A new approach to Dion Fortune's 'The Cosmic Doctrine'
This article is the transcript of a talk presented to the Dion Fortune Seminar in Glastonbury on 24th September 2016
I’ve chosen to speak today about Dion Fortune's book The Cosmic Doctrine because I think it’s a unique piece of writing which deserves to be better known. But before I go any further, I have to say that I find the book very challenging in places and there’s much in it that I don’t fully understand. I guess that’s likely to be true for others here, and I know that many people attempt to read it but find the first few chapters so difficult that they give up on it for ever. However, once you have found a way into the book, it opens up into something really quite extraordinary and inspiring - not to mention unique.
So what I’m going to do is suggest a number of alternative approaches to reading it, rather than tackling it in the usual way of starting at the beginning and working through each chapter in turn until you get to the end. I don’t think that method is the best way to get the most out of The Cosmic Doctrine!
I'll briefly put the book into context. What is it trying to achieve? What’s the purpose behind it?
In every magical or philosophical or religious system, ideally you will find two things. First, some sort of comprehensive account of how everything works - Life, the Universe and Everything - which you can study and learn. An account of how we got here, why things are as they are and why we do what we do.
Then, alongside this you might also expect to find some sort of practical system for personal growth, the sort of thing that is usually based on regular meditation that opens your mind to the unseen worlds and enables you to experience for yourself what you’ve studied in theory. Uniquely, The Cosmic Doctrine gives us BOTH of these, and does so in remarkably few words. Instead of relying on epic quantities of words to describe the origins of the cosmos and the workings of creation - which by their very nature are in any case rather difficult to describe - it uses symbols. Or, to be exact, it uses the technique of analogy: it describes one thing in terms of another. It takes some very basic geometrical shapes and shows how these can be worked with as symbols of the creative processes that are the building blocks of the cosmos. In fact, we might even say that the book describes Life, the Universe and Everything in terms of just two things: circles (which in the text are called 'Rings') and straight lines, and the relationship between them.
Of course if we were simply told us that the whole of creation is made from straight lines and circles we wouldn’t have learnt very much. But the book goes behind what we see as circles and straight lines in our everyday world and gets to their absolute essence, to their remote origin as types of energy, and describes their qualities in the most abstract possible way. First, it makes an analogy between a circle, or Ring, or sphere, and the concept of Space. Then it makes another analogy between a straight line and Movement. In fact to get to the root of what The Cosmic Doctrine is telling us about the cosmos there is a sense in which all we need to do is think about these two concepts: Space…….. and Movement. And then ponder what they mean, what they feel like, what they can symbolise, what they mean to us, how they combine and relate to each other, the effect they have on each other, and how they manifest in our life and the world about us.
So, that’s my first suggestion for a new approach to The Cosmic Doctrine: think about Space and Movement. And if you only do that, the book will already have taught you a lot.
Perhaps the best-known phrase in The Cosmic Doctrine comes right at the beginning: “...these images are designed to train the mind, not to inform it.” It’s one of those sentences which maybe should never have been written because our inevitable reaction on reading this is ‘oh, right, it’s not actually supposed to make any sense then’ - and unfortunately this can be a bit discouraging.
In fact the book does inform the mind as well as train it, but the text starts with the mind-training bit and only later moves on to providing information. The first seven chapters contain challenging, abstractly worded phrases and sentences, but the reason why they appear at the beginning of the book is that these chapters are teaching us how to think about the cosmos for ourselves. You can read them over and over again and still not fully understand them - and that’s absolutely fine! You’re doing exactly what's needed! The more your mind boggles, the more you struggle to make sense of them, the more you are achieving. The book doesn’t tell us how things are, it teaches us how we can discover for ourselves, and of course that’s not an easy thing to do; we have to stretch our mind to its limits. Once past these first seven chapters, the book gradually provides more actual and readily accessible information.
