Tradition and the Individual Magician

A lively conversation on the HHoL revived my interest in an idea I had months ago: "magicians need to read Eliot." It’s true, of course, because everyone needs to read Eliot, but in this particular case it’s true because Eliot wrote an extremely short essay, titled "Tradition and the Individual Talent," in which he charts a course between tradition and uniqueness. Magicians need to read this because, between the Scylla of reconstructionism and the Charybdis of anything-goes Neopaganism, many magically operant people have a screwed up sense of what tradition really means.

Contemporary Practices

The reason this is a relevant topic is that there are two extremes of people in the general sphere of magic and neopaganism. The first pole insists that no innovation outside the historical record and any pertinent texts can be allowed and ought not to be practiced. The other pole insists that no rules or strictures should be allowed to exist at all, by anyone.

The former are understandably trying to figure out exactly what they should be doing. But they devolve sometimes into gatekeepers or prescriptionists.

The latter often aren’t doing anything that they can describe or teach to anyone else, as it’s driven entirely by what they feel works, but it does work, for them.

So on one hand you have a focus on tradition, and on the other hand you have a focus on the individual. You see why I may have recalled this essay a time or two, right?


Now, first of course keep in mind Eliot was writing specifically about poetry. I don’t want to bend and break quotations in order to elide that fact, so just know in advance he’ll mention poetry sometimes.

Second, I don’t want to go into the weeds on Eliot, but what may be relevant here is that he was an American poet who expatriated to England. He ran in circles who were often quite materialistic, and if you believe some of the biographical material, he began secretly going to church because his set wouldn’t think it was cool. He joined the Church of England, and his two most ambitious works are both about the powers of religion — The Waste Land and Four Quartets.

In the essay to which we refer, though, Eliot stops "at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism" in order to focus directly on poetry. But there is, in that line, an admission that these ideas pertain to those realms as well.

Also, here is the essay in question. You really should read it; it’s excellent and quite short.


So, what ideas are these that I thought were so important? There are two ideas about tradition to take away from this essay. Tradition is not a hidebound system of rules or a pantheon of dead people insisting on what must be done. Indeed, Eliot insists the poet (again, read the magician or theurgist here) must do new things to be taken seriously.

What tradition actually is, is a perception, a kind of consciousness. I would say it is a consciousness of the "currents" of the tradition. Consider this bit:

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, "tradition" should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it, you must obtain it by great labour. [It is] a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it, the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

Now I’m sure we need to unpack that a little bit. In short, being aware of tradition means being aware of the past and its presence in the here and now. The past is not the same as tradition. The past is all that has come before in history. Tradition is that which has survived from the past into the present. So to be conscious of tradition is to be conscious of something in the present that others are not aware of.

This is something that bears repeating: to use tradition healthily is not to obsess over the past, but to be aware of what has been carried forward into the present and to carry that further forward into the future.

So, simply, those who think that tradition is a kind of trap or a system of rules that oppresses them are wrong. What tradition actually is, is simply the presence, now, of things that worked in the past.

Eliot also has things to say about people who are too obsessed with tradition to the detriment of individuals and their innovation. Here is a shorter passage that demonstrates that the typical views of history and tradition lead to problems. The poet

can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement.

Eliot goes on to say that "art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same." The idea here is that those who simply mine the past for things that they want to see, "private admirations," and that those who take the past as gospel, and even those who dwell only in a specific period, are all missing the point.

The point is, and this is what I feel is one of the most important lines in the entire essay, that tradition is a change, but a change that "is a development which abandons nothing en route."

At its core, tradition is always changing because new things are being added to it all the time. This is easier to see within the realm of poetry, but it is true for all traditions: all the various writers of Greek myth and religion and philosophy were not alive at the same time. Each one of them was aware of the tradition and made new works that entered into it. Eliot goes so far as to say that the entire tradition is changed by each new work that is made within it or added to it. This is a mutual influence, because of course the tradition helps to shape the new work.

At this point I either have to conclude my essay or risk quoting the majority of Eliot’s within it. The significant points to bear in mind are these: Tradition is not a bunch of rules. It is not stuck in the past, and those who work in tradition are also not stuck in the past. At the same time, those who insist that a tradition cannot be changed, and that everything must be done the way it was "always" done, are not acting within a tradition. They do not even understand what it means to work within a tradition. They are finding their little preferred moments, as mentioned earlier, and insisting upon those. And as Eliot says, that is a natural part of a beginner’s methodology, but must eventually be put aside.

The portion of Eliot’s essay that I am skipping has to do with the individual and the way that they transform things in their own work. That would require a whole separate essay to talk about in terms of its applicability to magic. But Eliot makes clear that the poet surrenders to the tradition in order to make new things. And I think that can speak powerfully to the experience of the magician or the theurgist. Finally, I will simply end this essay with the sentence that ends Eliot’s:

One must be "conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

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