Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Western Mystery Tradition(s): Factions and Fault Lines

This is a subject that has been rattling around in my mind for quite some time. It began to come into focus more clearly a few years ago when I was reading Joscelyn Godwin's The Theosophical Enlightenment. One of the subplots of that book, especially in the concluding four chapters, is that of the the increasing amount of tension over the "East versus West" issue among Esotericists during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In one corner were those wished to drink deeply (and ever more deeply) from the fonts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. In the other corner were those whose motto was "East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet."

Another theme that pops up in Godwin's book is that of "therapeutic blasphemy", a term Godwin borrows from one of Britain's most prominent Buddhists, Sangharakshita. The idea of "therapeutic blasphemy" is, in essence, that Christianity is such a pervasive influence in western culture, that only by a positive and concerted effort can one break free of its pernicious (and largely unconscious) influence. In particular, all those born in a Christian society (even if not raised Christian, even nominally) must go through a period of public denunciation of Christianity, ie, "Therapeutic Blasphemy", otherwise they are doomed to remain perpetually under the thrall of the cult of the creed making fishermen.

Reference to therapeutic blasphemy always reminds me of Jesus' own advice to his disciples to "shake the dust from your feet" upon leaving a place where the people were not receptive to his teachings.

Another book that I read at the same time was Christopher McIntosh's The Roscicrucians, in which McIntosh draws attention to two types of factionalism among Esotericists: (1) that of political conservatives (in particular, monarchists), versus political liberals (in particular, republicans), and (2) that of Hermeticists who are "Christian only in that they include some Christianity but do not stress it", versus Rosicrucians who "are primarily Christian but draw on other non-Christian sources". [Those quotes are actually from Kathleen Raine's Yeats, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn, which McIntosh quotes from on p. 105 of his book.]

A third book that influenced my thinking on these matters is Richard Kaczynski's Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (of which I am the proud owner of a signed copy, and also of which a revised and expanded version is due out later this year - yay!). In that book Kaczynski portrays Crowley (and to a lesser, or possibly greater extent Allan Bennett) as a Hermetic/Pagan (or in Bennett's case Hermetic/Hindu/Buddhist) presence in the Golden Dawn at odds with the more staid Rosicrucian/Christian mainstream of the Order. The "conservatives", led by William Butler Yeats, won the day in the end, despite (or possibly because of) Crowley's alliance with S.L. McGregor Mathers. Christopher McIntosh, in his book mentioned in the preceding paragraph, concurs with this view, saying that the Golden Dawn became "totally 'Rosicrucianized'" under Yeats, with all rituals rewritten so that they were now "Christian in emphasis" [pp. 104-105].My personal interest in (and attraction to) Traditionalism and my abhorrence for Modernism have also led me to investigate the writings of Julius Evola, Arturo Reghini, and similar characters, despite my own (ever waning) leftist leanings. It has also led me to keep an eye on Mark Sedgwick's Traditionalists blog, where a a fascinating item appeared just yesterday about a new English translation by Joscelyn Godwin of some writings by Marco Baistrocchi (an Italian Traditionalist and next-generation fellow-traveler of Evola and Reghini). These writings by Baistrocchi were critiques of Rene Guenon's The King of the World. From what very little I know, the basis of Baistrocchi's criticism of The King of the World, was that the story presented by Guenon in that book (first published in 1927), according to Baistrocchi, "was a deliberate manipulation, designed to shut off Western seekers from Eastern wisdom and to divert them, first into Catholicism, then into Islam." For more details see this page (where the immediately preceding quote is lifted from), which is part of the Theosophical History website. At that page there is also ordering information for Godwin's translation of Baistrocchi's writings.

Here is a little excerpt mentioning Evola, Reghini, and Baistrocchi (among others), from another book by Godwin: The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions:
In Italy after World War I there was a concerted effort to restore the ancient Roman religion, led by Arturo Reghini and supported, for a time, by the young Julius Evola, whose Imperialismo Pagano (1928) is a forceful defense of Pagan imperialism against its Christian supplanter. Evidence of more recent activities emerges from the journal Politica Romana, which serves as a forum for a number of distinguished scholars and thinkers including the late Marco Baistrocchi (a diplomat by profession), Piero Fenili (a judge), and the expatriate American Dana Lloyd Thomas. Roman religion appears there in a broad context of philosophical polytheism, keeping company with Mahayana Buddhism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonism. The feasts of the Roman calendar are commemorated, the Gods and sacred sites of the city are honored, and the Italian Renaissance and the Masonically-inspired Risorgimento are celebrated as manifestations of the original spirit of Italy. An effort in a similar direction was the journal Antaios, edited by Mircea Eliade and Ernst Junger. Avowedly polytheistic, Antaios aimed at a Europe of mutually respectful homelands rejoicing in their ancestral myths, their Gods and Goddesses, and in the earth from which, in the Greek legend, the giant Antaios derived his strength.
[p. 165]
To tell you the truth, Dear Reader, I am amazed that I have finally organized my thoughts on this subject even this much!! For now I will leave off with this unapologetically schematic list of dichotomies that seem to be ever present, just below the surface (if that much) of the swirling currents of the Western Mystery Tradition(s), for future consideration and investigation:

