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John Robert Colombo reviews the recently published biography of metaphysical writer and teacher Manly P. Hall

Is anyone really comfortable with the words “Western Wisdom Tradition” or “Western Esotericism”? I know that I am unhappy with these words, but try as I might I am unable to find better ones.

I have always liked the words “Perennialism” or “Perennial Tradition,” but they have pretty well been appropriated by Messrs. Guénon, Schuon, and Nasr to describe their early 20th century tradition of introspection influenced by Sufism. Of all the terms in common use, my favourite is “The Perennial Philosophy.” It was coined by Gottfried Leibniz, but most people identify it with the title of Aldous Huxley’s ground-breaking and influential compilation of mystical texts which first appeared in 1945.

I also like the two words employed by the late James Webb, the historian who documented occultism’s rises and falls in excruciating detail in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. He referred to the subject of such studies as “rejected knowledge.” He had in mind knowledge (not merely information, not chiefly wisdom) that was dismissed by one generation of mainstream thinkers only to be embraced by the next generation of such thinkers, yet all the while was highly prized by disciples of occult doctrines and studies: the hidden thought through all the ages. So let me call it, simply, “occult thought.”

Huxley and Webb to one side, there is one person who has done more than anyone else to popularize the notion of occult thought – that there is a current of energy and a set of symbols common to all the religions of the world, to all the philosophies of man, and to all the sciences that have emerged. That person is Manly P. Hall. His name may not be on everyone’s lips, but I have long known it and so have countless millions of North Americans who may be forgiven for regarding it as synonymous with a popular version of occult traditions of thought and practice.

There is a very sketchy biography of Manly Palmer Hall (MPH) on Wikipedia that gives a few of the essentials and more than a few of the inessentials. He was born in Canada, in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1901. (Hence my interest in him and in his works.) He died in Los Angeles in 1990, an influential teacher, a millionaire, who had established in that city his own non-profit research institute. A Freemason must have written the Wiki entry because it exaggerates the influence of Masonry on his life and thought, which I regard as negligible. It ignores some interesting personal facts: he came from a broken home and was a high school dropout; in 1918, he accompanied his mother (who was something of a healer) to Los Angeles, where he met a series of self-styled preachers who led their own small congregations of spiritually dissatisfied men and women (many of the latter elderly and wealthy) and instructed them in the principles that are “behind” or that “transcend” New Thought, not to mention Theosophy, “I Am,” AMORC, etc.

MPH, at the time in his early twenties, was drawn to these men, and them to him. He was an imposing figure of a man, well over six feet in height, though in later years he was given to corpulency (so that his first wife teased him when he reached 300 pounds and described him as her “Canadian bacon”). Photographs reveal a face with chiselled features and with piercing eyes that lend him a somewhat demonic expression. Recordings preserve his soothing voice and his authoritative manner of exposition. He could speak seemingly without effort for an hour and a half on any number of arcane subjects, and at first he did so in the small parishes and study groups throughout the Los Angeles basin. Then he graduated to larger venues including sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1932, despite the Depression, he was able to fund the founding of the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) and house it in a purpose-built, neo-Mayan structure of some beauty on Los Feliz Boulevard close to the famed Griffith Observatory and not far from “Karlofornia,” the science-fiction-strewn residence of the late Forrest J. Ackerman. The PRS structure is now a protected landmark.

The PRS served as MPH’s headquarters and as a magnet for mystically minded Californians who attended the lecture series delivered by MPH and his colleagues. Here he established a gallery of symbolic art of considerable interest and value and a collection of 50,000 books which includes some rare alchemical texts borrowed by C.G. Jung for his studies in this field. From here MPH published and distributed his own books. (There are said to be close to 200 of these, though many of them are little more than booklets or texts of lectures, rather than full-fledged works of continuing interest.) They were sold in bookstores but mainly through mail order. Many PRS publications got as far as Kitchener, Ontario, where as a teenager in the early 1950s, I devoured them, easily digesting their contents.

As I did so I noticed that the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts. MPH read these texts and digested them, at least on their moralistic levels, finding in each and every one of them elements of an idealistic philosophy that would remain his mainstay through his life.

The aim of these texts, in his eyes, was to help mankind with a some sort of “divine plan” accessible through “transcendental idealism” – perhaps a faith in the powers of the imagination – that would be character-bracing, spirit-respecting, and morale-building. It seems “the Ancients” (whether Ascended Masters or Prophets or Gurus or Saviours or Sages) had not only messages for their own times, but messages for posterity, for us today.

In his writing there is plenty of theoria but a poverty of praxis. For us “Moderns,” the message has something to do with Right Thinking and being Respectful of the Ancients and what in other circles might be called Positive Thinking. MPH of the PRS was there before Alfred Adler and Esalen and the self-esteem movement that morphed into what passes for New Age thought, EST, and the bromides of Tony Robbins (who is married to a Canadian) or Eckhart Tolle (who is a Canadian).

