The Symbolic World vs Egregores, Part 2
AS SHE WALKED FROM the Louvre, she seemed to sense some articulated structure shifting to accommodate her course through the city. The waiter would be merely a part of the thing, one limb, a delicate probe or palp. The whole would be larger, much larger… Of course, she thought, of course: It moves around me constantly, watchful and invisible, the vast and subtle mechanism of Herr Virek’s surveillance…
“A man like Virek is incapable of divesting himself of his wealth. His money has a life of its own. Perhaps a will of its own. He implied as much when we met… While I walked here, I imagined a structure, a machine so large that I am incapable of seeing it. A machine that surrounds me, anticipating my every step.”
– William Gibson, Count Zero1
In the first part of this series, we recounted the history of egregores as a concept, showing how in the modern era it has tended towards describing ‘emergent’ higher beings. We then looked at Christian cosmology as it relates to higher beings, describing an ontology in which there is a continuum of being in-between Humans and Christ. We then made the discovery that the word ‘egregore’ arguably has referred to the higher beings of the Christian cosmology all along, only with an increasingly materialistic or human emphasis.
In this essay, having laid this groundwork, we will begin a critical discussion of these subjects. Is our terminology around higher beings really sufficient? Is it being used correctly? Furthermore, does the ‘materialist’ trend in how people have seen and begun to use the word ‘egregore’ approach some truth that has not been accounted for in the Christian cosmology we have described?
The framework for higher beings that Jonathan Pageau works with is incredibly useful, allowing people to connect the contemporary world with traditional biblical cosmology and to loosen the grip of materialism on their thinking. Having described this framework in the first essay, we want to point out that it isn’t without its metaphysical complications.
The Experiential Link (Embodied Being as Unified Locus of Awareness)
The first potential problem as one looks at higher beings through this lens has to do with the usage of the term ‘being’ itself. We ordinarily use this word to refer to creatures: humans and non-human life. From a traditional Christian perspective, these are the beings created by God in the six days’ work—living souls into whom was breathed the breath of God. Though he may aspire to, man arguably doesn’t have the capacity to create life forms in this way. However, the traditional Christian picture also includes angels in the category of beings created by God. Though these entities may be thought of as beings in the common sense (i.e. as creatures), they are non-corporeal and therefore are not afforded the same earthly embodiment as living souls. As discussed in the first essay, they are given earthly body not by God directly but by collective human activity. We have to stop and ask the question, “Does it really make sense to call their resulting manifestations beings?”
Take the example of a city. If indeed we can rightly say that a city derives its identity from a non-corporeal being (or perhaps some assemblage of such beings), is the city then synonymous with this being? Is London, for instance, a being? Or is it better described as a ‘body’ of some kind, formed by both human action as well as the mediation and guidance of a being? Is there a difference between this description and the “beingness” of a living creature?
Sentience is one crucial factor here. We tend to associate living creatures with at least some kind of qualitative inner experience. The principle that integrates the various members of the organism becomes a locus of awareness (not just the head of a hierarchy that distributes orders, but a unified locus of awareness for the entire organism). We assume there is something it is like to be a hammerhead shark. But is there something it is like to be London? Or Sony? Or the internet? Do the lights come on for Mammon in the New York Stock Exchange?
In the second conversation with John Vervaeke, Pageau appealed to the notions of intelligence and agency in his take on higher beings.2 And in fact we do seem to find intelligence and agency in man-made systems. These entities are intelligent in the sense that they direct their energies toward purposive outcomes. They are agents in the sense that they act as autonomous units exhibiting intelligence. As to whether they are sentient—this appears to be an open question. We can’t clearly detect an experiential link, internal to the higher being, between principle and body—between a being and the behaviour of a collection of people. In the absence of such a link, would it really make sense to always and automatically equate the being with the body?
Multiplicity vs Identity
Another, perhaps subtler issue, also concerning the question of whether to equate spiritual beings with the systems they manifest, is whether there is only one pre-existent principle for these systems, or whether it’s more appropriate to say that a multitude of beings contribute to their formation. This seems especially pertinent in the case of heterogeneous, composite human systems, like the New York Stock Exchange.
If we were to recognize the influence of Mammon in the exchange, would it make sense to say that the NYSE is Mammon? This often seems to be the implication that we receive through Jonathan Pageau’s discourse on higher entities. But this raises significant potential problems. For instance, we would immediately notice that in this case there are parallel ‘bodies’ for Mammon, one of which is the London Stock Exchange.
