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Monday, May 11, 2015

I'm with the alchemist

A couple days ago a friend of mine posted a link with the title “3 Ways to Become a 'Magician' by a 16th Century Alchemist”. I was pretty intrigued as he's a pretty solid magician with experience in a lot of traditional stuff. On top of that, I am pretty into alchemy, so a pre-occult revival perspective on what it takes to be a magician from an alchemist seemed like the coolest thing someone could be linking to.

I clicked the link, and it was on Ultraculture. I was pretty puzzled because they seemed to be a popular chaos magic forum, and 16th century alchemists definitely don't fit the bill there.

Well, on reading it, it became clear that the material was great, but the site was kind of punking it. They acknowledge that Giambattista della Porta was one of the best and most highly regarded magicians of his time, and they present his ideas, but it's within the article they refer to the magicians of the time as “one percenters” and reference the ideal described by della Porta as “magocracy” and refer to him as a “magocrat” and then point to historians looking at other views of magic at the time. So, they weren't directly mocking what he said, but they definitely present it in a context of derision. Even so, I thought there was value in della Porta's material.

I think that the elements of what makes a magician is something we over look a lot in magical culture. We talk about how to do magic. Sometimes good writers talk about philosophy and theory. Dime a dozen writers talk about ethical rules. But qualifications and character aren't things we look at. I think character is pretty important to consider, and there are definitely magical elements associated with character and power that can be derived from the substantive force of character. But Giambattista della Porta's take on things is about qualifications.

People avoid talking about qualifications because if we have them, then there are people who won't make the cut. Most people don't want to be the unpopular guy who cuts people from the team, but more so you don't want to be the guy who no one reads because you told them they don't make the cut. In the end though I think the big fear of qualifications is if we accept they exist maybe we won't make the cut.

I'd say, it's ok not to make the cut. Not everyone needs to be a magician. Not meeting someone's qualification as a magician doesn't preclude people from doing the occasional magic either. But, for people who want to solidly, truly, and thoroughly be a magician, some concept of what qualifies a person as such can be an inspiration or a guide for how to develop oneself.

In my own development there were a lot of ideas that people I respected imparted to me when I was a kid about what disciplines I needed to apprehend in order to truly be a magician. I took those to heart, and they helped guide me as I made choices about what to learn and do in life. Not meeting all those “qualifications” not having all the skills, and knowledge, doesn't necessarily kick us out of the magician club, but it can give us an idea of where to head.

So what were della Porta's criteria?

I'm not quoting, I'm just going to summarize.

1. A magician must be a natural philosopher (skilled in the natural sciences).
2. The magician must be a physician (skilled in physiology and chemistry)
3. The magician must be wealthy

When looking at these ideas we have to look at what the world was like at the time. The first two items are basically just presuming that the individual is educated. Specialized education is pretty modern. When della Porta was writing an educated man would automatically be educated in these topics. Engaging in magic and alchemy was similarly something that would not have been atypical for those of the leisure classes. These activities were viewed as an extension of science, an additional way to explore the world more deeply and gain knowledge that was beyond the science of the times.

Magic today fits into a different place in our culture. We have a wider array of subjects to learn and understand. Knowledge is more specialized because there is simply so much more of it. Science probes so much more deeply and has told us so much more about our world, our bodies, and our universe. So magic gets lumped in with religion, in a time where both are relegated more and more to niche parts of the populace. So if magic is not simply the crown of a liberal arts education do these criteria still make sense?

Well, regarding the natural sciences, if we look at Agrippa, and the grimoires, and the old alchemical manuscripts it is absolutely necessary that the magician have some knowledge of astronomy, chemistry, and physics. The magician does not need to be a doctor of such things, or even educated to the point of a bachelors degree in those subjects. That said, a magician will be well served by having at least a high school or undergraduate survey level of education in these disciplines.

Physiology is likely of less importance, but could have value. Beyond physiology a physick of the time would have been educated in herbalism, and rudimentary chemical processes associated with alchemy. Della Porta specifically cites humorism as part of the knowledge a physician would have had. Hermetic science, while it embraced the alchemical philosophies which advanced both alchemy and medicine beyond humorism, elements of humorism still are important to many parts of magic.

Clearly we don't need to all go out an become doctors, but looking at what was meant by the assertion is still useful. I'm not into herbalism, and I wouldn't recommend that anyone need to be unless they really want to commit to thoroughly being educated in it. Still, a magician needs a little rudimentary knowledge of herbalism. Knowing correspondences, knowing what different parts of an herb relate to, knowing how to extract essences, and make tinctures, all of these are part of developing a magical practice. Humorism is important in understanding the processes of manifestation, alchemy, initiation, and hermetic healing.

