Philosophical and Practical Objections
to Hierarchical Structures in Magick

by Ray Sherwin

My experience for writing these (necessarily generalised) notes comes from two quite different areas. First, from the point of view of a teacher who has taught two quite distinct types of adult - in one case adults whose formal education was almost nil - in the other case adults studying for their second university degree or a professional qualification over and above their first degree. Second, from the point of view of a magician who has had the privilege of working with an unnamed group of extremely committed magicians over the past several years. (The reason for this introductory note will become clear as the line of thought develops).

The recent history of magick is dominated by three principles:

  1. an emphasis on technique
  2. an avoidance of dogma
  3. an avoidance of over-structuralisation.

The most evident effects of these principles being put into practice were that a) individuals began to experiment on the basis of their own ideas and enthusiasms rather than pursuing training structures set up for them by "experts". Unconfined by structure, people were at liberty to choose their own methods, aims and objectives and many new ideas came to light through the occult press which might not otherwise have received any attention at all. b) The emphasis on technique brought magical power to the level of the ordinary magician, thereby shifting "political" power away from the crusty old magi who'd not even attempted to change anything throughout the previous fifty years. c) The avoidance of dogma meant that people examined many ideas which they had previously held to be true and found that much of the body of existing magical doctrine could be discarded with benefit. Some people were ruthless in their analyses of their own world-views and enthusiastically creative in the synthesis of new ones. A world view tailored to one's own proclivities and intentions is obviously more supportive of the possibility of the performance of successful magick than a world view into which one is obliged to make oneself fit.

Hierarchical structures lead from the top unless they are very carefully constructed, and even if they are set up with all the best intentions they are eminently corruptible and inevitably corrupted for reasons of personal power or gain. The downfall of the Roman republic is an example of this on a large scale - imperialism, introduced for the best possible reasons very quickly allowed a situation to develop where madmen like Caligula and Nero could rule almost all the known world at their whim simply through accident of birth.

Hierarchies are open to abuse, and anyone who doubts this should study the history of hierarchical orders from the Rosicrucians onwards. Even in the event of a hierarchy being successful, once the succession of leadership has been interrupted the structure shatters, as exemplified by the OTO after the death of Karl Germer.

One of the problems which confronts twentieth century magick is that of isolation. Magicians, especially newcomers, find it difficult to make contact with other people in their own area and as a consequence of this they are attracted to magical orders often as a last resort. This situation is preferred by hierarchical orders. The last thing they want is for people to talk to each other. Communication between individual magicians would not only mean fewer candidates - it would also mean that their methods might be discussed and their glamours penetrated.

A genuine network of magicians the structure and organisation of which had no axes to grind would be very unpopular with some of the organised magical institutions. It would threaten their very existence if they had nothing to offer over and above what is now common information.

A distinction must be made here between magical orders and magical groups. Members of magical orders tread, for the most part, a lonely path (and provided they are satisfied with the progress they are making it is a path I would not discourage them from pursuing). Members of magical groups, however, are in a much more immediate magical environment. Groups can be more easily run on the basis of consensus than can orders, and there is a benefit of consensus rule which far outweighs the avoidance of leadership. In a working group where all members are considered equal, in depth discussion of any proposals, especially planning for rites which can be philosophically as well as practically complex, is valuable for learning, reinforcing that which has already been learned and for permitting members of the group to understand each other in a way that few people ever manage to do. This mutual understanding creates a bond which is invaluable when the group performs ritual.

Working on a consensus basis means that individuals do not compete with one another as they are more likely to do within a hierarchical structure, often scrambling over one another for titles or privileges, rank taking precedence over magick and over the other people concerned. The issuing of charters, in the worst of cases, is simply an extension of this - power seekers in pursuit of groups rather than individuals.

At the beginning of these notes I referred to the two types of adults I have taught.

