Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Preparation for Philosophy

The tenor of the response to last week’s post on the intersection of magic and peak oil was, at least to this archdruid, as startling as it was pleasing. Oh, there was a certain amount of fluttering in online dovecotes, as well as a certain amount of blank incomprehension, but a great many readers took the time and made the effort to follow a discussion of what is, after all, one of our culture’s taboo subjects.

The strength of that taboo nonetheless managed to show itself in the most common objection to my discussion of magic as the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. A number of readers insisted that I was redefining the word “magic” to suit my own purposes, and that there was something underhanded in such a procedure. We could get into an interesting discussion here about the meaning of words, which is always contested, negotiated, and polyvalent, but there’s a more important point: I didn’t invent the magic, or the definition thereof, that I discussed in last week’s post.

This point gets missed so often that it’s probably necessary to go over it in detail. Right now, across the modern industrial world, a great many people—to judge by book sales, perhaps a million, perhaps more—are engaged in the study and practice of ceremonial magic. There’s nothing new in this; a comparable fraction of each generation have busied themselves at this very unfashionable pursuit for a long time now. Specific systems of magical practice can be traced back down the years—for example, the Golden Dawn tradition, the most popular magical system in the English-speaking world, came together in English occult circles in the 1880s, and drew heavily on older systems with their roots in the late Renaissance; other traditions have lineages of similar length; the Druid order I head, for all that, was founded in 1912 and drew on a heritage nearly two centuries old at that time.

The word “magic” is the proper term for the activities these people engage in. Of course the word has other meanings, but insisting that I must have made up a meaning that the word’s had since the days when it was spelled μαγεια and spoken by ancient Greeks—well, it’s a bit as though somebody was to insist that since more than half of all Americans believe that the word “evolution” means that human beings are descended from chimps, that’s what it means, and when an evolutionary biologist tries to correct the misconception, it’s fair to accuse him of redefining the word to fit some personal agenda.

Now of course in modern America we don’t compare discourse on magic to discourse on evolutionary biology; one is the subject of a centuries-old taboo, and the other—well, it may end up being the target of a similar taboo before the current round of culture wars are over, but that’s a topic for another post. The myth of progress, which serves as the central religious narrative of our time, insists that magic is something that only primitive people do, and most people in the contemporary industrial world will do the most spectacular mental backflips to avoid noticing the fact that a small but significant fraction of their friends and neighbors are, in fact, practicing magic—not in any metaphorical sense, either, but in the straightforward sense of putting on robes, lighting incense, tracing strange diagrams in the air with wands, and using these traditional tools to cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will.

There are at least two ways to apply the toolkit of the operative mage, though, and since the difference between them bears directly on the intersection between magic and peak oil, I’d like to bring in an example here. (Those of my readers who enjoy rhythm and blues can get the appropriate soundtrack here, courtesy of the Clovers, the classic R&B group that originally recorded it in 1959.)

Love magic? Of course. I hope none of my readers are under the illusion that falling in love is a rational process. Rather, as last week’s post mentioned, it depends in very large part on the nonrational and nonverbal reactions that managed pair bonding for our prehuman ancestors. The rational mind, that evolutionarily recent and distinctly rickety structure of linguistic feedback loops propped up on top of a highly adaptive animal mind and nervous system, has little direct influence over the archaic reactions that cause one person to fall into or out of love with another, and even less with the tangled patterns of emotion and memory that so often gum up the works in one way or another.

Every human society in recorded history has worked out indirect ways to reshape and redirect those reactions and to resolve at least some of their pathologies, and those indirect ways are the stock in trade of love magic. Some of them are extremely simple—for example, a man with weak self-esteem is going to repel potential partners, because he triggers the same sort of reaction that makes female baboons turn up their noses at potential partners toward the bottom of the troop’s pecking order. Change that self-assessment by some bit of appropriate psychodrama, and you change the reaction and the person’s chances of attracting a partner. Other patterns of self-defeating behavior are more complex, but most of them can be affected by tinkering with the nonrational levels of the mind.

This is where things get complex, because broadly speaking there are two ways you can do that. You can manipulate the nonverbal conversation between people, and if you do it skillfully enough and your client isn’t a total wart, you often get results. Sometimes you get lucky, and one round of magic is enough to shake the client out of whatever self-defeating behavior was getting in the way; most of the time, though, the effects are temporary, and then your client with low self-esteem is right back where he started and his erstwhile partner is walking away, wondering what on Earth she was thinking when she agreed to date him. Then your client comes back to you for another bottle of Love Potion No. 9. It can be a lucrative gig, so long as you can handle facing yourself in the mirror each morning.

Then there’s the other option. It works on the principle that the only sure way to attract love is to make yourself lovable. You can do that with magic, but it’s not the same kind of magic; instead of tweaking the nonverbal signals you give off and leaving your self-defeating emotional patterns unresolved, you use magical tools to bring the emotional patterns into consciousness and then resolve them. That’s not usually a pleasant experience; it requires a willingness to deal with the fact that you may not be lovable but have the capacity become so; and this, in turn, requires a willingness to think of the personality, not as the be-all and end-all of the self, but as a ramshackle structure of petrified opinions, habitual emotions, and behavioral tics amassed over the course of a lifetime, which is what it generally is. All of this may explain why this approach to love magic is much less popular than the other.

The less popular option, though, is one expression of a way of magical practice that, oddly enough, also counts as one of the Western world’s enduring philosophical systems—and thereby hangs a tale.

When I went back to college in 1991 to finish my degree, one of the things on my notably eccentric agenda was getting a good general grasp of the history of Western philosophy before the industrial revolution. The philosophy department at the University of Washington in those days offered a set of three survey courses, Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Philosophy, the first two of which seemed to fill the bill. It turned out, though, that there was an odd feature to this broad survey. The class in Ancient Philosophy ended in the fourth century BCE with Aristotle; the class in Medieval Philosophy started up again with Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth and very early fifth century CE, and then jumped immediately to Anselm of Bec in the eleventh century. Inquiries about the gaps brought a shrug and an insistence that nothing interesting had happened in philosophy during those centuries.

It’s harder to find a better example of the way that intellectual history, like every other kind, is written by the winners. The years between Aristotle and Anselm weren’t a philosophical void; it’s simply that the kind of philosophy practiced in those times isn’t ancestral to the kind that’s practiced now, and moved in a direction that today’s philosophers by and large find acutely uncomfortable—and yes, magic is part of the reason.

Classical philosophy in general passed through three broad eras, in which three different questions were of central importance. For the Presocratics, who got started with Thales of Miletus in 585 BCE, the question that mattered was "What is real?" Their proposed answers varied all over the map, and so their successors, notably Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the philosophers of the New Academy and the Old Stoa, asked instead the more fruitful question "How can we know what is real?" The attempts to answer that question ended up creating classical logic, one of the great achievements of the human mind.

By Aristotle’s time, though, a third question had already begun to emerge. The tools of logic proved to be effective ways to figure out at least part of what is real and what matters, but the ancients, like a great many people before and since, quickly discovered that it’s one thing to understand logically what needs to be done and quite another thing to do it, or to motivate others to do it. The question that came to dominate the latter two-thirds of the history of classical philosophy, then, was "How can we live in accordance with what we know to be real?" Plato was ahead of his time here; some of his later work focused on this third question rather than the second, and from this part of his work, later philosophical movements headed off in their own ways.

One of those movements has earned more than one mention in this blog already. This is Stoicism, the philosophical school launched by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. The Stoics—the name comes from the Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch in Athens, where Zeno used to meet with his students—argued that what kept people from living in accordance with reason was, on the one hand, misguided opinions about what was and wasn’t important, and on the other, simple lack of courage. Along the lines of some modern systems of thought, they insisted that if people studied logic and gained an accurate sense of their very modest place in the universe, they would be able to respond to life’s events in a sane and constructive manner, rather than being batted around at random by the forces of passion and prejudice.

It’s an appealing notion, and the best of the Stoics were impressive figures by any standard. The problem, though, was that Stoicism proved impossible to teach to anyone who didn’t already find its ideas and practices emotionally appealing. Anyone else trained in Stoicism simply ended up learning how to pursue irrational ends with a Stoic’s focused will and utter disregard for popular opinion. The Roman emperor Claudius, for example, arranged to give his stepson the best available Stoic training at the hands of Seneca the Younger. The young man’s name was Nero; you may have heard of him, but probably not as a model of Stoic virtue. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius tried the same thing with his son Commodus, and the results were nearly as bad.

Such obvious difficulties in the Stoic approach fed the growth of a different philosophical school, which eventually became the philosophical core of late classical culture: Neoplatonism, which took Plato’s tentative probings toward an answer to the third question and ran with them. Central to Neoplatonism was the idea that the human mind had irrational as well as rational dimensions, and that there had to be better options than ignoring or browbeating the irrational side of the self. In one of his dialogues, Plato had compared the whole self to a chariot in which reason was the driver and two irrational parts, the biological appetites and the social reactions, were two very unruly horses.

The challenge that had to be solved, to the Neoplatonists, was how to train these horses so that they would pull the chariot the way the charioteer wanted to go. Several centuries of work went into finding the best ways to meet that challenge, and the toolkit that became central to Neoplatonism from the third century CE on—well, that’s where magic comes in.

In the writings of late Neoplatonist philosophers such as Iamblichus and Proclus, the word used was theurgy—"divine work," distinguished from thaumaturgy, "working wonders," which was the common or garden variety magical practice that went on in classical society in much the same way that it goes on in ours. The practice of theurgy was exactly the unpopular kind of magic I’ve described above; in the technical language of the time, it was practiced to purify the vehicles of consciousness; in the terms I’ve been using, it was intended to see to it that the baboonery of biological drives and social reactions didn’t interfere with the reason and the will.

The theurgists, in fact, summed up their magic as a preparation for philosophy—not philosophy in the modern sense, of course, but in the classical sense of an active life in the world lived according to the dictates of wisdom. It was far from the only preparation for philosophy in Neoplatonist circles in those days, mind you; the same students who performed magical rituals also immersed themselves in the study of logic, Euclidean geometry, and the most up-to-date natural science of the time. Strange as though the procedure seems by modern standards, it seems to have worked; Neoplatonism never produced a Nero or a Commodus, while it did produce a substantial and impressive crop of teachers, statesmen, philosophers, and the like.

Still, the great final synthesis of Neoplatonism came together, rather as our own final syntheses seem to be doing, in a collapsing society. As the classical world imploded, theurgy suffered the same fate as most other aspects of classical culture. A reworked and sanitized version of Neoplatonist theurgy found a home in Christianity, with the sacraments filling the role of theurgic rites, and stayed in use in some parts of the Western World until the Reformation and Counterreformation put paid to it. In its original form, the tradition went underground, and maintained a hole-and-corner existence in various corners of the Mediterranean world until the Renaissance, when most of the core texts found their way back into circulation and helped launch a revival that hasn’t stopped yet. Read standard texts of the major magical traditions nowadays—the papers collected in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn are as good an example as any—and you’ll find classic theurgic Neoplatonism in there at the core of it, beneath 1500 years or so of miscellaneous accretions.

All this may seem irrelevant to the discussion we’ve been having to the future of an industrial society wrestling with the consequences of overshooting its own resource base. Still, it’s worth noting that a central aspect of our predicament is precisely that even the people who have managed to grasp just how severe that predicament is haven’t been able to turn that realization into a motive for meaningful action. Al Gore’s new mansion and frequent-flyer miles are a well-known example of this, but there are plenty of others. By and large, even those who recognize that today’s SUV lifestyle is an arrangement without a future, and that abandoning it in favor of more modest and more sustainable lifestyles is very nearly the only option that offers a way out, seem unable to make the necessary changes in their own lives.

For all that, these are the people who have at least noticed that there’s a problem; to borrow Plato’s metaphor, the charioteer may not be able to rein in the horses but at least he realizes that the route they’re galloping is going to take them and him right over a cliff. Most Americans haven’t gotten that far yet. Many of them have realized that something’s gone very wrong, but if you ask them what exactly it is that’s gone wrong, you can pretty much count on a great deal of baboonery. Social primates like you and I have a strong and wholly nonrational propensity to force-fit our problems into a social mode—no matter what’s happening, we want to put a face on it, which in practice amounts to blaming it on the troop over there, or the baboons at the top of our troop’s hierarchy, or maybe the ones at the bottom. We also like to define any problem so that its apparent solution doesn’t make us feel that the fulfillment of such basic biological appetites as food, sex, status, and security are put in question. Add to those distorting factors a widespread ignorance of logic and history, and a great deal of straightforward dishonesty on all sides of the political continuum, and you’ve got a pretty fair mess.

Thus we’ve arrived as a society, and at a very late stage in the game, at the same point that classical philosophy reached after the execution of Socrates, when it became uncomfortably clear that having a small minority of people passionately interested in asking and answering the right questions was no guarantee against catastrophic levels of collective stupidity. The Neoplatonist answer was a personal answer, the development of a toolkit to make clear thinking and decisive action possible for anyone with the self-discipline, patience, and persistence to put the tools to work, and it’s as valid an approach now as it was in the days of Iamblichus—though it’s only fair to say that there are other ways of getting to the same place, some similar, some very different.

The question that comes to many minds these days, though, is whether something similar can be done on the large scale—whether, to be precise, it’s possible to banish enough baboonery from our collective conversation about the future that we as a society can confront the real sources of our problems and do what has to be done. We’ll talk about that next week.


andrewbwatt said...

A lovely post, and an elegant one. Thank you again for peeling back a hard and difficult skin to show off a deliciously ripe fruit.

I have found, in my own magical practice, that the more theurgy I practice, the more that people around me want thaumaturgy. I've amassed quite a collection of oils and bottles and "painted bits of wood" with which to do ceremony for myself and for others. But the real treasures were rarely to be found in the ritual experiences — more in the most simple meditations before a nearly empty altar.

And yet. And yet... The most profound conversations and the most deep experiences in group work have come from sharing a harvest meal after the Alban Elued rites a few weeks ago, and a Golden Dawn equinox ritual a few days before that. And a St. John's day discussion with a WM comes to mind... By candle light, with silk tabards of gleaming color, and candles, and painted bits of wood... people's mnds really are changed and moved to see and feel new thoughts.

I'm gong to have to go back to my Plotinus and Iamblicus. And Picatrix, too. Thanks for being involved in that project — the mansions of the moon and the stuff you dd with Meister Warnock has been quite instructive...

Kieran O'Neill said...

I was going to comment last week, but was overly busy and marginally online for some of it.

What I was going to say was that I have noticed that many writers with greater experience in magic tend to write with a patient, clear tone that just isn't found very often elsewhere. I think it's a by-product of the theurgic practice you describe as part of the Neoplatonic toolkit, and which is necessary for the other components of magical practice.

Finding this tone in your work is a major reason that I started following your blog. And, while it may be a small step for now, I believe your blog, with its own minimisation of baboonery, is doing its part in the collective conversation about the future.

Matt and Jess said...

Hi. I was wondering if you will be talking about exactly how magic works. What are the specific methods that you use? I'm asking because way back in my college psychology classes, we did learn about negative feedback and self-fulfilling prophecies and so on and so forth and at times I've felt that, for example, in order to overcome bad self-esteem I've had to make some changes in my way of thinking--kind of like change of consciousness in accordance with will. So what is the difference between anything I might have done, and what you term magic? I'm having a hard time finding a difference, and all I ever did was just really simple stuff.

To be honest, I kind of like the idea of some kind of alternative spirituality and had been hoping for something more interesting than anything I've ever done. :) I admit that I am a fan of Harry Potter, though I do admit that so much stuff that's popular is pure escapism, which doesn't really bother me all that much. At least I don't watch TV. I know you mentioned some of the people who put on robes and do signs in the air and so on, but what exactly is the purpose of that?

BrightSpark said...

I long thought that the three great taboos of Western culture - money, sex, and death (in that order) had been well on the road to being broken down and properly discussed, with death being the hardest nut to crack in the troika. But to that now I guess one must add magic - for me at least that's a useful way of looking at the challenges involved in communicating these concepts.

Of course, the beauty of this approach is that with most people, on some level, they have some vague understanding of the importance of the symbolic or ritual, even if they don't know it's history, and this gives me some hope that these magical tools can be used in some form.

I love this history and philosophy, but most don't, but it shouldn't stop them from using whatever consciousness-changing systems you have yet to reveal to get us through civilisation decline.

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, I'd certainly encourage anybody to go back to the classic sources! (That's one of the reasons I've discussed them here.)

Kieran, thank you. I certainly hope so.

Jess, a lot of practical psychology is a very simple sort of magic, so yes, you've had some magical experience! I won't be going into the details of magical practice here -- this isn't the place -- but my books on magic cover the questions you've asked in quite a bit of detail.

BrightSpark, add magic to those three and you're not far off the mark. Still, I don't know that I'd agree that death is the most extreme taboo. To my mind, it's money -- the vast majority of chatter about money is an attempt to evade the real issues raised by that particular set of arcane symbols, which nobody wants to talk about at all.

Vicky K said...

This riff on philosophy is precisely what I feared. Academic and like looking through the telescope backwards.

