Constant Alphonse-Louis - The History of Magic

Author : Constant Alphonse-Louis (Eliphas Lévi)
Title : The History of Magic
Year : 1922

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PREFACE TO THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION. In several casual references scattered through periodical literature, in the biographical sketch which preceded my rendering of Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie and elsewhere, as occasion prompted, I have put on record an opinion that the History of Magic, by Alphonse Louis Constant, written - like the majority of his works - under the pseudonym of Eliphas Levi, is the most arresting, entertaining and brilliant of all studies on the subject with which I am acquainted. So far back as 1896 I said that it was admirable as a philosophical survey, its historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, and that there is nothing in occult literature which can suffer comparison therewith. Moreover, there is nothing so comprehensive in the French language, while as regards ourselves it must be said that—outside records of research on the part of folk-lore scholarship—we have depended so far on a history by Joseph Ennemoser, translated from the German and explaining everything, within the domain included under the denomination of Magic, by the phenomena of Animal Magnetism. Other texts than this are available in that language, but they have not been put into English ; while none of them has so great an appeal as that which is here rendered into our tongue. Having certified so far regarding its titles, it is perhaps desirable to add, from my own standpoint, that I have not translated the book merely because it is entertaining and brilliant, or because it will afford those who are concerned with Magic in history a serviceable general account. The task has been undertaken still less in the interests of any who may have other—that is to say, direct occult—reasons for acquaintance' with *' its procedure, its rites and its mysteries." I have no object in providing unwary and foolish seekers with material of this kind, and it so happens that the present History does not fulfil the promise of its sub-title in these respects, or at least to any extent that they would term practical in their folly. Through all my later literary life I have sought to make it plain, as the result of antecedent years spent in occult research, that the occult sciences—in all their general understanding—are paths of danger when they are not paths of simple make-believe and imposture. The importance of Eliphas Levi's account at large of the claims, and of their story throughout the centuries, arises from the fact {a) that he is the authoritative exponent-in-chief of all the alleged sciences ; (^) that it is he who, in a sense, restored and placed them, under a new and more attractive vesture, before public notice at the middle period of the nineteenth century ; {c) that he claimed, as we shall see, the very fullest knowledge concerning them, being that of an adept and master ; but {d) that—subject to one qualification, the worth of which will be mentioned —it follows from his long examination that Magic, as understood not in the streets only but in the houses of research concerning it, has no ground in the truth of things, and is of the region of delusion only. It is for this reason that I have translated his History of Magic, as one who reckons a not too gracious task for something which leans toward righteousness, at least in the sense of charity. The world is full at this day of the false claims which arise out of that region, and I have better reasons than most even of my readers can imagine to undeceive those who, having been drawn in such directions, may be still saved frorn deception. It is well therefore that out of the mouth of a master we can draw the fullest evidence required for this purpose. In the present prefatory words I propose to shew, firstly, the nature of Eliphas Levi's personal claims, so that there may be no misconception as to what they were actually, and as to the kind of voice which is speaking ; secondly, his original statement of the claims, nature and value of Transcendental Magic ; and, thirdly, his later evidences on its phenomenal or so-called practical side, as established by its own history. In this manner we shall obtain his canon of criticism, and I regard it as valuable, because—with all his imperfections—he had better titles of knowledge at his own day than any one, while it cannot be said that his place has been filled since, though many workers have risen up in the same field of inquiry and have specialised in the numerous departments which he covered generally and super^ficially. Before entering upon these matters it may be thought that I should speak at some length of the author's life ; but the outlines have been given already in an extended introduction prefixed to a digest of his writings which I published many years ago under the title of Mysteries of Magic^ and again, but from another point of view, in the preface to the Doctrine and Ritual of Transcendental Magic^ already mentioned. The latter will be made available shortly in a new annotated edition. For the rest, an authoritative life of Eliphas L^vi has been promised for years in France, but is still delayed, and in its absence the salient biographical facts are not numerous. In the present place it will be therefore sufficient to say that Alphonse Louis Constant was born at Paris in 1810, and was the son of a shoemaker, apparently in very poor circumstances. His precocity in childhood seemed to give some promise of future ability ; he was brought to the notice of a priest belonging to his parish, and this in its turn led to his gratuitous education at Saint-Sulpice, obviously with a view to the priesthood. There his superiors must have recognised sufficient traces of vocation, according to the measures of the particular place and period, for he proceeded to minor orders and subsequently became a deacon. He seems, however, to have conceived strange views on doctrinal subjects, though no particulars are forthcoming, and, being deficient in gifts of silence, the displeasure of authority was marked by various checks, ending finally in his expulsion from the Seminary. Such is one story at least, but an alternative says more simply that he relinquished the sacerdotal career in consequence of doubts and scruples. Thereafter he must, I suppose, have supported himself by some kind of teaching, and by obscure efforts in literature. Of these latter the remains are numerous, though their value has been much exaggerated for bookselling purposes in