JOSCELYN GODWIN’S ‘GOLDEN THREAD’
The Golden Thread
A recent book by Joscelyn Godwin is reviewed by John Robert Colombo
Some years ago I published a monograph on the life and work of James Webb, the Anglo-Scottish historian of “rejected knowledge.” Webb died by his own hand in 1980, the same year his magnum opus appeared. He called his work “The Harmonious Circle” and it remains the fullest narrative history yet written about the Fourth Way or, as it is sometimes called, the Work.
My monograph was called “The Occult Webb” and it featured contributions by Colin Wilson and Janet Colin-Smith. It appeared one decade later, and it was – and remains – the longest, sustained consideration and appreciation of the man and his work. While writing it, I asked myself the following question: “These days whose shoulders are broad enough to bear the mantle of this fallen historian of ‘rejected knowledge’?”
Now I have an answer to that question. The man with the broad shoulders is Joscelyn Godwin, the Anglo-American scholar, translator, musicologist, and historian of the Western wisdom traditions. He has the intellectual resources (judgement, languages, discipline, scholarship, broad interests, not to mention the necessary stamina!) to contribute mightily to this exacting, exasperating, and ever-expanding field of inquiry. If there are readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with Godwin, here are some details about him and about a few of his books.
Joscelyn Godwin was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1945; he was educated at Oxford and Cambridge in Musicology; he was granted a doctorate in that discipline in 1969 from Cornell University; and since 1971 he has taught at Colgate University at Hamilton, N.Y. (An aside: Colgate is a liberal arts college located in the heart of the Empire State; it is a member of the “junior” ivy-league colleges; and it bears a name familiar to buyers of bars of soap: William Colgate. Yes, the founder of the Colgate-Palmolive-Peat Company was an early benefactor of this independent educational institution.)
Godwin’s discipline is Musicology, but his scholarly interests cover the spectrum of Western esotericism. Here are the titles of ten of his more popular works – though to call them “popular” is to misrepresent them, if by that adjective is meant “easy to read” or “widely available in better bookstores.” Godwin’s publications are like Webb’s publications – carefully researched and fully documented. They are serious and some are definitive contributions to the scholarly field.
* “Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds”
* “Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge” (1979).
* “Mystery Religions in the Ancient World” (1981).
* “Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: The Spiritual Dimension of Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde” (1987).
* “Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies, 1750-1950”
* “The Mystery of the Seven Vowels in Theory and Practice” (1991).
* “Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival”
* “The Theosophical Enlightenment” (1994)
* “The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance” (2002)
* “The Real Rule of Four” (2004).
On my shelves I have three of his books, the ones devoted to the seven vowels, the polar symbols, and the theosophical revival. The latter title is comprehensive and offers an impressive nosology. He is adept at definitions and distinctions. For instance, he writes about terminology:
“Occultism as a concept dates only from the mid-nineteenth century, as the term for the pursuit of occult science in deliberate opposition to the prevailing beliefs of scientific materialism. Thus, although Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist, and Johannes Kepler was an astrologer, they were not occultists. Blavatsky used the term loosely, sometimes meaning ‘esotericist” as defined above. But not all Theosophists were occultists: many of them are better described as philosophers and students of comparative religion.”
The passage gives a good idea of Godwin’s attempt to control the vocabulary and to come to terms with the plethora of terms in the field.
To all of these books should be added an eleventh book, but before examining the eleventh volume, let me offer a riff on the author’s two names. What comes to mind when I recall the handle “Joscelyn Godwin” is the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel. The name is spelled with double o’s, but these picturesque sandbars bear the name of the Earl of Godwin – only one o this time – who was a powerful, principled nobleman at the time of Edward the Confessor. The Sands near Dover are said to be all that remains of the Earl’s “drowned estate,” at some point in time inundated, like Lyonesse, birthplace of Tristan.
