh, Jim Jones, and other doubtful characters, and Wilson remarks that “the question of how far Madame Blavatsky was a fraud must be left open.” She was “part genuine, part fraud,” but “unlike most messiahs, she never became paranoid, and always retained her sense of humor,” a trait sadly lacking in many spiritual teachers.
After reading The Occult, and practically every other book on magic I could get my hands on, I went on to study Gurdjieff, Crowley, and many of the other figures Wilson wrote about. But to be honest, I didn’t take Blavatsky that seriously, although “Theosophy” did turn up in a song of mine, written at the time. After all, what was one to make of the tales of mysterious Mahatmas in Tibet, of Blavatsky’s own travels there at a time when it was nearly impossible for a white European male, let only a woman, to enter that forbidden land, of letters, tea cups, and other items strangely “materializing” out of thin air, of stories about ancient Atlantis and Lemuria plucked from the mystical Akashic Record, not to mention the off-putting Theosophical jargon and jaw-breaking Tibetan terminology? I was gripped by Wilson’s account of the occult because he had linked it to philosophy, history, literature, and science, and Blavatsky’s Tibetan Masters and frankly improbable stories didn’t fit this frame. It also struck me that while, say, Gurdjieff had attracted several creative, well-accomplished individuals, who had already made a mark on society before they became his followers – the philosopher P.D. Ouspensky immediately comes to mind, as does the brilliant editor, A.R. Orage – there was something about the kind of people attracted to Theosophy that smacked of grandmothers’ shawls and tea cosies, of Sunday afternoon conversations about astral bodies and past lives, conducted with the same nonchalance with which one spoke about the weather. It was all very nice, harmless, and “spiritual,” but it lacked the hard edge that led Wilson to equate some of Gurdjieff’s ideas with existentialism. It wasn’t until some time later that I discovered with some surprise that both Ouspensky and Orage had started out as Theosophists.
And there were Blavatsky’s books, the huge, towering piles of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Their length alone didn’t deter me, but when I peeked into them, reading bits here and there, there was something about the avalanche of information falling from each page that made my curiosity dissolve. Blavatsky seemed incapable of simply stating her ideas. She had a hectoring, blustery style that didn’t want to convince the reader so much as to bowl him over. I came away from them feeling more bullied than enlightened, and I felt justified in avoiding more study when I read that Gurdjieff himself had complained of the time he had wasted on The Secret Doctrine.
So while I understood that it was Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society that had got the modern occult movement rolling, I felt I could give suitable deference to this, but save myself the trouble of really grappling with the “root races,” “planetary rounds,” “Manvantaras” and “Pralayas,” that jammed the pages of her gargantuan books.
Yet, as the years went by, and my studies grew, I discovered that many of the paths I traced led back to Blavatsky. It seemed clear that practically everyone I read about and later went on to write about owed something to her. Recognizing this, I finally found myself having to come to serious grips with a character and a body of ideas I had successfully avoided for some time.
There are, it seems to me, at least three different Madame Blavatskys, although I’m sure this is a conservative estimate; as her contemporary Walt Whitman said of himself, she contained “multitudes.” And Whitman, we know, was also untroubled by his contradictions. There is the “official,” “encyclopaedia” version Blavatsky, the colorful rogue and breezy bohemian, who pulled the wool over many intelligent eyes, but in the end was found out as a foul-mouthed, overweight, chain-smoking charlatan and fraud - although, as we will see, the “evidence” for this accusation is itself pretty questionable. Then there is the “pro-Blavatsky” version: the saintly, holy guru, steadfastly following her destiny, who fills the pages of more than one hagiography, and is embraced by her uncritical devotees, who believe that everything she said was the unalloyed truth, and who maintain the strict letter of her law against any deviation. These two separate camps carry on in their own way, having little if any communication with each other, aside from the obligatory brickbats they fling across the great divide between them. As you might imagine, neither of these Blavatskys is completely satisfying, and neither does her, or those interested but non-partisan readers who would like to know more about her, much good, although it has to be said that some of the critical accounts are quite entertaining and readable (HPB always provided excellent copy), while the hagiographic ones start out on a note of uplift and soon drift off into increasingly ethereal realms, quickly leaving the interested, but not entirely converted reader far behind.
Then there is the third Madame Blavatsky, the one I discovered as I investigated her life and times, a much more fascinating, exciting, surprising, and “real” character than I, and I suspect most people, thought, and one that deserves to be better known. What follows is my attempt at doing precisely that.
This review of Iain's McGilchrist's important book originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Yale University Press, November 2010. 544 pp.
For millennia it’s been known that the human brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and the right, yet exactly why has never been clear. What purpose this division served once seemed so obscure that the idea that one hemisphere was a “spare,” in case something went wrong with the other, was taken quite seriously. Yet the idea that the brain’s hemispheres, though linked, worked independently has a long history. As early as the third century B.C., Greek physicians speculated that the brain’s right hemisphere was geared toward “perception,” while the left was specialized in “understanding,” a rough and ready characterization that carries into our own time. In the 1970s and 1980s, the “split brain” became a hot topic in neuroscience, and soon popular wisdom produced a flood of books explaining how the left brain was a “scientist” and the right an “artist.”
Much insight into human psychology can be gleaned from these popular accounts, but “hard” science soon recognized that this simple dichotomy could not accommodate the wealth of data that ongoing research into hemispheric function produced. And as no “real” scientist wants to be associated with popular misconceptions — for fear of peer disapproval — the fact that ongoing research revealed no appreciable functional differences between the hemispheres — they both seemed to “do” the same things, after all — made it justifiable for neuroscientists to put the split-brain question on the back burner, where it has pretty much stayed. Until now.
One popular myth about the divided brain that remained part of mainstream neuroscience was the perception of the left brain as “dominant” and the right as “minor,” a kind of helpful but not terribly important sidekick that tags along as the boss deals with the serious business. In his fascinating, groundbreaking, relentlessly researched, and eloquently written work, Iain McGilchrist, a consultant psychiatrist as well as professor of English — one wants to say a “scientist” as well as an “artist” — challenges this misconception. The difference between the hemispheres, McGilchrist argues, is not in what they do, but in how they do it. And it’s a difference that makes all the difference.
Although each hemisphere is involved in virtually everything the brain does, each has its own take on the world, or attitude toward it, we might say, that is radically opposed to that of the other half. For McGilchrist, the right hemisphere, far from minor, is fundamental — it is, as he calls it, “the Master” — and its task is to present reality as a unified whole. It gives us the big picture of a living, breathing “Other” — whatever it is that exists outside our minds — with which it is in a reciprocal relationship, bringing that Other into being (at least for our experience) while it is itself altered by the encounter. The left hemisphere, although not dominant as previously supposed, is geared toward manipulating that Other, on developing means of controlling it and fashioning it in its own likeness. We can say that the right side presents a world for us to live in, while the left gives us the means of surviving in it. Although both hemispheres are necessary to be fully alive and fully human (not merely fully “functioning”: a left brain notion), their different perspectives on the outside world often clash. It’s like looking through a microscope and at a panorama simultaneously. The right needs the left because its picture, while of the whole, is fuzzy and lacks precision. So it’s the job of the left brain, as “the Emissary,” to unpack the gestalt the right presents and then return it, increasing the quality and depth of that whole picture. The left needs the right because while it can focus on minute particulars, in doing so it loses touch with everything else and can easily find itself adrift. One gives context, the other details. One sees the forest, the other the trees.
It seems like a good combination, but what McGilchrist argues is that the hemispheres are actually in a kind of struggle or rivalry, a dynamic tension that, in its best moments (sadly rare), produces works of genius and a matchless zest for life, but in its worst (more common) leads to a dead, denatured, mechanistic world of bits and pieces, a collection of unconnected fragments with no hope of forming a whole. (The right, he tells us, is geared toward living things, while the left prefers the mechanical.) This rivalry is an expression of the fundamental asymmetry between the hemispheres.
