Tag Archives: review

The Roots of Philosophy

John Opsopaus reviews Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Peter Kingsley at The Roots of Philosophy in the Caduceus archive.

Kingsley Ancient Philosophy Mystery and Magic

Peter Kingsley has written an important book that should be high on the reading list of anyone interested in the roots of magic, alchemy and the mysteries in Western civilization. It is Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition.

Kingsley presents a wealth of evidence for a dense network of interrelationships among a number of ancient beliefs and practices, including Pythagoreanism, the Orphic and Dionysian Mysteries, alchemy, the Hermetica, the Greek Magical Papyri, Hecate magic, the Persian Magi, Sufism, Platonism, neo-Platonism and neo-Pythagoreanism. Described in this way, Kingsley’s account sounds like many other occult “histories,” which fabricate monolithic, hidden esoteric tradition. But there is a difference. Kingsley, until recently a Fellow at the Warburg Institute (where Yates also worked) is a true scholar, with both technical skill and good sense. It is through his exercise of the latter that Kingsley is able to see what has been missed (or ignored or repressed) by preceding generations of scholars. For Kingsley shows how these scholars have been blinded by their assumption that “real” philosophers and scientists could not have been interested in magic (and certainly would not have practiced it!). Especially they could not imagine that the heroes of Greek philosophy and science (such as Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato), who were seen as founders of the rationalist tradition, could have any connection with “irrational” magic, alchemy or mystery-mongering. This bias has forced them into contorted interpretations of texts whose plain meaning they were unwilling to accept.

In the best tradition of scholarly writing, Kingsley documents all his sources, so interested readers can follow them up and form their own opinions. Reading his extensive footnotes is an education in itself, following them will keep you busy for months. (The reader will discover that reading Kingsley’s journal papers, published both earlier and later than the book, is especially rewarding.) Yet, for all his attention to detail, Kingsley is not pedantic. His text is very readable, and its snappy, almost breathless pace conveys the excitement of the exploration of a newly opened tomb, or of a mystery being solved (which is precisely what it is).

Many of the connections demonstrated by Kingsley have been intuitively apparent to many of us working in the esoteric traditions, but he documents them and also reveals other, less obvious connections. His book will also familiarize a wider readership with important, but neglected earlier studies that would otherwise remain buried in an immense scholarly literature, which is often hostile to esotericism of any kind.

Kingsley begins with an analysis of the four elements, which Empedocles introduced into western cosmology. Empedocles mentions four Gods corresponding to the elements:

Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: Enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears. (my translation.)

but since ancient time there has been disagreement about which Gods corresponded to which elements. Kingsley argues persuasively that fire must be associated with Hades, which seems unlikely until he reveals the ubiquitous ancient tradition of a central fire, that is, a fire under the earth, which creates change in the elements above it. The result is a typical Jungian quaternity, with Hades and Persephone (Nestis) corresponding to fire and water, and Zeus and Hera corresponding with air (or, more accurately, aether) and earth. It has the ring of truth.

This brings us into the proximity of alchemical doctrines of the central fire (such as we find in the Aurea Catena Homeri), but also Underworld rites centered around the volcanoes of Sicily and Italy. Now we understand the legend that Empedocles ended his life by jumping into the crater of Etna, which in turn ejected a single bronze sandal. For volcanic craters were sites of underworld initiation and rebirth, and the single bronze sandal is a standard symbol of Hecate worship. (Empedocles himself tells us that he had escaped from the cycle of rebirth and was ending his last incarnation on earth.) Indeed, the crater (mixing bowl) is a familiar symbol in the Orphic literature, and volcanic regions dramatically demonstrate the union of fire and water central to alchemy.

The 24 chapters deal with the riddle posed by Empedocles and especially with the replacement of aether by air; volcanic cosmology; craters (in both senses); the Phaedo myth; the central fire; the Magi tradition; the transmission of these ideas from Sicily to Egypt; rebirth of Orphic, Dionysian and other underworld cults; Pythagoreanism and Neo-Pythagoreanism; the connections between magicians, “root-cutters,” and healers; the transmission of wisdom from master to disciple; and finally the influence of Empedocles, Hermeticism and alchemy on the Sufis. Three appendices address the close connections between the Gilgamesh epic and Parmenides’ poem, which describes an underworld journey; the parallels between Nergal (Erragal) and Heracles; and the influence of Empedocles’ ideas on the Isma’ilis.

