Esotericism — or at least the appearance of esotericism — is now everywhere. New Age and occult stores exist in probably every city in the West, as do countless Yoga studios (many of them selling books on Kundalini), and so on. The rituals of occult Orders can sometimes be found in mainstream bookstores and, of course, on the net. We do not have to go far out of our way to learn — at least superficially — about the alchemical process, the Kabbalah, the meaning of the runes, or anything else once considered the preserve of adepts.
What, then, are esoteric Orders for?
Groups of individuals, highly-knowledgeable and highly-accomplished in a particular field (art, literature, etc.), often emerge spontaneously, through connections — i.e., friends of friends. Likewise, periodically, throughout history, “Genius clusters” have appeared in various countries and cities. With such “clusters,” the work of one artist, let’s say, might influence another, and so on, even though the artists themselves may never have met. Or it might be that an artist influences a philosopher, and the philosopher, in turn, influences a natural scientist, and so on.
Beyond passing on specific teachings (through ritual, etc.), Lodges, Orders, Rites, occult and similar groups are trying to create a kind of simulacrum of the genius cluster or the more spontaneously arising group of highly cultured individuals, or, at least, to act as a cultural magnet to draw specific types of individuals together.
Of all such institutions in the West, the Masonic fraternity has attracted the most significant figures (leaders such as George Washington and Winston Churchill, as well as cultural figures such as Joseph de Maistre, Wolfgang von Goethe, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart).
But, other groups have attracted significant individuals, among the more notable being the early Theosophical society and early Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Annie Besant (political activist, especially in India) and Henry Steel Olcott (one of the investigators of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who later fought for the rights of Buddhists in Sri Lanka, helping to revive the beleaguered religion there — among other achievements) were both early members of the Theosophical Society (Olcott was one of its co-founders with Mme. Helena Blavatsky).
Likewise, with S. L. MacGregor Mathers, William Wynn Westcott, Florence Farr (actress, composer, and women’s rights activist), Annie Horniman (a founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin), W. B. Yeats (poet Laureate), and Aleister Crowley (author, boxer, mountaineer, poet, painter, and, later, founder of his own religion), among others, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn of the Victorian era was a fascinating group. It still exists (in various forms), of course, and its curriculum is vast. But is it today what it was then?
The creators of Chaos Magic claimed that it would be as important as the Golden Dawn was in its time — and it did attract some significant figures within the more alternative cultural milieu, such as Wiliam Burroughs, who joined the Illuminates of Thanateros toward the end of his life-.
The fundamental belief of Chaos Magic is that “nothing is true” and “everything is permitted” or, more accurately, that, since “nothing is true,” practitioners should adopt different beliefs, to experience new “paradigms,” thus enabling themselves to explore reality scientifically or, at least, from different perspectives. This was not a wholly new idea in occultism, though Chaos Magic was most unusual in consciously drawing from popular culture, especially fantasy novels, e.g., of Michael Moorcock and Terry Pratchett.
Chaos Magic is, in some sense, a shadow cast by the New Age movement (despite leaning on fantasy fiction, it consciously invokes the demonic rather than the angelic — deities of destruction, rather than unicorns, for example). Consciously or not, it — like many spiritual practitioners — also embodies the modern mentality of needing something new all the time, and of appealing to science (e.g., quantum physics) to prove the legitimacy of their practice.
Nevertheless, the idea at the roots of Chaos Magic is a good one: that experts in the field of magic would come together, non-dogmatically, to inform each other and to test what works. The problem is not the idea, but the reality: occult groups attract people at all levels of experience, intelligence, and seriousness, not just experts and learned figures. And magic — and spirituality more broadly — is not science, and can’t really be approached as if it is, because, in essence, these things are about meaning, transcendence, self-actualization, and the Divine and the eternal.
If such groups offer any value (and they undoubtedly do to their members), then they do so where they engender a creative environment, not for science — which they do not practice — but for art, music, writing, spiritual experimentation along the lines of Austin Osman Spare (who was an influence on Chaos Magic), and so on.