So much for the family name not without its legendary associations. Now the given name “Joscelyn.” Variously spelled, it is familiar enough as a female’s given name. As a male’s given name, its name is rare but not unknown. For instance, the writer who specializes in terrorism at “The New York Times” is Joscelyn Thomas. Joscelyn Wainright is an arts administrator of African American background. Yet the name is sufficiently unusual that a reviewer of one of Godwin’s books, writing in “The New York Herald Tribune,” mistakenly but consistently referred to the author as “she” and “her.”
These are mere “lexilinks”; indeed, I am sure Professor Godwin is more aware of them than I am. Let me conclude by merely adding that Joscelyn Godwin is a “rara avis” in name as well as in achievement. Now … to the latest book. Godwin’s latest publication is more “popular” than his earlier books and perhaps, for that reason, it is not as weighty or as impressive. It is titled and subtitled “The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions.” It was published last year by Quest Books, the imprint of the Theosophical Publishing House which is based in Wheaton, Illinois, U.S.A. Pagination: xiv + 202 pages. It includes a Foreword by Richard Smoley, Quest’s editor and author in his own right, as well as a Preface, a series of interesting Notes, and an Index. The book is well designed and produced without illustrations. It is quite short, about 50,000 words.
The text consists of sixteen chapters; each chapter focuses on one or another of the major “Western mystery traditions.” The chapters are arranged chronologically from, let us say, ancient oracular literature (which turns out not to be so “ancient” after all) to the New Age Movement (which turns out to be hardly “new”). When so much has been mentioned, it seems a shame to point out what is not mentioned at all. There is nothing on Aboriginal, Fourth World, Medewin, or Shamanist traditions or practices. Witchcraft and its revival as Wicca are unacknowledged. There is no mention of Ouspensky, and the sole reference to Gurdjieff is made in the following passage:
“Those who want to learn practical alchemy can seek out the Philosophers of Nature or their successors; those undeterred by a hard and exclusive path can join the Gurdjieff Work. People with a Christian orientation may gravitate to Martinism, or to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy.”
No doubt there are good reasons why Godwin ignored these subjects, but the two-page Preface does not give them, and there is no Afterword to provide a summary. Perhaps the image of the “thread” is a little “thread-bare.” Yet what has been included is first rate, and I see these chapters as the “asides” of a scholar. What I mean is that I had the sense, reading these sixteen chapters, that I was not really reading a text but was reading (or listening to) radio scripts or transcribed talks.
According to the Preface, fourteen of these scripts or talks were written as “articles” (not book chapters or essays) for “Lapis: The Inner Meaning of Contemporary Life,” a publication new to me. (According to the Lapis website, the magazine – now online – was launched in 1995 and is sponsored by a group called the New York Open Centre “with the aim of offering high-quality articles on both the outer world of society and the environment and the inner world of soul and spirit.” I will return to the website.)
So we have between the covers of this book a series of magazine articles, arranged historically, on major trends in the Western mystery traditions. I am not so sure all of this is “ageless wisdom,” but as cultural history – which it certainly is – in James Webb’s words it is “rejected knowledge” – though these days such ideas are being “accepted” by great numbers of people who formerly might have “rejected” them. They have become part of the fabric of civilization in Eastern and Western Europe and North and South America. Running through this fabric, I guess, is this “thread” of the gold of the imagination.
What I will do is survey this survey of mysteries, so to speak, by devoting one paragraph of description to each chapter of the book. The best I can do is draw attention to some highlights, but in doing so I pray I will convey a sense of the whole.
Preface. “This book traces the thread of esoteric wisdom in the Western world, from classical antiquity to contemporary Europe and America. The arrangement is historical, but since the wisdom is timeless, each stage is perpetually present and a source of inspiration and action for today.” Godwin contrasts esoteric (inner aspect) with exoteric (outer aspect). Today such information is available: “If anyone wants to learn more, the secrets once imparted only to initiates are there on the bookshelves. The doors of the sanctuary are agape …. ” I find the word “thread” to be metaphoric; given the discontinuous nature of the so-called tradition – it is full of fresh starts – it could be argued the author is dealing with ribbons rather than a single thread that is continuous, not to mention “golden.” Perhaps to overcome this reservation, the author goes out of his way to relate the historical experience to contemporary life, the reason being that the “wisdom” is “ageless.” Perhaps it is, but I thought people were wise, not theory or practice.