It’s very possible to see these two entities as being simply two arms of the entirety of the body of Mammon. But when we imagine them in this way, we get further away from the identification of the NYSE with Mammon, not closer. If they are two arms of a single being, why do they act in an un-co-ordinated way? And ultimately, why do the two exchanges have separate, named identities, with specific conditions, different or even contesting motivations, and so on?
Perhaps then we should rather say that the exchange is not Mammon, and that it is through a combination of the efforts of Mammon and other spiritual beings that the stock exchange receives its unique identity. The exchange does indeed exist through a diversity of technologies, motivations, laws, thoughts, etc.
But then, how can we justify referring to the NYSE as a being, as the Pageauvian cosmology would like us to do? Does that particular combination of beings working together constitute another, more integrated pre-existent being? This seems a little far-fetched. But the alternative, if we require every system to have a unique spiritual principle, is that new beings are assembling—or rather, emerging—in the spiritual world: a new, composite spiritual being emerges as the organising force behind the New York Stock Exchange. If we’ve already dismissed pure emergence, then this seems problematic. We’ve basically just transferred it from the material to the spiritual.
After this somewhat tortuous line of inquiry, we are still left with the problem of how to account for the apparent identity of the collective entities under discussion. Invoking the higher beings that are ‘behind’ or ‘above’ them is essential. But their human-constructed bodies exhibit an identity that we can’t yet coherently define.
One way of understanding the ‘identity’ of these bodies could be that somehow they aren’t ontologically substantial, that they have no single, unified spiritual principle. This lack of ontological unity would liken such a structure to the Tower of Babel, whose spiritual instability dooms it to the transience of fallen phenomena. These are structures which ultimately do not persist in the fullness of time, and are therefore not present in the eschaton. In this view, the beings behind the structures maintain their separate identities while the structures themselves merely partake in this fragmented identity assemblage. (Pageau in fact points out the fragmentary nature of phenomena influenced by fallen principles, saying that “all beings are pulled between two poles of principality”, one which pulls up toward God and the other which pulls down toward self-sufficiency, leading ultimately to fragmentation and conflict.)3 In this case, the ‘two arms of Mammon’ we encountered earlier could also be serving as members for untold numbers of other beings. This mixture and fragmentation “behind the scenes” perhaps lends an instability to the identity we ascribe to both ‘arms’ or ‘exchanges.’ Their spiritual grounding is composite; the named identity is, in a sense, created. We’ll return to this idea later on.
The Being and the Body: Equated or Not?
If we return to Mark Stavish’s book Egregores, we can furnish ourselves with another case that illustrates the problem of being-body identification, with the variable that is hidden to us in the case of the NYSE, the higher being/s, revealed to an extent:
“The Chief [an aspiring occultist with a small following] eventually made contact with a group of spirits who were interested in pursuing work with a Golden Dawn-style temple structure, with the spirits themselves as the directors. In other words, the spirits would become the Secret Chiefs. The individual spirits changed every few years, but all arrived and departed around the general theme of establishing an occult school. His original entourage then became the first generation of Imperators.
It should be stressed that the spirits themselves endorsed the Chief as someone who would convey their teachings without alteration. But unusual though the Chief ’s talents were, other aspects of his personality were undeveloped and infantile. In many ways, as a result of his mental illness, he had the discipline and ethics of an eight-year old child… This put the entire school and the Imperators in a terrible situation: Would they simply shut down this school that they had spent decades building up? Would they ‘depose’ this Chief and thereby lose contact with the Secret Chiefs? Some Imperators invented a third option: establish contact with the Secret Chiefs themselves…
The first contact by an Imperator with the Secret Chiefs was done by a very talented, secretive prodigy of the Chief’s. … This prodigy then slowly, carefully, secretly trained the other Imperators… This, we hoped, would ensure that we as individuals, and the school in general, would survive the more mad reveries of the Chief. But as it turned out the nature of the Secret Chiefs and the egregore that they formed was a major contributor, not just to the mental illness of the Chief, whom they had first contacted, but to the corruption and eventual destruction of the school as a whole.”4
What this quote shows is that multiple demonic beings can be hosted by a single person (we know that already from stories like that of Legion in the Gospel of Matthew) and a single structure, and that furthermore the ‘body’ that does this hosting—in this case the ‘school’ and the set of practices that the ‘school’ is enacting—is contingent and changeable.