Although McGilchrist’s research here into the latest developments in neuroimaging is breathtaking, the newcomer to neuroscience may find it daunting. That would be a shame. The Master and His Emissary, while demanding, is beautifully written and eminently quotable. For example: “the fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness,” McGilchrist writes, “is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with.” He apologizes for the length of the chapter dealing with the “hard” science necessary to dislodge the received opinion that the left hemisphere is the dominant partner, while the right is a tolerated hanger-on that adds a splash of color or some spice here and there. This formulation, McGilchrist argues, is a product of the very rivalry between the hemispheres that he takes pains to make clear.
McGilchrist asserts that throughout human history imbalances between the two hemispheres have driven our cultural and spiritual evolution. These imbalances have been evened out in a creative give-and-take he likens to Hegel’s dialectic, in which thesis and antithesis lead to a new synthesis that includes and transcends what went before. But what McGilchrist sees at work in the last few centuries is an increasing emphasis on the left hemisphere’s activities — at the expense of the right. Most mainstream neuroscience, he argues, is carried out under the aegis of scientific materialism: the belief that reality and everything in it can ultimately be “explained” in terms of little bits (atoms, molecules, genes, etc.) and their interactions. But materialism is itself a product of the left brain’s “take” on things (its tendency toward cutting up the whole into easily manipulated parts). It is not surprising, then, that materialist-minded neuroscientists would see the left as the boss and the right as second fiddle.
The hemispheres work, McGilchrist explains, by inhibiting each other in a kind of system of cerebral checks and balances. What has happened, at least since the Industrial Revolution (one of the major expressions of the left brain’s ability to master reality), is that the left brain has gained the upper hand in this inhibition and has been gradually silencing the right. In doing so, the left brain is in the process of re-creating the Other in its own image. More and more, McGilchrist argues, we find ourselves living in a world re-presented to us in terms the left brain demands. The danger is that, through a process of “positive feedback,” in which the world that the right brain “presences” is one that the left brain has already fashioned, we will find ourselves inhabiting a completely self-enclosed reality. Which is exactly what the left brain has in mind. McGilchrist provides disturbing evidence that such a world parallels that inhabited by schizophrenics. ¤
If nothing else, mainstream science’s refusal to accept that the whole can be anything more than the sum of its parts is one articulation of this development. The right brain, however, which knows better — the whole always comes before and is more than the parts, which are only segments of it, abstracted out by the left brain — cannot argue its case, for the simple reason that logical, sequential argument isn’t something it does. It can only show and provide the intuition that it is true. So we are left in the position of knowing that there is something more than the bits and pieces of reality the left brain gives us, but of not being able to say what it is — at least not in a way that the left brain will accept.
Poets, mystics, artists, even some philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, on whom McGilchrist draws frequently) can feel this, but they cannot provide the illusory certainty that the left brain requires: “illusory” because the precision such certainty requires is bought at the expense of knowledge of the whole. The situation is like thinking that you’re in love and having a scientist check your hormones to make sure. If he tells you that they’re not quite right, what are you going to believe: your fuzzy inarticulate feelings or his clinical report? Yet because the left brain demands certainty — remember, it focuses on minute particulars, nailing the piece down exactly by extracting it from the whole — it refuses to accept the vague sense of a reality larger than what it has under scrutiny as anything other than an illusion.
This may seem an interesting insight into how our brains operate, but we might ask what it really means for us. In a sense, all of McGilchrist’s meticulous marshalling of evidence is in preparation for this question, and while he is concerned about the left brain’s unwarranted eminence, he in no way suggests that we should jettison it and its work in favour of a cosy pseudo-mysticism. One of his central insights is that the kind of world we perceive depends on the kind of attention we direct toward it, a truth that phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger — both invoked by McGilchrist — established long ago. In the homely maxim, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. To the right brain, the world is — and, if we’re lucky, its “isness” produces in us a sense of wonder, something along the lines of a Zen satori or a sudden delight in the sheer interestingness of things. (As Heidegger and a handful of other thinkers said, that there should be anything rather than nothing is the inescapable mystery at the heart of things, a mystery that more analytical thinkers dismiss as nonsense.)
To the left brain, on the other hand, the world is something to be controlled, and understandably so, as in order to feel its “isness” we have to survive. McGilchrist argues that in a left-brain dominant world, the emphasis would be on increasing control, and the means of achieving this is by taking the right brain’s presencing of a whole and breaking it up into bits and pieces that can be easily reconstituted as a re-presentation, a symbolic virtual world, shot through with the left brain’s demand for clarity, precision, and certainty. Furthermore, McGilchrist contends that this is the kind of world we live in now, at least in the postmodern West. I find it hard to argue with his conclusion. What, for example, dotechnologies like HD and 3D do other than re-create a “reality” we prefer to absorb electronically?
McGilchrist contends that in pre-Socratic Greece, during the Renaissance, and throughout the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the two hemispheres reached a brilliant accord, each augmenting the other’s contribution. Through their creative opposition (as William Blake said, “Opposition is True Friendship”) they produced a high culture that respected the limits of certainty and honored the implicit, the tacit, and the ambiguous (Keats’s “negative capability”). But since the Romantics, the left brain has increasingly gained more ground; our use of “romantic” as a pejorative term is itself a sign of this. With the rise of modernism and then postmodernism, the notion that there is anything outside our representations has become increasingly jejune, and what nature remains accessible to us is highly managed and resourced. McGilchrist fears that in the rivalry between its two halves, the left brain seems to have gained the upper hand and is steadily creating a hall of mirrors, which will soon reflect nothing but itself, if it doesn’t do so already.
The diagnosis is grim, but McGilchrist does leave some room for hope. After all, the idea that life is full of surprises is a right brain insight, and as the German poet Hölderlin understood, where there is danger, salvation lies also. In some Eastern cultures, especially Japan, where the right brain view of things still carries weight, McGilchrist sees some possibility of correcting our imbalance. But even if you don’t accept McGilchrist’s thesis, the book is a fascinating treasure trove of insights into language, music, society, love, and other fundamental human concerns. One of his most important suggestions is that the view of human life as ruthlessly driven by “selfish genes” and other “competitor” metaphors may be only a ploy of left brain propaganda, and through a right brain appreciation of the big picture, we may escape the remorseless push and shove of “necessity.” I leave it to the reader to discover just how important this insight is. Perhaps if enough do, we may not have to settle for what’s left when there’s no right. ¤
This is the text for an "audio essay" I wrote for the exhibition Geheim Gesellschaften or "Secret Societies," presented at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, this summer. The exhibition is moving to the CAPC musee d'art contemporarain de Bordeaux (Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux)in November. On the 23rd of November, I'll be there giving a talk about the influence of secret societies on the modern world. I've also contributed two essays to the exhibition's catalogue "Secret Societies" available on Amazon.
By Gary Lachman
Secret societies have existed almost as long as society has itself. The initiates of ancient Egypt; the priest-kings of China; the acolytes of the Greek Mysteries; the shamans of humanity’s early dawn; the holy masters in their inner sanctums in the hidden cities of the world – all are alive today, and work their strange practices and issue their commands, unknown, unsuspected, and undetected by us.
The Secret Chiefs, the Hidden Masters, the Inner Circle, the Illuminati, the King of the World: we know them all today, perhaps in different forms and perhaps by different names. But we know them. They are the ones in control. They are ones behind the closed doors and within the locked rooms. They are the ones with the secret knowledge, who speak a secret language. They know the magic symbols that unlock the gates that lead to worlds beyond our own. They have passed through the trials and ordeals of initiation. They have found the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Emerald Tablet, the dreaded Necronomicon and the lost continent of Atlantis.
Many have belonged to this school. Some say Buddha, Christ, and Plato were its students. There were others too, names so great that to mention them in the context of secret schools would shock the uninitiated. All received the secret knowledge and kept it from profane hands. They have spoken with the angels and listened to the music of the spheres. They have travelled to the interior of the earth and brought back the precious metals of the mind. They have confronted the awful Dweller on the Threshold and they know the song the sirens sang. They have taken the Journey to the East and followed the bark of Ra as it sinks into the west. They have set their controls for the heart of the sun. They built the pyramids and the Sphinx, Stonehenge and Notre Dame, the lost library of Alexandria and the labyrinth at Chartres. They are the elite. They are the elect. They are the few who know, who dare, who will – and who keep silent.