The first type, largely uneducated, needed to be led and needed a formal teaching structure in order to develop. This involved me, as a teacher, deciding for a number of other adults what their best course of action was likely to be and then "enforcing" that programme. For newcomers to magick who have not yet put themselves through the rigours of training this is probably the most efficient route to magical proficiency. The second type of student to which I referred, already well educated and self-motivated, did not need such a programme. They were sufficiently aware of what they needed to learn and how they wanted to learn it to use me, their teacher, simply to provide factual information or and exemplary structures to help them understand the newly acquired information. This is a much more lively and fertile way of learning provided that basic skills have been well learned beforehand, and is the method most Chaos magicians should naturally choose. At risk if digressing it is worth making the point yet again that Chaos magick is not for the inexpert or an easy way for the slovenly. Its disciplines are as difficult and exacting as those practised in any other form of magick, and those disciplines are proemial to the performance of Chaos magick in its widest, eclectic sense. (End of digression)

Personally I would find it impossible to work with someone I did not consider to be my equal. In a magical rite all the elements need to be perfect - the invokations, the weapons and runes etc. - but this applies more than anything else to the other participants. If you cannot rely on them to work at least to your standard they- are more an interference (a hindrance) than a help, and they might as well not be there at all.

Of its nature a magical group is much more able to choose new members positively, rather than by weeding out, which is the way most orders must do it, being restricted, for the most part, to correspondence rather than acquaintance.

On the face of it, my approach is an elitist one. Although I cannot deny this, it is not elitist for any hierarchical reason, and it is not elitist in favour of any particular magical policy. It is pragmatic because such a group does not advertise for members and turn down the applicants it doesn't like. In not accepting applications at all the group can bide its time and approach the people it thinks might be useful to the group and to whom the group might offer benefits, thereby reaping the benefits of positive discrimination. Only in this way can a group be set up in which all magical work is performed on the basis of equality and in which all the members enjoy each other's company. These points are, in practice, pre-requisites to successful group magick.

There is a number of other areas where hierarchies suffer disadvantages not suffered by consensus groups. Of these the most notable is that overall policy. In choosing its members as it does, a consensus group can ensure that only people who share the group's political/social ideas become members of it. To illustrate this: I would find it impossible to work within a group which had right-wing thinkers as members - I would also find it very difficult to work with a group whose members did not think, as I do, that the future of the planet is the most important problem to be addressed. This attitude does not preclude the formation of right wing groups so long as all the members are right wing; nor does it preclude the formation of groups who couldn't give a damn if the planet is strangled by human greed. What is important is that overall policy (whether that be stated or implicit) should be unanimously shared by the people who are working together. Hierarchies, for a number of reasons including profit, overemphasis on numbers, and the inability to do otherwise, tend to neglect overall strategies and, as a consequence, when people came together they find themselves incompatible.

Most women are not attracted by hierarchies, perhaps for some of the reasons I have given. Women think and act quite differently to soil, which is why it is so important that they play an equal rule in magical planning and activities. Too long has magick plodded the Apollonian, patriarchal path but that path cannot be avoided by men simply by pretending allegiance to some goddess or by trying, with gritted teeth, not to be patriarchal. I am what I am and, in this respect, it is very difficult for me to change without pressure from outside the sphere I know best, namely from women, whose approach tends to emphasise intuition, imagination and feeling. I am not saying this to be fair and egalitarian. Rather I am making a point which is at the same time pragmatic and selfish. I want to learn and experience the feminine principle as it is, not merely as I think it is or as I would like it to be. Hierarchies fail in this. They provide little for women and little of the feminine principle for their male members. Without women magick loses 50% of its potential, yet the hierarchies stumble on despite the pathetic disparity of numbers, unconcerned, (or unaware) about what they are missing.

The above notes are necessarily generalisations since much more space would have to be given to this subject to treat it definitively. Obviously some hierarchies work for some people, and in such cases a reasoned argument could be put forward in their favour.