The Study of Magic: Hermeticism and Gnosticism – the Spinoffs of Neoplatonism
Neoplatonic philosophy, as already explained, is pervasive in the study of magic. But much of it came in through the back door: either through the Qabala or through its philosophical spinoffs. The third century CE was a fertile time in mystical philosophy. Christianity, the suddenly popular mystery religion, had begun to displace the classical mysteries of Greece and Rome and fulfill the role these mysteries had previously played: as an avenue of personal religious experience amid a rather sterile state religion.
Two other new religious movements also gained footholds during late antiquity: Gnosticism and Hermeticism. Even though they were not in themselves inherently Christian, both of them interacted with Christianity in a syncretic and eclectic way, borrowing and modifying without necessarily understanding the system from which they were borrowing.
A full account of gnosticism would be difficult to cover in so few pages, and to be honest I’m not even remotely qualified. Essentially, however, what all gnostic sects had in common, even those who were not particularly Christian, was the idea that true knowledge came not through reason but through direct revelation. This view of knowledge was particularly striking in light of the intellectual tradition of ancient Greece and Rome. Reason, always, was the measure of truth: direct revelation rarely had the sanction of traditional philosophy. Yet the seeds of this approach are in Plato, and grow strong in the formulation of Neoplatonism.
Similarly, the Gnostics accepted the doctrine of emanation from Neoplatonism, although they identify the creator of the universe, the demiurge, as an evil figure rather than a good one, and therefore regard matter as degraded. This naturally led to the practice of asceticism, the ritual denial of the needs of the body. One reason there are few gnostics, in fact, is that many sects denied the holiness of sex and held reproduction itself to be a sin.
Gnosticism also held little room for magical practice. If your purpose was to deny matter, why interact with it at all? Unlike the view of Iamblichus, that matter could be used as a source of symbolic tokens to act as step stools to the divine, the gnostics saw matter as irredeemably degraded. The only way to be free of its degradation was to be free of matter.
Hermeticism borrowed a lot more from Neoplatonism, despite the assertions otherwise by some scholars. The Hermetic doctrine is laid out in a series of hermetic writings, mostly dialogues, compiled as the Corpus Hermeticum. To say “the Hermetic doctrine” is a bit inaccurate, as these dialogues outline doctrines, some of them contradictory. In some, matter is treated as degraded, as in gnosticism; in others, matter is holy.
Unlike Gnosticism, as well, we have the “practical Hermetica,” a series of writings, among which include some of the passages in the Greek Magical Papyri, for practical magical aims as well as the more spiritual theurgic aims of the so-called Philosophical Hermetica. From these, we can see what appear to be Hermetic rituals, but might bare some resemblance to the rituals espoused by Iamblichus. These include the manipulation of material objects and the recitation of holy names and objects.
These three streams — Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism — converged in the Renaissance to form the western occult approach often called “Hermetic.” This approach concerned itself with three great fields of magic: Alchemy, the study of the magic of material objects; Astrology, the study of the magic of celestial objects; and Theurgy, the study of the magic of divine objects. These three divisions also reflect a threefold view of the universe: the divine, the celestial, and the material. God, who is featureless and without any quality but goodness, is reflected by a divine intelligence or nous. This nous, the demiurge or craftsman of the cosmos, gives order to the universe. Different Hermetic tracts provide slightly different cosmologies, but they always describe a chain of being from incorruptible perfect idealism to matter, whether regarded as evil or merely transient.
Philosophically speaking, this amalgamation of the various streams that led to modern occultism lacks any sort of overarching system. Overall, the result of this amalgamation wasn’t so much consciously constructed as cobbled together. Yet this result does resemble a system: we can clearly say what is and is not western occultism, at least in some terms. For one thing, western traditional occultism describes a chain of being. It recognizes the importance of consciousness, and regards consciousness as a universal law. It also reflects an ethical system, in which the cultivation of virtue is concurrent with the cultivation of magical power.
The grimoires that arose from late renaissance and early enlightenment experimentation with magic emphasize this ethical system. The Arbatel of Magic, a 16th century grimoire, consists chiefly of moral aphorisms, which do not look out of place in the light of the Hermetica or Neoplatonic writing. It is clear that moral virtue is connected to magical virtue, in the sense of power. Similarly, the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin describes magic as a side-effect of the theurgic work of attaining knowledge and conversation of a holy guardian angel. Even the Goetia, a very practical work of demonic magic, is not without its moral exhortations.
With a cosmology, a system of ethics, and a theology all its own, it’s clear that the western mystery tradition arising from the confluence of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism is itself a religion. Of course, the magicians cleaving to these systems wished to connect it to their own religions, usually some variety of Christianity. But it differs from Christian theology in significant ways. Although there is talk of salvation and the son of God in the Hermetica, there is little talk of original sin, no indication that humans must be saved or will burn forever. Moreover, there are occasional references to transmigration of souls in Neoplatonic philosophy and western mysticism. It’s clear that western Hermeticism is, or at least can be regarded as, a separate and distinct religion.
Yet it is not a dogmatic religion, but a religion of personal gnosis. This feature is one reason that the Hermetic dialogues do not always agree on fine matters of cosmology. Even Iamblichus seems to privilege personal experience over reason. This element of personal gnosis is also the feature that allows the diverse manifestations of western magic. Some of the better grimoires, for example, appear to be notebooks designed for students or the practitioner himself. This is one reason the grimoires often differ in details.
Similarly, it is a religion with no central authority, no clergy, and no particular sacraments. It is a religion, therefore, not of orthodoxy but orthopraxy, but practice is defined by the practitioner himself or herself. Even the issue of whether or not it is a monotheistic or polytheistic religion is left, to some extent, to the practitioner. While there are Hermetic texts that argue for monotheism, they argue for a nonpersonal monotheistic god with multiple personal gods acting as intermediaries.
In this light, the practice of western magic represents a religious tradition existing concurrent with, and sometimes parallel to, the practice of more orthodox Christianity. Just as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticism arose in response to sterile state religions in the second century, so western magical traditions arose as one option among several for personal experience of religious truth in the face of standard state doctrines.
Just as Hoodoo, which I discussed in my last column, arose from a desire of an oppressed people to gain some power over their environment, so did western traditional magic arise as a reaction to an oppressive ontology. In that light it seems to have a place, even a respectable one, in the face of the contemporary monolithic epistemology of material reductionism. Perhaps we are undergoing a similar magical revival now as a reaction to materialism and as a desire for a personal way not only to control one’s environment but also to open an avenue upward to the divine.
This might be one of the most valuable things magic can offer the world: an experiential, non-dogmatic religion that can syncretize with nearly any other religion. One needn’t necessarily even believe in the efficacy of practical magic (although I do) to espouse this religion, as theurgy is about the internal states of the magician and his or her relationship to the divine.
And if magic is a kind of religion, it helps explain the universally pervasive religious elements in most traditions of magic. Even those newer traditions, such as Chaos Magic, that try to divorce magic from religion often find a god in their bed in the morning anyway. I have even known chaos magicians, pragmatic view of belief aside, who exalt chaos itself to the status of a deity. The Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Gnostic roots of magic are found even in these new, supposedly hyperrational, and atheistic views of magic.
©2010 Patrick Dunn.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.