France. His adventures with Alphonse Esquiros over the gospel of the prophet Ganneau are told in the pages that follow, and are an interesting biographical fragment which may be left to speak for itself. He was then approaching the age of thirty years. I have failed to ascertain at what period he married Mile. Noemy, a girl of sixteen, who became afterwards of some repute as a sculptor, but it was a runaway match and in the end she left him. It is even said that she succeeded in a nullity suit—not on the usual grounds, for she had borne him two children, who died in their early years if not during infancy, but on the plea that she was a minor, while he had taken irrevocable vows. Saint-Sulpice is, however, a seminary for secular priests who are not pledged to celibacy, though the rule of the Latin Church forbids them to enter the married state. In or about the year 1851 Alphonse Louis Constant contributed a large volume to the encyclopaedic series of Abb^ Migne, under the title of Dictionnaire de Lttterature Chretienne, He is described therein as ancien professeur au petit Seminaire de Paris^ and it is to be supposed that his past was unknown at the publishing bureau. The volume is more memorable on account of his later writings than important by its own merits. As a critical work, and indeed as a work of learning, it is naturally quite negligible, like most productions of the series, while as a dictionary it is disproportioned and piecemeal ; yet it is exceedingly readable and not unsuggestive in its views. There is no need to add that, as the circumstances of the case required, it is written along rigid lines of orthodoxy and is consequently no less narrow, no less illiberal, than the endless volumes of its predecessors and successors in the same field of industry. The doubting heart of Saint-Sulpice had become again a convinced Catholic, or had assumed that mask for the purpose of a particular literary production. Four years later, however, the voice of the churchman, speaking the characteristic language of the Migne Encyclo'paedias, was succeeded by the voice of the magus. The Doctrine oj Transcendental Magic appeared in 1855, the Ritual in 1856, and henceforth Alphonse Louis Constant, under the pseudonym of Eliphas Levi, which has become almost of European celebrity, was known only as an exponent of occult science. It is these works which more especially embody his claims in respect of the alleged science and in respect of his own absolute authority thereon and therein. Various later volumes, which followed from his pen in somewhat rapid succession, are very curious when compared with the Doctrine and Ritual for their apparent submission to church authority and their parade of sincere orthodoxy. I have dealt with this question at length in my introduction to the Mysteries of Magic^ and I shall be dispensed therefore from covering the same ground in the present place. Such discrepancy notwithstanding, Eliphas L^vi became, in a private as well as in a public sense, a teacher of occult science and of Kabalism as its primary source : it was apparently his means of livelihood. He was in Paris during the siege which brought the Franco- German war to its disastrous close, and he died in 1875, fortified by the last rites of the Catholic Church. He left behind him a large sheaf of manuscripts, many of which have been published since, and some await an editor. Passing now to the subject-in-chief of this preface, it is affirmed as follows in the Doctrine and Ritual of Transcendental Magic :—(i) There is a potent and real Magic, popular exaggerations of which are actually below the truth. (2) There is a formidable secret which constitutes the fatal science of good and evil. (3) It confers on man powers apparently super-human. (4) It is the traditional science of the secrets of Nature which has been transmitted to us from the Magi. (5) Initiation therein gives empire over souls to the sage and full capacity for ruling human wills. (6). Arising apparently from this science, there is one infallible. indefectible and truly catholic religion which has always existed in the world, but it is unadapted for the multitude. (7) For this reason there has come into being the exoteric religion of apologue, fable and wonder-stories, which is all that is possible for the profane : it has undergone various transformations, and it is represented at this day by Latin Christianity under the obedience of Rome. (8) Its veils are valid in their symbolism, and it may be called valid for the crowd, but the doctrine of initiates is tantamount to a negation of any literal truth therein. (9) It is Magic alone which imparts true science. Hereof is what may be termed the theoretical, philosophical or doctrinal part, the dogma of " absolute science." That which is practical follows, and it deals with the exercise of a natural power but one superior to the ordinary forces of Nature. It is to all intents and purposes comprised in a Grimoire of Magic, and is a work of ceremonial evocations—whether of elementary spirits, with the aid of pantacles, talismans and the other magical instruments and properties ; whether of spirits belonging ex hypothesi to the planetary sphere ; whether of the shades or souls of the dead in necromancy. These works are lawful, and their results apparently veridic, but beyond them is the domain of Black Magic, which is a realm of delusion and nightmare, though phenomenal enough in its results. By his dedications Eliphas Levi happened to be a magus of light. It will be observed that all this offers a clear issue, and—for the rest—the Grimoire of Transcendental Magic, according to Eliphas Levi, does not differ generically from the Key of Solomon and its counterparts, except in so far as the author has excised here and enlarged there, in obedience to his own lights. He had full authority for doing so on the basis of his personal claims, which may be summarised at this point, (i) He has discovered " the secret of human omnipotence and indefinite progress, the key of all symbolism, the first and final doctrine.** (2) He is alchemist as well as magician, and he makes public the same secret as Raymund Lully, Nicholas Flamel and probably Heinrich Khunrath. They produced true gold, ** nor did they take away their secret with them.** (3) And finally : "at an epoch when the sanctuary has been devastated and has fallen into ruins, because its key has been thrown over the hedge, to the profit of no one, I have deemed it my duty to pick up that key, and I offer it to him who can take it : in his turn he will be doctor of the nations and liberator of the world." ...

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