I cannot recommend this book too highly; even if one doesn’t agree with all of Kingsley’s conclusions, it sets the terms for future investigations of ancient esotericism.

Under the Sign of Hermes

Norman Weinstein offers an overview of the corpus of Hermetic Library Figure Thomas Taylor at Under the Sign of Hermes: The Thomas Taylor Bookshelf in the Caduceus archive.

Specifically mentioned are Thomas Taylor, the Platonist: Selected Writings by Thomas Taylor, edited by Kathleen Raine and George Mills [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher]

Taylor Raine Mills Thomas Taylor the Platonist

… and Prometheus Trust’s 33 volume Thomas Taylor Series [Amazon, Publisher UK/World, Distributor US/CA].

Prometheus Trust Thomas Taylor Series

While a proliferating array of new publications dealing with the topics of soul and mythology continue to be issued by the major publishing houses, some of the most vital imaginative writing on these subjects emerges from small and obscure publishers. A case in point? Thomas Taylor, the most famous translator of Plato and Neoplatonic philosophers, an original philosopher and poet in the vein, has recently been the object of ambitious republication by small presses. The last publication of Taylor’s by a mainstream press was a superb selected writings, Thomas Taylor The Platonist, edited by Kathleen Raine and George Mills Harper for the Bollingen Series, published by Princeton University Press a quarter century ago. It has been out of print for years. Which raises the question: if Taylor is so central to discussions of soul and mythology, particularly Greco-Roman, why have his works languished in obscurity until now?

The answer has much to do with the nature of his role as translator. Translation was hardly financially rewarding or fully intellectually recognized during Taylor’s lifetime (1756–1835). It is arguable how more much it is appreciated today. Taylor came under attack from his fellow Englishmen for being philosophically out-of-step with various philosophical currents embracing scientific materialism on the one hand, orthodox Christianity on the other. And although Taylor’s books offered the sole English version of Plato available in the early nineteenth century, the educational conservatives of the time bemoaned the barbarism of a reading public unable to read Greek.

For the core group of major English romantic poets — Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley — Taylor’s translations were the portal through which they caught their vision of Greco-Roman mythology. Few had the mastery of the Greek language which would have afforded them a direct reading of Plato and the Neoplatonists. Taylor’s influence traveled to the New World; his translations formed a crucial body of inspirational texts for the New England transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott found in Taylor’s translations constant insights applicable to the birth of a new American idealism. Twentieth century poets like William Butler Yeats and Robert Duncan carried the impact of Taylor’s translations into our own time.

The specific nature of Taylor’s role as translator is the stuff of mythic tall tales. In the often extensive prefaces to his various translations, he described this job as a translator as “Herculean” and “Promethean.” Constant identifications with the trials of Ulysses were yet another self-promotion. But the mythic identification he never explicitly declared is the one that most often came to mind during my recent reading: he translated under the sign of Hermes. Remember that Hermes was the messenger of the gods, bring their wishes to the depths of the underworld. Hermes was Psychopompus, the guide to souls crossing into the underworld, becoming in time a generalized symbol for a guide for travelers and business folk. Constant travel between worlds, interpreted metaphorically, allegorically, can be associated with the ability to translate meanings of various experiences from one language to another. That is exactly what Taylor accomplished, translating the language of imagination (poetry and myth) into a language materialistically-oriented readers could grasp.

Like Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Carl Jung in our century, Taylor “packaged” a vast body of mythic literature erroneously labeled “occult” and made it widely available. His books offer considerably more than translations. The copious prefaces and footnotes are a “framing,” at times even a form of advertising for the value of the tradition of Platonic philosophy as well as a polemic against Taylor’s philosophical opponents. Even his original writings, poems and essays, read oddly like translations from the ancient Greek or Latin. If H. G. Wells’ time machine had been real and available during Taylor’s lifetime, rest assured he would have happily returned to the time of the Platonic academy and never missed his London home.

