What is the Occult ?

Is the occult somehow inextricably bound to the sinister? For me, the answer is both easy — no — and more complex than a simple yes or no.

First of all, the term “occult” is simply a Latin-derived word for “hidden” or “unseen.” It was adopted by Renaissance scholars and translators who were looking for a way of referring to the rediscovered spirituality of the ancient world, particularly the rites, rituals, and initiatory religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Occult revivalists of the Renaissance, and much less so their antecedents in the antique world, in no way conceived of themselves as sinister.

Belief in the occult simply means belief in an unseen dimension of life whose comprehensive forces can be felt on and through us — the rub is that this search usually occurs outside the parameters of a traditional faith. Hence, some religionists historically look suspiciously upon off-the-grid seekers.

“[W]e are not very different from the classical magician when we strive, morally and materially, to carry forth our plans in the world — to ensure the betterment of ourselves and our loved ones; to heal sickness; to create, sustain, and, above all, to generate things which bear our markings, ideals, and likenesses. All of this is the expenditure of power, the striving to physically establish our inner drives and images.

I do not view the search for individual power, including through supernatural means, as necessarily maleficent, and neither, I think, did Cavendish. Historically and psychologically, it is a fundamental human trait to evaluate, adopt, or avoid an idea based upon whether it builds or depletes our sense of personal agency. “A living thing,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power…” The difficulty is in making our choices wisely.

We sometimes deny or overlook this power-seeking impulse in ourselves, associating it with the tragic fate of Faust or Lady Macbeth. It can be argued, however, that all of our neuroses and feelings of chronic despair, aside from those with identifiably biological causes, grow from the frustrated expression of personal power. We may spend a lifetime (and countless therapy sessions) ascribing our problems to other, more secondary phenomena — without realizing that, as naturally as a bird is drawn to the dips and flows of air currents, we are in the perpetual act of trying to forge, create, and sustain, much like the ancient alchemist or wizard”

Mitch Horowitz




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