Your readers are generally all over-educated egg heads. But they really got excited and motivated by the green wizards project. You dangled magic and then scooted back into your ivory tower.

Maybe the horses need to be consulted rather than tamed. The baboonery that you abhor is probably the result of too much domestication and the alienation that pervades is the result.

Biologically we are more like bonobos. In very specific phenotypical ways. Unique among the great apes. I think we ignore this at our peril and fight a losing battle against a false enemy-baboonery.

The subtle hubris of wanting our higher mental powers [logic, tool use, elaborated language etc] to be the charioteer is putting the cart before the horse.

Myriad said...

Hmm, quite a project in the offing.

I seem to recall a few chaps just about a century ago, who set about a comparable (not the same, but comparable) project in reaction to portents of difficult times ahead and disturbing trends already in progress, including a population becoming increasingly urbanized and increasingly out of touch with the natural world. They put together a hodgepodge of military tradition, frontier skills, native American lore, and muscular Christianity, very much for the explicit purpose of changing consciousness in accordance with will. I'm not sure whether their philosophy verged more toward Neoplatonism or Stoicism, but they managed to incorporate some simple rituals (mostly affirmative oaths, but also including some quasi-Masonic inner-circle mystery) and symbols, while not just flying under the radar of the dominant churches but being openly embraced by them. Given their aims, they decided to concentrate on the demographic they thought most likely receptive to, and most in need of, such a program: preadolescent through adolescent males.

Their names were Beard, Seton, and Baden-Powell. Some of the shortcomings of their approach should be obvious from even this brief description, but I wonder if anything of value might be learned from the results (both positive and negative) of their little experiment.

andrewbwatt said...

The Art of Memory stuff has been working for many of my students, and so the classical source I've been tackling of lat has been pseudo-Cicero's Ad Herennium in conjunction with Frances Yates's book, the Art of Memory, mentioned in the comments on The Glass Bead Game article here two weeks ago. There's a magic in that, too, but of a different kind.

In any case, yes. The question of "How should we live, given what we know is true?" was deeply discomforting to all my philosophy professors in college, even though it was obviously underlying some of the discussions of the medieval authors we read, and even the classical ones. "After Plotinus," said one Prof dismissively, "it's all weird magic and strange rituals and geometric talismans..." in retrospect, I can see exactly why he didn't want to go there or want anyone else to, either... But it's taken me decades to get past the canned polemics and irritated looks in a formal way...

And now you help me connect my life now to the life I led in college, reading classical philosophers and wondering how all this stuff culd exist beside s hecatomb and the Olympic games and the Delphic Oracle.... A lot suddenly pulls together all at once, like a geometric proof hidden under wild images and bizarre language...

John Michael Greer said...

Vicky, a fine tirade! Whether it fits your preferences or not, though, what I talked about is the kind of magic I do -- the kind that most operative mages in the mainstream of the Western tradition have done for nearly 2000 years. If you want to do something different, by all means, but if you expect me to edit my magical work to fit your notions, you're going to be disappointed.

The wise charioteer, by the way, cares for his horses, develops a rapport with them, and pays close attention to their perceptions. Still, since he can read maps and signs, while they only know places they've already been, there's good reason for him to guide the chariot.

Myriad, an experiment I've studied closely, as it happens. I'd point out that the three men you named had very different purposes and agendas in mind -- and that you may be making inappropriate assumptions about the project I'm pursuing, which is far from "in the offing."

Andrew, for "hecatomb" read "community barbecue" and a great deal of classical culture makes more sense!

hapibeli said...

Thanks JMG! Another fine history lesson.

andrewbwatt said...

Community barbecue, hecatomb, table lodge, collation after grove meeting.... In many ways it's the same thing, even if it isn't, at the same time. :-)

Shining Hector said...

Give yourself a little more credit. Maybe you got a warmer than accepted reception last week because you'd already won over the audience. As you are fond of pointing out, people aren't all that logical, the messenger often matters at least as much than the message.

Don't know about where this is going now, though. Honestly, I don't get as much of the warm fuzzies. When you start talking too much about the hoi polloi going through life with this ramshackle mental construct they call a personality, and how do we change that, you know what rather quickly comes to mind? Bulldozers demolishing a shanty town, usually in the name of some high ideal like sanitation or crime prevention, but I think on some level messiness really just offends certain sensibilities. "How can these people live like this, don't they know they're poor and really need to do something about it sooner rather than later? Guess we have no choice but to force the issue, for their own good of course." The party line is always that it's for the good of the demolishees, and the majority of the demolishers probably do usually end up convincing themselves of that, but it pretty rarely ends up that way in practice. A handful of people with sufficient will can summon up bulldozers pretty easy; tackling public santiation, education, health care, employment, not so much, no matter how much they talk about it or even beleive in it. In the end, you're usually making poor people even poorer, not improving their lives through some misguided sense of tough love.

I dunno, these messy constructs that people call personalities really are somewhat important. Maybe they're not sparkly clean with shiny edges and widgets that lock into functional configurations like a well-oiled machine like the one you labor to create for yourself, but you know, they still pretty much do the job. A shanty can still keep a person warm, in some ways better than a mansion, and maybe they have other things they'd rather spend their time on that polishing and repolishing it, as seems to be your self-stated preference. Not that I can really argue that much over your apparent results on the mental self-improvement front, just my quick take on it.

Myriad said...

I'm trying not to make assumptions. Just trying to see around the issue of scale, casting about for some idea of an effective link between a very little thing (the small minority mentioned in your penultimate paragraph) and a very big (and very noisy) thing. A sling stone (kills, and only works if the very big thing has a brain). A lever (need a place to stand). A replicator (dangerous as hell, literally). A seed... well, that, fits the motif, but most die, so better scatter a million. Just initial late night thoughts. Anyone here answer to Hari Seldon? Sorry if I'm going off the rails.

Vicky K said...

JMG: Being left-handed I adore left-handed compliments. Thanks.

Just one little picky nit. I think you are describing a kind and benevolent charioteer. And maybe that is the best we can hope for.

A wise charioteer would know when to let go of the reins and say home Jeeves. The horse knows. It would take you where you really want to go, even if you didn't realize it until you got there.

Jeffrey said...

You raise the most nagging of questions I have been wondering about for years. We are such a small group delving into the question of how to manage the wild horses of this chariot which is so very much more of a challenge than the first step of recognizing the cliff they are heading us toward. I would say that in the past decade consequences seem to have at least brought the awareness of the cliff to a larger segment of the population. Will consequences also work their "magic" in providing us the insights into the nature of these unruly beasts that drive our collective impulses toward self annihilation?

Cherokee Organics said...


Much respect for your words and wisdom.

There's been much mention in the press here about culture wars, especially since the tone of public debate has lowered in recent years. It's fascinating to see what a long history it has and how it evolves. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was my first introduction to this concept and the Sophists.

The collective delusion as I see it is that we have far exceeded our sustainable carrying capacity. The resources that make this situation possible are still abundant and available, but perhaps people acknowledge sub consciously that this situation cannot continue for much longer - yet still we demand growth. We are on the other side of the inverted bell shape curve (Hubbert's is a good example) now and the only way is down - its a question now of how fast will the fall be.

You can see this at the edges of public debate, where people are battling it out for the final spoils in the name of ideology, but it is really just self-interest and tribalism.

Sacrifice, self-denial, work and self-discipline are clearly noble objectives and an appropriate response to the times, but few are interested in such things. I embrace these responses but still manage to have some fun along the way too!

Which brings me to an interesting aside. Within the past month, I have had two people state that they’d like to usurp me (by means fair or foul) in my little patch of forest. My history with both tends me to think that they would not survive the requirement for hard work and like the rest of society they would unthinkingly utilise all of the easily available resources without a thought to the future (until it’s too late, of course).

PS: Spring has roared into life here. I received 3 inches (74mm) of rain yesterday. Drought is hard, but floods do far more damage in a quicker time span. The thing that a lot of people just don't seem to get about industrial agriculture is that it has no resiliency and therein lies its weakness.

Hey Adrian,

Good luck with the hedgerow project – it doesn’t sound dissimilar from establishing a food forest. Observing and understanding natural systems and processes puts food on the table and like magic it takes years (and I'm sure many successes and failures) to learn.



Mr. Roberts said...

What I love about Stoicism is that it is so personal. You can only change things that you control: your own reaction and your own behavior. You just deal with everything else.

I have tremendous respect for the Archdruid, Dave Ramsey, and other people who speak into the void of American consciousness and speak truth.

Whether it's Dave Ramsey saying that "debt is death" or the Archdruid saying that there is a finite amount of oil in the ground, it's truth crashing against the purely magical, fantastical worldview of modern America.

I'm glad that there are arch-dispellers like those two because thinking of being such a "dispeller" makes me tired.

I simply retreat into my stoicism, balance my checkbook, throw some scaps in the compost pile, and read a book.

In other words, I'm a lazy coward.

russell1200 said...

One of the two items I looked for when I fist encountered E-Bay was looking for all of the back copies of the discontinued Gnosis magazine. I have not looked at them in a long time. Maybe I should dig them out to see if there is a more precise,or at least less contentious, definition of magic that might still work. I will think on it some more, but yours seems a little too broad for my taste.

One item that I think is very important to note is that we actually owe the Medieval Scribes (generally Catholic) a huge debt of service because they are the ones that copied down the old classical texts.

They of course tended to be selective but not always in as straight line doctrinaire fashion as one would think. We would have hardly had anything if they had not done the copying.

I liked the boyscout comment. There is a tie in with the campfire movements and modern Wiccans as well.

phil harris said...

I enjoy a bit of well-told history - under-pinnings and structures of our civilisation and all that, and along the way, some calm reflection on war & peace, poverty, plagues, tyrannies, technology. But Vicky on the metaphorical animals also strikes a note. You are talking America, not so much baboonery, right?

As an extreme example of the relevance of a mental skill, (introduced 'at will'?) I know a chap who claims his clinical depression (cause and biochemistry unknown) is managed better (mostly cured?) after having met a skilled Buddhist meditation teacher.

But in the more ordinary run of things, self-esteem can be given, or shared, it seems to me. I have a few pictures in mind; in a village near here, a little old lady leading two very large Dobermann Pinscher dogs, all with mutual equanimity, living appropriately within their own skins. The other, a 10 year old child holding a very big and wild Tom Cat that with considerable worry I had been persuaded to hand over for her and her father's care. He, the cat that is, had found his home, it turned out.

Vernacular aids can be imagined for our semi-industrial collective futures - the better manners of the household and groups could similarly figure. On the other hand, I can think of more than a few commonplace ritual experiences of school and work that could be usefully modified or forgotten about. My guess is we also need to retain the more rigorous 'heritage' thinking involved in, say thermodynamics, which you rightly spent a fair bit of time introducing months ago.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

John and fellow Green Wizards,
Here is my contribution to the story/anthology contest, a tale called "The Green Lion Medicine Show":

I have posted this as a PDF on my website so that it can be easily read and printed. The story concerns a young man in the Library Guild who is transitioning from apprentice to journeyman. It features radio, both FM and amateur, the Art of Memory, and takes place in Ohio canal country, in a future time when people have worked to reopen the canals. Enjoy!

h0neanias said...

Trouble is that psychologically we seem to resemble common chimpanzees much more. Bonobos solve their conflicts by sex, we, as far as our history indicates, most certainly don't, however appealing the idea of two squads of hunky soldiers throwing away their weapons and going at it in the middle of a field might be. A horse must be taken care of diligently and patiently, yes, but an untamed one puts his rider in dire peril.

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, thank you.

Andrew, if you ride a chariot, your horses are always going to appreciate their feed!

Hector, I'm not talking about hoi polloi, there are no bulldozers, and the shanty in question is yours. The Neoplatonist offers you tools, nails, lumber, shingles, if you're willing to do the work -- and willing to conceive of the possibility of replacing your tumbledown shack with something that's sturdier, better insulated and more rainproof. If you're not, there's not much the Neoplatonist can do.

Myriad, seeds are what I've got, and this blog is one means of planting them.

Vicky, you are the charioteer, as well as the horses and the chariot. If you want a kind and benevolent charioteer, you need to become one. As for the horses knowing the way, that's the theory of Romanticism; in practice, unless you've got well-trained horses, it doesn't work too well.

Jeffrey, that's anyone's guess at this point. Here and now, those of us who recognize the presence of the cliff can at least rein in our own horses and get them trotting toward a different destination.

Cherokee, expect to hear more of that. Whether or not you choose to shoot back, of course, is your own call.

Mr. R., the job of dispeller isn't for everyone, and there's also a need -- a serious one -- for the people who make the necessary changes in their own lives.

Russell, there are plenty of definitions of magic; by all means find one more to your taste if that's what you like.

Phil, true enough. There's only so much that can go into a single blog post, you know.

Justin, got it. You're in the contest.

h0neanias, I'm going to hold out for the baboons. Chimps are about as violent as humans, but don't seem to have the same fondness for pecking orders and dominance displays. My guess is that it's convergent behavioral evolution -- baboons and hominids are savannah apes, which chimps and bonobos aren't.

Pat said...

If thought is father to the action/deed, whether good or bad, it makes sense that one should examine one's thoughts 24/7 to see in they actually do conform to one's deeply held values or rather are beliefs governed by emotion, prejudice or ignorance.

To call this process 'magic' because one can change one's thought, with a great deal of effort at times, is a struggle for me. I prefer to consider it personal growth and development.

I truly enjoy and value the info that your blogs contain that widen my knowledge and experience, JMG!

Thijs Goverde said...

Whoa! Your teachers left out the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists and the Epicureans?
You should get your money back, mr. Greer. You got swindled.

By the way (minor quibble coming up): Nero and Commodus were almost certainly not the monsters most sources describe. Born 'in the purple', they had no political or military careers to justify their position. They courted the people of Rome by throwing large games and using (in statues and on coins, for instance) symbolism those people could relate to. Their wooing of the people made them very impopular with the ruling senatorial class.

All Roman historians came from the senatorial class.
Nuff said?

Minor quibble, as I said.
Please let me state my great satisfaction in hearing a druid say his heritage is traceable for a mere three hundred years.

Your use of the word magic is somewhat problematic, though. Statements like 'a small but significant fraction ... practices it' and 'everybody does it all the time' are simply contradictory.
I more or less understand the differences and similarities between ceremonial magic and what everybody does all the time, but I still feel it might be profitable to have different words for these related, but very different things. Just for clarity.

Maybe slap a 'k' on somewhere? Or would using the word magick be out of bounds for reasons of mage politics (politicks)?

Mister Roboto said...

One caveat on romantic-love-oriented magic which I don't doubt you know but others may not: Magic aimed at making a specific person fall in love with you is nothing more than a terrible psychic violation and an act of Black Magick by virtue of being stark interference with another person's free will. Even when such spells are successful (they often aren't), all they do is engender a momentary biochemical confusion in the brain of the individual upon whom the spell was cast. IOW, they don't really fall in love with you. And when the spell runs its course, they're going to know that you did something to mentally mess with them, even if they're not sure what it was you did. Such acts like all Black Magicks also incur what is known as the "Threefold Return", in which the negativity perpetrated on others with the spell in question gets visited back upon the mage (almost always an ignorant amateur) multiplied by a factor of three.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

@Myriad & others...
I was a boyscout. I feel like it did me good. My family was already pretty outdoorsy, but it was a good way for my Dad and I to get together with other kids and adults, learn some skills while spending time in nature. Never made it to Eagle scout, but I value my experiences in the boyscouts. I also think that those who are working on assembling a personal Gaianomicon library could do worse than snagging up copies of the Boy Scout Manual and fieldbook. Those knots have very practical applications, as does first aid, etc...

@Andrewbwatt: You have a nice blog. It's awesome to know that you are teaching school kids the Art of Memory. (My wife works at a private Montessori school... Perhaps I could teach a class on the Art of Memory as an afterschool activity? -or perhaps, as above a Scout troop could offer a merit badge in it!) Anyway, I'm just a beginner at it myself, but I'm using your scripts as a template for building my own Museum of Mnemosyne.

blue sun said...

After completing this post, my most important comment is "wow." My other less important comments follow.

I hope nobody said you were redefining the word magic to fit some personal agenda. At least that's not what I meant. No one would disagree that you are correct, 'uayeia' is the proper word! And your predecessors and cohorts have been practicing it the past millenia. Meanwhile, completely outside your control, everyone else around you changed the definition of the word. As I mentioned last week, a similar thing happened to scientists with the word "theory." I sometimes hope that if scientists traded another word for 'theory' then the mass of people might actually have a shot at comprehending what actually happens in the world. It's a vain hope, I know.

While I despair of ever getting people to understand each other on a large scale (I better go re-read that story about Babel), I do have some questions.

Perhaps this will require too long of an answer, but does "magic" try to do the same thing as meditation/prayer/yoga, etc.? Speaking in the paradigm of E.F. Schumacher's Levels of Being, you could say that meditation/prayer/yoga attempts to "go up" to a higher level. But when you speak of "nonrational and nonverbal reactions ... for our prehuman ancestors," doesn't that involve "going down" to a lower level? (Your description of "theurgy" certainly sounds to me like an attempt to go higher, but perhaps I am confused.)