To mediate between the ancient Greco-Roman world and the world of the British nineteenth century was a task that simultaneously brought out the best and worst in Taylor. The best involved the care with which he doggedly maintained a faithfulness to the original Greek texts. Ironically, his obsession with literal translation also resulted in many of his worst moments. Here is an example of Taylor translating The Craytlus of Plato. This is Socrates talking to a citizen interested in the relation of name to an object:

Let us see, Hermogenes, whether things appear to you to subsist in such a manner, with respect to the peculiar essence of each, as they did to Protagoras, who said that man was the measure of all things; so that things are, with respect to me, such as they appear to me; and that they are such to you, as they appear to you: or do some of these appear to you to possess a certain stability of essence?

If you fail to come up with a response to the query as rapidly as Hermogenes, it could be because we moderns expect a concise style that quickly “cuts to the chase.” Taylor is verbose, with nearly a Victorian love of baroquely applied qualifying adjectives and clauses of a length approaching infinity. As Kathleen Raine writes, “Yeats called his (Taylor’s) style atrocious, and Coleridge wrote that Taylor translated Proculus from ‘difficult Greek into incomprehensible English.’” Yet as the representative sample above indicates, if the reader takes the time to slowly process Taylor’s English, the meanings are usually clear and often extraordinarily helpful in comprehending the gist of Platonic thinking. Taylor rarely sacrifices a philosophical nuance for the sake of a dashing literary effect.

Compare the opening sentences of two translations of “The Tale of Cupid and Psyche,” one by Taylor and the other by the acclaimed modern poet and mythographer Robert Graves.

Here are Taylor’s:

I, however will immediately recall you from grief, by pleasant narrations, and old women’s fables. “In a certain city lived a kind and a queen, who had three daughters of conspicuous beauty. Of these, the two elder, though of the most agreeable form, were not thought too lovely to be celebrated by the praises of mankind; but the beauty of the younger sister was so great and illustrious, that it could neither be expressed, nor sufficiently praised by the poverty of human speech.

Here are Graves’:

Now let me tell you a fairy tale or two to make you feel a little better. “Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who had three very beautiful daughters. They were so beautiful, in fact, that it was only just possible to find words of praise for the elder two, and to express the breath-taking loveliness of the youngest, the like of which had never been seen before, was beyond all power of human speech.

The Graves version of this classic myth of the relationship of body and soul as dramatized by Apuleius in The Golden Ass is entertainingly and poetically written. Casting the allegory as a fairy tale assures easy reader accessibility. But … and this is a big “but” … it can be argued that Graves’ translation trivializes the sacred and mysterious aspect of the tale. Graves concentrates chiefly on the obvious facets of feminine beauty; Taylor upon the inadequacy of human language to capture the image of divine-created beauty. This point is underscored in Taylor’s lengthy footnote outlining the spiritual significance of the tale. The Graves version has no footnotes, eschewing them for the sake of a modern version that reads like a novel. I happily own both editions, reading Graves’ when I seek literary pleasure and Taylor when I seek philosophical enlightenment.

If the prospect of reading Taylor is appealing, know that no book has taken the place of Thomas Taylor the Platonist in offering a sample of key texts. But Taylor enthusiasts can rejoice in the forthcoming publication of ALL of Taylor’s books in a uniform edition by The Prometheus Trust, and English non-profit educational group. The first nine volumes have appeared. Twenty six more will be published in the next three years, distributed in the U.S. by Minerva Books. Of the first nine volumes, I would suggest the following for Taylor novices: Volumes two (Porphyry, offering crucial readings of Homeric myths), three (Plotinus, revealing in-depth insights into the connections between beauty and the soul), four )which includes several Neoplatonic philosophers focusing upon the soul and Nature), seven (which includes no translations but several illuminating Taylor essays on the Eleusinian and Bacchic mystery schools) and nine (Plato’s Alcibiades and The Republic).

