The Study of Magick: It All Started in a Cave
I’m pleased to offer myself as a regular columnist on these august though entirely electronic pages. As those who have read my books or know me personally know, I’m an academic through and through, and so my conversations have a tendency to turn to lectures, and my dinner parties often become seminars. This column therefore will play to my strengths. My goal, ultimately, is to trace the connections between occult practice and schools of academic thought. I’m hoping to make this less boring than it sounds on its face, and at the same time offer something practical that the working occultist can take away.
It’s fitting that this first column begin at the beginning, the foundation of most Western occultism. Many people will tell you that Western occultism began in Egypt, and even the ancients thought so. But really, most of western occultism began in a cave, and not even a real cave but an allegorical one.
Socrates was perhaps the first professor. He liked to walk around and profess his own innocence and ignorance, and ask probing questions that quickly revealed that everyone around him was just as ignorant. He was eventually asked to kill himself, possibly because he was tedious at curriculum committee meetings. One of his students, Aristocles, a jock who no doubt offered a letter from his wrestling coach every other Friday excusing him from class, ended up rising to the top and writing quite a few books of his own. We know him by his wrestling nickname: “Fatty,” or, in Greek, “Plato.”
Now, Fatty had a problem, aside from an embarrassing nickname. He couldn’t figure out perception. It was common knowledge, of course, that we perceived the world by engaging it with our senses, but Plato had learned from his old professor to question common knowledge. And in doing so, he dug up a few problems that have plagued philosophy ever since. For one thing, he realized, we can’t really see the whole of anything we look at, touch, taste, or smell. We get only a momentary perception. Sure, we could turn a pot over and over in our hands really fast, but how do we know that the side away from us doesn’t turn another color, or even disappear entirely? Common sense, of course, but how do we come by that common sense, and how is it that everyone has it?
Plato said, or rather reported that his teacher said, Imagine a cave. In it, you are chained next to a group of like people, all facing a wall. You grew up in this cave, chained up thus, and no, Xenophon, it doesn’t matter how that happened, just shut up and listen. Now, behind you is a big fire, and people walk between you and the fire holding objects. But you are chained such that you cannot see behind you, so all you see are shadows. Now, being raised in this cave, all you know of the shape called “elephant” or “horseshoe” or “vase” are the shadow shapes on the wall, and if you could be freed and look suddenly at the real thing, you would be amazed that it looked as it did, not to mention how they fit an elephant into the cave.
This allegory describes perception. We seem to see things, but really we see their shadow, and another, more perfect world than this contains those real items. So we know that the pot continues around to the other side not because we can perceive that it does, but because we remember the ideal pot, the Form of pots, of which all other pots are mere shadows. And that’s how we can also recognize the pot-ness of a squat pot, a tall pot, a wide pot, a purple pot, and a blue pot. We know that they are all pots because, just like the shadows on the wall, much depends upon how we look upon that ideal.
Plato had a student of his own, Aristotle, who threw the whole thing into the soup by saying that there was no such perfect, ideal world. Aristotle argued that we know the Form of pots only because we have seen a heck of a lot of pots and called them all “pot.”
Thus began the epistemological (meaning, the study of knowledge) split between magic and what would eventually become empiricism. But I’ve written about that before, and so will let it go for now.
Aristotle opened a school and wrote some deeply influential books of his own, and eventually we hit two interesting fellows who founded much of what we now imagine to be magic. Conveniently, these two figures stand as symbols for two paths of magic, two ways of knowing the unseen, ideal world. We call them “Neoplatonists,” because they began with Plato’s idea that there was such an ideal world, a world of Forms, and pushed it to its natural edge: if such a world existed, and we could perceive it, could we also perhaps interact with it? Could we, in fact, use it to change this world? Could we reach behind us, as it were, and grab that elephant and yank it around, so that we could make its shadow in this world dance?
Plotinus answered, essentially, in the negative. That ideal world was perfect, and perfection by its very nature cannot change. But what we could do, according to Plotinus, is change ourselves to rise up to that world, and thus gain a clearer image of ultimate reality. If we understood what was going behind us, we could manipulate things in this world of shadows more sagaciously.
