Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Novemberist Work - Where Did the Year Go?

Here it is, the end of November, and I have not yet gotten into the temple to do some magickal work. I had to make a business trip early this month, and then traveled down to Milwaukee to see my brother just before the Thanksgiving holidays. I also had to focus on getting the final set of edits done on my manuscript for the book project, “Qabalah for Beginners,” and that took most of the month as well. Not only did I have to produce a finished copy of the manuscript for submission, but I also had to supply the tables, timeline and examples of the 22 diagrams. Luckily, I found representations on the internet for what I want Llewellyn to produce for the diagrams, so I included them with a document that gave further instructions for each. The whole mass of documents, spreadsheets and pictures were bundled up into a zip file and sent off to Llewellyn for their perusal and inspection. 
We’ll see how things develop from this point on. I have successfully produced the required manuscript and materials as my contract required, so now it’s in the hands of the editors and the publication committee. They could reject the book and decide not to publish it, but I doubt that will happen. I suspect that what will happen will be a round of revisions and rewrites, and then it will be assembled for publication. I am expecting myself to be quite fast and efficient in the turnaround process associated with the rewrite phase, so maybe the book might be published in the autumn of 2012, or perhaps in the Spring of 2013. That’s a lot of time, so I will be working on other projects in the interim.

By the way, I just wanted to wish everyone a happy holiday season, starting with last week’s U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving. I have a number of things to be thankful for, and I stated these when my girlfriend and I had a feast of roast duck with a cherry sauce, wild rice, cranberry fruit salad,  and brandied carrots. It was a different sort of thanksgiving dinner than is regionally typical, but it was filling (yet not too filling) and also quite delicious. I said that I was thankful for my wonderful relationship, loving critters (four cats and a dog) and steadfast employment. Of course there are many other things that I am thankful for, but these three seemed to top the list.

I have been periodically communicating with John Michael Greer, and he had highly recommended a book for me to read, so I purchased it and am reading it now. I have always wanted to examine the Neoplatonic roots for modern occultism, but found that it was a very complex topic to examine. JMG has made that process much easier for me by recommending the book “Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus” written by Gregory Shaw (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995). I must say that I am enjoying reading this book, and I am also discovering that a number of very important occult concepts which I have long held are actually derived from Iamblichus’s work. I decided that it would be useful for me to remark on some of the more salient points as I carefully read the book, chapter by chapter. I might also add that this is not an easy book to read, and sometimes I need to use my Classical Greek dictionary to get at the roots of some term that is being used (and not adequately defined). It would seem that Mr. Shaw expects his readers to be much more knowledgeable of Plato’s works and the core issues of Neoplatonism than I have at my disposal. Since I lack this knowledge, I have had to do some ancillary study to make complete sense out of what I am reading. Even so, I have found this book to quite illuminating so far. I could go so far as to recommend it to my readers as a book that they should look over in their studies.

For many years I have been told by various savants that the roots to modern occultism, and even witchcraft and paganism are to be found in tenets of Neoplatonism. I have long regarded this idea as a great truth that I have not had the time or opportunity to adequately verify. I just accepted it as true without knowing the exact details. At this time in my studies, I feel that I need to finally examine this topic as thoroughly as I am able, even though I might lack a deep understanding and knowledge of classical philosophy. I have read over some of Plato’s dialogues, but not to the detailed level or with the required understanding that would make acquiring the knowledge of Neoplatonism an easy process.

I envy those occultists who have a classical education and are fluent with the writings of Plato, especially if that knowledge includes being able to read his works in classical Greek. Having a smidgeon of Greek and a rusty and ill used knowledge of Latin does put me at a slight disadvantage. Some of the various quotes that scholarly authors like to put into their published works includes languages that I regrettably don’t know, such as French, Italian or German. So I stumble along, and if I need to decipher an important and cryptic quotation made in another language, I will attempt to parse it myself or use some other online translation process. I suppose that if I were truly qualified to study this material and expound on it, then I would have already mastered these other languages. So what I will do is just attempt to distill some important points in the language that I am quite familiar with, which is English.

