Monday, September 2, 2013

The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece

Book Review: The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece by Three Initiates (The Yogi Publication Society 1912) (Kindle Edition)

This book first appeared in 1908 and purports to be authentic Hermetic philosophy but according to Wiki it was also based on more modern ideas like the New Thought movement that began in the early 19th century. Similarities to the biblical Book of Proverbs have also been noted. I even thought it sounded a bit Theosophical. In any case it is an intriguing and insightful book with some interesting ideas. It is based on Seven Hermetic Principles or Laws and one can sometimes find these laws referenced in New Age teachings. The principles are mainly of a mental nature and the process involved is often in the book referred to as Mental Alchemy. The style is that of teachings from a Mystery School and is imbued with Platonism. The original source is said to be the mythical Hermes Trismegistus – Thrice Greatest Hermes. Hermes Trismegistus is a composite of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The book has many aphorisms – one well known one in New Age circles is now often stated as: ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear’. The assumption is made that all mystical and occult teachings originally came from Ancient Egypt. There is of course no evidence that this is the case – it is simply lore. Certainly the Hermetic teachers were compilers of teachings and it is said they re-invigorated teachings that may have come from India, Persia, Babylonia, Egypt, and Greece. Astrology and Alchemy are reputed to have come down in a sort of lineage from or through Hermes Trismegistus. The early Jewish and Christian Gnostics also partook of Hermetic teachings. Alexandria, Egypt in the early centuries CE was a melting pot of these ideas along with Neo-Platonism. The basic teaching here – The Kybalion – was said to be a secret but basic set of teachings.

A list of the Seven Principles are as follows:

1)      The Principle of Mentalism “The ALL IS MIND. The Universe is Mental”
2)      The Principle of Correspondence
3)      The Principle of Vibration
4)      The Principle of Polarity
5)      The Principle of Rhythm
6)      The Principle of Cause and Effect
7)      The Principle of Gender


1)      Mentalism  - “The ALL IS MIND. The Universe is Mental” – it is described as an Universal, Infinite, Living Mind. The phenomenal world is thought to be a mental creation of the ALL. They mention that an old Hermetic master wrote: “He who grasps the truth of the Mental Nature of the Universe is well advanced on the Path to Mastery.”

2)      Correspondence – this refers to the principle “as above, so below” in regard to the various planes of Being. They call this a hidden secret of Nature.

3)      Vibration “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.” Such is confirmed by modern physics. Differences in matter, energy, mind, spirit, etc. result from differences in rate of vibration.

4)      Polarity – “Everything is dual”; “opposites are identical in nature but different in degree”; “all truths are but half-truths”; “every truth is half-false.” This is the principle of the inherent dualism of conventional reality. Everything lies along a spectrum, or continuum between two poles. Part of the mental alchemy is altering vibrations via the Art of Polarity – by knowing how and when to reverse polarity.

5)      Rhythm -  “everything has tides; all things rise and fall;” They talk about the “Hermetists” taking advantage of the Mental Law of Neutrality:

“The Master of Hermetics polarizes himself at the point at which he desires to rest, and then neutralizes the Rhythmic swing of the pendulum which would tend to carry him to the other pole. All individuals who have attained any degree of Self-Mastery do this to a certain degree, more or less unconsciously, but the Mater does this consciously, and by the use of his Will, and attains a degree of poise and Mental Firmness ….”


6)      Cause and Effect – “… Chance is but a name for Law not recognized; there are
many planes of causation but nothing escapes the Law.” By being able to rise on the planes one may positively affect theirs and other situations on lower planes.

7)      Gender – “Gender manifests on all planes.” “The Principle of Gender works ever
in the direction of generation, regeneration, and creation.” Curiously, the authors caution against base lustful interpretations of the gender principle – regarding the “ancient infamous forms of Phallicism” as dangerous and perverse. This seems to betray a “Victorian” bias.

Mental transmutation is given as the goal of Hermetic alchemy. Changing the conditions of the universe is given as a goal of this magic as well. It reminds me of the Buddhist notion that to change the mind is to change the world.