They might be anyone. According to the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky – himself a member of an esoteric society and a lifelong seeker of the Inner Circle of Humanity – much secret knowledge was learnt from an Oriental who sold parrots at Bordeaux. Ouspensky’s own search for the miraculous and ‘unknown teachings’ led to an unprepossessing café in a Moscow backstreet, where, after all his travels in the mystic East, he finally found The Man Who Knows.
He might be sitting next to you, or perhaps you passed him on the street. “Knock,” the Gospels tell us, “and it shall be opened unto you; ask and you shall receive.” But you must know where to knock and you must know who to ask. And you must first understand that the entire universe is a secret message, an enormous letter in a bottle made of space and time, washed ashore by the tides of eternity. You must look. You must question. You must take nothing for granted. You must be willing at a moment’s notice to give up everything – riches, position, power, your life – in order to have a single chance of passing from our everyday world, which we think we know so well, to that other world, that world of mystery, magic, miracle, and the unknown. That hidden, dangerous, seductive world of secret societies.
When you take that step, many things become possible. From then on nothing is true, and everything is permitted. From then on you may do what you will for, as the poet William Blake tells us, this world, the world you have left behind, is a fiction, made up of countless contradictions. This ‘real’ world, this world of newspapers, mobile phones, and internets, is, for those who have taken that fatal step, false. It is a trap, a prison house of the soul, where mind and body are constrained by the chains of ignorance and fear, the Archons of convention who keep us unaware of the knowledge, the gnosis, that will set us free. In the world of secret societies knowledge is power, and power is the power to know. It is the knowledge that you have the power to change the world by changing your knowledge of it. The secret writing, the hidden doctrine, the magical correspondences between above and below, lie beneath the thin surface text of everyday life. Here and there cracks appear in the mundane shell and we can briefly catch a glimpse of the real writing. We see connections, patterns, relations between the most disparate things.
As Edgar Allan Poe tells us in “The Purloined Letter,” that which is most hidden is open to view, provided you know how to look for it. Poe’s ‘spiritual detective’ is good at discovering secrets in plain sight. He wears dark glasses at night and keeps his shutters closed and his lamp burning by day. This reversal of the everyday world opens his imagination and enables him to see what everyone else is blind to, but which is in plain view. Like his creator himself, Poe’s detective is a member of the secret society of poets – for what is a poet but a discoverer of secrets that others do not know exist?
Now, with your eyes wide shut look around you and listen to the voices whispering loud and clear. Do not be afraid. Remember, each symbol is a doorway into your Self. The magic theatre waits; it is open for madmen only. As above, so below, and as within, so without. “When we dream that we are dreaming,” the seeker of the blue flower tells us, “we are close to awakening.” You approach the portal and must decide. Are you willing to take the risk? Are you ready to have your world turned upside down? Are you ready to join a society whose members know each other at a glance, who pay no dues, take no minutes? Whose meetings last the ages and take place among the Himalayas, on Egypt’s burning sands, and in the sunken cities of lost worlds? Do you want to know a secret?
The candidate for initiation is a man or woman who is ready to change, to be transformed, to become someone different. If it is not a mere parroting of ritual, an initiation ceremony should have a serious effect upon the candidate. He or she should be a different person afterwards. Rebirth and regeneration are the signs that the initiation has been successful. This is usually achieved through some ordeal. Death and violence are never far from an initiation. As the esoteric historian Manly P. Hall tells us, “many of the great minds of antiquity were initiated into secret fraternities by strange and mysterious rites, some of which were extremely cruel.”
In the initiation rites of Freemasonry, the candidate re-enacts the murder of the ancient master builder Hiram Abiff, killed by three ‘ruffians’ because he would not reveal the secret Mason’s word. Daggers, a noose, and severe interrogation mark the candidate’s rite of passage. The initiate himself must swear eternal silence about these profound secrets, on pain of torture and death, should he reveal them to the profane, a commitment shared by all the great esoteric societies – hence the fact that we know so little about them. These Masonic rites themselves, or so it is believed, are based on the initiation ceremonies of the ancient Egyptians, a people whose whole society was ordered according to the ancient wisdom guarded by the high priests. In secret chambers built deep into the pyramids and below the temples of their gods, the ancient Egyptians performed rites, dramatic re-enactments of the struggle of the soul in its passage through the underworld after death. Based on the mysterious Book of the Dead, through ceremony, trance, trial, and terror, the Egyptian initiate experienced the journey of the soul through the fearful world of the Duat, that strange region inhabited by demons, gods, and the darker spirits of his own nature, while still alive. Passing through successfully he joined his fellow initiates as a soul freed from the terror of death, and took his place among them amidst the eternal stars.
As the journey to the stars took place via the underworld, many initiation rites were performed in sunken chambers, in caves and grottoes, which symbolized the fallen nature of the Earth. Below the temple of the god Serapis in ancient Alexandria – destroyed in 391 AD by the Roman emperor Theodosius – strange mechanical devices constructed by the ancient priests were found in subterranean crypts and caverns, where the initiatory trials were undergone. In the worship of the lost Persian saviour-hero Mithras, initiation rites were performed in underground temples fashioned to look like caves, which the initiate entered by descending seven steps – representing the ancient planets – and upon whose walls were painted mystic symbols. Here the candidate underwent grievous trials, where he was pursued by the wild beasts and demons of his lower nature. Part of the Mithraic rites involved the tauroctony, or sacrifice of a bull, in which Mithras, the intercessor between man and the gods, stabs the animal with a sword, while turning his face toward the sun.
The theme of a sunken, subterranean, and secret chamber is found in many secret societies. In the myth of Christian Rosenkreutz, founder of the 17th century esoteric society the Rosicrucians, his uncorrupted body is discovered more than a century after his death, hidden in a seven sided underground vault, lit by a miniature sun, and surrounded by occult symbols. This image of a sun hidden in the earth – light sunken into darkness – was carried by the underground streams of esoteric thought into western literature, and appears, for example, in that remarkable compendium of secret knowledge, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by the eccentric 18th century Polish Count Jan Potocki. Potocki himself was involved in several secret societies; among them the sinister Illuminati. In his highly esoteric work, structured like the Arabian Nights (itself a treasure chest of secret lore), after confronting the sheik of a secret Islamic sect, his hero finds himself descending into a subterranean cave, illuminated by innumerable lamps, where he extracts from the dark earth the precious Rosicrucian gold of enlightenment.
Some secret schools, such as the ancient Magi, devotees, like the followers of Mithras, of a form of Zoroastrianism, performed their initiations in the open air, on mountain tops, without temples, altars, or images, and with the entire cosmos as a backdrop. Others, like the Druids, sought out hidden fields and woods, a preference shown by the renegade French surrealist Georges Bataille. Fascinated by the idea of human sacrifice ( a practice associated with the Druids) in 1936 Bataille formed a secret society (as well as a journal) named Acéphale – ‘headless’ – whose symbol was a decapitated Vitruvian Man, a mutilated version of Da Vinci’s famous drawing, holding a dagger, with stars for nipples, exposed entrails, and a skull in place of the genitals. Their meetings were held in forests and woods and Bataille, whose headless man depicts Dionysian frenzy and excess, planned for one member to become a human sacrifice. The ritual murder would link the others in a pact of blood, but plans for Bataille’s gory initiatory crime were aborted shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
Following his passage into the new life, the initiate is introduced to the structure of the society he has joined, to the secret knowledge it protects, and to the secret language its members use to speak among themselves. He takes a solemn oath to preserve these sacred revelations, which, as mentioned, he must protect with his life. Family, friends, possessions, position, religion – all now take a secondary role. His new loyalty is to his new brothers and sisters, and even more so to his leaders, his superiors in knowledge and power, whose identity he often does not know.
