Joséphin Péladan: How to Become a Mage

From New Dawn Special Issue Vol 16 No 5 (Oct 2022)

We do not believe in progress or in salvation. For the Latin race, which goes to its death, we prepare a final splendour, to dazzle and gentle the barbarians who are to come.” These words, published in Le Figaro on 2 September 1891 as part of an essay titled “Manifesto of the Rose+Cross,” heralded the major work of one of the most astonishing figures in the history of Western occultism – a teacher and visionary with a message that still resonates today.

Joséphin Péladan was born in 1858 in Lyon, that perennial hotbed of French occultism, in a devout but eccentric Catholic family with occult connections: his father was a member of a Templar order and his older brother Adrien, a homeopathic doctor, studied alchemy and occultism.

Portrait of Péladan by Marcellin Desboutin (1891).

In 1882 Joséphin came to Paris. After a brief period of couch-surfing with friends, he found a job working for the magazine L’Artiste. Jules Bois, a friend of his, reminisced: “He shook his opulent hair above twenty-centime plates of beans at the corner wine merchant. When the cuisine of Paris tired him, he went to decimate the hearts of sentimental provincials. One saw him in a medieval doublet going through the cafés of Marseilles, and he would hide a walking stick beneath his opera cloak so that it looked, under the folds, like a sword.”

His art criticism, which lambasted the stereotyped Academic style of the period, won him an immediate following, and he added to it by playing the part of a Parisian eccentric. “Do you know what is meant by the expression ‘That man is a character’? Well, a mage is that above all,” Peladan wrote, and he certainly was.

He’s the man Oscar Wilde was imitating when Wilde went strolling through London in velvet clothes with a drooping lily in his hand. He claimed descent from the kings of ancient Babylon, grew a long square beard in the Babylonian style, and took the Babylonian title Sâr, “prince.” These extravagances aside, his real fame began in 1884 with the publication of his first novel, Le vice suprême (The Supreme Vice).

Lush, erotic, vivid, and bold, The Supreme Vice became an overnight sensation and helped feed the passion for occultism that made fin-de-siècle Paris one of the wellsprings of modern magic. Its main characters, Princess Leonora d’Este and the magus Merodack, act out a process of initiation that Péladan explored in more detail in many other novels and in a valuable instructional text, Comment devient un mage (How To Become A Mage), published in 1891.

Become an Individual

Gérard Encausse (Papus).

To Péladan, the point of magic was the creation of the free individual. We are not born individuals, Péladan taught, and our education and upbringing are designed to keep us from achieving individuality. “Society,” he wrote, “is an anonymous enterprise for living a life of secondhand emotions.”

To become an individual, it is necessary to break free from the mental grip of your culture, and that requires sustained effort guided by a clear awareness that a great deal of what you consider “your thoughts” and “your feelings” belong to society, not to you. That was Péladan’s magic, and it is just as possible and just as important now as it was in his day.

Erik Satie by Ramon Casas (1891).

Paris in the late nineteenth century was awash with magical orders and secret societies, and it was inevitable that Péladan would try to bring this vision of magic into one of them sooner or later. In 1888 he joined together with Stanislaus de Guaita, Gérard Encausse (who wrote important occult works under the name Papus), and a circle of other leading occultists to found L’Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose+Croix (the Cabalistic Order of the Rose+Cross). Differences in opinion, particularly over Péladan’s Catholic loyalties, eventually drove Péladan to break with the others. In 1890 he founded an order of his own, L’Ordre Catholique du Rose+Croix, du Temple, et du Graal (the Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross, the Temple, and the Grail).

Salons de la Rose+Croix

With the help of a wealthy patron, Count Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, and a circle of enthusiastic followers, Péladan set out to make as big a splash for his new organisation as he could. Erik Satie, then a rising star in the Paris music scene, became the order’s official composer and wrote three Sonneries de la Rose+Croix (Fanfares of the Rose+Cross) for its meetings. 1891 saw the publication of How to Become a Mage and the “Manifesto of the Rose+Cross.” 1892 brought Péladan’s greatest triumph – the first of the Salons de la Rose+Croix.

Lithographed poster by Gabriel Albinet for the 3rd Salon Rose-Croix (1894). 

