Category Archives: Pagan Ethics and Philosophy

Taking Liberties with Tolerance

Heart and Courage

The media is often criticized for content that is perpetually saturated with bad news. We often hear accusations of “fear mongering” and at the same time we hear that what people really want from their news sources are the juicy tidbits and the shocking stories. The unfortunate side effect of an emphasis on disasters, accidents, murders, and wars is widespread social anxiety, fear, and even terror. As our focus becomes fear, we don’t often see stories on the remedy.

This remedy is often described in terms of bravery and heroic acts, but it is actually the day-to-day courage that we must learn to cultivate in stressful times.  Courage strengthens and emboldens us; it shines a light upon our actions, and provides ethical and moral justification for our choices; courage  allows us to be effective and to have confidence in ourselves.

The etymological root of the English word courage is the Latin cor (heart). To have courage is to have the heart to face fear, danger, or pain in defense of hearth, home, life, livelihood, family, culture or beliefs.

What seems particularly and increasingly difficult for our politicians on either side of the aisle is moral courage. In moral courage one stands for what one knows is right even when one risks social shame, exclusion, gossip, scandal, or disappointment. Moral courage in turn emboldens a civil courage in which individual citizens have the courage to stand up against injustice despite the likelihood that their actions may lead to loss of freedom, life, or reputation (or, in the case of politicians, failure to get re-elected).

Having the heart to stand against social atrocities (the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto), the heart to stand for political freedoms (against the tank in Tienanmen Square), or the heart to speak out against tyranny, (Civil Rights Movements), requires courage as a primary ingredient. We don’t often see  examples of this civil courage from our politicians who are usually ruled by polls, money, lobbyists, and the overarching desire to get re-elected.

This makes really remarkable President Obama’s recent decision to speak against what would appear to be his party’s interests, and in favor of the erection of a mosque near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. We are approaching midterm elections and the political wisdom emphasizes playing it safe. Politicians are masters at saying a “whole lot of nothing”. In the face of a growing swell of racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance that appears to be viewed as an acceptable political position among those candidates who choose to embrace what increasingly seems to have the backing of significant numbers of short-sighted bigots, the President’s decision to speak for the Constitutional rights of Muslims is risky and somewhat surprising.

Defending the Constitution

It’s odd when it becomes surprising for the President to defend the Constitution. There seems to be a fair amount of that going around. Why, at this rate we might even see justice become blind to the genders of individual couples wishing to marry! After all, without doing a panty check it’s really just two people who apply for a license to enter into a marriage contract–not two opposite sex individuals. Perhaps one day we’ll have a President who supports the constitutional rights of any couple to marry regardless of gender. In the meantime, we’ve witnessed a very big step towards tolerance.

The arguments against building a mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks, while cloaked in a veil of sensitivity for the families of the victims of September 11th, are actually not only unfounded but truly dangerous to what is often characterized as “The American Way of Life”. They are a threat not just to religious freedom but to everything we have come to treasure about America.

‘We feel that it (site of the towers) is a cemetery and sacred ground and the dead should be honored,’ is one common argument against the mosque. I fail to see how the building of an American Muslim mosque in a country that has suffered an attack by fundamentalist terrorists seeking to defeat our values of freedom and tolerance does not actually honor the dead! It is not a monument to terror to build this mosque. On the contrary, it is a monument to the beauty of America where places of minority religious belief can be built regardless of intolerance and ignorance.

The argument against the mosque seems to go something like: ‘The September 11 terrorists were Islamic, and therefore all Muslims are terrorists.’


Huh?! The hijackers were fringe terrorists and their ideas were not representative of the teachings of Islam, they were actually a stark example of the dangers of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thinking clearly occurs in all sorts of religions and systems of belief.

This rising tide of fury about Muslims in New York who wish to build a mosque close to the hallowed ground of the fallen towers goes hand in hand with our own home grown and dangerous fundamentalism. There seems to be an increasing willingness to accept intolerance, demonization of the other, and general hate speech.

What’s really dismaying is that some people are using the deaths of loved ones on September 11 as if these deaths give them some sort of justification to hate indiscriminately. They seem blind to the underlying similarity between the thinking of the terrorists and their current actions and mindsets. In their hurt and anger they appear to have lost the ability somewhere along the way to sort out the difference between feelings and ideas.

When we are willing to transgress against the rights of all people of another religion regardless of their actual beliefs, we have become our own enemies. To do this because we were attacked by fundamentalists reminds me of the psychological observation that the children of abuse so often grow up to become abusers themselves.

One family member of a fallen fireman who died in the towers, recently told the New York Times that “People are being accused of being anti-Muslim and racist, but this is simply a matter of sensitivity.”

Why is it lacking in sensitivity to build a sacred cultural center for cross religious dialog near the site of an atrocity rooted in intolerance. Is it not sensitive to the memory of those who died that a group of Muslims wish to take actions which might defuse some of the misunderstandings and lead to peace and communication between previously alienated peoples? It was, after all, a climate of misunderstanding and alienation that led to those attacks in the first place.

It seems appropriate to reiterate the words of an Islamic relative of another fireman who died in those same falling towers who remarked in frustrated response to the intolerance: ‘Maybe if a mosque were built you guys would know what Islam is about!’

It defies rationality to label a religious structure intended to promote understanding and dialog as a “monument to terrorism”. In fact, a building intended to educate Muslims in tolerance and peace is a structure that supports the exact opposite of terrorism. There is no doubt that there is a growing element of intolerance around the world that exploits Islam.

Opposing Intolerance

What we are dealing with here is not really an appeal for “sensitivity” but fear mongering and hate. One of those opposed to the mosque, for example, is the Reverend Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Florida. He is planning to host a “burn the Qur’an” day on September 11 with the argument that he is “exposing Islam for what it is”. Sporting a sign on the church lawn reading “Islam is the Devil”, he describes Islam as “a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade itself as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society…”

I find it odd that Reverend Jones fails to see that by his reasoning his religion must then be equally tarred with the obvious Nazi-like action of book burning.

How does burning the Qur’an help fight Islamic intolerance?

What is truly scary about this current increase in hate and intolerance is that it is being exploited by politicians as we approach the mid-term elections.

Sarah Palin opposes the building of the mosque saying that while President Obama is right that Muslims have the right to build in lower Manhattan, he fails to address the question as to whether they should. Of course they should! It provides us all with the chance to explore causes of polarization and intolerance and to have the courage to stand up for religious freedom! Having the courage to stand up for the right of Muslims to build this mosque is exactly what we all should be encouraging. The mosque is an opportunity!

Newt Gingrich, possibly a future candidate for President Obama’s job, has gone so far as to warn that American Muslims are a mortal threat to freedom and are attempting to impose sharia law in the US.

I find it ironic that there is such narrow interpretation inherent in this sort of thinking. After all, if we are going to extrapolate, why limit the extrapolation to Muslims?

When you think about it, arguing against a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in Manhattan is roughly equivalent to an argument that there should be no Republican Party or NRA offices near the site of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. After all, our home grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh was both a Republican and he joined the NRA. Come to think of it, he was also Christian.

Perhaps there should be no sushi bars or Zen centers in Hawaii. Too close to Pearl Harbor, right? Or possibly there should be no Catholic churches in California because of the murder and enslavement of the descendants of the First People of that state. Come to think of it, that goes for Manhattan also, perhaps the presence of any Christian churches in Manhattan should be questioned because of contemporary Christian justifications for the exploitation and displacement of the first inhabitants of that island.

The potentially absurd and hateful extrapolations are endless. I found a bumper sticker I saw once funny, it read: “US Out of North America”, but while it made me laugh, it fails to consider that we are all of us, all people of the world, in this together. The tendency to hate and foster bigotry is a social and psychological disease. It needs to be quickly addressed when it crops up or it spreads like the plague. Hateful intolerance also presents us with an ethical and moral problem.

Thankfully, we are not having to deal with the sorts of daily insanity (at least not yet) that the people of Israel and Palestine are wrestling with, and hopefully we don’t choose to go down a further similarly polarized road of mutual intolerance. We haven’t been around as a nation for very long, and history is rife with awful examples of what happens when civilizations embrace this sort of thinking.

It seems so much easier to hate than to forgive, particularly when the people we need to forgive are different from us. During WWII it was the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps in America, and not the German-Americans. When we demonize the other we risk becoming exactly what we hate and fear. Our intolerance blinds us from the paradoxical nature of our thoughts. If we judge all Muslims by the actions of crazed and intolerant fundamentalists, if we then oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero for those sorts of reasons, we are ourselves the ones threatening American freedom and democracy.

There is no doubt that we need to be sensitive to those who have lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks. Sensitivity however should not be confused with supporting fear and hatred. A good way to remember and memorialize the deaths on that awful day in Manhattan is to focus upon preserving the beauty the terrorists were attacking. What better way than to honor that unique document which truly set in motion such amazing and beautiful ideas about equality, truth and justice. To do anything less than take a stand against bigotry is truly “Un-American”.


All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt. 8–Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

Variations on a Hellenic Magical Theme: Circe and Chiron


To Isaac Bonewits who left us on the morning of this posting (August 12, 2010). Isaac was in many ways like Chiron, a good mentor, a wise shamanic priest, a musician and composer, a liturgist, respected by his community, very knowledgeable, and an excellent teacher in a wide range of fields. Also like Chiron, Isaac was both a creature of and a lover of Nature–simultaneously a blend: a bit of a God and also quite an animal.

Introduction to Part 8

Welcome to Part 8 of Magic 299 and my ongoing examination of the philosophical, religious, and historical underpinnings of two related concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Magic(k)al and New Age communities. Again, these include the concept of “reality formation” (“We create our own realities”), and “responsibility assumption” (“we are 100% responsible for what happens in our lives”). I am digging into the the foundational ideas related to these concepts in the hopes that a deeper exploration might be of service as it will allow for a critical illumination of the modern views by examining their historical, spiritual and philosophical contexts and significance.

In Part 7 I mentioned that because a discussion of the history and contexts of the axioms of reality formation and responsibility assumption can’t really be seen as thorough without also considering at least some of the roots of magical and hermetic thoughts and practices, I was taking us back from the 17th Century CE where we’d left off in Part 6, to consider magic and religion around the Archaic and Classical Hellenic periods.

I closed Part 7 with a brief mention of the various indications I’ve seen of a distinction between types of Hellenic magical practices. These distinctions are similar to such dualistic divisions as: “Black vs. White Magic”,”sorcerers vs magi”, “‘power over’ vs. ‘power with’ magical approaches”, or “curanderas (healers) vs. brujas (witches)”. An expansion upon this observation is one aspect of this 8th entry in this Magic 299 series.

Dualistic Distinctions & Emic vs. Etic Perspectives

An understanding of these sorts of distinctions sheds light upon underlying attitudes that have a direct bearing upon the overarching axiomatic beliefs that are the topic of these multiple blog posts. How we (or Classical Hellenes) view historical or modern magical practices and any of their variations, dualistic or otherwise, is likely to be directly related to assumptions we and others might make about reality formation or responsibility assumption.

