A Simpler Life – ancient Greek style

As an inhabitant in the world of Homeric mythology, unless I were a slave, my moral goal would have been to be αγαθός, which although oft translated as ‘good’, meant something very different than we might think of as good today. In that world, there was no overriding concept of good or evil (Morales, 39), terms that are much bandied about today yet virtually impossible to define (MacIntyre, 257). Might αγαθός offer a refreshingly simpler life than we enjoy today? I argue that it could.

I would be αγαθός by behaving in the way that successfully discharged my allotted social function (MacIntyre, 6). If, for example, I were a married woman, then I would be αγαθός if I were faithful to my husband (MacIntyre, 6). It matters not if the requisite αρετή (virtues) to be αγαθός are otherwise unjustified, dangerous, or even antisocial (MacIntyre, 11). Likewise, I might engage in similarly unpleasant behaviour and still be αγαθός. For example, when dissuading Agamemnon from stealing Briseis from Achilles, Nester tells Agamemnon ‘do not, αγαθός though you be, take the girl from him.’ (MacIntyre (8).

It is irrelevant whether αγαθός is impossible to achieve. In Homer’s mythical world, we encounter an idealised form of life (MacIntyre, 8) in which successful performance – a factual statement – of the requisite αρετή is all that matters. Helen is not faithful to her husband. It matters not why; therefore she is not αγαθός.

In such a world, it would be in my best interest to be αγαθός. If I failed then at best, I would be made to feel αίσχος, or ‘shame’, as was Paris when Hector found him in bed with Helen instead of fighting with the troops– ‘at the sight of him to shame him’, Hector gives him a lecture (Hom. Id. VI:88-91). As MacIntyre (8) reminds us, αγαθός for a warrior requires public display of courage and by being ‘aggrieved in private’, Paris fails the required display. It is through shaming, that Hector forces Paris to acknowledge his failure. At worst, I could end up dead as were Penelope’s hapless suitors upon the homecoming of Odysseus. MacIntyre (7) suggests that however horrible, their slaughter was morally justifiable because they had failed to display xenia, the αρετή (virtue) required of guests. As Odysseus points out, they ‘fleeced my house’, ‘raped my slave girls’, and ‘flirted with my wife’… ‘while I am still alive! (Hom. Od. 22.36-38 – emphasis added). Definitely not xenia.

Offering little personal freedom and allowing for no defense (MacIntyre, 7), being αγαθός may not appear desirable to modern westerners. We are used to something quite different. Nonetheless, aspiring to αγαθός, I would never be in doubt as to what I should do. Likewise, I would take no personal responsibility for the unforeseen consequences of my actions. Helen’s lack of fidelity was a significant cause of the Trojan war. Yet she is responsible for that infidelity and not for causing a war. As Priam tells her ‘you are not to blame, I hold the gods to blame for bringing on this war’ (Hom. Id. III:63-65).  

I suggest that by the ‘sloppy shoulders’ standards of a 21st century western citizenry burdened by exponentially expanding complexity and the existential angst of too much freedom and responsibility, αγαθός could offer a desirably simple alternative.

 

_____________________

Bibliography

Blundell, Sue. (1995). Women in Ancient Greece. London: British Museum Press.

Homer., Fitzgerald, & Homer. (2008). The Iliad. Oxford. Oxford World Classics. 

Homer., Wilson, E.R. & Homer. (2020). The Odyssey. New York; London: WW Norton & Company.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. (2002). A Short History of Ethics. London; New York: Routledge Classics. 

Morales, Helen (2013, online). Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; Oxford University Press. 

Man’s Relationship with his Gods

Reading Homer’s Iliad, it is clear that not only did the gods – or immortals – meddle in every aspect of the lives of important men and women – but that those men and women were quick to blame their misfortunes on the gods, often failing to take any personal responsibility for their lives, as we might be expected today.

So what might have might have been going on?

I suggest it’s all to do with man’s perceived relationship with his gods. Further, I suggest that this is nicely explained in Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In that work, Jayne’s proposed that until about 3000 years ago, human consciousness consisted only of voices that, because the two hemispheres of the brain didn’t communicate, were perceived as coming from the gods.

In essence, these ancient men lacked self-consciousness as we know it today. They could not perceive themselves as separate from – and thus ‘in relationship with’ – the gods. Instead, they had a type of cosmic consciousness which gave them imaginal – almost telepathic – access to the greater cosmos. Everything they saw and heard was to them, objectively real.

Jaynes suggests that in effect these ancients were what we might call ‘signal-bound’, responding constantly in a stimulus -response manner, completely controlled by cues. To get a sense of what this means, we need only to look at artwork from this period. I am most struck by the early Cycladic art, which I suggests demonstrates these people had a symbiotic relationship with their divinity, the Great Goddess and Earth Mother. This was the Age of Taurus, one in which men and women moved with and through the flow of nature, at one with the natural world.

Jaynes suggests this bicameralism began to break down during 2nd millennium BCE  – about the time of that the Trojan War is thought to have occurred. This was the Age of Aries and so during this time, the focus shifts to individualised achievement and conquest. The world was no longer slow moving and rural, but hierarchically organised and maintained by brute force. This required a cold, hard, calculated response. The gods no longer spoke to every individual, so the truths of cosmic consciousness were expressed in the form of the great narrative epics and divine commandments, of which the Old Testament of the Bible and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are excellent examples.