Chapter 1: The Prisca Theologia. Interestingly Godwin begins his survey not at the beginning but in medias res: with the work of Georgios Gemistos Plethon, a fifteenth-century Byzantine who had a sense of “a ‘primordial theology’ (prisca theologia).” Plethon looks back on the Chaldean and Persian and Thracian “illuminates” and connects them with Pythagoras and Plato. In doing so he influences Cosimo de’ Medici who revives Plato’s Academy and appoints the scholarly priest Marsilio Ficino to head it. Here is a clear statement of the “‘perennial philosophy’ (philosophia perennis), the wisdom common to Jews, Christians, and pagans.” Godwin is right at home here but then begins to free-associate. The balance of the chapter is far-ranging, taking into account the “incorruptibility” of the bodies of saints, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the “mundus imaginalis” described by Henry Corbin, etc. The author refers to “a continuity of theurists” as “the stream of European magic … continuing to this day.”
Chapter 2: The Hermetic Tradition. This is familiar ground, beginning with Thoth and Thrice-great Hermes, a doctrine of correspondences, microcosm and macrocosm, survivals in the Abrahamic religions, and continuing with notions of afterlife and both speculative and useful knowledge. At one point he quotes John Michell who writes that the city of Jerusalem could potentially unite “Jews to the east, Muslims to the south, Christians to the west and, in the direction of the north pole, followers of that ancient religious system that preceded the others.”
Chapter 3: The Orphic Mysteries. Hermes and Zoroaster are far distant figures; closer to us is the figure of Orpheus and the mysteries associated with the early musician. (As Ouspensky would say, “That is another opera.”) Godwin is a good guide to Orphism as a mystery religion and Orpheus as its psychopomp. He writes, “Some of the early Christians regarded Orpheus as a kind of pagan saint, even confusing his image with that of Jesus.” There is a discussion of the influence of the seven strings of Apollo’s lyre on Western music. A thoughtful chapter.
Chapter 4: Pythagoras and His School. The historical period begins with the life of Pythagoras who founded, some 600 years B.C., his mystery school at Crotona in southern Italy. Here wisdom is synonymous with the intellect, mathematics, metaphysics, plus the notion of the imprisoned intellect or spirit: soma / sema – Greek for body / tomb. There is the suggestion that the Eleusinian Mysteries are the equivalent of the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. There is a neat summary: “The Pythagorean curriculum, in short, was intended to develop conscious and critical participation in the drama of life and death.”
Chapter 5: Plato’s Cave. Here we benefit from standing on firm ground, the time frame being two martyrdoms: Socrates’s from hemlock in 399 B.C. to Hypatia’s from dismembering in 415 A.D. Or it may be bracketed by the founding of Plato’s Academy in 370 B.C. to its closing by the Emperor Justinian in 529 A.D. “When Plato’s Academy was closed … it had lasted longer than any known educational institution up to that time.” (It is interesting to add that when Mike Lazaridis, the co-creator of the BlackBerry, founded the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, in 1999, he placed an inscription in Greek above its main entranceway – the following admonition from Plato’s original Academy: “Let no one uninterested in geometry enter here.”) Much attention is paid to the revival of the Platonic “forms” and the Socratic “method” in Renaissance Florence. Godwin extends the insight of Plato’s Cave to “today’s tyrants … the special-interests lobbies, the military, legal, and medical industries, the bankers and speculators, the multinationals, etc.”
