The phrase “Esoteric Philosophy” and the allied variations such as “occult” or “hermetic” imply some family resemblance to exoteric or “mundane” philosophy. This was fine when the word “philosophy” referred to reasoning from ontological “givens.” Modern philosophy, however, has systematically undermined the very prospect of these “givens” as meaningful categories. The dominant strain of positivism asserts a metaphysics based almost entirely on repeatable causal relationships between immediate, concrete entities. In other words, the only “given” is the world as we experience it in what Qabalists call “Assiah.”
This presents a problem, since positivism has the unfortunate tendency to be quite compelling, whereas the more ethereal aspects of Esotericism tend to provoke responses such as “oh yeah, prove it.” People’s eyes glaze over, and they look at you a little funny. The way they might look at, say, a crazy person.
While it might be quite gratifying to take this as a sign that you have gained superiority over “the herd,” more often than not it simply means that your thought process is sloppy and your critical thinking skills deficient if not totally absent. While there is a great deal of difficulty in absorbing the technical aspects of the Hermetic Tradition, there is very little which is actually beyond the skills of a person of average intelligence. The real question is why they should bother, and the “Great Master of the Temple in His Parents’ Basement” rarely provides either clarity or inspiration.
Crowley’s empiricism, focusing only on results rather than metaphysical speculation, was one attempt to deal with this. The problem is that it tends to blend into the “flatland” view, in which surface trumps any depth. Chaos Magick took this empiricism and turned it almost into what could be called “magickal positivism” if we can use that phrase without being lynched.
The latter day “traditionalist” movement tried to return to the kind of bald assertion of “givens” that modern philosophy and post-Crowley magick implicitly rejected. What this strain has to answer is why any system based on an ontology differing from the “real” version works. Even more embarrassing, alternate systems sometimes work better.
At this point, I am going to be somewhat rude. I am going to suggest that this situation is based on a split between two halves of a whole. Further, I would say that the “traditionalist” perspective is much like the Pillar of Severity, with its absolutes and “givens” and the post-modern approach , in its excessive openess and “flatness” functions much like the Pillar of Mercy. Any good Hermeticist will tell you the solution: we need to find a Middle Pillar.
Fortunately, the ontological framework of the WMT, that is to say the Tree of Life, provides us with just such a “middle road,” in more ways than mere conceptual metaphor. Unfortunately, that means providing some justification for utilizing the Tree in more than that limited sense.
The most damning question any occult traditionalist can be asked is why another system, with an entirely different set of metaphysical assumptions can work. One may, of course, retreat to the old dodge of “well, they don’t really; those people are just deluding themselves.” Which begs about a thousand questions and provides absolutely no clarity.
A more satisfying approach is to point out that the systems of magick that actually make metaphysical claims that form the basis of their work aren’t really all that different. The backbone of most Ceremonial systems is the Tree. The Tree is part of a greater class of conceptions called either the Great Chain of Being or the Great Nest of Being. Generally speaking, almost any culture you look at (other than modern urban society, which isn’t so much a culture as a prison camp with colorful toys) has some kind of hierarchical arrangement of “worlds” or “planes” or what have you.
We moderns have a problem with this idea, since it was so often used as an excuse for abusive social structures. In some instances, such as the Hindu caste system, one still finds abuses of this nature today. The translation of the Great Chain of Being into the realm of political theory is arguably one of the biggest mistakes humans ever made, and modern philosophy was quite right to undermine it.
But modernity made the mistake of leaping to the conclusion that because the Great Chain didn’t work well in terms of sociology that it was invalid in any other area one might consider. The fact that people in power had utilized an ontology to oppress others lead people to damn the ontology rather than the kinds of thinking that engendered such abuse. Almost like blaming a gun for shooting the wrong person than chastising the shooter. It is important to remember that, whatever objections the Enlightenment had to certain abuses of power, its architects were not primarily interested in liberating most people from slavery. Their purpose was to justify the political sovereignty of the landed aristocracy and merchantile middle class, not to undermine the idea of a caste system altogether.
There is also the matter of the Royal Society and the compromise its members had to make in order to engage in activities that were still technically heretical. As detailed in Frances Yates’ excellent “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” working esotericists such as Isaac Newton made a political decision to remain silent when it came to their metaphysical hobbies. It was only recently uncovered that Newton, Robert Boyle, and others, were not only actively engaged in alchemical experiments, but this was to all appearance their primary interest.
So modern science can be considered, in part, the deliberate, politically motivated marginalization of esoteric philosophy. Because of this a key question, the one that will primarily concern us, was never asked.
The question to be answered is whether or not symbol systems such as the Tree of Life and other instantiations of the Great Chain actually refer to anything more than fantasy. Modern “scepticism” will state a priory, despite the direct empirical experience of millions of people, that they do not. Any encounter with any “non-material” reality is either personal delusion or mass hallucination. (If you want to read numerous instances of “mass hallucinations” that repeated, see Robert Anton Wilson’s “Cosmic Trigger” trilogy, as well as “Prometheus Rising” by the same author.)
Crowley cleverly dodged the issue by stating that “it does not matter whether or not these things exist; by doing certain things, certain things happen; the reader is urged not to attribute philosophical validity to any of them.” The problem is that, without a philosophical backbone, the pursuit of magick becomes little more than an elaborate form of mental masturbation and low grade synchronicity management.
Yes, Kaos Magick sigils work. They work in weird, startling ways. One must be incredibly careful with phrasing, or the “enchantment” will literally give the chaote exactly what they asked for. Why would that be? Knowledge of the Tree would tell us that the concrete literalism of the response comes from the Yetziratic level of reality. This is the realm where the subconscious interacts with material reality, the astral plane. Any book on Kaos Magick will tell you that this works by pounding a suggestion into your subconscious and forgetting it. A less anti-metaphysical position would include the low astral plane in that description, and the difficulty with exactly how the intention gets unpacked outside ones head is solved.