After mankind’s ‘fall’ from the garden of Eden, which you might view as a loss of cosmic consciousness, men had to become increasingly devious in order to survive. Again, when we look at the early artwork of the ancient Middle East at the beginning of the period, we see kings standing side by side with their councillor gods effortlessly gaining divine wisdom. But by the end of that age – ‘after the fall’ – the kings were on their knees begging for guidance.

Thus consciousness of ‘I’ – as separate and ‘in relation with’ the gods developed and the rational problem-solving man, with which we are familiar, is born. It’s interesting that our familiarity with our humanity increased as our familiarity with the gods decreased.

Next, the distant imperial divinities were replaced the local gods and great mythic narratives. The old cosmic consciousness had nearly faded from memory, although it was revived from time to time by mystery religions.

Here we find the right brain intuition just starting to interact with the left brain thinking, although even today we can’t be sure of the degree of the quality of such interaction. It’s not surprising that this period produced such a diametrical divinity like Jesus Christ – a mortal man who died – but didn’t really die- and because of that, was worshipped like an immortal God. This was the Age of Pisces.

What might we expect next, in the coming Age of Aquarius? I suggest that man will reposition himself vis a vis God through scientific endeavours.  In essence, man reaches for the stars –  not so much by playing God – but through creating reality. It’s ideas that drive us. We’ve always known this. But until now, we’ve been held back by our mortality.

In the post-human era, characterised by artificial intelligence and uploaded consciousness (or the transfer of the human mind to an artificial substrate), we will eliminate these distinctions, which interestingly were all man made in the first place.[1] .

Hence in the post-human era, we will transcend our bodies and become immortal like the gods. Aquarius is all about communication and through it the three aspects of the mind, cautiousness, unconsciousness, and super-consciousness will seek simultaneous expression. If we look carefully at the glyph for Aquarius – two parallel WAVY lines – I suggest that represents our new status with God.[2]

Nor surprisingly, this idea has already been presented by Nietzsche in writings about the Ubermensch or overman, in which he suggested that ‘man is something that must be overcome’ and that the highest truth is being born within man through the self-creating power of the will. To accomplish this, man’s present limited ‘self’ must be destroyed. The truth isn’t to be proved or disproved but instead, to be created. Nietzsche believed that man’s striving toward the future will result in the birth of a new being who would incarnate the meaning of the universe and thus impose redemptive order on the chaos of a meaningless universe without the gods.


[1] At the beginning of the Piscean age, Plato first formatted the distinction between the sensory (the earth plane) and the eternal world (of ideas).

Early Christian theologians renamed this external world Heaven with its guiding principle as God. The Christians further borrowed from Aristotle the notion of God as the Prime Mover of the cosmos and the First Cause of everything that exists. Amazingly, those notions had never been seriously challenged until relatively recent by the modern philosophers. 

Take Descartes. When new scientific discoveries made him wonder ‘what can I know for certain’, he came to the famous conclusion ‘I think, therefore I am’. But his matrix still kept God as the first cause of – and the only link between – a bicameral universe where subjectivity – ‘I think’ –  was isolated from objectivity – ‘the world which I perceive’.

Next comes Hume who claims that the only thing that we can be certain of is the fact that there is an unbroken stream a subjective images and ideas. Under his ‘radical scepticism’, we can’t even be certain that there is something called the mind to contain these ideas because the mind is itself just another idea.

For Kant, one could only know the sensory world and only believe in any realm beyond that. Finally, Nietzsche came along and pronounced the ‘death of God’. This was a turning point where we could no longer legitimately argue that anything lies beyond the earth plane in which we live. This was the ‘dawning of the Age of Aquarius’.

[2] In Descartes’s matrix, which still underlies most modern thinking, the problem is due to the difference in kind between the mind and the body. While the non-spatial mind and the mechanistic body shouldn’t interact, they do so in the human body. In post-humanism, this problem is reworked and the distinction between subject and object is collapsed, with the mind considered to be no more than a material function of the body. Thus we will become both creator and the created.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 4)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.

Byzantine Legacy

After the fall of Rome in the 4th century AD, Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, became the new centre of culture and learning and, as the result, the Alexandrian Hellenistic esoteric tradition got a facelift with an Arabic rendition of Hermes Trismegistus, The Emerald Tablet. As such, the words ‘so as above, so as below‘ became cemented into Western esoteric tradition and with them, the idea that the same forces work on earth exactly as they do throughout heaven.

As Peter Marshall observes, The Emerald Tablet is nuanced version of the creation myth of ancient Egypt with Ra symbolised by the sun and told the names of creation by Thoth, symbolised by the moon, who by uttering them brought them into existence in the single act of adaptation by reversing, as did the ancient Egyptians, the familiar Western notion of ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Father Sky.’[1]

This opens the way for the alchemical allegory of the chemical wedding of the sun and the moon , Sol and Luna. More of alchemy in later posts, but for now it’s enough to set the scene for this development with a deep awareness of the beauty and magnificence of the creation as well as firmly cementing the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water into Western esoteric tradition.[2]

Marsilio Ficino and the Hermetic Revival

As the Byzantine Empire declined in the 15th century, the centre of culture and learning shifted westward, to the city of Florence where humanist thought paved the way for the revival of Platonism.[3] As wealth and patronage played such an important part in the advancement of learning in that time, it’s little wonder that with aid from Cosimo de’ Medici, the leading merchant-prince of the Florentine Republic, Marsilio Ficino now takes centre stage.

