Eliphas Levi

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Éliphas Lévi
Eliphas Levi.jpg
Born Alphonse Louis Constant
(1810-02-08)8 February 1810
Died 31 May 1875(1875-05-31) (aged 65)

Éliphas Lévi, born Alphonse Louis Constant (February 8, 1810 – May 31, 1875), was a French occult author and ceremonial magician.[1]

"Éliphas Lévi", the name under which he published his books, was his attempt to translate or transliterate his given names "Alphonse Louis" into the Hebrew language.

Life and work until 1848[edit]

Constant was the son of a shoemaker in Paris; he attended the seminary of Saint Sulpice since 1830 and began to study to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. However, while at the seminary he fell in love and left in 1836 without being ordained. He spent the following years among his socialist and Romantic friends, including Henri-François-Alphonse Esquiros and so-called petits romantiques such as Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier. During this time he turned to a radical socialism that was decisively inspired by the writings of Félicité de Lamennais, the former leader of the influential neo-Catholic movement who had recently broken with Rome and propagated a Christian socialism. When Constant published his first radical writing, La Bible de la liberté (1841, The Bible of Liberty), he was sentenced to an eight-month prison term and a high fine. Contemporaries saw in him the most notorious "disciple" of Lamennais, although the two men do not seem to have established a personal contact. In the following years, Constant would describe his ideology as communisme néo-catholique and publish a number of socialist books and pamphlets. Like many socialists, he propagated socialism as "true Christianity" and denounced the Churches as corruptors of the teachings of Christ[2]

Important friends at that time include, next to Esquiros, the feminist Flora Tristan, the excentric socialist mystic Simon Ganneau, and the socialist Charles Fauvety. Thinking again about priesthood, he leaves Paris for the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes where he spends his time in 1839 in the library, reading books about gnosticism, Fathers of the Church, and mystics. He is asked to leave Solesmes at the end of this period.[3] In the course of the 1840s, Constant developed close ties to the Fourierist movement, publishing in Fourierist publications and praising Fourierism as the "true Christianity". Several of his books were published by the Fourierist Librairie phalanstérienne. His 1841 book "La Bible de la Liberté" is censored and l'Abbé Constant is sentenced to jail for 8 months during which he reads Emanuel Swedenborg writings. He also turned to Catholic traditionalist Joseph de Maistre, whose writings were highly popular in socialist circles. Joseph de Maistre was himself involved in the development of Martinism and of the Rectified Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.[4] An especially radical pamphlet, La voix de la famine (1846, The Voice of Famine), earned Constant another prison sentence that was significantly shortened at the request of his pregnant wife, Marie-Noémi Cadiot.[5][page needed]

In his Testament de la liberté (1848), Constant reacted to the atmosphere that would produce the February Revolution. In 1848, he was the leader of an especially notorious Montagnard club known for its radicalism. Although it has been claimed that the Testament marked the end of Constant's socialist ambitions,[6] it has been argued that its content is in fact highly euphoric, announcing the end of the people's martyrdom and the "resurrection" of Liberty: the perfect universal, socialist order. In 1848, he reads Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbala Denudata and studies Jakob Böhme, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Swedenborg, Fabre d'Olivet, Chaho, and Gœrres. .[7] Like many other socialists, the course of events, especially the massacres of the June Uprising in 1849, left him devastated and disillusioned. As his friend Esquiros recounted, their belief in the peaceful realization of a harmonious universal had been shattered.[8]

Life and work after 1848[edit]

In 1850, l'Abbé Migne asks him to write a Dictionary of Christian Litterature which is published in 1851[9] In December 1851, Louis-Napoléon, Prince-President of France, organized a coup that would end the Second Republic and give rise to the Second Empire. Similar to many other socialists at the time, Constant saw the new Emperor Napoléon III as the defender of the people and the restorer of public order. In the Moniteur parisien of 1852, Constant praised the new government's actions as "veritably socialist," but he soon became disillusioned with the rigid dictatorship and was eventually imprisoned in 1855 for publishing a polemical chanson against the Emperor. What had changed, however, was Constant's attitude towards "the people." As early as in La Fête-Dieu and Le livre des larmes from 1845, he had been skeptical of the uneducated people's ability to emancipate themselves. Similar to the Saint-Simonians, he had adopted the theocratical ideas of Joseph de Maistre in order to call for the establishment of a "spiritual authority" led by an élite class of priests. After the disaster of 1849, he was completely convinced that the "masses" were not able to establish a harmonious order and needed instruction, a concept similar to other socialist doctrines such as the "revolution from above", the Avantgarde, or the Partei neuen Typs.[10][need quotation to verify]

