The Study of Magic – The Amoebic Cabala

January 24, 2010 by  
Filed under columns, qabalah, the study of magic

The Study of Magic - The Amoebic Cabala

Earlier, I said that every single modern, western magician is responding, in one way or another, to Plato. We are all either Neoplatonists, or reacting against Neoplatonism. The strange thing is, in most of our daily lives, we are not Neoplatonists at all — in fact, in most other contemporary intellectual fields, Neoplatonism has been set aside so firmly that one doesn’t even have to react against it anymore. Most scientists embrace material monism, which denies even the possibility of a nonphysical existence. In many of the humanities, scholars embrace postmodernism, which denies the possibility of an ideal or original meaning. And even in popular music and art, we have thrown away the mathematical harmonies thought to be fundamental in ancient times; if you doubt it, just listen to a Metallica song.

So how is it that we magicians are still acting like Neoplatonism is the Thing? It’d be as if scientists still included disclaimers against the existence of Aether in their papers, or if Metallica thought they were clever because they avoided the complex mathematical counterpoint of Bach. Yet we either embrace Neoplatonism (perhaps not knowing that’s what we’re doing) or we reject it explicitly (again, perhaps not by name, but Chaos magicians argue against its ideas). The reason comes down to a particularly influential, and particularly useful, formulation of Neoplatonism that arose in the Middle Ages, although its roots stretch back long: This is the mystical, religious, and magical system of the Cabala.

Briefly, the Cabala is a system of number and word mysticism that grew out of the medieval Jewish study of the Talmud. In its original formulation, if an oral tradition can be said to have such a thing, it concerned chiefly the relationship between and meaning hidden within words. But it also taught a system of emanations from deity, probably borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism. There are ten such emanations, the sephiroth, corresponding to the ten numerals, and each is given a correspondence to a direction, a body part, and so forth. Finally, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are seen as a sort of intermediate between these emanations.

Every single modern magician in America and England, whether Wiccan or Hoodoo root doctor, Chaos magician or Brit Trade Witch, has made some use of the Cabala, knowingly or not. Catherine Yrenwode points out that Hoodoo, for example, borrowed from European grimoires such as the The Key of Solomon which themselves borrowed from the Cabala. Even the “Charge of the Goddess,” which reads in part:

Upon Earth I give the knowledge of the Spirit Eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things, and my love is poured out upon earth1.

is a borrowing from Crowley’s The Book of the Law, a book filled with Cabalistic and Neoplatonic ideas:

I:58 I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice2.

While this sentence may not, out of context, seem particularly cabalistic, it is surrounded by a suggestion that the Hebrew letter tzaddai should not be associated with the tarot card The Star, as well as bits of complex numerical mysticism.

So how did this system become so popular, while similar systems did not? After all, we could all be practicing some system based on Sufi mysticism, or even Merkabah rather than Cabala. So what is it that made Cabala so ubiquitous? We could explore historical accidents of all kinds, from the invasion of the Mongols to the fall of the Temple, but ultimately, it comes down to utility. The Cabala is a Neoplatonic formulation of the universe with an eye toward use, and later developments and refinements of the cabala, such as Hermetic Cabala, emphasized and built on those uses.

The primary utility of the Cabala is as a system of classification, which might sounds rather lame — a Dewey decimal system for magic? — but is in reality foundational. The Cabala offers a system of symbols that interlock coherently. Obviously, any system of symbols could work, but just as one individual might find it hard to invent his or her own language (not impossible, mind you, but hard), so an individual might find it hard to invent a symbol system of such richness. If I take any two symbols from any two domains, I can relate them together in the cabala and figure out which shape in Plato’s cave they ultimately point to.

Think about the implications of that. Take a planet, a big gassy one with rings, orbiting out there at about the limit of our ability to see it. Take an herb, bitter, astringent — a gum actually, used as an embalming agent. Take a metal, dark, heavy, often used to seal containers in ancient times because of its low melting point. Take a grave. Take a womb. The Cabala tells us that all of these things are connected, that they all are reflections of the same shadowy shape in Plato’s cave of images: specifically, one named Binah. These are things that mark limits: the limit of our sight, the boundaries of life and death, the inside and outside of containers. Binah is about limits and boundaries. This Binah manifests in the world in numerous ways, but each shares some of that essence of limiting, and each is touching all the others in the world of ideas.

