I first read Israel Regardie’s The Middle Pillar in my teens, and it was then one of my more useful sources as an autodidact in ceremonial magick. I have since had occasion to recommend it over the years, but have only recently returned to it for a full re-read. My more recent impressions have been decidedly mixed. I am here reviewing the “second edition, revised and enlarged” of 1970 with immediate reference to the 1986 fourth printing.
To reflect first in favor of the book, it supplies more detail on the subjective elements of magical practice than most primers are willing to afford, and for students without the benefit of personal instruction these details are precious. It is grounded in highly conventional techniques of Hermetic magic stemming from the Order of the Golden Dawn, and it communicates these intelligibly. The book is short and not over-ambitious, supplying sufficient materials for preliminary training and emphasizing the need to walk before running, while offering a larger context for motivation.
A keynote of the text is its advocacy for analytical psychology as an adjunct to magick. On the theoretical level, Regardie uses psychoanalytic jargon in an effort to clarify hermetic-kabalistic spiritual anatomy. In my own experience, this gambit was only slightly effective. As a teenage reader, it was largely a matter of ignotum per ignotius, and I doubt whether most readers today are any more familiar with psychoanalytic theories than I was as a teenager. Moreover, Regardie is entirely too willing to credit secular psychology as a novel scientific undertaking, evidently heedless of its religious functions and Kabalistic genealogy. (Those interested in the latter topic should read David Bakan’s Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition.)
While I will not join in Regardie’s evangelistic enthusiasm for the institutions of modern psychotherapy–Freudian, Jungian, or Reichian–I think that the underlying sentiment is sound: Magick is not therapy. No one should take up these practices without some preliminary self-criticism and awareness of personal limitations. Profane defects should be remedied through profane means. “If thou thyself hast not a sure foundation, whereon wilt thou stand to direct the forces of Nature?” (Liber XXX)
There are a few terminological peculiarities in this book. When introducing the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah, Regardie gives their usual English names (Archetypal, Creative, Formative, Active), but he does not provide their Hebrew names and instead gives terms from “the Hindu system”: TURYA, SUSHUPTI, SWAPNA, JAGRATA (65-7). Perhaps his aim here was to demonstrate cross-cultural validity of the metaphysical ideas, but he is not explicit about that, and succeeds only in muddying the waters with irrelevant jargon.
As in Regardie’s other early published works on occultism, The Middle Pillar uses Sephardic transliterations from Hebrew rather than the Ashkenazic ones that are more common in modern Hermetic literature–a superficial issue that does not really impair the text. In fact Regardie dismisses the need for any working knowledge of Hebrew in these basic techniques (144-5). As a minor (?) technical point, he is inconsistent with respect to the pronunciation of Tetragrammaton as “Yod-heh-vav-heh” in the pentagram ritual (95) and “Ye-hoh-voh” in the Middle Pillar (115). No rationale for the difference is offered. (I cannot say I am a fan of either of those pronunciations.)
The sequence of practical instruction in The Middle Pillar is a little jumbled. After the preliminaries of the first two chapters, Chapter Three seems to be a fairly full accounting of the pentagram ritual. At the head of Chapter Four, readers are admonished to spend two or three months on twice-daily work with the pentagram ritual before advancing to the Middle Pillar technique. But it is only at the end of Chapter Four, after describing the Middle Pillar ritual, that Regardie addresses the issue of attention to breath and breathing (125-9). Surely, these directions could usefully have come at the top of Chapter Three. Even more strangely, Chapter Five is principally instruction in the technique of projective vibration to be used with god-names. In the vertebral curriculum of ceremonial magick as I have come to appreciate it (see Crowley’s Liber O, for example), this latter technique is absolutely integral to the proper performance of the pentagram ritual. One might hope that readers would finish the whole fairly short book before undertaking the actual practices, but there is still no clear direction to apply the later details to the ritual outlined earlier in the book. In fact, there is a recurring emphasis on proceeding in the sequence in which the text introduces the practices.
What I found most off-putting on this read was Regardie’s coyness regarding his sources. For example, he dedicates nearly an entire page to an extensive quote regarding the formulation of telesmatic images, which he attributes to “One very clever expositor” (102). As it turns out, the quoted text is from Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah (Ch. IX, § 20), published in 1935, just one year before Regardie wrote The Middle Pillar (per the first edition’s foreword). Why not give credit where credit is due?
More significant is his failure to acknowledge the Law of Thelema despite his patent debts to it. He expresses a sort of removed approval for “one system nowadays” which “conceives of the Great Work as the partaking of the recognition of the Crowned and Conquering Child Horus” (25). He places in hard quotation marks a phrase taken from Liber Legis II:6–“the flame which burns in the core of every man”–but cites no source for it (93). (The slight inaccuracy here suggests that he is quoting from memory.) Nor does he explain the source for his quotation of Liber Legis II:70 (150-1). Perhaps he thought the still-living Aleister Crowley was just too scary for his readers in 1936. He had relaxed by 1970 though, admitting in his introduction to the second edition that The Middle Pillar “is an attempt to simplify and combine the practices both of the Golden Dawn with the insights and later developments of Aleister Crowley” (vii). Later still, Regardie would come to write of the Middle Pillar technique itself,
“It seems to be, as far as I can discover, a specific development of the Stella Matutina, in which case Dr. R. Felkin was its originator. This might explain why there is no trace whatsoever of its usage in the technical writings of Aleister Crowley, who has certainly made good use of most of the Order techniques, and who would surely have used this had it been available.” (The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Vol. III, p. 51).
This admission of the relative novelty of the practice casts something of a shade over Regardie’s earlier attributions of “negligence” and “failure” to magicians who had neither used it nor supplied it as an instruction to aspirants (110-1). As far as Crowley is concerned, I believe he did design a comparable technique into the Elevenfold Seal of Liber V.
Having acquainted myself with this book’s weaknesses, I would no longer recommend it as a stand-alone primer on the basic material it describes, but I don’t think it is quite obsolete. (Even in the foreword to the 1938 first edition, Regardie was already mildly deprecating it as “an expression of myself at that time” when he had written it two years earlier.) It marks a distinct phase in the popularization of magick, and it still supplies interesting discussion of its concepts and suitable encouragement to aspirants, all in a digestible package.