That the universe is in flux is revealed as “… nothing really IS, but that everything is BECOMING and CHANGING.” An underlying power or substantial reality that is all appearances and phenomena is assumed – whether called Deity or “The Infinite and Eternal Energy” or in the case of these Hermetists – The ALL. This reminds me of the Monad and/or the Primum Mobil of the Platonists and before and after. The ALL is described as unknowable and impersonal, so this is not Monotheism but more of a Monistic approach. The authors define and praise religion and philosophy as noble but decry Theology and Metaphysics as attributing personal elements to an impersonal idea. I found that a bit odd – but I guess it depends on how one defines such terms. The ALL is defined as all-encompassing, infinite, eternal, and immutable. The ALL cannot be merely matter as matter has been redefined as energy. They are OK with defining the ALL as “Living Mind” – reminds me of the “Mind of God” idea sometimes purported in the Western Esoteric tradition. One may also call it Spirit. Next they confirm this, saying that the Universe is the Mind of the ALL. The creation of the universe by the ALL is compared (in an ‘as above so below’ sense) to the creation of mental images. The latter is the creation of a finite mind while the former is the creation of infinite mind. The ALL is One, ultimately without law or gender, unless it manifests as mind on a lower plane. One may also see it (poetically as they say) as God the Father and Nature/Universe the Mother or as Father-Mother Mind.

Mastery consists of “using the higher forces against the lower – escaping the pains of the lower planes by vibrating on the higher.” The section on distinguishing the Absolute and the Relative is very similar to the “Two Truths” deriving from the Vedas, Upanisads, and Buddhism – that there are these two truths and that the relative dualistic conventional world is illusory from the standpoint of the absolute. Since we are in the infinite mind of the ALL, we are really protected from the fears and anxieties we experience. In the Relative world we cannot escape laws. “The ALL is LAW itself, from which all laws emerge.”

Curiously, they mention Herbert Spencer’s notion that there is “An Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.” They even suggest that Spencer was a reincarnated ancient Egyptian who also incarnated as Heraclitus – so that his philosophy is said to be in line with Hermetic teachings. Indeed, the Greeks and probably the Egyptians, had definite beliefs in reincarnation, though perhaps not entirely identical to those from India.

“While All is in the ALL, it is equally true that THE ALL is in ALL. To him who truly understands this truth hath come great knowledge.”

The second part of that statement seems very similar to holographic theory where each part contains the whole. One might see this as God within, the divine spark, the inner Purusha, Buddha Nature, Indra’s Net, etc. One may also liken it to “immanence” or even animism. Recognizing, realizing, and manifesting the spirit within is said to be the true practice. Returning to the ALL is the goal. Manifestation on lower planes is involution  - akin to the creation of an artist – and returning to the ALL through successively higher planes is evolution. One can see that the reality in this scheme is hierarchical much like the Platonic/Neoplatonic hierarchies where the Many proceed from the One. The universe is said to be the meditation or contemplation of the ALL. Manifestation as this meditation is an outpouring to the grosser matter while evolution is the corresponding indrawing to the subtler spirit – and is the awakening from meditation. This is compared to the inhaling and exhaling of Brahma in the early Indian notions of the cyclic universe. Indeed the final stage of becoming enlightened in the Five Paths description of Buddhism is called the Path of No More Meditation.

 For convenience, according to Hermetic philosophy the universe is divided into three planes: physical, mental, and spiritual. The planes are said to be more a state, or condition than a place but really neither. Again the hierarchy is similar to that perfected by Plotinus, the great neo-Platonist. Each of the planes is subdivided into 7 sub-planes and each of these divided again into seven. There are various relationships between certain sub-planes which the authors detail. There are unseen beings, forms, and entities on the lower planes such as elementals and on the higher planes – angels, arch-angels, demi-gods, etc.

The authors see modern science (of the 19th and early 20th century), especially the atomic physics and chemistry, as a rediscovery of the Principal of Vibration. The Hermetists postulate an ethereal substance that connects matter and energy. They say that any mental state is accompanied by vibrations that may be picked up by other minds by “induction” resulting in telepathy. There is an adage: “He who understands the Principle of Vibration, has grasped the scepter of Power.”

The Principle of Polarity teaches that opposites are identical in nature but different in degree, ie. Spirit and Matter are merely the two poles of the same thing. Such a principle, they say, can be utilized in reconciling opposites and neutralizing paradox.

Making use of the Principle of Rhythm involves utilizing the ebb and flow of all things, or playing the cycles. Cycles pervade all things and can be harnessed. The authors note two planes of consciousness and the skill of switching from the lower to the higher consciousness plane at the low point of the cycle of the lower plane. This low point may be in the form of moods, energy, clarity, etc. Such techniques are implicated in “self-mastery.” Although such skills are mentioned here – this book seems to be theory rather than practice. No actual practices are given although it is stressed that in order for knowledge to be useful it must be put into action and not to do so is a form of miserliness. Mastering one’s emotional tides is no easy matter. They also mention the Law of Compensation – the idea that when there is a swing to a certain point in one direction there will be swing to an equal magnitude in the opposite direction, ie. rhythm compensates – examples are a pendulum swing, tides, seasons, and emotions. They say that pain is balanced in measure by pleasure, and suffering by joy (though I might disagree there as will, habit, and possibly karmic disposition may alter how one is affected by pain and pleasure). The authors say that by rising on the planes one may escape such counterbalances through the aforementioned Law of Compensation.