Ficino had been searching for a type of spirituality that fit his needs and in Plato’s work, he found it. With the backing of Cosimo, Ficino began to translate original Greek manuscripts into Latin. It was during this endeavour that he got his hands on a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum. At that time, it was believed the Hermeticum was much older that it has turned out to be. Thus Ficino and his followers regarded Hermes Trismegistus as a contemporary of Moses and as such, the work was seen as a philosophia perennis, which although predating Christianity, anticipated its arrival. Doubtless, this allowed the ideas in that work to be more palatable to the Church.

The result was an intriguing cosmology, or a psychologically spatial orientation of that which is ‘me’ as well as that which is other than ‘me’, that put God at the top of a hierarchy populated by orders of angels, the planets, and the elements as well as various types of plants, animals and minerals. 

But what made Ficino’s cosmology unique was the role to which he assigned to the human soul. In keeping with Plato’s Symposium, in which Socrates identifies love is an active force holding all things together, Ficino attributed this active influence of thought and love to the human soul, which he believed could reach out and embrace all things in the universe. More than just a formal intellectual model, this new cosmology acted as a map for the travels and ascent of man’s individual soul. In his own contemplative life, Ficino gave personal and practical slant to this idea and combined it seamlessly with his Christianity. 

For thus our soul becomes most like to God, who is wisdom itself. According to Plato, in this likeness consists the highest state of happiness. 

Ficino, a letter written to Cosimo de Medici 

Most importantly, in the hands of Ficino, the Hermetica offered the opportunity to gain power over nature, through what is now known as natural or sympathetic magic. For Ficino, this magic was most easily accomplished through astrology. He believed that the planets and all things celestial, sowed the seeds of God’s divine plan into the material world through archetypal energies resembling rays. Wisdom, one’s key to happiness, would come from judiciously absorbing as many different rays as possible.

By withdrawal from earthly things, by leisure, solitude, constancy, esoteric theology and philosophy, by superstition, magic, agriculture, and grief, we come under the influence of Saturn.”

Marsilio Ficino

As Dr Liz Greene reminds us, not only was Carl Jung very familiar with Ficino’s work, but he relied on it extensively in his own work in the Liber Novus. For example, the Old Scholar, with whom Jung communicated in that work, was a grief-stricken recluse, echoing the Ficino’s association of Saturn with grief and solitude.[4]  As noted in an earlier post, Jung’s most important spiritual guide in Liber Novus, who was known to him as Philemon, was a Saturnian figure with Aquarian leanings. As Dr Greene also reminds us, Philemon provided Jung with his wisdom, his insight, and his understanding of the workings of the psyche – in essence his own cosmology – which Jung then translated into his psychological theories. Philemon’s approach to all of this through astrology, is directly traceable to the work of Ficino. [5]

Pico della Mirandola and the Kabbala

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a contemporary of Ficino, upped the ante in developing an even more powerful variety of Renaissance magic by incorporating into Ficino’s approach, the Jewish Kabbalah, a mystical concept used by Kabbalists to signify the self-emptying aspect of the creator.

God (known as Ain Soph) withdraws his Light in order to create a vacuum allowing a single thread of his Light to traverse the darkness in a series of ten concentric circles called Sephiroth – collectively known as The Tree of Life.  Each Sephira, connected by twenty-two pathways, acts as a vessel containing some of His Light; thus each represents an aspect of God.

For the Kabbalist, the ‘Tree’ is not only a diagram of God’s unfolding creative impulse, but also a path for spiritual union with the Divine.  Legend has it that after the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, angels brought the Kabbalah down from Heaven to teach Adam how to recover his primal bliss.

Although primarily a system of contemplation, the Kabbalah also has a magical side. As a means of approaching the Sephiroth, seventy-two angels could be invoked by one knowing their names and numbers as well as the appropriate arrangement of Hebrew words, letters, and/or signs.

According to Pico , Ficino’s natural or sympathetic magic was weak and ineffective unless used in combination with the Kabbalah. He said that whereas natural magic aims no higher than operating upon the material world and the stars, the Kabbalah can be used to operate beyond – to influence the super celestial spheres of angels, archangels and God (the first cause), Himself. Such practise however, could be dangerous and the ecstasy that results may cause the death of the body, a way of dying known as the “Death of the Kiss.”

Not surprisingly, Jung’s spirit guide, Philemon, was also knowledgeable with the Kabbalah. It was shortly before Jung’s kabbalistic vision of uniting the divine male and female, that he’d experienced a serious heart attack in 1944.[6] Indeed, the English occultist, Dion Fortune, attributed her well known book, The Mystical Qabalah, to the wisdom that Philemon had communicated to Jung.[7]

I would commence my mental rehearsal up the sacred names, and would suddenly find that I was aware of mental pictures only… I maintained my concentration on the images arising in consciousness, and did not allow it to wander… Out of the Sky over the water a vast angelic figure began to form, and I saw what I felt to be an archangel bent over me in a vast curve.

Dion Fortune

In his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico marked the change between the medieval mind and the modern mind; man alone has been given by God the freedom to make of himself what he will, and it should come as no surprise, drawing on the that overwhelming message of the Corpus Hermeticum, that in doing so he should strive to become like God, to know God as an equal – because only like understands like. The stage is now set for the develop of further invocational magic.

(to be continued)



[1] Marshall, Peter. The Philosopher’s Stone: A Quest for the Secrets of Alchemy. London; Macmillan (2001).