This system acts as a calculus of leverage. I know that to push this thing here — a poppet made of lead and anointed with myrrh — might push that thing there — an enemy. Of course, you can use this same leverage for good. I can gather things associated with Hesed and create an expansion of power or wealth, or I can call up the powers of Tifareth and manipulate the shining light in the center of everything that gives it the impetus to be what it is.

So everyone should run out and study the Cabala. Or perhaps not. After all, we often use it without knowing that we’re using it, and other systems can do the same thing. It’s just that the Cabala is an example of a system that’s so well-developed and carefully defined, it’s hard to ignore. It’s also hard to keep away from: if you study magic in the west, you will at some point or another study the Cabala, whether you like it or not. And sometimes whether you know it or not, because the Cabala is an amoeba.

What I wrote about above, the connections between Saturn, lead, and myrrh, actually wasn’t originally Cabalistic. The Cabala incorporated those associations like an amoeba eating a paramecium. And there’s no reason not to imagine that the Cabala won’t absorb anything else set near it. There are Cabalistic associations with tarot cards, musical notes and genres, and the characters of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This amoebic nature of the Cabala means two things: First, there are thousands of doorways in. Second, everything is a tool.

There are a thousand doorways into the Cabala. A lot of tarot readers, for example, begin studying it because the cards’ associations with the sephiroth and the paths can lead to illuminating connections during readings. And the cards can even be used in the opposite direction: Donald Tyson has a splendid little book about using the tarot as an entire temple, and while he doesn’t make a big complicated deal out of it (one of the things I like about his books), it’s all quietly and calmly Cabalistic. Whatever you’re into, whether it’s herbalism or epic poetry, you can find a way into the Cabala from there.

Second, as I suggested above, everything is a tool. You can use the tarot as a set of magical tools once you understand their Cabalistic associations. But in a pinch, you can use anything. Once you see what idea an object reflects, you can use that object to represent that idea. This notion sounds counterrational, and I suppose to some degree it is. But you can literally do magic with some pocket lint and a few spare coins, if you realize the ways in which those things connect to the platonic ideal reality. And the Cabala is a handy heuristic for figuring that out.

Now let’s interrupt this paean to the Cabala to say that, in fact, it’s more complicated than this. For example, while most Hermetic Cabalists place Saturn in the path of Tav, others place the Moon there. While most place the sun in Tifareth, some place Mercury. It seems, indeed, that they get results. So which is it? Who’s wrong?

Well, they are. Not because their associations are wrong, but insofar as they insist that they’re the right and true associations. Because the Cabala is, at its most basic level, a language for describing ultimate reality. It’s not a map of that reality, or an image of it, or even an abstraction of it. It’s just a set of symbols set into relation to describe it. And ultimate reality can be described in multiple ways, some useful, some useless. Putting Mercury in Tifareth has some negative side effects (it screws up the order of the Neoplatonic crystal spheres which the order of the planets in the sephiroth is based on, for example) and some benefits (it creates a balanced tree in terms of binary oppositions). We can imagine hundreds of useful organizations of the sephiroth, and in fact we should remember that the current popular diagram is only one of many historical diagrams of them, and one of the oldest simply places the sephiroth as rays from a central point.

To say that the Cabala points to an ultimate reality implies that reality exists, of course. But it doesn’t say how it exists. Some people pretend that there’s a “true” cabala pointing to a “true” reality, but “absolute” doesn’t mean “objective.” It doesn’t even mean that our symbols are anything but arbitrary. We could imagine a useless Cabala, probably, but that doesn’t mean that there’s one better than all others: we can imagine a useless language, but that doesn’t mean that one language is better than another.

It’s not so much a matter, then, of unlocking ourselves from the chains in Plato’s cave and walking back, grabbing the shadow images, and saying, “Oh, look, it’s really a paper swan!” Instead, it’s more like walking back and saying, “it appears to be the sound the color blue makes when it’s cast out of tin and struck with a hammer at the speed of joy.” We don’t have eyes to see that ultimate reality. All we have are crude sketches that show some links between them, and no guarantee that what you see is what I will see. And yet, if we’re Neoplatonists, even for a few moments when we’re practicing magic, we have faith that these absolutes exist — even if we can’t know them.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/gbos/gbos26.htm
  2. http://www.sacred-texts.com/oto/engccxx.htm

©2010 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.

