I met with my old friend Richard, a scholar-soldier of the Invisible College if there ever was one. We had a nice three and a half hour conversation about Dzogchen practice, the similarities between aspects of Buddhist practice and Western magical practice, when approached correctly, and about academia. It's always insightful and inspiring to speak to him about these things as he always tends to point out those things in the Western tradition that are overlooked by others, especially its relation to Eastern practices.
One of the very relevant points that he made is that the core religious level (or "sutric" level in the Buddhist context) of Western magical practice was, until about 100 years ago or so, firmly based in traditional religion of the West. By this, he means that if I was doing Hermetic magical or theurgical work 150 years ago, I would largely have been doing it as the inner or esoteric side to Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Orthodox Judaism or Islam. Part of the reason that modern occultism and the like doesn't give a firm foundation in philosophical and ethical principles in behavior is that it, as a system, was never historically set up to function on its own but as an inner or subtle layer on traditional religion. If I grew up a very strong Roman Catholic in the day when such things were the norm and became interested in Neoplatonism and Theurgical practice, it would have wound up as a development of my Catholicism, a deepening of it. For much of the 20th century, we, as a culture or set of cultures, have been moved in a post-religious direction. We have many people practicing magic or theurgy that have no strong (or often any) ties to traditional religious culture. My fiancee' is an example in that she grew up entirely without religion. I grew up a fairly liberal Catholic but lost my belief quite early. So, many of the basic behavioral and interpersonal things that we see in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions are lacking in modern magical practice. This is something I've commented on at many points. So many people involved in occultism seem to lack compassion or some basic virtues and the tradition itself doesn't always instill them very well but it was never supposed to have to do so since people were expected to already have these since the magic was a subtle level of teaching in the main religious traditions.
There are a couple of exceptions to this and those are some of the modern Neopagan faiths and Thelema. Some forms of Neopaganism teach magical practice as the basis of their work along with their own theology and ethical systems. Thelema also has a core set of "Holy Books" and a prophet which has an ethical and theological basis that can act as a core for building magical practice without requiring it. That being said, it would seem that adherence to such creeds doesn't necessarily entail ethical development or compassion for others in a real world sense. Often, membership in one of the "New Aeon" faiths seems to act as much as a validation for self-absorbed behavior and ego as a focus as much as anything else. Perhaps it is a matter of the relative youth of these sorts of faiths.
One place that I do think that Westerners could look for learning basic precepts of ethical and moral conduct that isn't part of one of the Abrahamic traditions is in the work of the Stoics, Platonists and other pagan philosophers of the late Classical world. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and others had a lot to say about virtue, proper behavior, ways of relating to the world, etc. on a very exoteric, conduct-based level and a lot of it, in my opinion, rings very true to both the nature of things and to the Western cultural modes of thoughts. They feel like "home" in so many ways. Advances in science and other forms of learning have not made these ethical teaching obsolete either.
Food for thought in any way.
Richard did have suggestions for specific groups or people to examine for MA material.
In the area of Obscure Occult Order or Personages, he suggested:
My favorite idea is to find a 20th century American occult body that has surviving body of minutes, lessons or other materials and do a general discussion and survey of the place of such an order within the overall 20th century phenomena of occultism in the English speaking world.
If anyone reading this knows of any such archives of material or persons with access to such, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with this information. I'd love to hear it. I'm stuck beating the bushes for such things.
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