Monday 30 July 2007

Underground Railroad: Play Example

I just finished this Underground Railroad play example. (8 pages, pdf.)

This isn't Actual Play; it's Virtual Play, an imaginary scene with imaginary players that gives a feel of what I'm striving for. It's been a very useful exercise, because it's shown me all kinds of weaknesses (and possibly unnecessary complexities) in the rules. The conflict rules are going to have a big revision as a result of it.

I think the most useful thing it gives to someone reading it is a feel for how the cooperative creation of the story happens.

A number of current Story-Games discussions have informed it in one way or another.

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Underground Railroad: Earthist Mystics

Earthist mystics, in my Underground Railroad setting, are kind of shamanic. Through various things I've been reading lately I've expanded my idea of how that might go.

My current thoughts are that there are, in these mystics' cosmology, at least three concentric worlds: from inner to outer, the body world, the soul world and the spirit world. Most people can only perceive the body world directly, accessing the other two through it, but the mystics' training gives them the ability to first perceive, then manipulate, and finally enter the soul world, and eventually the spirit world.

The soul world is perceived symbolically and works by relationship and analogy rather than by the rules of the body world. For example, distance in the soul world is not physical distance but relational or emotional distance. Your lover who is a thousand miles away in the body world is right next to you in the soul world. Even relatively inexperienced mystics can perceive these connections between people (though, since the people look nothing like they look in the body, if they don't know both their body and soul appearance they won't be able to connect the two). They can see if you're lying or afraid or angry, as well.

The worlds are closely linked in people, of course - that's more or less a definition of "people" to an Earthist mystic - so healers can see (and advanced healers can manipulate) the health and general state of the body through the soul world. I'm thinking of introducing a famous healer, Soul-Armed <whatever his name ends up being>, who lost part of his left arm in an accident but retained the soul version of it; he can put his missing hand into you and fix your internal organs. (I have in mind a section of famous people to use as both an enrichment of the setting and also, should you wish it, either main characters or supporting characters.)

Perception of the soul world differs between different people, because it's symbolic. However, inexperienced mystics tend to see it rather dimly and in terms of shadows, while experienced mystics see it much more clearly and in terms of light. Who you are looking at also makes a difference: an experienced mystic will seem much sharper and brighter, even to an inexperienced mystic, than an ordinary person.

The small spirits of place, which basically inhabit the spirit world but can descend into the soul world if they want, can meet the mystics there and communicate with them. The relationship with the astronomical gods of the Lunar-Asterists is a matter up for debate. I want to include a mysterious teacher who is synchretizing the two religions and starting to gain a following for what is effectively a new faith. I'm planning to scatter quotes from his philosophy around the book (or maybe it will be someone else's philosophy).

The spirit world is, for humans, uncommunicable and indescribable, since it transcends names and forms; it is a realm of pure being and identity. Mystics believe that by practicing their spiritual disciplines of concentration, renunciation and attention they can come to experience this aspect of reality, though of course they can't say anything about it because words are inapplicable.

When a person's body dies, their soul, no longer anchored in the body world, is drawn towards the spirit world. However, if there is something in the soul world that holds them, they may hang about until it is resolved. If they are very strong or determined, they can cause effects in the body world in pursuit of their resolution. (They're ghosts or unquiet spirits, in other words, and a mystic will generally be called upon to find out what they want so that they can move on.)

Earthist mystics regard elemental magic, which affects primarily the body world, as something of a distraction, and when they study magic it tends to be the soul-oriented kind - communication, domination and the like. However, advanced mystics, who have integrated body, soul and spirit, can often perform soul-body magic like shapeshifting and healing.

Mechanically, I've decided that this kind of thing (magic, psychic powers, superpowers and so forth) all falls under Special Effect: Unusual Powers. I suppose being a lightning calculator, having an eidetic memory or being a contortionist would too. Like any other Special Effect, you buy levels of it, each one more expensive than the last. This is independent of your rating in the related attribute, though. For example, if doing magic was going to be very important to your character's self-definition, but you saw her as a beginning mage, you might buy one level of Special Effect: Unusual Powers but put four or five dice into her Mage attribute. She would be able to reliably light fires or whatever - she'd be very good at it - but she couldn't shoot firebolts.