And this brings me to my second suggestion for a new approach to The Cosmic Doctrine: don’t start at the beginning, start at the end. At the end of the book we find some very different things to the beginning, and not what we might expect. For example, on the very last page we read: ‘There is no thing on earth, no thought brought through to earth which does not concern the Planetary Being (i.e. the Earth) however great or lofty, however (unfortunately) mean or base. You have a very great responsibility not only to yourselves and to each other but also to the great group-soul of the earth, the great mother of you all.”
These last sections of the book - in the currently available Weiser edition they are headed ‘Afterthoughts’ - were added later and, as they say: “ provide a useful elucidation of the general matter in the book.” These final sections are much easier to understand. So I suggest that you start with the final paragraphs that describe the planet Earth and our relationship with the planet in very clear and sometimes quite moving language. The ideal, of course, is to alternate between reading the more easily accessible material at the end of the book with meditating on and contemplating the ‘mind-training’ material of the first seven chapters.
I said that The Cosmic Doctrine uses analogy, comparing simple geometric forms with the workings of the cosmos. Here’s another analogy. Imagine that you have just had a new idea - that feeling of suddenly knowing what you’ve got to do next: a holiday, moving house, a new job, a new creative project. In that first spark of inspiration you can often see what you want and where you want to get to. And you’d like to get straight to it without any trouble or delay. This is what the book describes as Movement: energy, or straight lines. But your plans often don’t work out quite like this because you are affected and constrained by your environment; you have to revise your ideas according to your budget or what’s available and you have to take other people’s wishes into account. You can’t move in a straight line to your goal as if nothing and nobody else exists; you have to adapt to what is already present in the environment - or Space - around you. Your desired movement towards your goal, and your environment, rub up against each other: they are in polarity, you have to make a series of adjustments.
The Cosmic Doctrine tells us that this is what happened In the Beginning before anything that was made, was made: when God had God’s first idea and the cosmos began. The cosmos began with Movement: initially a straight line of movement but which, because of the affect of the Space around it, gradually curves into a circle - or a Ring, in the terms of the book. As this happens, other currents of Movement are brought into play until eventually what was once a straight line becomes a Ring, then three Rings, then a complete sphere.
When this happens, there is now a polarity between what’s happening inside this sphere and what’s going on outside it. If we apply these principles to our own lives we can see that they are very familiar. When a new group, or company, or assembly is formed, those within the group want to accentuate their similarities and emphasise what they have in common; the group becomes more stable, more established. Those who find that they are not inside this particular group tend not to hang about round the edge but move away and find what they’re looking for elsewhere. We can see this happening here and now: within this hall there is a group of individuals who have been brought together by what they have in common; those in the street outside are pursuing other aims. This is how it is with a universe. And then, within this universe, or group, polarity often develops between two people, two opposites producing a third, to make a triplicate. As things progress and develop, the numbers seven and twelve come into play, and exert a background influence on how things develop.
Now, what I’ve just done in describing the dynamics of a group of people is to translate the first seven chapters of The Cosmic Doctrine into easy language. But nobody has learnt anything new from it - it hasn't stretched your mind! Whereas the first seven chapters of The Cosmic Doctrine describe similar processes in such abstract language that they compel you to stretch your mind out to grasp the remote, cosmic principles which underpin the whole of creation.
So this is my third suggestion: when you read the book, try to translate it into terms of your everyday life. Or, as The Cosmic Doctrine puts it: “Learn to alternate periods of concentration with periods of expansion into fulness of life…”
I mentioned that it was a good idea to start reading at the end of the book and alternate this with meditating on the material in the first few chapters. And there are other chapters near to the end of the book that are surprisingly immediate in tone and relatively easy to grasp, particularly those describing the various universal laws: the Law of Polarity, the Law of Limitation, the Law of Action and Reaction, the Law of the Seven Deaths. These chapters don’t necessarily have to be read in order; you can get a lot from reading them a bit at a time, either a whole chapter or even just a few sentences.
For example there are some very useful bits of advice for practicing occultists in the chapters on The Law of Limitation. “The Law of Limitation is the basis of occult practice. It is the secret of power…...In order to achieve an end you must outline that end and limit yourself to it, rejecting all that is irrelevant; and note this point - the first process in the invocation of power is the rejection of that which is irrelevant.” Useful advice in any walk of life and particularly so in any practical magical work.