I feel it’s important to clarify that exploring distinctions between types of Hellenic magical practices by examining the academic and religious literature used to describe them is both complicated and muddy. The topic is the source of much disagreement between classicists, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of magic and religion. The complications and the disagreements are well beyond the scope of this discussion. The tendency to discredit or invalidate the practitioners of modern magical traditions and Pagan religions is also a factor in this topic. There is the problematic tendency to invalidate these particular religions by describing their understandings as a psychological problem, i.e. “magical thinking”. There is also the tendency to marginalize more recent religions which may have embraced reconstructive practices as a tool for internal justification or for their development of a more systematized religious thea/theology. This marginalization is often simply done by describing these more recent religious entities as “artificial religions”.

Examinations of ancient Hellenic magical distinctions are still further complicated by questions of objectivity raised by those who are not practitioners from modern magical subcultures. These are the disputes which can arise from conclusions drawn from an “emic” or internal perspective rather than from some form of “etic” perspective drawn from either participant observation or external viewpoints. As in any art, the perspective changes with distance. Such perspectives are even further clouded by historical and cultural gender distinctions between female and male magical practitioners and adepts. When such distinctions are filtered through the tendency in Middle Eastern monotheistic thinking and early Christian writing to demonize female practitioners of magic (“suffer ye not a witch to live”) while at the same time tolerating or even lauding the male practitioners (the three Magi and of course, Jesus himself); a look at what we think we know about Hellenic magic requires careful scrutiny. I will provide some links in a later post for further exploration for those who wish to undertake a more in-depth examination than I can offer in this blog.

I also note that my observations, analysis, and conclusions are not drawn from a purely “emic” or “etic” perspective but that I lean significantly towards the former while I have interests in employing techniques of the latter. The gift a Pagan priest or priestess can bring to such work is that of direct experience in the performatives of magical rites and the honed ability to intuitively understand and perceive magical semiotic clues that an academic scholar might not catch; the gift academia bestows is that of seeking a rigorous, non-credulous, objective viewpoint that can be supported by the data uncovered. Finding the balance between these is an interesting philosophical yoga.

Linguistic Distinctions and Insights

Finally, I think it’s important to point out that prior to the use of the Greek word μαγικός (magikos) as discussed in part 7, there were other words in use both as titular or occupational categories, and these were used to describe specific magical practices. I’ll discuss this a bit further when we get to looking at various contemporary examples, but for the time being, I’ll simply note that there were words in use prior to around the 6th Century BCE when there was an increase in Greek borrowing (and fanciful embellishment) of ideas about the role of the magus, magi or magian. These flights of fancy and syncretism were drawn from Greek extrapolations of what they believed they understood about Iranian, Babylonian, and Chaldean religious and magical practices. Examples of the older pre-6th Century BCE words (and the associated ideas) include γόης (goēs), an archaic Greek word for a practitioner of magic. This word is drawn in turn from the even older góos which also can refer to a musician, or to music, or song, and which often particularly refers to songs of lamentation and poetry used in connection with death and dying, as well as work with associated secret rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. To help with an understanding of the association, it might help to think of modern ideas about the meaning of the English word “enchantment” and to consider the linguistic link between an enchanter and the word “chant”, drawn from the French”chanter”: to sing.

Magic, Music & Necromancy

There are multiple examples from all over the world (and many time periods) of the connection between magic and religion and sacred music, chanting, mantras, sing-song incantations and prayers, etc. The category for the sacred role of a singer of songs of lament or worship, as well as sung prayers and other requests for intercession in a magical Greek context, could clearly fall under the word góos as well as the later goēs which can also refer to sounds of ululation similar to modern Middle Eastern cries of mourning uttered at funeral rites.

There are necromantic influences at work and connections between Hellenic magical practices and myths (for example the descents of Heracles (a student of Chiron) and Orpheus into the realm of Hades. That Hecate and Hermes, two Greek divinities with strong associations to magic, are also both deities who are able to come and go in the Underworld is not coincidental.

Hellenic Magic in the Old Tales


The obvious and most useful way to look at Hellenic ideas about magic is to explore how magic is described in the existing ancient Greek stories and literature that are still available to us.These contemporary examples also shed light upon the distinctions between “types” of magical practitioners.

One of the oldest written examples of magical practice comes from Homer’s Odyssey which documents the encounter of Odysseus and Κίρκη (Kírkē), or Circe as she has come to be known. Kírkē is Greek for “falcon” and thus, while many of us are most familiar with her ability to transform men into beasts, it’s important to realize that she herself (like many of her divine relatives and counterparts) is directly associated with a particular animal.  Her name is itself onomatopoeic in the sense that it sounds something like the call of a falcon. We have already seen that there is a connection between sound and magic in Hellenic practice.

Circe is usually described as some variation on a sorceress or enchantress who lives surrounded with a variety of beasts and women on the island of Aeaea (itself a magical sort of word in that it is a palindrome).

While most of what we know of Circe comes from the Odyssey, Circe also makes an appearance in Ἀργοναυτικά (The Argonautika) which was written in the 3rd Century BCE by Apollonius Rhodius (Apollonius of Rhodes). This Hellenistic epic poem is a re-telling of the mythic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to find the Land of Colchis and to recover the Golden Fleece.

We are well advised to keep in mind that how such documents are translated and then described often imposes external and more recent ideas and assumptions (particularly monotheistic and competing religious thought) about magic and magical practice. These assumptions lead to descriptions of Circe “muttering incantations” for example, when an alternative, less loaded description might be “singing spells”, “chanting”, or even “speaking poetry”.

Depending upon who is doing the describing and translating (and when), Circe is variously described as a witch, a sorceress, a goddess or demi-goddess of magic, a nymph, and an enchantress. Her parentage is also differently described depending upon who is doing the telling, but she is usually seen as a descendant of the Titans, specifically a child of Helios (the Titan personification of the sun) and Perse, an Oceanid (aquatic goddess or nymph). Alternatively, Circe is described as a daughter of the Titan Goddess of magic, Hecate. It is highly likely that like Athena and the Egyptian sky Goddess Nuit, there are connections between Circe and much older bird goddesses of the greater Mediterranean region and Neolithic Europe.

In addition to Circe’s chthonic associations with animals, and her earthy/watery/solar connections, Circe was most certainly  an herbal adept. She is described as a practitioner of pharmakeia, which is often translated (primarily in versions of the Bible, which of course contains a religious compilation of documents from a religion in direct competition with Hellenic/Hellenistic religions) as “sorceress” or “poisoner”. A better indication of what the word Pharmakeia actually meant is found when we consider the related word pharmakon which is the source of our modern words pharmacy and pharmaceutical. I believe we are running into the classic (pardon the pun) revisionist interpretation of a powerful female herbalist, healer, witch or medicine woman as an evil sorceress. The related ancient Greek word pharmakon has multiple meanings which include an “herb” or “drug” (in Homer the distinction between whether this is a healing or poisonous substance is made by the use of an adjective), a medicine or healing remedy, a potion or philter (substance altered by some form of enchantment, spell, or charm), a poison, and sometimes a type of concoction used in tinting as a paint or dye. All of these definitions of pharmakon are clearly related in that they require a knowledge of the use of plants and similar substances (whether for good or evil is secondary to this distinction).

In essence (oops, another pun), pharmakeia involves knowledge of the use of plants in a variety of ways. A practitioner of pharmakeia then, might be better understood as an “herbal mage”.

Circe’s home on Aeaea is described as a palace surrounded by a dense wood, additionally surrounded by and filled with all sorts of animals including bears, wolves and lions, as well as the pigs with which many of us may be more familiar. One interesting aspect of this is that whether the animals were types that were normally considered to be domesticated or wild, they were all described as behaving in the manner of pets, acting friendly and docile, wagging their tails, and fawning upon newcomers.These animals were, at least in some cases, thought to be the drugged and/or transformed targets of Circe’s magical will.

As a child of the Titans, Circe clearly seems to have magical powers beyond that of a mere mortal pharmakeia. In addition to her ability to transform Odysseus’ men into swine, she is prescient, and Homer ties her to a later necromantic episode where Odysseus follows instructions for a spell given to him by Circe which allows him to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  In the Odyssey, we see that Circe must have been extraordinarily skilled in the use of herbs, potions and enchantments. Circe either actually transformed those who insulted her into pigs, through the use of her magical potions, or the drugs she administered made people think that they had been transformed.

In the case of Odysseus’ crew, when they come upon her palace while looking for provisions for the ship, Circe invites them to a meal in which she serves a cheese and grain pottage flavored with honey and wine and containing one of her magical potions. It is not clear from the story what would have happened if her guests had shown restraint rather than stuffing themselves on the meal “like pigs”, but with the exception of one, they did gorge themselves on the feast and were then turned into the beasts Circe felt they most resembled. Circe manages these transformations through some combination of the use of a pharmakon and a magical stick, quite possibly the first description of the use of a magic wand.

The crew member who had refrained from the repast bears the tale of his companions’ fate to Odysseus who had remained at his ship, and he then sets out to effect a rescue. An important aspect of the ensuing encounter between Circe and Odysseus is that while she transforms his crew into pigs, she is unable to transform Odysseus himself, due to the intervention of the God Hermes, who Odysseus has encountered along the way. Hermes provides Odysseus with a magical herb called moly which prevents the transformation. Hermes also instructs Odysseus to threaten Circe with attack after she attempts to transform him. Finally, Hermes warns that Circe (who was reputed to be very beautiful) would then attempt to seduce Odysseus and that he would be wise to refrain from her sexual wiles, but that if he does not refrain and wishes to retain his manhood he will have to get Circe to vow not to harm him prior to making love with her. Odysseus subsequently remains with Circe for over a year as her lover and according to Hesiod’s Theogony he sires three sons with her.

Another factor (alluded to above) that is important when considering Circe is that she is not depicted in the same way in all ancient sources in which she appears. In some tales she herself appears to not only be affected by, but also pays a price for her magical work. In the Argonautika, for example she is described as suffering from nightmares with visions of her palace walls drenched in blood, but her role in the tale, while still indicative of her magical and herbal abilities is not so much as a sorceress annoyed by swinish sailors but more as a priestess conducting rites of the Gods for visiting supplicants (the Argonauts) seeking purification for a murder which has offended the Gods. The Argonauts are sent to Circe specifically to lift the equivalent of a curse that will prevent them all from achieving their goal. Circe’s practices then, indicate her familiarity with a variety of magical and religious rites and a constant in all the tales is that there are all manner of strange beasts about.
Circe is certainly not the only Hellenic divine or magical figure to transform a hubristic or rude transgressor into an animal, the myths are rife with such tales which serve as the magical “Miss Manners” advice for their time. Circe’s pottage is also not the only case where choosing to eat a particular food results in dramatic consequences. Persephone’s eating of pomegranate seeds in the underworld is an example (and Hermes as a necromantic God of Magic is involved in this tale also). The object lessons are usually extremely clear.
What is significant for us in our desire to understand early magic and how it might provide the grounding for later magical thought (including reality formation) is that in Homer’s description we find that an early pre-Classical example of Greek literature describes three important elements of later Hellenistic magical systems: we find the use of a magic wand, a magical potion, and the development of a relationship with a God who reveals an occult magical prophylactic remedy. We also, therefore can form the related conclusion that for the ancient Hellenes it was believed that not only is it possible to effect events through the use of our wills, but that there are specific procedures and tools for doing so, and that there is a divine and mythical connection that can aid in intentional causality.

By the time of Ovid we see in his Metamorphoses that Circe is capable through ritual language and the use of pharmakeia to call forth storms and darkness, summon Titanic powers, and through her necromantic abilities and songs bring forth earthquakes, make the woods move, etc. Her direct magical powers in all the tales that mention her reveal strong chthonic ties, and there is definitely a sense that these powers over the earth are in the wilder, lawless, and more dangerous aspects of the natural world.