Chapter 6: The Power of the Egregor. I found this chapter a novel one. The term “egregor” (Greek for “watcher”) might be translated “thought-form” or “group-mind.” (I immediately thought of the “tulpa” that the Tibetan traveller Alexandra David-Neel could summon but not dismiss.) Godwin uses the term to refer to the henoistic notion that the world is enchanted and that each and every living being has its spirit. The pre-classical Greeks and the ancient Romans were quite at home with such “gods” and “goddesses” and had prayers and rituals to placate them. “I am suggesting that the rise and fall of nations is intimately bound up with their relations with their gods; and that these are real entities, even though they are not the eternal and all-powerful being they are reputed to be. This seems to me a theory worthy of consideration by anyone who can admit that the universe is a very strange place, and that there is plenty of room in it for beings bigger than mankind.”
Chapter 7: The Meddling God. This chapter deals with Gnosticism and identifies Carl Jung as the leading modern gnostic. The “meddling” spirit is that of the Demiurge, Yahweh, etc. Godwin sees the Manichaean spirit running through Gnostic thought from early times to the present. There is a nod to the Bogomils (regarded as heroes and martyrs in present-day Bulgaria, by the way) and the ever-interesting Cathars. “I think that it is time to dust off the Gnostic mythology and to reconsider it in a dispassionate frame of mind. There are two questions to be considered. The first is the epistemological one: does the human being have a potential for gnosis, and if so, how do we recognize it? … The second question is the historical one of whether the human race may have undergone interference from outside in the distant past.” Here he pauses for a sentence or two to ponder the possible extraterrestrial “origins of humanity.”
Chapter 8: The Negative Theology. “The Dark Ages knew of no mystery schools such as had flourished in Antiquity.” Here there are some mixed metaphors: “Despite this we can sometimes glimpse, like a golden thread half buried in the soil, the legacy of a Christian theosophic tradition that was very different from the mainstream.” Threads buried? Mainstreams? (Denis Saurat goes unmentioned in these pages; nevertheless I miss some of his wit when he discusses undercurrents: “A learned neoplatonist of the sixteenth century could find confirmation of his ideas in the practices of an uneducated village witch.”) This chapter deals with the influence of Dionysius the Areopagite and the contributions of John Scotus Eriugena and Meister Eckhart. The author dismisses “the ‘one way’ mentality” of monotheisms, which lead to dogmatism, in favour of inner experiences associated with polytheisms. Here is the key passage:
“I suggest that the indescribable experiences of these mystics be taken as the best evidence we have of the central truth of monotheism: that there is one reality behind and beyond all things, to which the human being is mysteriously connected. But the sacred and revealed books, the contentious theologies, the laws, clergy, and qualified images of God seem to me proof positive of the central truth of polytheism: that there are many higher beings than us in the universe, some of whom enter into relations with mankind. Gods and goddesses, angels and daimons, spirits, egregores, or extraterrestrials – classify them as you will. The matter is probably very complex and beyond our categories of thought.”
As much as I enjoyed reading this chapter is, I feel it is already “old hat,” given there is no mention of the work of neuroscientists in detecting anomalous brain activity using fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging). (It occurs to me I may well be the only reader of this book to express this concern.)
Chapter 9: Cathedrals of Light. “In France alone, the ninety years from 1180 to 1270 saw the building of eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred abbeys.” The purpose of the cathedral? “It was a finely tuned vehicle for getting souls to heaven,” suggests Godwin; he wisely adds, “This holds good even if the only heaven that exists is the one that we make on earth.” He then alludes to “the mathematics of sacred buildings,” whether Gothic, Romanesque, or Byzantine, with respect to their arithmetic (measurement) and geometry (shape). These concerns were accompanied by the development of the science of acoustics and that of musical harmony, “from which a clear line can be traced to the more familiar music, popular and classical alike, whose harmonic nature everyone takes for granted.” “Harmony is number made audible.” In all the great cathedrals are “one of the greatest adornments of civilization that the world has ever known.”
