The Great Secret
Wisdom, morality, virtue: these are respectable words, but also vague ones; and they have been the subjects of dispute for centuries without there being any agreement on them!
I wish to be wise, but shall I remain certain of my wisdom as long as I suspect that fools are happier or even more jolly than I am?
Morality is essential; but we are all a little like children, and moralizing makes us yawn. This is because people ‘try to stuff us with stupid morals which are not adapted to our nature. People lecture us on things which have nothing to do with us, and our minds wander.
Virtue is a fine thing: its name really means force, power. The world is upheld by the virtue of God. But in what does virtue consist for us? Is it a virtue to fast so as to weaken the head and emaciate the face? Shall we say that virtue is the simplicity of the worthy man who lets himself be robbed by thieves? Is abstinence for the sake of avoiding abuse a virtue? What would you think of a man who refused to walk for fear of breaking a leg? Whichever way you look at it, virtue is opposed to slackness, lethargy and impotence.
Virtue presupposes action; for the reason why is is usually contrasted with our passions is to make it clear that it is never something passive.
Not only is virtue strength, it is the governing reason behind strength. It is the equilibrant of life.
The great secret of virtue, virtuality and life, whether temporal or eternal, may be formulated thus:
The art of balancing forces so as to keep movement in equilibrium.
The equilibrium we are looking for is not that which produces immobility, but that which regulates movement. For immobility is death, and movement is life.
This motive equilibrium is that of nature itself. Nature, by balancing the decisive forces, produces the physical illness or even the apparent destruction of the poorly balanced man. Mankind rids itself of natural ills by knowing how to escape from the fatal action of the forces through an intelligent use of its liberty. We employ the word fatal here because the unforeseen and misunderstood forces look like necessary fate to the ill-balanced man.
Nature has provided for the conservation of the animals by endowing them with instinct, but she has arranged everything so that the improvident man will perish.
The animals live, so to speak, of their own accord and without effort. Man alone has to learn the way to live. Now the science of life is the science of moral balance.
The basis of this balance is to reconcile knowledge and religion, reason and feeling, energy and gentleness.
Truly invincible strength is strength without violence. Violent men are weak and shortsighted men whose efforts always come back on themselves.
Violent affection resembles hatred, and is close kin to aversion.
Violent anger ensures that one gives oneself up to one’s enemies blindly. Homer’s heroes, when attacking one another, made a point of hurling mutual insults in an attempt to rouse each other’s fury, knowing full well that, in all probability, the more infuriated of the two would be conquered.
Fiery-tempered Achilles was foredoomed to perish miserably. He was the proudest and the bravest of the Greeks and brought nothing but disasters upon the heads of his compatriots.
What took Troy was the prudence and patience of Odysseus, who always held himself in check and never struck unless he was certain of success. Achilles stands for passion, and Odysseus stands for virtue, and we need to bear this in mind before we can understand the high philosophical and moral significance of the Homeric poems.
Without doubt, the author of these poems was an initiate of the first order, and the great secret of practical High Magic is all there in the Odyssey.
The great secret of magic, the unique and incommunicable Arcana, has for its purpose the placing of supernatural power at the service of the human will in some way.
To attain such an achievement it is necessary to KNOW what has to be done, to WILL what is required, to DARE what must be attempted and to KEEP SILENT with discernment.
Homer’s Odysseus had to contend with the gods, the elements, the Cyclops, the sirens, Circe, etc. … that is to say with all the difficulties and dangers of life.
His palace is invaded, his wife is pestered, his goods are plundered, his death is resolved on, he loses his comrades, his ships are sunk; at last, he alone is left to fight it out against the night and the sea. And single-handed he sways the gods, he escapes from the sea, he blinds the cyclops, he cheats the sirens, he masters Circe, he re-takes his palace, he rescues his wife, he slays those who were plotting his death; because he willed to see Ithaca and Penelope again, because he always knew how to extricate himself from danger, because he dared what had to be done and because he always kept silent when it was not expedient to speak.
But those who are fond of fairy-tales will say, with some disappointment, this isn’t magic at all. Aren’t there any talismans, or herbs or roots with which one can work marvels? Aren’t there any mysterious spells which will open locked doors and conjure up spirits? Talk to us about this, and leave your commentary on the Odyssey for another occasion.
You know, my children, for there is no doubt that I have to reply to children, you know, if you have read my previous works, that I recognize the relative efficacy of spells and herbs and talismans. But these are only minor devices which are linked with the lesser mysteries. I am talking to you now about the great ethical forces and not of the material instruments. Spells belong to initiation rites, talismans are magnetic auxiliaries, roots and herbs fall within the province of occult medicine, and Homer himself did not disdain them. Moly, the lotus and nepenthe have their place in his poems, but they are there as incidental ornaments. Circe’s cup could not affect Odysseus, who recognized its baleful results and knew how to avoid drinking it. The initiate into the high science of the mages has nothing to fear from sorcerers.
Those individuals who go in for ceremonial magic and stoop to consulting fortune-tellers are like the people who intend or hope to make good their lack of true religion by multiplying their acts of devotion. It would be a waste of time trying to satisfy them with sage advice.
You are all of you hiding a secret which is very easily guessed, and it is this: I have a passion which reason condemns and I prefer it to reason; that is why I consult an irrational oracle, because it tells me to keep hoping, helps me to trick my conscience, and lulls my heart into a feeling of security.
Folk of this sort, then, go to drink from a deceitful spring which, far from quenching their thirst, intensifies it. The charlatan mutters dark oracles, where one finds whatever one wants to find and departs knowing as little as ever. One returns on the morrow, and on the day after that, and in fact one always returns; which is how those who read the cards make their fortunes.
The Basilidian gnostics said that Sophia, the natural wisdom of man, fell in love with herself, as Narcissus did in the fable, looked away from her primary source and sprang out of that circle traced by the divine light which they called the pleroma. All alone in the darkness, she committed sacrileges in order to give birth to the light; and lost her blood like the woman with the issue of blood in the Gospel, giving rise to horrible monsters. The most dangerous of all follies is perverted wisdom.
Perverted hearts poison the whole of nature. The splendour of a beautiful day is no more to them than a garish distraction, and all the joys of life, which are dead for these dead souls, rise up in front of them to curse them, saying like the ghosts to Richard III: ‘Despair and die.’ Enthusiasm for noble causes makes them smirk and, as if they were requiting an insult, they throw the insolent sneers of Sténio and Rollon at love and beauty. It is no use dropping one’s arms and blaming fate; what has to be done is to fight it and conquer. Those who succumb in this battle are those who do not know how to win or do not want to do so. Not knowing is some excuse, but it is no justification when the opportunity to learn is there. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ said Christ when dying. If a lack of knowledge were permissible, the Saviour’s prayer would have been without justice, and His Father would have had nothing to pardon.
When one does not know, one should will to learn. To the extent that one does not know it is foolhardy to dare, but it is always well to keep silent.
– Eliphas Levi: The Great Secret or Occultism Unveiled – Chapter 6 The Great Secret
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