04 February 2013

Natural Magic and Giambattista della Porta

In the Gospel of Thomas we see an explanation of the paramount importance of the esoteric art of self-knowledge:

“When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

There is a certain tendency for people, including myself, to feel the need to identify with one group at the expense of another.  This seems to be one of the hindrances of being human, and an example of dwelling in poverty. Folks who write wholesale condemnations of religion, revolutionaries bent on the decapitation of government and society without considering the complexities of our interdependent world; denouncers of Witchcraft, Freemasonry or Paganism on some grounds or another.  In brief, the oppositional mentality of many people and movements is counterproductive and dehumanizing, whether we speak of politics, religion, philosophy or science.

The more that I live, study and reflect, the less tethered I feel to any one particular cause or identity apart from some fairly basic principles. Over the years I have developed a kind of natural magic distilled from many experiences, research and cultures. These natural magic powers are: Love, self-respect, moderation, respect for nature, tradition and the dead, and the avoidance of personifying evil or imagining it to be anything more than a lack of good.

If we personify evil and characterize it as an active force bent on doing harm, we lessen our responsibility for caring for those around us – we become our own poverty.  But more importantly, we forget one of history’s most important lessons.  Of those persons who have done the most evil to others, they and their followers are always morally convinced that they are doing good.  This is true of both atheists and the religious. 

When someone near to us fails, we should feel in some way responsible, not guilt-ridden, but this failure should naturally cause us to wonder what we could have done to stop that lack – to fulfill a need, even if it was only a smile, a letter, or some simple words of encouragement.  If we turn around in situations such as these, and say “the devil made him do it”, we are negating our part in the microcosm of that person’s life, and that itself is ignorance at its most damaging. 

No matter what our station, education, wealth or poverty, we each hold a crucial position in the constellation of hundreds, if not thousands, of other people.  But the way in which we go about helping these other stars in our personal universe should be derived from our own individual gifts, talents, interests, and imagination.  No one can tell you how to help others the best way that you can.  Only you can open your heart and the floodgates of your creative energy. 

Giambattista della Porta

Take Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615), whose birthday is today, as an example.  Della Porta influenced some of the greatest minds of the late Renaissance, including Galileo and my own favorite, Fr. Athanasius Kircher.  Known as the “Professor of Secrets”, della Porta excelled in occult philosophy, astrology, alchemy, mathematics, meteorology, physiognomy and natural philosophy.  He invented the first known substitution cipher through his interest in cryptology, and he perfected the camera obscura, which would later be developed into photographic cameras and cameras for moving pictures.   If that doesn’t impress you, read about della Porta’s potion to turn women green in his celebrated Magia naturalis. 

These creative gifts are della Porta’s legacy to us today.  He was wealthy and well educated, but he used his privilege to benefit humanity in service to the divine within each of us.  Although della Porta was tried (and acquitted) by the Inquisition for his occult dalliances, he remained a faithful Roman Catholic until the day he died, which, by the way, was not in a Vatican dungeon, but peaceful and at his home in Naples. 

We can use a bit of della Porta’s spirit to remind ourselves to focus on those around us, keeping our identity our own, and using our imagination to creatively address the needs of ourselves and our communities.

Auguri Giambattista!