Additionally, if some meditation/prayer/yoga/tai chi (you pick whichever suits you) is something that *everyone* should do (in the same way that everyone should exercise), then should "magic" be left to the mages, in the same way that science should be left to the scientists and economics left to the economists?

On the other hand, we all studied math in school, that doesn't make us all mathematicians. Is there some basic level theurgic study that we all should have, and how do we get it? Or do we already have it without realizing it, in such things like practical psychology?

Jennifer D Riley said...

My entry for the contest, sent yesterday, but then it may not have gone through:

katsmama said...

Am I understanding this right: the chariot is not society, the chariot is me, and the horses are me. And maybe the cliff is me, too?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


The distinction between thaumaturgy and theurgy is extremely useful, as is the difference between self and personality.

You wrote:

Central to Neoplatonism was the idea that the human mind had irrational as well as rational dimensions, and that there had to be better options than ignoring or browbeating the irrational side of the self.

Another thing I always keep in mind about the ancient Greeks is that persons such as Plato and Socrates, who brought logical dialectic to such a high form (pun intended), were also initiates in the Eleusinian Mysteries, with no scoffing or irony. When I first learned about this, it was hard to understand: accustomed to our modern atheist/scientific/technological model, in which educated people shouldn't believe in god or mysteries, I couldn't understand how such revered philosophers could simultaneously participate in an ancient, pre-Greek fertility cult. Yet it was clearly so much more than this, and, I believe, contributed another immense, supra-material, magical, context from which emerged, in part, those questions about reality they were grappling with--and thus also influenced their Neoplatonist successors.

You offer much material for meditation. Oddly, this post helps me understand why the Puritans sometimes thought Quakers were witches and warlocks: it has to do with Neoplatonism, I think, and also the idea that Quakers have (and many straight Christian sects don't), which is that many spiritual traditions center around a common core of spiritual reality. I keep mentioning Quakers in my comments because that is my own spiritual tradition and because much of what you say about druidry makes so much sense; I keep drawing connections between the two. I've got your Druidry Handbook on order. (And I'm not so familiar with the late classical Neoplatonists, myself, owing to similar curriculum-based gaps.)

Justsit said...

You might find some Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of interest. Try Nagarjuna and the practices of Vajrayana.

Hal said...

Wow. I went to bed thinking I understood this one, and woke up to a conversation about bulldozers, giants, seeds, more angles of charioteering and primate psychology than I thought existed, and sundry dogs and cats. I think I need to go back and read the post, and do some studying.

(Over my head gesture.)

The ability to field responses from such a wide range of understandings and backgrounds, and pretty much communicate with them at their level of understanding is a mark of a very gifted or maybe well-trained teacher. I have only known a couple of people able to do that well in my lifetime.

For me, I'm torn between Vicky and JMG. Is it the horses or the rational charioteers driving us toward that cliff? My horses have gotten me into some pretty deep holes, but then, I'm not sure the charioteer would have done a better job. Coming of age in the 60s, it seems to me it was my horses that bolted from the narrow groove that the racetrack provided. By that I mean it was passionate instincts that told me things were going in the wrong direction, and I didn't want to be a part of it. Yeah, I read a lot of ecology and current thought on resource limits, but it's pretty hard to look back and say my decisions were rational.

The rational charioteers of my day stayed in the groove and are now the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs of the world. Then the cliff turned out to be a bit further off than it appeared to me at the time. Maybe a more rational charioteer would have decided to stay the course for a while.

I could have certainly made some better decisions, but would they have been ethical, knowing what I knew? Just how DO we live our lives, knowing what we know about reality? Isn't ethics really what that question is about?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Vicky K

It's fun being part of a group of "over-educated egg heads" hanging out where we can think about and discuss wide-ranging subjects without having to pretend the very sharp points on the summits of our craniums aren't there. That's one reason we wear pointy wizards hats--they fit better.

Stick around, you'll have fun, too. ;-)

Richard Larson said...

Wow, I must have had 20 interruptions while I read this weeks blog. Wonder if there is something to that...

Anyway, the sweet filling of the blog was very intense and hope you expand on some of these ideas s l o w l y. Interesting, and believable, the winners of influence would blot out all competing practices.

The Al Gore issue is also nauseating, but I suppose there could be some positives gained by his jet setting about sounding the horn of alarm.

After all, I am kinda in the same position, and do hold some regard for him (Al Gore).

Similar is my owning a business with all types of relationships that I refuse to end. Which would have to happen to ward off those who would readily condemn me for owning the business (participating in current society, ect).

However, being drawn to the many ideas in opposition to the current mainstream (and more than just this blog), recently, have shifted my focus to lessening the impacts on Earth. This effort would not happen should I give up and allow some other entity the business relationships.

Not to type that is your aim, JMG, just typing out loud.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics,

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comment on the hedgerow project. It's very exciting, really.

I've been following your comments about your place, Fruitwood, with interest. The hedgerow we're making is in part influenced by food forest and permaculture ideas, and some of the species have edible fruit or are suitable for coppicing. It's a lifetime project.

I'm thinking about writing a small book about hedgerows for the Midwest--the last good one was written in 1914 or thereabouts, and needs updating.

Good luck in your spring rains and I hope you don't get flooded. We also deal with serious hydrological issues here in northern Illinois.

DE said...

Much of the misunderstanding, confusion, suspicion, outright disbelief and anger present in some comments here could be disposed of quite simply through actual experimentation. Does magic change consciousness? Find out for yourself. If not, no need to waste bandwidth arguing about it: you'll know from experience, at least as far as you yourself are concerned. If it does work, does it have anything to offer our current situation? If not, no need to continue practicing it. But if it does, how can we fine-tune its effectiveness? If we never prove it for ourselves, we are no more qualified to opine about it than the everyday observer who can offer seemingly incontestable visual evidence that the sun revolves around the earth, though in fact it doesn't.

Yes, some of us here are academics or egg-heads in the sense that we haven't stopped learning, whether inside or outside the academy. Last I looked, it was folly not to play to one's strengths. Besides, magic tests this particular form of knowledge, as it does others, and counterbalances it with its own, also valid and useful. Magic offers itself to experimental proof, and levels the playing field. The intellect alone confers the same advantage to mage that it does to musician: it may help you read the score. But you still need to practice to play.

h0neanias said...

One more thought about "following your horses". It would be most unfortunate if we simply exchanged the Myth of Progress for the Garden of Eden. There is no Paradise to return into, no innocent childhood in the arms of Mother Nature. Romanticism is a pastime of affluent urban classes, in our times or Roman ones.

Why must we see human history as a whole in terms of either progress or degradation? Is it so hard to accept that on the whole, mankind simply changes? Gain something, lose something. Hope it is worth it. Our ancestors used to live such and such, we do too -- in certain conditions, in both cases. Some tools are worth keeping, theirs and ours, some are not, that's all.

Maria said...

By coincidence, the question "how can we live in accordance with what we know to be true?" is the exact challenge I am wrestling with in my personal life after living half of it with my eyes shut and my fingers in my ears, and saying "La, la, la... if I ignore it maybe it will go away." I actually had an argument about this with my "The Secret" loving therapist yesterday. So this post is interesting for me on a personal, as well as societal, level.

Which means it's back to the library for me to learn more about Neoplatonism.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I don't know, classical philosophy has much to offer IMHO still. I came to it rather late in life, as far as actually reading the primary sources. Marcus Aurelius as thesis with a careful dollop of Epicurean enjoyment as balancing antithesis-spice, all laid into a matrix of animism, is my current construct. Accept and prepare for the worst with endurance, character, dignity and grace. Gather ye roses while ye may and don't turn down a good time when it presents itself. And remember the world itself is alive, with all the seen and unseen all around us, and stand in good relationship to it. This is life, live it, for no one really knows what comes after.

See, JMG, you are helping us prepare for the downslope of empire and the decline of ready and cheap energy. Which is invaluable, and may the gods and goddesses bless you. Besides sociopolitical decline and peak oil, there is that other nasty thing that people are often loathe to include in the mix, for them it really becomes overwhelming: climate change. A geologist friend sent this out to my sister who forwarded it to me:

"Say I have been reading about the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) lately and it is a gripping tale. This was a pulse of CO2 that moved levels from 1000 ppm to 1500 ppm at 56 million years ago. We are at 390 ppm today, up from 200 ppm during the last glacial period from 65,000 to 13,000 years ago. The PETM event lasted about 150,000 years and caused sea levels to rise about 220 feet higher than they are today. Temperatures also soared – bottom water in the arctic was 65 degrees all year and the world was totally ice free. New York and New Jersey had a climate like the Caribbean today with ocean temperatures of 75-80 degrees. Most of the United States had temperatures well north of 100 degrees 24 hours a day and for most of the year. Whole families of mammals got started in this punctuated equilibrium period including the earliest primates, horses and camel like creatures. The climate near the north pole was similar to a swamp in northern Florida today. Rocks & fossils in northern Wyoming tell us this story along with PETM aged deposits in Asia. The CO2 source may have been volcanoes associated with the spread of the Atlantic ocean basin at the time or maybe destruction of methane hydrates on the continental slopes – these oxidize to CO2. By 42 million years ago, CO2 levels had plummeted and oxygen levels were up to 30-35%; land mammals got huge, some were 20 feet at the shoulder and weighed 25 tons.

67,000 years ago, things got warm enough, probably due to a C02 spike at least in part, to raise ocean levels 90 feet higher than today. There was another 700-800 year warm up period commencing about 9500 years ago that raised sea levels 8-10 feet above today’s level and temperatures warmed up enough to push tree lines about 1000 feet higher.

Today humans are the source of most added CO2 but as things warm up tundra areas will not be in permafrost mode and huge amounts of natural methane and CO2 will be released; once these levels get into the 1000s of ppm, sea levels will once again rise and a hot time will be had by all – probably this will happen in the next 200 years as we continue a natural inter-glacial warm up added to by human activity….it would not surprise me at all to see a 3-5 foot sea level rise in our lifetimes."

Steve said...

Starting with the spell "There is no brighter future ahead," the GW project, and now the discussion of magic. It looks like your Archdruid hat is wearing more heavily these days, JMG. I'm quite glad for it.

I've had several conversations, and read many more, where talk about peak oil and the associated economic, environmental, etc. issues comes to the same point: we need to change much about our way of life. The rational discussion quickly stops, and if it's replaced with anything that's not baboonery , it's usually an incantation of how people won't change until they're forced to by economic factors.

I'm really looking forward to reading your view of what magic we can work as the "peak oil community" to focus on effective changes.


Last evening after a long day of harvesting, putting food by, seasoning the new woodstove, and making plans for next year's expanded garden, I cracked a couple of homebrews with my next-door neighbor. We were talking insulation, caulking, gardening, and about how his therapy clients all seem to be in denial about the road to third-world status that our country walks, with poverty in store for most. Somehow, knowing that there is no brighter future ahead has helped me feel less anxious about it. Thanks for that!

wvjohn said...


A lovely description of magic as a powerful tool for self awareness and change! I have dabbled in various disciplines throughout my life, then 3 years ago began a formal study of Druidry (OBOD course). The difference in my perception of myself and the world around me has been very significant and is constantly evolving. I have learned to use some of the tools in the magical toolbox and now consider them essential to the point it would be foolish not to use them. There is a lot of very powerful knowledge in the old rituals and myths that can only be seen from a few discrete vantage points, and it takes real work to climb to them!

Tyler August said...

As a novice Stoic, your critique of that philosophy cuts to the bone of some qualms I hadn't yet been able to voice. I suppose it's a good thing that we've already decided not to reproduce.
As the analytic, rational sort, the stoical brand consciousness-altering seemed like the easiest sort of magic for me to swallow... though I wasn't thinking of it as magic when I started.

Now that you've got my mind open, I wonder... my better half suffers fairly badly from clinical depression, but the 200$/month worth of pills that stand between her and suicide won't be available forever. I've long wished there were some 'magic' (in the colloquial sense) that could set her brain aright-- is there, Archdruid? And can I slip it past her Dawkins-style skepticism? I'll take any advice you can give with gratitude.

Carolyn said...

By and large, even those who recognize that today’s SUV lifestyle is an arrangement without a future, and that abandoning it in favor of more modest and more sustainable lifestyles is very nearly the only option that offers a way out, seem unable to make the necessary changes in their own lives.

That's pretty much where I'm at right now. I've taken a few small steps in the right direction: moved in with housemates instead of living alone, signed up for a plot in the community garden down the block, got Lasik so I won't need contacts anymore, and paid off all my debt. And my recreational activities are all based on handicrafts, reading, music, and dance, so it's not hard to find personal fulfillment without a lot of fossil fuel inputs. But I'm still working 9-5 for the Man, still commuting by car, still shopping at the supermarket and eating a lot of convenience foods. I haven't found the courage to let go of any of the big things yet. Thanks for another great article, and for always challenging me to push myself a little farther.

Global Nomad said...

A BIG thank you to the Archdruid for his work on this blog. Outstanding effort and clarity! You represent your worldview with authenticity and honor while remaining open to others. Not an easy task when trying to dispel the myths of modern life and bushwhack a new path. I say “new” in hopes that you have something more up your sleeve than what has failed in the past.

It seems to me, that the main obstacle is getting to the tipping point where a large number of people will be willing the shift their cultural perceptions. This blog is obviously a step in the right direction but it seems that most of the people who comment on this site would fall into the classification of inventors. People who seek out their own truths and create culture. How do you plan to expand the acceptance base into the early adopter category? This is where the cultural shift will happen. Do you think that your discussion of magic will eliminate the possibility of reaching that audience? I personally love that the discussion of magic provides a litmus test of sorts to how open-minded your readership is but I wonder…are you shooting yourself in the foot? Or maybe I am under false assumption that you are trying to create widespread change?

nutty professor said...

You've talked about these issues before, and I am always eager to integrate these ideas into our current myth system and its enactment, or at best, create counternarratives to the prevailing currents of myth, magic and religion that pervade our culture. You have provided plenty of fertile material in these last couple of posts.

What concerns me in the future is the inevitable conflict that emerges as a consequence of the clashing of these disparate world views: how do you envision this? You have suggested elsewhere that the countervailing forces - the arcane philosophies, the funky cults, the weird sciences, the alternative spiritualities, will displace the orthodoxies as they move from the margins, and I assume, supercede what passes for mainstream religious myth and theology these days. But will there be much social resistance to the course of these great shifts, and how will it manifest? I am not looking for an apocalyptic vision of the future, but I wonder what you think portends, given the map you have so wonderfully sketched out for us.
Great work as usual

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Mr. Roberts - Also a Dave Ramsey fan, here. I often tell people, with tongue firmly in cheek, that I have "joined the cult of Dave Ramsey."

Through the vagaries of our local library system, and weird chance, a DVD and book came to hand last night that cover the so called "Dark Ages."

The DVD was Rainer Walde's "My Journey to Life; On the Trail of Celtic Saints." It pretty much covers the period of time, 400 - 1000 CE. Ireland and western Britain, thou the monks traveled widely into Europe. Watching the DVD you got the idea that there was a great deal going on in art, philosophy and even building.

Then I picked up William Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire." At least the early parts of the book, covering the same time period, seems to indicate not much going on.

I've always been fascinated by the end of Roman Britain. For the longest time, it seemed that 410 rolled around, and everything fell into an archaeological black hole. Then I picked up the writings of St. Patrick and find a whole rich narrative of life in the 5th century after 410.

I think people get very attached to the stories they tell themselves. Our empire will end, and in retrospect, the following times may look like an enormous black hole. But I think there will be very rich and satisfying aspects of life during that time.

Odin's Raven said...

Isn't there a problem with the charioteer? He thinks he's in charge.Maybe there's a similar problem with theurgists who ignore theos.

Surely in the Indian version of the chariot allegory, there's a divinity in the back, who is the real owner of the vehicle, and whose directions the charioteer should be following? Maybe in the Greek transition between the first stage of philosophy, which seems to have been quite mystical, and the more rational subsequent stages, his function was usurped by the rational mind. (Maybe it was like the Biblical parable of the unjust steward who took over his master's property for himself as soon as he went away for a while.)

Even in reality, the charioteer was acting for someone else. In the Olympic chariot races the honours went to the rich men who owned the chariots and horses, and employed or owned the charioteers. In Homeric and Celtic warfare the charioteer drove to the instructions of the Heroic fighting man behind him.

Certainly the charioteer should look after the horses and the vehicle, and pay attention to the road signs and the traffic. Perhaps he should pay more attention to the 'still small voice' coming from the back of his mind, which could be telling him that he's heading for the wrong destination.

Joel said...

Shining Hector:

Your criticism has echoes of James C. Scott's "Seeing like a State." Scott spends a lot of that book giving case-studies where people have over-valued what he calls "legibility," where the workings of a complex system are obvious, and subtle relationships are cleared away. Scott calls the aesthetic of polished machines "authoritarian high-modernism."