We have already touched upon the homogeneity (within regional variation) of Hellenic ideas about magical and religious ability and possibility–that there was a predictable foundation of shared perceptions about what both the Gods and mortal magical practitioners might magically achieve within the all powerful edicts of Fate as realized in the natural world. Included in this larger structural homogeneity, as I’ve also mentioned, there is a dualistic association within the natural world as to intent within possible magical spheres of operation. In other words, one might almost ask of an ancient Hellenic mage, quoting Glinda, the Good Witch of the South: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” For the Hellenes, this distinction could be described as either indicative of the wilder, more dangerous, bestial, unrestrained, and outlaw qualities of Nature, or the more beneficial, bounteous, graceful expressions of the natural world. This dichotomy is sometimes described as Apollonian and Dionysian.


Descriptions of Circe blur these distinctions to some extent, but if we turn to the magical activities of Chiron we find that while most centaurs were depicted as behaving in the former, far more unpredictable and wild magical realm, Chiron was clearly an expression of the latter graceful, restrained and dignified magical path. He was, as we will see, the foster son of Apollo.

Like Circe, in Hellenic myth Chiron remained remote, isolated from access by most Greeks. The location of his isolation was a cave on Mount Pelion, a lovely forested mountain in  central Greece rising above the sea in the area of ancient Thessaly .

Also like Circe, Chiron was a chthonic semi-divine immortal. Chiron was the first centaur, a hybrid, blended creature, half horse and half God. Unlike the later tribe of Centaurs he cared for, Chiron had different parentage, he was the son of the Titan Chronos and Philyra, and the grandson of the protogenos of the sky Uranus and the Earth mother Gaia. Rejected at birth for his bestial appearance, he was fostered by the divine lunar and solar twins Artemis and Apollo and developed a magical mastery of diverse fields including a vast knowledge of hunting, herbal knowledge and medicine, gymnastics, music and prophecy. The ancient Greeks reverenced him in his role as an unparalleled teacher, guide and mentor to some of their greatest heroes, demi-gods, and Gods including Jason, Heracles, Actaeon, Achilles, Castor and Pollux, Aristaeus, Peleu, Orpheus, and Asclepius. Usually brought to him in their youth or infancy, Chiron fostered and trained each of them, preparing each in turn for the heroic, healing, or magical roles they were destined to play. He prepared Achilles for the Trojan war, Heracles for his trials, and Jason for his quest for the Golden Fleece.

While each pupil’s instruction clearly differed, there was a similar magical significance in each of their relationships with Chiron. Compared with the mortal and human population from which each of these divine or semi-divine students were drawn, each was seen as fated to become a hero and their nascent magical abilities were nurtured carefully by their wise and gentle tutor.

A really fascinating discussion of Chiron byHelen Pilinovsky looks at him in relationship to anthropological ideas about Greek magic and can be found here.

Pilinovsky discusses how Chiron’s more beneficial sort of magic:

“…can be seen in the fact that he taught various chosen human heroes the potential beneficial qualities of the natural world — the arts of astrology, botany, healing, hunting, martial arts, and the uses of their own innate, natural talents, gifted by the gods through either lineage or patronage. It is interesting to note that, as those supranatural gifts had to be bestowed by the gods, so too was it necessary to obtain a formal introduction in order to be granted the benefit of his wisdom. His pupils were always brought to him, either by the gods or by previously favored mortals who had already made his acquaintance through their own patrons…Chiron alone was seen to bridge the gap between nature and civilization, two-fold as it were, acting as a living conduit for those properties of the natural world which might benefit civilization by teaching others to utilize them. The knowledge that was instinctual to him was passed along, once removed, to his pupils, and through them, to the rest of the world.”

Chiron ensured that in addition to riding, shooting, music, dance, and gymnastics, each of his students were taught to be honest and honorable–to be of general good conduct. All his charges were educated in the arts of herbal use and the mixing of potions, in the singing of incantations, songs of healing, and prophesy. At the same time, to each student he passed along a different branch of knowledge, and he tailored each pupil’s educations appropriately.

It was Chiron who first placed Hermes’ lyre into the hands of Orpheus, who grew up to be chief among poets and musicians and was reputed to have made the very rocks melt and the trees cry.  He taught celestial navigation to the great Argonaut, Jason, while Ascelpius was taught to master the herbal and healing arts for his role as the eventual god of healing. Aristaeus was taught to master astrology and prophecy, and Achilles, Actaeon and Heracles were prepared for the hunt, for strength and for war. In the course of Heracles’ education, Chiron was injured by a poisoned arrow which he’d taught Heracles to prepare by dipping in the blood of a hydra.

Chiron’s wound (whether to his foot or knee depending upon the source) was terribly painful, and Chiron is an early representative of an important magical archetype, that of the wounded sacred healer. Despite his abilities, Chiron was unable to cure himself, but was also, as he was an immortal, unable to die through natural means. This wound that will not heal combined with his immortality, meant that he would be forced to suffer forever, with no end to his agony.

Eventually, Chiron was granted the ability to die by Zeus, but in addition to the relief of unrelenting pain, even his death served the greater good of knowledge because he took upon himself the tortures of Prometheus who’d given fire to mankind and in this way Prometheus was thus freed of his own endless torture and punishment.

An important insight can be found in Pilinovsky’s discussion of the relationship between Heracles, Chiron and Prometheus. She notes that Chiron can be:

“…seen to represent the bridge between man and the knowledge to be found in nature — ironically enough, in Greek myth, it is this half-human creature who was always represented as being well-kempt and dignified, who throughout Greek myth was seen as being the epitome of gentility and knowledge… Prometheus, the creator of man who tried to free him from the tyranny of the gods, first mitigating sacrificial requirements by tricking Zeus into accepting less than his due, and then by giving men fire and allowing them to gain the knowledge necessary for true civilization. Prometheus can be seen as the symbol of future knowledge, of the totality of human accomplishment. Chiron’s death removed the need for an intermediary, directly linking the symbol of man’s wildness, and the symbol of potential knowledge. From this point onward, it seems, man would be expected to learn about the world surrounding him using the tools which he had been given, not least among them his wits. Even in death, Chiron continued to be a symbol of knowledge — and the sacrifices that it is worth.”

For our purposes, in looking at the Hellenic magical roots of reality formation and responsibility assumption, we can see that Chiron is representative of a naturalistic, chthonic and shamanistic magic; Chiron is a symbol of heroic initiation and the mythical nature of healing, wisdom, and ritual education and knowledge. We also see that early on there was a fatalistic irony and limitations to even great practitioners of magic–the healer cannot heal himself of a wound that in one sense he set in motion for himself. Later questions about personal responsibility for reality formation can be seen in this. Did Chiron create the reality of his wound by teaching Heracles the magical art of dipping an arrow in the hydra’s blood? Or is Chiron just as subject as all the Gods and the human race to a deterministic greater fate or to some other operating principle such as chaos?

In Part 9 we’ll continue our look into foundational Hellenic magical themes and the personification of types of Hellenic magic.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt. 7–Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

A Detour from the “Modern” & “Rational”: Archaic & Classical Hellenic Religion & Magic

Welcome to part 7 of Magic 299 and my quest to explore and communicate some of the philosophical, religious, and historical underpinnings of two important concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Magic(k)al and New Age communities. The two ideas in question are variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities”, along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or, “Each of us is 100% responsible for the occurrences in our lives”. It is my hope that this exploration will be of service as it attempts to critically illuminate a modern context for these ideas through an examination of their spiritual and philosophical significance.

A Brief Summary of Where We’ve Been Parts 1-6

In Part 6 we moved into the dawn of modern thought with the rationalist philosophy of Rene Descartes built upon ideas such as those of Francis Bacon (whose ideas were also explored). So, with that previous post we found ourselves in the 17th Century, CE. Because so far I have been following particular philosophical threads through time, we’ve progressed from Classical Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophical thought (particularly Stoicism, Skepticism and Neo-Platonism), to then touch upon Medieval thought (particularly looking at ideas rooted in Scholasticism, and specifically the medieval efforts to reconcile Neoplatonic ideas with Christianity). We then moved briefly to the return to Neo-Platonism at the start of the Renaissance, and we’ve taken a cursory look at characteristics of mysticism and metaphysics and then we hopped into 17th Century rationalism. Because of this we’ve as yet to touch upon Hellenic and Hellenistic Magic and religions. We have also not explored any other Western Magic(k)al thinking nor have we considered hermeticism and humanism. We’ve also remained planted firmly in Western thought so far.

Where Next? One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A discussion of the roots and context of the axioms of reality formation and responsibility assumption can’t really be seen as thorough without also considering at least some of the roots of magical and hermetic thought and practices, as well as the ideas of Middle Eastern and Eastern thinkers and Renaissance humanists. So we’re going to take a couple of steps back from the rationalism of the 17th Century and briefly head back to the archaic and Classical Greek periods. Then in subsequent posts we’ll move forward again along parallel paths to the content of some of my previous posts until we again reach the rationalists and can take up the next threads of our exploration forward from the 17th Century.

Ancient Hellenic Religions and Magic

While there are some internal differences between ancient Greek magical and religious practices, an understanding of Hellenic magic requires a familiarity with Greek religious beliefs and rituals. These were practiced not only in the form of public religious rites but also in private, mystery, and cult practices. There were a variety of Greek religious practices, some particular to certain regions or islands while others were more widespread. There is enough variation in early Hellenic beliefs to distinguish between separate Greek religions and cults, although there were also a number of similarities. Hellenic religious ideas extended well beyond mainland Greece and the nearby islands, reaching to Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), the Ionian islands and nearby coasts in Asia Minor, and the outlying Greek colonies which were scattered as far as Massalia (Modern France’s Marseille).

Ancient Greek religious practices were deeply rooted in a polytheistic world view and they included private and small public ceremonies, rites of passage, and seasonal (and other) celebrations which usually involved some sort of work at an altar including votive placement and manipulations, sacrifices and libations. An important expression of Greek religion involved the building, maintenance, and use of temples dedicated to various divinities. Temple care included related practices having to do with honoring the characteristics and nature of the associated deities (for example, love, sex, passion, and beauty associated with Aphrodite). Formal worship often involved making offerings (sacrificial or libational) particularly (as described in Homer’s works) preceding banquets, at times of danger, or at the start of a trip, a new venture or similar such “beginnings”.

Of particular importance beyond the more public ceremonies for the various Greek divinities was the participation through initiation in various Hellenic mystery religions. Mystery religions offered their initiates not only the insights of mystical experiences or metaphysical explanations and practices, but also gave the practitioners more advanced structures and practices beyond “congregational” attendance at a public rite.  The Mysteries also gave initiates the opportunity to participate in spiritual fellowship.

Ancient Mysteries such as those of Eleusis and Samothrace were localized to particular areas, and involved pilgrimages to their respective sites, while Mystery celebrations like those of Dionysus were not limited to one place and occurred periodically and seasonally in a variety of possible locations.

Hellenic Deities

The Greek Gods with whom most modern people are familiar (The Olympians and the Chthonic deities) descended from (and in some cases were) the Titans who descended in turn from an older genealogy known as the Protogenoi, who were believed to be the first beings to come into existence. These primordial Greek gods–Protogenoi literally translates as “first born” –are a group of immortal deities who emerged at the very beginning of our universe. Formed of and embodying the very universe itself, the Protogenoi represent aspects or elements of nature and are usually seen as directly emerging from a sometimes female gendered Chaos (sometimes paired with the male-gendered Cronus, or Time).