Meditations on the Tarot: The Emperor

The Emperor, says the Unknown Friend, is a symbol of authority - which he distinguishes from force or power. The Emperor doesn't bear a sword, but a sceptre; he has renounced compulsion and violence. In fact, his authority is shown by what he has actively renounced. "He has renounced ease, being not seated. He has renounced walking, being in a leaning position and having his legs crossed. He may neither advance in order to take the offensive, nor move back in order to retreat... he is a guardian bound to his post." He has renounced movement and action, by the position of his legs and arms. His belt restrains his instinctive nature, and his heavy crown painfully restrains his thought and arbitrary imagination, for it is a crown of thorns, the sign not only of his legitimacy but of a mission from above. It is not a personal mission; it is a mission symbolized by the throne, against which the shield rests.

These four renunciations establish a fourfold emptiness, into which the fourfold divine name YHWH, source of authority, can enter. His personal intellectual initiative is renounced in favour of divine initiative; his action and movement are renounced and replaced by the action of divine revelation and the movement of divine magic; his personal mission, his name, is renounced and replaced with authority, law and order. This leads the UF to a long digression on free will and divine power which I won't go into as there's nothing that strikes me as particularly new about it, until he gets to the idea of tzimtzum, the withdrawal of God, taught by Lurianic Kabbala.

God, according to this idea, had to withdraw in order to make a void within himself where creation - and hence freedom - could come into existence, and the Emperor imitates this action. In doing so, he enables the complete divine name to manifest through him, the complete authority of God, the post of the Emperor, "the state of consciousness of the complete synthesis of mysticism, gnosis and sacred magic", initiation. That is, the state of consciousness in which the temporal and eternal are one and are simultaneously visible. This sanctification of the Divine Name in humanity is the deeper meaning of the first petition of the Lord's Prayer, "hallowed be thy name".

Another digression, this time on Hermetic philosophy, concludes: "its teaching... consists of spiritual exercises and all its arcana (including the Arcana of the Tarot) are practical spiritual exercises, whose aim is to awaken from sleep ever-deeper layers of consciousness." The Gospels are also spiritual exercises, for participation, not just scrutiny. "The aim of spiritual exercises is depth. It is necessary to become deep in order to be able to attain experience and knowledge of profound things. And it is symbolism which is the language of depth - thus arcana, expressed by symbols, are both the means and the aim of the spiritual exercises of which the living tradition of Hermetic philosophy is composed." After a digression on reincarnation - which he sees as God giving multiple opportunities to begin again - he states, "An arcanum practised as a spiritual exercise for a sufficient length of time becomes an aptitude. It does not give the pupil knowledge of new facts, but makes him suited to acquire such knowledge when he has need of it... The initiate is one who knows how to attain knowledge, i.e. who knows how to ask, seek and put into practice the appropriate means in order to succeed... Spiritual exercises alone have taught him." He calls this the arcanum of the three united endeavours (ask, seek, knock), which lead to receiving, finding and gaining access.

The Emperor is thus the one who has authority because he represents humanity before God. He is not superhuman, but more human than anyone else and so is worthy to guard the Throne of David. In becoming fully human, he is also being transformed into the image and likeness of God; in renouncing the four arbitrary liberties of humanity, he is crucified, wounded with four wounds.

This is a complicated and digression-filled letter with multiple points which, ironically, don't appear fully integrated (given that the Emperor is the fully integrated man). The most immediately valuable to me are the side points about spiritual exercises as preparation for knowledge, making you the kind of person who can know. A spiritual exercise in which we renounce intellectual initiative, movement, action and personal missions - in which we sit silent and still and listen - is therefore preparation for us to be filled with knowledge of God, to become truly ourselves, truly human and in the image of God. This, then, is the purpose of Centering Prayer.

