“Will you turn to ridicule the experience I have acquired with so much dilligence?”
- from Paracelsus’ Credo
Discussing the use of conjuring and sleight of hand in the ritual context of healing with John Harrigan from Foolish People and Weaponized, and the musician Thomas Jude Barclay Morrison, provided an opportunity to work through some fragments of thought that have been bouncing through my brain recently. I’ve been reading Arthur Versluis’ upcoming work, Mystic State: Politics, Gnosis and Emergent Culture, along side SUNY’s latest reprinting of Christopher Mckintosh’s Rose Cross in the Age of Reason, and Jake Stratton-Kent’s wonderful Geosophia from Scarlet Imprint, and pondering the place of Mystery in the development of culture. It’s something that is all to often passed over in a world immersed in the marvels of μηχανή (mekhane), a word which has both the meaning of machine and trickery, from the root word magh which means to be able, or to have power.
“”Everything that occurs in conformity with nature, but of whose cause we are unaware, provokes astonishment; as does everything, that when it occurs in a manner contrary to nature, is produced by technique (tekhne) in the interest of mankind.
For in many cases, nature produces effects that are contrary to our interests, for nature always acts in the same way, and simply, whereas what is useful to us often changes.
Therefore, when an effect contrary to nature must be produced, we are at a loss because of the difficulty of producing such an effect; and the cooperation of tekhne is required. This is why we call the part of tekhne intended to help us in such difficulties “trickery” (mekhane). For the situation is, as the poet Antiphon says, “Through tekhne, we master the things in which we are vanquished by nature.”
- from Problemata mechanica (2nd Century BCE) quoted in The Veil of Isis, by Pierre Hadot
The discussion with John and Thomas touched on the ethics of using the placebo effect in terms of healing. Thomas pointed to how some Western medical practitioners have debated the validity of handing someone a sugar pill in order to facilitate healing knowing that for certain conditions the placebo effect would be just as likely as standard medicine to bring about a cure. Since this wouldn’t be effective if the person knew they were being handed a sugar pill it would entail having to lie to the patient in order for it to work.
In the current medical mindset the linear development of a disease is seen as inevitable. It would be contrary to this linear development to cure the disease, thereby requiring the use of ‘trickery’ or some mechanical means, such as drug therapy or surgery, to bring about healing. This mindset engenders the necessity of thinking of something like the placebo effect as a lie; what doesn’t have a basis in the technical exists outside of the assumed truth and therefore is false. Traditionally, however, the disease itself was seen as the deviancy, and healing it was seen as a return to the natural order of life and health, in this context the mystery of the placebo effect is seen as a natural occurrence, nature returning to it’s proper state.
To facilitate this process ritual, herbal remedies, meditations, prayers and a whole host of centering practices were put to use. A person subjected to a disease was seen as having moved out of alignment with the natural order and therefore needed to be returned. There is a certain respect that this way of thinking has for the greater Mystery of life lacking in current Western medical practice.
As the magician and illusionist Jeff McBride points out, sleight of hand can be used to break a person out of their habitual patterns and bring them to a place where there is possibility for something more. In a ritual context this can then be directed to return the person to a more holistic position in regards to life. This is what the shamanic use of sleight of hand is for, to distract and unmoor the ‘evil’ spirits (those patterns that have caused a misalignment in a person’s life) and allow an opening where the traditional healer can bring in new patterns.
We have to remember that spirit in the traditional sense is thought of as the motivating life force connected to the whole, the soul being that point of connection between the individual and the spirit of the whole. An evil spirit is then a false motivator and not a superstitious bogeyman as the hard line rationalists would like to deem it.
Paracelsus, and most traditional healers, distinguish between diseases caused by physical maladies and those that are caused by spiritual misalignment. Knowing the difference was key to being an effective healer. So long as Western medicine sees all things in line with a wholly mechanistic and fundamental materialist perspective there is no chance for full healing to take place.
This is not to call on the supernatural, nothing exists over or under what is, this is to point out that the philosophy and direction of Western medicine, and science, is deeply flawed. Like an unfaithful spouse Western medicine shrinks from Mystery and gives no credence to anything that isn’t predicated by technical power or scientific proof, even if the results prove the treatment as in the case of the placebo effect.
“”If a man rules over other living species, if he delves unremittingly and without respect into the venerable earth, if he has created shelters for himself, and cities with their own laws, it is thanks to all kinds of mekhane.”
- from the chapter In Search of Mechanics in the collection The Greek Pursuit of Knowledge
There is no point in arguing terminology, as some would, and re-framing traditional ideas in a psychological or scientistic framework. We are living in a world created through manipulation, and suffering the pains of having stepped outside of the natural order through the power of our artifice. A very basic respect for life has been abandoned in order to prove our potency over the natural world. With this act of hubris we will be judged when, having stretched the malleable prima materia to it’s maximum extent, it will snap back on us and we will be left to face the fact that our power is merely an illusion. Nothing lies outside the bounds of the natural world, and no amount of mechanical savvy can overcome this fact.
Re-framing traditional ideas is merely an attempt to fit a much simpler, and basic, relationship with nature into an artificially constructed paradigm. The key is that the traditional ideas were based on a relationship, or as Arthur Versluis points out in Mystic State, on the gnostic marriage of the visible and the invisible, the Divine Union of spirit and matter. A marriage based on violence and power plays is either miserable or ends in divorce, it takes mutual respect and love for a relationship to be fulfilling.
The struggle between proponents of the Mystery and of technique stretches back into prehistory. It can be seen in the split between the mathēmatikoi ( Μαθηματικοι – “learners”) and the akousmatikoi (Ακουσματικοι -“listeners”), in the Pythagorean school. As Christopher Mckintosh shows in The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason, it can also be seen more recently in the Enlightenment era, during the 17th and 18th centuries, in the struggle between the mystical Rosicrucian and scientific Illuminati philosophies that fought for prevalence within Freemasonry.
Versluis explores the question of what would have happened if the mystical side won, or at least was given more prevalence in the cultural development of Western civilization. There are intimations of the possibilities, but those who develop a relationship with gnosis often leave very little material to trace their passage.
Jake Stratton-Kent’s work in Geosophia is an attempt to reconnect with the ancient traditions of law giving and healing that are rooted in Goetic theurgy. The place of the seership in law giving has been lost in the Western world, although it is as much a part of Greco-Roman philosophy and our Judeao-Christian heritage, as it is at the heart of the traditional cultural models that are drawn on in the development of Neo-Paganism.
What we have lost is a respect for possibilities, for potential, and for that Mysterium Magnum which lies at the heart of existence. Mercurial messengers arise in our culture to remind us of the fluidity of life, but we relegate their revelations to rationalizations such as the placebo effect or fraud. Respect not given willingly is renewed with being overthrown, the adversary we disdain is often the one that conquers us. When the day comes that, as a culture, we reach out in humility and seek to align ourselves with the natural order we will find that for all our failed manipulations there was always another path we could have walked. If that day does not come of our own volition humility will be taught through trial and hardship, our heads finally bowed in respect, or broken in defeat.