East vs. West
Pagan vs. Christian
Traditionalist vs. Modernist
Conservative vs. Liberal

Nota Bene: The books mentioned above by Godwin, McIntosh, and Kaczynski are all simply magnificent. Tasty, tasty brain-food for all discriminating occultist bookworm types!
Richard Kaczynski just yesterday announced to the world that he has "sent off the revised and expanded edition of Perdurabo for copy-editing"!! Check out his blog for the details.


Nick Ritter said...

"The idea of "therapeutic blasphemy" is, in essence, that Christianity is such a pervasive influence in western culture, that only by a positive and concerted effort can one break free of its pernicious (and largely unconscious) influence. In particular, all those born in a Christian society (even if not raised Christian, even nominally) must go through a period of public denunciation of Christianity, ie, "Therapeutic Blasphemy", otherwise they are doomed to remain perpetually under the thrall of the cult of the creed making fishermen."

This is a very important point, and the process can (and should, I think) be taken beyond just public denunciation. Anyone who wants to truly leave Christianity and its all-pervasive influence must study the history of ideas (especially religious ideas) to determine Christianity's effect on the ideology of modern Western cultures. This should be done in tandem with an introspective self-examination of one's own preconceptions and points of view, and the rejection of those that derive from Christianity.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Knowing where one's ideas come from, and how ideas have, more generally, evolved and changed along with human society, is absolutely essential. Without such knowledge our ideas appear to have just fallen out of the sky. This leads to the naive view that one's own ideas are just what people think naturally, and what people have always thought, and, therefore, no deeper investigation is required.

In addition to the overt renunciation of Christianity, study and personal reflection, I also think that some sort of ritualistic component should be involved. At the very least one should seek and receive formal initiation into one or more non-Christian spiritual traditions as part of one's path, and do so with the conscious intention that one is "shaking the dust from your feet". It is never enough to simply react against and reject Christianity, although that is an excellent starting point -- but only if one keeps moving from there!

Actually this is whole issue is extremely important. The difficulty in accomplishing this, and the necessity for doing so, are the reasons why their are so many "non-religious" people in the west, but so few who have actually gotten to the point of following a genuine religious tradition outside of Christianity. Even many who practice some form of Heathenry or some Eastern path, etc, fail to cut the psychic umbilical cord that still binds them to Jehovah.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

The "therapeutic blasphemy" point makes one wonder whether the Inquisition's accusations about "stamping on the cross" in witch circles may have had a hint of truth to it.

On other fronts, one has to be very careful with Evola-style "paganism". It is often a front for fairly sinister fascism, which has in the past ten years attempting to worm its way into the pagan movement more and more. One has to be careful here.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

"so few who have actually gotten to the point of following a genuine religious tradition outside of Christianity."

I think we're forgetting here how much Christianity draws upon pagan motifs, and thus, an exclusivist approach towards Christianity seems a little silly to me. It has its worthwhile elements. The problem is its totalitarianism and rabid exclusivism.

It's easy to point to the Jehovah of Numbers (who strikes down with lightning) and of Joshua (who urges genocide), and forget the Jehovah who cares for the poor, the oppressed, the widows, encouraging gens-solidarity.

The fortunate thing is, we can offer all those things outside Christianity. We shouldn't be positioning ourselves as "anti-christs"/"anti-christians", because that just plays into their rhetoric. Instead, we should be saying, all that wonderful stuff, without all the exclusivist, intolerant nonsense, you can find within pagan contexts. And I think that's Good News. Hallelujah!

Apuleius Platonicus said...

As far as "stamping on the cross" goes, it certainly has the ring of truth to it, at least in my ears. "normative inversion" can be a powerful tool, and "any tool is a weapon, if you hold it right."

Although the point about modern day Evolians often being associated with fascism is true, it is also true of many people who admire Nietzsche ... or Ayn Rand, for that matter. Or even Robert Heinlein!

In fact, leftists often turn out to be "soft on totatlitarianism". A case in point is Michael Parenti, a well known and "respected" leftist writer, who is also an apologist for the murderous Chinese occupation of Tibet.

I just don't want Evola to be singled out, that's all. Especially in Italy the force that most threatens basic human freedom is and always has been The Church, which Evola and his followers have always opposed absolutely.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I don't think the Pagan elements in Christianity are really an issue. Precisely because these elements predate Christianity, and are essentially foreign to any kind of exclusivist monotheism, there is no problem with retaining genuinely Pagan elements while dispensing altogether with Christianity.