There are other early and competing references to the first divinity(ies) spread out over several hundred years from Archaic to early Classical periods including Homer ‘s Iliad listing the watery Oceanus and Tethys as first parents, Hesiod‘s claim in The Theogeny that it was Chaos who came first, Alkman (a Spartan Poet) claiming Thetis as the first Goddess, Orpheus‘ description of Nyx as the first principle in Orphic poetry, Pherecydes of Syros, who in the Heptamychia listed Chronos as the first deity, and Empedocles who described Aphrodite and Ares as the first deities, who, with their combined respective powers of Love and War wove the universe out of the four elements. Finally (and later), we have Plato’s concept of the artisan of the universe–the demiurge, articulated in his work Timaeus.

Aside from the delightful variety apparent at first consideration, there is the underlying significance that the Greeks were flexible not just in their ontological ideas but also in their ability to voice competing opinions and articulate differing possibilities as to the origins of the Gods. It is also clear that contradiction and uncertainty are not anathema to the Greek religious perspectives. On the contrary, flexibility, internal inconsistencies, and ambiguity can be seen to have enriched and expanded the religious practices and ideas that were available to the Hellenes. So polytheism involved more than many Gods, it also involved many opportunities for divine inspiration and the possibility that individual abilities, tastes and preferences might be drawn to and satisfied by different aspects of the religion and different divinities within it.

The Dodekatheon

While later Platonism and various Stoic philosophies referred to a unifying and transcendent individual and singular divinity (i.e. a monotheistic perspective), and while different cities and areas recognized, emphasized, were dedicated to, or were held sacred to varying deities, most ancient Greeks were familiar with the Olympian pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, particularly the Dodekatheon, or Twelve Divinities (also known as the 12 Olympians). These deities were usually seen to represent some combination of the Titan family children including the siblings Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia and Hades (these last two were sometimes replaced with other deities), and a number of Zeus’ offspring usually including Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite (there was some disagreement as to paternity for both Hephaestus and Aphrodite), Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus.

The later Roman version (with their Greek identities) of the 12 Olympian divinities usually were seen to include: Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Neptune (Poseidon), Minerva (Athena), Mars, (Ares), Ceres (Demeter), Apollo, Diana (Artemis), Vulcan (Hephaestus), Venus (Aphrodite), Mercury (Hermes) and Bacchus.

I say “usually”, and the numbers above don’t always add up to twelve, because there was some fluidity as to who was included among the twelve depending upon who was doing the counting and the ranking, and when this counting and ranking took place.

For example, Hades (the Roman Pluto) was sometimes counted but often was not due to his usually existing in the Underworld, and Hestia (Roman Vesta), was often listed as one of the twelve prior to her decision to step down to allow for the inclusion of Dionysus.

The Chthonic Deities

The Olympian deities who resided for the most part on Mount Olympus, were not the only Greek deities by any means, and were complemented by the Chthonic divinities (meaning Earth God/desses) including Gaia, Demeter, Hecate, Hades, Kore/Persephone, Iacchus, Melinoe, Triptolemus, Trophonius, and the Erinyes (Furies). The Chthonic Gods tended to remain on Earth by choice, preferring their particular domains to the elevated and more distant Olympus, although they sometimes served in both realms of influence. It is likely that the worship of the Chthonic deities took place earlier among local, country “pagani” (to use a later Roman concept) while the Olympian overlay came in with a later wave of Greek peoples.

There is quite a bit of shifting of attributions and roles and syncretism is common among and between the Olympians and the Chthonic deities.  There is indication of the Olympian “overlay” I mention above in the turnover of primary deity at Delphi (Ge or Gaia replaced by Apollo), and the synchretism I mention is certainly the case in many areas. This was similar to the later Christians adapting the attributes of various Gods and associating them with Saints; there were also the Graeco-Roman-Egyptian blends of God traits (for example, Serapis as a blend of Zeus and Osiris). A characteristic of Greek approaches to divinity was an openness to possibility and variety. Of particular importance later on was the widespread Interpretatio Romana, the process by which when Romans encountered the Gods of Germanic or Celtic tribes they interpreted them as local aspects of their own deities rather than considering them separate divine beings.

Other Olympians sometimes include Alpheus, Cronus, Rhea and the Charities sometimes joined by Heracles and Asclepius.  Hebe, Helios, Eros, Iris, and Persephone are also sometimes included among them.

Many of these deities had several names and roles, depending upon the aspect of the God or Goddess being addressed or worshiped at the moment, for example there were characteristic distinctions between Athena Nike (Roman Victoria) and Athena Pronaia (Athena the Guardian). Another example would be the differences between characteristics of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great) as distinguished from Hermes Logios (Orator).

In an example of internal contradiction and openness to paradox in religion, while Plato described a singular pantheist divinity in some of his work,  he also clearly embraced the existences of the Olympians. Plato connected the Twelve Olympians with the twelve months of the year, weighing in on the question of whether Hades was one of the twelve by proposing that the God of the underworld be honored with appropriate rites along with the spirits of the dead during the final month. Plato also attempts to associate the Twelve Olympians with the Zodiac in Phaedrus.

The siblings Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia were children of Cronus, one of the Titans, and also therefore  grandchildren of the primal (primordial) divinities which also included Cronus as well as Aether, Chaos, Gaia, Erebus, Hemera, Nyx, Uranus, and Tartarus.

While most Greek divinities were immortal, it is important to consider that unlike the deities of many other religious beliefs the Greek Gods were subject to fate–they were not all powerful.

For a truly wonderful examination of the various Greek deities (and then some!) I strongly recommend those with an interest in Hellenic religions to take a look at Theoi Greek Mythology. This site has over 1,500 pages profiling the Greek gods and other characters from Greek mythology along with 1,200 full sized pictures.

I also recommend a visit to The Theoi E-Texts library of ancient, classical Greek and Roman literature.

Magic and Hellenic Magic

Since despite some regional variation, and the interpretive and ontological flexibility mentioned earlier, most ancient Greeks shared similar beliefs concerning the Gods and their attributes and abilities, and as they also were mostly in agreement as to the variety of magical possibilities rooted within the Hellenic mythological system, there was a concomitant clarity and solidity to Greek magical thought.  Hellenic belief in classical myths was not an exercise in fantasy as it is for many modern people. Certainly there was a good deal of creative license on the part of the poets and storytellers whose work has survived, but for the most part for the ancient Hellenes the mythological and magical world had a knowable, and established structure.

To understand the practice of Hellenic magic, it’s important to keep in mind that individual magical practices were interwoven with and informed by the overarching religious perspective. In a later blog post I’ll be discussing in more detail my own take on what magic (and reality formation) actually is, but for our purposes here, in order that my readers follow how I am looking at the Hellenic practices of magic, I will briefly give my definition of magic:

Magic encompasses intentional, playful, imaginative and creative acts of will emerging from the intersections of art, religion, philosophy, and science. These acts of will can emerge from individual or group efforts, can be unique occurrences, and can also be developed into systematized practices. Magical acts of will are often employed to bring about a specific desired outcome including the exercise of varying levels of influence upon, or interaction with, forces of nature.

I have chosen to discard the practice of adding a k to the end of the word magic, which is often done in an effort to distinguish it from the magical practices of illusion or prestidigitation, primarily because I consider the seemingly more mundane theatrical practices of illusion to be a form of magical technique and to therefore fall within my definition of magic.

Magic & Reality Formation

Clearly, my definition of magic above and the purposes of Hellenic magic as described below are related to our larger discussion of “creating reality”. We’ll explore some of the connections between magical practices and modern Pagan ideas about reality formation in a later post.

Hellenic forms of magic were pervasive in Greek mythology and literature. In fact, magical practices directly informed the lives, beliefs, and cultural expressions of the Hellenes. Hellenic magic served to give its archaic and Classical Greek practitioners special knowledge, insight, and a sense that they could practice control over their surroundings. Hellenic magic also served as a method to control aspects of healing, birth, mortality and the forces of nature. Magic was employed to assist individual mediations with fate. The relationship of magic and fate echoes the philosophical discussion we’ve examined previously regarding free will and determinism.

We get our modern English word “magic” from the Greek μαγικός (magikos) which referred to the practices of a μάγος (mágos, plural is magoi). A particular usage of magickos from the 1st Century CE is found in the feminine μαγική τέχνη (magike techne, Latin, ars magica) as described in Plutarch’s writing. This gave rise to Latin magicus, and then to Old French magique, which in turn led to modern English “magic”.

As we get the word magic from the Greeks, so to do we inherit many of the associated ideas about magical practices. There is some indication of a distinction between types of Hellenic magical practices. Similar to distinctions between magic and sorcery, or curanderas (healers) and brujas (witches), these Hellenic magical realms of expertise tend to fall into the category of practices employing certain tools, incantations and plants to effect change for possibly selfish individual, political and social reasons, and the category of practices employing natural and God-given magical tools, rites, and practices primarily for healing, for actions taken in harmony with the natural world, and for actions taken in keeping with or at the behest of the various wills of the Gods.

Contemporary examples of these two practices and indications about Hellenic attitudes towards them can be particularly found in descriptions of Circe and Chiron.

My next blog post will begin with an exploration of some of the magical distinctions between Circe and Chiron and a look at other important representatives of Hellenic magic and religion.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt. 6–Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

Knowing, Thinking and Being: The World, Knowledge, and the Dawn of Modern Science

Welcome to part 6 of Magic 299 and my ongoing effort to articulate and examine some of the historical, philosophical and religious foundations that contribute to two important concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, and Magickal and New Age communities. Again, these are  variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities”, along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or, “Each of us is 100% responsible for the occurrences in their lives.”

It is my hope that this exploration will be of service as it attempts to uncover a context for these ideas while it also examines their spiritual and philosophical significance.

In part 5 I blogged about relevant characteristics of mysticism and metaphysics as well as touching upon some medieval ideas that relate to our topic.

The broad nature of this subject (both in terms of the swathe of time covered here, as well as the abundance of writing by the many great thinkers considering related ideas) requires me to make some careful choices in an attempt to summarize the important topics and to cherry pick those thinkers and ideas that come closest to our particular threads here. This means, of course, that there is a whole lot more out there! I hope that some readers choose to take some time to follow some of the links I’ve provided from Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and elsewhere. Each of those links lead to yet further information–the magic of stepping onto those threads that tremble outwards into the far-reaching world wide web. What an amazing thing to have so much of our world–including information about the world’s “physicality” and insights into the “world of the mind”–all linked in this manner!

References to “the world” are common in mystical traditions, along with a call to be separate from at least the “mundane” aspects, often maintaining a detachment analogous to emptiness. One key to the malleable and enigmatic mystical and metaphysical expressions mentioned in part 5, lies in the perspective that “the world” of appearances reflects only learned beliefs – based on the limitations of time, culture and relationships – and that an unquestioned faith in those (mis)perceptions limits a person’s return to a divine state.

The mystical approach seeks the discovery and/or development of a highly effective set of practices which will lead to union with the Divine and an enlightened mind and/or soul. This results in practices which are focused upon the intrinsic world, for example, chanting, certain carefully orchestrated physical practices (yoga asanas) breathing techniques, fasting, dietary restrictions, clearing the mind in an effort to achieve a non-thinking awareness, etc. There is a wide range of mystical and metaphysical practice and belief, and not a lot of agreement on which practice works “best”, despite the cross-“platform” similarities to be found in most mystical groups.