In discussing the Law of Cause and Effect the authors state that nothing happens by chance, that all things fall under the law of cause and effect. I know that in the Eastern teachings, at least in Buddhist teachings I have come across, they do say that there is a certain adventitiousness – luck or chance – that can come into play, and even be manipulated – along with karma as cause and effect – so this differs a bit. Perhaps, though, the luck or chance mentioned merely has to do with heretofore undiscovered aspects of cause and effect. With the advent of chaos theory and quantum notions of possibility and probability one might see that the orderliness of laws is not so orderly and all-pervading. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle also suggests a limit to how much we can know and predict based on laws. This book appeared before those ideas arrived on the scientific scene. Of course, as the authors note, every event comes from a previous cause – yet our ability to know the chain of events leading up to that event is limited. The authors also suggest that the philosophical debate between free will and determinism is basically unresolvable in the same manner as the massive breadth of the details of cause and effect cannot be worked out – as others have suggested. The Hermetists do suggest the following adage: “The further the creation is from the Centre, the more it is bound; the nearer the Centre it reaches, the nearer Free is it.” In this sense the hierarchy seems to become a circle with the center being the ALL, or the One, and the circumference being the universe, or the Many – which brings to mind the Harmony of the Spheres and the Renaissance drawings of Platonic models.

The Principle of Gender sees masculine and feminine principles in all phenomena and planes. The gender principle is less evident in science with the exception of the atomic level with the so-called positive and negative ions with their attraction and repulsion. Uniting and dividing along these lines is a major part of the chemistry of nature. Such is true in organic as well as inorganic chemistry. The authors note that there is always masculine in the feminine form and vice versa. Gravity as the attraction between all bodies of matter is also seen as a manifestation of the Gender Principle.

The idea of Mental Gender is introduced in comparison with the psychology unfolding at the time, dividing the mind into objective and subjective components, or into the conscious and subconscious categories. The masculine principle is applied to the objective and conscious minds while the feminine principle is applied to the subjective and subconscious minds. The Hermetic division, according to the authors, divides the self into a “Me” and an “I”. In a more deluded human the “Me” is predominantly associated with the body and less so for a more evolved, less deluded human. As the self evolve beyond identification with the body it then identifies with the mental aspects, or internal states. Such mental states can be affected by will. Since these mental states can be changed by a force of will – this lends credence to the idea that the mental states are not the self as first assumed. The “Me” may then be seen as a “mental womb” where thoughts, ideas, and emotions are produced. That which is able to will the “Me” is called the “I”. The “I” can thus will mental creation and also witness this creation. In terms of gender the “I” is male and the “Me” is female. In Platonic terms the “I” is Being and the “Me” is Becoming. The feminine principle is more varied in function and performs most of the work of creation but the masculine function of will guides it. The masculine principle, as will, is underutilized in the general population according to the authors. Most people are content with manifesting the will of others = sheeple. Hypnotic suggestion and the success of magnetic personalities can be explained in terms of the principles of Mental Gender.

The last chapter is a set of Hermetic axioms:

“To change your mood or mental state – change your vibration”

This is done by the will – by fixing the attention on a more desirable mental state. Through the Principle of Polarity one focuses on the opposite state as that which one is attempting to suppress. Utilizing the Polarity Principle is a key function of Mental Alchemy. This makes me wonder if those affected by Bipolar Disorder are affected by an inability to do this through some predisposition.

A Master of the Hermetic Principles is said to be characterized by a degree of Poise and Mental Steadfastness. In both the Rhythm and Cause & Effect principles one may use ‘rising on the planes’ as a means to counterbalance the situation manifesting on the lower planes - using a law on a higher plane to overcome the effects of a law on a lower plane. Actions on higher planes is said to be causes of effects on lower planes. These notions remind me of ideas about “concealing” certain karma from ripening mention in some Buddhist texts.

“The wise ones serve on the higher, but rule on the lower.”

This is a book well worth reading with several interesting ideas seemingly passing the test of time that are likely a part of the Hermetic and Platonic philosophical tradtions.



No comments:

Post a Comment