On the face of it, the Pageauvian cosmology would want to identify the ‘school’ with a single being, and focus on the entity at its head. But not only in this case do we have a multiplicity of ‘spirits’ or demons at the school’s head, we have a clear example of why it would make sense to bracket some part of the resulting confusing phenomena and call it by a particular name—that is, to separate the ‘beings’ from the other parts of the phenomena. This is what Mark Stavish does himself—he calls the ‘collective thought form’ that the demons formed, or comprised, an ‘egregore.’ The way Stavish defines this ‘collective thought form’ is not entirely clear, so we won’t look at it too closely. Nonetheless, in Stavish’s anecdote, we can sense the possibility of equating being with body becoming less and less plausible.
The Return of the Egregore
The complications that we have encountered here do not arise in a manner that fundamentally calls into question the Pageauvian framework. But they do call into question the limited set of terms with which we have been working within this framework, and some of the areas where Pageau’s language is less clear. This is especially the case at an ontological level that is ‘in-between’ humans and divine or demonic beings. After all our discussion, it is this in-between category that we still don’t seem to be able to account for coherently. The nature of these structures—how to correctly name and categorise them—is still the thing in question. This leads us to the work of Valentin Tomberg.
Now, Valentin Tomberg was the anonymous author of the work of Christian Esotericism we mentioned in the first essay, the Meditations on the Tarot. In this work he gave a full account of ‘egregores’,5 which he defined as human-created entities, brought into being by concentrated will and imagination, and which he specified were not identified with the divine hierarchy. However, he acknowledged the full Christian divine hierarchy as parallel to these ‘human-created’ ‘egregores’.
We disagree with Tomberg around certain key parts of his ideas on this subject. His beliefs around egregores were due in part to his conception of demons.6 Confronted with the contradiction between the idea of the fallen angels as presented in the book of Enoch and the way that Satan is depicted in the book of Job, he believed that the chastisement of the demons at the time of the Flood led to a change in their role—from that of being evil teachers and objects of worship or fixation for humankind, to the tempters or ‘advocates for the prosecution’ of humans (i.e. Satan in the book of Job).7
Because of his belief, and confronted with the manifest evil of various collective structures of his day—such as Communism and Nazism—Tomberg identified these structures as the evil creations of humans, and original to them. Therefore for Tomberg, although humans are under the general temptation of demonic beings, these figures do not have a particularised relationship to the structures, or ‘egregores’. We saw in the first essay how he selectively quoted sources on Tibetan Buddhism to support this belief. But while we can disagree with him that these ‘human creations’ do not have any direct link to angelic or demonic persons, we can also appreciate the distinction that his work emphasises, namely his bracketing-off of these structures from beings.
We can evolve his distinction into a slightly different one. Rather than simply cut the structures off from beings altogether, we could revert again to our distinction between the human-created bodies (that could be said to be on an ontological/organisational level above humans) and the beings that are hosted by these bodies. And here we return to the word ‘egregore’. We might be tempted to adopt a modified version of Tomberg’s definition and take egregores to be the hosted bodies, with an emphasis on the human side of their creation. But this would arguably be too vague.
Let us recall our finding that we recounted in the first essay, namely that ‘egregore’ is etymologically derived from, and originally directly referred to, ‘wakeful’ or ‘watcher’, the fallen divine beings in the book of Enoch. Does this fact not safeguard against an obvious pitfall? This pitfall would be that in allowing ourselves to focus on the ‘human-created’ side of these phenomena, we fall into a bottom-up materialism. But if the name that we use to focus on this human side already refers to the beings ‘above’, then this usage should automatically point above, as well as reminding us of the probable dark nature of these structures.
Thus, with an ability to look simultaneously at the structures and the beings they point to, distinguished from each other but with a link preserved, we can hone in on a coherent usage of the word ‘egregore’. Endeavouring to find the most cogent application of the term, we could perhaps turn to a more specific and possibly controversial category within this general framework: ‘headless’ structures.
A headless structure would be a human-created structure that does not have a divine being at its head. Whether this is possible or not was the subject of long debate in the ‘higher beings’ workgroup that was formed before we began this essay. The ground covered over the course of our exploration seems to make a case for the idea, or at least to point increasingly toward its plausibility. Contrary to how the designation ‘headless’ might sound, what we are positing here is not a lack of involvement of higher beings, but rather a mixture or confusion of them, and hence none ‘at the head.’ This brings us back to the possibility suggested before of human-created structures with unstable, disunified spiritual identities, the ones we likened to the Tower of Babel. Such a categorisation might be the case in, for instance, sprawling, confused social networks, or in the earlier stock exchange example.