Mystics and metaphysicians give a variety of reasons for their preference for one metaphysical belief over another. Some propose that metaphysical beliefs derive their justification from the positive consequences of maintaining a certain belief, for example they provide hope, or give meaning to existence. Others suggest that their metaphysical speculations offer the best “fit” with what is accepted knowledge in science or other empirical disciplines. Each of these practices is related to some sort of interpretation of reality–and usually some sort of distinction is made between types of reality.

As the Middle Ages drew to a close, metaphysical speculation about “types of reality” which had characterized and even dominated much of Western philosophy, began to give way to careful analysis as to what can actually and reasonably be posited about reality and the material world. Thought thus shifted again from intrinsic perceptions and ideas to extrinsic and provable observations.

Francis Bacon

In the court of Queen Elizabeth (and later James I) there was an important voice for this new focus, that of Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626) who said:

“Men have sought to make a world from their own conception and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so, they had consulted experience and observation, they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about, and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge of the laws which govern the material world.”

Bacon’s efforts to come up with a clear method for doing this resulted in his articulation of what is called the Baconian Method, which together with the contributions of scientists and thinkers like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton has come to be known as the “scientific method”  also see Wikipedia‘s article on the scientific method. For the history of the many other thinkers and scientists who have contributed to the scientific method see Wikepedia‘s timeline on the topic.

Bacon crafted a set of procedures for distinguishing among probable causes and then determining the actual cause of an observable fact. These procedures include the methods of agreement, of difference, and of concomitant variation. Employing these methods entails noting and then listing that which occurs in and about the phenomenon in question and also separately noting that which does not occur. The ensuing lists are then compared and the items in each list are ranked as to degree of occurrence or relevance. In this manner, by a process of elimination and inductive reasoning a practitioner of this method can determine both what is not involved, what is involved, and what has changed, or changes, and therefore it is possible to arrive at the underlying cause of a fact.

While developments of this process contribute to much of the more recent or “modern” attempts to describe what we can see, measure, and know–that is to determine causes for “reality”; of particular significance to our two threads of personal reality formation and outcome responsibility is Bacon’s discussion of what he referred to as the “Idols of The Mind“. These “Idols” are what Bacon determined to be aspects of human thinking which obstruct a correct and reasoned scientific approach. He is using the word “Idol” in the Greek sense as illusion or false appearance, as fantasy; he does not use “idol” in the sense in which it directly refers to some worshiped divinity. Idols in Bacon’s usage of the word are eidola, the transient (and therefore to Bacon likely to be erroneous) images of things. The tendencies described by these Idols are important not just to explorations of causality in science, but are also important for us to take into account when we consider how or whether we as individuals can be a causal nexus in our own lives.

Bacon identified four Idols of the Mind (the quotes from Bacon below are from his Novum Organum, edited by J. Devey, 1911):

1. Idola Tribus, the Idols of the Tribe, refers to the tendency to apply preconceived notions to what we see and to perceive a greater order and regularity in systems than actually exists. In Bacon’s words: 

“The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; for man’s sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things….(p. 20). [They]…arise either from the uniformity of the constitution of man’s spirit, or its prejudices, or its limited faculties or restless agitations, or from the interference of the passions, or the incompetence of the senses….” (p. 28).

Bacon’s Idola Tribus describe our general tendencies to be deceived, tendencies which are inherent in human nature. These tendencies include ignoring countervailing evidence against our views, relying in an uncritical manner upon our sense perceptions, over-generalizing what we perceive, and the inclination to jump to conclusions.

2. Idola Specus, the Idols of the Den (or Cave), are errors in perceptions resulting from individual weaknesses in reason, caused in turn by personal preferences and personality.

In Bacon’s words: “The idols of the den are those of each individual; for everybody (in addition to the common errors in the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts or corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed….” (p. 21)

Bacon’s Idola Specus are therefore those distortions which arise from our particular viewpoints and intrinsic insights (Bacon bases this metaphor upon Plato’s myth of the cave); to counter these particular Idols, Bacon reminds us that whatever our mind ‘…seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion’.

3. Idola Fori, the Idols of the Marketplace, involve miscommunication of ideas rooted in semantics, particularly those due to differences in language usage. An example of this is the uncertainty arising when words in science have different meanings than their usage in common parlance.

In Bacon’s words the Idola Fori are: “…formed by the reciprocal intercourses and society of man with man….for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can definitions and explanations with which learned men are wont to guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy – words manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies.” (p. 21)

Bacon’s Idola Fori are not simply errors that come in the course of interpersonal communication, but also arise from abuse of word usage in a language.

4. Idola Theatri, the Idols of the Theater, refer to the tendency of humans to unquestioningly adhere to religious or philosophical dogma, remaining either incidentally or intentionally blind to reality.

In Bacon’s words: “…there are idols which have crept into men’s minds from the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration…for we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds.” (p. 22)

Bacon’s Idola Theatri thus specifically arise from errors which are introduced by previous theories, for example, Aristotelianism’s abstract schemata, along with the introduction of theological ideas into science. Bacon was comparing extant philosophical and religious systems to theatrical spectacle, which therefore likens them to imaginary and fantastical representations and worldview.

Rene Descartes

The dawn of modern philosophical thought is often attributed to Rene Descartes,  (also see the Stanford entry ) who posed epistemological questions, or speculations as to the nature of knowledge and its origin and limits.

Descartes approaches knowledge by distinguishing between persuasio, or lesser grades of conviction and belief, and scientia, a rigorous knowledge. He is renowned for defining knowledge in terms of doubt, his discussion of the difference between these concepts was clearly articulated in a letter excerpted below.

“I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason.” (1640 letter)

Descartes (1596-1650) is thus credited with articulating the foundational philosophical structure upon which the natural sciences could be built. In order to determine and describe a set of true principles, ideas about which there can be no doubt, he employs a form of methodological skepticism, discussed and demonstrated in his Discourse on the Method (1637) as hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt.

Basically, as a mental and philosophical exercise he rejects all ideas which can be doubted (persuasio) and then seeks to restore them only with a firm foundation for genuine knowledge (scientia).

Descartes did briefly consider ideas of mysticism and of magic but he rejected them in favor of the ideal of a mechanical explanation.

His rejection of suppositions articulated in his Discourse on Method resulted in Descartes’s original French statement “Je pense donc je suis,” “I think therefore I am”, later articulated in Latin as Cogito Ergo Sum. He expands upon this in Latin in 1641 in his Meditationes de prima philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstratur (Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul are Demonstrated).

For Descartes, once one stripped away all preconceived notions and belief, one could not escape the fact that one was still wondering about ideas and existence, and therefore doubting one’s own reality was a fruitless exercise.

From Discourse on Method:

“I had long since remarked that in matters of conduct it is necessary sometimes to follow opinions known to be uncertain, as if they were not subject to doubt; but, because now I was desirous to devote myself to the search after truth, I considered that I must do just the contrary, and reject as absolutely false every-thing concerning which I could imagine the least doubt to exist.

“Thus, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I would suppose that nothing is such as they make us to imagine it; and because I was as likely to err as another in reasoning, I rejected as false all the reasons which I had formerly accepted as demonstrative; and finally, considering that all the thoughts we have when awake can come to us also when we sleep without any of them being true, I resolved to feign that everything which had ever entered my mind was no more truth than the illusion of my dreams.

“But I observed that, while I was thus resolved to feign that everything was false, I who thought must of necessity be somewhat; and remarking this truth–I think, therefore I am–was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could unhesitatingly accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking. I could feign that there was no world, I could not feign that I did not exist. And I judged that I might take it as a general rule that the things which we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true, and that the only difficulty lies in the way of discerning which those things are that we conceive distinctly.”

–Rene Descartes

(For more of Descartes’s actual words on this topic see “I think therefore I am ” from the Public Bookshelf’s Outline of Great Books.)

Important for our related subjects of reality formation and mental outcome causality, Descartes also distinguished between mind and body. For Descartes, the difference could be found in the distinct forms of their substance; with the mind a thinking, feeling, but immaterial, spatially non-extended substance–a soul, as contrasted from the body which is spatially extended (three dimensional) and is itself incapable of thought or feeling. This metaphysical dualism that distinguishes so radically between the thinking mind, and the three dimensional matter, reveals Descartes’s rationalist metaphysical approach to this topic in that it is based upon Descartes’s postulations of innate ideas of mind, matter, and God, while his physics and physiology, both mechanistic and empiricist are based upon sensory experience.

Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia

Descartes’s mind-body dualism is important to our discussion of reality formation and 100% responsibility, although it is actually the concerns raised by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (a brilliant friend who corresponded with Descartes) which are most significant.

Despite recognizing the deep differences inherent in the duality, Descartes accepted the common belief that mind and body causally interact:

“Everyone feels that he is a single person with both body and thought so related by nature that the thought can move the body and feel the things which happen to it” (in Cottingham et al., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III: The Correspondence, 1991).

Despite Descartes’s nod to a causal link between mind and body, the radically different types of substance comprising mind and body make it difficult to see just how they might causally interact. Descartes was well aware of the difficulty. He dedicated The Passions of the Soul [1649]  which partly treats with these questions to Princess Elizabeth, who on May 6, 1643 wrote him asking:

“…how the human soul can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts—being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled—to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial…” (letter in Anscombe and Geach 1954).

Elizabeth is expressing the prevailing mechanistic view–working (as was Descartes) within the framework of Galilean mechanics which expressed the dominant physical theory of the era. She is asking Descartes to provide a causal explanation for how the body works, positing that it must involve some cause’s impelling of the body, where impelling requires some form of contact between the cause and the effect. Since a soul as described by Descartes could never literally come into contact with a body—as souls are spatially unextended—an immaterial soul could never impel, and so could never causally interact with a body.

The ensuing exchange therefore has a direct bearing upon our larger discussion:

On May 21st Descartes responded to Princess Elizabeth that the explanation she seeks can be found in a discussion of three “primitive notions”. Among these he distinguishes bodies, souls [minds], and body-souls [body-minds] and claims that each of these “notions” cannot be explained “…except through itself.”

On June 10, 1643 Elisabeth (correctly) responds that he has not explained things yet:

“…it would be easier for me to concede matter and extension to the soul, than the capacity of moving a body and of being moved, to an immaterial being. For, if the first occurred through `information’, the spirits that perform the movement would have to be intelligent, which you accord to nothing corporeal. And although in your metaphysical meditations you show the possibility of the second, it is, however, very difficult to comprehend that a soul, as you have described it, after having had the faculty and habit of reasoning well, can lose all of it on account of some vapors….”

On June 28, Descartes responds with an elaboration on the three “notions”:
-soul is properly conceived by the understanding alone,

-bodies are properly conceived by understanding aided by the imagination,

-unions of bodies and souls are properly explained by the senses.

He notes, however, that the proper understanding of the “union” is difficult.

On July 1 of the same year Elisabeth responds: “I too find that the senses show me that the soul moves the body; but they fail to teach me (any more than the understanding and the imagination) the manner in which she does it. And, in regard to that, I think there are unknown properties in the soul that might suffice to reverse what your metaphysical meditations, with such good reasons, persuaded me concerning her inextension [non 3-D nature-MM]. And this doubt seems founded upon the rule you lay down there in speaking of the true and the false—namely, that all our errors occur from forming judgments about what we do not sufficiently perceive. Although extension is not necessary to thought, yet not being contradictory to it, it will be able to belong to some other function of the soul less essential to her.”