Friday 20 July 2007

Pentasystem: conflict

A couple of posts ago I wrote that I wanted Pentasystem conflict to flow back and forth like Dogs conflict. Dogs does this through "sees" and "raises"; you roll all your dice at the beginning, then spend the results a few at a time in each round of the conflict until someone doesn't have enough to continue, or doing so would be too costly. You can get extra dice by "escalating", changing the kind of conflict it is (for example, going from "just talking" to "physical").

The Pentasystem already has the escalation idea (it's called shifting the ground of the conflict, and it increases the seriousness of the consequences of rolling certain numbers on the dice). What about the "sees" and "raises"? It's at least possible that I can achieve a similar feel, using a recycled idea from City of Masks.

In City of Masks, at one point, I had narration going back and forth like this: The challenger (initiating player, in Pentasystem terms) narrated first, then the responding player, then the loser of the conflict, and finally the winner of the conflict. If the responding player was also the loser, this meant three turns, otherwise four. I like this, and I think I'll keep it. (The current City of Masks procedure is that the two take turns narrating, always heading for the outcome already determined, and the winner gets to decide when to stop, so it can go on for as many turns as the winner wants.)

The other thing I'm thinking about at the moment is, who narrates the outcomes and consequences? There's no GM, so the authority that the GM normally has to declare "what happened" is allocated among the players. Currently, the Pentasystem text says this:

The owner of the defeated character, setting element etc. describes the ways in which the defeat brought about change.

I quite like this; it makes defeat more attractive. There are two things to consider, though: outcomes and consequences. Outcomes are what other games refer to as "stakes" (Dogs says "what's at stake"), except that they're more explicitly mechanical; they're the way in which the world or the situation is affected, iin terms of attributes that are created, changed or removed. The above quote refers to the outcomes. There are also the consequences, which are the things that change about the characters. At the beginning of a conflict, the two players agree on alternative outcomes, which are "in question"; as they use attributes and other resources to engage in the conflict, they declare what attributes are being put "at risk", that is, what may change as a result of having engaged in the conflict. I tend to think that regardless of winning or losing the owner of the character, element or whatever should have the say over what specific changes come about as a result of being in the conflict (because you can change by being in a conflict whether you win or lose it; consequences are based on the number of 1s and 6s you roll in the course of the conflict). This is part of what "ownership" means.

Oh, and that highlights a difference from Dogs fallout. In Dogs, you get fallout if you have had to use a lot of dice to win (basically). You get to choose whether you will have fallout from a conflict or not; you can just not push that hard. Everyone does, of course, because that's what makes the game fun, but you don't ever have to. In the Pentasystem, on the other hand, every time you roll dice you risk consequences. They could be good, they could be bad, they could not appear at all, they could appear in numbers as large as the dice, but there's always risk; that's why you have to nominate what you're putting "at risk". Just choosing to have a conflict risks consequences, and you don't get to choose how great they are. But I think you do get to choose exactly what they are; that's only fair.

I need to write this out in a proper flow which will handily double as a play aid. And do that worked example with the sky-cavalry commander and the talking cat.

Meditations on the Tarot: The Empress

Now, you'd think that The Magician would be the symbol of magic, wouldn't you? Not according to the Unknown Friend.

The Empress is the arcanum of sacred magic. There are three kinds of magic: sacred magic, where the power is divine; personal magic, where the power comes from the operator; and sorcery, where the power comes from elemental or other "unconscious forces". All of these are about the principle that "the subtle rules the dense": force rules matter, consciousness rules force, and the superconscious or divine rules consciousness. These three rulerships are symbolized in the card of the Empress by, respectively, the eagle shield, the orbed sceptre, and the crown.

The crown, the divine authorization of magic, renders it legitimate. The sceptre is magical power, and the shield is its aim: "Liberation in order to ascend". The throne is the role of magic in the world.

Miracles and redemption require the union of the divine and the human - the incarnation, in some form (which is why the UF begins this letter with the words of Mary: "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word"). The double crown of the Empress symbolizes this union, when what is above and what is below are united, and the sacred magician happily serves both what is above (in uniting with the divine will) and what is below (in the act of magic for the sake of "liberation in order to ascend"). This is the result of contact with the divine (mysticism), followed by understanding of the divine purpose (gnosis), put into practice.

