Borrowed Traditions, Rediscovered Paths – Neo-Platonism and the Reunion of Western Philsophy

While doing research for an Open Myth Source article on the concept of Mytho-poesis, which is, roughly understood, the use of poetic reasoning to interpret and activate mythological ideas, I remembered an essay I had seen by Hazel Twiggs discussing the development of terminology in contemporary astrology. Her analysis of the break from historical antecedants in contemporary astrology, and the reinterpretation  of certain common terms, provides further insight into some of the processes involved in the development of many of our current intepretations of ancient ideologies and practices. – D. Metcalfe

Borrowed Traditions, Rediscovered Paths – Neo-Platonism and the Reunion of Western Philsophy, by Hazel Twiggs

Practitioners of modern astrology are quite used to using language that they assume are understood by their peers and contemporaries. Such words seem to be used with impunity and few appear to define them with rigor, depth, or attention to historical antecedent. Words like “soul 1,” “spirituality 2,” and “karma 3” are used so often by people who practice and are interested in astrology and similar contemporary philosophical systems that one would assume these ideas are not only commonplace but that they have some historical precedent in Western culture and thought. Many of these well-meant but essentially nebulous ideas—when they are traced to their inspirations—are very often the product of a loosely conceived yoke between Western astrological concepts and what is more or less watered-down Eastern (meaning Hindu or Buddhist) philosophy. In fact, few astrologers who consider themselves to be “evolutionary 4” or involved in healing the “spirit” can avoid borrowing Eastern ideas such as the chakras 5  for the very reason that for the past 1700 years Western spirituality has been dominated by monotheist and increasingly materialist6 Christianity, a Christianity whose basis is a strict dependence on an external force for the salvation of one’s soul.

When the heavily loaded word “soul” is used it summons from the shadows of Western religious and philosophical history myriad references which can be summarized thusly: from the Christian point of view 7 soul is both particular to human or sentient life and is also an eternal force which resides in the living body and which is assumed to outlive corporeal death; from a scientific point of view8 the soul is that which is immeasurable, incalculable, and immaterial, existing within time but not space, while what can be known of soul must by scientific terms be limited to sensory understanding. At any rate, the idea of the soul is replete in modern astrological lore. That it is an ephemeral concept requiring philosophical approach, it is “esoteric,” or “confined to and understandable by only an enlightened inner circle.9” At the heart of these introductory comments is the intention to reveal that while the philosophical foundations for an expansive, innovative, modern, and “esoteric” astrology are consciously, though imprecisely, embedded in 19th and 20th century developments such as theosophy, there exists deeply hidden within Western thinking an esotericism which modern esotericists and scholars appear to have missed. Whether due to the rift in Western philosophical history created by scientific materialism or not, modern astrologers seem to believe that “Eastern” philosophy is their only means by which the numinous may be known or approached.

This is most evident in the works of Alan Leo, founder of the Theosophical Society of the Astrological Lodge of London in 1915,10 and Alice Bailey, both authors of treatises entitled Esoteric Astrology.11 Leo’s book, first published at the close of the 19th century, is a document that entirely represents the adoption by Western spiritualists of Eastern ideas in an attempt to deepen, broaden, and personalize their spirituality. Leo’s preface begins with a reference to his meaningful travels to India and relates to the reader that his conversion to such Eastern ideas as reincarnation was prompted at age 17 when he was present during a discussion between his Puritan mother and “a gentleman of the same religion” on that subject. (Leo, v-vi) Such inspiration resulted in Leo’s creation of a philosophy of astrology that reflects the notion that “God sends forth from Himself certain spiritual embodiments of power, love and wisdom. The planetary Spirits or Intelligences who carry out His will are manifestations of His consciousness” which “produce certain vibratory energies known as planetary influence…” (Ibid, xvii) Directly after these comments and throughout the text thereafter, each philosophical principle underlying Leo’s “esoteric” approach to astrology is a direct reference to Hindu principles and terminologies, beginning with the Gunas and including such concepts as the caste system.12

Bailey’s text, first published in 1951—two years after her death, also well documents that the attempt to formulate an “esoteric” astrology is meant to be Eastern and “intuitional” (as opposed to Western and rational) and that its development represents a “return to the knowledge of that ancient science which related the constellations and our solar system.” (Bailey, 3) Sprinkled throughout her text are co-opted Eastern ideas and references to “energy” sans any overt recognition of a conventional or scientific meaning of such. She gives an explanation of “The Twelve Creative Hierarchies” in which several constellations relate to specific shaktis, while each of the twelve signs represent an “energy” of some sort. (Ibid, 34-35) Yet nowhere does Bailey seem to actually address directly what is meant by these descriptions other than that esotericism in general “teaches (and modern science is rapidly arriving at the same conclusion) that underlying the physical body and its comprehensive and intricate system of nerves is a vital or etheric body,” which is “an integral part of that entity which we have called the human family,” which, in turn, “is an integral part of the planetary etheric body,” and constitutes, “along with the etheric body of the sun…the body of the solar system.” (Ibid, 10-11) The reader is, apparently, supposed to have some familiarity with the concept of “ether” in this passage, as well.13