So for the first two ideas, I would assert that, yeah, definitely, these disciplines, understood in a modern context, are necessary for developing as a magician. Philosophy (including politics, rhetoric, ontology/metaphysics, and ethics), history, and theology would likely have also been part of the education della Porta would have assumed. What we now call psychology wouldn't have quite existed, but its roots would have existed in philosophy and medicine. I think being a complete and successful magician still includes education in these subjects. In fact these subjects may be more obviously necessary for the magician.

Magicians need to understand various cultures, mythologies, and symbols which are often understood through the study of history. Understanding politics and rhetoric helps us with understanding how to think and how to structure and understand ideas. This is important because we deal with a lot of really bizarre concepts and experiences which have to be squared against the observable world. Magic itself is the application of an understanding of the fundamental nature and structure of the universe and the self, and so ontology and metaphysics are absolutely necessary for the magician. I'm not into chaos magic which is often associated with tying psychology to magic, but, before chaos magic, Regardie, Fortune, and even Crowley incorporated a lot of psychology into magic. Magic, again, deals with a lot of bizarre experiences. Understanding how our minds work, how symbols work within the mind, how ritual and various experiences affect us, and how all of these dynamics come into play with how we approach the world and the people around us is necessary to surviving as a magician. As to theology, this might be more controversial, but I think the controversial element of asserting that we have a grounding in theology and theological discourse proves the need for that grounding. There are a lot of ways to understand the divine and divinity, most more advanced magic requires some approach to divinity. That isn't the same as saying it requires believing in a guy up in the sky. The theological elements of magic are much more nuanced and complicated and the relationship between theism and atheism gets very very skewed in a magical context.

Outside of a practical sense, the role of the magician also implies the need for these disciplines. The magician has access to knowledge, power, and insight that others do not. He needs the mental basis to interpret and apply this. He also needs the ability to relate it to the world and communicate it in a way which makes him useful to those around him. Whether we interpret magicians as leaders, or advisers, as gurus or prophets or hermits, the magician is intended to improve the world. That's what the Great Work is. Yeah you have to transmute yourself and reveal your inner awesome, but you contribute to the over all transmutation of the world too, and frequently that's done by impacting other people in the world. These disciplines are necessary to being that person who can encapsulate and communicate that inspiration from beyond.

Nothing about this makes magic unattainable or suggests that magic is a “one percent” activity. Anyone with access to a library, or anyone with intelligence who is paying attention to their high school education can reasonably have a very basic grounding in these subjects. More commonly though this well rounded set of academic disciplines can be attained by meeting the general education requirements of education at most universities. Not really a daunting task.

Now, the part that's easy to say doesn't fit is the having wealth part. Now, Jason Miller, and Rufus Opus have written a lot of great things about how the modern aversion to money associated with magic and spiritual disciplines is a potentially damaging concept. A lot of great magicians these days have put out a lot of great material around prosperity work. There is a clear attachment to Jupiter, and work relating to the sphere of Jupiter amongst many of the leading magicians today. Part of the idea seems to be that if someone gets their finances straight first they'll feel good about their ability to be successful with magic, and in addition to that they'll reduce some of the basic life stresses that distract us from engaging in magic.

I think during della Porta's time there probably was a bit of elitism to this idea, but practically speaking, a poor tradesman would not have had time for a lot of the things that della Porta and his compatriots were doing. So in that vein the logic is similar. Further their experiments involved a lot of stuff. Much of it was expensive, some of it needed to be made by or procured from particular sorts of people. More traditional ceremonial magic today has the same issue. Classical magicians also sometimes needed to employ aids for their work. This part isn't as necessary today. It remains though, having a stable financial basis puts you in a better state for the work, and also affords you the resources needed to obtain materials needed for the work.

So no you don't need to be rich. I won't even say you have to be financially stable, although a ton of people like to repeat “you have to have your Malkhut in order first,” but I will say that it'll be a lot better if you are stable.

Now I think there are other things that go into being a magician, mostly, the magic parts. I also think the discussion of the character of the magician is another important discussion. But all in all, I think the ideas that Ultraculture reported as being proposed by della Porta are pretty useful when examined for what they mean today. It's not some archaic curiosity. It's not some dated elitist sentiment. It's not a look at how magicians of the past equated to the maligned wealthy people of today. Della Porta's ideas are useful, and really still describe a concept of what qualifies someone as a magician which is still relevant for today.