Being a secret society that is most protective about its teaching methods and subjects taught, it stands to reason why new students would feel like coming into the Order is f like jumping head-first into dark waters. Most times, the culture, aims, and views of this secretive society can seem a complete enigma to students arriving new on the scene trying to make sense of it all. Since the Order rejects certain norms about social discourse that is commonly held in the greater society, if you’re an initiate to the Order, navigating your first Order classes and social events can be daunting. If you find yourself in that position, then please read on as we’ll try to give you a general rundown of what to expect of learning in the Order and how to take your first few classes.
First Principles: The Order’s Sub-Culture
The first thing to keep in mind when attending your first Order event is just what kind of society you’ve signed up for. The Order represents a vastly unique magical system as well as the philosopher’s thirst for inquiry and study. Any assumptions you bring to bear about how occultism works, what hermeticism is, conventions about whether occultists are Christians or even can be, or what traditional occult authors are valid for study, all need to be left at the door.
As covered in my blog “What the Order Believes” (coming soon), the Order combines elements of Kabbalah, Christianity, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism to form a unique theological environment.
Rather than seeing this theological view as hodge-podge or a latter-day combination, the Order understands its position as harkening back to a time when all of these interrelated ideas were actually part of one and the same theological system.
The Order welcomes people of all faiths to learn from the masters but does so on the assumption that those students will respect the theological positions that the majority of our members hold. The Order does take pains to prove its beliefs through logical inquiry, but admittedly, those courses take time to explore. And in the meantime, many assumptions about the Order’s theology, its membership, or its level of dogmatism (we consider that there is none) can trigger new students if they possess preconceived notions about any or these theological systems.
As a result, the first recommendation that we can make to our new students is that it is important to act in the first moments as a passive observer, soaking in as many norms as possible to ensure that you become familiar with what the Order actually believes. Not following this advice may lead to misunderstandings based on the language used during lectures or discussions.
For instance, the Order has a hermetic concept of The All but we call this being God. For students who have a prejudice against Christianity, this language can complicate their learning experience. They can begin to see the Order’s view on God as synonymous with the traditional Evangelical Christian Church. This is not at all an accurate representation of the Order’s view. But as stated above, it would take time for a new student to come to know the theological subtleties versus how the Order’s teachers may use this language.
The use of the term God is simply easier. Because in a single title, people can easily know what we’re talking about. Also, people in the West grew up hearing the word and there are many similarities between the Judeo-Christian God and the Hermetic principle of The All. Both are eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, and both created ex nihilo, so long as you don’t consider the inner-mind to be a substance apart from The All itself.
Again, these ideas are covered more thoroughly in the “What the Order Believes” post, but are still important to keep in mind.
The next point to consider is that what is polite outside of the Order may be rude within it. This upside-down thinking has led to over one frayed nerve in its time.
In modern society, we are taught that we’re not allowed to speak about two major subjects of human experience: politics and religion. The assumption is because people’s identities are wrapped tightly around the structure that these ideals create. And it would therefore damage to call anyone’s identity into question.
But again, the Order sees the White Road as a path toward enlightenment, and to be enlightened is to be changed from the sleeping self. Such a transformation cannot be achieved without questioning both the world and one’s place within it. Since politics and religion are the most fundamental forces operating in a person’s life, being that one determines how one lives on earth and the other in eternity, a fundamental transformation cannot take place without first being willing to re-examine these principles.
Therefore, in contrast to the world outside the Order, we see our classes and dialogues as spaces where we can not only discuss these issues but challenge them, both within ourselves and each other.
It’s important to note that this is not the same as “pushing our agenda” because there’s neither a political nor religious test to be a part of the Order. As you’ll see below, questioning these topics isn’t a matter of one person standing up in front of a class and informing everyone what they should believe, but a Socratic dialogue that takes place between every member equally.
These dialogues are based in logic and they can examine political, ethical, religious, and dogmatic themes within a person. The goal is not to replace the dogmatism or the ethical stance of the student with that of the Order’s, but to draw out such principles for examination, purifying our emotional misconceptions with the illuminating flame of logic and growing by the labor.
In this, we examine not only the beliefs in question but also their psychological and sociological origins, becoming knowledgeable enough about them within ourselves to ask: why do I believe what I believe?
The ultimate answers to those questions, the Order leaves up to the individual student, with a strict policy against ostracization if the individual differs from the group. In effect, these dialogues are in a safe space in as far as final judgements are concerned, but all these issues are equally up for debate within the context of the Order’s classes and discussions.
Being able to separate an idea one holds from one’s own identity is an important aspect of what the Order views as spiritual maturity and is key for participation in discussion whenever these topics are brought to the floor.
With all this in mind, it may motivate some students who are politically minded or dogmatically religious to take a back seat in Order discussions. This would be rude. It is one thing to have nothing to say and another to format what you say to be kind rather than confrontational. But, to cease to engage at all might show other members that you’re silently offended, and rather than promoting self-transformative dialogue, this shuts it down for the sake of the feelings of the individual.
Notwithstanding any other suggestions in this blog, don’t be afraid to share your views within Socratic circles but know that they will both have to be examined and defended without the specter of judgement or hostility. In effect, the same people that you debate with are those who you will immediately go to dinner with thereafter. Such is the transformative power of the White Road.