One thing that has always put me off from accepting Neoplatonism is its assertion that material existence is somehow debasing, or that the material cosmos is to be considered either inferior or controlled by demonic powers. This idea and opinion has a kind of prominence in Christianity (prior to St. Thomas Aquinas) and also was well developed in a number of forms of Gnosticsm. That some forms of Christianity still devalue the material world could explain why certain sects are predisposed into believing in an immanent apocalypse, which would make all forms of conservation seem irrelevant. I believe that it has fostered a deep sense of disrespect for the Earth, or that it is somehow irrelevant or even contrary to spiritual redemption. This negative impression of nature and the material universe has always puzzled me, since it’s not part of my thinking in regards to my pagan religious beliefs. Yet even so, I have found that this kind of thinking has unwittingly infected even my beliefs, based as they are on a modern paganism. That it was popular amongst the Greek intellectual pagans of antiquity (and by extension, to the entire Roman world) to believe that the material world was defective and life was not worth living seems to be in conflict with what I would have thought as a healthy form of paganism. Perhaps this pessimism could be summed up by a famous quote of Sophocles, who was amongst the more brilliant and creative minds of the 5th century BCE.
“Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when a man hath seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.” - Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus)

This latent pessimism can also be found, although ambiguously, in two of Plato’s famous dialogues, which were the “Phaedo” and the “Phaedrus.” I have said ambiguous because the very opposite opinion can be derived from Plato’s other famous dialogue, the “Timaeus.” For some reason, Plato believed that from a cosmic perspective, the material world was good and that human beings had a soul that was fully engaged in the process of creation; but from an individual and psychological perspective, he saw human nature as trapped and imprisoned in matter. This ambiguity caused a major schism in Neoplatonism, with the philosophers Plotinus and Porphyry taking the ultimate stand that matter was inherently negative, and the opposite was taken up by Iamblichus, that matter, and the cosmos which it represented, was positive. For Plotinus and Porphyry, the soul did not fully descend into the body, and that it was up to the philosopher to forge a pathway that would allow for a complete escape from material existence. Like Sophocles, they seemed to believe that the material world was the domain of demonic forces, and that not to be born at all was a better fate for the human soul. Of course this perspective seemed to feed some gnostic cults, whose anti-cosmic beliefs were based in part on the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Porphyry.

Porphyry’s doctrine of the undescended soul was the ultimate conclusion of this rather negative perspective. Even though this idea was not to be found in any of Plato’s dialogues, the Neoplatonists, starting with Plotinus and continuing with his student, Porphyry, seemed to accept this tenet as a great truth. An undescended soul represented the implied fact that the human soul was identical to the divine Nous (thought). It represented that humans were locked in a material existence and were bereft of any spiritual connection with the divine. The solution to the problem of material existence was to sever that partial connection between the soul and the body, which would have been to the undisputed benefit of the soul against the body. Additionally, to be redeemed, therefore, one had to escape from the cosmos of matter. Porphyry went so far as to say that the wise philosopher shouldn’t even participate in traditional or civic festivals, such as sacrifices and other religious celebrations of the time, because they were tied to the powers of nature, which were controlled and directed by inferior demonic gods. In taking this stand, he seemed to advocate the division of the sensible cosmos from the noetic, proposing a world of extreme dualism. 

However, in my opinion, this perspective of the world of matter as being the source of evil for the human condition presents a tenet that I would have to reject out of hand. In my experience, life is a mixed bag, and it is, to a certain extent, based on the motivations and expectations of the individual, as well as their outcome. I believe, to a certain degree, in the power of self-determination and the ability to transform and change, not only the individual, but even the world at large. The philosophy of Plotinus and Porphyry would seem to paint the material world as a kind of prison for the soul, where the mechanisms of fate (as determined by a negative astrology) and the extreme limitations and suffering of life would ensure that most of humanity could never evolve or even be capable of any kind of spiritual transformation. That seems too pessimistic for me, and there is nothing in my life experience that would even support it. As a naive optimist, I believe that everyone has at their disposal the mechanism of ascension and the realization of the Godhead.

For this reason I have found myself shying away from Neoplatonism and its philosophical creed, that is, until I discovered that Iamblichus broke completely from his predecessors and stated the opposite position - that matter is an important part of the greater good. While it is undeniable that material existence imparts suffering and trials, it can also be said that maintaining a balance between material desires and drives, and the desires and aspirations of the soul and the intellect is the key to a harmonious and fruitful existence. One of the ways of establishing that balanced relationship is through a religious life, and most particularly, the practice of theurgy.