My own personal opinion is that most people continue to cling to Christianity even when they try to follow non-Christian paths. This is because of cultural conditioning, and it is mostly unconscious.

And I am also very unimpressed with the claims of the monotheists concerning the "compassionate" side of Jehovah. It's like some gangster who puts large sums of money in the donation box on Sundays, and who helps out poor kids in his neighborhood. It's even more like the famous "social services" provided by Hezbollah. It's just PR -- and it is often very effective PR.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Well, we're agreed about the dangerous obnoxiousness of exclusivism. The problem is Christians who won't edit their own Bible. They really ought to excise those portions. But should we let the most obnoxious people in a tradition speak for them? Weren't the other voices important? It can be argued that by attributing both traits to the same deity, it's easy for the one side to manipulate the other. Suggestions about gods' characteristics are so often more partisan statements about human worshipers. Especially when all the gods have been collapsed into one. So Israel had a left-wing and a right-wing. It's the right-wing to be somewhat concerned about.

As far as Parenti goes, could you go a little bit further in your argument about his "apology"? I wouldn't characterize it as going that far. He makes several good points about the corruption in Tibet. That's no reason to destroy a culture, and we all know (or at least I hope we do) the damage the Chinese Communists did to Taoism, the pagan religion of China, but I don't think a critic hurts us. There's a lot of uncritical Tibet-worship in the West that could use a little dose of cold water.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

As far as Christians and Christianity goes: individuals need to be treated as individuals, and groups need to be treated as groups.

As far as Parenti goes, his writings are highly selective, and this selectivity betrays his anti-Tibetan, pro-Stalinist bias. Tibet, for example, has a remarkable history of religious tolerance, despite the fact that Parenti insists it has been a feudal totalitarian theocracy comparable to Medieval Christendom. In addition to multiple, and very divergent, schools of Vajrayana Buddhism that exist side by side, another major school of Buddhism, Zen, used to be widespread in Tibet, but was eventually eclipsed through natural selection (ie, faded out through loss of interest). Also the ancient Bon religion continues to be practiced to this day. This would be the equivalent of the Eleusinian Mysteries having continuously operated to today. There is also a non-sectarian religious movement, called Ri-Me, which included practitioners of different schools AND also practitioners of Bon. Islam has also existed in Tibet for centuries, practicing their religion freely. In other words, religious freedom in Tibet bears no resemblance whatsoever to the murderous theocracy of Medieval Christendom.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Seriously, we should see if we can get Parenti to come over here and debate. He's quite cordial if one emails him. It could be an interesting discussion.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Parenti is scum. I certainly have no interest in "debating" him, any more than I would "debate" Pat Robertson.

I only wish there were some way for people like Parenti to live in a police state without anyone else having to. But the fact is that he gets to spout his noxious opinions freely: he is perfectly free to defend the world's largest totalitarian state, while simultaneously attacking it's victims.

Nick Ritter said...


"It is never enough to simply react against and reject Christianity, although that is an excellent starting point -- but only if one keeps moving from there!"

Well put, and I fully agree, also with your point of initiation into a non-Christian tradition.

"Even many who practice some form of Heathenry or some Eastern path, etc, fail to cut the psychic umbilical cord that still binds them to Jehovah."

Very true. I've had the misfortune of communicating with a few folks who identify themselves as "Heathens," and yet seem to maintain an essentially Christian worldview. This can manifest in a few ways. At it's most obvious, there is the lack of maintaining a critical distance from Christianity, and the general opinion that Christianity isn't all that bad. On the other hand, even among some of the most vociferous denouncers of Christianity, I have seen people whose underlying worldview was still basically Christian, or shackled to Christianity insofar as it is merely a reaction to it; a flight from Christianity, as it were, rather than a seeking of something of greater value.

Also, for my part, I'm glad to see names like Mircea Eliade and Ernst Jünger showing up on your blog, as I find these to be very important authors, as well. I haven't read any Evola, yet, although I intend to. I might also recommend Martin Heidegger; it can be a struggle to read him, but the moment of comprehension is worth it.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Vlastos real crime was the unpardonable sin of pitting Socrates against Plato. For that he will suffer the fate of the evil tyrants as described in the Myth of Er. Or at least I hope he does.

I don't consider Vlastos to have been a Platonist at all. He should be studied only by those who desire a better understanding of the truly pathological state of "Plato studies" in the Anglophone world. The same way in which Kristeller should be studied only by those who wish to have a similar understanding of Renaissance studies in the Anglophone world.

Anonymous said...

The mysteries are the mysteries and found are in all religious traditions. You are either an initiate of the sacred mysteries or not, that's really the only choice. The importance of such profane religious affiliations is an indication that you are not.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

The Mysteries are not found in all religious traditions - that much is obvious. I speak in particular of those religious traditions, Christianity and Islam, which devoted themselves to the extirpation of the Mysteries.