Until this series is completed, other Taylor volumes very much worthy of attention are available from various U.S. small presses. Wizards Bookshelf offers Iamblichus on the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians and The Cratylus, Phaedo, Parmenides, Timaeus, and Critias of Plato, both essential to anyone exploring ancient definitions of the human soul. All of the Prometheus Trust and Wizards Bookshelf editions are handsomely bound and modestly priced clothbound editions. Kessinger Books offers steeply priced and cheaply produced paperback editions consisting of photocopied texts (with occasional blurred and off-center pages). Their offerings include Taylor’s version of The Golden Ass and The Commentaries of Proclus on the Timaeus of Plato. They would be of great value to anyone looking at myths about how souls undergo rites of transformation. Finally, for those on limited budgets, or for those who want only a tiny taste of Taylor’s translations and original writings for a start, there is a pamphlet published by J. D. Holmes Booksellers, Plotinus’ Essay on the Beautiful, the first third of which is a major Taylor essay. Whatever entrance to Taylor’s writings, you will be certain to rejoice in the light this “Hermes” sheds on the ever elusive forms of soul and myth.


Few of Taylor’s books are easily located, even in stores specializing in esoteric spirituality and philosophy. If bookstores can’t special order these volumes, you can obtain catalogs from the publishers or distributor directly. The Prometheus Trust volumes are available in the U.S. through Minerva Books, [address redacted; appears to not exist now]. Ph: [phone number redacted]. Wizards Bookshelf can be reached at [address redacted; head to Wizards Bookshelf instead]. Kessinger Publishing Co. can be reached through [address redacted; head to Kessinger Publishing instead]. J. D. Holmes, Bookseller, is at [address redacted; head to J D Holmes instead].

Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories [Amazon, Abebooks] by Leigh Brackett.

Brackett Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories

This book is a Fantasy Masterworks compilation of Golden Age science fiction novellas and short stories set on the habitable and human-populated Mars and Venus of mid-20th century imagination, as influenced by the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs. By and large, Brackett’s protagonists are rogue archaeologists (self-confessed “tomb robbers”), thieves, and mercenaries. The complete absence of female protagonists might have been in keeping with the general run of the pulps at the time, but I note that her contemporary C(atherine). L. Moore was able to deliver a good lead heroine once in a while. Still, Brackett does include a respectable range of well-drawn female characters. And lest I accuse her of kowtowing to the white male science fiction hegemony, her recurring “Earthman out of Mercury” hero Eric John Stark is black.

Brackett’s ancient Mars–as rendered in the title novella and several of the other stories in this anthology–is a terrific fantasy adventure setting, worthy of role-playing or other crossover exploitation. In addition to the Mars and Venus stories, the book supplies “The Jewel of Bas” on some nameless otherworld, and the short Mars-related “Tweener” set on Earth.

“Black Amazon of Mars” is pretty much Brackett’s version of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” and I liked it very much. Mind-transfer or psychic possession is a theme, usually a dominant one, in at least half of the stories in this volume, and telepathy is common. Once in a great while, Brackett has one of her spacefaring humans venture a “scientific” hypothesis about the mysterious ancient technology of Mars or Venus. These efforts may be somewhat cringe-inducing among educated 21st-century readers, but they are brief and thankfully rare.

Editor Stephen Jones provides a closing essay with a detailed bibliographic overview, for which I was grateful. I certainly look forward to reading more of Brackett’s adventure stories, and Jones has helped me to identify some target titles for my wishlist.

The Dream and the Underworld

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dream and the Underworld [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by James Hillman.

Hillman The Dream and the Underworld

Hillman’s slim volume is the best book I have read about the significance and experiential weight of dreams. He opposes the therapeutic and vulgar divinatory approaches that want to merely convert dreams into utilities of waking consciousness. While situating his study within the psychoanalytic tradition, he constructs his theory with extensive reference to classical notions of death and the underworld. 

Magicians reading carefully can also find a wealth of pointers about the “astral” and the full range of visionary experiences which access materials from an unconscious source–collective or individual. In fact, this book is one of the most valuable texts I have found for that purpose. 

An early monograph by Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld has a style that is more incisive and demanding than his later popular work like The Soul’s Code. He often uses untranslated Greek terms in order to orient the reader to what is likely to be at first an alien perspective on the underworld into which we all must descend. Although short, it requires genuine work to read, and it should repay the effort well.

Living Gnosis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Living Gnosis: A Practical Guide to Gnostic Christianity [Amazon, Abebooks] by Tau Malachi.