Constant's activities reflect the socialist struggle to come to terms both with the failure of 1848 and the tough repressions by the new government. He participated on the socialist Revue philosophique et religieuse, founded by his old friend Fauvety, wherein he propagated his "Kabbalistic" ideas, for the first time in public, in 1855-1856 (notably using his civil name). The debates in the Revue do not only show the tensions between the old "Romantic Socialism" of the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists, they also demonstrate how natural it was for a socialist writer to discuss topics like magic, the Kabbalah, or the occult sciences in a socialist journal.[11]

It has been shown that Eliphas Levi has developed his ideas about magic in a specific milieu that was marked by the confluence of socialist and magnetistic ideas.[12] Influential authors included Henri Delaage (1825–1882) and Jean du Potet de Sennevoy (1796–1881), who were, to different extents, propagating magnetistic, magical, and kabbalistic ideas as the foundation of a superior form of socialism. It has often been noted that Éliphas Lévi's reception of medieval or early modern magical sources has been remarkably superficial and often flawed. This can be explained by the fact that he developed his theory of magic in the particular magnetistic context of the 1850s, building on his earlier theory of a science universelle, a concept that he had developed in a Fourierist-Swedenborgian context. Indeed, many Fourierist became ardent Spiritualists at that time. Éliphas Lévi, however, was highly critical of Spiritualism, thus laying the foundations of an ongoing rivalry between Spiritualists and Occultists. The major reason for this was Éliphas Lévi's neo-Catholic background, resulting in a determined Catholic self-understanding. For this reason, Éliphas Lévi equalled ("true") Catholicism and Occultism. Developing the neo-Catholic notion of a "primitive revelation", primordial tradition or perennial philosophy, Éliphas Lévi claimed that the Kabbalah and the Tarot were the means to decipher the true essence of the single true, universal religion, which is Catholicism.[13] The importance of this primordial tradition was subsequently developed by René Guénon.

Éliphas Lévi commenced to write the volumes of his famous Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1854. It began to appear in several livraisons but was only published in two volumes in 1855-1856. The two books were later combined into one book, which was translated into English by A. E. Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual in 1896. Its famous opening lines, only added in the edition of 1861, present the essential theme of Occultism and gives some of the flavour of its atmosphere:[14]

Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.

Éliphas Lévi began to write in succession Histoire de la magie in 1860. The following year, in 1861, he published a sequel to Dogme et rituel, La clef des grands mystères ("The Key to the Great Mysteries"). In 1861 Éliphas Lévi revisited London. Further magical works by Éliphas Lévi include Fables et symboles ("Stories and Images"), 1862, Le sorcier de Meudon ("The Wizard of Meudon", an extended edition of two novels originally published in 1847) 1861, and La science des esprits ("The Science of Spirits"), 1865. In 1868, he wrote Le grand arcane, ou l'occultisme Dévoilé ("The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled"); this, however, was only published posthumously in 1898.[citation needed]

Remarkably, Constant would resume to use an openly socialist language after the government had loosened the restrictions against socialist doctrines in 1859. From La clef on, he extensively cited his radical writings, even his infamous Bible de la liberté. He continued to developed his idea of an élite of initiates that would lead the people to its final emancipation. In several passges he explicitly identitied socialism, Catholicism, and occultism.[15]

The magic propagated by Éliphas Lévi became a great success, especially after his death. That Spiritualism was popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s contributed to this success. His magical teachings were free from obvious fanaticisms, even if they remained rather murky; he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the inititate of some ancient or fictitious secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians.[16] He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex-Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley. He was also the first to declare that a pentagram or five-pointed star with one point down and two points up represents evil, while a pentagram with one point up and two points down represents good. It was largely through the occultists inspired by him that Éliphas LéviLévi is remembered as one of the key founders of the 20th-century revival of speculative magic, spiritualism and esoterism.