The union of wills is potential in the crown, but is actual in the sceptre, which is a union of two cups - one, topped with a cross, pointed downwards, and the other, supported by the staff, pointed upwards. The power of the cross, the Holy Blood, descends downwards and enters the human Grail; the divine presence enters the Eucharist.

The Empress's throne is the realm of Nature, longing for the liberation symbolized by the eagle shield. The back of it resembles wings; they are petrified and immobilized, but the promise is that they will again be liberated.

The verse John 16:6, "I am the way, the truth and the life", summarizes the first three Arcana: the true way or mystical spontaneity, the revealed truth or gnosis, and the transforming life or sacred magic.

The UF now goes into something of a digression on miracle ("the visible effect of an invisible cause, or the effect on a lower plane due to a cause on a higher plane"). In comparison with science, which aims ultimately to mechanize the intellect "in such a manner that it calculates the world instead of understanding it", and which in its practical aspect is the domination of nature by the principle of destruction and death, miracle is concerned with understanding, construction and life, "conscious participation with the constructive forces of the world on the basis of an alliance and a cordial communion with them".

The angel with the flaming sword, guarding the Tree of Life, is preventing humanity from "putting forth the hand and taking", the way of science. The sword is "a weapon of divine magic... a yes and not a no", for the fruit of the Tree of Life is destined for the worthy, but not for thieves. "The Tree of Life is the unity or synthesis of consciousness, force and matter... of mysticism, gnosis and magic." Separating out a part - magic - and making that a humanistic study is ultimately the course of death, and is the ancestor of science, because it concentrates only on visible nature and makes it mechanistic. "One has to demechanize in order to become a mage".

The UF's theme is coming out clearly: In unity, in union, in the understanding of and participation in the whole, in relationship and experience rather than intellectual understanding and analysis, is found life and redemption and divine magic.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Pentasystem: Influence

Here's an expansion of something I talked about in my last post. It's strongly inspired by an idea in the version I saw of Tony Dowling's Mathematica (now retitled Principia: Secret Wars of the Renaissance). Tony has a thing - I forget whether it's an ability or a Secret, I think a Secret - called rank (and a parallel thing called wealth) which is about a character's position in society. I was going to call mine Scale, but I've already used that term; I think I'll call it Influence for now.

(Fair warning, by the way: the terminology of the Pentasystem, and the names of a good many things in Underground Railroad, are likely to change. For example, the game Sufficiently Advanced, which is coming out soon, has something called Twists which are completely different from my Twists. I'll probably rename Twists as something like Rollups and Rolldowns - generically, Rerolls, which is what they are. As for UR, the onomastics are totally screwed up and suffer from incipient Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome. I need to sit down and figure out how little work I can do and still create believable languages as background.)

So, Influence. Like everything else, it's rated on a 5-point scale and is an attribute. However, you can specifically have Influence of 0. This happens if you're a peasant, a salaryman, a serf, a rank-and-file, a private soldier, a proletarian or otherwise on the bottom of the food chain. As an individual, you have 0 influence; your voice will not be heard, except maybe, hopefully, by people of influence 1 whom you know.

Influence 1 means you don't have a recognized official leadership position in the prevailing hierarchy, but you have some local influence as a person of good standing - a prosperous peasant, a lawyer, a minister, a valued employee (perhaps a supervisor, but not necessarily) - someone generally who has some wealth and knows how to talk and will know people with influence 2. In the Army, you're an NCO. (OK, that's official leadership; some hierarchies are more official than others.) In the Church, you're a vestryman or something.

Influence 2 means you do have a recognized position at the local level - you're the mayor, line manager or what-have-you. You know people who have influence 1; you are willing, generally, to meet with people of influence 0, though you may dismiss their concerns quite lightly; and you know people of influence 3. You're a lieutenant, maybe a captain, in the Army. In the Church, you're a local priest.