[2] As Peter Marshall suggests, nothing stands more powerfully than the words of the Emerald Tablet themselves:

  1. True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of one thing. 
  2. And as all things were by the contemplation of the one, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.
  3. The father is therefore is the Sun, the mother the Moon. 
  4. The wind carried it in its womb, the Earth is the nurse thereof. 
  5. It is the father of all the works of wonder throughout the whole world. 
  6. The power therefore is perfect. 
  7. If it be cast on to the Earth, it will separate the elements of the Earth from that of Fire, the subtle from the gross. 
  8. With great sagacity it doth ascend gently from Earth to Heaven.
  9. Again it doth descend to the Earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior.
  10. Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly from thee.
  11. This thing is the strong fortitude of all strength, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance. 
  12. Thus was the world created. 
  13. Hence there will be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this. 
  14. For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the whole world. 
  15. That which I had to say about the operation of the Sol  is completed.

[3] As Louis Dupre explains in his excellent book, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. P. 96-97 and 149), underlying the humanist movement in all its variations, is the idea of human responsibility for bringing all creation to its destined perfection. Since the 15th century humanists were focused on finding the right models for telling an essentially unchanging story, it’s not surprising that in their hands, ancient learning again takes centre stage in new form.

[4] For more on this, see discussion at pp. 75 in The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, (Routledge, 2018) by Dr Liz Greene

[5] Ibid, p. 119.

[6] Ibid,  p. 99.

[7] Ibid, p. 101.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 3)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.

As noted earlier, all western Traditions are based on the cosmology so as above so is below with a more or less direct connection between the divine reality (logos) and our human lives in the earthly realm. 

Hermeticism

As might be expected, it all began in ancient Egypt around the time that Alexander the Great (332BC) founded the city of Alexandra. Cultural change (urbanisation and the Greek rationalism which made gods too difficult for most people to relate to) brought in the first of these traditions, Alexandrian Hermeticism. 

The city of Alexander was a melting pot of cultures so it only makes sense that its spiritual tradition followed suit quickly becoming a clearing house for both Greek and Eastern ideas , myth, and religious practises and beliefs. The best known texts of this period are those attributed to Hermes Trismegistus – whose attributes were also a melting pot of the Egyptian god, Thoth and the Greek god Hermes (known as Mercury in ancient Rome). 

Thoth was a lunar deity in service to the solar god, Ra, and for the ancient Egyptians, everything lunar was vital not least because the moon was considered responsible for the periodic flooding of the River Nile. It’s little surprise then that Thoth was at the top of divinity heap, considered to be the supreme law giver especially regarding magical and occult powers. Likewise, Hermes, the psychopomp (the spiritual guide of a living person soul) was also a lunar deity and considered responsible for the timely functioning of everyday life.

Although both Thoth and Hermes had serious clout, they also had a lighter more playful side in the sense they were identified as trickster gods. This allowed people to relate with them more easily than they had been able with other gods.

In time, Hermes became associated with the concept of Logos, one of the most complex concepts of the Hellenistic world meaning nothing less than the natural order of things –  the very rhyme and reason of creation. Thus it was through Hermes that the people could find Logos, or divinity,  within themselves, as did Carl Jung through his connection with Philemon, his spirit guide in Liber Novus, who, as Dr Liz Greene reminds us, was also a hermetic figure. 

The primary text of Alexandrian Hermeticism is the Corpus Hermeticum, which itself is a collection of 17 different treatises written in Greek in 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Throughout most of these treaties, the character Hermes Trismegistus, plays the role of initiator to various other characters into wisdom and mysteries. However in the famous first book Poimandres (The Divine Pymander), Hermes receives a lecture from the god Nous (Supreme intellect).

 “Because of this, unlike any other living thing on earth, mankind is twofold – in the body mortal but immortal in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it.”

(Book 1 (Discourse) of Hermes Trismegistus: Poimandres, [15].

The overwhelming message of Corpus Hermeticum is that it is the work of humans to become like God, to know God as an equal – because only like understands like.

This is to be accomplished through contemplation of the divinity that pervades the whole of nature. Look for symbols because all symbols point to God. Learn how to read the symbols, and you will know God.

Therefore according to the hermetic tradition, the purpose of esoteric (spiritual) practise is to find our own divinity, our own connection with God, through our intellect. This is achieved through discourse with the hierarchical entities (mundus imaginals). In essence, it is this initiation, development, and maintenance of bonds and relationships between revealed and concealed worlds that is known to us as magic.

It is this ‘essential man’ (or spirit) that Nous mentioned (see above) that we are attempting to reconnect. Eventually, by climbing that hierarchal ladder with help from the various entities, we will transmute the baseness of the material world and once again become one with God.[1]


Neoplatonism

Closely related to Hermeticism, is pagan Neoplatonism, which like Hermeticism, perceived the primary aim of man is to tread a spiritual path allowing him to ascend to his divine origins, from which he’d fallen into earthly existence. Neoplatonism flourished between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD and was especially popular with the wealthy inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

According to Plotinus, a leading figure in this moment, the hierarchy of Hermeticism could be divided into three readily discernible parts: (1) the Higher Soul (World Soul and that of individuals), (2) Intellect, and (3) Lower Soul or Nature. Each level was a constituent part of living, breathing Logos and each consisted of exactly the same stuff, albeit the lower down the ladder, the more imperfect that would be.

As with Hermeticism, Plotinus believed the point of all esoteric practice (i.e. magic) was the purification and ascent of the soul into unity with the Divine through use of correspondence, or sumpatheia (sympathy). As Dr Liz Greene explains, sumpatheia means ‘happening with’, or ‘experiencing with’; ‘two apparently unrelated events, conditions, or objects that occur simultaneously and reflect a shared hidden meaning, root, pattern, or divinity. According to Dr Greene, this is precisely what Jung meant when he coined the new term ‘synchronicity’, in order to make the old magical ideas more palatable to the scientific community. [2]

Porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus, added the flourish of strict asceticism to the process whilst Iamblichus, a disciple of Porphyry, streamlined and formalised the process with formulaic (theurgical) manipulation of symbolic objects as well as methodology to achieve ‘divine possession’ of the gods through mediumship.