Whether these or other modern, esoteric, astrological doctrines are self-conscious of the seeming lack of continuity between their innovations and the philosophical conventions of Western culture which lead up to the 19th and 20th centuries or not, their ideas actually can be traced back to an epoch of the Western tradition which developed uninterruptedly up until the 3rd century CE and has served as the primary foundation of Western thought, culture, and politics to this day. In fact, the tradition to which 19th and 20th century esoteric ideas like “ether” and “planetary energy” draw upon the 6th century BCE dictum of the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales: “all things are full of gods.”14 Plato’s 4th century BCE description of the ensoulment of the “corporeal universe” in the Timaeus in which “all the stars which were necessary to the creation of time… had become living creatures having bodies fastened by vital chains” (emphasis added)15 not only fits the modern esoteric astrological paradigm but is also the arguable progenitor of it. Plato’s argument in Book VI of the Republic in which he explains the four-fold division of the visible and intelligible worlds is also well known. In it he explains that the realm of invisible archetypes— what Bailey and Leo and other esotericists call “vibrations” or “emanations”—”make use of the visible forms and reason about them”16 and convert into images the ideals perceived only by the Mind which they resemble.

So, from this formative period of Western philosophy, where did the lineage of the intuitive Mind’s supra-sensory apprehension of a universe replete with gods become merely a field of physical substance subject to fate? It is unsuitable in a brief paper such as this to give a rounded, dutiful description of the entire history of Western thought that followed Plato. However, it suffices to say that Aristotle’s inheritance of Plato’s metaphysics closely followed by the development of Stoicism began this obfuscation and was later used for political ends. This turn of events attuned the study of reality to the causal, material realm and eventually denied entirely the direct detection of a Western mysticism astrologers such as Bailey and Leo sought. A description of Stoicism according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy supports this view:

“Stoic logic is, in all essentials, the logic of Aristotle. To this, however, they added a theory, peculiar to themselves, of the origin of knowledge and the criterion of truth. All knowledge, they said, enters the mind through the senses. The mind is a blank slate, upon which sense- impressions are inscribed. It may have a certain activity of its own, but this activity is confined exclusively to materials supplied by the physical organs of sense. This theory stands, of course, in sheer opposition to the idealism of Plato, for whom the mind alone was the source of knowledge, the senses being the sources of all illusion and error. The Stoics denied the metaphysical reality of concepts.”17

The involvement of materialist metaphysics in politics referenced above is incredibly important because it was a vital force which supported the rise of Christianity and the subsequent obscurity of Platonic mysticism. Julius Firmicus Maternus, a Christian writer and notable astrologer who lived during the reign of Constantine I18, wrote in the 4th century CE19 of the 3rd century CE teachings of Plotinus, generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism,20 that he “severely reproves men who fear the decrees of Fortune when he claims that the control of our lives is entirely within our own power. He attributes nothing to the force of the stars, nothing to the necessities of Fate, but says everything is in our power.” (Bram, 23) Rather than observe power as an emanating force that may govern Fate, Maternus exhorts his readers to “concede that nothing is placed in our power, but the whole is in the power of Fate. Whatever we do or suffer, the whole thing happens to us by this same judgment of Fortune.” (Ibid, 28) What is this control over one’s life Plotinus claimed? What precedent might it have had in classical culture and why was its veracity so disputed? In the Gospel of Thomas21, an apocryphal, non-Canonical text dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE, Jesus is reported to have said, “If those who lead you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”22 (emphasis added)