Socialist background and Initiation(s)[edit]

It was long believed that the socialist Constant disappeared with the demise of the Second Republic and gave way to the occultist Éliphas Lévi. It has been argued recently, however, that this narrative has been constructed at the end of the nineteenth century in occultist circles and was uncritically adopted by later scholarship. Accordings to this argument, Constant not only developed his "occultism" as a direct consequence of his socialist and neo-catholic ideas, but he continued to propagate the realization of "true socialism" throughout his entire life.[17]

According to the narrative developed by the occultist Papus (i.e., Gérard Encausse) and cemented by the occultist biographer Paul Chacornac, Constant's turn to occultism has been the result of an "initiation" by the eccentric Polish expatriate Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński. It has been argued that Wronski's influence has been brief, between 1852 and 1853, and superficial.[18] However, this narrative had been developed before Papus and his companions had any access to reliable information about Éliphas Lévi's life. This becomes most obvious in the light of the fact that Papus had tried to contact Éliphas Lévi by mail on January 11, 1886 – almost eleven years after his death.

Eliphas Lévi and Hoene-Wroński did know each other, as evidenced in Éliphas Lévi's 6 January 1853 letter to Hoene-Wroński, thanking him for including one of Éliphas Lévi's articles in Hoené-Wroński's 1852 work, "Historiosophie ou science de l’histoire". In the letter Éliphas Lévi expresses his admiration for Hoené-Wroński's "still underappreciated genius" and calls himself his "sincere admirer and devoted disciple".[19]

Later on, the construction of a specifically French esoteric tradition, in which Éliphas Lévi was to form a crucial link, perpetuated this idea of a clear rupture between the socialist Constant and the occultist Éliphas Lévi. A different narrative has been developed independently by Arthur Edward Waite, who had even less information about Constant's life than Papus and his followers had.[20]

A journey to London that Éliphas Lévi made in May 1854 did not cause his occupation with magic. Instead, it was the aforementioned socialist-magnetistic context that formed the background of Éliphas Lévi's interest in magic.[21] In London, he met Dr. John Ashburner and Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton.[22] It should be noted that the relationship between Eliphas Lévi and the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton may not have been as intimate as it is often claimed.[23] In fact, Bulwer-Lytton's famous novel A Strange Story (1862) includes a rather unflattering remark about Éliphas Lévi's Dogme et rituel.[24][25] On the other hand, it is commonly written that Eliphas Lévi may have been initiated to Rosicrucianism in London by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.[26]

With the support of his friends Charles Fauvety and Jean-Marie Lazare Caubet, Éliphas Lévi was initiated as a Freemason,[27][28] on 14 March 1861 in the Lodge Rose du Parfait Silence at the Orient of Paris of the Grand Orient de France. He became Master Mason on 21 August 1861.

In the nineteenth century, Éliphas Lévi, Charles Fauvety and many other French intellectuals coming from fourierism, proudhonism, saint-simonianism and other socialist schools of thought associated socialism and esoterism[29]

Definition of Magic[edit]

Lévi's works are filled with various definitions for "Magic" and the "Magician":


  • "To practice magic is to be a quack; to know magic is to be a sage."
  • "Magic is the divinity of man conquered by science in union with faith; the true Magi are Men-Gods, in virtue of their intimate union with the divine principle."[30]


  • "He looks on the wicked as invalids whom one must pity and cure; the world, with its errors and vices, is to him God's hospital, and he wishes to serve in it."
  • "They are without fears and without desires, dominated by no falsehood, sharing no error, loving without illusion, suffering without impatience, reposing in the quietude of eternal thought... a Magus cannot be ignorant, for magic implies superiority, mastership, majority, and majority signifies emancipation by knowledge. The Magus welcomes pleasure, accepts wealth, deserves honour, but is never the slave of one of them; he knows how to be poor, to abstain, and to suffer; he endures oblivion willingly because he is lord of his own happiness, and expects or fears nothing from the caprice of fortune. He can love without being beloved; he can create imperishable treasures, and exalt himself above the level of honours or the prizes of the lottery. He possesses that which he seeks, namely, profound peace. He regrets nothing which must end, but remembers with satisfaction that he has met with good in all. His hope is a certitude, for he knows that good is eternal and evil transitory. He enjoys solitude, but does not fly the society of man; he is a child with children, joyous with the young, staid with the old, patient with the foolish, happy with the wise. He smiles with all who smile, and mourns with all who weep; applauding strength, he is yet indulgent to weakness; offending no one, he has himself no need to pardon, for he never thinks himself offended; he pities those who misconceive him, and seeks an opportunity to serve them; by the force of kindness only does he avenge himself on the ungrateful..."
  • "Judge not; speak hardly at all; love and act."
Éliphas Lévi's Tetragrammaton pentagram, which he considered to be a symbol of the microcosm, or human being.