In point of fact, he predated such movements. He was able to capitalize on the genius of H.P. Blavatsky and the principles of Theosophy. He seemed to have been unaware of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy or G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. But what he had and what he added to his reading and thinking was his own genius – and I hold it to be that. In 1928, at the age of 27, this uneducated young man published his magnum opus, a remarkable work titled “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is indeed an amazing book and it is still in print. It is one of the biggest and most influential of all the best-sellers in what is now a crowded field.

Open before me is a mammoth copy of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is the Diamond Jubilee Edition of Hall’s chef d’oeuvre, and even in its reduced format it is gigantic: It measures 13 inches high, 9 inches wide, with 245 pages – affectingly numbered in Roman numerals (so there are ccxlv double-columned pages). The original edition, which I have examined, is even larger in format. Both the original edition of 1928 and the various reprint editions have forty-eight, full-page plates (brilliantly coloured in the original edition, black-and-white in the reprint editions) with about 190 text illustrations. Although the page is large, the type is tiny. My quick estimate is that the text consists of more than half a million words, completely indexed.

The full title of this amazing work is as follows: “An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages … Diamond Jubilee Edition … Reduced Facsimile.”

It would take too long to reproduce the entire Table of Contents, but there are forty-five chapters with such chronologically arranged chapter headings as “The Ancient Mysteries and Secret Societies Which have Influenced Modern Masonic Symbolism” (the first) and “The Mysteries and Their Emissaries” (the last). In between, the reader will find the whole panoply of subjects – Pyramids, Isis, Zodiac, Pythagoras, Human Body, Animals, Stones, Magic, Sorcery, Elements, Qabbala, Tarot, Rose Cross, Alchemy, Baconism, Freemasonry, Mystic Christianity, Islam, American Indian Symbolism, etc.

The treasure-trove treatment does full justice to the labours of a young enthusiast, something of an evangelist who has no single secret interpretation of the Book of Revelation but is excited by Holy Scripture in toto, a young man with no foreign languages, no academic contacts, and no publisher’s advance, who researched, wrote, and published this opus on a subscription basis, single-handedly. That in itself is one of the “wonders” of the age.

The book ends with an excited invitation that gives a taste of Hall’s style and moralistic message, surprisingly relevant today: “The great institution of materiality has failed. The false civilization built by man has turned, and like the monster of Frankenstein, is destroying its creator. Religion wanders aimlessly in the maze of theological speculation. Science batters itself impotently against the barriers of the unknown. Only transcendental philosophy knows the path. Only the illumined reason can carry the understanding part of man upward to the light. Only philosophy can teach man to be born well, to live well, to die well, and in perfect measure be born again. Into this band of the elect, – those who have chosen the life of knowledge, of virtue, and of utility – the philosophers of the ages invite YOU.”

Who can resist such an invitation? Hall’s approach reminds me, a bit, of that taken by the scholar Joscelyn Godwin in his most recent book, “The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions.” When I reviewed that book for this blog last year, I wondered, “What do all the ‘wonders’ in Godwin’s book have in common? Is there indeed a ‘golden threat’?” Now I know the answer to that question: The wonders are also found in Hall’s “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” This is Occult Thought in Illuminated Capital Letters!

Also open before me is a copy of the recently published biography of the man himself. It is written by Louis Sahagun, a staff writer with “The Los Angeles Times,” and it is titled “Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall.” It was published in paperback in 2008 by Process Media, Fort Townsend, Washington, U.S.A. (There is a website for the book.)

As a newspaperman, Sahagun covered MPH’s life and work and death – indeed, the way he died is as mysterious as the way he lived is unusual. It might be that in his eighty-ninth year he was murdered. Sahagun investigates all of this and the court cases that followed and the assumption of the PRS into the welkin of an institution that grants a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness Studies. As a biographer with an eye on both the man and the spirit of the times, he effectively compares and contrasts the ambience of Los Angeles, MPH’s favourite city, in the 1920s and in the 1960s. Sahagun knows little about occult thought, but he is effective when he describes what he does know, which is MPH’s milieu.

Overall, MPH emerges as a preacher, a man (like say Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham) with a message. That message has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism or Protestant Evangelism, but it has a lot to do with a recognition of arcane symbolism, of the “transcendental” nature of religious paths, of the brotherhood of man, of the powers latent in both nature and human nature, and of the “wisdom tradition” … oops … Occult Thought.

John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana and for such collections as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” In the interests of disclosure: JRC is mentioned by name in the pages of Sahagun’s book. The passage is innocent enough: “Hall was so hungry to be in the public eye that he welcomed the 1988 publication of a book ‘Mysterious Canada: Strange Sights, Extraordinary Events, and Peculiar Places’ by John Robert Colombo, which lumped Hall’s birth in Peterborough with sightings of UFOs and abominable snowmen in Canada, haunted houses and curses.”


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