Welcome to the first of hopefully many book reviews I intend to do on this blog – I intend to cover lots of different topics and themes. Enjoy nerding out with me!
In my manic ‘I want to do a philosophy masters’ phase of mid-2020, I bought this book as my first foray into Hermetic philosophy. I already vaguely knew the term Hermetic, as I’d been reading my Hermetic tarot deck for a year prior to that, but I was yet to actually understand what Hermeticism actually was. (something something…Dr John Dee…something something).
When this book arrived, it looked so cool. It was black faux snakeskin with gold leaf titling, and holding it felt like I was a 19th Century hermit starting a vast library of antiquities. Another thing that I noticed was that it was quite small, which was a good thing – as sometimes I’m put off by Yellow Pages-esque tomes about philosophy (yawn).
However, it took me forever to get around to reading it, and even longer to get around to finishing it. Not that it wasn’t interesting, but it was difficult to bring myself to read something so academic when I had other fiction books to occupy my time. Nevertheless, I finished it, contemplated it, and wrote this review.
This book is very ‘to the point’. It clearly states what the ‘axioms’ (or rules) are in Hermetic philosophy, and even lists them as headers. This is quite refreshing to someone who thinks they are reading an academic text, and really handy for beginners that just want to know what Hermetic philosophy is. The book follows a three part structure: firstly, laying out the ‘rules’ in a bitesize format; then following this with clearly marked chapters expanding on each rule; then a conclusion, which sums up some key axioms and leaves the reader with at least basic knowledge of hermeticism. And really, that basic knowledge was all I wanted! The middle chapters were useful in that there were a few axioms where I was a bit ‘eh…?’ in how I understood them, and explaining each axiom per chapter gave me a way to settle into each one without it being overwhelming.
However, this book seems to assume that I am already a student of Hermeticism, and that made me feel a bit alienated from the subject matter:
‘If you are a true student, you will be able to work out and apply these principles- if not, then you must develop yourself into one.’ (p5)
There really seems to be no intention of non-Hermetics reading this, and so my brain almost responded with ‘ok then I won’t read it, screw you Three Initiates.’ The writing style is interestingly contradicting, as sometimes it can be really boggly (ie. having to read the same sentence over and over to understand it) or it can be overly patronising. Some paragraphs feel like the author is trying to fill the word count, with one whole page of the book being dedicated to explaining why they are using the word ‘feminine’ rather than ‘negative’ – when relating to the opposite polarities of life – and this message could have easily been conveyed in two sentences. On the other hand, sometimes the author will explain one statement through an example, but then give an ‘easier’ example. This may have been a good idea conceptually, but the writing style was just patronising, using phrases like ‘it may help you to get the proper idea (if you consider)…’(p46), as if we, the humble reader, were on a different intellectual plane altogether.
Let’s address the two main elephants in the room here when Hermeticism is mentioned. They either see it as ‘problematic’, which yes, if you view it through the lens of Hermeticism borrowing from lots of different cultural traditions, it can be. However, this book was written at a time when this school of thought was commonplace in Western philosophical culture -just look at the works of Saint-Yves d’Alveydre for example-, and I feel like throwing away Hermetic philosophy based on this and on its association with the (very) problematic Alastair Crowley is wasteful – I may actually write about Mr Crowley in the future as whoo boy that’s a deep dive.
The second elephant is the question of Hermeticism being like a cult. I legitimately felt like I was joining a cult for about 30% of my reading time. Sometimes the subject matter, to me, can feel totally cuckoo bananas, but of course that’s all subjective. It’s interesting to me that this book was written at a time where offshoots of Hermeticism were cults – the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was around then (although it seems that the author, William Walker Atkinson -pseudonym, The Three Initiates-, was not a part of this).
To conclude, The Kybalion is definitely a useful book, both as a way to begin reading into Hermeticism and also as a reference point. I’d recommend getting the Centenary Edition, as the introduction includes several other works on Hermeticism as recommended reading – super helpful! If you can look past the negatives that I outlined before, then this book is certainly a good read. It was for me.