At that time, the official Salon, held annually in Paris, was the bastion of Academic art in France. Péladan conceived the plan of sponsoring an alternative Salon under the aegis of his order, providing a venue for the more innovative and esoterically inclined art of the Symbolist movement, which he favoured but which was strictly excluded from the official Salon. His alternative show opened on 9 March 1892 in the Galeries Durand-Ruel, 11 rue le Peletier, Paris. It was a roaring success, proving once and for all that the art being created outside the official salon was far superior to the art produced inside it.

Anticlimax followed. Péladan’s order sponsored five more Salons de la Rose+Croix, but none of them succeeded as brilliantly as the first. The occult movement in France crested and began to ebb as the political pressures that eventually resulted in the First World War seized the public imagination. Through it all, Péladan kept writing and teaching, turning out novels, plays, essays, instructional works, and pamphlets for an audience that gradually dwindled over time. When he died in 1918, he was nearly forgotten.

I lock my door upon myself by Fernand Khnopff (1891). Exhibited at the 2nd Salon Rose-Croix (1893).

Magic in a Dying Civilisation’s Twilight Years

All this labour was in the service of an utterly serious purpose. Péladan belonged to that large minority of nineteenth-century thinkers who recognised that the European societies of their day were headed for disaster. What set him apart from the sentimental conservatives of his time and ours is that he recognised that the heritage of old Europe was already past saving and that he worked his magic in the twilight years of a dying civilisation.

Of course, he was quite correct. The great cultures of Europe, in every sense Péladan would have recognised, died in the trenches of the First World War. The forty years from Sarajevo in 1914 to Dien Bien Phu in 1954 saw Europe’s nations flattened to the ground by two catastrophic wars, overwhelmed by cultural change, and reduced from the status of masters of the planet to pawns in a game of bare-knuckle politics played with gusto by the United States and the Soviet Union. All this made Péladan’s lessons more than usually relevant because the catastrophe he foresaw had a clear magical dimension.

Read contemporary accounts of the way that Europe stumbled into war in 1914 and it’s hard to miss the weirdly trancelike state of mind in the warring nations, as vast crowds cheered the coming of hostilities that would cost millions of them their lives, and left-wing parties that had pledged themselves to nonviolent resistance in the event of war forgot all about their pledges and swung into step behind the patriotic drumbeats.

The collective consciousness of the age was primed for an explosion, partly by the sorcery of competing political and economic interests, and partly by the rising pressures of intolerable inner conflicts that were prevented by the limits of the mass mind from finding a less catastrophic form of expression.

It took an extraordinary degree of mental independence to stay clear of the trance state and its appalling consequences, but that was one of the things the magical training available in those days was intended to do.

How To Become A Mage

How To Become A Mage, originally published in 1891

Péladan was inevitably the most outspoken of the period’s occult writers on this subject, as on so many others, and filled a good many of the twenty-two chapters of How To Become A Mage and long passages in his novels with advice on how to open up an insulating space between the individual mind and the pressures that surround it. Many of the same points, though, are made in quieter ways by other writers of the time, and in the instructional papers of magical lodges of the same period. All this advice is aimed at the social habits of another time and has not necessarily aged well, but the basic principles still stand.

The first of those principles is to limit and control the channels by which the mass media and their wholly owned subsidiary, public opinion, get into your nervous system. Now, of course, that raises the hackles of quite a few people nowadays, but it’s essential. Mass-produced popular culture exists solely for the purpose of emptying your wallet and your brain, not necessarily in that order. Popular culture is a vehicle for the mass mind; it works, as negative magic always works, by inducing you to think less and react more. Thus, in the strictest sense of the word, it makes you more stupid. That’s not a useful habit to cultivate.

One point Péladan made that remains valid today is that spending time among a crowd of people whose minds and conversation are utterly conditioned by popular culture is not noticeably different from getting your popular culture firsthand from the media. If anything, this is even more of an issue these days than it was in his; I suspect most of us have had the experience of hearing a conversation between two people in which every single word spoken was a sound bite from some media source or other. There’s no need to become a hermit, but it’s a good idea to choose your crowds with some care.