Malachi Living Gnosis

Malachi here provides a primer in Christian Neognosticism generally, and for his own “Sophian” tradition in particular. With respect to the generalities, he emphasizes the variety of Gnostic teachings, the ineffability of genuine gnosis, and the notion of personal experience as spiritual currency. “Sophianism” disclaims reconstructionist motives, professing instead to represent a continuity with the ancient Gnosis via the Rosicrucians and other esoteric traditions. As the founder of the Sophian Fellowship, Malachi traces his initiatory pedigree through the Ordo Sanctus Gnosis (evidently a sect not keen on the genitive case). The “Tau” title implies a connection with the French Gnostic Church of Jules Doinel, but Malachi makes no claims there.

To no surprise on my part, the Sophian tradition as presented by Malachi shows strong influences from Theosophy and Martinism, and evidence of having been steeped in late twentieth-century newage, with a commensurate eclecticism. It presents the “Master Yeshua” and Mary Magdalene as a Shiva-Shakti transcendent erotic dyad, and stresses the use of a Christian Kabbalah. With all that, it will not be entirely alien to Thelemites, and Malachi even once uses the phrase “true will” (169).

His “selected bibliography” contained no volumes unfamiliar to me, and I was mostly curious about the techniques offered in the last few chapters of his text, since it is styled as a “practical guide.” As I read them, I was surprised and puzzled at the coherence of what I found there: a religious form that I don’t ordinarily associate with “gnosticism.” By the time I got to page 184, Malachi had made it abundantly clear: his Gnosticism “is more akin to a science of mind and the knowledge of how to experience prosperity, success, health, happiness, and a Spirit-connection in our lives.” For crying out loud, it’s New Thought!

Now I only wonder if Malachi knows that’s what it is, or if he really thinks it is an an ancient heritage transmitted to him by his mentor Elijah ben Miriam. Still, it’s sexier than Christian Science.

Litany of the Long Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Litany of the Long Sun [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe, the first half of The Book of the Long Sun.

Wolfe Litany of the Long Sun

This volume containing Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun was my first reading in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle beyond the Book of the New Sun (including its Urth). While I appreciate that this second series are supposedly set in a shared far-future continuity, there’s no intersection of plot, character, or setting with the five New Sun books.

There are quite a few points on which this Long Sun series differs from its predecessor. The chapters are longer and fewer in number, making for a different reading rhythm. It has a distinct central protagonist (and a more likable one, on the whole), but he is not the narrator. There is no concluding declaration for each book, to punctuate the story. In fact, it didn’t feel like much was resolved at the end of Nightside. So I thought, ok, I’ll look at the start of the next book and see if there’s a gap in the narrative, then I’ll give it a rest for a little before continuing. But–Lake of the Long Sun picks up without any pause for breath. So I ended up reading the first two chapters of the second book in the same sitting as the last one of the first book!

The protagonist Patera Silk’s dreams are important in the Long Sun, just as dreams were for Severian in Urth. Silk’s dreams are described more believably–the telling really communicates the distortions and uncertainty of dream logic, including ambiguity about the reality of events until waking is finally established. Silk is also, like Severian, a reasonably zealous product of a tutelary order. Instead of being a journeyman of the Guild of Torturers, Silk is an augur (priest) of the polytheistic religion of his city, serving in a neighborhood manteion (temple for animal sacrifice) with its attached school. Silk is sometimes called a “butcher,” since killing animals is central to his profession. So, despite the augur’s relative harmlessness Wolfe again raises for the reader the sort of conundrums he created with his torturer hero. He does a very effective job of making Silk into a conscientious, sympathetic character with “innocence” as his keynote.

Where the New Sun had the alzabo as a means to abrogate the conventional boundaries of personal consciousness, the Long Sun presents a number of instances of divine (and possibly diabolical) possession. The nature and ontological status of the gods is subjected to repeated questioning and re-evaluation by Silk and others over the course of the story, and at this midpoint–with two books of the Long Sun left to go–it doesn’t seem to have reached any sense of finality. But effects of divine initiative are certainly real, and they are not limited to theophanies in the “sacred windows,” which are quite evidently some sort of electronic display screens.