It sounds, to me, as though Mr. Greer is advocating the opposite: that perhaps the Enlightenment has unreasonable expectations for how the system might function without its less-legible parts, and maybe some of the subtleties that have been recently stripped away might be re-introduced.

It took his comments on the fragility of personality to be, not a claim of his own superiority, but a general statement of how human beings operate. Something like "rational thought without the unconscious mind is as vulnerable as a tree without soil."

John Michael Greer said...

Pat, er, you're missing one of the points that I've been trying to make, which is that the magical traditions have specific techniques for revising the structures of consciousness. What you're doing is actually very close to one of the introductory practices students of magic are asked to take up...but the technical methods of magic don't end there.

Thijs, magic is very much like mathematics -- everyone does it in a small way, a few people specialize in it. Yes, that involves some communication issues. I don't use the spelling "magick" for, yes, political reasons -- that's a habit popularized by Aleister Crowley and his followers, and popular on the avant-garde end of the occult scene, to which I emphatically do not belong.

Mister R., a good point, but there's another dimension to it. I've seen several people, despite warnings, trying magic to make a specific person fall in love with them. In every case, what happened was that the magic-using person ended up utterly besotted with the intended target, while the target reacted against the spell and ended up with an unaccountable loathing for the would-be love magician. John Lennon put it best: "Instant karma's gonna get you..."

Blue Sun, theurgy aims at much the same goal as other forms of mystical practice, such as yoga. Thaumaturgy has more pragmatic goals. There are aspects of theurgic magic that can be practiced by anybody -- most of them have ended up as practices in the various religions, and indeed late classical Paganism had quite a bit of theurgy in it -- but serious work in that direction is a very demanding discipline, and is probably best left for those who are willing and able to commit the time and dedication it demands.

Jennifer, got it -- you're in the contest.

Katsmama, exactly. The cliff may be you, or it may be part of your world -- there are plenty of cliffs to drive a chariot over, just as there are plenty of roads to take.

Petro said...

A fine exposition of my favorite auto-didactic hobby (philosophy). Contextualizing "magic" within it is illuminating!

Lots of food for thought and avenues to further explore...

Falki Volkersson said...

Hi JMG. I've been interested in starting with a magical path for a while. I have been reading what I could find on the internet, but I haven't found lore on how to practise, only the theoretical, and while I love to read I want to start doing. I'm very interested in both western and eastern phylosophy and magic. I've read the Tao many times, a lot of Hermeticism and Shamanism and I like them all because I see how each completes a part of the puzzle. So, where could I start with the more practical applications?

It's been a while since I last posted, I wanted to tell that this year I became a member in a Recreationist Association (the Viking era), so I've been getting a lot of practise in the crafts, I can already do boots, leather armor, hooded cloacks, belts, leather bags, broochs for holding the cloack. I'm currently working to make my own battle helmet and my sword.

KWohlmut said...

Your last sentence is probably among the cruelest cliffhangers I've encountered on the Internet, or elsewhere for that matter.

"Tune in next week to see if Western civilization is doomed or not"


Vicky K said...

JMG: Thank you again for another left-handed compliment. I am delighted to hear that I fall into the thoroughly discredited Romantic fallacy of the noble savage.

Us more Dionysian types do fall prey to such nonsense. Especially if we are trained as ecosystem analysts with the bias that we are a part of nature but have lost touch with the instinctual self-directed nature that the rest of creation uses.

More witch than mage. Greetings from the other side of the river.

The word verification is sod crys. A little animist humor don't you think?

Nano said...

Culture is for bacteria, biology has a way of winning over the rational mind.

Great post. What tools would you suggest for this aeon's magician?

I feel that some knowledge in Neuro Linguistic programming, reading "Prometheus Rising" by the late Robert Anton Wilson and perusing the extensive "Golden Dawn - Thelemite" text can help one out in some ways. As well as your books on the druid side of things, which I hope to be picking up soon.

93 - all hail eris and all that good stuff.

Thank you again for the lucid writing.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

Sorry this one is a bit off topic, but I was thinking about buying a second hand telescope - they are outrageously cheap for some reason - and may help to spot the zombies coming up the mountain (I'm kidding!). Actually, I wanted to be able to get a better look at the night sky and plenty of people have commented about such things here.

If anyone has any pointers I'd be grateful as I am a complete novice?

JMG - By the way the really interesting thing about the comments that I referred to in my previous post was that they were made by women. There's definitely something in that.



Doctor Westchester said...

I have started to wonder that if the rise of science and technology in our culture had the main effect of marginalizing the study of magic; it may have had also the side effect of helping this area of knowledge become more sharply defined.

The example I would give comes out of my own field – chemistry. Please remember that I only know that side of the story and am only extrapolating to what the other side might have been.

I was taught that chemistry grow out of alchemy. I do not know if mages currently practice alchemy, but if you do I would imagine that its aims and purposes are different now from what they were before the two fields split.

Again, I was taught that one thing that alchemy was trying to do was change base metals into gold. I would also imagine that this was somewhat look down on upon by wiser mages, so it was probably consider either grey or even black magic.

Greed being a firm part of us, I would also imagine that alchemists did continued to pursue attempting this transforamtion even after it was clear that the two fields had split.

As you know chemistry, or rather nuclear physics, has achieved this desired transformation. But we now know that doing this on earth, versus in a dying star, is like planting footprints on the moon. It is something that the most wealthy and resource rich society that the earth will ever see could do for bragging rights only, and will probably never happen again on our planet (unless it gets swallowed by our sun when it becomes a red star).

So if alchemy is still practiced, I would imagine that trying to physically turn lead into gold is not something that educated mages would even attempt, although the ignorant and uneducated may still be attempting to do it.

I would guess that this weeding process went on in many other areas of magic as science defined the boundaries of what was possible in the physical world.

My gut feeling is that some of the popular misconceptions about magic (the Harry Potter syndrome) arose because the marginalization of magic started before this weeding process could take place and what often got seen by the larger culture tended to be the charlatans and exaggerators (after all, in our culture practicers of the black magic of advertising would never exaggerate, now would they?).

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, it's not accidental that a lot of the Neoplatonists used the symbolism of initiation into the Mysteries as a way to talk about their work -- and that in turn inspired operative mages after the Renaissance to create initiatory systems on a quasi-Masonic model as a framework for theurgic training.

Justsit, I'm not a great fan of Buddhism, but I have some basic familiarity with the teachings of the Tibetan Vajrayana. I prefer the path I follow, though!

Hal, I'd argue that the rational charioteers were not actually that rational -- that they were rationalizing various kinds of baboonery, rather than actually asking the hard questions about whether (say) the presuppositions of American society made any kind of sense. Rationalization masquerading as reason is a major issue.

Richard, the point of all this isn't to abandon your ordinary life and move into a cave; it's to address the choices in your ordinary life in a wiser and more focused way.

DE, you get today's gold star for stating the necessary. Magic, to borrow a phrase from theology, is justified by works rather than faith; those who practice it learn relatively quickly that it does actually have the effects it claims. A good scholarly education is not at all a hindrance to practicing it -- though certain kinds of scholarly background can prejudice people against giving it a try, of course.

h0neanias, nicely put. The notion that history has to be going somewhere is what Karl Popper called "historicism," and it's a common and highly counterproductive bad habit.

Maria, I'm sorry to hear that your therapist likes "The Secret"! You might give him/her a copy of the recent and very worthwhile Barbara Ehrenreich book Brightsided, which is about the ways that the cult of positive thinking has been a highly destructive force in our culture.

Lance, I still value the Stoics, since I'm the kind of person who finds that approach naturally appealing; Epictetus' Enchiridion got me through the year or so after the death of my son, too, so it's an old and trusted friend. (I never liked the Epicureans much at all.) Thanks for the climate change info; it's good to have a bit of data to balance against the exaggerations on both sides of that issue.

Steve, as long as people frame the discussion in terms of "everyone else has to change their way of life before I'll change mine," which is usually what it comes down to, nothing is going to happen. Thus the theme of the Green Wizardry posts up to this time, and some aspects of the work ahead.

WVjohn, glad to hear it! The OBOD course was my first introduction to Druidry, too, and it's a good one; I still use material I learned there.

Tyler, I'm not a psychiatrist, and I don't even play one on TV, so I'm far from qualified to offer advice in a case like this one -- and could potentially get in legal trouble for offering it.

Carolyn, small steps are better than no steps, and some of the steps you've taken are not small by any scale I know. Still, you're right that there's always more to do on this path.

John Michael Greer said...

Nomad, we'll get to that in an upcoming post.

Professor, there are ways to handle the clash of cultural metaphors, and the baboonery generally associated with the same. That's not to say it won't get difficult in some places, or at some times. More on this later.

Raven, the metaphor was Plato's, not mine. I'd encourage you to read a bit of Iamblichus before you jump to the conclusion that the theoi were left out of theurgy. Still, that's a conversation for another time.

Petro, there's a reason why one of the standard synonyms for magic down the centuries was "occult philosophy"!

Falki, for someone with your interests, I'd suggest my book The Druid Magic Handbook; you can easily swap in Norse deities for the Druidic ones, following the lines suggested in the book. I'll be talking about reenactment societies down the road a bit, too.

KWohlmut, I do my best to keep my readers entertained. ;-)

Vicky, I didn't call Romanticism a discredited fallacy; I'd rather call it taking a valid point much further than the facts will go -- a difficulty it shares with its equal and opposite of Classicism. Still, do what keepeth thou from wilting shall be the loophole in the law.

Nano, all hail Discordia. (Yes, my noseprint ws mailed to the California State Office of Furniture and Bedding.) Despite this, I don't have a lot to offer the avant-garde end of the magical scene, as that's not where my training or my inclination place me; as far as I'm concerned, it's been the Phanerozoic Aeon all along, and each magus proclaims the law for himself or herself alone.

Cherokee, I don't know anything like as much as I should; my own telescope is a cheap 4" reflector that still gets nice views of the rings of Saturn et al. Can anyone else help?

Bruce The Druid said...

[irritated look]
[canned polemic]

Ok, now that we have that out of the way...

Its sad that we often know more about baboon culture than our own.

My reading on the neoplatonists is quite limited, but it was my understanding that much of the theology of the Christian Church can be traced to the neoplatonists. I suppose because of that I have been suspicious of that crowd. Perhaps I have been hasty.

I know the Taoists do some pretty heavy duty magic: are you aware of any parallels with Taoists and neoplatonists? Or are they on truly different trains of thought (each addressing the unique concerns of their culture).

I think for those that are still having issues with John"s definition of magic, they ought to consider the latin High Mass of the Roman Catholic church, conducted in its traditional manner (priest facing the altar) as an example of magic ritual conducted within a religion.

Lance Michael Foster said...

@ Cherokee, may I suggest getting the book "Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe" by Terence Dickinson? It has a very good approach to learning backyard astronomy. The author also gives his choice of the best beginner's telescope: "There may not be a perfect telescope for the beginner, but the closest thing to it is the 6-inch Dobsonian-mounted Newtonian reflector. These telescopes offer the best combination of modest price, versatility and practicality available in a commercial telescope. For about $500, you get a complete telescope of astonishing capability. It will reveal Cassini's division in Saturn's rings, Jupiter's red spot, the polar caps and dark regions on Mars, thousands of lunar features, the Trapezium at the core of the Orion Nebula, hundreds of stars in the Hercules cluster and galaxies 60 million light years away." Also Schmidt-Cassegrain are favorites of some (but stay away from those produced during the fad for them during the 1980s, go earlier or later).

Another useful guide to beginning to learn some of the night sky is the Stikky Guide to the Night Sky: "Learn 6 constellations, 4 stars, a planet, a galaxy, and how to navigate at night-in one hour, guaranteed." To get a taste of this book - "Follow through a special web version of the first 50 pages from Stikky Night Skies. This sequence was first put online in 2001 and generated the feedback that lead directly to the Stikky series. It takes about fifteen minutes to read and will introduce you to one constellation and a star. To start, click here: "

I have both books and recommend both.

August Johnson said...

Cherokee Organics - Before you actually buy a telescope, beware that there are lots of really bad ones out there. It's easy to get frustrated with a cheap department store telescope. Start with a pair of binoculars first as recommended here

How to start right in Astronomy

Once you know you want something more, read

How to choose a telescope

Just ignore the advice to jump in big, there are lots of really good, older and cheap telescopes available from individual sellers here

Older Meade and Celestron, and other brands that are long gone, manually operated telescopes have excellent optics (often even better than today's) and often are available for FAR less than you'd think. The best telescope I have is a 1980 Celestron 8" Schimdt-Cassegrain reflector.

Check for books on the night sky on astromart and used book sites like and

The night sky is a truly amazing place and all the more so when you know your way around.

sgage said...

"Cherokee, I don't know anything like as much as I should; my own telescope is a cheap 4" reflector that still gets nice views of the rings of Saturn et al. Can anyone else help?"

I'll try. I have been a sky watcher since my mother taught me the constellations at a very young age. The Earth has swung around the Sun 50 times since then.

My favorite telescope was a 3" Unitron refractor - exquisite optics on a rock-solid mount. Those are the main parameters - optics and mechanicals. I was into resolving double stars and suchlike, and the easy clusters and nebulae, end the Unitron actually met the theoretic resolution of a 3" refractor.

I got into astrophotography (with film and subsequent darkroom work) for a couple of years at college - the professor actually had me teaching and running the observatory, because I just knew the sky, based on years of amateur focus.

Of course, I always lusted after a big reflector/cassegrain "light bucket", but back in the day I surely couldn't afford it. And then I became more and more interested in the Turning of the Wheel - naked eye stuff.

To this day, the last thing I do on any clear night is go out for a peep at the stars, so I know where/when I am.

Get a telescope for sure, but learn the night sky first. And then you will never be lost.

Zympht said...

Death and renewal are the self-evident order of things on this plane, and the course we are on is in harmony with that. The eyes-glazed-over, lost-in-materialism modality is part of what is beginning to decay and die. This is good. Your work to cause changes in consciousness in accordance with the natural order can perhaps help the process proceed least painfully, your Green Wizard project being a great example. What needs to die, should, so that regeneration becomes possible. Let's make this process of death something we hold in solemn reverence and awe as well.

Richard said...

John, I was wondering if you have any familiarity with Thomistic philosophy and if so, what your thoughts on it are. Just started reading up on it and its attendant metaphysics, and it seems rather complete in explaining existence, causality, knowledge, etc. Thanks.

Tracy G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Michael Greer said...

Doctor W., alchemy's a complex field, and yes, it's still practiced today. The question of whether traditional alchemy tried to create metallic gold or not is in some ways even more complex -- "our gold is not the common gold" is a very common refrain in the old alchemical texts. I don't happen to know anybody in the field who's trying to make gold, but alchemists are an uncommunicative bunch.

The core difference between alchemy and chemistry, though, is easy enough to state. You've doubtless noticed that a good cook and a bad one can make the same recipe with the same ingredients in the same way, and come up with very different results. That personal equation is what chemistry, like all other sciences, tries to exclude -- thus replicability as the touchstone of science -- but it's the foundation of alchemy. It's the participation of the alchemist in the alchemical process that makes things happen -- in the alchemist as well as in the flask.

Bruce, early Christianity did indeed end up absorbing a great deal of Neoplatonism early on -- it was the philosophical lingua franca of the late Roman world, thus hard to avoid -- but in the western world, at least, spent most of the Reformation era ditching it. As for parallels with Taoism, my knowledge of the latter is limited to English language books, but to judge from those, there are significant parallels.

Zympht, thank you. That strikes me as an eminently useful approach to the time of troubles before us.

Richard, I have only a nodding acquaintance with Thomism; since I'm not Catholic, and Thomism is specific to that faith, it hasn't been a subject of interest to me. If you find Catholicism a viable path for you, then studying what the Doctor Angelicus had to say is probably a very good idea.

. josé . said...

A wonderful song by Buffy Sainte Marie, from the late 60's. The poem was actually by Leonard Cohen. They were among my favorite folk singers in those days ...

Tatanka Suta said...

Thank you for writing with magical intent.

I am benefited.

jagged ben said...

"The years between Aristotle and Anselm weren’t a philosophical void; it’s simply that the kind of philosophy practiced in those times isn’t ancestral to the kind that’s practiced now..."

That's not an entirely correct or complete statement. It is more the case that those who took up the mantle of studying ancient philosophy during this period, namely Muslim Arabs, were those who were considered beyond the pale by those Christian Europeans who much later called what they were doing Western Philosophy. It was philosophers like Averroes and Avicenna who kept Aristotelian philosophy alive during the so-called medieval period when Islam was ascendant and Christianity in retreat. Arguably the lack of awareness of these thinkers among your college professors had more to do with the latent effects of centuries of cultural and religious prejudice than with a turn toward magic in medieval times. But it is, indeed, an excellent example of history being written by the winners.

Matthew Heins said...

Hey Vicky,

Two(.5)[and 1/2]+1 Questions:

1. Which instincts are you thinking are going to salvage this situation, specifically?

2. Who created "creation"?

2.5. And why did they create our intellects if they wanted us to stick to instinct?

2.5 and 1/2. Or do you mean our instincts are created -and therefore good- whereas our intellects are of our own subcreation -and therefore not so good?