Theurgy is defined as the “work of the gods,” and that work consists of invoking the powers of the physical cosmos, and through a linkage with the divine, cause a state of union to exist between the soul of the individual and the World Soul. Theurgy allows a fully embodied soul to engage the divine powers hidden in matter, and to thereby realize the paradoxical nature of human existence, which is that it is both mortal and immortal. Theurgy aids the soul of the individual practitioner to directly participate in the creation and salvation of the cosmos - to precipitate the ultimate union of the many into the One. The goal of theurgy, then, is to assist human beings to gain union with the One, which is a form of spiritual ascension. The World Soul, or Anima Mundi, is analogous to the soul of the individual and the ultimate expression of the One (the Unity of All Being). As Plato said in his dialogues, the world is a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence and is therefore, an intermediary of the Gods and the One. I think that many pagans can easily identify this concept of a World Soul with the modern concept of the Gaian eco-consciousness.

As Iamblichus has stated in his book, “De Mysteriis:”

“And thus, from on high to the lowest things, the Egyptian doctrine concerning principles (archai) begins from the One and proceeds into multiplicity, and the multitudes in turn is governed by the One; and everywhere the indefinite nature is ruled by a certain and defined measure and by the highest uniform cause of all things”

What Iamblichus is saying is that there is an unbroken continuity between the divine and the material world, since matter is divinely created and therefore is dominated by the One.

Theurgy, according to Iamblichus, has two basic functions. The first is that it consists of rituals conducted by mankind that assist in preserving the natural order. The second is that these rites are empowered by divine symbols, which causes the human spirit to ascend to the level of the Gods, and thereby to join with them. This is what is known as “taking the shape of the Gods.” A theurgist is simultaneously mortal and immortal, both man and god, and through theurgy, he or she becomes an icon (what I call an imago or eidolon) and an incarnated symbol of the divine. In this manner, a human practitioner of theurgy becomes powerfully aligned with the World Soul, and becomes fully awakened to his/her augoeides soma, or star-body.

What this means is that the ultimate purpose of performing ritual magick must be the revelation of the higher self as the augoeides, or holy guardian angel, and through it, to consciously exist as the mediator of the divine agencies of the One. Whatever else a practicing magician might attempt or seek to materialize, this ultimate goal represents what he or she will eventually achieve. I think that to state the overall premise of being a magician, and performing magickal rites and workings, is that it is a process of ascension and union with the One. It would seem to perfectly represent what I have been maintaining all along, and it makes sense as a pagan and a witch. It also likely makes sense as an esoteric Christian as well.

These are some of the concepts that I am examining and analyzing from this wonderful book, and I will be discussing other important elements as I read and digest them. What I am seeing from this information is that the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus would seem to agree with how I perceive ritual magick and pagan occultism. I guess you could say that I owe a great debt of gratitude to JMG for directing my attention to this book.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. " This latent pessimism can also be found, although ambiguously, in two of Plato’s famous dialogues, which were the “Phaedo” and the “Phaedrus.”..."

    The representations of life and death depicted in Phaedo, by Socrates, and of its meaning descend for Orphism, not from Neo-Platonism. That pessimism acts as an elevating factor for the Orphic mysteries.

  2. More appropriate reference point:

  3. Watch out for that Neo-Platonic curmudgeon over there coming your way!

  4. @Jack Faust - I looked over the article abstract that you posted. I found it interesting, but that aside, scholars today don't really know very much about the mysteries, and that would likely include the rest of us, too.

    Since Iamblichus was a follower and possibly an initiate of the Pythagorean mysteries, scholars (like Gregory Shaw) seem to think that his stated reversal from his established Neoplatonic tradition had more to do with that association. It would seem that Iamblichus' positive perspective on the material world was due to his involvement in the mysteries rather than just due to his own intellectual perspectives.

    So I think that it was because of his involvement and proposed engagement with traditional religious teachings and the mysteries that Iamblichus resolved the dualistic perceptions of Neoplatonism, and not that the mysteries supplied them in the first place.

    Also, in regards to the myth of Orpheus, how do we know that in the mystery cult of Orpheus a different myth was celebrated where Orpheus was successful in leading his wife from out of the underworld? Or maybe that rather dismal failure had a completely different interpretation from what was accepted by outsiders? The fact of the matter is that we don't know much about this or any other of the mystery traditions. The ancients were very faithful in keeping their oaths of secrecy, so we can only guess or imagine what the mysteries were like, since no one wrote anything down.