The Study of Magic – Plato, Meet Frazer

The Study of Magic - Plato, Meet Frazer

In my last column, I suggested that the western magical tradition can be seen as a response to Plato’s theory of Ideas. If we imagine that magic interacts with a world of more primary forms than our physical senses can detect, we are Neoplatonic. If we argue the opposite, that there is no such Ideal world, we are Aristotelian and, usually, materialists who do not do magic at all. However, even if we are Chaos Mages who suggest that magic is mostly a matter of internal belief, and that there is no world of Ideas external the mind of individual magicians, we’re still responding to Plato.

If Plato is right, and there is an essential world of Ideas, for magic to be real would mean that it must appeal to that essential world. If such an essential world exists, its essential truths must be universal. Perhaps the shape of those truths would be different, but any culture of any time that perceives that truth, will perceive the same.

For example, every culture that looks into the geometry of a circle will discover that the diameter of the circle encircles the circumference of the circle 3.14 times. If they have sufficient mathematical sophistication, they will even recognize that this number is irrational and continues an infinite number of nonrepeating digits after the decimal point. It doesn’t matter if we call this number pi, or Liu Hui’s constant, or the Archimedes Constant. It remains true, regardless of our ideas about it. We cannot legislate pi.

Even though we cannot know pi in its totality, we do not propose that there is not, for example, a ten billionth digit of pi. In fact, we know there is, and we know that it is one of ten numerals, although we may not know which one. And since there is no perfect circle in the physical world, we also know that it does not rely on any physical object whatsoever to calculate.

Similarly, if magic is real and we believe in the Platonic ideal, then we know that there should be some things about magic that are essential, and some that are incidental or contingent. Those contingent things will change, from society to society or even from practitioner to practitioner. But the essential things, for real magic, for magic that works, will remain the same. Of course, some people may do magic that doesn’t work, just as someone might try to calculate the area of a large circle using the approximation that pi = 3, and find themselves receiving an incorrect answer. At the same time, we cannot suggest that the essentials of magic boil down to a popularity contest. If a million people think that pi = 3, they will be wrong, no matter how persuasive they are. It doesn’t matter how many votes it gets: pi is not a popularity contest.

Yet we can say, with some certainty, that diverse cultural practices operating on the same principles may be pointing to an underlying essential truth to magic. Of course, they could also point, as a skeptic would argue, to an underlying flaw in the capabilities of human reason.

For my purpose I am content to point out a few of the similarities across cultures as possible pointers toward an essential truth about magic. I am not pretending to be exhaustive, and certainly there is room for argument.

Fortunately, my work is done for me by Sir James George Frazer, whose The Golden Bough (1922) was one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Frazer pointed out several similarities between the magical practices of diverse peoples. He did not suggest, as I do, that these may point to some underlying truth about magic, but he did suppose that it represented an underlying structure of culture.

Frazer identifies two principles of the practice of sympathetic magic: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. The law of similarity says that any two items that appear the same are, in some sense, the same. This recalls Iamblichus’s practice of using symbols of divine forces to direct those forces. A hawk is Horus, because the two are similar. Similarly, gold is the sun, because they partake of similar signatures. In non-western magic, we see the same thing: a plant with a human-shaped root might stand for a person, or a mantra might be regarded as the God it invokes. Contagion suggests that any two objects in contact remain in contact. We see this practice in the Christian mass: the bread that Jesus broke is still in contact with all other bread, which is itself in contact with the flesh of Christ, and therefore is the flesh of Christ. In nonwestern practices, it’s common enough to require hair or other leavings of someone for or against whom one wishes to work magic. Frazer regards both of these ways of thinking as “mistakes,” of course, but really they represent the very basis of fundamental symbolic thought.

Symbolic thought is that ability of abstraction that allows us to say “this word ‘water’ represents this substance.” Moreover, it allows us to say “this substance in this cup is the same as the substance in the ocean; I can abstract them with the same symbol.” We find, then, that one of the roots of magical practice, the world over, is symbolic thought. Magic cannot work unless the world is abstracted into ideas.

It’s worth noting that it is the process of abstraction, not the result of the abstraction, that matters. In other words, it doesn’t matter what collection of sounds you choose to use to represent the concept of water: “water” or “agua” or “mayim.” What matters is that you do the abstraction and that you share that abstraction with others. Of course, if you say “mayim” and no one around you speaks Hebrew, you’ll be in trouble. But “agua” isn’t an inherently better word than “mayim.”