+1. Or do your instincts insist that making sense is not something your arguments should do at this time?

In search of coherence,

-Matt. ;)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

This is a big thankyou to all that responded to my request for help regarding telescopes. It is a great thing to have a disparate yet connected community of people with which to ask for assistance. I particularly appreciated the offer of extended help. It is no small thing. I'm going to digest on the responses for a few days.

Back to this week’s post though. I can't help myself! JMG mentioned love potions and such. For those that are non-believers I can only suggest a ride into the surreal. What I mean by this is that as part of my research into marketing and how we are manipulated on a day to day basis which has led my life in strange directions, I read a contemporary book by Neil Strauss called "The Game". It is a story of one individuals search on the secret as to how to start up relationships. Actually, that was too nice a description, the book was a biography of his time in developing his skills as a pickup artist. Seriously.

A strange read. Was it magic? Maybe? JMG's definition inclines me to think so. He has a very methodical and inquisitive brain and writes about himself as if he were the most affable guy around. Plus it is a very entertaining read.

The really funny thing though is that once I became aware that this sort of thing was going on every day in all sorts of interactions, it kind of changed my perspective. Magic, well kind of happens - all the time.

The other strange thing though is that you could see that whilst he was very good at starting relationships, it was a whole different set of skills to maintain those same relationships. Therein, was his downfall.

Most that I have spoken to about this don't want to believe that these sorts of things go on. I see the same disbelief in some of the comments here. Beware though, we are not all on a level playing field.

Interestingly enough too, I tend to avoid people who can start a relationship, but have difficulty with maintaining it. Sociopaths and just bad people fall into this category and are to be avoided. They can be superficially charming - at first anyway.



RainbowShadow said...

"Hal, I'd argue that the rational charioteers were not actually that rational -- that they were rationalizing various kinds of baboonery, rather than actually asking the hard questions about whether (say) the presuppositions of American society made any kind of sense."

Dang, John Michael Greer, are you really saying American society as it is now makes no sense?

You better be CAREFUL, you almost sound like an anti-American, or worse yet, a filthy French-loving Communist Muslim sympathizer! ^_^

That was my attempt at a joke, by the way, I actually agree with you completely.

Now on another note, your post DOES explain some things that haven't made sense to me up to now, such as why so many women in our society keep marrying husbands that exude confidence early on but then end up bashing their wives' faces in with a beer bottle, or some similar form of abuse. It's the confidence, apparently.

I'm really looking forward to more discussion of the "nonrational" from you...and that's it. I don't really have anything else to offer this time other than more praise, and thanks for helping me make sense of something.

Evan said...

Seems like all this horse and chariot nonsense could be solved by freeing the horse from the reins and walking. Paul Shepard noted that it may have been the domestication of the horse and the great speed that it allowed -- the sense of flying across the landscape -- that caused a relational and perceptual shift away from the living land and into something more abstracted and separate from the slow unfolding of the earth.

There's another good anecdote from Gary Snyder of riding across the outback in an automobile with and aborigine who's trying to tell the land's story and song but who is trying to fire off so much so quickly that Snyder quickly realizes that had only they been walking...

Veiled Glory said...

"By candle light, with silk tabards of gleaming color, and candles, and painted bits of wood... people's mnds really are changed and moved to see and feel new thoughts."

This gave me a smile - because I experience that on a weekly basis, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Plus incense & bells. :-)

Neo-platonism is still very much alive within the eastern expressions of Christianity. A similar time-suck of history tends to occupy western minds as to the Dark Ages Where Nothing Happened, excluding the lively Byzantines from any apparent cultural influence. They even include iconography of the Greek philosophers in churches. Guess where those Irish monks acquired the philosophical texts to copy?

I am finding this discussion a useful for my own reflection. In the Orthodox understanding, the charioteer is the nous/heart (that which communes with God, the highest sensibility of man) & the mind/intellect. The chariot is the body. The horses are the passions & emotions.

Maria said...

I know I'm "double dipping," but I want to tell you that the past couple of posts here have helped to blow my mind wide open on a personal, psychological level in a couple of areas where I'd been stuck for most of this year.

Other factors in my life were the fuel sitting dormant (as it were); your words provided the spark. I have no idea how you did it, but I suppose that is where the magic comes in.

Thank you.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Odin's Raven--


I don't believe Plato ever forgot the "still small voice"--Socrates had his daemon, and some of the dialogues concerned topics such as that which is invisible which tells us how to recognize the good. In addition, the Athenians accused Socrates of not believing in the gods (and he did tend to treat them more as metaphors, or stand-ins, than deities), but he, and by extension, Plato, seem to have definitely not discounted that which the Greeks called the "unknown god" (separate from the whole theory of forms).

So even if Plato didn't explicitly state that a "heroic warrior" was standing behind the charioteer, it formed part of the context and one could say he chose that metaphor because of its implication that something else--a much larger something--was behind the charioteer: otherwise he might have used a different metaphor--man the stand-alone heroic figure (as Nietzsche did, for example).

Sorry I can't give references other than to say go back and reread your dialogues: it's been a while since I actively studied this stuff.

Zach said...

re: Neoplatonism and Christianity. I recall back in my younger days as an Evangelical reading a bit about the Neoplatonists, and how this had been the vehicle by which the Roman Catholic church had been "paganized" and become the great Whore of Babylon.

Fun times. :)

As I find myself trending to a more Catholic Christian theology (still an Anglican, however), this seems less a bug than a feature. :)

A lot of history of the West has dropped down the memory hole -- you know, Rome fell in 476, things were Dark for Ages, then the Classical texts were re-introduced from the Muslims, and the Renaissance bloomed.

That skips a bit. As @Veiled Glory notes, that completely bypasses any role of the Byzantines in cultural transmission. ("The Great Schism occurred in 1054, and the Christian East was never heard from again...")

@jagged ben, it's not as if the Christian medievals were unfamiliar with Averroes, as any treatment of St. Thomas Aquinas will show. The recovery of Aristotle and his place in Christian thought was one of the hot academic topics of the day.

Speaking of the Angelic Doctor, I've only begun picking up a smattering of his thought, but what I've learned so far seems quite relevant here.

JMG, I'm not sure I expected you to start with the "love of wisdom" as step one in your course on magic, but that's always a good place to start.

Sorry, this is a bit scattered -- there's a lot of thought-provoking material here this week and it needs organizing (at least, inside my own head. :) ).


Vicky K said...

Matthew Heins: Your questions are not easily answered directly as they contain suppositions that I do not necessarily use to frame my arguments.

First off, there is a subject that is verboten on this blog, which is why I didn't go into much detail.

The instincts are not a separate part of who we are. Traditionally we consider the survival impulses as the primary ones. But modern persons think of their thinking apparatus [at least that which is apparent to them - conscious thoughts] as a primary survival mechanism rather than an adjunct to the others. That is, we will think our way out this problem. It is somewhat glorified. Rationality is given top dog status and non-rationality is considered 'the problem'.

So for simplicity's sake I would say we are talking about the whole organism.

I'm not concerned with who or what created creation. Experiencing the divine is not the same thing as having a clue as to how the this whole thing came about. I prefer to not get too teleological.

We are the horse and the charioteer. But that is because we are modern persons living lives un-integrated with nature both culturally and psychologically. A split in consciousness has occurred which we define as our self [charioteer] and horse [body-instincts]. We fear nature because we fear ourselves. The wild is who we are and where we belong. Scary huh?

Notice that we describe a person or other creature as un-selfconscious when they are acting natural and unstilted. They are not self-absorbed in their self presentation or lost in their mental dialogue or monologue.

In a technical sense I would say that the problem arose when we changed our lifestyle from our original hunter-gather economic life. So to that extent we did start using our intellects in a different way and the consequences of that lead to a type of consciousness that over-valued self-consciousness. Or it could have just been that social restrictions made us monitor ourselves more closely and it became a habit of thought.

Was this inevitable? It happened.

Most modern people do not experience or even conceive of the possibility of being yourself without the add-on of self-consciousness. Excepting when they have fully surrendered to the moment at hand. And probably while fulfilling some primal instinct. smiley face

I think the question, 'how do we live knowing what we know' is a distraction in the sense that what we think we know [the eternal truths derived from thinking] leads us to false solutions.

Bet you are sorry you asked.

Ainslie Podulke van der Stam said...

Oh Goody!

I was kind of losing interest in the blog in that have-to-read-it-every-week kind of way, since my interest is more magical and I've got my hands full with the old daily grind and kids and keeping my head screwed on straight in the mundane and all... Your broadest point- peak oil- is very much not lost on me. Turns out I only skipped one week.

So now the discpline is not getting carried away by fascinating material and remembering to take care of myself.

Ah, it's an adventure, ain't it?

Kevin said...

Would that the theurgical techniques of Iamblichus were still extant. Golden Dawn rituals are great, but they're very Cabalistic and I'm more a classical Pagan kind of guy. If you happen to know whether anybody's credibly reconstructed the theurgy of late antiquity, or something like it, I'd be very interested.

Dwig said...

Thanks to JMG and other students of the magic discipline for a window into an area that I've hardly gotten into before.

JMG: "the vast majority of chatter about money is an attempt to evade the real issues raised by that particular set of arcane symbols, which nobody wants to talk about at all."
I've been reading installments of Charles Eisenstein's "Sacred Economics" (online at -- there are more chapters posted on Reality Sandwich that aren't linked to here). Some of his descriptions of the symbolic nature of money remind me of what you've been saying. You might find it worth commenting on, if and when your trajectory takes you deeper into economics.

JMG and Vicki: To use the term "baboonery" or take a simplistic, distorted view on actual baboon society is to miss what could be a useful source of insight into the variety of human experience; see the link I posted last week for an example. And yes, bonobos and chimps are similarly worth studying. After all, our inner "horses" are close relatives of those operating in our primate cousins, and they're complex and adaptive beasts.

JMG: I recently read the Wikipedia article on the word "koan". I know Buddhist thinking isn't your thing, but I wonder how well the practice described in the article matches your concept of "changing consciousness ...". If it does, is there something at least roughly equivalent in Western magic?

Which leads me to a fundamental question: what is consciousness? What is it we change when we "do magic"? Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (a mathematician and biologist) tackle the first question in "Figments of Reality", not so much answering it as exploring it. I'm thinking that perhaps the question is a genuine koan.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Odin's Raven makes a good point, and I think I've seen classical art that illustrates it.

I would like to see a Tarot deck in which the Chariot trump showed the deity riding in back of the charioteer. It certainly gives an additional dimension to the symbol.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- "The question that comes to many minds these days, though, is whether something similar can be done on the large scale—whether, to be precise, it’s possible to banish enough baboonery from our collective conversation about the future that we as a society can confront the real sources of our problems and do what has to be done. "

Well, I'd ask the corollary, deferring to history: Has this ever happened in the past on a large scale during a crunch time?

Yupped said...

Very interesting, as usual. I always enjoy learning about different approaches to the challenge of changing consciousness. My experience has been that the key to changing your mind, and then your behaviors, is to really and truly understand how messed up your mind and behaviors have become. Once you’ve done that, there seem to be quite a few paths available to the individual to rebuild their mental framework and their behaviors.

For me, it turned out that I needed a major and quite painful mid-life crash before life was successful in getting my attention. I was down for the count for a while, and when I got back up I just couldn’t reboot my old ego, so I had to start fresh. I got onto a spiritual path that emphasizes awareness and quiet meditation and that helped me see and confront (gently) my bundle of thoughts/opinions/behaviors. That in turn brought me to an awareness of how I should simplify and rebalance my physical life. It was a quiet miracle in a way.

I’ve met a lot of friends and fellow travelers over the last few years; many stories of personal awakenings, which do lead to changes in behavior changes, but which seem to start out in some sort of pain or other. So I wonder, can a commitment to a radical change in outlook come from a purely pleasant experience, or is a painful crisis of some sort required?

mirror said...

"Richard, I have only a nodding acquaintance with Thomism; since I'm not Catholic, and Thomism is specific to that faith, it hasn't been a subject of interest to me. If you find Catholicism a viable path for you, then studying what the Doctor Angelicus had to say is probably a very good idea."

I had a Catholic boyfriend in college (philosophy major) who informed me that Thomas on his deathbed declared that all his teachings were "as straw". (Not sure how literally accurate that was but no matter.) I tried with gritted teeth to derive wisdom, or even meaning, from some of his writings. My husband who at the time spoke for ('channeled') a long dead spirit said that Thomas did not get along with women.
As this was hardly surprising I abandoned the good Saint, with no sense of guilt. Oh yes - I later spoke with him in a dream, in which he was a contemporary French philosopher. I wish I could recall the conversation; he was reading aloud from an ancient hieroglyphic text, and he practiced astrology. Take it as you like.

Roy Smith said...

JMG - You have piqued my interest in learning more about the Golden Dawn system with these recent posts, and I see some value in finding a teacher/organization that can serve as a more personalized guide than a book, no matter how well written. (I don't mean this as a slam against books or self-directed learning - I am currently using your book and working the practices in it; it's just that as most religions are bewildering to the neophyte and a community of fellow seekers is helpful, I am suspecting that a magical lodge or some similar organization could help relieve some of the confusion (or at least help answer specific questions), even if it can't relieve the work and dedication necessary for accomplishment.)

That being said, an internet search for Golden Dawn inspired organizations leads one directly to a mass of schisms, petty rivalries, truth claims, and mentally unbalanced individuals that rival the worst that protestant christianity has to offer. Do you know of any signposts to help one through this morass?

I know that amidst the carnage of protestant christianity that there are churches that I respect and could be part of, and I would like to think that the same could be said of the esoteric community.

Thanks for any insight.

Robert said...

@mirror about Thomas Aquinas's "straw":

To the best of my recollection, Thomas had some sort of inner experience in early December 1273, and thereafter ceased all his intellectual work. This greatly distressed all his fellow monks, one of whom (Reginald of Piperno) finally persuaded him to say just a little about what had happened. What he told Reginald was roughly as follows: "After what I have seen, all my work seems to me to be just straw." (The Latin word is *palea*, also translated "chaff"). He died about three months after his experience.

Straw is what they used to put on the floors of college lecture rooms, among other public places. It collected all kinds of dirt, dropped food and drink, etc., and it soon became lousy with vermin. Eventually it was raked out and burned.

For one of the greatest masters of intellectual argument ever to call his own very impressive writings "straw" is quite a statement! Perhaps Thomas had had the sort of mystical vision that perceives a higher reality beyond all possible human words, speech and language.

If so, it would be entirely natural, afterwards, for him to despise all his own verbal efforts as mere "straw." It happens . . .

Robert Mathiesen / Mageprof

Richard said...

As a pagan interested in Druidry and studying grimoiric and hermetic magic, I actually find Thomism's consistency in metaphysics interesting yet disturbing. I can find no pagan that has any actual understanding of Thomist philosophy, and those who know of it simply push it aside as it doesn't interest them, or they don't like it. Most people who attack Thomism wind up savaging a poorly constructed straw-man argument. Do you know of any pagans that are well versed in Thomistic arguments and the possible problems with those arguments?

John Wheeler said...

All this talk of taming wild horses and going over cliffs makes me want to see "The Man from Snowy River" again. I think the climax scene from that movie has everything to do with magic and peak oil, namely the inner work that needs to be done for the transformation.

For those who haven't seen the movie, substitute the image of a man surfing a tidal wave.

As to alchemy, Idries Shah claims it is a brand of Sufism, and is far more concerned with transforming the alchemist than the elements.

Hal said...

JMG, isn't that the problem? That each of our individual charioteers make what are for them "rational" decisions, which turn out to be disastrous for the whole. I know, those decisions might not be thought of as rational, from the bigger picture, but, then, rationality implies some sort of systematic decision-making process, and that always begins with defining and delimiting the scope of our inquiry.

We all love to beat up on the "science" of economics, and deservedly so, but it actually does a fair job of predicting how aggregations of people will behave (market behavior, anyway) using the model of "rational," self-maximizing individuals. Where it falls apart is in assuming these market activities can be predicted apart from resource constraints. And actually, truth be told, it has a pretty good short-term track record in predicting that people will often find market solutions to shortages. Have you caught the news in the last couple of days with respect to "rare earth" minerals? The market at work. It works like... you thought I was going to say "magic," didn't you... like, well, something really good, right up until it doesn't. Just giving the devil his due.

So getting back to the point I was trying to make in my first comment. Is it possible that listening to our horses every once in a while could be a good antidote to that "rationality" that, while maximizing the individual, is really bad for us all? And could this have something to do with ethics? I think maybe I'm getting at the same question as those arguing for the Higher Copilot in the chariot, but looking for the solution with what we already have, rather than supposing Plato must have meant something other than what he said. Not that I've actually read Plato, of course, so I'm figuratively talking out of a different orifice, if you catch my drift. And drift I do.

And Matthew Heins, I think your +1 to Vicky was out of line, snarky to the edge of abuse, and am surprised the Archdruid let it pass.

Robert said...

