Getting Axial: Magic, Spirits, Responsibility

This is one of those posts that started forming a few days ago and crystallized in response to this post of Andrew’s and this one of Chris Knowles. It’s the post about what it means if we take seriously the ideas that (1) we are constituted by a network of souls, only one of which is properly ‘our’ own, and (2) that what we do in undertaking magical work is open ourselves to a series of engagements with these other souls.

Let me flag my big bias from the outset: I tend toward spirit-first accounts, emphasizing that conceptual models are secondary developments in spirit communication. This is a bit tricky, because ‘spirit-first’ is itself a conceptual model and talking about ‘spirits’ can lead us into overly anthropomorphic accounts of them. Spirits aren’t exactly people (if I haven’t said this before, I think most of our accounts of flesh and blood people are too anthropomorphic). But tricky is where most interesting things live, so I’m okay with that.

Planetary intelligences, human intelligences, the grubby black soul that nestles against your liver, the half-formed ghost reflex haunting your dream, are to my mind more alike than they are different. They are defined by a tendency to fall into patterns of response with each other, patterns of response that can be sensibly compared to those that structure ecosystems.

This leads to a similar phenomenon: mimesis. The realm of manifestation is the realm into which we project our being and it is always already-determined by past patterns, patterns that limit our capacity to act. When patterns of action are adjusted to that, though, the results are more potent, because they ripple more easily through the entire pre-existent pattern. They are limited but more potent.

To exploit that potency, manifestation has to adapt itself to that pattern and that leads us to mirror play. Because we identify with that, it is easy to lose ourselves in the play of manifestation and mistake the results rippling through creation with the dense and mysterious being that we are. The often-lambasted Calvinist insecurity about the state of their soul seems well-founded, even if the theological apparatus of providence seems like an over-determined and reactive response to that insecurity.

What I would rather see enshrined is a profound sense of ethical responsibility to one’s soul. It is precisely that which I think forms the heart of the Axial Age revolution, that you are responsible and that the way you manage your responsibility ripples outward through creation and inward to modulate your most secret and true being.

Andrew’s response to astrology in the post linked to above seems like the right response to Knowles complaint about the Armstrongs of the world. The be-here and be-good push of the Armstrongs isn’t just pabulum, but it doesn’t overwrite the magical dimension of life. Quite the opposite, it is the stuff of a magical life, it’s animating concern. Beneath the question of what you do in response to the magical situation is the question of what you ought to do. The most pragmatic and business-minded curse dealer and breaker has made a series of decisions about that, in the same way as the most mystical and starry-eyed mystic.

Folks want easy guidelines for that, but it comes down to the heart of hearts, an inescapably personal decision. I firmly believe that the heart of hearts is personal, that what is a right decision for one person may not be the same right decision as another. One person’s chose of mysticism may be the most dissolute corruption, while another’s the crown of their soul and spirit. One person’s mercenary black magic may enrich their soul, while another’s cracks the foundations of their heart’s health.

There is another dimension to this, one that is more gnostic. The souls that surround us are on their own path and undertaking their own work, but they will often come to resemble us in ways that allow us to confuse them with our own being. Large swathes of religious practice are directed at these beings, not our own soul. The axial revolution against idolatry was in part a necessary excess to clear away practices that promised personal transformation but were, in fact, aimed primarily at one of our fellow traveler souls. The angel and demon are  not us, even when they come to wear our visage. Some of the things that return to us with a friend’s face, are not that friend but the reflexive mask of a spirit that has long lived with them.

Here, again, idolatry, right? Except there should be an ‘after’ to the initial excess of anti-idolatry that empties out the spirits from the rosters to honored. It’s a bit like the aftermath of teenage rebellion. Ideally, once you’ve gone a little too far, you come back closer to home with a better sense of who you are. The spirits we travel with, we live with, aren’t going to go away even if we shut our ears to them. At some point, we ought to open our ears and start talking again, this time with a better sense of who we are and what we need.

There isn’t one way to answer the call to responsibility. It is personal, but once we acknowledge it, it tends to implicate us in the broader world in a difficult to define and sticky fashion. It challenges us to both redraw our boundaries and to affirm them, t o prioritize and struggle with the necessary failures that will ensue. How much do we give, how much do we take? To whom and from whom?

I probably have more to say in this vein.

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