The theme of Hidden Masters, Secret Chiefs, Unknown Superiors, and Mysterious Mahatmas is one shared by many secret societies, ancient and modern. In the west it is perhaps best expressed in the curious history of the Rosicrucians. In 1614 in Kassel, Germany, pamphlets appeared announcing the existence of a mysterious society of adepts, known as the Rosicrucians, whose mission was the ‘universal reformation’ of Europe. This unknown group of philosophers called on their readers to join them in their work of creating a new Europe, freed from religious, social, and political repression. Many indeed were attracted to this message and sought out the mysterious brotherhood, among them the philosopher René Descartes. Yet try as Descartes and others may to contact the secret brothers, no one could ever find them. Their whereabouts, it seemed, were unknown, and because of this the Rosicrucians soon attracted a new title, “the Invisibles.”
To some, the Rosicrucians’ ‘invisibility’ meant simply that they did not exist, and that the whole Rosicrucian craze was merely a hoax. Yet others rejected this idea, saying that, like their founder, Christian Rosenkreutz, they had gone into hiding, and only revealed themselves to the most worthy. Following the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, some said they had left Europe altogether and relocated to Tibet, a place even then associated with Hidden Masters.
Freemasonry, too, has its own Hidden Masters. In the esoteric rite of Strict Observance, founded in the 18th century by the mysterious German Baron Karl Gottlieb von Hund, initiates must take a vow of absolute loyalty to masked figures known only as the ‘Unknown Superiors’, whose every command must be carried out with blind obedience. In the heady atmosphere preceding the French Revolution, Hund’s secret Masonic rites proved very popular, and the idea of secret leaders controlling events behind the scenes laid the groundwork for the conspiracy theories so widespread today. Stranger still was the belief that some Unknown Superiors were not simply men of position and power, but beings from another world. In the mystical Masonry of the Benedictine Antoine-Joseph Pernety, which combined Masonic ritual with mesmerism and the visions of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, orders were issued, not from a fellow Mason, but by some strange unearthly entity Pernety called “the Thing.” A similar paranormal chain of command was at work in the mesmeric Masonry of Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, who received angelic orders from an “Unknown Agent” via the trance states of a group of women called the crisiacs.
By the late 19th century, a new variety of Hidden Masters appeared through the medium of the remarkable Russian esoteric teacher Madame Blavatsky, responsible for founding one of the most influential esoteric schools of modern times, Theosophy. Blavatsky claimed to be the agent of a secret group of highly evolved adepts, known variously as the Mahatmas, Masters, or Great White Brotherhood, whose provenance was India and whose base of operation was Tibet. Their real identity was unknown but messages from the Brothers miraculously appeared from nowhere, and were signed by secret names such as “Morya” and “Koot Hoomi.” Hints of the Theosophical Masters were soon linked to other legends of the East. One such was the strange myth of the King of the World, a powerful and sinister figure who resides in the subterranean city of Agartha, which lies unknown somewhere beneath the Gobi Desert. There he sits and “searches out the destiny of all peoples on the earth,” his sunken city linked to all nations through a vast network of tunnels. According to the 19th century occultist Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, founder of the secret political movement Synarchy, who was tutored in the ways of Agartha by the mysterious Haji Sharif, the King of the World is also known as the “Sovereign Pontiff.” His secret agents are at work in all corners of the globe, awaiting the signal to take the destinies of nations in hand, and prepare them for the King’s shattering appearance.
Less monumental but no less hidden are the Secret Chiefs whose edicts guided the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, perhaps the most well known secret occult society of modern times, which included among its members the poet W.B. Yeats and the infamous magician Aleister Crowley. Impatient with the speed of the Golden Dawn’s initiations, Crowley sought out his own Secret Chief, and in a hotel room in Cairo in 1904, he met him. Aiwass, a disembodied intelligence from another dimension, dictated to Crowley the text of his most influential work, the notorious Book of the Law, the scripture for Crowley’s religion of Thelema. It’s message was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Crowley proceeded to do what he wilt with great enthusiasm, among other ways by starting his own secret society, the Argentinum Astrum (‘Order of the Silver Star’), dedicated to Crowley’s peculiar blend of hedonism and magical philosophy. Many joined and today Crowley, once known as “the wickedest man in the world,” is an iconic figure within youth culture, his face and ideas informing a wide range of pursuits, from rock music – the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many other groups were devotees - to drugs and sex.
In more recent times the notion of Hidden Masters or Secret Chiefs has entered more political realms, with Unknown Superiors appearing in the form of influential and powerful men, like the Bilderberg group, making secret decisions behind closed doors that affect – as did those of the King of the World – the destiny of nations. Conspiracy theories have their place in the world of secret societies, but they are, in essence, more of an offshoot than the main branch. Political conspiracies may revolve around important knowledge, but it is knowledge on only one level, that of the everyday world. The knowledge revealed to the initiates of the true secret societies is something very different. It is the secret knowledge relating to man and the cosmos.
The idea of a hidden, unknown, esoteric knowledge runs like a golden thread throughout the history of secret societies. It is the secret of the Holy Grail, the true meaning of the Philosopher’s Stone, the mysterious treasure of the Knights Templar, and the haunting face of the unveiled Isis. It is the genii of Aladdin’s lamp and the magic of Jason’s Golden Fleece. It is the guarded secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx. It is known by many names and it is hidden in many places, but its meaning is one and all who seek it, honestly and with patience, find the same treasure and reap the same reward. “Behind the veil of all hieratic and mystical allegories, behind the strange ordeals of initiation, behind the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of old temples, and in the ceremonies practiced by all secret societies,” so the 19th century French Cabbalist Eliphas Levi reveals, “there is found a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.” This doctrine, the Ancient Wisdom, has been handed down through the ages from sage to sage, initiate to initiate, its profound revelations carefully guarded by the keepers of the secret Book. At its core is the perennial philosophy, the prisca theologia, the divine wisdom revealed to man by the gods at the dawn of time. Through knowledge of the secret doctrine, man becomes aware of his true place in the cosmos, escapes the fear of death, and knows that his real essence is of the gods.
Many have sought the secret knowledge, and journeyed to distant lands to find it. With other members of the Seekers of Truth, the 20th century Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff travelled to Central Asia, in search of the hidden monastery of the fabled Sarmoung Brotherhood. There he encountered the Masters of Wisdom, agents of the Inner Circle of Humanity, who accepted him as a student, and passed their knowledge on to him. In a secret monastery in forbidden Tibet, Madame Blavatsky lived for seven years, tutored by her mysterious Mahatmas in the teachings of the secret doctrine, absorbing the ancient wisdom that is at the core of all religions and esoteric thought. Christian Rosenkreutz himself had journeyed through the near East, the holy land and North Africa, arriving at the secret city of Damcar, where he studied ancient and forbidden writings that taught the mystical truths about man and the cosmos. On his own journey to the East in search of secret schools, P. D. Ouspensky met others who were on the same journey, and it felt to him that a “secret society” grew out of these contacts, having no name, no structure, no laws, but was formed solely by their intense hunger for knowledge and passionate quest for truth.
Others have sought the secret knowledge in other ways, in ancient myths, in fairy tales, in the ruins of lost cultures and the fragments of lost worlds. In the labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral and the gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris, the mysterious 20th century alchemist Fulcanelli discovered a secret text, a philosophy in stone that transmits, to those who can see it, the fundamental truths of the universe. The medieval builders, Fulcanelli believed, were agents of an esoteric school, and carved into these Gothic masterworks, secret knowledge of the cosmos. Ages before, on the sands of ancient Egypt, the high priests of Isis and Osiris built enormous temples whose geometry embodied the wisdom of the gods, a theosophy in obelisks and strange colossi. To those who know how to read them, the Sphinx, the hieroglyphs, the pyramids are all chapters of a hidden book, a sacred scripture, a monumental text, revealing the mysteries of life and death. Other “syllables of granite” spoke of the mysteries too. According to Victor Hugo, who recognized in Notre Dame a great symphony of knowledge, “the immense pile of Carnac” – in Brittany – “is a complete sentence” expressing the lost wisdom of a people long gone.