So, even when a magickal system explicitly denies any ontological universals, it can be explained more adequately in terms of a particular framing of said. Hmmm.
So, back to the Tree, which we have seen can provide a predictive model even in instances where the practitioner explicitly rejects the idea of such a framework. What exactly are these “Worlds”? What are we referring to when we say “Briah,” “Assiah” etc?
I think these things refer to modes of consciousness. Specifically, the four states of awareness referred to by Ken Wilber. Gross, Subtle, Causal, and Non-dual. These map almost perfectly to the Four Worlds of Assiah, Yetzirah, Briah, and Atziluth respectively. I say “almost prefectly” because Briah has some divergence from a purely causal function. Of these states, only the non-dual state is in any way abstract or out of the ordinary. Gross awareness is what you experience when awake, subtle when dreaming, and causal occurs during deep, dreamless sleep.
Assiah can be described almost precisely as our normal waking state. It’s mundane reality. The rock bottom of out existence without which nothing else can hope to emerge. Likewise, Yetzirah, again the astral plane, finds no more common expression than dreams. And in the deepest states of sleep, the Briatic, noetic patterns behind those dreams play out, unknown to all but trained dreamworkers who can follow their consciousness and remain aware up to that point. Only Atziluth remains outside of what we can conceive, being beyond the play of force and form altogether. In other words, non-dual
So, at the very least, we have a map of human awareness. If this were where it stopped, it would be a sufficient reason to maintain some variation of the Great Nest, if not the Tree of Life in particular. For there is little that we can say about reality that is not a statement about our awareness. This is not to say that reality is an “illusion” as some would have it. But we do perceive only a small part of it, those things which the conditioning of our particular nervous systems allows. When we make a statement such as “the tree is over there” we are actually saying “my nervous system experiences signals of space, color, and form that I recognize as a tree.” Imagine our surprise if we walk up and discover our tree is only part of a large, well painted landscape.
But the corolation does not end there. Each of those states is said, in many traditions, to have its own “body.” Kirlean photography is the crudest example of evidence to this effect. More compelling is the empirical, repeatable work of Professor William Tiller. Forget the fact that he was in the Ramtha movie for a moment and actually check out some of his books. They’re full of data and analysis that confirm what mystics and mages have known for aeons without number: that there are actual bodies and levels of reality beyond gross sensation. No quantum hokum, just science.
So, in a very real way, the Tree and the Great Nest have been vindicated. What remains are the relationship between the map and the territory.
And why does the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram work if you replace all the divine names with Disney characters?
To answer that, we need to dig into the Briatic realm. The realm of pattern and story. The noetic impulse behind the multifarious manifestations of Yetzirah.
If you draw a triangle, it is a well known fact that this is not a “real” triangle. That is, it is not a true representation of the mathematical concept relating three points on a plane. The concept of a triangle, the formless principle behind the form, exists in the noetic consciousness of Briah. These geometric facts were the impetus behind Plato’s philosophy of the Forms, though this is hardly as silly as most 101 presentations make it out to be. The typical explanation would have you think there is a perfect bee, a perfect chair, a perfect pile of shit, existing in some perfect world of forms. Actually, if you read past the Republic, you’ll discover the idea is more abstract than the more Christianized versions would have you think. It’s more like Briah, the patterns behind the shapes, than like a view of some ideal Heaven. (The relationship between the Forms and Plato’s Republic would require a major digression.)
To make this less rarefied, imagine a pool of water. Winds blow across it, light refracts from its surface. Occasionally, this play of light and wind and water will make shapes that you can recognize. Behind those shapes are patterns and probabilities that repeat according to certain given laws. These patterns are analagous to Briah.
When you learn magick, if your teacher is competant, you receive a few basic practices. One of these involves drawing the geometric shape of the Pentagram in the air and “charging” it with a name of power. The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram actually involves three geometric forms: the afformentioned Pentagram, the circle you describe in the air as you turn to each quarter, and the cross in the center.
The basic pattern behind this is simple manifestation of something from the ground of existence. The Circle relates in nearly every case to the infinite, the whole, the undivided. The Cross has many meanings, but in the Hermetic sense, as described in Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad, it relates to the movement of the one into manifestation. It is the “Light In Extension” in the Hall of the Neophytes, and forms the energetic pattern of that Grade’s Hall. The Cross also divides the circle or in this case a sphere, into Four.
The Pentagram adds the Five, the Quintessence. Five completes the Elemental set. It indicates the emergence from dissolution (Cross and Circle) into a higher oneness. Perhaps it is clear now why Crowley called the LBRP “the medicine of metals?”
In any case, we have here a basic Story. Differenciation moving back to a higher oneness. Further, we have a set of sub-patterns that are keyed into the base geometric forms of the Cosmos.
So it is hardly surprising that replacing the names, once one has learned the ritual and ingrained it in their psyche, does not diminish the effect of the ritual. One is, to begin with, already keyed with a certain set of emotional responses to the act of drawing and charging. Also, one is empowering something beyond names: the images of those same Cosmic patterns.
There is a second order of patterns, less noetic but nonetheless important here. These are the Archetypes in the true sense of the word. That is, the basic stories underlying the decision to attribute say, Daffy Duck to Fire and Minny Mouse to Water. The characters have a particular temperment, each attributible to one of the Classical Elements.
What we see here is that the art of magick depends less on outer form than on the deep patterns behind those forms. One could, in fact, do nothing more than study geometry, and know almost all there is to know about magick.