Chapter 10: The Arts of the Imagination. “The mental construction of temples and churches was inseparable from meditation on the meaning of those myths, while the intense effort of imagination could easily pass over into visionary experience.” Godwin links the “creative imagination” or “active imagination” employed here with a widened interest in Kabbalah and Sufism and what the ancients knew as the Art of Memory. “The Western esoteric tradition has always emphasized the use of the imagination as the primary way of access to higher worlds.” He goes into some detail about “medieval soul journeys” described by Irish monks and Dante, those Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystical quests, and then texts composed by Ignatius of Loyola, Athanasius Kircher, Emanuel Swedenborg, and other visionaries who explored “the imaginal world.” All of this is lost on our children who are raised “in front of the television” and denied stories about travels in “the inner world of imagination.”
Chapter 11: The Pagan Renaissance. This chapter is concerned with how the Catholic Church, creative throughout the Middle Ages, in the fourteenth century consolidated its hold over the population of Europe and in the process drove the ancient traditions and their practitioners underground. In doing so it destroyed the Order of Knights Templar and brought about two papacies in place of one, the lasting schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, etc. In reaction, the fifteenth century saw remnants of the classical world, rather than destroyed, being placed on pedestals and copied. Eroticism became part of the culture. With this came Marsilio Ficino’s promotion of the doctrine of correspondences which encouraged associative thinking and using “natural magic” to influence and to cure. Godwin distills a heady liquor in this chapter, which shows how the revival of interest in pagan magic turned Europeans into Platonists, until the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution at least.
Chapter 12: The Philosopher’s Dilemma. Godwin begins debatably: “In every generation there have been a few people who did not believe so much as know some of the answers to the external questions of humanity.” I stress “debatably” because the adage “every age its sage,” like the adage “every region its religion,” is a bit shopworn. Earlier (in Chapter 10) Godwin alluded to the notion of the “Invisible College.” (Indeed, in the Notes he admits he originally planned to call this work “Annals of the Invisible College.) Here he seems to give it wheels or wings: Rosicrucians in the seventeenth century, and alchemists and theosophists in the eighteenth century. The “dilemma” of the chapter’s heading is whether the philosopher should work privately for himself or publicly for his society. This leads Godwin to discuss the Jesuits and their mission and then Pansophy (the study and use of natural and supernatural sciences for the betterment of the world). He then refers to the Golden and Rosy Cross, John Dee, Paracelsus, and Elias Ashmole, followed by a brief discussion of Freemasonry. All of this this takes place on the stage of Lutheranism.
Chapter 13: Inner Alchemy. “What most differentiates Christian theosophy from the mainly Catholic tradition of mysticism is that, as an experiential path, it addresses the intellect as well as the emotions.” Jacob Boehme is discussed and parallels between his system and those of post-quantum physicists, noted by Basarab Nicolescu, are noted. Christian theosophists give way to alchemists. “It was C.G. Jung who revalidated alchemy for the educated public, rescuing it from becoming a footnote to the history of chemistry.” Godwin, an authority on alchemical studies, relates kinds of alchemy with kinds of people – psychological types. “As normal, undeveloped people, we are only able to perceive and live in a normal, undeveloped world, which is the world known to science.” This is one chapter that I will reread.
Chapter 14: The Religion of Art. The word “enthusiasm” means “possession by a god” but it has come to be suspected of meaning “ill-regulated religious emotion or speculation.” Yet Godwin writes, “Subjectivity and interest in one’s own inner processes and emotion is the sine qua non of the esoteric path.” This path leads inexorably into what one critic has called “the romantic agony.” The romantic spirit of the sublime is wonderfully expressed in poems and paintings. The author seems to subscribe to Kathleen Raine’s view that “the Muse of poetry today is virtually dormant.” From somewhere else he holds that “the novel is alive and well. This is probably because it is the one serious art form to have stolidly resisted the alienating influence of modernism.” Godwin is deft at dismissing “the religion of art” but is most relevant when discusses the role of music: “To those able to suppress the verbal and visual associations, absolute music offers something akin to meditational states.” (I would like to have his views on the compositions of Philip Glass, for instance, and the so-called Mystical Minimalists.) Generally he is right: “But what is missing is the sense of the sacred, to say nothing of a community devoted to its members.”