As in the New Sun books, the Long Sun presents a richly-imagined setting, working its way out from quotidian details to a much larger and stranger picture as the story proceeds. This setting has been subjected to spoilers in jacket copy and reviews, but I’d rather just say that it’s completely different than that of the other books. It is more fun to discover it through the book than it would be for me to try to reduce it to some of its larger features. One significant aspect that is introduced at the start is the fact that the city of Viron is a consciously mixed society of “bios” and “chems,” where the former are humans of biological descent, and the latter are engineered persons. There is a surprising level of community and reciprocity between these two sorts of people, and Wolfe often plays on the reader’s expectations in order to delay awareness that a given character is a chem.

On the whole, I find that these Long Sun books succeed in perpetuating and renewing many of the most interesting tropes and preoccupations of the New Sun series, while transposing them to an entirely new milieu. It’s an impressive feat, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half of the Long Sun series.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tunc: A Novel [Amazon, Publisher] by Lawrence Durrell, book 1 of The Revolt of Aphrodite series.

Durrell Tunc

Tunc is really only half a novel, since Durrell had planned throughout to continue and conclude it in Nunquam, and there is nothing like a conclusion evident in the first book. Still, it’s a pretty good half-novel as I rank them. The style is very 20th-century modern, perhaps midway between Malcolm Lowry and Thomas Pynchon, complete with the latter’s tendency to interject funny songs and verse. Protagonist-narrator Felix Charnock is an inventor whose fortunes become embedded in the multinational firm of Merlin Industries. He has gone to ground in Athens after a circuit that began there, led him to Istanbul and thence to London. His original technological forte is audio recording, but during his late time at the firm he has applied himself to the extracurricular development of Abel, a computer dedicated to the purpose of divination on the basis of recorded speech and other data. Tunc is a retrospective exercise, just as Abel is coming fully on-line. Charnock reflects on his friends, lovers, and professional associates since the days of his independence in Athens, charting out a wide-flung web of psychological manipulation and frustrated desires. 

The book and its sequel are together titled The Revolt of Aphrodite. I’ll take a breather before reading Nunquam, but it’s firmly on my list to be read.

How to Win in the Chess Openings

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews How to Win in the Chess Openings [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by I A Horowitz.

Horowitz How to Win in the Chess Openings

Of course, no one “wins” in an opening as such, and Horowitz wished in his foreword that marketing considerations would have allowed him to call this book How to Understand the Chess Openings. It is a sound resource for readers just getting their feet wet in chess strategy. He discusses the general principles that inform the openings in modern chess, after which each chapter is devoted to a specific opening or variant. Horowitz uses descriptive notation with ample diagrams, and provides very detailed discussion of the motives for each move. 

A typical chapter includes a principal game to set forth the clinical logic of the opening, followed by one or more further examples in “movie” format, i.e. richly diagrammed, if more sparsely commented. Horowitz presents two of his own games among the chess movies, referencing himself in the third person, but mostly keeping to “white” and “black” for the players, unlike his usual movie narrative style.

Ten out of thirteen openings/variants treated are King Pawn openings, despite Horowitz’s remark that “The unostentatious move 1 P-Q4 is nowadays considered the most effective way of beginning a game of chess. This is evinced by a preponderance of Queen Pawn games in modern master tournaments.” (136) A single chapter treats the Queen’s Gambit Declined, and the remaining two chapters are concerned with hypermodern openings that yield the center: the Reti (typically begun with N-KB3) and the English (P-QB4).

The Transparency of Evil

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jean Baudrillard, translated by James Benedict, part of the Radical Thinkers series.

Baudrillard The Transparency of Evil

The Transparency of Evil was written in the late 1980s, and first published in French in 1990. But as I read it in 2020 it often felt up-to-the-minute. It was hard to believe that some of these observations were not rooted in the internet-mediated social environment of the 21st century.

“This society now produces only ill-defined events whose ultimate clarification is unlikely. In earlier times an event was something that happened–now it is something that is designed to happen. It occurs, therefore, as a virtual artifact, as a reflection of pre-existing media-defined forms” (41). “The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me. … We have left the hell of other people for the ecstasy of the same, the purgatory of otherness for the artificial paradises of identity” (58-9).