Steps such as these will cut down on the influence that the pop culture of our time has over your thoughts, feelings, and decisions. Still, the empty space has to be filled with something better, or there won’t be much of an improvement; this is the second of Péladan’s principles. It avoids the perennial mistake of Romanticism, the notion that all you have to do is fling aside the fetters of social expectations and do what comes naturally. The problem here, of course, is that “what comes naturally” to every one of us is the product of a lifetime spent absorbing social cues from people around us and from the media, all of which triggers unthinking and unconscious reactions we share with our nonhuman relatives: social primate see, social primate do.

Being who he was and living when he did, Péladan phrased that dimension of the work in terms of art, music and literature, and those are certainly among the available options. If you happen to be a dandy and an aesthete and live in a city with good art galleries, concert venues, and the like, you could do worse than to follow his recommendations – he was particularly partial to Renaissance paintings, German classical and romantic music from Bach through to Wagner, and Shakespeare’s plays – but I don’t recommend copying him and Oscar Wilde and strolling down the streets with a lily in your hand. Their wives clearly had to put up with a lot. (You didn’t know that Wilde was married, did you? Her name was Constance; she was an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most influential magical order in late nineteenth century Britain; and yes, she did have to put up with a lot.)

Still, that’s only one option, and the last thing you should do in this sort of practice is rely on someone else’s notions of what ought to feed your mind. “‘Fear the example of another, think for yourself’,” wrote Péladan; “this precept of Pythagoras contains all of magic, which is nothing other than the power of selfhood.” The important thing is simply to choose things to read, watch, hear, and do that you consider worthwhile instead of passively taking in whatever the sorcerers-for-hire of the media and marketing industries push at you. What falls in the former category will vary from person to person, as it should.

All this seems relatively straightforward, and indeed it’s quite possible to get to the same decision by plain reasoning starting, say, from the shoddy vulgarity of mass-produced entertainment and going from there to the realisation that there’s much more interesting mind food to feast upon. That making such choices also makes it easier to think clearly would, in that case, be merely a pleasant side effect of good taste. The operative mage in training does the same thing deliberately, not just to think clearly but to feel and will clearly as well. As the training proceeds, however, those effects begin to reveal another side, which is their effect on other people.

Péladan hinted at this effect in How To Become A Mage, though custom in the occult scene back in his time didn’t favour spelling out the details. “Do not look for another measure of magical power than that power within you, nor for another way to judge a being than by the light that he sheds to perfect yourself by becoming luminous, and like the sun, to excite the ideal life latent around you – there you behold all the mysteries of the highest initiation.” What he did not quite say is that “the ideal life latent around you” is in other human beings. Especially in times of cultural crisis, stepping outside the lowest common denominator of the mass mind has an effect rather like induction in electrical circuits. Put another way, it can be as catchy as a lively new tune.

You can catch that tune, so to speak, from a person; you can catch it from a book, which is why Péladan wrote his twenty-two novels, each of them exploring some aspect of the relation between the initiate and a corrupt society; you can catch it from other sources, the way Rainier Maria Rilke did from a statue of Apollo; you can also catch it all by yourself, by climbing out of collective consciousness for some other reason and discovering that you like the view.

Far more often than not, those who step out of the collective consciousness of their society promptly jump back into the collective consciousness of a congenial subculture, which from a magical perspective is no better – thinking the same thoughts as all your radical friends is just as much secondhand living as is thinking the same thoughts as the vacuous faces on the evening news – but there’s always the chance of getting beyond that.

To get beyond that is the central theme of Péladan’s work. His books are readily available on the internet at present, though only a few of them have been translated into any language but French; his ideas remain vital and important. To take up the challenge he offered is to begin working the most powerful magic of all – the creation of yourself as a free individual.

John Michael Greer wrote the foreword to the first English translation of Péladan’s How to Become a Mage (subtitled A Fin-De-Siecle French Occult Manifesto), published in 2019 by Llewellyn.

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 16 No 5.
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About the Author

John Michael Greer is a highly respected writer, blogger, and independent scholar who has written more than 70 books, including The Long Descent, Circles of Power, and the award-winning New Encyclopedia of the Occult. An initiate in a variety of Hermetic, Masonic, and Druidic lineages, he served for twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. He lives in Rhode Island, USA.

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