Chapter 15: Wise Men from the East. The principal “wise men” is a “wise woman” in the person of H.P. Blavatsky, who with Henry Olcott and others “alerted the Western public to the riches of Eastern philosophy and religion.” There is also Vivekananda, disciple of Ramakrishna, and Paramahansa Yogananda. The information in this chapter forms the foreground of the New Age Movement and hence will be familiar to many readers. Godwin discusses the appeal to Westerners of Hinduism, followed by Buddhism, especially Zen, and then by Tibetan Buddhism. “My generation, which came to spiritual awareness in the 1960s and 1970s, has been indelibly marked by this import.” He has in mind the fact that Hinduism and Buddhism “have had a stronger impact on the Western imagination than Islam and other Oriental traditions.” What is offered is a philosophy and a method. The Christian religion, in light of “the perennial wisdom,” is but one in a series of “great religions,” yet it is owed respect because it offers access to the Divine. Another view is that, if “the perennial wisdom” extends “beyond any historical accidents (including the so-called Incarnation),” it reduces “the churches to the field of social and psychological hygiene.”
Chapter 16: The End of the Thread? The author laments the fact that “the Golden Thread has frayed into a myriad filaments.” (Suppose it was never a length of thread but a ribbon of many colours and patterns?) This chapter looks at the history of the Theosophical Society and how it fragmented, and then surveys the diversity of the contemporary scene. Godwin argues that the twentieth century’s “one novel addition to the esoteric tradition” is the depth psychology of C.G. Jung. No doubt he is right, but certainly Jung’s former mentor Sigmund Freud has something to offer as well — “The Future of an Illusion” is not to be dismissed – Freud himself felt he did, and the Freud scholar Jeffrey M. Masson would concur. “Scholars now agree that the New Age descends directly from the Hermetic and theosophical currents, of which it is a popularization and exoteric complement.” Optimism is characteristic of proponents of the New Age. Pessimism is characteristic of the Traditionalism of René Guénon and his successors, including Julius Evola. “Only Evola accepted that in the Kali Yuga there is no tradition left, and that the rare person who aspires to a spiritual path must make his own heroic and lonely way.” A few sentences are devoted to today’s odious religious fundamentalists of the Abrahamic religions, a few more to “intelligent design” and to secularism. “Knowledge has been put into our hands that was once the closely guarded property of initiates, together with the freedom to discuss and follow it without fear of being executed for heresy. Is this not cause for rejoicing?”
Notes. There are almost forty pages of sources, footnotes, and comments; these are thoughtfully handled. No reader who works his way through the section of notes will put down the book without benefit, as Richard Smoley has noted in his appreciative Preface.
The task of summarizing “The Golden Thread” is a task that is at once simple and inconvenient. It is simple because the author has done what he set out to do, and he has done it better than anyone else whose writings are familiar to me – except for James Webb! – but that is another matter. The task is inconvenient because I suspect, for all his erudition, his familiarity with the basic texts, Godwin’s concern for his material, and his ease of expression, he has not really established that these sixteen or so separate elements constitute “wisdom traditions.” Wisely he has eschewed the singular – a wisdom tradition – in favour of the plural – “wisdom traditions” – but do they have all that much in common? I am sympathetic but not really convinced that they do, given the insights of neuroscience on how meditative and imaginative practices affect sectors of the brain or how psychological experiments like those of Michael Persinger, with his so-called Magic Helmet, is able to “de-occultize” experiences and create or recreate, on cue, predicted experiences of “other entities.” As well, Godwin has a lot to say about the parade of ideas but precious little to say about the nature of consciousness, awareness, or presence. Science may be unable to answer the ultimate questions posed by life and death, but are sages able to do so without contradiction?
John Robert Colombo, author and anthologist, is a specialist in Canadiana. He has his name on the planet Mars. Readers curious about how this feat was accomplished are encouraged to check his personal website (www. colombo-plus. ca) and then click on “Contact” and then on “Mars Lander.”