To some, the secret knowledge comes in a flash, a sudden overwhelming revelation, like a lightning bolt of insight from the divine. So did the Universal Mind speak to the ancient sage Hermes Trismegistus, when it revealed to him the truth that man is a microcosm, a “little universe,” whose mind itself contains the galaxies and planets. So too did this cosmic consciousness come to others. Staring at the sunlight reflected from a pewter dish, the 17th century cobbler Jacob Boehme was suddenly privy to the “signatures of things”: their inmost essence was revealed to him and he gaze upon their true being. On 14 December 1914 the Lithuanian poet and diplomat O.V. de Lubicz Milosz had a mystical experience in which he rocketed through space carried along by a flying mountain, toward “nebulous regions silent and streaked by immense flashes of lightning.” A gigantic red egg hurtled toward him and was then transformed into a glowing “spiritual sun” which looked deeply into his eyes and revealed to him secrets of space and time. Milosz captured this vision in strange poetry full of mystical arcana, whose insights mirrored those of Einstein and revealed to him the mind of God. Other poets sought the secret knowledge in other ways. Obsessed with piercing the mute surface of things, the young Arthur Rimbaud, a great reader of mysticism and the occult, dedicated himself to becoming a visionary, a voyant. To do so Rimbaud threw himself into a “long, immense, and systematic derangement of the senses,” an initiation into altered states of consciousness that he hoped would open for him the hidden doors of perception.
The secret knowledge, however, is not for everyone. Like Poe’s “purloined letter,” in many ways it lies open to view, there for the taking if only one can see. But although our eyes are open we may still be blind, ignorant of the messages written in the things around us. Like travellers in a foreign land, we need to learn a strange tongue, a new language that will provide the key to unlock the hidden mysteries. This language is not given in dictionaries and guide books, but in the mysterious emblems, images, shapes and forms that make up the secret world of symbols.
“Without the help of symbols,” so Madame Blavatsky tells us, “no ancient scripture can ever be correctly understood.” “The great archaic system known from prehistoric ages as the sacred Wisdom Science,” she tells us, “had it’s universal language, the language of the Hierophants.” This master esoteric teacher is not alone in recognizing the absolute necessity of grasping the ancient language of symbols. In The Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts, the psychologist Herbert Silberer, a colleague of Freud and Jung, tells us that, “Symbolism is the most universal language that can be conceived.” “Symbols,” Silberer tells us, “strike the same chords in all men, and the individual, with every spiritual advance he makes, will always find something new in the symbols already familiar to him.” Speaking of the mysterious universal symbol of the nine-pointed enneagram, which is at the centre of his teaching, Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that it included all knowledge, and that by understanding it, books and libraries become unnecessary. “A man can be quite alone in the desert,” Gurdjieff said, “and he can trace the enneagram in the sand and he can read the eternal laws of the universe. And every time he can learn something new, something he did not know before.” And what is true of the enneagram is also true of all symbols: the pentagram, the hexagram, the yin and yang, the cross, the eye in the triangle. Their meaning is not exhausted by repeated meditation, but increased, just as great works of music, art, and literature reveal new depths and new dimensions each time we come to them with new eyes and ears.
Symbols have their great power because, unlike everyday words or pictures, they reach into the soul and transform it – again, just as great art does. In this way symbols have an initiatory character, and a true grasp of them has a palpable effect upon our consciousness. Unless we are changed by them, we do not know them, no matter how learned our understanding of them may be. They speak not only to the mind, the rational, questioning intellect, but to our whole being, and to parts of ourselves of which we are too often ignorant. According to the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the great works of 20th century esotericism, symbols “awaken new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations” and “require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation.” Symbols conceal and reveal simultaneously that which it is necessary to know in order to fertilize our inner life. To those uninitiated into their secrets, they are merely curious pictures and strange images which, once explained, trouble us no more. But to those who know, they are the seeds of new life. They are a ‘ferment’ or ‘enzyme’ that stimulates our spiritual and psychic growth. They must, then, be approached with reverence and in secret. We must withdraw into ourselves in order to be immersed in them, to meditate on them and to allow them to reach inside our deepest being. Hence the need for solitude, silence, patience, and respect when approaching the language of symbols.
One aspect of the signs, symbols, and languages of secret societies is as a kind of camouflage, a disguise worn to prevent the uninitiated from gaining access to the hidden knowledge. The ancient Masons recognized each other by certain handshakes and words, and through these prevented outsiders from infiltrating their ranks. The medieval alchemists spoke in a strange, surreal, dream-like language of green dragons and red lions, of sulphur, mercury, and salt, of alembics and retorts, of solar kings and lunar queens who come together in weird androgynous unions to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. Reading their illuminated texts, one enters a terrain of shifting, changing contours, a metamorphosis of identities that is baffling, unless one possesses the key to decipher it. The Gothic architects too developed a peculiar argot, a “green language” (langue verte), a kind of “word play” that, again according to Fulcanelli, “teaches the mystery of things and unveils the most hidden truths” while at the same time remaining “the language of a minority living outside accepted laws, customs, and etiquette.” Through puns, jokes, double entendres and homonyms, this “phonetic cabala” at once communicated secret knowledge to those who knew, and obscured it from those outside the fold.
Passwords and secret signals are, it is true, an important part of secret societies. But they are merely an esoteric ‘firewall’, preventing human ‘viruses’ and ‘malware’ from entering the inner sanctum. Although it is necessary to keep the secrets secret – and hence obscured from profane view – the true essence of symbols is to communicate, and their hermetic, multiple character has always attracted poets. The great Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, a confirmed occultist and passionate student of secret societies, wrote that “I believe in the existence of worlds higher than our own, and in the existence of beings that inhabit these worlds, and we can, according to the degree of our spiritual attunement, communicate with ever higher beings.” Pessoa trained himself to remain awake at the point of sleep, and in that twilight realm between two states of consciousness, he closed his eyes and saw “a swift succession of small and sharply defined pictures.” He saw, Pessoa tells us, “strange shapes, designs, symbolic signs, and numbers,” a parade of images similar to the occult signs and symbols, the Masonic and Cabbalistic insignia he perceived during his experiments with trance states. Like Rimbaud, Pessoa knew that initiation into the hidden knowledge may be achieved not only through the rites and ceremonies of a secret society, but through the passage from one form of consciousness to another. By opening the doors of perception and entering an altered state of consciousness, Pessoa, and others like him, reached the source of all mystic, esoteric, and magical symbols: the human mind itself.
Human beings have desired to change their consciousness almost from the beginning of human consciousness itself, and if the findings of some researchers are correct, the taste for altered states of consciousness is shared by some animals too. Reindeer, birds, elephants, goats, and even ants have been observed to feel a desire to experience altered states. It seems that “the universal human need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence,” as the anthropologist Richard Rudgley puts it, is not limited to humans after all, and may itself be a fundamental drive of evolution.
The earliest forms of art may be linked to altered states. In some prehistoric sites, the strange spirals, swirling and curving parallel lines, and other highly complex geometric forms covering the cave walls, suggest the abstract imagery often associated with psychoactive experience. They also suggest the “strange shapes, designs and symbolic signs” Fernando Pessoa saw on the point of sleep, and which he believed were messages from “higher beings.” In Neolithic sites, such as the tomb of Gavrinis in Brittany, finely decorated braziers have been discovered, which some researchers have suggested were used in shamanic rituals in which opium was burned and inhaled in order to produce altered states. There is evidence also for cannabis use as a religious intoxicant in prehistoric Europe. Hemp seeds have been discovered in Neolithic sites in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Romania, and braziers similar to those discovered at Gavrinis containing burnt hemp seeds have been found in these locations. This suggests that they too were used in religious rituals, in which cannabis was burned to induce a change in consciousness. In China, Central Asia, and the Near East, similar discoveries suggest that the use of cannabis and other psychoactive substances in religious rituals was widespread in the ancient world.