Moreover, Baudrillard’s frequent attention to epidemics and virality, composed in the 1980s under the cognizance of AIDs, sounds today with the amplifying echoes of novel coronavirus. His identification of terrorism as the paradigmatic form of the “transpolitical” was likewise both current and prescient.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is untitled but has epigrams relating to the book’s subtitle of “extreme phenomena.” It is chiefly oriented to describing a historical moment “after the orgy” of the liberation movements that followed the middle of the 20th century. He outlines a situation characterized by “gross systemic conjunction and malfunction caused by hypertelia–by an excess of functional imperatives, by a sort of saturation” (31).

In both the first and second parts of the book, Baudrillard references the work of the French ethnographer and critic Victor Segalen (1878–1919). While The Transparency of Evil is clearly informed by Baudrillard’s own signature concepts of simulation, hyperreality, and so forth, these are not called out explicitly, and there is no scholarly intertextual apparatus.

Much as I enjoyed the first part of the book, I got more out of the shorter second part titled “Radical Otherness.” In it, he returns to the theme of Evil that he raised late in the first part, and he coordinates this focus with a distinction between difference and otherness. Difference allows for, perhaps even demands, assimilation through the positing of a shared continuum, whereas otherness presents genuine discontinuity. Baudrillard identifies otherness with the foreign, and relates it to traditional concepts of hospitality. He proposes that ritual and seduction are counterstrategies by which the other can and will preserve itself in the face of coercive regimes of reconciliation.

“Whereas the Good presupposes a dialectical involvement of Evil, Evil is founded on itself alone, in pure incompatibility. Evil is thus master of the game, and it is the principle of Evil, the reign of eternal antagonism, that must eventually carry off the victory” (139). Is this optimism?

Martinezism, Willermozism, Martinism and Freemasonry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Martinezism, Willermozism, Martinism and Freemasonry [Amazon, Publisher] by Gérard Encausse, aka Papus, trans Piers A Vaughan.

Encausse Papus Vaughan Martinezism, Willermozism, Martinism and Freemasonry

This short book is a polemical history of esoteric societies in modern France, written by Gerard Encausse (“Papus”), organizer of the Martinist Order in the late nineteenth century. It has been recently translated into English by Piers A. Vaughan, and features on its cover the seal of the Martinist Order of Unknown Philosophers, to which Vaughan declares his adherence (8).

Encausse denominates top-down dispensaries of occult wisdom as “Illuminist,” as distinguished from the Masonic style of sodalities organized through lodge-elected leadership. The opening sections of the book are chiefly concerned to trace the genealogy and form of “contemporary” (i.e. 1899) Martinism from its Illuminist sources. This exposition includes counters to the various fin de siecle slanders of Martinism from church sources and conspiracy-mongers such as Gabriel Jogand (“Leo Taxil”).

The Rosicrucians (Elias Ashmole in particular) were the creators of Freemasonry, according to Encausse, and he sees a vengeful Templar current running in tension with the benevolent Rosicrucian one, with each contributing distinctly to the various Masonic high grades and rites. He offers a symbolic overview of the contents of advanced degrees in the Rite of Perfection and Scottish Rite, which contains some interesting observations, and he is especially concerned with the Rose-Croix degree because of its putative relationship to Martinism.

Encausse deplores the atheist trajectory of the French Grand Orient and prophesies its demise. He also mocks the tiny and senescent Rite of Mizraim, for which he would later (1908) obtain a sort of organizing authority in the form of a patent to establish a “Supreme Grand Council General of the Unified Rites of Antient and Primitive Masonry for the Grand Orient of France and its Dependencies at Paris” from O.T.O. Caput Ordinis Theodor Reuss.

On the very last page of the book, Encausse characterizes Martinists as “resolute synarchists,” alluding to the socio-political program of Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, which later became more strongly associated with Martinism, especially by its detractors. This connection was a chief concern of the academic study Beyond Enlightenment by David Allen Harvey, but this one brief mention is the first time I have observed it in a primary text of the period.

Vaughan’s translated text is adequate for English readers, although the book appears to have been prepared hastily. There are clumsy vestiges of French idiom and typographical errors on almost every page, giving “is” for “it” and “in really” for “in reality,” for example. Occasionally a word seems to be missing, and there are grammatical failures. But Vaughan’s knowledge of the subject matter, with which he boasts twenty years of initiated experience, appears quite sound. His editorial footnotes are helpful and lucid.