Authenticity in a Pick ‘n’ Mix Culture:
Another problem in modern occultism is syncretism. When I first moved to New York, I used to go to cafes and art galleries a lot. One day I went into a large gallery where there was an exhibition by a “spiritual master” (who had rented the space). He was also a “master” painter, the gallery worker told me, because, she said, he was able to mix Impressionism with Cubism, Surrealism, and so on, in a single painting. Sure enough, he had in fact taken a figure straight out of a painting by Cezanne and had put it alongside something from one of Picasso’s Cubist painting and some other things straight out of Dali’s work.
Unlike Cezanne, Picasso, or Dali, however, his skill in painting would be charitably described as amateur. He was trying to imply that he had surpassed Cezanne, Picasso, and Dali because he could do all their styles, all at once. But, anyone can take a few things that others created and mix them together. This is not the hallmark of the master, but of the novice.
In my books, I have compared Freemasonry’s degrees to art. Like an artist, the creator of one degree or Rite took from another and made something new. The Golden Dawn came out of the Societas Rosicruciana, which emerged from Freemasonry (regular Freemasonry and Orders associated with it, at one point or another, such as the German Golden Rosicrucians or Gold and Rosy Cross).
Some Masonic degrees, rituals, and Rites were more interesting, profound, meaningful, and beautiful than others. Some survived and are still practiced. Many others died out.
But this is how masters — or at least accomplished people — work. Impressionists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas both drew from Japanese woodblock prints for some of their own paintings. But what they created was in no sense a copy or a collage of other people’s work. It was original to them and expressed their aesthetics, skill, and character. They had moved through and beyond their training, and had mastered their art. it was natural for them to then say something new with it.
Occultists have long compared various metaphysical systems, Eastern and Western, ancient, medieval, and so on, finding correspondences between one god and another, one symbol and another — Yin Yang with the alchemical hermaphrodite, for example. This was necessary, a century or so ago, in a world in which belief in the spiritual was waning in the face of science and Industrialism.
More recently, spiritual practitioners — from New Agers to Chaos magicians — have mixed numerous systems together, or have jumped from one to the other, trying to find what eludes them.
When I was learning art, many years ago, I tried out different styles. As I’ve suggested, this is normal at that stage. Novices are searching for the answers — the style, symbol, degree, title, that pat on the back, etc. You don’t know really what interests you or who you are in that world because, fundamentally, you have yet to discover the question that comes to you in the act of searching, or to realize that is what you have to search for.
It is usual today, to explain about Islam, for example, by referring to the Bible or by using phrases such as “all religions.” Or to compare Krishna (who told his disciple Arjuna to fight in battle) to Jesus. But, just as all art movements and all philosophies and political movements are different, so are all religions and all spiritual systems. If you want to understand one you have to study it thoroughly, not turn to something else (that you claim is equivalent, or teaching the same truths) once you see something in it that you dislike. It is that, in fact, gives you something worth thinking about. It is a key to something deeper, both in it and in you.
To avoid it is to remain stuck in the symbols. But we must always try to get to the heart of whatever we are practicing — the symbolized itself, beyond symbols. This is the difference between someone, who founds an Order or creates rituals for others (such as we find in the history of esotericism), who has pushed beyond others to find the essence and one who creates an “Order” or group, etc., just by mixing some different things together — like the amateur “master” whose painting I saw on exhibit.
We must, of course, begin with what is available to us. And, whether formal or informal, groups that enable people to come together, and to share information and experiences, are essential. But we must always push ourselves further, asking questions of what we are practicing, and learning more and more about its nuances and complexities, rather than jumping from one thing to the next or masking over deficiencies by dragging in more and more what is extraneous to it.
When I was writing this, I could not help but think of some lines from “23,” a poem by Aleister Crowley, published in The Book of Lies:
Thou hast become an in-itiate.
But thou canst not get out by the way thou camest
in. The Way out is THE WAY.
Commentary on the text tells us that the initiate “first leaves the life of comfort; then the world at large; and, lastly, even the initiates.” This applies as much to esotericism as it does to art or any field of creativity or exploration, and, as such, we could easily change the word “initiate” to “artist” or “scientist,” for example. Synthesizing different streams of thought or spirituality is entirely possible, but it can only truly be done after years of having absorbed them, and allowing them to gestate together on the “back burner.” Such an individual goes beyond others and creates something new. Yet, if it manifests as an expression of spirituality or culture relevant to the time and its needs, it is authentic and, perhaps, necessary.