One of the oldest Hindu religious books, the Artharva Veda, speaks of drugs, their preparation and use, and many scholars have speculated on the identity of the mysterious Soma, an unknown plant whose psychoactive properties play a central role in the ancient religious texts of India and Iran. In the Iranian Avesta it is said that “all other intoxications are accompanied by the Violence of the Bloody Club, but the intoxication of Haoma is accompanied by bliss-bringing Rightness.” Some candidates for Soma include cannabis, alcohol, Syrian rue, opium, and Ephedra, possibly the earliest known psychoactive plant in human history. During excavations in the 1950s, remains of six Ephedra plants were found in a 50,000 year old Neanderthal grave in the Shanidar cave in Iraq, suggesting that even our pre-homo sapiens ancestors were interested in altering their state of consciousness.
Another candidate for the mysterious Soma is the fly-agaric mushroom, known to be used by Siberian shamans in their mystical excursions into the spirit world. In the late 1960s, the American R. Gordon Wasson suggested that this sacred mushroom might be the answer to riddle of Soma. But the identity of the mysterious ancient drug remains unknown.
In the 1950s, Wasson had already made psilocybin or ‘magic mushrooms’ famous through his studies of their religious and initiatory use in Mexico. There, Wasson learned much about the sacred mushroom from the healer María Sabina, who spoke of the secret knowledge she received through its use. It produced visions of “ancient buried cities, whose existence is unknown.” She “knew and saw God” and could see “inside the stars, the earth, the entire universe.” The mushroom took her beyond space and time, beyond life and death, and revealed to her a great Book that in an instant taught “millions of things.”
It was Wasson’s own experiences with sacred mushrooms that led him, and his colleagues Carl Ruck and Albert Hoffmann – the discoverer of LSD – to believe that some sort of psychoactive plant was the secret ingredient of the mysterious kykeon, the drink given to initiates of ancient Eleusinian Mysteries. Whatever it was, the kykeon produced a shattering revelatory experience, which all who shared swore never to reveal. Wasson, Ruck, and Hoffmann suggested that the parasitic fungus ergot, whose psychoactive alkaloids are similar to lysergic acid, was responsible for the mystical experience countless initiates underwent during the two millennia in which the Mysteries flourished.
As in the case of Soma, other drugs have also been proposed as the secret behind the Mysteries. Modern shamans, such as Terence McKenna, have argued that the sacred mushroom itself was responsible, and more recently the powerful South American Indian entheogen (‘within-god-making’) ayahuasca has become a popular candidate. Yet, as the truth of the Eleusinian Mysteries remained a secret for 2,000 years, and the Mysteries themselves have been gone for nearly as long - they were finally wiped out in 396 by Alaric, king of the Goths - we may never know their secret.
Yet the appeal of a sacred drug ceremony remains strong in the mythology of secret societies, and in the 1960s a new version of the ancient mysteries appeared in the form of the ‘psychedelic experience’. Its High Priest was the renegade Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. Taking the esoteric Tibetan Buddhist guide to the afterlife, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as a blueprint, Leary sought to ‘turn on’ a generation, dismissive of all authority and unhappy with the American Dream, to the mystery of LSD. Hippies, flower power, free love, and ‘dropping out’ were the products of the new, mind-blowing mysteries that rocked a nation already reeling from civil unrest and the Viet Nam War. By the end of the ‘mystic sixties’ what remained wasn’t the love and peace that many believed were on their way, but the dark suspicions of a ‘bad trip’. By the 1970s we had entered the Age of Paranoia.
For all their promise of hidden knowledge and profound initiations, the two most famous secret societies in history were adamantly political and sought not deep revelations about man and the cosmos, but ruthless power and control. Their names have come down to us and are synonymous with political terror and paranoia. Legend has it that in 1092 two men stood on the ramparts of the medieval castle of Alamut – “the Eagle’s Nest” – in the Persian mountains. One was a representative of the emperor; the other, a strange veiled figure who claimed to be the incarnation of Allah on earth. This mysterious character was Hassan-i-Sabbah, “the Old Man of the Mountains,” leader of the dreaded Hashishins, a secret society of political terrorists whose very name sparked fear throughout the medieval Muslim and Christian world. The emperor’s representative had come to ask Hassan to surrender, but Hassan had other plans. Pointing to a guard standing watch on a turret-top, Hassan told his guest to observe. At a signal from his master, the white-robed devotee saluted Hassan and without hesitation plunged two thousand feet into the rushing waters below. Such was the unthinking devotion with which the Assassins, as they came to be known, worshipped their holy leader. Faced with such fanaticism, the emperor’s representative retreated.
Many legends surround the Assassins, particularly on how they acquired their name. According to the 13th century traveller Marco Polo, Hassan would pick out likely candidates for his secret society and, after secretly drugging them with hashish – hence the name Hashishins¬ - would take them to his luxurious pleasure gardens, kept in a secluded valley. Here streams of milk, honey, and wine skirted palaces ornamented with gold and precious jewels. Fragrant scents filled the air, and beautiful maidens displayed their charms. Hassan’s candidates remained here for some days until, once again drugged, they were returned to court. Hassan then explained that he had sent them to Paradise, to which they would return if they served him faithfully. The devotee who cast himself from the top of the castle was proof of the persuasiveness of Hassan’s deception, and by this means the Old Man of the Mountain secured a large and efficient secret society of political assassins that, later ruled by his descendants, led a reign of terror for nearly two centuries.
Although the truth of these legends is questioned, what comes down to us is the seductive idea of being “beyond good and evil.” Hassan convinced his followers that he was above the law, and with them he shared the exhilarating revelation that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” This, with Aleister’s Crowley’ “Do what thou wilt,” has become a catch phrase of occult libertinism. Another political secret society has also become a part of esoteric legend. On 1 May 1776, Adam Weishaupt, a professor of canonical law at Ingoldstat, Germany, founded the Bavarian Illuminati, a renegade Masonic group that sought to overthrow the repressive control of the Jesuits. Weishaupt infiltrated the Masons and drew candidates for his society by promising even deeper, secret knowledge and more elite initiations. Yet while he spread word of profound mystical knowledge, Weishaupt’s Illuminati was in truth a strictly rationalist group, adverse to all mysticism and religion, and driven by the Enlightenment ideals of science, atheism, and egalitarianism. His idea was to create a vast organisation and then reveal to an elite corps his secret aim: to rid the world of kings, queens, princes, and nations and establish a rational secular state. Weishaupt’s plan was at first successful, and among his Illuminists he numbered Goethe, Schiller, and Mozart, as well as the eccentric Count Potocki and the notorious Sicilian magician, Cagliostro. Yet his scheme soon backfired. Initiates who demanded even deeper revelations had to be informed of his deception and brothers who were scandalized by his plans spoke openly against them. Eventually the authorities learned of his designs and in 1784, membership in any secret society at all was outlawed throughout Bavaria.
Weishaupt faded into obscurity, but following the French Revolution, his secret society was resurrected in the imagination of paranoid theorists, searching for the ‘hidden hand’ behind the social and political insecurity infecting the continent. In the writings of the Abbé Barruel, an ex-Mason and priest who had escaped the Terror, and the Scotsman and scientist John Robison, Weishaupt’s humble and quite harmless Illuminati, which at its height numbered only a few hundred members, grew to gigantic proportions. Responsible not only for the French Revolution, it became a monstrous spectre, haunting Europe. Soon the idea that this secret, ruthless society was at work undermining the monarchies and elected governments of the world, took hold, and, with some variations, has maintained its grip on our modern political anxieties. Although the real history of the Illuminati is little known, Weishaupt’s spawn has become a cipher into which we read our own fears and uncertainties, as well as the stuff of sensational best sellers. The novelist Dan Brown, who achieved global fame with The Da Vinci Code – a thriller that taps the secrecy surrounding the mysterious Priory of Sion and the hidden ‘bloodline’ of Christ – scored another worldwide success with his novel Angels and Demons, in which the Illuminati plot to destroy the Vatican. Weishaupt would no doubt have approved of the plot, but would have found Brown’s pseudo-history of his society baffling.
