Éliphas Lévi: how a utopian socialist became the West’s greatest occultist

Myth busting my personal heroes on Wikipedia

Reading about Éliphas Lévi. Realized something.

First let me say: I considered him a great, great man during my Great Awakening at 13 because Crowley said so. He was a superhero: a hero of my hero. I saw him as the ultimate authority on the most occult occult secrets and, so, a genius and, so, unreadable, so I never tried.

Again—I considered him the Super Authority, the Teacher’s Teacher. He was like Jimi to Stevie, Dick Smith to Rick Baker, Tim Leary to Robert Anton Wilson, the Source.

So I was warmed to discover that he began as a revolutionary and only chose the path of occult writing (i.e., creative writing of enchanted metaphysics, or anthropomorphic philosophy) as a consolation for failure at making a real difference in the world. You either help change eat world really—i.e., materially—or you write fantasy fiction. Sad.

Highlights of this transition:

  • his name was actually Alphonse Louis Constant
  • was sentenced to an eight-month prison term for publishing the liberation-theological The Bible of Liberty in 1841
  •  was seen as a disciple of the radical neo-Catholic (anti-Rome) Christian socialist Félicité de Lamennais
  •  described himself as communist néo-catholique
  •  propagated socialism as “true Christianity” and denounced the Churches as corruptors of the teachings of Christ
  • then he switched to Fourierism (romantic-agrarian communism)
  • went to prison again for The Voice of Famine in 1846
  • published the euphoric-utopian Testament de la liberté in 1848 that announced the end of the people’s martyrdom and the “resurrection” of Liberty: the perfect universal, socialist order
  • got depressed by the massacres and suppressions on 1848
  • imprisoned again in 1855 for publishing a polemic against Napoleon III, whose Second Empire he originally liked and praised as a bridge to socialism
  • realized, like intelligent American Democrats, that the uneducated people who would benefit most from social democracy are the ones most easily duped to fight against their own best interests by the power of nationalist-racist and other types of compensatory trick politics

So after all this, he retreated to ideas. But unlike Marx, instead of diving into history and looking for laws and forces of social change, Constant turned to Platonic—in this case Kabbalistic—heaven. What is most interesting is that publishing occult articles in a socialist journal was, at the time, normal. This is because the Saint-Simonians faction normalized the notion of top-down and priestly socialism. His first articles were published in 1855.

Priestly socialism, magic, and magnetism

Was Levi the conduit of powerful ancient secrets? No. In fact, his interpretations of medieval magical texts was famously shallow. Why? His real interest was a socialism-under-magnetism, and this colored his reading of primary occult texts.

This was another incarnation of the Universal Science—that is, a totally comprehensive vocabulary that presided over both the mathematical-physical and the poetic-spiritual. Constant developed his notion of Universal Science inside a Fourierist-Swedenborgian context. This was actually en vogue—many agrarian socialists were also Spiritualists. What a great time to live, with such highly educated, pro-science hippies.

1854: Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie

1860: Histoire de la magie

1861: La clef des grands mystères

1865: La science des esprits

1868: Le grand arcane, ou l'occultisme Dévoilé

Then, when the government loosened its restrictions on socialist theorizing 1859, Constant went back to politics!

This all unfolded exactly as Geoffrey Ashe has argued in his monumental Do What You Will (1974). People begin with real struggle. Then, when this fails, the sublimate to imaginary struggle—but with imaginings that are supposed to have real material power by means of magical precipitation. Socialism from above is here taken literally—socialism via manipulation of Platonic forms. Just as Feuerbach had said, religion—and late European occultism is religion for the post-Enlightenment Romantics and other exponents of deep scientism—keeps the hope and desire for freedom and joy alive inside language and image. It is not counterrevolutionary, but revolution-preserving. Occultism is the utopian drive become stoic and patient, but also fortified with uplifting and complex symbolism, where complexity helps to engross the mind and stand in for the recalcitrance of physical reality.

It’s amazing that this played out in the life of one man, credited for the whole occult revival of the 20th century! He was a socialist, turned occultist in despair, turned socialist again:

Magic is the divinity of man conquered by science in union with faith; the true Magi are Men-Gods, in virtue of their intimate union with the divine principle.

Revolution—real vs pretend

People who are sane and decent begin by joining socialist or communist movements. Certain early Christian groups were of this ilk. The vision the motivates someone to do this is valid. The world is, at bottom, human social relations, because the world we inhabit is made by humans, organized and working. How are they organized? How are they working? What is the result? The result is one small group lording it over many, many others. This relationship is one of the things that is reproduced by labor. Humans secrete not only tables and chairs, but also norms and laws of privilege and wealth.

So, when you’re young, your mind is fresh and your spirit is optimistic. You see that 99% of the suffering and ugliness of the world is actively produced by human action. That is to say, it’s optional. If there’s a robot in the nursery that is systematically poisoning the babies, you don’t produce movies or write philosophy that normalizes this. You don’t make a metaphysics that shows how nature produces murderous nursery robots and Our People have done a great job taming them, so that today there are only 1.4 baby poisoning robots per US hospital. No—you see, at a young age, that there should be no baby poisoning robots installed in hospitals.