Cultural references[edit]

Selected writings[edit]

  • La Bible de la liberté (The Bible of Liberty), 1841
  • Doctrines religieuses et sociales (Religious and Social Doctrines), 1841
  • L'assomption de la femme (The Assumption of Woman), 1841
  • La mère de Dieu (The Mother of God), 1844
  • Le livre des larmes (The Book of Tears), 1845
  • Le testament de la liberté (The Testament of Liberty), 1848
  • Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, (Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual), 1854–1856
  • Histoire de la magie, (The History of Magic), 1860
  • La clef des grands mystères (The Key to the Great Mysteries), 1861
  • Fables et symboles (Stories and Images), 1862
  • La science des esprits (The Science of Spirits), 1865
  • Le grand arcane, ou l'occultisme dévoilé (The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled), 1868
  • Magical Rituals of the Sanctum Regnum, 1892, 1970
  • The Book of Splendours: The Inner Mysteries of Qabalism

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Christopher McIntosh, Éliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival, 1972.
  2. ^ Alphonse-Louis Constant, Doctrines Religieuses et Sociales, A. Le Gallois Ed., 1841, pp 71-72
  3. ^ http://www.matemius.fr/biographies/constant-alphonse-louis-47.html
  4. ^ Joseph de Maistre, Mémoire au duc de Brunswick, 1782.
  5. ^ Strube 2016.
  6. ^ Chacornac, Paul (1989) [1926]. Eliphas Lévi. Paris. p. 119. 
  7. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 376-383.
  8. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 383-388.
  9. ^ A.L. Constant, Dictionnaire de Littérature Chrétienne, J-P Migne Editeur, Montrouge, 1851
  10. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 418-426.
  11. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 470-488.
  12. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 523-563.
  13. ^ Eliphas Lévi, Histoire de la magie : avec une exposition claire et précise de ses procédés, de ses rites et de ses mystères, Livre Premier, Chapitre IV : Magie Hermétique, p 81, Paris, Germer Bailliere Editeurs, 1860
  14. ^ Eliphas Levi, Arthur Edward Waite: Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Scholar's Choice, 2015, ISBN 1295996154, 9781295996155
  15. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 565-589.
  16. ^ Josephson, Jason Ānanda. “God’s ShadowHistory of Religions, Vol. 52, No. 4 (May 2013), 321.
  17. ^ Strube, Julian (2016-03-29). "Socialist religion and the emergence of occultism: a genealogical approach to socialism and secularization in 19th-century France". Religion. 0 (0): 1–30. doi:10.1080/0048721X.2016.1146926. ISSN 0048-721X. 
  18. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 426-438.
  19. ^ Rafał T. Prinke, Uczeń Wrońskiego - Éliphas Lévi w kręgu polskich mesjanistów, Pamiętnik Biblioteki Kórnickiej, Zeszyt 30., Red. Barbara Wysocka. 2013, p. 133
  20. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 590-618.
  21. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 455-470.
  22. ^ http://www.equi-nox.net/t431-eliphas-levi
  23. ^ C. Nelson Stewart, Bulwer Lytton as Occultist 1996:36 notes that the one surviving letter from Lévi to Lytton "would appear to be addressed to a stranger or to a very distant acquaintance" (A. E. Waite).
  24. ^ Strube 2016, pp. 584-585.
  25. ^ Bulwer Lytton, Edward Jones (1862). A Strange Story. 2. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz. p. 249. Hence the author of Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, printed at Paris, 185-53 — a book less remarkable for its learning than for the earnest belief of a scholar of our own day in the reality of the art of which be records of history — insists much on the necessity of rigidly observing Le Ternaire, in the number of persons who assist in an enchanter's experiments. 
  26. ^ Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Zanoni Le Maître Rose + Croix, Camion Blanc Ed, 2016
  27. ^ Eliphas Lévi. Histoire de la Magie (1860) ; p. 406
  28. ^ Caubet, Souvenirs (1860-1889). Paris, Cerf, 1893, in-18; p. 4
  29. ^ Francis Bertin, Esoterisme et Socialisme, Politica Hermetica, n°9, 1995, l'Age d'Homme Editor
  30. ^ Lévi, Éliphas; Blavatsky, H. P. (2007). Paradoxes of the Highest Science. Wildside Press LLC. p. 15. ISBN 9781434401069. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]