Magic and the Third Object

Printed in the  Spring 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Hebert, Barbara, "Magic and the Third Object" Quest 106:2, pg 10-11

Barbara Hebert, National President

Theosophical Society - Barbara B. Hebert currently serves as president of the Theosophical Society in America.  She has been a mental health practitioner and educator for many years.The topic of this issue of Quest is “Magic,” a somewhat avant-garde subject for many Theosophists. When we think of magic, we may think of Tinker Bell or Harry Potter. We may think of someone pulling a bunny out of a hat or an illusionist playing a card trick. We may think in terms of white magic versus dark magic, or good versus evil. However, it seems that magic, from a more occult or metaphysical perspective, involves all of these and much, much more. As we consider its various aspects, we will hopefully engage in open-minded inquiry that will facilitate discussion and an increased awareness of the powers latent in each of us.

The term magic stems from the word magus, which was originally a term applied to Persian dream interpreters and wizards. Many are familiar with the references to Magi, the three wise men who followed the star of Bethlehem to the cradle of Jesus. Dr. Jay Williams, in his 2005 article in Quest writes:

A magus, in the ancient sense, was someone who, through ritual and incantation and secret gnosis, could gain control over angels and daemons to hurt or heal, create or destroy. A true magus was thought to have tremendous power and was therefore both sought after and feared. The fact that many papyri containing the secrets of the ancient magicians have been discovered indicates that this was not a rarity in the Greco-Roman world.

Dr. Williams clarifies the term daemons by saying that “it originally meant simply god, particularly a god known as a power within.”

We can clearly see that the derivation of the word magic is closely associated with knowledge and wisdom. This points us toward the Third Object of the Theosophical Society, which encourages us to investigate the laws of nature that we do not yet understand and the powers that are inherent in all beings. Henry Steel Olcott, first president of the TS, said in a lecture delivered in Columbo, Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) in June 1880 (and later published in the August 1880 issue of The Theosophist): “There is no impenetrable mystery in Nature to the student who knows how to interrogate her. If physical facts can be observed by the eye of the body, so can spiritual laws be discovered by that interior perception of ours which we call the eye of the spirit.”

Seemingly it is these spiritual laws of nature that are at the root of magic and are understood (and potentially used) by those who have delved into the occult sciences. On the Theosophy Wiki website, we find the following statement:

Occult science is a phrase used by H.P. Blavatsky to denominate the knowledge of the hidden forces of nature and their manipulation . . . though the adept knowledgeable in the occult sciences can perform phenomena which would seem miraculous to the uninitiated, every effect produced is based on laws of nature, whether known or unknown to modern science.

In support of this statement, HPB says in volume 8 of the Collected Writings:

To say that occult sciences claim to command nature arbitrarily, is equivalent to saying that the sun commands the day-star to shine. Occult sciences are nature itself; intimate knowledge of their secrets does not give to the Initiates the power to command them. The truth of it is that this knowledge teaches the Adepts the manner in which to furnish certain conditions for the production of phenomena, always due to natural causes, and to the combination of forces analogous to those used by the scientists.

Magic, therefore, is simply the knowledge and use of natural laws of which many of us are unaware at the present time. We may think of an airplane flying across the sky, upheld by a knowledge and use of the laws of aerodynamics. To us, watching an airplane in the sky seems very normal and understandable; yet two hundred years ago it would have seemed like magic.

To move further with this analogy, we recognize the airplane’s tremendous usefulness in transporting people over long distances in short periods of time. We also may consider its horrific use as a tool of terrorism on September 11, 2001. The laws of aerodynamics do not change, and the airplane (the tool to which the laws of aerodynamics are applied) does not change. They are neutral, objective, detached. It is when the user determines the course of action that the result is positive or destructive. Magic, or occult science, must be viewed in the same way. In volume 9 of the Collected Writings, HPB says:

Occultism is not magic. It is comparatively easy to learn the trick of spells and the methods of using the subtler, but still material, forces of physical nature . . . it is the motive, and the motive alone, which makes any exercise of power become black, malignant, or white, beneficent Magic. It is impossible to employ spiritual forces if there is the slightest tinge of selfishness remaining in the operator. For, unless the intention is entirely unalloyed, the spiritual will transform itself into the psychic, act on the astral plane, and dire results may be produced by it. The powers and forces of animal nature can equally be used by the selfish and revengeful, as by the unselfish and the all-forgiving; the powers and forces of spirit lend themselves only to the perfectly pure in heart—and this is DIVINE MAGIC.

She goes on to say in volume 12 of the Collected Writings:

While theoretical Occultism is harmless, and may do good; practical Magic, or the fruits of the Tree of Life and Knowledge, or otherwise the “Science of Good and Evil,” is fraught with dangers and perils. Now, since the difference of primary importance between Black and White Magic is simply the object with which it is practised, and that of secondary importance, the nature of the agents and ingredients used for the production of phenomenal results, the line of demarcation between the two is very, very thin.

In her direct way, HPB is warning us that anyone whose motive is not completely and totally pure and unselfish will experience “dire” results from the use of these natural laws. She is also pointing out that the line between the beneficent and the detrimental use of these natural laws is slight.

What, therefore, do we do when it comes to magic, the investigation of unknown laws of nature, and the powers latent in each of us?

We are encouraged throughout the Theosophical literature to develop the inner person—the qualities and characteristics that will, with time, remove the more selfish aspects of our personality. We are encouraged to be self-observant so that eventually we may truly recognize the core of our motivations. We are encouraged to study, to meditate, and to serve humanity in all of its forms. In other words, we must work on ourselves! As understanding of our true nature grows, we will also discover those unknown laws of nature and our own inherent abilities. As we find in the article on the “Spiritual Path” in Theosophy Wiki, the early Theosophist T. Subba Row speaks of “the steady natural path of progress through moral effort, and practise of the virtues. A natural, coherent, and sure growth of the soul is the result, a position of firm equilibrium is reached and maintained, which cannot be overthrown or shaken by any unexpected assault. It is the normal method followed by the vast mass of humanity, and this is the course Sankarâchârya recommended to all his Sannyasis [renunciates] and successors.”

It is this path that will ultimately lead each and every one of us to an understanding of both the unknown laws of nature and the capabilities which we all possess. It is this path that provides us with the knowledge and the wisdom to use the laws of nature for the benefit of all humanity. It is this path that allows us to become magi.

Magic is not as avant-garde a topic as we may have thought. It has been discussed throughout the history of the TS and indeed throughout the ages. Magic is clearly linked to the Third Object of the TS. Open discussion regarding all aspects of this subject—including the development of the inner self, the inherent dangers of using natural laws in a selfish manner, and the value of investigating the unseen world—may provide us with an opportunity for increased understanding and growth.






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