Influence 3 means you have some kind of regional significance inside the hierarchy or are a minor celebrity outside it. You know people of influence 4 (you can kind of see a trend developing here, yes? In general, people know people with one more or one less rank of influence; they are generally willing to talk to people with two ranks less, and can get to see people two ranks higher by special arrangement, usually through a person of the intervening rank). You're a major or a colonel in the Army. In the Church, you're a bishop.

Influence 4, you have national significance; anyone in the country who knows the names of people who are important knows your name. You have direct access to the highest level of influence. You're a cabinet minister, a general, a major celebrity, a captain of industry in the Bill Gates or Richard Branson kind of class, a vice-president if we're talking about a corporation, a Cardinal if we're talking about the Roman Catholic Church. Because, of course, Influence is not just an on-off kind of thing; you may be at the top of one pyramid (Bill Gates, influence 5 if we're talking about Microsoft) but only partway up another, and still further down a third. A general is Influence 4 nationally, but Influence 5 in the Army, where a brigadier is Influence 4.

Influence 5, obviously, is where you don't have a boss, you are the boss. Again, this may be limited to a specific context. It also doesn't mean that you're not accountable to a Board or Cabinet or College of Cardinals or whatever. But the buck stops with you.

On the Board/Cabinet thing, in fact, a general principle of influence is that a group of people who are at the same level has influence one level higher as a group than they do as individuals. So a mob of peasants has Influence 1, a deputation of respectable citizens Influence 2, a regional mayors' conference Influence 3, and so forth.

The mechanical implication of Influence is that you command a certain quantity of resources. I haven't worked out the exact details yet, but my starting point is that you command a certain number of people one level down, who in turn each command a number of people at the next level, and so forth, and their resources are, theoretically, your resources (inasmuch as they fall within the context of the hierarchy in which you have the influence). These levels also insulate you from people more than two levels below you, as a rule, though you may sometimes deign to speak with a peasant if you are a king, or a line worker if you are a CEO. You're unlikely to pay much attention to what they say, though, if you let them say anything at all.

Concretely, if you're a king, you may in theory command the whole country, but in practice in a given situation you may only have a squad of the royal guard with you. I need to work on the whole scaling thing, but that's the principle: the more influence, the more resources, other things being equal.

Also, and this is the important bit, if the main characters can get to you and win a conflict against you, they can get you to use your influence to change things towards the way they want them. You can't change the law of the land by winning a conflict with a peasant, only with the King (or the Royal Council, perhaps). You can get local things done by winning a conflict with an Influence 2 person, regional things with an Influence 3 person, and so forth.

Such, at least, is the principle.

O Hai, I Stoled your Dogs

So I finally bought Dogs in the Vineyard. I'm slowly, slowly moving towards maybe playing it, though having been a late teens/early 20s religious judgemental person I kind of shy away from reenacting that. I mainly bought it for the ideas I could steal be influenced by, and it was not a disappointment in this regard. Not at all.

I took notes as I read through the PDF, and here they are (slightly expanded). Some of them are me paraphrasing Vincent fairly directly, others are my thoughts triggered by things he says. Not all of them, probably, will actually get into the Pentasystem, but I suspect most will.

  • If you think the element you plan on introducing could be controversial, ask the group.

  • Attribute phrasings:
    • A bit of personal history ("I once survived in the woods for 3 days without food or shelter").
    • A simple fact: "I'm a survivor."
    • A skill: "Survival".
    • An attitude or catchphrase: "I can survive anything."

  • Attributes are rated based on how interesting or important they are, not on how "good" they are.

  • Character death (or even character injury) only happens when it is explicitly and voluntarily put in question [in fact this is not strictly speaking the case in Dogs; the dice outcomes can generate a conflict in which the stakes are "your character dies"]. The replacement character gets all the same resources of the old character, plus a bit.

  • Set the scene, say what resources you're using and what you're attempting with them, roll dice, then start narration of actual actions.

  • Possibilities in combat: Turning the opponent's action back (reversing the blow), defending against it (block or dodge), feeling it but going on fighting (taking the blow). Last always has consequences. (Margin of victory in each sub-conflict, I think.)