According to Iamblichus, ‘the eyes of the body’ cannot tolerate a vision of the gods except through the mediation of perceptible symbols such as gemstones. As Dr Greene also reminds us, although we still do not understand why humans respond psychologically to certain gemstones (and in particular to their colours), nevertheless, we do. Like all symbols, gemstones have potency and consumers are more willing than ever to accept this at face value. [3

Proclus, the last major pagan Neoplatonist strengthen the connection between spiritual ascent and properly focused theurgy, thus laying the groundwork for Renaissance magicians like Ficino.

Gnosticism

A major current in Christian thought, Gnosticism follows a game plan of achieving spiritual knowledge (gnosis) of God and the higher realities (archangels, cherubim, seraphim, guardians, et al) that operate in the same plane as God.

But although one may aspire to know God, God remains always unknown and unknowable. Gnosis is as close as you’ll get, and for some Gnostics, that could only be achieved through redemption through Jesus Christ.

Also in contrast to Hermeticism, wherein there was no duality in the sense that everything in the world is recognised as of divine origin, with the Gnostics comes the concept of good vs. evil.

For the Gnostics, the material world (one of illusion) populated by humans was not a creation of God, but instead of an inferior (or perhaps even evil) being known as the demiurge.

Overall, Gnosticism is a pessimistic view of the fallen nature of man and a rejection of the fundamental good of all God’s creation.

(to be continued)


[1] It is worth nothing that in this sense, spiritual, unlike the common English usage, refers to a material substance, the Stoic conception of a higher, finer matter that sustains life, movement, and thought. See Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation with notes and introduction by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p 99, note 1.5.

[2] See The God in the Stone: Gemstone Talismans in the Western Magical Traditions by Liz Greene (pp 48); in Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre conference, special double issue on Celestial Magic, vol. 19 , Number 1 and 2, Spring/ Summer and Autumn/Winter 2015.

[3] Greene, The God in the Stone, p. 51.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 2)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

Carl Jung was heavily influenced by Henry Corbin, a renowned 20th century scholar of Islamic esotericism. 

A central aspect of Corbin’s work was the idea of the imagination as both ‘cognitive and creative’. In line with the Persian philosophers whom he had studied, Corbin identified the human imagination as ‘an autonomous world of intermediaries, the mundus imaginals, where visions, apparitions, angels, and hierarchies occurred independently of any perceiving subject’. 

Corbin concluded that this world of hierarchies is as ‘real and objective’ as the material world in which we carry out our everyday lives. But because these intermediaries are not as dense as the material objects populating our everyday world, they are not easily perceptible. To access mundus imaginals, we must use our active imaginations rather than the sense of sight, smell, and touch, through which we usually navigate.

This, along with the work of other academics and scholars, leaves us with six fundamental characteristics of western esoteric spirituality: 

  1. Correspondence –  all constituent levels of being (stars, planets, humans, animals, plants, minerals, humours, and states of mind both healthy and diseased) are linked together through a series of correspondences. Imagine two violins. Sympathetic or corresponding  vibration occurs when two strings are tuned to the same pitch. When one is plucked, the other will sing out in ‘in sympathy’. The connection between these various levels of being is not causal, but symbolic. As Dr Liz Greene reminds us, the gods have left their traces in the material world for us to find and this is done through symbols. Humans don’t invent symbols. We discover them through our active imagination. Dr Greene says we use symbols to coax the gods to come down to earth and partake with us through ritual and this is precisely what Jung did whilst writing Liber Novus.
  2. Living nature – all things in nature are alive, full of divine energy or soul. It is through this divine energy or soul, that Marsilio Ficino, an accomplished magician and protégée of Cosimo de Medici, one of the most powerful men in Renaissance Europe, lived what he referred to as a ‘well-tempered’ life in cosmic harmony with the divine plan. This plan was charted in the heavens and so it is no surprise that Ficino was also an accomplished astrologer. In Ficino’s solar system, there were only seven planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto had yet to be discovered). Ficino believed that in order to thrive, soul needs exposure to each of those planets. For example, the Sun symbolizes the qualities – insight and imagination – that are uniquely human. Thus solar energy is associated with consciousness, rational thought, and the pursuit of truth and honour.  Cultivate solar energy through solemn music, all things gold coloured, nutmeg, heliotrope, myrrh, honey, crocus, corn, cinnamon, aloes, lions, swans, beetles, and chickens. Visualize a king on a throne in a yellow garment, along with a raven and the form of the sun.
  3. Imagination and mediations – as mentioned earlier, it is through our active imagination that we establish a cognitive and creative connexion with mundus imaginals. As Goodrick-Clark reminds us, where the mystic typically seeks a direct and immediate connexion with God, for the esotericist, this connection is made through the intermediaries that extend up and down the hierarchal ladder. In essence, this is magical thinking –  a unique type of consciousness – participative of mode of thought whereby participants gain awareness of the Inter relatedness of all things in the world by a means of simple , but we find, sense perception. In this sense, magic does not seek to fix or change the objective world.[1] Dr Greene reminds us that when we coax the gods to come to earth and partake with us through ritual , we have invoked them not to ‘fix’ our outer world, but instead to ‘fix’ our inner world – in other words, to transform us to live, as did Ficino, in harmony with the divine plan. 
  4. The experience of transmutation – as noted above, as the result of esoteric work we must expect to experience change in some uniquely manifest way. This is not an intellectual pursuit. For Jung, the arrival of his Philemon, his Saturnian daimon with Aquarian leanings, was a key moment in his life. Dr Greene suggests that Jung stopped working on Liber Novus in 1929-1932 because he needed to understand what was meant psychologically by Philemon as symbol of his ‘inner’ self.  As the result, he developed psychological models like perhaps synchronicity to explain what had resulted for him as the result of his esoteric work. Jung believed synchronistic experiences mirror deep psychological processes that further ‘individuation’ – the process by which we gain understanding of our place in the world. He believe that synchronistic experiences always involve an archetype. Consider the case of the Golden beetle. While Jung’s client was relating a dream which she’d received a gift of a Golden scarab (a large dung beetle held sacred in ancient Egypt), Jung heard a gentle tapping on the window. He opened it and caught a beetle whose green gold colour was the same as that of the Golden scarab his client had described. When Jung related that the scarab was a classic rebirth symbol depicting the archetype of self-transformation , exactly the issue with which she’d been struggling, the client was shocked enough to breakdown her resistance to therapy. Here you can see the connection between magical thinking (i.e. synchronicity), symbols, and personal change of transmutation.[2]
  5. Concordance – the idea here is that all of these western esoteric traditions (perhaps also some or all of the eastern traditions) are linked together in important ways and perhaps even stem from a single source (prisca theologia).
  6. Transmission – most esoteric traditions suggest that the fullness of their teachings can only be passed from master to disciple through an established path of initiation. In other words, book learning or even personal experimentation will never be enough.  