Looking back, I find it interesting that I ended up using language as my metaphor. Of course, it makes sense: what are words but symbols? And what are symbols for, if not to communicate? The importance of communication brings me to the next universal of magic: magic operates on the principle that we are communicating with something or someone outside of our physical perception. Ancient Greeks threw tablets down wells to communicate with the chthonic gods, while medieval European magicians conjured angels. Yoruba magicians make offerings to gods. Tantrikas invoke protector deities. Even our etymologies betray the magical importance of communication: evoke and invoke both contain the root “vocare,” meaning “to call,” and “enchant” means “to sing into.”

We also, in looking at magical practices the world over, find the notion of separation nearly everywhere. The Shaman is separated from society, the medieval wizard draws a circle, and the “hedgewitch” lives on the border (the hedge) of the village. This separation amounts to a cutting off not just of society but of the physical world; there is a turning inward which is in its final analysis a turning outward into the world of ideas, a mental world no less real than the physical. Physical objects are merely means to that end, symbols that are meant to stir something in the mind.

Few magical practices fail to emphasize the importance of mental preparation. Even medieval magic focused on mental preparation, although the grimoires we have seem more concerned with the proper furniture and clothes in the temple. If one looks farther, at the works of — for example — Giordano Bruno, one quickly finds that there’s an emphasis on mental training. That mental training is not simply trance work, either, although that is certainly present. There’s also training of memory and philosophical training.

It’s easy to imagine that our culture’s practices are, in essence, absolute. But obviously we must have some ways of thinking of things that are curtains on the window, and not the light itself. We must have decorative notions that are not essential to magic. It’s worth while, in looking at the commonalities, to look at what is not common to all cultures as well.

The first thing that sticks out for me is “energy.” Few cultures recognize the concept of energy as essential to magic. Certainly, Chinese magic has qi and Polynesian magic has mana, but neither of these are energy. Qi literlly means “breath,” and could probably better be translated “life force.” Force is not a synonym of energy, as any basic physics student could tell you. Similarly, mana means something a lot more like “embodied authority” than “energy.” And if you doubt that our ancient predecessors lacked a term for energy, do try to translate the term into Latin. You may find yourself stymied: the closest similarities to the word in even its mundane sense fall short of what we mean by it. The ancients did not have the concept of energy divorced from work or power (which are, again, distinct concepts).

So why do so many magicians in modern America talk about “magical energy?” It’s not ignorance and it’s not laziness. Just as the word “agua” means “water” in Spanish, the word “energy” represents, in a magical context, one of the essential characteristics of magic. It’s not some mystical energy that any physicist will ever discover in any lab, be her instruments ever so advanced. But “energy” in western magic fulfills a simple role, easy to determine if you read this signifier in context. Every time a book on magic mentions “energy,” it hastens to point out that this energy responds to intention. It’s not like electricity, or light, or heat, or kinetic energy, or anything else, because unlike those kinds of real literal energies, it pays attention to what we want. In fact, it represents a quality essential to magic: willful action.

Magic, always and everywhere, is not an accident; it is a willful action. Of course, there are accidental powers that we would classify as magical, and seem to share some similarities. For example, in Timor some people believe in a malignant power which comes out of an unsuspecting woman and does harm to the community. And of course there are spirits or other entities who might act according to their own wills. But, like fire, while it may get out of hand and do damage, magic is a technology that we use, like all technologies, deliberately.

Energy is a symbol of that intentionality. Other cultures provide other symbols. Ainu shamans sit under cold waterfalls, for example, as a sign of their willingness to suffer to heal others and speak for the dead. And we can see that mana and qi are, then, similar to the symbol of energy in that they represent, in culturally specific and different ways, the intentionality of magic.

Obviously, there may be more essential shared characteristics; it would take a book to examine them all. But we can sum it up in a simple definition: magic is an intentional and symbolic act of communication with a nonphysical reality.

If magic were only the wishful thinking of deluded people, we would not expect it to share any similarities across culture. And we can expect the trappings to differ, as long as the essence remains the same, just as we can expect the name of “pi” to change from culture to culture, while its value remains the same. At the same time, one could argue that magic is delusion, but that delusion has some essential quality, and so shares similarities from culture to culture. This possibility, while perhaps appealing to skeptics, would be hardly any less amazing than magic itself. Both possibilities point toward some essential quality of the human mind, or perhaps of consciousness itself.

©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.

The Study of Magick: It All Started in a Cave

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.

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