Although the Illuminati pose no real threat and, most likely, do not exist – regardless of the many internet sites devoted to uncovering their evil designs – the idea that some hidden mastermind is behind the scenes, making decisions that affect our lives, has become a part of postmodern consciousness. In a world in which our experience, and the information we use to understand it, is increasingly filtered through a variety of electronic media, the idea that “nothing is true, and everything is permitted” is seen to be less and less improbable. In our age of Al Qaeda, Wikileaks, the Bilderbergs, and other mysterious powers, the individual is increasingly thrown back on his own resources in order to arrive at some idea of truth. If, as many of the followers of secret societies maintain, the everyday world we take for granted is somehow false, then perhaps this is a good thing. We all then must find some way to make sense of what is happening around us. How each of us do this is up to us, and perhaps it is best if we keep that – secret.
The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, an account of the influence of Hermeticism, and especially of its mythical founder, on western thought. Here I speculate on what the early followers of Hermes Trismegistus may have got up to in the desert outside of Alexandria in the century or so following the time of Christ.
The Hermetic Work
Although many modern scholars of the Hermetica believe that there were Hermetic communities, the nature of those communities and the practices they may have followed remain a matter for debate. While the singing of hymns seems to be have been part of their practice, the notion and character of Hermetic ‘sacraments,’ such as baptism, is unclear, with some scholars suggesting that an actual physical immersion took place, and others suggesting that the idea had been ‘spiritualized’ into a more metaphorical act. The same is true for notions of, say, sacrifice. My own feeling is that, as Hermeticism is, in Frances Yates words, a religion “without temples or liturgy, followed in the mind alone,” the idea of a set ritual, with sacraments, a priest and so on, seems unnecessary. Yet, while the available material doesn’t allow for a clear cut assertion, we can permit ourselves some speculation, or at least the pleasure of considering others’ speculations.
In his important Introduction to G.R.S. Mead’s Hymns of Hermes, the Gnostic thinker Stephan A. Hoeller suggests what being involved in one of the Hermetic communities may have entailed. Hoeller suggests that a follower of Hermes Trismegistus began by reading some of the Hermetic books, or possibly by hearing them read or discussed in one of the public squares in places like Alexandria. As Alexandria was a city of sects and gospels, the Hermetic philosophy had competition, and as a degree of thought, logic and argument was involved in understanding it, we can assume that it attracted only a small number of people, the majority finding devotional or sacrificial beliefs more to their liking. After reading and hearing about the Hermetic path, following a probationary period, the few who felt drawn to it would continue their studies and be led to the next stage. This would have involved joining with others in a small group, within which rituals and guided meditations would have been practised, the idea being to acclimatize the aspirant to the spiritual atmosphere conducive to gnosis. This stage would act as a preparation for the ascent through the planetary spheres, and during it, the aspirant would have to master some basic principles, something perhaps along the lines of recognizing the independence of the soul from the body, as discussed in the previous chapter.
Journey Beyond the Planets
Next came what Hoeller calls the “progress through the Hebdomad,” or the journey through the seven planets. As Hoeller writes, “as the initiate’s interior powers increase, the stranglehold of the cosmos and the planets decreases.” We must remember that for the Hermeticist, man, as a being of two natures, is subject to planetary, stellar and cosmic forces, and the idea is to become free of them. Increasingly, as one mastered the Hermetic vision, one became less dominated by necessity and fate and more able to act independently, to be motivated by self-consciousness and conscious decision, and not pushed and pulled by either cosmic or corporeal forces. This stage would probably involve both some kind of guided ecstatic inner ‘ascent’ through imaginal planetary realms — perhaps something along the lines of the Cabalistic ‘path work’ — and an ethical discipline in which the limitations associated with the planets are jettisoned. One would imagine that this would be an ongoing process, with the passage through each planetary sphere — bringing one’s consciousness closer to Mind — being accompanied by a comparable conquest of personal limitation, an overcoming of impatience, let’s say, or of indolence, or other personal faults. As mentioned, for the Alexandrian and Renaissance Hermeticist, astrology was a means of understanding stellar or astral (Latin astra = stars) forces in order to avoid them. Unlike today, they read their horoscopes, not in order to predict their future, but in order to master it.
This notion of both movement through the planets and escape from their influence (our word “influence” itself has its roots in the idea that a force or fluid flowed into us from the stars) would remain central themes in modern esotericism. In Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, for example, as a soul descends to earth, it acquires characteristics from planetary angels, which it gives up in its passage from life to rebirth, and his scheme of an “evolution of consciousness” entails a movement from earlier planetary levels — for example, Old Sun, Old Moon — to later ones — Jupiter, Venus, and beyond.
Perhaps more clear is the use of this theme in the work of the enigmatic esoteric teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. According to Gurdjieff, the universe is structured along the lines of what he calls the “Ray of Creation,” reaching from the Absolute to the moon. At each “octave” of this ray, certain cosmic “laws” dominate. The aim of Gurdjieff’s “work” is to free oneself from as many of these laws as possible. The moon, the lowest level in the Ray of Creation, is subject to 96 laws. The earth, the next lowest, is subject to 48 laws, and that is where man finds himself. Through “working on himself,” man can raise himself to the next level, that of the planets, which is subject to only 24 laws. By working on himself further still, he can reach the next level, that of the sun, which is subject to only 12 laws, and so on, until we reach “the Absolute,” which seems quite similar to the Hermetic “the One, the All.” The whole system of Gurdjieff’s Ray of Creation is a more or less modernized version of the emanationist cosmology associated with Hermeticism and, earlier, with ancient Egyptian religion, in which creation is the result, not of a arbitrary act of a creator God (creatio ex nihilo), but of an “overflow” or emanation from the divine. This isn’t to say that Gurdjieff stole the idea, although he wouldn’t have been bothered by the accusation, but that it is so central to esoteric thought that it has remained in it, practically unchanged, aside from surface variations, for centuries.
The Eighth Sphere
Having passed through the planetary spheres, the Hermeticist was now able to join the Brotherhood of the Ogdoad, the earlier voyagers who have reached the Eighth sphere, where they have freed themselves of their cosmic limitations. They have, in other words, achieved gnosis and experienced cosmic consciousness. Here they rejoice in their freedom and sing praises to the One. In practice, it seems that a kind of baptism may have been part of the ritual, recognizing a new initiate in the mysteries, and in the Hermetic text Asclepius, a communal meal is also mentioned. The ecstasy of the voyage was, as mentioned, often given voice through hymns of praise, in which the new, transcendent consciousness was celebrated. In his Hymns of Hermes G.R.S. Mead gives several examples of these ecstatic songs. In ‘The Secret Hymnody’ that ends the Poimandres, Hermes sings:
Let every nature of the world receive the utterance of my hymn!
Open, thou Earth! Let every bolt of the Abyss be drawn for me!
Stir not, ye Trees! I am about to hymn creation’s Lord, both All and One. Ye heavens open, and ye Winds stay still, and let God’s Deathless Sphere receive my word! For I will sing the praise of Him who founded all; who fixed the Earth and hung up Heaven…
Again, in The Eighth Reveals the Ninth, one of the Hermetic texts found among the Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi, we find a long string of vowels and what seem ‘magical’ words, such as ‘Zoxathazo a ōō’ ee Zozazoth,’ which, while similar to some Gnostic ‘power words’ are also reminiscent of the “barbarous words of evocation” associated with ceremonial magic. The sense is that on achieving gnosis, the rational mind, responsible for ordered speech, is short-circuited, so that no logical account of the experience is possible, a problem encountered by more modern pursuers of cosmic consciousness. What these ‘words’ may have meant to the Hermeticists is unclear, as is whether they were used to trigger an altered state, as chanting is in shamanistic practice, or were a sign that one had been achieved. As Hoeller rightly remarks, “this heavenly mystery is not profitably approached in rational terms,” and “the utterance ensuing from such extraordinary states of consciousness also must be of an other than ordinary kind.”