Finally, and very importantly, Corbin and other esoteric scholars have demonstrated that the esoteric traditions and ideals come back into fashion whenever the world order as we currently know it starts to fall apart. This is exactly what happened in the European renaissance revival of all of these traditions and we will see more examples of this in future blog posts.

(to be continued) 


[1] Campion, Nicholas, Editorial (p 1-8) in Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre conference, special double issue on Celestial Magic, vol. 19 , Number 1 and 2, Spring/ Summer and Autumn/Winter 2015.

[2] For more on this, see discussion at pp. 116-117 in The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, (Routledge, 2018) by Dr Liz Greene.

Character & Calling (Part 3)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996).

Daimon often comes to us as we are children with an unexplained fascination or unusual ways of play. I was taken very early with writing short storeys about my friends in my imagined exploits we would solve mysteries like Nancy Drew and her chums. Later I went on to become a lawyer in international tax com of all things. But as retirement loomed, I started writing fiction again with all the enthusiasm I once had as a child. In this, I was lucky. Others are not.

The point Hillman makes is not to squeeze this enthusiasm out of children using the excuse that they need to be socialised in order to perform from an early age as their parents and teachers would want. Just give kids enough room to experiment and grow into that oak tree that their individual acorns had laid out for their lives and not surprisingly, to accomplish this they need to put down some very strong roots in order to support future growth into their potential. 

But as Hillman points out, allowing this is difficult for us in the West, because we cling so strongly to what calls the ascensionist model – in other words – up is good and down is bad. Yet this is not the way of Damon or soul. As the Zohar, the main Kabbalist book, makes clear, zimzum, or the self-emptying aspect of the God, known as Ain Soph, traverses downwards through the darkness in a series of ten concentric circles called Sephiroth, collectively known as The Tree of Life. 

Likewise, Plato and his Myth of Er emphasizes this downward assent. Having arrived from previous lives, all the souls mill about in a mythical world awaiting their new lot, or portion of fate. For example, the soul of a mighty warrior chooses the life of a lion whilst that of a young woman runner, choose a lot of an athlete. When each of the souls have chosen their new lives according to their lots, they are assigned a daimon and without looking back, descend to earth to enact their lot. 

It should come as no surprise that in keeping with the Myth of Er, Hellenistic astrologers devised clever ways to delineate one’s lot using his or her natal chart. Some of these techniques have come down to modern astrologers, notably, the Lot of Fortune (or the Moon) and the Lot of Spirit (or the Sun). The former pertains to the natural flow of events in our lives whilst the latter describes change that occurs because of our intention. So, for example, if the Lot of Fortune describes how much money we are likely to make, the Lot of Spirit describes how we will choose our vocation and answer our calling. 

Hillman reminds us that the decent down into earth for soul is painful and costly and riches and fame never seem to really compensate. He uses Judy Garland as a case to illustrate his point. Judy was born into a showbiz family and at age 2 1/2 years of old, she had her first successful performance singing Jingle Bells. The immediate rapport she garnered from her audience cemented her calling, which she herself said “was inherited”. As Hillman also reminds us, it was the superlatives that betrayed her. According to one and all, during the height of her success, Garland was the best of everything. Even Garland herself said “I’ve done everything to excess.”

Yet as Hillman also points out, Judy Garland may have grown up but she didn’t grow down, as is required for soul. Always, she held on to America’s most treasured drug – the myth of innocence – the psychology of denial. Hillman tells us Garland’s acorn belonged “over the rainbow” and it was little wonder that her real life of drugs and chronic loneliness ended on a toilet the night of 21-22 June, the apogee of the solar year, the brightest light and the shortest night. 