  • Does the responding player get a response and then an opening themselves? At the moment only if they change the ground do they get to take the initiative. Perhaps they get a response (see) with their bare die roll, but if they bring in other resources (e.g. rerolls) they take initiative (like a raise).

  • Can you hold back successes for follow-up conflicts if you Give in a Pentasystem conflict? I think not.

  • Follow-up conflicts are such if the stakes follow directly from the previous conflict's resolution. They can't have the same stakes unless they have different participants (i.e. not identical participants), AND a different place, AND a different opening ground of conflict.

  • Consequences for the inconsequential: if nobody cares what happens to a supporting character, instead of assigning consequences to that character, give the characters that everyone does care about some equivalent advantage.

  • Relationships (enmeshment): becomes usable in a conflict when the conflict involves the target of the enmeshment as either the opponent (possibly in the form of a representative of that thing, e.g. organization), the setting (if the target is a place or the place represents the target, e.g. a church for the Church) or as what is in question or at risk in the conflict. Cause of the conflict would work as well (I'm in this conflict because of this enmeshment.)

  • In multi-way conflicts, at each turn the person who has initiative gets to say who is affected by their actions, and all those people have to stay in by rolling or bail out by giving up their outcome. Maybe they get to respond in reverse order of the size of the dice they rolled in each round (so anyone rolling a 1 goes before anyone whose smallest die is a 2; if two people roll 1s, look at their next smallest die and so on; in case of ties, go clockwise). 

  • I want to replicate the back-and-forth of sees and raises, but I'm not sure my die mechanic supports it. I've thought about "you cluster your successes that show the same number together, and that's a turn," but I'm not sure how it would work exactly.

  • "A raise is something your opponent can't ignore." 

  • Assisting: Your character has to be clearly capable of helping, it has to clearly be an action that would help, and if anyone objects that it's not reasonable, it doesn't happen.

  • When assisting, you lose the successes you assist with from your own conflict if you are also in a separate part of the conflict.

  • Setting what's in question: I think my as-yet-undocumented idea of "scale" enters in here, rather than Vincent's guidelines "GM should push for small stakes". (Basically, depending on how interested you are in something, more or less powerful characters will turn up to oppose you on that issue; if you beat a powerful character (who, of course, has more resources and so is harder to beat) you can make bigger changes in the world.)

  • Good follow-up conflicts involve stakes which come out interesting either way (of course, but worth repeating).

  • Conflicts which are too large will mean escalation is always the best choice.

  • No hedged outcomes. They're outcomes – things that happen. Nothing should be said, in the set outcomes (what Dogs calls "what's at stake"), about how they happen. That's what the conflict is for.
  • Conflicts arise because people want things. What do the supporting characters want? 

  • Proto-NPCs or partially generated supporting characters – definitely needed. At least with pool points assigned and some ratings for a few attributes. Then match these with the necessary handles as required.

  • Group-as-character, with an attribute for each person perhaps? This was an early idea I've been moving away from. Perhaps it's time to look at it again.
  •  Demonic Influence acts kind of like the momentum of the situation – parallel to 5-act structure determining additional opposition or inertia for unopposed actions?
  •  Anything the characters want to do is automatically OK until it conflicts with something another character wants. Then, conflict. (Roll dice or say yes.)
  •  Don't keep the secrets, reveal the secrets.
  •  Create situation, not plot; people who want things, not supervillains. Create situations where the characters will take sides. Then complicate whichever side they take. (Plot is how characters respond to situation. You can't know that in advance.)
  •  Enmeshing with something says you want to be in conflict with (or about) it. Taking an attribute says you want to use that as your means of resolving conflicts.
And a couple of "structuring the book" points:
  • Summarize after each major section – quick reference.
  • Rules index! This is an excellent idea for a game with a lot of rules.

Thursday 12 July 2007

Meditations on the Tarot: The High Priestess

The High Priestess (or Papesse) in the view of the Unknown Friend is concerned with initiation, with "two-ness", and with wisdom. He contrasts the idea of an initiation which is depersonalizing (as taught by the masters before Jesus) with an initiation which, while leaving the personality in existence, fills it with God. If the first Arcanum, the Magician, is concerned with spontaneous action, this second Arcanum is concerned with reflection: "the transformation of the pure act into representation, of representation into memory pictures, of memory pictures into the word, and of the word into written characters or the book" (p. 40; emphasis in the original).

