The Occult Tradition
from the archive, 2016
Last discussed on this strand was the prophetic tradition, which distinctively cultivates a dualistic perspective; namely, the Creator in relationship with the human person. How else does prayer, petition, prophetic utterance and priestly mediation make sense? The occult tradition, in contrast, tends towards non-dualism, because the ego ultimately strives to assimilate the Godhead to itself. This may conjure up images of Faustian pacts, power-crazed warlocks and the like but, before this whole domain is sensationalised, it is necessary to dispel some silliness and address some hang-ups. For it is one of the most grossly misunderstood aspects of the global religious heritage.
Occult means “hidden”. Occultism is the study of the hidden laws behind manifestation. Only an omniscient Being could know the whys, wherefores and whens of what unfolds. Humans cannot pretend to omniscience, so the occult enterprise can only mean divining more of these hidden currents than is the common. It might take a scientific flavour. Albert Einstein said “I seek to know the Mind of God”. Isaac Newton was undoubtedly similar. He delved into astrology and alchemy. Originally astronomy was not differentiated from astrology, nor chemistry from alchemy. Great discoveries, inventions and creative works can come from this “seeking to know the Mind of God”.
But there is also the moral and religious dimension. Job, in the Old Testament, grappled with the problem of evil, and sought vainly to understand the thoughts and ways of the Almighty. A lot of Bible Christians think divination and fortune-telling a breach of the First Commandment. But holy books are easily misinterpreted, especially in the literalist or fundamentalist direction. After all, Joseph, Daniel, Solomon and Jesus among others sought to know the mind of God. They had precognitive visions and dreams; foretold the future; and worked with latent energies behind the surface of events. Anyone who seeks His will, seeks to know more about the inscrutable and hidden forces behind what comes to be - and that’s an occultism of sorts. It can do good and serve people. But if the hidden laws are sought without humility it can lead to an obsession with magical power.
For the adherent of the prophetic tradition, cooperating with the Supreme Will produces miracles. God’s in control, not the human. But the hardcore occultist wants to co-opt the miracle as a magical operation. The impulse is for control. It is academic to distinguish ‘white magic‘ from ‘black magic‘, ‘elemental’ from ‘angelic’ magic. When it’s about what one can manipulate; and about “making things happen” in the world, the criterion for magic has been met. And this suggests a refinement of the earlier definition. Occultism is the study of the hidden laws behind manifestation with a view to effecting magical manipulation. The magical manipulation is naturally egoistic, because it serves the chosen end of the operator. Invisible entities are invoked, commanded and compelled - to serve the chosen end of the operator.
True, we can be prone to neurosis when we insist on controlling life down to the minutiae, and taking all the credit for what goes right; or by resisting surrender to the benevolent mystery of life’s unfoldment; by not trusting implicitly in Providence. Nevertheless we all strive for some measure of control of our destiny, if only as a mark of maturity. The occult orientation gives rise to the scientific quest to harness natural forces through technology to serve human life. The scientific expression manipulates matter, whereas the other side of occultism manipulates psyche. There would be no Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution without it. But neither would there be a psychological or sexual revolution.
The roots of London’s Royal Society (of scientists) lay in the Invisible College, many of whose founders were Freemasons, with the motto nullius in verba - “take nobody’s word for it”. The attitude insists on subjecting everything to experiment. In the social sphere, another occult fraternity around this time (the 1600s) were the Rosicrucians who, like the Freemasons, combined personal initiations with a revolutionary and secular political idealism. Flowing from such influences come the Illuminati symbols on the US dollar bill - like the eye on the pyramid, and the phrase, Novus Ordo Seclorum : “New Order of the Ages” or, alternatively, “New World Order”.
Today, we take for granted aspects of the political order which were innovations four hundred years ago. Yet many are still uneasy about occultism, which is much, much older than 400 years. Its antiquity is in the dawn of time. In the Garden of Eden story, the serpent promises Adam and Eve that they will become like God, knowing all, if they ate the forbidden fruit. Satan instructs them to appropriate and assimilate the power of the Creator by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. Naked egoism and shame arise; so do work and childbirth as curse. But like Prometheus from Greek mythology, who offered the fire of the gods in a fennel stalk to humanity to spark technological invention, the ancestors of the race, no longer innocent of occultism, set out to fashion their own path, preferring experiment and knowledge to blind and innocent obedience to authority. Such learning required the encountering of error, sin and evil as a contrast to the right and the good.
There was a tree in the story from which the Creator encouraged the primordial parents to eat : the Tree of Life. A whole cosmology and metaphysics called the kabbalah has developed around a symbol of the Tree of Life with its ten sephiroth or spheres. Kabbalah is normally associated with esoteric Judaism, the backstory being that the angels originally held the teaching which was vouchsafed to the Hebrew patriarchs and revealed as the secret oral law alongside the explicit written law (Torah) given to Moses on Sinai. Yet kabbalah has universalised, especially in modern times, being drawn upon by Christian, pagan and Hermetic groups, occult fraternities of various kinds, the New Age, and Hollywood celebrities. The Tree of Life can also be understood as a balanced version of the forbidden tree, where a pathway leads the aspirant out of the snare of warring polarities - certainty/ignorance, good/evil etc - towards the sense of original wholeness.
Elements of occultism can be found in all the great faith traditions of the globe. Sometimes they show up in ceremony and ritual, sometimes in astral and planetary observances, because the signs in the heavens, properly read, may lift a veil on what is about to come into manifestation. There will inevitably remain a magical glamour around the human appetite for power and control, and a tendency for those already in positions of power to avail themselves of the tools and the counsels of occultism, irrespective of which side of a conflict they find themselves on. For example, the Third Reich was steeped in occult schemes, but so did Winston Churchill consult Aleister Crowley. Queen Elizabeth I of England profoundly depended on her astrologer and occultist John Dee but (what is less well known) her arch-rival, Philip II of Spain, sought Dee’s guidance to recreate the Temple of Solomon in his Escorial Palace in Madrid.