Colin Wilson and the
Western esoteric tradition
by Geoff Ward
In re-reading Colin Wilson’s metaphysical murder mystery The Glass Cage in preparation for the writing of my introduction to the new edition from Valancourt Books (published July 2014), one could see how the novel, with its Blakean theme, the Romantic poet and visionary William Blake himself and Wilson, too, were all participants in the Western esoteric tradition.
In The Glass Cage (1966), Blake scholar Damon Reade is drawn into the investigation of a series of savage killings in London after the police consult him on quotations left at the murder scenes from Blake’s prophetic books. From his early teens, Wilson was strongly influenced by the spirit of Romanticism, including especially the works of Blake (1757-1827) and his challenge to conventional ways of thinking.
‘The reality we have constructed, both individually and collectively, is a pitiful semblance of our almost limitless potential.’ This could be a quote from Colin Wilson, but it is in fact from P T Mistlberger in The Inner Light: Self-Realisation via the Western Esoteric Tradition (Axis Mundi Books, UK £17.99 / US $33.95, March 2014), which I would recommend highly as a comprehensive introduction to the subject.
The Western esoteric tradition is an essentially optimistic body of thought exhibiting, as Mistlberger points out, a certain practicality and richly creative elements which are potentially, and actually, helpful for inner well-being. It seems to me that, within this, the common factor between Blake, Wilson and his character Damon Reade, is the process of ‘inner work’ in the move towards self-realisation.
In 'The Human Condition - A Postscript to the Schumacher Lecture, 1984', Wilson writes: 'Once we have grasped this concept of an "inner world", we can see that we always inhabit it, even when we feel most trapped in external reality. And when I intensely enjoy any experience, it is because I am simultaneously in two worlds at once: the reality around me and the reality inside me. ... The deeper [a man] can retreat into that inner world, the more he can enjoy his experience of the outer world. Conversely, when he feels trapped in the outer world by boredom or tension, all his experience becomes unsatisfying and superficial. ... [W]e need to recognise the independent reality of that inner world, and to grasp the error of the view that we are creatures of the physical world around us.'
The Western esoteric tradition has flourished for many centuries, revealing itself often as the ‘ancient wisdom’ – its roots being in Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the Kabbalah – and in diverse groups such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons (which include masonic Rosicrucians and Christian Rosicrucians), Swedenborgians, theosophists and the panoply of ‘New Ageists’.
The existence of universal energies hidden from normal human perception has long been a belief of the esoteric traditions of both East and West. Much within the Western tradition is pragmatic and inspirational and involves working actively to transform not only one’s inner being but the outer realm also – the reformation or redemption of the world as well as personal transformation – as against the generally passive Eastern approaches of self-observation and disengagement from the world.
I find Colin Wilson’s philosophy, his ‘new existentialism’, also pragmatic and inspirational in its transformative aspects which, similarly, aim to improve both one’s inner and outer worlds by seeking to give the spur to human evolutionary potential and development, and raise, or widen, the scope of consciousness.
‘Conscious man is a pygmy; a mere fragment of his true self.’ Colin Wilson, Mysteries (1978)
The Western esoteric tradition also recognises the ‘perennial philosophy’, a term derived from the 16th-century Italian scholar and humanist Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) and used by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). This designates a universal body of truth teachings which can be traced to some degree in all wisdom and religious systems, the idea being revived in the 20th century by the English writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and appearing today as a prominent theme in the theory and practice of transformational work to promote inner well-being.
The perennial philosophy, too, has a particularly optimistic quality in that it suggests ancient wisdom traditions revive from time to time to rejuvenate the spiritual condition of humanity.
The occult or esoteric tradition, as David Katz points out in his 2005 book The Occult Tradition, is a coherent intellectual stream rooted in metaphysics, cosmology and religion which has attempted to bring together widely disparate aspects of creation ‘within a complex structure of connections, sympathies and affinities’, exactly what Wilson achieved in his prolific writing career.
Within the realms of that tradition, following a ‘sacred line’ of thought down the centuries, are numerous sub-systems including numerology, pyramidology, divination, theurgy (the effect of a supernatural or divine agency in human affairs), astrology, spiritualism, natural magic and many other things which have gained deep interest today within a new consciousness reflected in, and encouraged by, Wilson’s many books over a period of half a century from 1956 when his The Outsider was published.
Behind all these concerns, as Katz says, lies ‘the firm conviction that there is a plan to the universe, an underlying structure, and if only we understood it, not only would that knowledge make us happy, but we might even be able to manipulate its operation’. This is surely what motivates Damon Reade, and what motivated William Blake with his mystical-occult visions. For just one thing, we know that Blake was influenced by Swedenborg, whose teachings became the main plank of the occult revival in the late eighteenth century, and that Blake’s poetry has strong Hermetic elements.
An essential feature of the Western esoteric tradition, reaching its later clearest culmination in Plato, Plotinus and the Gnostics, is the idea that reality is multi-levelled, corresponding in various ways to our inner being and levels of consciousness, and that these levels can be navigated and their ‘secrets’ revealed through a sufficient combination of intent and discipline.
In Hermeticism, the process of attaining to higher truth was usually described via an elaborate imagery of ascending through various levels of the heavens, commonly seven, to reach the Divine, a process understood to be fundamentally internal. In so doing, man could also regain his control over the material universe, something he supposedly lost in the ‘fall’.
‘Man has not fallen, he has climbed a long way.’ Colin Wilson, Eagle and Earwig: Essays on Books and Writers (1965)
Wilson believed there were seven basic levels of consciousness (he describes them in Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience, 2009, and in earlier books). It was in California in 1987 that he began thinking about how many levels he could distinguish. Quotations below come from Super Consciousness.
Briefly, these are Wilson’s levels: 1, dream consciousness, 2, basic waking consciousness, 3, ‘greyness and boredom’, 4, normal everyday consciousness, 5, ‘spring morning consciousness’, 6, ‘magic consciousness’ or pure delight, and 7, ‘Faculty X’, when the mind ‘seems so energised – or deeply relaxed – that other times and places are as real as the present’. A posited eighth level is a form of ‘mystical consciousness’ but, pragmatically, Wilson says: ‘Our business lies with the first seven.’
At the present time, he maintains, humans stand on the dividing line between ‘uphill and downhill’: level 4. Many are already able to pass this level, and could be ready to coast downhill to level 7 – all we need to do is recognise this consciously, to grasp it, and become newly empowered.
The Hermetica was pre-eminently concerned with the empowerment of man and, accordingly, became a key precursor of 19th and 20th century ’New Thought’ paradigms in which the purpose to life was understood to lie in the individual embodiment of divine status and the fulfilling of a role in the ‘divine plan’.
This greater purpose lay in contrast to a life based on passive, subservient trust in an omnipotent power, or a meaningless existence based on the mechanical results of blind cause and effect – the kind of living which Wilson can be seen to have deplored.
His greater purpose lay in seeking to be sustained by ‘sheer perception of meaning’, which, if achieved, would be a decisive step for the human race to become ‘something closer to gods’.
‘Man has no alternative but eventually to become responsible for the whole universe.’ Colin Wilson,Eagle and Earwig: Essays on Books and Writers (1965)