This unsolved problem clearly relates to our discussion of 100% responsibility for personal reality causality. If it’s unclear and difficult to conceive of how consciousness can even move the body in which it “rides”, how much more difficult is it to articulate the “how” of creating intangible yet external events and “reality”. As far as the second axiom of personal outcome responsibility, this unexplained causal nexus is operating not just with the “substance” of external “things” but also across time and space.

Regardless of the circularity of some of Descartes arguments, or the failure to adequately answer Princess Elizabeth’s important questions, Descartes provided later philosophers and thinkers with a useful moral code for quests for the truth in The Discourse where he recommended that seekers of truth: obey local customs and laws, make decisions on the best evidence and then keep to them firmly as though they were certain, change desires rather than the world, and always seek truth. He also offers us in The Discourse and his other works a simile for knowledge which he describes as “like a tree in its interconnectedness and in the grounding provided to higher forms of knowledge by lower or more fundamental ones. Thus, for Descartes, metaphysics corresponds to the roots of the tree, physics to the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals to the branches.” (from Encyclopedia Brittanica‘s discussion of Descartes.)

We’ll continue with further issues of Epistemology and philosophy of knowledge and science in a later entry.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt. 5–Magic 299–Grounding Earth Religions & Human Potential Philosophies

Mysticism, Metaphysics, and Medieval Mind

This post is the fifth in my quest to explore foundational ideas that contribute to two widespread related axioms commonly held to be true by many individuals belonging to Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Magickal and New Age communities. It is my hope that this examination will be of service as it attempts to uncover some context for these ideas and to also examine their spiritual and philosophical significance. Again, these ideas are variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities” along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or the belief that all individuals are 100% personally responsible for what happens in their lives. I will again provide links for further detail from Wikipedia and elsewhere.

So far, this content has been fairly dense–not necessarily an easy read, and I sincerely hope that I am not putting off any readers, and that my readers won’t assume that all my blog posts will be equally impenetrable. This hasn’t been the most approachable material for me either, although I have to confess, it continues to be a very interesting process.

I’ve had to take “intensity breaks” in the creative, pixel-bending other cortex simply to refresh…and I begin to understand the stereotype of the somewhat disarrayed, possibly unwashed, argumentative and ink-stained philosophers who are “out there” on some metaphysical plane, or deep in their own worlds, following strange ideas all night, swilling coffee to finish an article, and getting increasingly difficult to understand as they go along. I hope I can reverse the latter trend at the very least.

In my previous post I explored Neoplatonism in the context of the Rise of Christianity.

Some scholars describe the death of one particular Neoplatonic thinker as the end of the Classical period. This was the murder in 415 AD of the Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia, also a noted mathematician and astronomer who fell afoul of a mob of Christians who accused her of inciting religious turmoil. She was a follower of Plotinus (see previous entry ), like him favoring logic and math over evidence gleaned through observation. Hypatia’s gruesome murder (dragged through the streets naked and then set on fire) provides quite the object lesson for those interested in what it was like for female pagan philosophers during the decline of poly- and pantheist Pagan thought and the emerging rise of monotheism as interpreted by Christianity.

Even after Hypatia’s murder, as the light of Classical Learning dimmed and was finally extinguished, Neoplatonic influences remained, transformed but surviving in Christian Mysticism, the Judaic Kabbalah, Ishraqi and Sufi Esotericism, and Islamic Philosophy.


What characterizes a mystic tradition, including Christian Mystics, Kaballah within Judaism, and Sufism within Islam, is that in each case mystics form sub-groups within what is usually a more conservative, mainstream religious viewpoint. Mysticism  tends to emphasize a more direct experience and relationship with divinity over doctrine or religious training, and because mysticism is also inclined to express its practices and meanings trough esoteric and subjective language and practices, it is often the case that the mainstream religious paths view their particular mystics with skepticism and distrust.

An approach that goes beyond the mainstream devotional and liturgical practices of the “parent” religious perspectives is likely to be related to the goal of our exploration here. This is because reality formation, specific metaphysical practices aimed at positive outcomes, and personal responsibility for those outcomes, are ideas which are rooted in intrinsic, internal and subjective spiritual insights that any person can access. It is therefore more likely that in mysticism we may encounter religious concepts that encompass reality formation. This likely relationship with our axioms of interest is further made probable by mysticism’s general belief that the ordinary, everyday reality is superficial, that there is a more fundamental underlying state of existence within or beneath the ordinary, mundane perception of the world, and that it is possible for initiates of a mystical path to navigate these inner worlds and realities through specific pursuits and practices.

As I said above, the emphasis upon subjective direct experience of both divinity and the underlying mystical world, makes mysticism suspect to those who emphasize the empirical. Partly in response to this questioning of mystical religious perceptions and knowledge, there is a tendency for mysticism to draw upon justifying ideas and practices to be found in the more “mundane” sciences of the time. Of course, this practice can also be seen as an openness to explore outside of traditional religious ideas for practices that will enhance or advance mystical goals.

A widely held view in mysticism is a belief in some form of immanence; as mystics directly experience divinity and the foundational inner world, they tend to de-emphasize the importance of an afterlife. This often brings them into conflict with their “parent” religion’s mainstream doctrinal claims. Mysticism’s belief in immanence is also another factor related to the axioms that are the subject of our inquiry. Direct divine experience, or a belief in the existence of divinity in all things, can easily be seen to imbue the mystical practitioner with God-like abilities including reality formation and influence over outcomes.

Mystics in Abrahamic religions are marginalized to varying degrees: in Judaism, the Chasidic Kabbalists are respected by the mainstream; in Islam, Sufism is tolerated; in western Christianity, mysticism is actively opposed and feared as cultic or even “evil”. In the latter case, a practice and belief system that is already highly subjective and internal has additional reason to cultivate secrecy as part of its practices.

Subjective, internal, and occult mystical practices are deeply couched in ambiguity, contradiction, and malleability. The mystic tends to interpret experience through a different set of assumptions from those present in “ordinary, mundane existence”, and because mysticism often advocates distance and separation from the ordinary as part of its practice, mystical approaches tend towards idiosyncrasies and esoterica. This may convey mystical truths for the mystic but non-practitioners may view such practices not only with skepticism, but even with alarm.

Mystical practices and language do not offer rational questions with final linear conclusions. A mystic would say that these practices, for example Zen koans, are particularly designed with one intent; the purpose is to open a mind that has been closed by habitual responses to the world and mundane reality.

The mystic often views the world as clouded by misconceptions rooted in habitual responses we learn from the mainstream and in the ideas and habits we form though our experiences in education and in life–experiences which we take to be “reality”. Mysticism often teaches that this experience-driven formation of habits, externally validated by peers and teachers, quickly solidifies into “law”. To address this hardening, mysticism often seeks to upset or dislocate the ego and the mind from habitual views of reality and to open itself to alternative possibilities and deeper enlightenment–to alternate realities and truths.

Zen mystical teachers insist that the meaning of a koan can only be demonstrated directly in a living, physical interaction. Despite this, the Zen tradition has produced a great deal of literature, including thousands of koans and countless volumes of commentary. Countering this apparent contradiction, teachers warn students of the problem inherent in confusing a koan’s interpretation with the realization of that koan.

“Do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon.” –a Zen aphorism

Similarly, apparent contradictions and non-linear thought can be seen in Judaic mysticism:

“The Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles that can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory.”

Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem

Mystics tend to explore specific methodologies intended to bring about a religious insight or experience and usually offer their approaches to a broad range of interested individuals without regard for previous training. Because of the systematized nature of mystical practices and their replicable, direct availability to practitioners, mysticism often comes to be seen as a divine science. Because mystical sciences do remain couched in ambiguity, they are not as well received by the non-mystical sciences they may seek to embrace, instead provoking skepticism and controversy among those who value empirical knowledge, or “proof”.

I will address modern mysticism, quantum mysticism, and the relationship of modern mysticism to science, quantum physics, etc. in a separate blog post.


Just as mysticism does not lend itself easily to external tests, evidence, or proofs, the related metaphysical beliefs are similarly called into question.

Metaphysics is often characterized as the intent to explore and shed light upon the most important aspects of human nature, coupled with an effort to comprehend the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves, define our relationship to that universe, and understand our movement with “all that is” towards our eventual, often similar or mutual ends. Metaphysics also involves a philosophical inquiry into (and search for) explanations about existence. For this reason, metaphysicians and metaphysicists also explore fundamental questions of origin, possibility, causality, spacetime, and ontology, or the study of physical things and their inter-relationships.

Subsequent to the development of the scientific method, metaphysics has increasingly explored that part of philosophy and religion that involves non-empirical inquiries into the nature of existence. This exploration includes theories about what constitutes a “real” being, what the nature of such a being might be, and what sort of language and concepts are best utilized in the description of such beings. This approach includes explorations of the nature of perception, ideas, memories, intentions, consciousness, motives, and similar mental phenomena falling into a metaphysical “theory of mind”.

More typically, metaphysics explores questions about the nature of reality, formulating theories such as dualism and materialism .

Questions as to free will and determinism also fall under the mantle of metaphysical studies, as well as the quest for explanations of why things exist rather than nothingness, whether the universe has always existed, whether there is life after death, the nature of substance, the existence of spiritual beings, what constitutes the “supernatural”, etc.

Metaphysical claims therefore, often treat with ideas and issues that are not easily measured. They also offer competing and contradictory theories which cannot be resolved through empirical testing to determine the truth. This non-empirical focus has led to criticisms similar to those raised about mysticism.

The term “metaphysics” is derived from the Greek μετά (metá) (“beyond”) and φυσικά (physiká) (meaning “physical”)

The practices and inquiries of metaphysics far predate the Classical era, with metaphysical study called the “Queen of Sciences” by Aristotle. The three main branches of traditional Western Metaphysics are drawn from the three main sections of Aristotle’s book on what he called “First Principles”. These metaphysical branches are ontology, natural theology, and universal science.

Clearly, aspects of the two axioms that have prompted my rather exhaustive (exhausting?) blogging–both the ability to “create reality” and a “100% personal responsibility for outcomes”–raise metaphysical questions which fall under all three of Aristotle’s categories. Examples of these metaphysical questions include:

* What actually is the reality that one creates?

* What steps or processes are involved in current reality formation?

* Does one completely create all that one experiences or are there external principle(s), or Principal(s) at work?

* What is created when one does not pay specific attention to reality formation?

* If each of us creates our own reality, is there an interface with other realities created by other beings and if so, what is the nature of that interface?

* If one creates one’s own reality, can one get “better at it” with some sort of specific practice? If so, what does mediocre reality formation cause?

* What is the relationship between creation of reality and mishaps or random occurrences (if either exist)?

* If there “are no accidents” why does it appear that there are?

* If one is responsible for the outcomes in one’s life, is there any other agent at work?

* If one takes steps to manage positive future outcome, what is the relationship between time, space, other reality and outcome designers, present and past actions and the eventual realization of outcome goals?

* What steps might be taken to avoid events emerging from non-omniscience and unexpected consequences of reality formation and outcomes?

* What are the ethics and responsibilities that result from reality formation?