Looking briefly at Garland’s natal chart, we see that her Lot of Fortune is at 21 Capricorn 15, and is thus very strong. Not only is in angular (7th house) but its ruler, Saturn, is very strong (angular, exalted, and in rulership by triplicity and term). Saturn also benefits from the rays (by sign) of three of the four benefics (Sun, Moon, and Jupiter). It is however, out of sect (Saturn is a diurnal planet and is in the nocturnal part of this chart). This suggests that in the natural flow of events, such as making money, Garland would do very, very well – which of course, she did  – but with Saturn being out of sect, this success would also be out-of-balance tending toward harmful excess, which of course was the case. Her Lot of Spirit, at 0 Capricorn is likewise strong also being ruled by Saturn. 

Perhaps it is only when we look at her daimon, which because Cancer is rising is the Moon, that we can understand fully why her life took such a tragic course. At 29 Sagittarius, Garland’s Moon (or daimon) is in an anaretic degree. Planets in the anaretic degree are known as ‘destroying’ planets, often causing difficulties, crisis, overcompensation, and poor choices. Perhaps this is an example of what Hillman has already promised to discuss, a situation where daimon is not good but instead bad?

I wonder why it happens to some and not others – definitely worth investigating further, don’t you think?

(to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 2)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996). 

Hillman reminds us that according to Plato and his Myth of Er, the soul of each of us is allocated a daimon, or soul guide, before we are born. This this comes part and parcel with extras: our physical bodies, our parents, and the place and circumstances into which we are born. Although this was our soul’s choice, upon birth we have forgotten it. And so during our lifetimes, we are driven by daimon to reconnect with our choices and reawaken to our calling. This can come to us in any number of ways. Although it may be possible to temporarily defer our calling, or even to only partially live it out, it’s never possible to completely avoid it for if there is one of which we can be certain, daimon can never successfully be ignored.

That’s just the point.

In modern western medical circles, soul – or destiny – or daimon – is ignored.  It doesn’t fit nicely into existing personality and psychological theories. Although Hillman doesn’t say explicitly why this might be the case, he seems to suggest fear plays a large part. Is it not frightening to a civilisation such as our own, a civilisation that has lost touch with its own divinity, to suggest there is something driving us that is beyond our intellectual, physical, and/or scientific grasp? 

Hillman is quick to remind us this doesn’t mean we’ll find the fix to this conundrum by going to church. Instead, we need to go back to Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus. Least you think that our western civilisation has grown beyond these ancient Hellenistic foundations, take a philosophy course or two and think again. For the reality as presented by these ancients is that we each are here on earth for a reason and until that reason is fulfilled, here on earth is where we will remain. Have you ever had a close call with death – maybe inattentively ready to step off the kerb and be hit by a passing taxi-cab – only to have a complete stranger pop out from nowhere and pull you back from the brink? I have and I now know why. 

This does not mean that demon is always ‘good’. As Hillman points out, there can be an ‘evil’ or less fortunate aspect to daimon. More on this later, but for the time being consider how other societies and cultures have viewed the concept of daimon –  i.e. Guardian Angel (Christian), Lady Luck or Fortuna (ancient Roman), genie or jinn (Middle Eastern), ka or ba (Egypt) and animal and totem spirits (American Indian).

But for the most part, daimon is here to look out for us, to ensure that we are OK. Imagine how much more satisfying would be our lives if we could think of ourselves as fundamentally being cared for like this rather than standing alone up against the cold, harsh world? If we were to accept this point of view, we would necessarily need to jettison one  of our of our most treasured western motifs – that of the self-made hero. What a trade-off, right? Well, according to Hillman, we can still be heroes – albeit of a different type – at least we can be if we listen to daimon. This will be a lot easier if we are both curious about ourselves in our world and unwilling to succumb to being wedged into the statistically convenient psychological slot.

One by one, Hillman debunks a variety of well-known psychological theories demonstrating how much more beneficially daimon would operate instead. He uses a variety of fascinating case studies including that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Well-worth reading but sadly, I’ve got neither time nor space to relate them all to you here and now.

 (to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 1)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996). 

Hillman reminds us that theories don’t do our lives justice. Statistics don’t either. Each of us has a unique calling – something that calls us – a call which we will or will not take.

Do you believe in fate?

Wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time kind of thing?

Is this accident, synchronicity, or something else altogether? That’s what this book is about and yet when you try to use its wisdom going forward in time, it seems to stall. So can we only use it in reverse to make sense of our lives in retrospect? I think maybe – but Hillman says not. This is because he believes our entire lives are about our character and had we not ought to be able to suss that out in advance? Not sure, are you?

Nonetheless Hillman reminds us that we are more than our memories – more than people have told us that we are (or aren’t). So how is it that we can take our own measure and profit by it? Stay tuned and maybe together, we’ll find out!

First step is to forget everything you’ve been told about psychological theories. After all they’re only made up from man-made observations rather than any kind of cosmic road map. We’re looking for a unique personal narrative here – not a standardised genre or traditional 3-Act story plot. Okay, sure – an oak tree does come from an acorn – I mean, how else could it be? But the acorn doesn’t tell how that oak will or will not actually develop or even where it takes root.

Try to think of this less prosaically – more poetically.

Because they have so little, children must rely on imagination rather than experience.   

Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living

If I hadn’t made a left hand turn – if you hadn’t made a right – if I’d waited just a moment more – if you missed the light…

Dory Previn, Children of Coincidence 

But OK, back to that acorn carrying the genetic code of that oak – in each of our individual acorns, we will find own genetic code in the form of our character which, according to the old stories, was given to us as gift from the gods at our birth.

This is good stuff, Plato, The Myth of Er – daimons and soul guides and no, Hillman wasn’t some kind of new age nutter – he was a Jungian analyst and a scholar and he taught at Yale, Syracuse University, as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Dallas.

