Seven Spheres and the Great Chain of Being

I recently finished reading the book Seven Spheres, by Rufus Opus, and it gave me Thoughts about ceremonial magic that I wanted to thrash out here. The thought, or idea, generally speaking, is that it feels like there’s something missing in the typical approach to magic in the western “ceremonial” tradition. Specifically, I think that the cultural ubiquity of the Great Chain of Being, coming as it does from Renaissance thinking, has caused people to omit other useful models, and that it can be powerfully supplemented by the addition of ecosystem thinking, a pairing I’m calling “companion planting” for now.

Fair warning: this is part one of two.

Seven Spheres

So, as I said, I recently read Seven Spheres for the first time. And I like it! It’s short and to the point, and covers a kind of speedrun of Hermetic cosmology as well as magical operations to work within that cosmology. As I read, though, I had something nibbling at my heels, and it took me quite a while to figure out exactly what it was. I think the thing is that SS works on the basis of a model that I can describe as the “Great Chain of Being.” More specifically, it tacitly affirms a very particular kind of the GCB common in occulture more widely. The Great Chain of Being is quite an old model of the universe, and I’ll go into the details later in the post. There are multiple variations on it, of course.

In fact, you can think of this particular version of the GCB as similar to things like “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” the threefold return of action, and “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Like these, the GCB means much more than is commonly attributed to it. Certain subsections of occulture have kind of taken the too-narrow version of it and, as a result, painted themselves into a corner. While I think Seven Spheres is a great book, it demonstrates a few of the issues that can come from this particularly narrowed view of the GCB.

However, I’m not here to specifically pick on Rufus Opus’s book. Fr. RO has written the book and an accompanying course, which some of his students still administer, and it works. It’s an excellent system, grounded in the Hermetic tradition, and it’s in an accessible style with clear instructions. Polyphanes, at the Digital Ambler, has written an excellent review of the book from the standpoint of a practicing Hermeticist, which is worth reading.

To start, SS leads the reader through a quick look at Hermetic cosmology, in order to argue that humans are all “kings,” since they partake of the divine essence. He sums up one of the chapters of the Corpus Hermeticum to make this point, and it’s well made. It’s empowering – it’s that Fr. RO’s point is that one should take control of one’s own life, and marshal the available resources like a king, managing them, actually paying attention to them, and fixing the problems that one may not have noticed. I’m into all of this! This is right!

The method that SS uses is conjuration of spirits, particularly the method of drawing spirits into crystals described by Trithemius, aided by some Agrippa. The spirits are angels of the planetary spheres. The goal is to integrate each of the seven planetary influences into one’s life in order to balance out imbalances and get access to things one maybe didn’t have before. One of polyphanes’s major points in the essay linked above is that Fr. RO suggests an order of operations that is somewhat problematic. SS says to begin with Jupiter and to go down the Chaldean order. In other worlds, go Jupiter > Mars > Sun > Venus > Mercury > Moon. Polyphanes describes this as a particularly thaumaturgic order. Polyphanes goes on to recommend one reverse it and go up the scale instead. This order eases the practitioner into things more gently. There’s also a note in the essay about Saturn. Fr. RO describes it as optional, and polyphanes insists it is not. Part of my argument is that, indeed, Saturn is not optional, and that the GCB is part of the reason why an expert in Hermetic magic could say such a thing. As per polyphanes, it’s clear that Fr. RO knows Saturn shouldn’t be considered optional.  

Both orders, Fr. RO’s Jupiter -> Moon and polyphanes’s Moon -> Saturn, perceive of the line to divinity as, well, a line. Up or down, one travels it from beginning to end. And I want to reiterate at this point that I do not have a problem with the practical applications. You have to start somewhere, and use some kind of order, and there are other reasons to follow the Chaldean order than following a line. But it does partake in the tradition of the Great Chain of Being, and my argument is that this model, on its own, causes problems one would avoid by using another model alongside it.

Theurgy and the Great Chain of Being

Not all theurgy uses the GCB, but most, if not all, GCB is at least related to theurgy. It’s like one of those simple set theory problems, right? You probably know what the GCB is, broadly speaking, but in short, it’s a model of the world that posits a direct line from small to great, leading upwards from mushrooms and fish to dogs and humans and angels and finally reaching divinity. Here’s a good encyclopedia entry on it. I would argue that GCB can be seen dimly in the work of Plato, before Aristotle formalized it, but that’s another essay (for someone else. I am not a Platonist.).

I don’t always dislike the GCB. Some versions of it are great! I’ll show you a version of it I like in the second post. But here’s the problem with the GCB as it is used in ceremonial magical practice. It tends to make everyone look up but never down, or even over, to the side, outwards. Consider this bit from the very first chapter of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy:

There is a threefold world – that is, the elemental, celestial, and intellectual. Each inferior is ruled by its superior, accepting virtues flowing from the Archetype and highest Maker through angels, the heavens, stars, elements, animals, plants, metals, and stones. The Maker transfers His omnipotent virtue into us, for whose service He place and created all of these. Wise men do not find it irrational that we can rise by these same degrees, through each world, toward the same archetypal world, the Maker of all and the First Cause, from which everything exists and all proceeds.

(TBOP v1, p. 16, Purdue trans.)

Notice that Agrippa says the magician should be going up. Never down, it seems, but only up. You might think that Agrippa’s early focus on materia, on stones, animals, and plants, would be “looking down,” but his argument, which needs most of the TBOP to really unfold, is that the celestial spheres influence plants and stones. Stones aren’t magic on their own, they are magic insofar as they partake in the influence of Mars or Venus. So even the very stones at our feet force us to look up, even as we’re looking down. While both Fr. RO and Agrippa don’t necessarily perceive of the universe, or even the planets, as a narrow line, a thin chain going from here to there (God), the model as presented leaves out some of the nuances (Agrippa includes more nuance, but then again he did three enormous books, he can do that).

As a staunch animist I am, as you might imagine, cautious about this kind of worldview. I believe we are in partnership with such things as trees and stones, not their masters or exploiters. It’s significant that Fr. RO, in writing about the way that Venus works in one’s life, reverts to the language of capitalism: the metaphor switches. One is not the king of a kingdom, as in the other chapters, but the head of a company, and Venus is the “production arm” of that company. Something that I give Fr. RO credit for is that, while it’s not a major focus of the book, the idea that kings are responsible for and to their kingdoms does appear. Kings are civil servants, not tyrants (at least, we hope). But sometimes, because of the GCB’s contemporary modeling, we switch from being kings to being exploitative CEOs in SS. And hoo boy. Oof. This is similar to the issue of labeling Saturn as optional. Fr. RO knows kings have responsibilities to their kingdoms, and even to neighboring kingdoms. But since the model of kingship is also hinging on the GCB, in which everything goes up but never out, the other kings SS focuses on are the gods and the God.

Thinking Out as well as Up: Ecosystem Thinking

This is basically the conclusion, because really Ecosystem Thinking in magic is going to require its own post. So you have that to look forward to! But, simply, I believe it is useful to change the model one uses even if one does exactly the same.

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4 thoughts on “Seven Spheres and the Great Chain of Being

  1. Pingback: Think Out as Well as Up: Ecosystems in Hermeticism – G Conley: Magic Arts

  2. Pingback: The Hermetic Garden Plot: Hermeticism and Ecosystem Companionability – G Conley: Magic Arts

  3. Pingback: Para-Hermeticism: Goofy Name, Common Experience – G Conley: Magic Arts

  4. Pingback: G Conley: Magic Arts

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