For Plotinus, and his student Porphyry, the way to do this consisted of contemplation. Sadly, we lack descriptions of what to contemplate specifically, but we can reconstruct some of it by understanding what he taught. He taught that all reality, this world of shadows, was an emanation from a perfect reality. The highest perfect reality was the One. This One was beyond all characteristics, because all characteristics imply their opposite. If the One is big, then it’s not small and therefore not perfect — by which he meant something closer to “complete.” It has to be beyond bigness or smallness. From the One comes the Nous, or Mind. This is the first thing that can be given characteristics, and the characteristic it has is “goodness.” From Mind comes the rest of the world of shadows in a successive series or ladder of emanations.
This contemplative approach survives in a lot of practices we might regard as Eastern. One contemplation, in the spirit of Plotinus and Porphyry, would be to take one’s perception of oneself and begin deleting things. For example, try to remove your sense of physical position by sitting very still. Then try to remove your emotional feelings. Then abandon mental activity and remain as pure awareness. In other words, we climb the ladder of emanations back upward to the One.
We also see Plotinus’ influence in the contemporary understanding of the Qabala, and there’s some convincing evidence that the Qabala was Neoplatonic before it was strictly Jewish. Whether you believe that or not, it cannot be denied that a ladder of emanations really does describe most understandings of the sephiroth. And the practices of traditional Qabala — recitation of names, permutation of letters, and so on — smack of the contemplative practices of Plotinus.
On the other end of the teeter totter we have Iamblichus, one of Porphyry’s students, who suggested that contemplation was fine and good, but also difficult and impractical. Most people, he said, are so engrossed in the shadows that they simply can’t get anywhere with contemplation; it’s like trying to grow eyes in the back of your head. Better, he suggested, to turn around, and the way we do that is through ritual action. That ritual action, of course, was accompanied by contemplation, but contemplation alone could never apprehend what was not rational. If you tried the previous contemplation, you may have found it incredibly difficult; Iamblichus would say, “exactly.” Ritual provided an easier way.
Ritual action for Iamblichus consisted of recognizing the symbolic relationship between ideas. After all, if we can recognize a picture of a pot as a pot, it must be partaking of some bit of pot-ness from the world of ideas. If we manipulate this symbolic image, we can begin to train our minds to perceive and perhaps manipulate the ideal Form as well. How this worked exactly we don’t really know, but certain objects were thought to embody the ideal more intensely than other objects, just as a profile of an elephant is easier to recognize in a shadow. These objects or symbols included such things as the tools of ritual sacrifice, as well as — probably — various objects held sacred to deities. By ritually manipulating these objects, one could gain a clearer view of the ideal world.
A ritual in the style of Iamblichus might involve a series of ritual sacrifices of bread or wheat, each of which represents a return of some faculty to the One. So we might symbolically enact a sacrifice of our passions so that we can more easily contemplate the One as an Ideal without passions. Of course, we don’t know exactly what Iamblichus’s rituals looked like, but we can imagine that they looked quite a lot like the ordinary religious rituals of the time, but accompanied with appropriate contemplations.
Now, of course, most occultists mix these two approaches, the contemplative and the ritual. But the old argument between the two schools still exists. Some contemplatives talk scornfully of rituals as “crutches,” for example, an idea that might well have come out of Porphyry. And even those occultists who do not profess an ideal world of forms still engage in ritual actions in which a concrete object (the athame, say) represents a mental idea (will, or defense). Finally, most occultists will decry mindless ritual for ritual’s sake. We are to remember, as Iamblichus would argue, that every ritual action is an action in the world of Ideas as well.
No matter which approach you take to magic, whether you regard it as a contemplative practice or a ritual one, you are — if you’re involved in the western magical tradition — a Neoplatonist. Of course, chaos magicians might argue that there is no actual world of ideals, and a postmodern magician might argue that ideals are just clumps of self-referential symbols, and not meanings in themselves. Yet every school of western magic must situate itself in regards to Neoplatonism; they must begin by affirming or denying the central insights of that chubby wrestler.
The root of the whole endeavor of magic is in Plato, as is the root of all Western philosophy. Magic, then, rather than being a fringe effort of a few strange men and women, is a branch of philosophy itself, with its own epistemological and ontological claims. We diverged from philosophy in the same way that chemistry and alchemy diverged, or where mathematics and engineering diverged. Where philosophy began to dedicate itself to the analysis of ideas, we began to learn the practical arts of manipulating them. In future columns, I hope to explore some of those issues of knowledge and being, with an eye toward the practical implications of the philosophical positions we take.
©2009 by 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.