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When I tell people that I’m a historian of the occult — and that I’m personally a seeker into occult and esoteric questions — I receive strange looks. “I think of the occult as evil,” a home contractor, eyeing my bookshelf, once told me. In one of my favorite New Age shops in Salem, Massachusetts, I once overheard a mom dissuading her daughter from buying a pentagram necklace on account of it being “evil.”
Is that a fair attitude? The famed British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) freely called himself the “Great Beast.” (Try explaining that to a jaundice-eyed cable television producer.) In the occult flowering of the late 1960s, organizations such as Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan and the neo-fascistic Process Church flourished. Ouija boards were said to channel demons, and Time infamously asked, “Is God Dead?” (A cover that produced a memorable moment from Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby — itself adjunctly timed to the murderous apocalysm of Charles Manson.) One of the most popular expository books of the era, to which I’ve written a new introduction, was historian Richard Cavendish’s broodingly titled The Black Arts.
Is the occult somehow inextricably bound to the sinister? For me, the answer is both easy — no — and more complex than a simple yay or nay.
First of all, the term “occult” is simply a Latin-derived word for “hidden” or “unseen.” It was adopted by Renaissance scholars and translators who were looking for a way of referring to the rediscovered spirituality of the ancient world, particularly the rites, rituals, and initiatory religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Occult revivalists of the Renaissance, and much less so their antecedents in the antique world, in no way conceived of themselves as sinister.
Belief in the occult simply means belief in an unseen dimension of life whose comprehensive forces can be felt on and through us — the rub is that this search usually occurs outside the parameters of a traditional faith. Hence, some religionists historically look suspiciously upon off-the-grid seekers. (But not all — one of the most stirring considerations of the Hermetic images of the tarot deck came from conservative Catholic thinker Valentin Tomberg in his anonymously written 20th-century classic, Meditations on the Tarot.)
As I wrote in my new introduction to The Black Arts:
[W]e are not very different from the classical magician when we strive, morally and materially, to carry forth our plans in the world — to ensure the betterment of ourselves and our loved ones; to heal sickness; to create, sustain, and, above all, to generate things which bear our markings, ideals, and likenesses. All of this is the expenditure of power, the striving to physically establish our inner drives and images.
I do not view the search for individual power, including through supernatural means, as necessarily maleficent, and neither, I think, did Cavendish. Historically and psychologically, it is a fundamental human trait to evaluate, adopt, or avoid an idea based upon whether it builds or depletes our sense of personal agency. “A living thing,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power…” The difficulty is in making our choices wisely.
We sometimes deny or overlook this power-seeking impulse in ourselves, associating it with the tragic fate of Faust or Lady Macbeth. It can be argued, however, that all of our neuroses and feelings of chronic despair, aside from those with identifiably biological causes, grow from the frustrated expression of personal power. We may spend a lifetime (and countless therapy sessions) ascribing our problems to other, more secondary phenomena — without realizing that, as naturally as a bird is drawn to the dips and flows of air currents, we are in the perpetual act of trying to forge, create, and sustain, much like the ancient alchemist or wizard.
And yet here emerges an ethical quandary. The great power of the mainstream faiths — and one that I believe was manifestly absent from the worldview of magician and provocateur Crowley — is a finely developed set of earthly ethics.
The injunctions of responsibility toward others found in the Beatitudes, the cause-and-effect nature of our personal interactions emphasized by the Talmud, the karmic scales noted in Vedic and Buddhist thought, and injunctions to charity found in Islam — these are vital guardrails for human interaction. I often tell people that if you are going to venture on an occult or esoteric journey, it is crucial to have a historic religious or ethical teaching at your back. Otherwise, you can very easily get lost. If someone asked me what book he should carry on a venture into the mists, I would probably say get a copy of The Jefferson Bible, the founder’s abridgment of the ethical teachings of Christ, which I narrated for Penguin and read nightly to my own kids.
Freemasonry and New Thought — the principle that thoughts are causative — are wonderful examples of universalist, occult-themed teachings that also comport with karmic spirituality and golden-rule ethics. Although Crowley (who was actually teasing Victorian Bible-thumpers with his “Great Beast” line) and some of the seemingly darker expressions of occult philosophy are more aesthetically alluring and even sometimes more intellectually developed than say, New Thought, I opt for teachings that mesh with the Beatitudes.
So, is there evil in our world? Yes. But it hardly comes from cloaked figures in a star chamber somewhere (sorry, Alex Jones) — and certainly not from modern Wiccans celebrating winter solstice. Wiccans and neo-pagans are more likely, in outer life, to be librarians, Army officers, and supply managers, and good ones at that. Rather, evil dwells inside a gray cubicle, decorated perhaps with school drawings of rainbows and class photos, where a customer service rep denies your health care claim because someone discovered that a fraction of filers of denied, deferred, or “lost” claims will often just go away.
The occult is no more evil than human nature itself. And, as with any vehicle of life, whether religious, commercial, or martial, it all depends on what you do with it.