@Kevin, about theurgical techniques of the Neoplatonists

Actually, we know a surprisingly large amount about these techniques from chance references and hints in the writings of the Neoplatonists, including Proclus and Iamblichus.

The best and fullest account of these techniques is in a quite rare book by Hans (or Yochanan) Lewy, "Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy: Mysticism, Magic and Platonism in the Later Roman Empire." The first edition was published in Cairo in 1956, and the second, with many worth-while supplements, in Paris in 1978, by "Etudes Augustiniennes."

A third edition has just been pubished this year (2011), with additional supplements, by Brepols (Turnhout, Belgium). It has about 800 pages in English or (in some of the supplements) in French, plus original texts cited in Greek and Latin. This is definitely the best edition of the three!

Lewy's book is well worth the attention of anyone who knows all the languages used in it. The publisher seems not to be selling it directly to purchasers in the United States, so you may have to go through one or another European bookseller to get a copy.

Robert Mathiesen / Mageprof

John Michael Greer said...

Jose, now that's a blast from the past. I remember it well.

Tatanka, glad to hear it.

Jagged, that accounts for the second half of the period I mentioned, not the first -- and there was quite a bit going on in the Muslim world along the magical lines I've outlined; you might consider the writings of the Brethren of Purity or Thabit ibn Qurra, just for starters. You're right to a certain degree, but there's more going on than that.

Cherokee, that's fascinating -- and it's interesting to see the confirmation of the standard magical teaching that it takes one kind of working to get somebody into bed with you, and quite another to establish a lasting relationship!

RainbowShadow, it makes plenty of sense, as long as you remember that we're a bunch of social primates rather than, say, the lords of creation. It's the delusion that we're the latter that makes it so hard for so many of us to make sense of our situation.

Evan, good luck. You can't do without the instinctual and the social dimensions of your mind, which are the two horses; try it, and all that happens is that you think you're walking, while your ability to manage your horses is sharply impaired.

Glory, actually, the Irish monks got most of their manuscripts either from Gaul or from the Monophysite church in Egypt; still, your broader point stands, of course. I didn't know that the Greek philosophers rate icons these days -- that's good to hear.

Maria, you're most welcome. Glad to hear it.

Zach, whether you start talking about magic with philosophy or end up there, it can't be avoided -- if you do the kind of magic I do, at least.

Ainslie, most of this blog is about magic in one way or another, but one result of that is that I have to cover a lot of very basic points. Yes, that may make for slow going for the initiated now and again.

Kevin, there's been quite a bit of work reconstructing Neoplatonist theurgy on an academic level; I don't happen to know of anyone who's actually doing the work just now, but it's a worthwhile project. I've considered writing a book with that focus myself, actually, but that's a ways out just now.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, I certainly don't mean to put down baboons; I find them fascinating animals, and not just because their habits make so much sense of ours. The point is that the patterns of behavior we share with them, when not recognized as such, drive quite a bit of dysfunctional thinking and action these days. As for the nature of consciousness, well, how many hours do you have to discuss the matter?

Deborah, I understand the relation between the human soul and the divine -- if you'd like to use those terms -- in a rather different manner than the one you and OR have proposed, but that's not really relevant to the project of this blog.

Bill, good! We'll be getting to that next week.

Yupped, heck of a question. Some people seem to be born with a drive to engage with these things; other people get there, as you did, as a result of painful experience; but even those who seem born to the work very often phrase their motives in terms of the painful nature of so much of human experience, or of specific experiences they've had.

Mirror, if it doesn't work for you, then by all means leave Aquinas to his astrology!

Roy, I've made it a rule to steer clear of the running quarrels between different Golden Dawn groups, and of the groups themselves, and so am not in a position to recommend one or another. I do strongly recommend getting a basic knowledge of the system on your own, before looking for a GD temple; it's very nearly the only way to be sure the people you're contacting know what they're talking about.

Richard, I don't; there are so many other useful philosophies to study that one specifically designed to provide a framework for Catholic doctrine is not going to interest anybody but Catholics. Have you taken a look at Aristotle directly? A great deal of Thomism is derived from Aristotle, of course, and Aristotle was a pagan by any definition. You might find his version worth comparing to Thomas'.

John, well, Idries Shah is entitled to his opinion. The alchemists I know think differently.

Hal, I've already noted that the wise charioteer pays attention to the perceptions of his horses, just as he recognizes their limitations. The issue I'm trying to raise, which I think you're missing, is that a great deal of the distortion of reason going on is a function of the unrecognized intrusion of nonrational material into supposedly rational discourse. Of course the charioteers think they're being rational; that's the point that the Neoplatonists made -- that much of what we think of as rational thinking isn't, and that it takes quite a bit of work to sort out the content of consciousness so that instinctive drives and social pressures (the other horse, which you and Vicky have been ignoring here) don't get confused with the ideas and opinions that so often veil them.

As for Matt's comments, er, Vicky engaged in blatant name-calling and used frankly insulting language, and I let her comment through. What's sauce for the goose...

Robert, I hadn't heard that Lewy's book is back in print! That's excellent news.

John Michael Greer said...

Arrgh. Due to -- well, to be precise, I'n not sure what -- nine comments got deleted by Blogspot instead of being posted. If you tried to post a comment here between 9:30pm Pacific time last night and 5 am this morning, please repost and we'll see if they come through this time.

Mokey44 said...


I noticed your question was something that is often noted in magical communities but not always stated.

Often life seems to present us with a lesson that we need to learn initially in the smallest of ways- running into a particular person over and over again through the years, for example. If we get the message early on and interact with the person we will experience the growth that needs to happen.

(incidentally it's how I met my husband, but it took me 5+ years to get the message that 'hey, we should talk! I didn't see the pattern until every one of our other friends that kept us apart had graduated or left somehow.)

If we don't, life will present us the message again and again, eventually upping the ante, so to speak, so that our life may come to a halt until WE MUST DEAL WITH THIS ISSUE before continuing on.

Some people seem to be a little better at picking up the pattern early on, before the situation(s) get out of control, but some folks need a crisis before they will wake up and do what needs to happen.

One side effect of magical practice is that it can make these patterns a little more visible or conscious. It helps us learn to pay attention.


Rocco said...

When a friend mentioned The Archdruid Report a while back in a conversation about compost and composting and sane (i.e., old-fashioned) approaches to farming and gardening, my immediate reaction was: you've got to be kidding. I didn't know there were still druids around, much less an Arch one. I took a look, though, and over the last couple of years, I've developed a confidence in you that, to my mind at least, has to do more with clear thinking, clear writing and clear vision than with putting on robes and making signs in the air. I appreciate the impetus that led you to the ancients (who are actually us in a way that I grasp more and more forcefully the older I get), which, to express it succinctly if not completely, is that understanding the past is the primary key to understanding the present and to avoid (if possible) a heedless and fearsome rush into a future that none of us will like very much.

I have little to add to a discussion about magic. Except to say that though I do think it is real, for me at least, using the word itself to refer to a way to understand existence and how to affect it positively is more metaphorical than not.

What I can say without hesitation is that I stand amazed at one or more points every time I read one of your posts at your ability to cogently render ideas that urgently need to be considered and dealt with.

My wish for you is that you have more readers and that knowledge of you becomes more widespread. I do my small part by mentioning you and your blog (the only one I read regularly) to anyone who seems to be receptive to the notion of finding out what is really behind the uncertainty that lurks in the background of our lives, an uncertainty that seems more and more troubling than it ever was in any of my previous five or six decades.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I just wanted to triple dip for a second to recommend a very valuable book: "Lectures on Ancient Philosophy" by Manly P. Hall.
This book, I feel, is even more valuable than his regularly touted "Secret Teachings of All Ages." Yes that is an excellent book, but the Lectures, give great information on Neoplatonism and many other subjects. Written as a sequel to "Secret Teachings" I got a lot more out of this book. I think it will be time for me to revisit it soon.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


You said to Unknown,
"I understand the relation between the human soul and the divine -- if you'd like to use those terms -- in a rather different manner than the one you and OR have proposed, but that's not really relevant to the project of this blog." 

Maybe it's not relevant, but it still might be useful for readers following your thought, as expressed here, to hear--briefly-- what your understanding is. (Partly because I understand the relation differently myself.) As a beginner, I thought magic the way you are discussing it had to do with a spiritual path, especially if doing "divine work," so would have thought one's understanding would be relevant, unless, like practicing chi kung, it doesn't necessarily require belief or understanding in the same way organized religions do? Hmmm, I seem to be getting muddled.

I'm looking forward to seeing next week's discussion about banishing baboonery!

@Yupped, perhaps many readers and commenters might tell that story--I know I could. And so,

@Mokey, your comments make sense to me, having been hit over the head, knocked out, and required to reawaken into further growth by patterns more than once in my life. (In fact again this past couple of months.)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Oh, and JMG,

Hope my last comment/question isn't prying into things you might prefer to hold private, so apologies if that's the case.

hadashi said...

JMG, I believe that 2 out of 9 of those deleted comments may have been mine. Okay then, from memory . . .

Your post raised 'bump of chicken' for me (which is what gooseflesh is called here in Japan). Some weird kind of resonance is going on with respect to where you appear to be leading us (past the group psychology of some watchful dragons?). You'll see what I mean when you read my entry of 6500-7000 words at
(looking forward to some constructive criticism (as always) on my tale about Baseworld, an Island, and Philately (no baboons though, sorry)).

At the start of this post I thought you were doing a Dr Phil on us JMG, but no. There's a deeper magic going on here, what exactly I don't know, but I'm excited to be a part of it.

But sheesh, I do envy the philosophical background that some of you eggheads share. The way that you seem to understand exactly where y'all are coming from leaves me gasping.

Something that I didn't mention in my expletive--I mean 'deletive'--is that about a year ago I went through and laboriously made a massive word document of all the Archdruid's Reports up to that time. As well as needing to bring that up to date (who knows how long the Internet will last?) I'm going to have to capture all the comments too. The best reading that I can remember. Still waiting on your 100-things-about-me lists :-)

As for that ongoing conversation about charioteers and horses, I'd recommend as lighter reading Richard Adam's (from Watership Down fame) Traveller, a tale told from the perspective of Robert E. Lee's horse.

Don Mason said...

Re: Magic and the Federal Reserve

I ran across this Chris Martenson interview of David Stockman, former Republican Congressman from Michigan and Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Ronald Reagan:

David Stockman: And Operation Twist is, I would say, further evidence of ritual incantation. The Fed is so locked into this erroneous Keynesian world view that it’s indulging in a ritual incantation just doing the same thing over and over and over, when almost anyone who thinks about it can see why twenty or thirty basis points -- if they can get that from Operation Twist -- [would] solve anything that the last four or five hundred basis points of interest rate reduction haven’t solved, and what are the negative consequences of going in and manipulating and distorting the fundamental capital market of the world for thirty basis points? It’s not even a close question. It’s an evidence that they’re locked into almost insane policy making.

Chris Martenson: Well, so we’ve got the Federal Reserve headed by Bernanke. They’ve maybe [been] prescribing some excellent cures. Unfortunately, they have the wrong diagnosis, with ritual incantations. So Bernanke, is he Darth Vader, or is he a witch doctor? We’ve got some good metaphors to work with here.

David Stockman: Maybe we could apply both of them.

If magic is “the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will”, then the people running the Federal Reserve are among the greatest magicians in history.

They have used their will to change the consciousness of people all over the world to accept pieces of paper – and increasingly to accept mere digital data – in exchange for valuable commodities such as food and petroleum; and yet those paper and digital symbols may ultimately prove to be worthless.

Matthew Heins said...

@ Hal

Apologies if my post to Vicky offended you. But the concept of abusive snarkiness hadn't occurred to me. ;)

Perhaps it would have been more polite if I had written "rational sense" instead of just "sense", since the joke was that she was kinda arguing against rationality?

But I'm of the opinion that you should expect the politeness from others that you show to them, and I thought Vicky a bit rude.

Hope this clears the air. :)


Yupped said...


Thanks for your note. In retrospect, I've realized that various events in life had been trying to get my attention for years, but I'd just been too fixated on other things to notice. Most of the fixations were the type of things that have caused such a lot of trouble for us all (getting, grabbing, consuming, coming and going, etc), and that we now need to wean ourselves from. If someone had sat me down at a young age and told me about how fear works, how the mind distracts itself from the fear and how these behavior patterns build and build, then I might have been able to become aware earlier. The absence of this type of understanding for young people in society may be a strong root of many of our problems. That said, we've just started to home school our youngest daughter, and I've been amazed at how the whole home schooling sub-culture (co-ops and the like), at least in our region, is swimming in an understanding of consciousness and the various philosophical and spiritual paths to change it.

Jason said...

I agree with JMG on the baboons. I've seen them as touchstones on our social ladders ever since I witnessed a mother look on helplessly whilst a higher-ranked female deliberately abused her child. I've seen the same behaviour in humans.

Yeats argues a Golden Dawn-era magic hospitable to the romantic impulse, but you can take that too far as well. I've seen depression self-admittedly caused by addiction to that way of being. You have to know how to gentle those horses. (People who don't like the horses should read Symposium. Thomas Taylor was a big guy for many romantics.)

It was when those romantic promises of freeing the horses failed that twentieth century philosophical nihilism really got underway, and that tagged the beginning of psychology, with Freud in particular. Jung is a magic-friendly rejoinder but Abraham Maslow, with his emphasis on gradually coming to a life of virtue with peak experiences of truth goodness and beauty, is even more Platonist.

As a result there's quite a bit of new method now to place alongside some older methods, not without some science behind it. (See my own latest blog post for more).

JMG inspired my own rewarding jaunt into Stoicism and Platonism. Guys, he has never hidden his conservative/apollonian slant, never said all the million mages he mentions did things his way, and states clearly "there are other ways of getting to the same place, some similar, some very different"; his master mage take is worth a read whether your own methods jibe or don't.

And I love that disctinction between the fake method and the real confrontation with the shadow. I've seen many true methods fakified. The irony is that the shadow is where the power is -- by trying to hide yourself you say you are not worth seeing.

But how you get an entire culture to see that, I'll be interested to read next week!

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

You are hitting some home runs here.

Thanks for the summary of philospical history. My classes were fairly basic. I'll have to reread this tomorrow to it get it all to soak in.

The magic you are talking about sounds like you missed your college department by a few letters. If you had studied psychology rather than philosophy you would have a license and a thriving private practice.

I think that the neoplatonists (or however it is spelled) have hit the nail on the head. The problems we face are due to people lacking the tools to realize what the problems are and lacking the courage to do something about them. Conservatism is popular for a reason.

As far as the question 'Is it possible to take wide spread action on the needed changes before it is too late ?' I'm afraid that the answer is 'No'. It is not possible to get people out from in front of their TVs and into the street with a brick in their hand.

The current of the past 40 years has been that there is an easy way out. Don't worry, be happy. Buy or die. Take your pick.

Our culture does not believe in science, reason, or logic anymore. Don't even mention philosophy. Our culture is marketing and consumption.

Perception is reality, but magic does not exist for them...

A few comments on past posts:
The guys at CERN have been looking for their mistake for 3 years and have not been able to find it. They finally asked for help.

JIT and efficency, it still takes four fenders to build a car. There is no free lunch. Economic theory is mostly fiction by guys who never worked for a living.


John Michael Greer said...

Rocco, thank you!

Justin, agreed -- to my mind, it's Hall's best book.

Adrian, it would require half a dozen posts just to explain the essential presuppositions and to make the attempt, probably without success, to avoid the most obvious misunderstandings from atheists and theists alike. I'll write a book on the subject one of these days, but I can't think of a way to talk about it here without making things much more confused than they have to be.

Hadashi, one of them certainly was; I got your story downloaded, and so you're in the contest.

Don, I think Stockman's quite correct, but it's giving the Fed too much credit to say that they're responsible for the spell that keeps people treating fiscal hallucinations as real wealth. They're just as thoroughly under that spell as anybody else -- their attempts to ritually banish the dread spirit Recession can be explained in no other way!

Jason, what the Romantics finally found out the hard way is that when you drop the reins, the horses don't suddenly break into a gallop and take you to someplace beyond your wildest dreams; most often they simply wander over to the nearest patch of tasty herbage and start snacking, and there you sit. As for next week, well, that's going to be a challenging post to write, and quite possibly an even more challenging one to read.

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, I considered psychology, but a private practice isn't the work I was called to do. Besides, it's kind of difficult to get a civilization to lie down on the couch and discuss its collective dreams.

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG, thank you for this post. Paragraphs 8-11, the Love Potion No. 9 discussion, explain much of my love-hate relationship with what’s now oxymoronically called Natural Horsemanship. Its followers all too often seek Harry Potter magic. Of course, so do many hard-nosed horsemen who blindly continue their quest for the ultimate clinic or the perfect bit. Few want to hear that even bare bones competency takes at least six months of study and true horsemanship takes years of observation, study, visualization, and meditation, as well as endless practice of forms.

