If you've been looking for that occult text that feels like a long form version of a Doctor Bronner's soap bottle, then you've come to the right place. I mean that in the best possible sense, but this book is not your everyday read. It is a mystical interpretation of the universe through the lens of modern philosophy. I stumbled upon it while reading through other books referenced in a talk titled "Everything is Alive: Weird Metaphysics in Early Modern Thought" by Christia Mercer, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University.
If you're anything like me, the title "Kybalion" sounds both familiar and cryptic. I learned that it has nothing to do with the Jewish Kabbalah. And despite sounding like a book written millennia ago, it was anonymously published in 1908 using the pseudonym "Three Initiates", and is said to describe the "Hermetic principles" of Hermes Trismegistus.
Who's it for?
As someone generally interested in philosophy, ethics and spirituality, I found this book interesting. You're not going to find lengthy proofs or justifications for the ideas espoused, but you will find a heady view of our reality and psychology that makes you question the nature of the universe. You'll also find lots of words in ALL CAPS. Come with an open mind but be sure to bring a heavy dose of skepticism.
What's it about?
The Kybalion contains 7 axioms which describe our universe:
- Mentalism - The universe is mental.
- Correspondence - Different planes of existence correspond to one another. As above, so below.
- Vibration - The universe is in constant motion.
- Polarity - Everything has two sides. All truths are half truth and half false.
- Rhythm - There is rhythm between pairs of opposites.
- Cause and Effect - There is no such thing as chance, all effects have a cause.
- Gender - Not a direct reference to human sexes, the masculine and feminine exist in all things. The Feminine receives, the Masculine expresses.
We start off with an overview of the universe. In short, the authors claim that the universe is a mental dream. More specifically, "THE ALL is MIND; The Universe is Mental." In honesty, I think saying "THE ALL" is much more appropriate than using words like "God". Instead of a proper noun with abstract meaning, THE ALL is self describing, though a little elaboration is helpful. THE ALL is "the Substantial Reality underlying all the outward manifestations and appearances which we know under the terms of 'The Material Universe'". Further, it "is SPIRIT, which in itself is UNKNOWABLE and UNDEFINABLE, but which may be considered and thought of as AN UNIVERSAL, INFINITE, LIVING MIND." If at this point, the abundance of all caps is alarming and you need to bail, I don't blame you. But underneath these words lies a striking similarity to words used in other famous philosophical works, like Spinoza's Ethics—substance, undefinable, infinite. Spinoza defines Substance as "what is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed." The ability for something to be "conceived through itself" is an attempt to solve the problem known as infinite regress or turtles all the way down and to make sense of an infinite universe.
One interesting quality of infinite numbers is that they are indivisible. If you divide infinity into two, you get the same old infinity. There can only be one infinite Substance. What that means is that the infinite Substance is whole—as whole as it can possibly be and to a degree which is unimaginable to us. We don't often think about God or the universe in this light, we tend to be much more interested in describing qualities of the universe—physical laws that help us to make future predictions. We are desperately in search of the building blocks of the universe, but sometimes forget to consider that the universe is one, or in the words of the Three Initiates, THE ALL. To my non-religious mind, this sounds much more agreeable than a God with specific intentions, especially if they're vengeful, those are the worst!
The idea of this universal Substance being mental energy comes from a simple syllogism that "THE ALL cannot be mere Energy of Force, for, if it were, then there would be no such things as Life and Mind in existence, and we know better than that for we are Alive and using Mind to consider this very question." For this reason, THE ALL is considered a great thinking Substance. In other words, consciousness is king. There are some today who believe that we are living in a gigantic simulated reality. One of the most prominent rationale for this is that quantum physics tells us that certain subatomic particles do not exist in a specific location until they are observed. In other words, consciousness changes reality by virtue of itself. Believers of the simulation theory say that this may be a sort of rendering optimization. Imagine it like the dark spots on the map in a game. The information is stored, but the computer chooses not to render it until observed to save on processing. The Mind described in the Kybalion sounds a lot like this. So saying that the universe is MIND is actually very relevant.
From this explanation of the universe, we move towards exploring psychology and ethics. The Principle of Polarity attempts to explain that things which can be measured can not be absolute. "The very terms 'high' and 'low', which we are compelled to use, are but poles of the same thing—the terms are relative." The same is said of North and South, light and darkness, musical scales, noise and quiet, hard and soft, sharp and dull, positive and negative—all relative. But the impact is really felt when we consider the words "good" and "bad": "Good and bad are not absolute—we call one end of the scale Good and the other Bad, or one end Good and the other Evil, according to the user of the terms. A thing is 'less good' than the thing higher in the scale; but that 'less good' thing, in turn is 'more good' than the thing next below it—and so on." This is an old but important philosophical idea that implies that the lesser of two evils is good from the right perspective.
In the eyes of the Kybalion, attributes like "goodness" exist isolated from each other, like a million tubes extending infinitely from a source, without ever touching. "Fear cannot be transformed into Love, nor can Courage be transmuted into Hate. The mental states belong to innumerable classes, each class of which has its opposite poles." This brings to mind Spinoza's argument that an infinite Substance must necessarily have infinite attributes, "each of which expresses a certain eternal and infinite essence." He says that "each attribute is conceived through itself without any other. So the modes of each attribute involve the concept of their own attribute, but not of another one;"
We now see clearly that the Kybalion is an interpretation of ancient ideas through the lens of modern philosophy. My goal is to give readers a small taste of what you will find inside. It is a fascinating adventure through the occult using unfamiliar words and forcing us to consider deeply our reality. If you're looking for a book that will make you think and is off the beaten path, check it out. Happy reading.