* What is the relationship between individual beings creating reality and any supernatural beings or divinity/ies?

* What is the place of “randomness” in a perspective that embraces reality formation or 100% responsibility for outcomes?

* What happens when two beings directly attempt to create opposing realities?

* If everything that one experiences is personally created, possibly prior to birth or even in previous existences, does this form a new sort of determinism in which one does not have the free will to escape those previous choices put in place?

* If each of us is 100% responsible for our outcomes, and each individually creates reality, can anyone or anything else really exist, and if so, are there multiple realities in which they and we exist; and, are those realities layered, interwoven, independent or co-created?

As I said above, philosophical and religious metaphysical questions about existence and transcendent realities do not easily lend themselves to empirical scrutiny but do easily provoke skepticism and even disdain, as do the efforts of mystics to explore these questions within the context of their various “parent” religions.

When attempts to explain these questions have given rise to different answers, a clash resulted (and still results) not only in the disputes of ideas but in more dramatic conflicts including acts of war, genocide, and localized attempts to eliminate alternative views (Joan of Arc, Hypatia).

Hypatia of Alexandria died in 415 CE. By 450 CE, the “light” of any open, non-Christian approach to metaphysical inquiries was almost entirely extinguished. The concept of heresy and similar restrictions became increasingly prevalent. Medieval Christian philosophy was largely disengaged from the political and cultural currents of the time, so it is significant that so much intellectual energy continued to go into addressing issues of faith.

Medieval Mind

Western medieval philosophy is an often-overlooked period that basically acts as a bridge between ancient thinking and the modern era, stretching as it does from the Classical period to the Enlightenment. During the Middle Ages (cerca 450–1500 BCE) in the Western world, the primary philosophical pursuits revolved around attempts of Christian leaders to reconcile Christian ideology and religious practices with Classical philosophy and Hellenic and Hellenistic ideas.

Particularly focusing upon the ideas of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, medieval Christians attempted to apply their methodologies to Christian theology, probing deeply into the fundamental nature of Christian thought. Primarily, medieval philosophers were interested in methods that would demonstrate ways in which Christianity can be seen as consistent with what can be demonstrated through reason.

As I did with the Classical and Neoplatonic philosphers, I am going to restrict this discussion of Medieval thinkers to avoid remaining forever in a preamble to the analysis of the stated topics of the larger discussion. For the most part, ideas about personal reality formation do not dovetail easily with medieval or Abrahamic-based religious thought. With regard to responsibility for outcome, the Western medieval take on this primarily involved Christian ideas about sin, the avoidance of sin, damnation, and the afterlife.

We have already touched upon Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) who was influenced by Plato’s distinction between the intelligible realm, which is perfect and accessible only by the mind; and the sensible realm, which is imperfect and comprehensible through the senses. Augustine argued that God’s perfection and goodness is equally manifest in both spheres. Augustine’s writings indicate that he did not support the idea of human reality creation (assuming that such creation emerges from our minds). For example in this famous passage from the Confessions he wrote:

“If we both see that what you say is true, and we both see that what I say is true, then where do we see that? Not I in you, nor you in me, but both of us in that unalterable truth that is above our minds.” (XII.xxv.35).

Boethius (c. 476–c. 526) who wrote his influential The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting execution, personified philosophy as a woman who shows him how human freedom and moral responsibility are possible within God’s providential governance of the universe. The Consolation involves a dialectic with the personified Lady, and a good portion of this work touches upon areas related to our inquiry.

“Unlike many modern philosophers, Boethius did not believe that the will can remain free, in the sense needed for attribution of moral responsibility, if it is determined causally. Moreover, Philosophy insists that the causal chain of providence, as worked out in fate, embraces all that happens. In V.1, when Boethius asks about chance, Philosophy explains that events are said to happen by chance when they are the result of a chain of causes which is unintended or unexpected, as when someone is digging in a field for vegetables and finds a buried treasure. Philosophy’s solution is to argue (V.2) that rational acts of volition, unlike all external events, do not themselves belong to the causal chain of fate. This freedom, however, is enjoyed only by ‘the divine and supernal substances’ and by human beings engaged in the contemplation of God. It is reduced and lost as humans give their attentions to worldly things and allow themselves to be swayed by the passions.”

— taken from Boethius entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The dominant Classical influence on medieval philosophers remained the works of Plato until the 13th century, when the translation of most of Aristotle’s works into Latin offered a potent and divisive tool for systematizing Christian thinking. The philosophers below engaged primarily with this new trend.

Bonaventure (1217–74) was willing to borrow Aristotle’s teachings when he found them useful, as in his account of theoretical knowledge; but he rejected Aristotle’s view that the world has always existed and argued passionately against what he took to be excessive enthusiasm for Aristotle. He did say that:

“Things have existence in the mind, in their own nature (proprio genere), and in the eternal art. So the truth of things as they are in the mind or in their own nature — given that both are changeable — is sufficient for the soul to have certain knowledge only if the soul somehow reaches things as they are in the eternal art”

–De Scientia Christi

This idea may impact our two axioms, if we posit that our own souls can be creative at the level of reality formation in “an eternal art” emerging after we “reach things as they are”.

Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) used the works of Aristotle as his primary philosophical inspiration, developing arguments for the existence of God as well as an account of the powers and limits of human reason in knowing God. Aquinas wrote that humanity’s goal is union with the loving will of God. He wrote that this was achieved through a “beatific vision” in which one comes into direct contact with the essence of God. This direct contact results in a perfect eternal joy and is achieved after death by those who have been redeemed by Christ while yet alive.

This goal of union with God through a beatific vision is significant for those yet alive, as Aquinas pointed out that will must be directed towards virtues such as holiness and charity. This can be seen as Aquinas’ take on reality formation and positive outcome. By ordering a moral life in quest of happiness through union with God, Aquinas argued that “The relationship between will and goal is antecedent in nature ‘because rectitude of the will consists in being duly ordered to the last end [that is, the beatific vision].’ Those who truly seek to understand and see God will necessarily love what God loves. Such love requires morality and bears fruit in everyday human choices.” (from Wikipedia’s entry on Aquinas )

William of Ockham (c. 1288–1347) is most famous for the principle called “Ockham’s razor,” which gives preference to simplicity in explanations. His tenacity in using this principle led to a breakdown in a  harmonious relationship between theology and philosophy as envisioned by Aquinas. An important contribution of William of Ockham to our topic lies in his argument that while human beings have a natural orientation towards their own ultimate good, this orientation does not restrict their will.

Like Aristotle and Aquinas, Ockham believed that humans can choose the means to achieve their ultimate good. The natural orientation and tendency toward that good is built in; this is inescapable. However, Ockham breaks with Aquinas in his argument that humans still have the will and choice as to whether or not they will act to achieve this orientation. They can choose to take no action, and even to act directly against their own good. Humans then, can knowingly choose evil.

By the end of Ockham’s life Aristotelianism was waning quickly. Within a generation, a new Renaissance examination of Platonism was blossoming and pervasive. As a result, the medieval philosophical era both began and ended with variations on a Platonic worldview.

Next time: I drink, therefore I am. (Just kidding!)

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt.4-Magic 299-Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

Wow! This Has Been Getting Interesting!

I’ve been working  for awhile now on this project. I don’t think I realized how interesting it would be for me personally to approach the wide-ranging material on Classical Western philosophy with a specific focus and intent rather than considering it more broadly. I find myself following tangential informational paths of interest, and then having to reel myself back in to seek the specific threads that relate to the two axioms that prompted this exploration. I have been spending my early mornings, some of my lunches and most of my nights and weekends in a sea of amazing ancient writings, thoughts and information.

When I began this project it was almost on a whim that grew out of a periodic “pet peeve” I have with credulity, blanket statements, and claims about “truth” or “what is”. I had also noticed a general tendency among many modern Pagans and New Age thinkers to base their actions, including spiritual, religious, and magical practices, upon a cluster of significant ideas without necessarily knowing where those ideas come from. I realized that we can use a pen without knowing how ink is made; we can type on our computers without needing any understanding of motherboards and electrons, but I also knew that information specific to an understanding of where our ideas come from can be enriching and powerful. I also knew that I was uncomfortable with the two axioms I’ve chosen to explore here, again, these are: the belief or assertion that we “create our own realities” and the claim that each individual is 100% responsible for all occurrences in their lives. I even knew, albeit rather foggily, why I had these concerns, and I had some unrefreshed memory about where the ideas come from, possible alternative interpretations, useful aspects in spiritual or magical practice, and risks and logical fallacies. However, as I said this understanding was “foggy” and the context was “unrefreshed”. Cleaning the philosophical spectacles has been very inspiring.

What’s personally been really entertaining is the focused revisiting and the discovery of new ( to me) information about early metaphysical and Pagan philosophy. I have to say, I’m loving it. Philo Sophia.


At the same time, part of me is feeling impatient–I know I need to get the underlying and foundational ideas out there and into some sort of perspective before I can begin to really think about and discuss aspects of these two axioms, but I keep wanting to jump ahead to the analysis and I haven’t even gotten out of the Classical era yet. And there are all those German philosophers who weighed in on this, and then there are the more recent roots of modern esoteric thought! However, I will keep plugging away at this, get the hereditary roots of magical philosophy onto the page and then, I get the feeling I’ll have a wild adventure synthesizing the meanings.

So, without further ado, the next installment:

Neoplatonism and the Rise of Christianity

This post is the fourth in a discussion and criticism of the roots, context, spiritual and philosophical significance of the widespread related axioms of reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities” and “responsibility assumption”, or the belief that all individuals are 100% personally responsible for what happens in their lives. I will again provide links for further detail from Wikipedia and elsewhere.

The previous post examined later Hellenic and Hellenistic Classical thinking that can be seen as related in a foundational manner to our two topics, particularly looking at Stoicism and Skepticism. Towards the later period in question, the rise of Christianity in Rome dramatically impacted the previously poly- and pantheistic Western perspectives.

was last in the line of Classical Pagan philosophies. Synthesizing the work of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the esoteric interpretations of classical Hellenic mathematics and practices from Pythagoras, Neoplatonic thought blended philosophical, mythical and metaphysical concepts and served as a last bastion of Hellenic Paganism during the rise of an increasingly hostile monotheistic and Christian dominance. Neoplatonic thought can be seen as not just an eclectic approach to Hellenic philosophical concepts but a synthesis of many of the most important ideas. Aristotle’s logic and philosophical method are oddly countered by a Skeptism particularly of empirical knowledge. Neoplatonism’s desire to aspire to goodness and virtue through a metaphysical dialectic is derived from Plato’s Socratic Dialogs. Neoplatonic thought also draws from Stoic ethics while sharing the Stoic perspective of the action of the Divine in Nature as well as Stoic interpretations of the origin of matter. Neoplatonic thought is important to a discussion of the roots of our two axioms of reality formation and 100% personal responsibility for outcomes in our lives, partly because of ways in which Neoplatonism informed the much later development of Theosophy which will be addressed in another post. Of specific importance to modern ideas about reality formation and personal responsibility for individual outcomes are the Neoplatonic ideas about the relationship of the Soul to extrinsic reality.

A critical Neoplatonic voice is that of Plotinus who felt that engaging in a dialectic allows the Soul to discover its status as an intimate governor of Nature. Plotinus discusses the relation of the individual soul to the All-Soul. He describes the individual soul as independent of the highest Soul to demonstrate how the forgetful soul can fall into an illusion of separation. In The Enneads however he specifically insists that the individual soul and the All-Soul are one and that Nature is the Soul’s expressive act. Plotinus posited that the Universe is an analogue of the experience of the Soul, and he developed a system by which the Soul naturally comes to know itself in relation to its acts, which results in the attainment of full self-consciousness.