Language and Silence
Although the Corpus Hermeticum was written in Greek, another important part of the Hermetic ritual was the use of the Egyptian language. Just as the hieroglyphics were, the Egyptian language was considered magical and sacred. Its sounds had a power of their own, aside from the meaning of the words, which could not be translated into another language, and certainly not into Greek, which was the language of “distortion and unclarity” (Book XVI). The power of speech sets man apart from the animals, but the power of the Egyptian language is that of God. As Asclepius tells King Ammon in Book XVI, “the very quality of the speech and the sound of the Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of,” and “the energetic idiom of Egyptian” employs not “speeches (i.e. the Greek dialectic) but sounds that are full of action.” This aspect of the ancient Egyptian language was later emphasized by the Neoplatonic philosopher-magician Iamblichus in his work On The Mysteries, in which he argued that the “performance of mysterious acts which surpass all understanding” and the “power of unutterable symbols, intelligible to the gods alone” effect “the theurgic union.” For Iamblichus, the correct words said in the correct way should transcend logic, and have a real, palpable effect, capable of drawing the gods down to concrete manifestation.
Yet along with hymns, words of power, and other evocative sounds, the Hermetic books also often emphasize that silence is the best way to praise the godhead. In this they are oddly reminiscent of the philosopher Wittgenstein’s famous remark “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Yet this Hermetic silence is not the mere absence of sound; it is filled with the intelligible songs of the mind, the wordless recognition of the reality of Nous. As Hermes says at the end of the Poimandres “You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you.” In The Eighth Reveals the Ninth the point is made more clearly. On achieving gnosis, an initiate declares, “I am Mind. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Mind, understand.”And when the aspirant asks instruction in how to sing the silent hymn, this curious question and answer sequence occurs:
What is the way to sing a hymn through it (silence)?
Have you become such that cannot be spoken to?
I am silent, my father. I want to sing a hymn to you while I am silent.
Then sing it, for I am Mind.
And when, at the end of the Asclepius, Tat asks Asclepius if, in giving thanks to God, they should also burn incense, Hermes replies that doing so would be an act of sacrilege, as silent thanksgiving is, in God’s eyes, already the best incense.
Another way of expressing that the initiate had achieved gnosis was that he had “become Aion.” Our word “aeon” means an immense period of time, but for the Hermeticist “Aion” meant that he had achieved an existence outside of space and time. This state, in which one imagined “the dawn of existence in the womb” or that of “the soul before entering the body” and “after leaving it,” was not mere fantasy but a way of “seeing the invisible, of anticipating the Great Beyond, a real training for immortality.” As Maurice Nicoll, a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, writes, the Hermetic practice of “living at all points of the life” — i.e. being vividly aware of the reality of one’s past and future — leads to our transformation into “eternal substance,” and makes “the invisible side of thing real.” This power to concretely grasp, in Colin Wilson’s phrase, “the reality of other times and places,” was proof that the Hermeticist had escaped the constraints of the cosmos, which kept him trapped in the present moment. For “becoming Aion” is nothing other than actualizing the power of the imagination, which is essentially the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.
Yet while the Hermetic initiate and his modern counterpart may “become Aion” and escape the limitations of time, the Corpus Hermeticum, sadly, could not. Some time after their writing and before their rediscovery in the Renaissance, the Hermetic books fell into obscurity and were lost. And before Cosimo de Medici’s literary scout found them again, a different Hermes Trismegistus made his appearance on the scene.
On the problem of egalitarianism and ‘higher types’
In his last years the great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow became troubled by the political implications of his psychology of “self-actualization.” Among other ideas, this entailed a concept of being “fully human,” which suggested that, in Maslow’s uncomfortable phrase, “some people are more ‘human’ than others”. Maslow wrote that “the problem of the ‘biological elite’ has inescapably confronted me in my efforts to build a theory of the good society.” By the “biological elite” Maslow meant “self-actualizing” men and women, individuals who, for one reason or another, “actualise” their potential, and, as result of this, experience a greater degree of psychological health than those who do not, evidence for this being the repeated recurrence of “peak experiences,” moments of an almost mystical sense of happiness and fulfilment. What sets “self-actualizers” apart from less psychologically healthy people – everyone from psychopaths to the merely discontented and neurotic – was, Maslow concluded, some innate, biological disposition, something, that is, inside them. To be sure, social and economic conditions can help or hinder one’s “actualisation.” But as Maslow points out, many of the “self-actualizers” he studied came from deprived backgrounds, and made real their potentials, in spite of adverse conditions. (In fact, in some cases, difficult conditions may even be a spur to “self-actualization.”) Maslow envisioned a time “when there is no longer social injustice to serve as an alibi or excuse for one’s own biological inadequacies” and when there “might well be a great increase of […] malicious envy of those who are more successful in their achievements.”
Thinking of ways to “protect the biologically gifted from the almost inevitable malice of the biologically non-gifted,” Maslow suggested something like a new “priestly class to which is given less monetary reward and fewer privileges or luxuries than the average members of the overall population,” given that “self-actualizers” are less interested in material rewards than in the “metagratifications” or “intrinsic values” of “advancing beauty, excellence, justice or truth.”
Maslow’s vision of a kind of Brahmin caste of “self-actualizers,” uninterested in the kind of material gratification that most people desire, and oriented toward more “spiritual” concerns, is a recurring fantasy in the world of occult politics. It’s the basis for Hermann Hesse’s monumental novel The Glass Bead Game, in which, in some unspecified future, a society of philosophers, artists and other “gifted” individuals form a cultural elite, set apart from the masses. In the 1920s, in a book called The Art of Being Ruled, the British painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, a writer not usually associated with anything even vaguely occult, suggested essentially the same arrangement as Maslow. Lewis argued that with the rise of democracy and egalitarianism, cultural values were increasingly being levelled and that mediocrity was becoming the norm, something we experience today as “dumbing down.” One result of this is that the intellectuals considered the average person a “yahoo” – from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels - and the ordinary man saw the artist as some sort of freak. To safeguard high cultural values, and to maintain social order, Lewis argued that society should be split into two classes. Instead of the old, inequitable chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – in which a small group of people get to do the things that most of the others want to do too – there would be “something like a biological separating-out of the chaff from the grain,” the “chaff” being the person motivated by material desires and entertainments, the “grain” being the philosopher or artist – or, in Maslow’s term, the “self-actualizer.” See Abraham Maslow “Humanistic Biology: Elitist Implications of the Concept of ‘Full-Humanness’” in Future Visions: The Unpublished Papers of Abraham Maslow, ed. Edward Hoffman (Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, 1996)
The reader will note that this is among Maslow’s unpublished works, suggesting that he was aware of the difficulty in discussing such inflammatory issues, especially at the time he wrote it, in 1968, when notions of what we call “political correctness” were first taking root. Today, although biological and evolutionary psychology are established disciplines, the difficulty in airing any doubts about the dictums of egalitarianism remain, and indeed, have only increased. About another paper, on the “failure” of liberalism, Maslow’s editor Hoffman remarks that it showed Maslow “slowing moving toward a stance that today would be most closely associated with neoconservatism.” (p. 160). That Maslow was also fond of the work of the novelist Ayn Rand, an outspoken advocate of capitalism and a critic of the welfare state, highlights the complexities of “spiritual politics.” Maslow was one of the major figures associated with the Esalen Institute, the famous West Coast counter-culture “think tank,” whose ethos was as far removed from Ayn Rand’s as possible, and whose lack of intellectual rigour eventually led Maslow to reject its approach. (See the Afterword to my Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind (2010) where I tell the story of Maslow’s encounter with the Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls.) Self-motivation, personal responsibility and self-discipline – character traits of Maslow’s “self-actualizers” - have much in common with the “rugged individualism” associated with the heroes of Rand’s novels, and which was under attack in the 1960s and 70s by a variety of ‘alternative’ schools of thought, from the New Left to feminists.