With everything above on the table for debate, some discussions can get rather heavy. Like that, say something which is less in line with a logical criticism of another student’s point and more in keeping with the passions.
I cannot stress enough that this shuts down growth. Both you and other students are present in the Socratic circle to grow and learn. Such knowledge begins with the self. Above the door at the Temple in Delphi was the phrase gnothi saeuton (“know thyself”). This maxim is a major principle of the Order’s occult approach.
The White Road is a journey with others, but it is also a journey inward. The group must help promote this idea so any insults which are not lodged against ideals but persons should have no place in Socratic circles. But sometimes, that’s hard to resist.
We urge students to remember that everyone is given a mentor and lodging their complaints in a private setting with them gives you a chance to let off steam, clarify any misunderstandings, and avoid public embarrassment. Asking masters or mentors to act as arbitrators in any disputes or interpreted slights is also useful.
But taking matters into your own hands in a Socratic circle itself, emotionally, will almost always have negative side-effects.
Order Teaching Methods
The first thing a student will notice upon attending a couple of classes in the Order is that our teaching methods differ vastly from what we are accustomed to in western cultures. True enough, there are familiar elements; the lecture, the teachers’ questions, and some limited course material to be completed. But the Order’s teaching methods revolve heavily around a style that has fallen out of favor in modern times but in the ancient world, produced some of humankind’s greatest minds: the Socratic method.
A bit of background in teaching methods will help to understand this method and how the Order uses it to produce constructive growth in its students.
There are three modes of instruction that exist in academic settings. These are didactic, dialectic, and eristic: one teaches many, one has a group teaching each other, and one is an opposing debate between two parties.
The Order makes use of two out of the three methods in a combination that has served us well. These are the didactic and the dialectic.
Below is an example of how a common class might go:
Phase 1: The Didactic Lecture
In every class, the students will gather and sit for a master’s instruction. For about forty-five minutes to an hour, the master will lecture on the topic before the class. They could make use of PowerPoint, videos, or other resources. At this point, questions are primarily held to the end of the lecture.
Phase 2: Didactic Questioning
At the end of the lecture, the master will open the floor for questions regarding the lecture’s final points. The point of this part is not to raise arguments as opposed to the presented information of the lecturer. That part comes later. Rather, this phase is to ensure that all parties accurately understand the information being presented, lest, in the next phase, people construct arguments on false pretenses. The questions in this section should be gathered from the students’ notes on the lecture, taking as its goal the refinement of the information presented and its clarification.
Phase 3: Dialectic Debate (Socratic Circle)
The line between Phase 2 and 3 for every class can be difficult for new students to pick up on. But once you’ve been to a few classes, you’ll eventually grow to learn the change. The Socratic circle begins after clarification and is a time at which the subject of the class can drift substantially away from the core of the lesson taught. Using the Socratic Method, students are taught to ask questions of each other, responding either with more questions or analyses of the internal logic of other students’ offered answers. The goal is not to convert other members but through logic and inquiry, to come to clearer truth in one’s self. This can take many forms, from testing the internal logic of the presented information of the instructor to assessing the positions of other members of the class.
As far as the Order is concerned, we take pride because Socratic circles are a safe space to speak one’s mind and to appeal both to the self and to fellow students for reevaluation of truth.
If you observe after reading this that your idea of fun is not to come into a class and have your beliefs questioned, then keep in mind that the At-Will System means that you’re under no obligation to actively participate. However, the point is not to insult each other. The point is to grow in understanding.
By questioning our own beliefs and inviting our fellow students to do the same, we are setting ourselves a challenge to believe that which is most internally consistent instead of emotionally satisfying.
Admittedly, this process is a little scary and requires a level of spiritual maturity that allows the individual to separate the idea under examination (even if it’s your own), from the intelligence or identity of the individual espousing it.
In other words, Socratic circles only operate productively when all participants avoid the ad hominem fallacy.
All of that being said, the student should recognize that while Socratic circles are safe spaces in the Order (one-part philosophical debate, one part group therapy), it is only so provisionally. It is safe in the sense that your fellow group members will still love you and accept you no matter what the result of the circle was. Were you currently in favor of what the instructor had taught? Do you feel that other students who presented opinions had logic errors? All of that is completely acceptable, as such disagreement is the fertile breeding ground for self-growth and discovery of truth.
But any idea put before the Socratic circle is implicitly open for challenge. Meaning that the obligation by an opposing student is to defend their opposition and for the original proposer to likewise defend their position.
This will usually take the form of questions asked directly to the student which seek to undermine or draw out any flawed logic in their thinking. And so, there is very little thought during Socratic circles given to psychological de-escalation tactics (such as the term “I/We” instead of “you”). This has nothing to do with malice but rather since the Socratic method relies on questions posed directly to an individual, it is simply easier to say “why do you feel that way?” Or, “How would you justify your position?”
In a lot of ways, a student must try to leave their emotions at the door. This is healthy because intense emotions are apt to mislead us, anyway. We all know that we can’t see clearly when we’re angry or hurt, and the same is true when taking part in Socratic circles.
Therefore, this is a safe-space so long as one understands how to engage. The judgment of ideas, not people. Challenge everything with dispassionate logic and be ready to concede when you see the truth before you. Do these things and you’ll be able to navigate any social event within the Order.