Specifically, it is in Neoplatonism that we see an effort to clarify how individual souls can directly engage with Nature through dialectic. While some believed that is impossible to understand Divine Nature through reason, and the soul is therefore not capable of rising to a Platonic goal of perfect knowledge beyond change, Neoplatonic thinkers posited that it is through the dialectic that the soul attempts to recover from its forgetfulness of Divinity and once again know reality.

“God is not external to anyone, but is present within all things, though they are ignorant that he is so.” –Plotinus

Specifically, Plotinus’ description of the Soul as an essentially creative being which understands existence on its own terms, is of importance to the development of the axioms in question. It is clear that early ideas about reality formation are best expressed in Neoplatonic ideas such as that of Proclus who in Platonic Theology III stated that:

 “The thought of every man is identical with the existence of every man, and each is both the thought and the existence”.

The origins of Neoplatonism can be traced back to the era of Hellenistic syncretism which also spawned such movements and schools of thought as Gnosticism and the Hermetic tradition. A major factor in this syncretism, and one which had an immense influence on the development of Platonic thought, was the introduction of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek intellectual circles via the translation known as the Septuagint. The encounter between the creation narrative of Genesis and the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus  set in motion a long tradition of cosmological theorizing.

Because this “Magic 299” discussion takes as its particular focus the philosophical context for modern eclectic and primarily non-montheistic individuals in the Neo-Pagan, Magical, New Age and Gaian communities, I am not going to spend a lot of time exploring monotheistic viewpoints unless they directly contribute to either of the two axioms in question. For those interested in that there’s a ton of information out there from Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious thinkers and teachers. A good place to start for those who do wish to explore the dominant religious viewpoints is the Pacific School of Religion. I will touch upon Western and Middle Eastern philosophies from around the time of the spread of Christianity that specifically contribute to or shed light upon the two axioms in question.

I closed Part Three with the following sentence:

“As skepticism influenced nearly all other Greek philosophies, Hellenic and later Roman philosophies came to take it for granted that certain knowledge is impossible and they turned to focus upon that knowledge which could be deemed to be true most of the time.”

While I just said above that I am not going to be spending a lot of time on monotheistic perspectives, there is an important issue that applies here. It also allows for a transition from the Paleo-pagan and Neoplatonic thought to later contributions to our topic.

Specifically, I want to talk about how early Christian thought drew upon or rejected the two schools of thought I discussed in part three. Much of the history of early Christian philosophy is an attempt to superimpose the new religion over Greek and Roman philosophical methods which had increasingly embraced Stoicism and Skepticism and the related idea of probable knowledge and uncertainty.

Early Roman Christians faced a dilemma as Christian philosophy was far more concerned with, and even demanded, an absolute and certain knowledge of the divine and of Christian ethical precepts, and this perspective directly contradicts Hellenic and Hellenistic ideas about probable knowledge. It became increasingly important to distinguish between “the true religion” and ideas rooted in various Pagan philosophies. One of the original Christian “missionaries”, Paul of Tarsus, addressed this problem by claiming that he was spreading the knowledge of God, while the knowledge of the Hellenes was “human knowledge” and therefore the knowledge of fools. Christian knowledge, which rejects the human reasoning which might lead to skepticism, was described as the wise knowledge. This approach resulted in Christianity taking a strong anti-rational position from its inception.

The Christians were competing however with a very well-established and powerful cluster of beliefs and philosophies. As with the destruction, usurpation and re-purposing of Pagan sculpture, art, architecture and temples, what early Christians could not destroy they chose to preempt. Much of the history of early Christian theology and philosophy is therefore an attempt to superimpose the new religion over Greek and Roman philosophical methods which were based on Skepticism and probable knowledge.

So early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and Boethius adapted some of the Aristotelian, Platonic, and Stoic traditions of Greece and Rome to demonstrate that one could in fact arrive at certain knowledge, at least in matters of Christian religion and divinity.

While Stoicism was regarded by Christians as a pagan philosophy, nonetheless, they did “retool” certain important  terms from that philosophical viewpoint. This includes the use of language such as “virtue “, “spirit “, “conscience ” and “logos “. Additionally, the Christians did not simply borrow a useful terminology from the Stoics. They also embraced and created a synchretic religious perspective based upon shared philosophical beliefs such as the Stoic and Christian concept of an intrinsic free will in the face of extrinsic reality, assertions of a human kinship with God, and a belief in the innate weakness or “evil” of mankind. Both Stoicism and Christianity also advocated restraint of the passions and the “lower” emotions so that human potential could be developed.

This idea of “working on oneself for spiritual betterment” is also tied to modern ideas of personal responsibility and reality formation.

“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown from his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow or beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine” –Plotinus

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies–Pt. 3

More Hellenic and Hellenistic Contexts for Responsibility & Reality Formation

This post is the third in a discussion and criticism of the roots, context, spiritual and philosophical significance of the widespread related axioms of reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities” and “responsibility assumption”, or the belief that all individuals are 100% personally responsible for what happens in their lives.

The previous post examined early Classical thinking that is foundational to the question, this post will discuss some slightly more recent Hellenic thinking that also relates. Again, I will provide jump off links from Wikipedia and other useful sites for readers who may wish to explore aspects of these topics in greater detail.

The previous post touched upon intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of our perceptions of cause and reality. Plato placed knowledge in thought, and reality, therefore, in the ideal form. There is a reasonable tendency to perceive an inner and an outer reality, a reality of what is sensed externally–physical reality–and an inner reality of thoughts and feelings. It is not surprising that we conflate extrinsic, or physical reality with the intrinsic consciousness that experiences it. It is also not surprising that over the millennia we have attempted to reconcile deterministic ideas with free will and have argued over both the teleological and causal meanings of the conclusions we draw from our experiences.

In Western Classical thought regarding this, the Stoics directly explored the relationship between free will and determinism finding that the most desirable path is one that incorporates will that acts in accordance with laws of Nature. Philosophy then, became practice.

Of course, in order to act in accordance with Nature’s laws, one would have to know what they are. This would, the Stoics taught, require one to develop logic, ethics, and self control to bring negative thoughts and emotions under control and allow for accurate perception and interpretation of logos, or the divine animating principle pervading the Universe.

This divine animating principle of logos (which also to the ancient Greek meant language and reason) was seen to be a primordial and material element of fire. This tangible, material flame of being was combined by the Stoics with Hellenic pantheistic ideas and the fire came to be seen as an expression of a primal and causal divinity. All things were seen to be composed of this divine flame including the human soul.

At the same time, the Stoics saw this Divinity as reason. Reason was seen as the expression of the Divine Fire, or in other words the Fire is a rational element. Extrapolating from this pervasive divine reason, the Stoics determined that there is a harmonious, divine order and purpose to the universe and that this design is embodied in an absolute law of Nature. The Stoics therefore came down on the side of determinism over free will. Our acts may be chosen and voluntary but they are governed by a necessity born in Divine Nature.

Stoic ethics then, are composed of two principles:

One, that there are no exceptions to the governing Law of the Universe;
Two, that human nature is based in reason.

These principles are both articulated in the important Stoic maxim: “Live according to Nature.” This was seen to mean that humans should conform themselves to the laws of the universe and learn to pay attention to and act upon their own essential nature to be found in and through reason.

An important stoic contribution to ethics and to our ultimate topic of personal responsibility and reality formation can be found in the Stoic belief that it is an individual’s responsibility to be virtuous and that this virtue arises out of reason in harmony with Nature.

In criticisms of stoicism we can also find ideas that will be of use later in our discussion of reality formation and personal responsibility.

One problem with Stoicism involves the logical paradox to be found in their concepts of free will and determinism particularly when expressed in terms of a belief in predestination. If all is predestined then arguments to personally develop or to cultivate indifference seems paradoxical.

Another problem can be found in the question of the social consequences of a widespread Stoic encouragement of a cultivated indifference and a concern that such indifference defies reason. Indifference if practiced widely would appear heartless: a father would not appear affected by death of his child, and for all of us to encourage within ourselves an apparent uncaring, even sociopathic callousness seems paradoxical with what we see in natural law. A likely outcome might be an apathetic approach to life which might manifest in neglect of family or social responsibility. It is often because we love and care and suffer when we see others suffer that we are motivated to take action to protect ourselves and others.

There is some indication in Stoic texts which suggest that the Stoics did attempt to address the paradoxical conflict between a deterministic universal causality and free will. There is an excellent discussion that delves more deeply into these issues and Stoic ethics and philosophy of mind at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . They point to the following texts which indicate a mitigated or “soft” determinism:

“Chrysippus used the illustration of a cylinder rolling down a hill as an analogy for actions that are within our control (Cicero and Gellius, 62C-D). It is true that the force that starts its motion is external to it. This is analogous to the impressions we have of the world. But it rolls because of its shape. This is analogous to our moral character. When our actions are mediated by our characters, then they are ‘up to us’. Thus, if I see an unattended sandwich and, because I am a dishonest person, steal it, then this is up to me and I am responsible. All things come about by fate but this is brought about by fate through me(Alex. Aphr. 62G). When, however, I trip and fall, knocking your sandwich to the floor, this is not up to me. The chain of causes and effects does not flow through my beliefs and desires.”

This analysis is also important in our later consideration of ideas about total personal responsibility for all outcomes.

There were also contemporary criticisms of Stoic philosophy. A great examination of this and of Stoicism in general can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which points to the arguments of Galen, Posidonius, and Cicero:

“The medical writer and philosopher Galen defended the Platonic account of emotions as a product of an irrational part of the soul. Posidonius, a 1st c. BCE Stoic… (criticized) …the psychology of emotions, and developed a position that recognized the influence in the mind of something like Plato’s irrational soul-parts. The other opposition to the Stoic doctrine came from philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition. They,like the Stoics, made judgment a component in emotions. But they argued that the happy life required the moderation of the passions, not their complete extinction. Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, books III and IV take up the question of whether itis possible and desirable to rid oneself of the emotions.”

Disputes over knowledge and truth in ethics and philosophy gave birth to the Skeptic tradition (Stanford Encyclopedia discusses Skepticism here and Wikipedia’s entry is here. The Skeptic tradition can be traced back to Pyrrho of Elis who found himself frustrated and overwhelmed by the attempt to sort out rationally which school of thought had the right approach. Developing  distrust of the lofty and complicated language involved in trying to understand issues of causation Skeptics decided to drop the nonsense and advocate instead the seeking of ataraxia, or peace of mind. They claimed that as it did not appear to matter whether you believed in a particular tradition or not, as people who were unaware of the disputes appeared to get along quite well without knowing the details about them. They also pointed out that faith and belief in intelligible realities is not required in order for them to “work” and that as it is impossible to directly perceive causation or purpose, it was therefore a waste of time to try.

There are two basic precepts that arose out of this thinking: that there is no such thing as certainty in human knowledge, and that all human knowledge is only probably true, that is, it might not be true, or it might be true much of the time, but not always.

As skepticism influenced nearly all other Greek philosophies, Hellenic and later Roman philosophies came to take it for granted that certain knowledge is impossible and they turned to focus upon that knowledge which could be deemed to be true most of the time.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.