I said that The Cosmic Doctrine uses the technique of analogy to describe the cosmos in terms of simple geometrical forms. My fourth suggestion for a new approach to the text is to put aside any idea that it is a coldly abstract work. The text not only teaches us where we’ve come from but also where we’re going, and offers some rather good advice as to how we can get there. “Whosoever loves, however dim may be your concept of Love,…..is manifesting a unification, and unification is the goal of Evolution…… Whosoever expresses Love, brings Spirit, which is One, into manifestation…..To be separate is to be dead. Therefore choose Love, and live.” And this is where the book originally ended, before the extra sections were added. In fact there are at least 22 references to Love in The Cosmic Doctrine. Who would have thought it!
There are also some surprisingly ‘Green Ray’ passages in the book. Here’s one of them. “Should a human being...seek contact with the Lords of the Elements they must purify those aspects of their nature which correspond to their kingdom until they become the refined essence of (the quality of the Lords of the Elements.) their qualities. In the stability of earth they are stable. In the mobility of water they are mobile. In the speed of the wind they are swift and aspiring. In the brightness of the flame they are zealous. Then, being lord of these things within themselves they themselves are a Lord of the Elements in the microcosm, and may thereby claim kinship with the Lords of the Elements of the macrocosm, and the Messengers of the Elements are their servants. There is no other way than this. Those who use the Names without the Power invoke to their own destruction.”
Finally, I think it works well to pick passages from the book almost at random. Find a passage that draws your attention and then follow it in your thoughts. For example:
“….it is necessary to watch the Cosmic Tides when undertaking any regenerative work in relation to the spiritual guidance of humanity. The great constructive period of the nineteenth century afforded a valuable starting ground for many spiritual impulses. The first quarter of the twentieth century was a phase of destruction.” Interesting to contemplate which Cosmic Tides are working in the world at the moment.
“The laws of the physical plane are being worked out by means of the five physical senses….But scientific thought has made a mistake in believing that these laws are all there are, and this mistake has vitiated the last hundred years of science. (Remember this was written nearly 100 years ago.) The ancients were wiser, though not so well informed. Certain schools of religious philosophy, however, make the opposite mistake and believe that life can work out its evolution regardless of the laws of the physical plane. This is also a mistake.”
So these are a few suggestions as to how, if you have found The Cosmic Doctrine too challenging to persevere with, you can attempt different approaches to what is really an extraordinary and unique book. Don’t feel that you have to read it all the way through - pick and choose, especially if you find the first seven chapters a bit challenging. Alternate between thinking and meditating on passages from the first seven chapters and enjoying the easier sections that follow. Find a chapter, or a paragraph or sentence, that speaks to you and see how you can apply it to your everyday life. Once you have grasped one section of the book, no matter how small, this will naturally lead to your understanding of the rest - because everything is related.
Beyond all this, there is the mysterious matter of the original inspiration of the Inner plane guide who transmitted the text to Dion Fortune, a guide who is said to have been the Greek Philosopher Socrates. Not that it really matters who or where the book came from - the proof of the pudding is in the eating as Dion Fortune always wisely insisted. But it is interesting that what distinguished Socrates’ teaching in ancient Greece was that he did not ever claim that he was possessed of knowledge that he could dictate to others but insisted that we should find out the meaning of things for ourselves, by exploration, trial and error, testing the theories, and by constantly asking ‘what does this mean?’ My experience is that once you have found your way into this book, no matter how you read it or use it, you will begin to find that it has an effect on you which is more than you might have expected. The intention behind this book, I have no doubt, is that we should use it to find out for ourselves what we understand about Life, the Universe and Everything, and discover as we do so that this Greek philosopher's spirit of loving encouragement still shines out for us through his words.
If, after reading this, you feel encouraged to revisit The Cosmic Doctrine you might also be interested in a book of essays written by people who have been inspired by it and have developed what they have learnt in their daily life and work. The book is called ‘Sparks from the Cosmic Flame’ and will be published by Skylight Press in 2017. Details can be found on the Skylight Press website.