As a result, truly horse-centric people almost invariably flip the horse/human metaphor to reflect the rationality of the horse's instincts and the destructive, potentially lethal instincts of the human. Seriously, would a rational being weighing 100-200 some pounds think it could pull a 500-2000 pound being to a stop by pulling on reins? Isn’t this especially irrational when the pulled-on being happens to be a prey animal given to understandable and often spectacularly powerful panic when in pain and believing itself to be restrained, trapped, and hence in danger of being eaten?

Thanks, also to Evan for the mention of Paul Shepard. I’ve ordered a book.

One last question of JMG. What did you mean when you said, “Andrew, if you ride a chariot, your horses are always going to appreciate their feed!” Does “ride” refer to a warrior behind the driver? Even if you meant “drive,” I don’t understand the connection to feed.

Considering all the horse/human comments on this thread, I can’t resist ending with my own: Never ask Mongols to lengthen their stirrups.

Glenn said...

Had an amusing epiphany Friday. Attended the wedding of one of my wife's cousins. A _very_ fundamentalist USA Christian ceremony; complete with the prequel sermon about the parallel between marriage and christ's relationship with the church, the husband playing god's part, & etc.

Anyway this was held in a secular hall, not a church, so they had constructed their own altar out of a table, floral arrangements, candles, etc. Suddenly it all looked _very familiar_ to me, and not in a very "christian" way.

I wonder how many North American christian fundamentalists know how much of a tiger they've got by the tail?


faoladh said...

Mr. Greer: That's your project? Therapy for the whole civilization? You do know that a previous therapist tried that. One Wilhelm Reich. Robert Anton Wilson's play, Wilhelm Reich In Hell, addresses that process and points out some of the dangers involved.

That said, I do see the need for such a project. Maybe it'll be easier with an entire community of "therapists" working on it.

Jeffrey said...

JMG said..... it's kind of difficult to get a civilization to lie down on the couch and discuss its collective dreams..........

Sometimes I wonder what would be gained by a collective insight when rising off the couch each and everyone of us is then confronted with the discord of the physical reality of what we have created to maintain our selves on the planet.

Hasn't the examination of collective dreams always been reserved for the few.

I have often felt a sort of relief that the vast majority doesn't question these collective dreams.

Can you imagine 7 billion no longer believing in consensus reality?

That is a frightening thought.

Cherokee Organics said...


A dingo ate my comment!

Apologies all, I admit that the joke was in bad taste...

I'm out of my depth on the ancient history and philosophy.

Still I've been wondering whether in the big picture do you think these culture wars occur as a response to the environment, or are they part of an evolution of thought? Or, is it simply a case of different tribes rising to prominence through competition?

I can't get my head around why someone would be motivated to intellectually wrestle with another group - even at the peril of their lives - to influence the future of thought?

I'm not sure that is going on here in this blog, its always seemed more of an adaption and self defence school - I could be wrong though. However, I don't presume to know what you're thinking either and I don't require it to be spelt out to me either.

PS: In case anyone is interested, I read "The Game" because I'm interested in the world around me. I don't endorse their methods, because well, they are simply taking advantage of the environment they find themselves in. Their vision is really quite small, but the situations they examine - in minute detail - are quite interesting and illuminating.

PPS: I don't worry about whether trees falling in a forest make a sound, because I'm more worried about how that tree standing upright fits in to the local ecology and whether it being on the ground is a good or bad thing for the local ecology. It's not always clear.



phil harris said...

My post of yesterday seems one of the swallowed nine. Sometimes I copy before I send - but this time, no.
I really wanted to hand on a recent reference to the historical development of heirarchical human societies. You have identified and attracted some of the 'better' strands in American society, and recognized many of 'our' antecedents back to classical times. Likewise you confront the expression of 'human versions of baboonery'. The latter can be seen to be not unrelated to heirarchical status, it seems?
QUOTE from this article

"How did stratified societies—those with institutionalized inequality—spread and become the dominant form of societal organization during the Neolithic period?"

My question; what are the dynamics in latter day America? As well as the more obvious 'Institutions', and their assumptions, I personally wonder about high school experience, as well as tight birth-spacing and subsequent rearing of infants and the indelible experiences of sibling rivalry and mayhem down at the Playgroup. Don't know; though I have been thinking and looking for answers for a long time. I have long wondered at associated social divisons and social and health pathologies.

Again QUOTE: "Empirical data on cultural transmission indicate that norms, values, social structures and other foundational features of culture tend to be transmitted conservatively and vertically within groups ... Counterintuitively, inequality (the presence of high-ranking cooperative individuals) promoted the evolution of cooperation by providing successful nodes around which other cooperators could cluster. ". [Compare perhaps modern Sweden and their relatively recent (horrific) 17thC past.]

The relationsip with the resource base, however, appears complex [see the article] - but as an aside, 'baboon bevior' does not appear to have been our dominant species style during evolution and first 100K (?) years. There seem to have been extra priorities; our evolutionary position appears odd and in many ways different from not only other primates, but other mammals. Sexual di-morphism while still obvious is reduced. Human females are a-seasonal; in our evolutionary past and 'small bands' we evolved, perhaps precariously, 'colonial monogamy' (c.f. sea-bird colonies) and long term pair-bonding. We are also comparatively very long-lived having a post-reproductive phase, as well as a long childhood. (The latter seems to have shortened markedly in modern culture, though.)

As I say you have attracted many of the more 'sustainable' (?) strands of American culture, and your 'band' increasingly brings to the table many hopeful antecedents and understandings to hand on. Despite the 'baboonery' America is not 'one thing'?

Jason said...

JMG: what the Romantics finally found out the hard way is that when you drop the reins, the horses don't suddenly break into a gallop and take you to someplace beyond your wildest dreams; most often they simply wander over to the nearest patch of tasty herbage and start snacking, and there you sit.

Sure... or they gallop pell mell in a circle that doesn't actually lead anywhere. Or they do run over a cliff. I've seen this happen and been there to pick up the pieces. It's a much-studied phenomenon.

Some of the people who reacted badly to the horse imagery may be seeing those horses as Jungian symbols, the great power of the mare image in the I Ching etc. That power undoubtedly is at the bottom of human genius and creativity, and it does know the way home -- but that's not the horses of the Phaedrus. There are plenty of ways to get at that power, but you better have a way to steer that works.

As for next week, well, that's going to be a challenging post to write, and quite possibly an even more challenging one to read.

By now we expect no less. :)

idiotgrrl said...

To the commenter who complained "You'll never get them out there with a brick in their hands - they're too busy sitting in from of the TV...."

Note how many of these are Millies - that is, the young people born 1982 or later - and that they are organized. Their grasp on the logistics of this protest are amazing.

You won't hear about it on the mainstream media, though. I've been hearing about it through the Fourth Turning forums at The "world news tonight" talks incessantly about the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor, instead.

This is not a political blog. But there is change in the wind as the kids on campus grow up. I think we should know it. They are quite disgusted with the entire "Greed is good" meme.

And -- environmentalism is to them what patriotism was to my parents' cohort (born 1901-1924). A serious value, taken for granted as good.

For what it's worth.

idiotgrrl said...

An update on magic and me - a visit to Albuquerque's one (or at least main) occult bookstore, Blue Eagle, yielded JMG's "Lost Symbol" book, an outtake from the Dictionary of the Occult, and Marian Green's "A Modern Magician's Handbook". I don't know how good the latter is, but I do know her framework is Wiccan, and to the extent I've worked or had any training at all, it's been Wiccan. Wiccan with the usual eclectic doses of meditation, Cabala, and other such imported trimmings.

And leafing through it, at least it's apparently not the sort of witchcrap that proves Sturgeon's Law* is alive and well in this field.

*Sturgeon's Law. Someone told Theodore Sturgeon, as an accusation, that "90% of science fiction is garbage." Without missing a beat, Sturgeon replied "90% of everything is garbage."

Mokey44 said...

Yupped; Adrian,

Don't blame yourself for not seeing the patterns or lesson before you got hit over the head. You're certainly not alone in this. Happens to me all the time.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and the patterns may not reveal things we want to see. But there is an upside, too- it's not only always about how fear or pain works and grows into a more extreme situation.

It can be a very good scenario that keeps coming up again and again. In the years before my husband and I even became friends we had taken trips together as part of a college choir we were both in, and even in the very few conversations we had I realized I had more fun talking with him when he was tipsy than with the other folks I was hanging out with more often who were stone cold sober. I had to be hit over the head, too; and it turned out definitely for the better.

Fear has that 'up the ante' quality, but it's not the only emotion that can work like that.

Puts me in mind of John Lennon: Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Yupped, I'm curious as to what you're seeing in the homeschooling movement that seems to be awash in consciousness. My understanding is that a lot of homeschooling lately has to do with insistence on teaching specifically fundamentalist Christianity. But perhaps not all?

Not having kids myself but working with them and their families, maybe there's something I can point out to them.

nycphilosopher83 said...


I love this blog--it is a place of refuge and sanity in a society thoroughly deluded about the reality of "Limits to Growth" and such worsening crises as Peak Oil & climate change.

I've also fought back a lot of depression in trying to face the full emotional enormity of what these issues mean for the future of the human race. A part of me was still deeply attached to the idea of the continuance of industrial civilization, and a significant part of my depression involved my inability to recognize my sadness and mindfully use that sadness to motivate me to actively participate in the creation of a better future amidst the uncertainty, tumult, and mass suffering sure to come. Sadness, pain, and depression often strike those, it seems to me at least, with a deep commitment to knowledge, truth, justice, fairness, moral responsibility to the common good, and individual authenticity.

As I work on coming out of a deep depression myself, I can tell you that pain and suffering are GREAT teachers and I wouldn’t trade this time of depression for “simpler, happier” times. After all, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to recalibrate my life and face the uncertain path ahead with clearer focus and a more settled heart and mind.

Nick Dahlheim

Matthew Heins said...


Every post I write actually on-topic gets eaten!

I'm taking this as a sign and refraining from further comment till the next post. ;)

Veiled Glory said...

JMG - Here is a freshly painted church interior:

sgage said...


"Besides, it's kind of difficult to get a civilization to lie down on the couch and discuss its collective dreams."

And sometimes a rocket ship is just a rocket ship? :-) :-)

Houyhnhnm said...

Looks like my original post finally made it through. Reading it now, I like my reconstruction better. That's not unusual of course. Most of my posts here are first drafts, and we all know the quality of first drafts.

Speaking of drafts though, I posted the expansion of my short story over on “Swift Horse". I'm letting it cool a bit before I reread it, but I should be submitting it to JMG within a few days.

JMG, is the AODA info email address the one we should use?

Yupped said...

Mokey, perhaps I was exaggerating a little when I said that the home school movement was swimming in consciousness, but maybe only a little. In our neighborhood of southern New England we've been very pleased with what we've found. I had the same image of home schoolers as christian fundies, shunning the rotten world of public schools for traditional values and piety. What we've found is certainly a bunch of people shunning the public school culture, but with a good degree of openness. Generally, the other parents are a diverse crowd: rebellious, artsy, sensitive, spiritual without being religious. Our daughter attends a couple of co-ops for day events, and takes courses and in organic farming, yoga/meditation and signing. So it's working out well and I wish we had thought of it earlier and for our other kids as well.

Nick, well depression is certainly a teacher. I can honestly say now that I'm really glad that I've been there. Although when I was deeply in it, the idea of it being a good thing just didn't compute. But then nothing did at that point. But it opened me up to a lot of new perspectives and fresh life. Mental entropy in action, or something, perhaps. Cutting back the garden so that something new can grow. Good luck in your journey.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Idiotgrrl, a few days ago I listened to an interview on National Public Radio (probably on All Things Considered) with the author of a new book about the attitudes, outlook and traits of the American cohort you are calling the Millies.

The author said that the age cohort born between (some year in the) 1980s and 2002 consisted of more than 90 million people and was the largest generation in U.S. history. His book on their characteristics was based on a survey from one of the major survey organizations, maybe Pew. He went on to talk about what the Millies are like and the qualities he described seem to be exactly what the times require: a mixture of idealism and practicality, orientation towards working with others, willingness to compromise in order to get things done, and a penchant for local bottom-up organizing.

I felt a bit more hopeful after hearing this. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the writer's name and don't remember the exact title of the book, but it has some sort of generation name in the title.

Les said...

@Yupped said: “sat me down at a young age and told me about how fear works.”

Somehow I don’t think it would have helped. Douglas Adams summed it up pretty succinctly in this piece of dialogue:

Arthur: Sometimes I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.
Ford: Why, what did she say?
Arthur (frustrated): I don’t know, I didn’t listen!.

@ CChris: another tuppence ha’penny worth on telescopes, if you’re still interested:

The cheapo Chinese 4” reflectors actually have some pretty good optics for the price. They’re let down mostly by the wobbly tripods they come with and to a lesser extent, the eyepieces.

Some years ago, I helped a friend of a friend build a replacement tripod out of spotted gum. Problem solved… Buy a decent eyepiece or two to go with and you’re set. I’ve seen some absolutely superb astrophotography done with this type of setup from a Sydney suburban backyard.

Finally, on mounts, my own preference is for an equatorial mount, as tracking objects while the earth rotates is far simpler than with other types of mounts. An important point if you want to use high magnification or take pictures of what you see – in this circumstance a dobsonian or other azimuth mount will need computerised tracking, an equatorial mount can get away with a clockwork drive (if they are still available).



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG an all,

Had a thought I wanted to share.

Sometime sitting up in the forest clears your head and sharpens the mind. This morning I was in the bath, looking down the hill through the trees at the frost in the valley below me. Nice.

Then into my mind out of nowhere popped this thought.

We have the wrong goal posts!

I better explain myself or you'll think I've gone loopy.

There is a concept I read about over the weekend in accounting which says, "what can be measured, can be managed". It started me thinking.

So, I'm thinking about businesses and all their KPI's (key performance indicators), goals, strategies and budgets. Then I start thinking about World of Warcraft. Yeah, the game. I'm serious here, hang with me. I've never felt inclined to play it, but I lost a couple of friends to it for a few years - you know who you are if you're reading this.

Now that game is rich in symbolism, story, challenge (without risk), social order and goals. I could never get my head around why they were addicted to it. It did seem to me like the challenge to achieve goals and status was a strong driver in the addiction. Fascinating stuff.

Anyway, I'm thinking back to businesses and the drive of people in them to achieve the goals of that particular business.

Then, I'm thinking about well, McMansions, boats, luxury cars - status symbols (or goals to achieve). These symbols are kind of lost on me. Oh well.

It all ended up with the thought as to what the goal of society is. The goal is growth. It's that simple, there really is no other reason. If I was a brutal realist, I'd also say that the only reason most of us exist is to reproduce. So, it's little wonder growth is such a strong driver.

Getting back to the measuring though. A large component of the metric for growth "gross domestic product", is consumption. Consumption can make up around 60%-70% of that number. It's hardly surprising that consumption is pushed, cheap and easy credit is pushed, investment in the tertiary market is pushed. What's great about it too, is that we rise to the challenge because it's an inbuilt driver! We feel bad when its in decline.

Wouldn't it be awesome, if we stopped measuring growth and started focusing on some other metric like what do we actually produce? It would be a pretty scary metric.

Anyway, I had a strange encounter with a neo liberal a couple of days ago who had all the fervor (and closed mind) of a fire and brimstone preacher. They worry me.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Glenn,

I liked your comment about the wedding. It gave me a laugh.

A couple of years ago found me in a mormon wedding (as a guest) - it was the part of the ceremony for non believers too - not the bit in the temple - I snuck in under the pretense of having to go to the toilet! I've never seen so much white before.

Apart from getting freaked out by all of this talk about eternity - they divorced after 4 years by the way - at the reception, they came around with what I thought was red wine. So, I'm going, "Oh, Thank God!". Anyway, much to my disappointment it was cranberry juice. Who'd have thought it?

Anyway, I hope the pagan weddings are better than that arrangement!



An Eaarthly Planner said...

I'd like to suggest that anyone interested in the concluding question to this post should read In Over Our Heads, by Robert Kegan. I've found the book an immensely valuable addition to my mental library. To massacre the premise, it's basically a study of the biopsychological foundations of epistemlogy -- i.e., how we know things, and the relation of that way of knowing to our biological and psychological development. The author is a research and clinical pscyhologist.

To use the author's terminology, most humans on the planet possess a 3rd-order consciousness, which one can analogize to "traditional" ways of knowing. A small minority are in the 4th order ("modern"), and a vanishingly small minority in the 5th order ("post-modern", or transcendental). The 3rd order is characterized by abstract thinking, while the 4th order subsumes abstractions to an overarching paradigm (or world-lens), and the 5th order transcends paradigms. I think of the 5th order as being almost Buddhistic, but that is probably inaccurate.

To cut to the chase, a lot of what gets talked about here (i.e., changing the culture) relies on people having at least a 4th-order degree of knowing, if not even a 5th-. People locked in the 3rd order simply cannot grasp it (and I don't mean this as a knock on them; it is a basic a biopsychological fact). Two solutions immediately propose themselves: help people develop their minds to the 4th order, and/or work to alter the 4th-order "group mind." Unfortunately, right now, a lot of very smart 4th-order people control our mass communications media, and have no interest in providing a moral/ethical group mind for the vast majority of Americans that still need one.