 (to be continued)

Beliefs and Propositions

Last night on my weekly Master Your Mindset ZOOM call with Jo Naughton and her excellent Tribe, I articulated the following belief that I felt served me well – ‘I am a clever and ambitious writer’.

But then something prompted me to add – ‘but no one notices or cares’. 

There are many reasons why I might have added that negative qualifier and although I believe that negative qualifier must also serve me well, the reason why must be less than obvious. On the surface, it would seem that such limiting belief can only hold me back from achieving my writerly goals. 

Jo suggested that such qualifying beliefs unconsciously protect us from something which we fear – and that something we fear is more powerful than that which we desire. If that isn’t insidious enough, get this!  The more evidence we gather to bolster such qualifying beliefs, the more they increase their stranglehold. 

This brings us solidly to the interesting question of differentiating a ‘belief’ from a ‘fact’ because if we are being honest with ourselves, only ‘facts’ can produce that evidence. Yet as Jo rightly points out, both ‘facts’ and ‘beliefs’ are mental constructs and so when we say this is a ‘fact’, we are only saying ‘this is what I believe’. 

Jo didn’t go into details, but I ‘believe’ that I get what she means, having recently taken a philosophy course called ‘What is Truth’ at the University of Oxford.

The takeaway point here is that ‘truth values’ (i.e. something either is true – yes or no – there is no in-between) naturally attach to beliefs and propositions; a sentence expresses a belief that XYZ is ‘true or not’ – such as when someone says, ‘it will rain this afternoon’. The only truth involved here is  ‘that’ someone believes the proposition ‘that’ it will rain. Interestingly, whatever comes after ‘that’ doesn’t matter – i.e. rain or not. If you are tempted to argue this isn’t true (or doesn’t make sense) consider further that ‘rain’ is also a belief – I may believe  that the word ‘rain’ includes an icy drizzle but someone else may believe that ‘rain’ requires more, like a heavy downpour. 

The plot thickens when we consider negative statements such as there are no eggs in the refrigerator. How can something be true if it has no truth value (yes or no)? In other words, there are no eggs here to talk about. To make matters worse, a ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ can change over time. For example, when my mother went to high school in the 1930’s, it was a ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ that the atom could not be split, end point. However by the middle of the next decade, that ‘fact’ had not only been negated, but its negation had created nearly a quarter of a million casualties when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

I could go on but I won’t – the takeaway point is that if something is objectively true, it must be mind-independent – and unable to change over time – and oh, by the way, that ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ must also be 100% independent of societal views and norms – the suggestion being that as Jo rightly points out, very (very) little of what we choose to believe is ‘fact’ is actually nothing other than a ‘belief’.

If I wish to get rid of my qualifying belief (i.e.  although I am a clever and ambitious writer, no one notices or cares), I need to re-programme my mind to allow for change in my thoughts and belief. Unfortunately, given that I’m not yet certain what that qualifying belief is protecting me from, I’ll need to do this in stages, and I’m guessing that I could use some help with that. 

I’ll report back when I figure this out.

A Study in Existentialist Philosophy (Part 12)

My summer ( morphed into winter)  reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

In his final chapter, The Place of the Furies, Barrett suggests that before we start talking politics we ought to have first undertaken some serious philosophical contemplation about the true nature of man. 

Although Barrett was writing in the middle of the 20th century, the concerns he’s expressing are still valid today. Barrett points out that as children of the Enlightenment, we in the Western world are accustomed to looking at man ‘almost exclusively as an epistemological subject’, an ‘intellect that registers sense data, makes propositions, reasons, and seeks certainty’. 

As children of the Enlightenment, we are also more or less programmed to look to the past and the future to discern what went wrong and plot and plan how we can make it all ‘better’. With such focus, we skip over the realities of today – not the warm, fuzzy ‘today’ for which we are told we ought to express gratitude, but the cold, hard ‘today’, which we are encouraged to at best overlook or at worst fix and fast. But as the Existentialists have tried to point out, both sides of this equation are the necessary lot of the embodied man.

Naturally it does no more good to focus solely on what’s wrong than it does to focus solely on what’s right. Likewise it does little good to put in Herculean effort to fix that which can’t be fixed. But it would do us a world of good to accept that the ‘idol of progress’ (see both Marx an Nietzsche) is just that – a utopian ideal that we may worship but never achieve.

You see, reminds Barrett, the human condition is one of (1) birth, (2) life (a period punctuated by both intense joy and sorrow), and (3) death. The glue holding that all together is anxiety, guilt, and fear. But as Barrett also reminds us, we in the West have become accustomed to label realists like the Existentialists as naysayers and psychotics, for whom a daily dose of the latest happiness drug is a necessary fix. But it won’t fix anything.

That’s just the point.

The ‘whole man’ or ‘well-rounded individual’ is, according to Barrett and the Existentialists, not one who takes endless courses for self-improvement but one who comes to accept that the power of man is nothing in comparison to that of the gods. This is a lesson that both the ancient Greeks (i.e. the great Oresteia  trilogy of Aeschylus) and modern psychologists have gone to great effort to point out.

The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room.

Carl Jung

To find the gods in psychology we ought to look first at the genres of our case-history writing. Our reflection needs to turn to psychoanalytic literature as literature. I am suggesting that literary reflection is a primary mode of grasping where one is ignorant, unconscious, blind in regard to the case because one has not differentiated the subjective factor, the gods in one’s work.

James Hillman

Take away:

We ignore the gods (an integral part of our embodied reality) at our peril and not everything can be fixed.