The Magician is standing; he has the practical method of mysticism, for he dares to do. The High Priestess knows, and so she is seated, so that she can project outward, horizontally (through the book) the descending vertical revelation.

The revelation descends in three steps, symbolized by the three levels of the High Priestess's tiara in the Marseilles Tarot. Mystical experience, of the God who is beyond names and forms, is the highest level. From this comes gnosis - mystical experience which is conscious of itself. This descends to magic, gnosis put into practice (of which he has more to say later), and finally to Hermetic philosophy - the book.

"Mysticism", says the UF on p.41, "is the source and the root of all religion. Without it religion and the entire spiritual life of humanity would be only a code of laws regulating human thought and action." Does that sound at all familiar as a description of religion? A tradition, he says, is only living when it is complete, when it is a union of mysticism (direct consciousness of God), gnosis (reflection on and some understanding of the experience of God), magic (putting into practice one's understanding, projecting it into the world), and Hermetic philosophy (making all of this to some degree communicable to others). A philosophical system by itself enslaves: a person who falls victim to the spell of a philosophical system "can no longer see the world, or people, or historic events as they are; he sees everything only through the distorting prism of the system by which he is possessed." He has similar harsh things to say about separated magic, separated gnosis and separated mystical experience.

He relates the four levels to the four worlds of Kabbala, and has an interesting thing to say about reconciling the various views of creation that are around. In the highest world, the world of emanations, pantheism is true; there is only God, and everything is within him. However, in the world of creation - once we leave uncreated eternity - theism is true. Further, in the world of formation, demiurgism - the idea of the Gnostics that physical creation was not the work of the true God but of lesser beings - is true. Finally, in the lowest world, the world of facts, naturalism is true. He uses this to illustrate the difference between the gnostic sense, which is a sense of wholeness or synthesis preceding analysis, with the Hermetic-philosophical sense, which is a sense of a differentiated whole, a synthesis after analysis.

And my reaction to this is what?

Well, I like his emphasis on the necessity to work at all the levels in order to avoid the problems that partial understanding brings. "Creation science", for example, arises from a confusion of levels: a gnostic description is taken as factual. Inevitably it is mocked by those who reject the gnostic level entirely and live only at the level of facts, because it doesn't fit the facts. However, it's a mistake to conclude that this means that the biblical account of creation isn't true. It isn't true at the factual level, but at another level, it and not the factual explanation is the true one.

Only by being, understanding, acting and thinking are we complete in any of those four.

Potentially, you could also relate these to the four Jungian functions: mysticism is sensing, gnosis intuition, magic is feeling (connecting the self and the world), and Hermetic philosophy is thinking. Roughly.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Meditations on the Tarot: The Magician

This is the start of a series of reflections, containing my personal responses to the book Meditations on the Tarot by the "Unknown Friend". Some of it will simply be summaries of the points in the book I find memorable; other parts will be new insights that the meditations have led me to.

Since I turn 40 today, I now fulfill at least two of the traditional conditions for studying Kabbalah (I'm also male), which makes this a good day to begin this series.

The Magician, in the Unknown Friend's view, represents the key to all of the Major Arcana. He acts with effortless concentration and transforms work into play. He knows the underlying unity of the world, and experiences that unity in the silence of his soul. "Truth", says the UF, "has no other meaning than that of the reduction of the plurality of phenomena to an essential unity", recognising that everything is connected.

Because everything is connected, it is possible to reason by analogy. Analogy is found in the realm of symbolism; this is the vertical analogy: things below are as things above, their prototypes. Analogy is found also in the realm of myth; this is the horizontal analogy: things present are as things past, their archetypes.

The Magician has achieved balance between spontaneity and the unconscious, and deliberate action and the conscious. His practical lesson is concentration without effort, and his theoretical lesson is intellectual vision without effort, but these are based - the UF warns - on prior practice and discipline, without which we become charlatans.