A comment from Blogos on a recent post leads in useful directions. If we take seriously that one of the most basic and profound magical achievements is the realization of your individuality in the full context of your life and lineage, how ought we to approach the challenge of a magical education?
There’s no one answer to this precisely because we don’t have the same needs; that is what it means to assert the primacy of our individuality. What we can do is talk about the sorts of risks and opportunities inherent in different strategies. I am going to take for granted that we can distinguish broad patterns of character, even if each expression of that character is as unique as each life (which is to say, it is both unique and similar to other lives).
I want to start in on that by contemplating some different models for that education, no more than one model to a post. First up, the discussion of Crowley’s suggestion of a natural grade mentioned in that comment.
A grade is term familiar to most of us in the developed world since it forms the basis of our contemporary educational system. The reasoning behind it is direct. Each grade builds upon the knowledge and skills cultivated by the previous grade. Lower grades provide basic concepts and skills that higher grades will develop into complex expertise. In this case, Crowley is talking about esoteric Masonic grades which ideally do something similar. In Crowley’s discussion, though, it does more than that.
Going back at least as far as the Mithraic cults, there have been esoteric initiatory societies that linked these grades of skill with key elements of the system itself, for example associating the highest grade of the Mithraic cult with Saturn. This practice serves a clear educational function to the novitiate. If Saturn gives its name to the highest grade, it should come as no surprise that the novitiate will intuit that the cult gives pride of place to Saturn in its spiritual system as well.
In order for Crowley’s talk of a natural grade to make sense, the grades must indicate more than the conceptual prominence of that which gives the grade its name. The grade’s course of education must itself be tightly linked to the spiritual potency from which the grade derives its name. The mysteries that those entering the grade of Saturn study must themselves provide the student with special intimacy with Saturn.
For each person to have a natural grade, it must also be true that each of the mysteries attached to the grade are connected to a potency that shapes and gives birth to specific sorts of human temperaments. If this is true, then the study of the grades is a study of the sorts of people that exist, their particular strengths and weaknesses. What you come out of the other side of the work with is a sense of people and of how to regulate them.
This is the dream of Plato’s Republic.
For a natural grade to be anything more than loose metaphor, a ‘grade’ must indicate a strict correspondence of a course of study, astral potencies, and personal temperament. If any of those correspondences fail, then the utility of the natural grade concept collapses.
Teach someone to do everything, make them undergo work suited to every temperament. While the course of study is standard, at its conclusion the student should be able to reflect upon the course and determine their own character from their experiences within the course. What’s more, they should have the tools to counterbalance some of the inadequacies of their character using tools from the other grades.
This is the occult Masonic model par excellance and hence when Crowley talks about ‘natural grades,’ that . Because one passes from lower to higher grades, this model tends to come with some baked in hierarchy, which the natural grade talk can sometimes turn toward authoritarian ends.
The problem is that I am not sure there is enough to correspondence between the educational grades, spiritual potencies, and personal temperaments in most Masonic-style educational systems for the natural grades to be a practical concept. The work being done over on Hermetic Lessons forms part of an effort to restore the connection between potency and temperament, but I wonder if the criticisms leveled there against the Western Mystery Tradition as it currently stands might be taken further to suggest the impracticality of joining those too tightly to a course of study intended for a community. If there are real characters and the grades poorly express the talents of them, then a system of natural grades mutilates self-understanding rather than facilitates it.
There is more to consider before we could say that with any certainty. Just because one grade system does poorly, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a grade driven system which couldn’t do better. I personally suspect, though, that the grade-temperament-potency link is inherently problematic and needs rethinking.