The Secret Tradition of the Soul

The Secret Tradition of the Soul

Patrick Harpur
Berkeley, Calif.: Evolver Editions, 2011. 247 pages, paper, $17.95.

A truism of ancient times has it that “the world is full of gods.” This may still be the case, but it takes a particular way of perceiving in order to recognize the divine aspect of things. It’s a style of consciousness that the poet William Blake referred to as “double vision.” To behold in this fashion is to enter the realm of the Imagination, the place of the images. The old authorities, despite their many differences, do agree on this: the Imagination is the proper seat of the soul. Yet over the last two hundred years or so, Imagination—not to mention the soul—has suffered considerable neglect if not abuse at the hands of scientific rationalism. What was once a vast and colorful spiritual geography—a placeless place, jampacked with phantasms, lying betwixt and between the human and the divine, the mortal and the immortal—has been reduced in our time to a mental terrain vague, or worse, a pleasant and harmless knack referred to as “creativity.” So diminished is our view of the Imagination that its once familiar precincts now seem occult or hidden away. Nevertheless, despite formidable obscurity, knowledge of and access to this dark country is preserved in a tradition sometimes impishly referred to as the “open secret.”

The Secret Tradition of the Soul, like all of Patrick Harpur’s books, is both an inquiry and defense of the Imagination. As he explains elsewhere, “The secret is, above all, a way of seeing.” This latest work stands as the final volume in a de facto trilogy that includes Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (1994) and The Philosophers’ Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2003). Collectively these books serve as a bold and elegantly written Baedeker to the soul’s home ground, a territory known by many names across many cultures, including Fairyland, Paradise, the Blessed Isles, Hades, and purgatory, just to name a few. The denizens of this otherworld also go by many names—gnomes, elves, nymphs, angels, the “good people”—but Harpur, like Socrates, prefers the Greek term daimon (root of the English word “demon”). The daimons are tricky figures, notoriously difficult to pin down, shape-shifters, “both material and immaterial.” There is no boundary they do not straddle, including that “between fact and fiction, literal and metaphorical.”

No small challenge, then, to provide a convincing account of their activities, yet Harpur proceeds intrepidly: “I will initiate the reader into this brilliant and creative worldview in a language that is no longer alchemical and arcane but as straightforward as possible.” He succeeds admirably. The daimons are especially adroit at escaping the fetters of literal definition, which is why poetry—especially symbolic and indeed allegorical poetry—provides a more fertile ground for encountering them than, say, the lab reports of science. Hardcore materialists, in fact, deny the existence of the daimonic, or reduce it to mere psychopathology.

Harpur, on the other hand, asserts that the daimonic is quite real, quite vital, and quite necessary: “Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.” The daimonic, he reminds us, is identical with the Imagination. To make his case, he draws on a wide range of poets, especially the English greats—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantics— as well as that redoubtable Irishman William Butler Yeats. Harpur’s writings find their place in the intellectual lineage of depth psychology, particularly the work of Carl Jung and James Hillman. He too would have us recognize that “our peculiarly modern malaise is to be estranged from the soul.” Because we are cut off from meaningful interaction with the Imagination, we have lost the ability to read its symbols and thus we suffer for it. Our souls “long for meaning and belief, just as much as they ever have; yet they can find no lasting nourishment in modern-day offerings of philosophy and science. We are like starving people who are given cookbooks instead of food.”

Relief, however, is difficult to obtain “because it is subtle and elusive, more an imaginative vision of how things are than a system of thought.” What is required is an approach that is less scientific than it is alchemical and transformative. “There is a big difference between a world we look out at through our eyes, and a world in which we participate, deeply implicated in every fiber of our being,” Harpur reminds us. The Secret Tradition of the Soul is no mere cookbook of spirituality; rather, it is genuine food for thought—and soul.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady’s contributions to Quest include “Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination” for the Fall 2009 issue.