In western societies, the canon is the greatest ally to social conditioning and nation-building. Schools and media echo it with great alacrity. There are even prizes, ranging from local to international (and very prestigious, as well as remunerative), assigned to sundry representatives of the canon.
The significance of such prizes is twofold: further to establish and divulge the canon, and to enroll clever minds in its service. The resulting world is deceptively varied but in fact univocal. Most of us are led to believe that that’s all there is and, often, believe it we do. Then, one day, some of us stumble on something that seems completely extra-canonical. We either dismiss it as sheer nonsense or, to our surprise, we are attracted to it—and the doors of a whole new world are swung open.
Gary Lachman’s Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists is just the sort of book that those of you who have overdosed on the platitudes so incessantly dished out by the canon-enforcers will enjoy reading.
In the Introduction, Mr. Lachman speaks with candor about his becoming a writer, offering, en passant, valuable advice for aspiring writers. Looking back at two decades in which he has authored sixteen books and a myriad reviews, articles and essays, he finds two recurring leitmotivs: “human consciousness and its evolution,” and “that mysterious world that seems to strangely parallel our familiar, everyday one (…).” Such themes reverberate throughout the collection of essays of which the book is comprised.
I used to maintain that a single, cohesive work would be cogitationally more powerful than a collection of disparate writings; Revolutionaries of the Soul, along with Joscelyn Godwin’s The Golden Thread, which is similarly structured, has sown doubts. For example, an opera in the Italian tradition of bel canto is a unified work, but what the audience really looks forward to are its arias, at which the work will eventually culminate, and from which it will depart.
There is plenty of time for the composer to work his way toward the culmination of the arias, whose melodies, incidentally, are often milked to death through variation after variation. Giuseppe Verdi was at master at this. A collection of songs, on the other hand, doesn’t have the luxury of time through which to develop and climax. Each song is a microcosm onto itself; each song must “deliver” within a very few minutes. Likewise, the sixteen essays comprising the florilegium of Revolutionaries of the Soul achieve the impossible: to present the reader with as many thinkers, whose ideas are, invariably, extremely original and who have led an extremely vibrant life, and then comment on both, as well as on the import their ideas have had and still have on us. Some of them, though not exactly part of the canon, are somewhat known: Emanuel Swedenborg, Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley, Carl Gustav Jung and Colin Wilson.
Others, although their work has remained significant and in many cases revolutionary, are unknown to most: Jean Gerber, for example, or Manly Palmer Hall, or Julius Evola. Speaking of the latter: owing to my knowledge of Italian, I, along with the cited scholar Joscelyn Godwin, who also knows Italian, have read most of his writings in the original. An immensely erudite man of extreme (and extremely dangerous) persuasions, I would have thought that the depth and breadth of his enormous output could not be captured within a few pages.
I stand corrected: Mr. Lachman nails it, by painting a rather accurate portrait of “the forbidden philosopher,” a.k.a. “the bad teacher,” and his ideas. That Evola would be directly responsible for the Bologna massacre of August 2, 1980, in which eighty-five people were killed and more than two hundred wounded, is an inference; however, given the fact that ultra-right extremists considered him their teacher and read his books avidly, it is logically warranted.
As with many of the thinkers surveyed in the book, their ideas, theories and convictions must often be taken cum grano salis, as they routinely tend to be extreme. Having said that, Christ’s ideas were extreme, and so were Marx’s.
Neoplatonism, which arose in the third century AD, has the distinction of having explored a very eclectic pool of ideas, some of which, to our eyes, belong in the realm of magic. If Mr. Lachman were to write a follow-up to this book focused on eccentric and extreme minds from antiquity, he would include all Neoplatonist philosophers. Iamblichus (circa c. 245 – c. 325 AD) was one such philosopher; he developed the ideas of his predecessor Plotinus and arrived at a synthesis of all previous schools of thought.
His Exhortation to Philosophy was for centuries deemed a fulfillment of the platonic genius. In it, he expounded a Pythagorean exhortation to a life of philosophy, weaving Platonic, Aristotelian, stoic, and an abundance of magical elements together in a telos toward a spiritual ascension aimed at reuniting the soul to its source. Mr. Lachman’s Revolutionaries of the Soul, by being an Exhortation to Philosophy for the post-modern world, fully recaptures the spirit of this illustrious antecedent.