New York: G&D Media, 2021. 187 pp., hardcover, $30.
The Truth about Magic is also available in six parts in audio and video form from Vimeo for $4.95 per part.
Books on magic flood the market today. Readers can explore everything from candle magic and crystal magic to queer magic and sex magic. Some titles even employ the archaic spelling magick.
The blessing of this great wave of publications is the dissemination of a wealth of wisdom and the proliferation of voices that were once muted and tragically oppressed. The challenge is deciding what to read. Many books target the committed novice, many others the seasoned practitioner. But where does the earnest seeker go for reliable information and orientation?
Richard Smoley’s latest work fills this important gap in the literature. In less than two hundred pages, The Truth about Magic explains the reason behind magic, its immense cosmic range, and its enduring relevance for the twenty-first century.
Smoley condenses a lifetime of scholarship and experimentation into this slim volume. His previous works, well known to students of the world’s occult and mystical traditions, have significantly advanced our understanding of topics such as Gnosticism, esoteric Christianity, love, and forgiveness. A remarkable career can yield both the definitive multivolume magnum opus and the portable primer that communicates the same comprehensive view in fewer pages.
This book follows the way of refinement, with close attention to readability. In twenty-four concise chapters, Smoley guides both newcomer and initiate through the diverse dimensions of the world of magic and the stages of the spiritual life.
Beginning with an introductory chapter on the theme of knowledge, the book progresses through subjects such as meditation, the life force, psychic powers, astrology, the Tarot, ghosts, evil, witchcraft, the kingdom of God, and the New Age. In each chapter, Smoley acquaints the reader with the appropriate terminology, the perennial debates, the contemporary consensus (if any), and especially the issues at stake in what are often centuries-long conversations.
Without a doubt, the book is founded on acceptance of an unseen world. The vast universe we encounter with our five senses, Smoley maintains, is simply the thin crust of a dramatically more expansive realm of being. Beyond that, though, he negotiates a carefully plotted middle course between total skepticism and uncritical belief. Knowledge of spiritual reality does not endow anyone with omniscience.
The dominant tone of the book is established by the author’s awe before the spiritual world, his confidence in the power of human intuition, and his humility in light of humanity’s inability to grasp the fullness of things—at least on this temporal plane. A critique of scientific materialism animates the whole book.
Smoley is particularly strong on the most personal issues, such as meditation, love, life after death, healing, psychedelics, and reincarnation. Here his extensive travels, prodigious reading, and distinctive personal experiences converge into the making of a rich portrait of the human person seamlessly woven into the fabric of all creation, both visible and invisible.
Smoley is at his most provocative when speaking on the lost ancient city of Atlantis and the implicit fraternity dubbed the Brotherhood, the network of enlightened souls around the world contributing to global awakening. Theosophy appears briefly in the chapter on the afterlife.
Ultimately, what is most striking about the book is its attention to the needs of the reader. Smoley unites the theoretical and the practical, suggesting exercises for meditation, revealing his own struggles with the medical establishment, appealing to the virtue of everyday decency, and offering advice, learned the hard way, on the use of psychoactive drugs.
Readers from a broad array of perspectives will benefit greatly from this deceptively simple book. It unveils the world of magic without pride or pretense, but it also holds nothing back. The author’s sincerity and credibility are displayed on every page. He speaks in first person, connects intimately with his audience, and is not afraid to admit ignorance or uncertainty. By contrast, his erudition is felt but never caught drawing attention to itself. The craft is executed with a subtlety worthy of the topic.
A shortcoming is the book’s lack of at least a modest bibliography. Smoley generously shares the stage with figures such as Plato, Swedenborg, Gurdjieff, Jung, Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and the writers of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and A Course in Miracles. Their texts and other suggested readings, however, are only minimally referenced. Seekers drawn to this introductory survey will be eager to chart the next phase of their development. Most will pack the book for the journey or pass it to another pilgrim. An extraordinary achievement in narrow compass, The Truth about Magic invites us to recognize the magic in everything.
Peter A. Huff
Peter A. Huff, an academic administrator and professor of religious studies, is the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming Atheism and Agnosticism.