Sunday, January 31, 2016



An Elementary Treatise on Occult Science

One of the charms of buying examples of French occult publishing of a hundred years or so ago is that you are never quite sure what you will be getting. It was a period when Papus and his friends were learning the ropes of self publishing – which could lead to quite astounding surprises in quantity and quality. Not that one was ever likely to be short changed – their success meant that they had plenty of money and so new printings of books could be considerably expanded in extent.

So it is with my copy of Papus’ first book-sized book, the Traité Elémentaire de Science Occulte. First appearing in 1888, as a volume of 229 pages, it appears that my copy was in fact turned out to be of indeterminate date by which time it had become bloated to 625 pages. Bibliographic histories were not helped by their custom of calling reprints ‘new editions’. Thus the copy I have is called the 16th edition but is apparently a reprint of the 7th edition of 1903 by which time they had proudly logged up a sale of 10,000 copies. As Papus says in his Preface ‘its success had progressively grown with each new transformation of the volume.’

So, something of a dog’s breakfast in fact, but none the worse for that.

“Also,” he writes, “we have once more taken care to perfect our work, while conserving its elementary character which is one of the causes of its success.” I have to say I am not too sure about this ‘elementary character’. He launches off into some very erudite, not to say obscure, and even irrelevant, number theory. But perhaps the French esoteric mind differs somewhat from the Anglo-Saxon. We will return to this when we take a look at his book on the Tarot.

On the evidence of the number and extent of the quotations he uses it could be said that this is obviously a first book by an intellectual young man in a hurry. Of the original 229 pages about thirty percent of the text consists of extracts from other writers, fifteen of them, ranging from Mme. Blavatsky to Eliphas Levi with the lion’s share going to the early 19th century savant Fabre d’Olivet and the contemporary esoteric recluse Saint-Yves d’Alveydre. The first, a great favourite of his, was author of a book on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras and also La Langue hébraïque restitué (The Hebraic tongue restored) speculations on the origins of  Hebrew language in light of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a fair amount of which was subsequently invalidated when the Rosetta Stone was discovered and translated.

The main drive of the young Papus’ original book, (the first 229 pages) is to emphasise the difference between the approach of modern with that of ancient science. In a telling and simple image he likens modern science to the close examination of a closed book.

“Let us first examine the way that moderns treat a natural phenomenon the better to know it, as opposed to the ancient way. What would you say to a man who described a book to you like this: ‘The book you have given me to study is placed on the mantelpiece at 2 metres 49 centimetres from the table where I am sitting; it weighs 545 grams 8 decigrams, and is formed of 342 small paper pages on which 218,145 characters are printed and which have used 190 grams of black ink.’

“If this example shocks you, open modern books of science and see if they do not correspond exactly to the way of describing the Sun or Saturn by an astronomer, who describes the position, weight, volume and density of stars, or a physicist who describes the solar spectrum by counting the number of lines.   

“Returning to the printed book that served as our first example, we note that there are two ways of looking at it, because we realise that the characters, the paper, the ink, that is to say the material signs, are only the representation of something that we cannot see physically – the ideas of the author.

“The visible is the manifestation of the invisible. This principle, true for this particular example, is so for all other things in nature, as we shall see. We will then see more clearly the fundamental difference between ancient science and modern science.

“The ancient is concerned only with the visible in order to discover the invisible that it represents. The modern is concerned only with the phenomenon itself without bothering about its metaphysical connections.

“The science of the ancients is the science of the hidden, of the esoteric. The science of the moderns is the science of the visible, the exoteric.

“The hidden science, the science of the hidden, the science which hides what it has discovered – is the triple definition of OCCULT SCIENCE.”

The rest of the book, and of all the books that he and his colleagues are destined to write, is concerned with solving this by no means easy problem.

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