As an aside, this hypothesis of psychological development helps explain the Tea Party movement, the common complaint against which is that they don't even seem to understand their own self-interest. That is literally true. Most Tea Partiers (though not all), like most Americans, are locked in the throes of a 3rd-order way of knowing; i.e., someone else controls their paradigm. This someone(s) else also provide them the pscyhological stability the modern world does not, which keeps the situation attractive from their 3rd-order-minds-in-a-4th-order-world perspective.

William said...

I apologize for the off-topic post. I just finished Wealth of Nature, and I am intrigued by your tax plan as it applies to renewable resources. Ex. I raise grass fed cattle to provide healthy meat, and, especially because systematic rotational grazing helps restore soil damaged by a century of corn farming on hillsides. Most of the value is provided by the soil, sun, grass, and cattle, but I do add value. And the cattle do improve the soil, as I do when I organically replace lost sulfur, phosphorous, etc. How would you tax my meat?

John Michael Greer said...

Houyhnhnm, the point was simply that the instinctive and social aspects of the self deserve to have their needs met and, when possible, their reasonable desires as well.

Glenn, funny! Pity you couldn't share the joke with anybody there.

Faoladh, no, that's not my project. More on this soon.

Jeffrey, I'd be happy if seven billion took the time to look at the reality that's in front of their faces, but I'm not holding my breath.

Cherokee, quite a range of forces shape the history of thought, and reducing them to a simple formula works very poorly. Equally, shifts in ideas and understandings have a very broad range of effects on everyday life, so the history of thought is far from an ivory tower concern. A lone eccentric writing a book can set in motion a chain of events that a hundred years from now can topple governments and redefine the lives of millions -- think of Karl Marx as one example, and Lao Tsu as another.

Phil, it's risky to base arguments on human prehistory, since all we've got are currently fashionable speculative reconstructions of our prehistoric ancestors, and these have always been powerfully influenced by current cultural tropes and themes. I use baboons as a model simply for explanatory purposes -- we do seem to have a lot in common, but I've seen a very good analysis comparing human beings to wolves along the same lines. Beyond that, well, you've raised some interesting issues to which I don't have any immediate answers.

Jason, exactly. It's only in the highly colored imaginations of Romantics that the horses inevitably take you where you've always dreamed of going.

Grrl, it's hitting the mainstream media at this point. This is going to be interesting to watch -- though you might want to look up the history of the Bonus March sometime, as a reminder that this sort of thing can end very badly.

Matt, that's remarkable. Must be the flavor of your prose that attracts the Google Post Muncher. ;-)

Glory, thank you! Most interesting.

Sgage, no, a rocket ship is never just a rocket ship!

Houyhnhnm, you can do that, or post something here -- if you don't want it to be put through for general reading for whatever reason -- for example, because you don't want your name made public -- just put a note on the comment saying "please don't post this."

David said...


Thank you for your thoughts. I read history of philosophy when I was in school and the Neoplatonists are definitely under-represented in the normal course of studies - or have no representation whatsoever. But it also seems that the Kabbalah is understudied in the history of philosophy, and its influence appears to have been profound.

I come from the Jewish tradition, and it wasn't until I started reading this blog that I began interpreting Kabbalah as a system of magical practice. Is that your interpretation as well? I would be curious if you came across anything in your past researches in the primary's not always clear to me if the kabbalistic library (Yetzira, Zohar, Tanya, meditation texts, etc.) understands itself a a system of magic. It would be interesting to know if there are works of Kabbalah that are explicitly practical manuals.

If so, clearly something beyond the p'shat (surface) reading of the Torah's words on sorcery is called for! - fortunately there are at least three higher levels of interpretation available. (Perhaps the injunction is against black magic, while light magic is OK?) Life is lived in paradox.

Thanks again for your thoughts.

scepticus said...

Hi all,

Sorry of this has been covered before but I have to ask:

is the internet and advanced communications technology in general likely to hinder, help or make no difference to the operative mage in achieving his or her ends?

Ceworthe said...

JMG, if you can truly teach us how to banish baboonery, or banish one's own knee jerk reaction to it, or the mind baffling effect on one's brain that baboonery engenders (i.e. if we can learn to intellegently respond and carry on despite it), I will be forever on your debt!

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, that's a good metaphor. The notion that growth is always good is very much a goal post in the wrong place.

Planner, there have been a lot of books recently making the claim, basically, that people's political views are a function of their mental or spiritual status, and of course the normal corollary is that anybody who disagrees with the author's politics is basically an Epsilon sub-moron while those who agree with him are obviously intelligent and spiritually advanced. (David Korten's The Great Turning is another example.) I find that entire line of argument specious -- and it also feeds the culture of vilification that's crippled our political system. "The reason you disagree is that you're only capable of third order thought!" is in no significant sense different from "the reason you disagree with me is because you've rejected Jesus!" Both make the believer feel a warm glow of self-righteousness, and make communication less possible than it would otherwise be.

William, I wouldn't tax your meat at all. You'd pay tax on land, water use, and any runoff from your ranch, but there'd be no sales tax on the meat -- it's a nonfinancial good -- and no income tax on your income, since it's earned by producing a nonfinancial good. All in all, you'd probably come out well ahead.

David, my background in Cabala is entirely in the version of it that was, er, borrowed by goyische occultists in the Renaissance and has been distinct from the Jewish tradition ever since. That's a magical system, no question, but the Jewish Kabbalists I know insist -- and I have no reason to doubt their word -- that the "kosher Kabbalah" is a very different kettle of fish from the Hermetic Cabala now practiced in traditions such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. You'd probably have to talk to some Jewish Kabbalists to get a meaningful answer to your question.

Scepticus, it's irrelevant. Certain kinds of magical work require some form of communications media, but they've proven just as functional with clay tablets and handprinted broadsheets as with the internet.

Ceworthe, let's see what we can do!

scepticus said...

OK, and what about the subjects? Does immersion in a sea of information and ideas make individuals more or less susceptible to magical influence?

John Michael Greer said...

Scepticus, human beings are always immersed in a sea of ideas and information. It's one of the delusions of modern net-culture that this is anything new; the sole difference is that with the internet, the sea changes faster and varies more from person to person. Magically, the particular form is irrelevant.

carlgombrich said...

John Michael, I'm new to your work and enjoying your thinking and writing which combines some of my own interests (political economy, philosophy of money) with stuff which is very new to me (druidism, ecotech). 'Magic' is a bit far out for me, but you never know...Do you know the discussion of 'magic' in R G Collingwood's The Principles of Art? I don't think it is a million miles from some of the things discussed here - though from a rather different viewpoint: that of a British idealist of the 20th century battling against the philosophy of his time. Collingwood thinks magic is very important in much of human life, but is keen to distance art from magic (and from craft and amusement, which he thinks are also confused with art). He thinks that confusing magic and art is a mistake - mainly because he is keen to get to the bottom of what 'art' is - but what he thinks 'magic' is comes out as an interesting by-product. Among other aspects he discusses the magic in bonding a football team and in medical cures. Anyway,combining 20th century British idealism with 21st century druidism would be an interesting project! Keep up the good work...

An Eaarthly Planner said...


Like I said, I massacred the premise. I was not trying to say the hypothesis discussed in the book relates to people's political viewpoints, but rather their way of knowing. It's entirely possible (to be flip) to be either a saint or an jerk at any "order" of consciousness. The orders are not predictive of political party, ideology, or worldview. The argument I made about (stereotypical) Tea Party types could easily be made about any number of lefty groups, or centrists for that matter.

The "order" idea is also shorthand (as in any model). It's much more likely a continuum than a series of steps.

I do very much believe that anyone interested in the sort of topics you discuss take a look at that book, "In Over Our Heads." It is not, I repeat not, a political treatise on why (insert direction)-wingers are stupid.

John Michael Greer said...

Carl, I don't, and probably should. Collingwood is certainly right that art and magic are distinct -- related, but distinct; there were quite a few efforts to fuse them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which consistently produced either second-rate art or second-rate magic, or (most often) both. I'll see if I can scare up Collingwood's book.

Planner, thanks for the clarification! I apologize for jumping to a conclusion; I've seen way too many efforts to use one or another misunderstanding of evolution to rate political viewpoints as more or less evolved, as a way of insisting that the other side can't possibly have reasons, including some valid ones, for the views they hold. Glad to hear that's not what's going on here.

Millsley said...

So refreshing to hear this perspective reinforced. I have a lot of friends who would instantly accuse any talk of magic being utilitarian or rational as inherently irrational, but I'm usually able to gain some ground by dispelling its prevailing perception and working in some physical corollary to the mental control of will.

I sort of see personalities (individual or collective, constantly in interdependent motion yadda yadda) as a collection of wills... or contractually obliged intentions. So, your fundamental contracts of will are able to influence every act of choice down the line for better or worse. It simply becomes habitual, with occasional opportunities I refer to as "choice-points" which allow you to change out some of the machinery.

A lot of our less-than-optimal emergent behavior is because our fundamental contracts are bound up in less-than-optimal arrangements. So ritual magic -- to me -- seems like a process by which we can bypass a lot of the superficial layers above (that we are able to be conscious of) and call up another routine/program/contract that we desire on a much deeper level with a much more powerful cascade of effects. In this way, we are able to rewrite over a lot of our unconscious baggage.

Would you say that gels with your experience? Anyhow, I've only just found your blog and it appears I am in for a perpetual treat. I hope to join the ranks of operative magicians making dents in the collective circuitry.

Slorisb said...

Hello all, & this is @ Cherokee Organics "goalposts".

Check out Richard Heinbergs Article on "Gross National Happiness"
This is from his most recent book "The End of Growth"

Steve Bowman

hadashi said...

@Millsley "operative magicians making dents in the collective circuitry"

ooh! that will no doubt put you in the running for this week's golden star (he grits his teeth enviously).

hawlkeye said...

Doing my best to follow the bouncing eggheads, sensing a build-up to something even grander to try and wrap my brain around; thanks a LOT! (really)

Also looking for a neatly tied knot between two loose threads: your contention that Dmitri Orlov's been smoking his shorts or something equally colorful, and his recent comments on his blog, which could lead one to suspect he's been tracking yours:

"The US, where a small privileged and unproductive class of people manages to keep the rest of the population perpetually in debt, is an extreme example of a rentier society, and is now in a runaway rentier mode, if you will. But an analogy to cancer would be wrong: debt is not a physical phenomenon but a mental construct, a bit like mass hypnosis or an evil spell. It is enough for everyone to declare "We won't pay" for the spell to be broken. But people who are slaves to their own unrealizable dreams cannot do that. Here, there is a huge and powerful industry devoted to keeping these dreams alive and setting people against each other, through fake journalism and advertising, through the lottery and other forms of gambling, even through game shows and so forth. A warped sense of fairness doesn't help either: many Americans would rather go hungry than live with the idea that somebody, somewhere, might get a free lunch." -D. Orlov

Kevin said...

I'm very interested in the relationship between art and magic, where they intersect and where they don't. It has potential applicability for me. So if you have any further insights, I'd be interested in learning of them. It looks like I need to read Collingwood too.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

@Planner, JMG

Interesting discussion about different ways of knowing. I haven't read Kegan's book so I won't comment directly on that, but I think it's a subject that needs more attention. While I'm hesistant to put modes of consciousness into that sort of a heirarchy, it's pretty clear that some ways are more functional or dysfunctional in certain situations.

In my experience, the majority of people do not look at the big picture, and spend their whole lives inside the bubble of their personal situations, without steeping back to look at the bigger picture. As someone who's always most easily thought in terms of the big picture, and understand the details of life as how they fit into the larger pattern, conversations with those who think in a more atomistic manner often end up going nowhere. This is true of practical matters as well as theoretical of philosophical, I always search for the overarching pattern while many others just learn details by rote and can't see how they relate to one another.

The question of how much of that can be changed through conscious effort is a matter about which I'm not sure. We all have things which come more easily to us, but can learn those that don't through effort. I have no natural aptitute in mechanical matters, but I can learn through practice, it just takes a lot longer than someone who's naturally mechanically inclined. In the same vein, I think those not naturally attuned to thinking in patterns and paradigms can learn to think that way at least to enough of an extent to understand the predicament of our society. That can only happen if they have the will to learn those things, as it's always easier to take the path of least resistence and stay within your own personal comfort zone of thinking.

P.S. I've made a couple minor revisions (but one is a correction of an important mistake) to my submission at

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

You said,
"it would require half a dozen posts just to explain the essential presuppositions and to make the attempt, probably without success, to avoid the most obvious misunderstandings from atheists and theists alike."

OK, that's fine. It's probably woven through your discourse anyway, for those who pay attention, like Henry James' "figure in the carpet."

BTW, am now reading The Druidry Handbook. The brief history is most interesting. The 17th century sure was a wild time in the UK!

Zach said...

Not completely on topic for this week, but almost:

The Pope of the Church of Money

It's as if John Robb has been reading this blog and mulling things over.... :)


Apple Jack Creek said...

If it is not too far off topic, I'd like to pass on a suggestion for Tyler August and others who are dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues and looking for something that might help.

I have been listening to a variety of guided imagery, affirmations, and meditations that were created specifically to deal with healing of these kinds of things (I am working through PTSD and associated adventures) and I have found them to be very helpful. Of course the meditations and imagery are used in conjunction with the other therapy I am receiving and I would most certainly recommend consultation with appropriately trained care providers when choosing a course of treatment for your troubles, be they mental, physical, spiritual (or all three, as I suspect many troubles are).

Closer to the topic at hand, it occurs to me that this type of imagery/word therapy could be considered a form of magic - words and music and sound used with the express purpose of creating a change in consciousness for the listener. It isn’t a quick process, and different people (or the same person at different points on the journey) will respond to different types of healing meditations/imagery/etc, but there are a variety of things available. The Druids in the UK have created two albums of this type: the most recent one, Sacred Nature, was expressly designed to facilitate healing and sleep - both of which I am in much need of, and I have to say that I feel touched by something quite marvellous and ‘beyond the ordinary’ when I listen to the voices and the music. Perhaps it is the sense that I am listening to something that was created with magical intention.

In the hopes that this is of help to someone else, I humbly offer my personal experience for consideration … and I’m curious to know if the Archdruid would agree with my assessment of this type of work as ‘magical’ in nature.

An Eaarthly Planner said...


The book (In Over Our Heads) is definitely worth checking out. The central thesis is that people's ways of knowing gradually grow more complex as they develop (age). The author categorizes children as having 1st-order consciousness (very much "in the moment": object impermenance). Toddlers and children up to around middle or even high school years are 2nd-order (they have object permanence, but aren't yet capable of abstract reasoning or really understanding that there are "other" people out there); in fact, if a child doesn't develop beyond 2nd-order, we would probably call them, as adults, sociopaths (the book contains many interesting examples of this). Finally, adults may be at either 3rd-, 4th-, or 5th-order, as I noted in a previous comment.

The author, a research and clinical psychologist, provides a great deal of evidence in support of his thesis. The book In Over Our Heads is his second on the topic.

Nathan said...

Sorry for the seeming tardiness of my comment, but I've only just been sent here by a commentator from over on Dmitry Orlov's blog this week. The term Thaumaturgy piqued my interest, in a "Perdido Street Station"ish way.

John, you wrote: "A reworked and sanitized version of Neoplatonist theurgy found a home in Christianity, with the sacraments filling the role of theurgic rites, and stayed in use in some parts of the Western World until the Reformation and Counterreformation put paid to it. In its original form, the tradition went underground..."
Do you claim that the Protestant Reformation caused the Roman Catholic Church to abandon their traditional sacraments? Do you have a view on the present day traditional sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox Church, seeing as they shared these with the Papists until the great schizm and (so they claim) were not affected by the western Reformation.
The only Church ordinances instigated by Jesus of Nazareth are the Lord's Supper (bread and wine) and water baptism for disciples of Jesus in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So I find your claim that the Christian church of the 5th century imported Neoplatonist theurgy to be at least possible, and if true, one good reason that the Reformation was necessary within Christianity.

It is interesting that such a course of events may be common knowledge amongst the educated pagan community, yet be the subject of strident denial by millennia of Papists.

Why do you think the supernatural is taboo in Western culture? Do you think this is a vestige of a time when the general populace claimed Christianity as their formal religion? If so, it seems at odds with the obvious acknowledgement of a supernatural realm implicit to the Judeo-Christian heritage and indeed the modern Orthodox Christian faith.

faoladh said...

Nathan: I don't think that it's even slightly controversial that early Christian theology drew heavily on neoplatonism. Augustine, for example, was known to be deeply influenced by Porphyry and Plotinus (who, it must be said, seemed to misunderstand the main thrust of neoplatonism, at least according to such great neoplatonist philosophers as Iamblichus and Proclus, though in a way that was convenient to the monotheizing tendencies of Christianity). I think that what JMG is saying is that the theurgical aspects of the sacraments were quietly dropped as part of the Counterreformation. Removing neoplatonism generally from Christianity would be nearly impossible at this point, since some variation of its precepts underlie nearly every theological assumption of that religion.