While canonical Christianity marched forth from the 3rd century, several traditions—namely the Gnostic23, Hermetic, and Neoplatonic—managed to survive formally until around the 6th century, but fading out primarily due to the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens by the Emperor Justinian.24  This school was the last orchestrated dominion wherein such esoteric ideas as the “role played by the stars in the dissemination of divine ‘energies’ throughout the universe”25 flourished following in the tradition of Iamblichan theurgy. (Fowden, 91) Iamblichus (3rd  century CE), student of the Neoplatonist Porphry, put into ritualized form the Middle Platonist mixture of Stoic and Pythagorean philosophy that had been “common coin” in the 2nd century CE. (Ibid, 135) He was “convinced that he had found…a supreme authority and universal way in a synthesis of Chaldean,26  Egyptian, and ‘philosophical’—that is Greek—doctrines” whose purpose was “to invoke the assistance of the gods, in order to liberate the soul from the body and the bonds of sympathy, and bring about its ‘theurgical union’ with the divine.” (Ibid, 132) In fact, what could have been the salvatory delight of 19th and 20th century seekers of esoteric truth in the Western tradition is that Iamblichus deprecated his teacher’s “reliance on reason in order to arrive at the conviction that the gods exist, for this is an intuition  that was planted within us (sic) before we ever learned to judge and choose.” (emphasis added) (Ibid, 133) The primary point here is, of course, that Leo’s and Bailey’s books on esoteric astrology may have never been necessitated by a dearth in the Western tradition of such spiritual practices had ideas such as these survived the political motivations of the Cannon and the rise of orthodox Christianity and the consequent evolution of materialist science.


1 In this and the following three footnotes examples of contemporary ways the terms in question have been used.





6 The recent film The Passion of the Christ and such developments as the Holy Land theme park in Orlando, Florida ( are ample evidence of the ways in which a strict interpretation of Biblical stories are interpreted literally, and, subsequently, materially.

7 can be referenced for these ideas.

8 That modern science is a result of Protestant Christianity and Renaissance Humanism is the topic of another, much longer paper. For the sake of brevity we will assume the reader is comfortable with the idea that the evolution of Western thought is inextricably due to its philosophical and religious history. Here Bertrand Russell’s 1926 essay entitled “What is the Soul?” is used by way of contrast to typical Christian thinking: “I think the opponents of materialism have always been actuated by [the desire to] to prove that the mind is immortal, but our power is very strictly limited. We cannot at present do anything whatever to the sun or moon or even to the interior of the earth, and there is not the faintest reason to suppose that what happens in regions to which our power does not extend has any mental causes. That is to say, to put the matter in a nutshell, there is no reason to think that except on the earth’s surface anything happens because somebody wishes it to happen.” (



11 Bailey, Alice. Esoteric Astrology. London: Lucis Press, 1997; Leo, Alan. Esoteric Astrology. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1989.

12 Chapter 4 addresses “The Significance of Caste and Social Distinctions.”

13 On the previous page Bailey describes “the ether of space” as “the field in and through which the energies from the many originating sources play.” (9)

14 Frost-Arnold, Greg. “On Thales’ “all things are full of gods”.” University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 20 Sep 2007 . Frost-Arnold writes, “We believe Thales said that all things are full of gods primarily because of one passage from Aristotle’s de Anima. If we examine that passage closely, it does not give us strong reason to believe Aristotle was certain Thales…believed everything was ensouled…. The claim that everything is ensouled…is Aristotle’s own conjectural…rationalization for Thales’ dictum.”

15 Jowett, Benjamin. “Timaeus by Plato.” The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 20 Sep 2007 .

16 Jowett, Benjamin. “The Republic by Plato.” The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 20 Sep 2007 .

17 Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 13 Dec 2004. Stanford University. 20 Sep 2007 .

18 The emperor Constantine I laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization through his legalization and support of Christianity. Several things went along with what has been called this “Constantinian shift”: citizenship in the state became equivalent with membership in the church which was no longer voluntary, a move from to the power of priesthood in the church hierarchy, and a shift of emphasis toward concern about the fate of each individual’s soul. Barrett, Lois. “Thinking Theologically about Church and State.” 25 Oct 1996 21 Sep 2007 .

19 Bram, Jean Rhys, trans. Julius Firmicus Maternus. Matheseos Libri VIII. Ancient Astrology: Theory and Practice. Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Press, 1975.

20 Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 30 June 2003. Stanford University. 21 Sep 2007 .

21 Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (NY: Random House, 2003), relates a comment made by the Roshi of the Zen Center in San Francisco: “…had I known the Gospel of Thomas, I wouldn’t have had to become a Buddhist!” (74)

22 Schenk, Greg. “The Gospel of Thomas.” 17 June 1992. Internet Sacred Text Archive. 21 Sep 2007 .

23 This tradition, though arguably a dark and imprisoning philosophy, is included here due to its cosmological view that there exist lower powers called “Archons” who are led by a demi-urge (in the tradition of Plato’s Timaeus) which seem to relate to the planetary powers though their aim appears to be “the enslavement of man.” Jonas, Hans. Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1958. (42-44)

24 Moore, Edward. “Neoplatonism.” 2006. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 21 Sep 2007 .

25 Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

26 Given that Leo sought to bring oriental ideas into Western astrology, there is some irony in the theurgical desire “to emphasize these oriental connections that gave their oracles their epithet ‘Chaldean’.” (Fowden, 135)


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