This distinction is important to make because of another closely related distinction— between worship of a distinct entity, and the absence of worship of a distinct entity. In the following example of this distinction, a caller (Father Elijah) is asking Father Andrew Stephen Damick of the Lord of Spirits podcast about the relationship between the consumption of or ‘taking part in’ modern media, and the worship of gods:
Fr. Elijah: Jonathan Pageau sometimes talks about how worship and attention go together… the centre of the home historically [was] a place where idols would be; [but] now we have technology. How do we pull apart attention to things that maybe grab our desire and our attention, and those that are spiritually maleficent… Maybe old gods versus new gods: the classic paganism, classic idolatries, versus maybe [this] new spin on idols and attention.
Fr. Andrew: One, it’s interesting actually: I think that more and more, family gathered around a television set is hardly even a thing. It’s people gathered, each separately, around his or her own device… The other thing I’ll say, though, is that attention is definitely an element in worship, so it’s a necessary condition, but it’s not sufficient. So just paying attention to something does not mean that you’re worshipping it, or idolising it… it’s one thing to contemplate an image of some false god; it’s another thing to put food in front of it and then eat some of that food.8
It should be noted that Fr. Stephen’s reply (not included here), perhaps contrary to Fr. Andrew’s, emphasises a continuum between these two things rather than a distinction—but arguably some kind of distinction is useful to maintain. Otherwise the active worship of a fallen principality could not be distinguished from everyday behaviour. We might recognise the presence of fallen principalities, to an extent that is unknown to us, in everyday life—but it is still important to be able to identify behaviour that particularises that fallen principality—that specifies it as a person, that concentrates itself upon it, that worships it.
Going back to the concept of social media networks—these entities, we will remember from the first essay, are what certain secular commentators, such as BJ Campbell, are focusing on when they use the word ‘egregores’. What happens in these social networks? They involve software structures in which certain behaviours are prescribed and proscribed—character limits, the format of tweets including name, date, like and retweet buttons, replies, forbidden behaviours, etc. They also involve algorithms, which are mathematical procedures and instructions for the software that partially determine what you see. Furthermore they involve human group behaviour—the formation of ‘follower’ hierarchies, the formation of cliques and collectives, the formation of norms or temporary values by those collectives, etc. This collective behaviour is somewhat dictated by the structures of the software.
Campbell identifies certain groups of humans as having ‘egregores’ in the context of social media, which are independent ‘collective entities’ of these groups. They are ’independent’ as they seem to ‘hold’ and then propagate things like values for individuals in the groups. Morality, saliency, etc. are ‘outsourced’ to the ‘collective entity’, rather than originating in the individuals.
Now, when these groups have no leaders, or perhaps when their leaders are dispersed, diverse, and not easily identifiable—we seem, firstly, to have a ‘headless’ structure at the human level. And while we might detect certain higher principles at work in both the management and users of these systems, none seems to predominate or to be directly invoked—particularly since they are manifesting in the form of everyday behaviour. Do we not then seem to have a headless structure at the spiritual level here too? Again, we are not denying the presence or action of divine principles/persons. But the fact that single divine or demonic persons are not being invoked, and are not identifiable, arguably makes these higher entities inappropriate as a focus for our naming of these structures. No single unifying entity is identifiable with the structure.
With such an ontological disunity behind the scenes, the identity we afford the structure itself is—recounting our point from before—ascribed, or given to it by us. Isn’t the name ‘egregore’ appropriate then, not only because of its history in grappling with these structures, but again because it nevertheless points beyond them, to the otherwise invisible watchers themselves? Isn’t it important to name these structures, and yet be sensible and not over-hasty in our use of the word ‘being’?
Coming to the end of this two-part essay, we should take a moment to sum up where we’ve landed. After all, we’ve covered quite a lot and have deliberately gotten into the weeds in order to clarify or at least tease out some of the main issues around the higher beings conversation. But first we should probably say why we have even gone to the trouble. It may seem quarrelsome or nit-picky to take issue with elements of a cosmology that we fundamentally agree with. But not only has the subject of higher beings gained enormous currency in recent months, it’s something that could eventually aid in moving the needle on overcoming the materialist paradigm. The realisation that divine beings are at play in our experience of the world offers many treasures, but, as many in the Symbolic World community have continually remarked, it is not without its dangers. That said, it’s incredibly important that we approach the topic carefully and with as much conceptual clarity as possible. To that end, a richer terminology will likely be needed, and flexibility around terms such as ‘egregores’ may be a part of this necessity.
So now, let’s take stock of where this exploration has led us. We are left with a picture that shows emergence and emanation to be categorically essential in a cosmology which admits of higher beings. More specifically, the structures we have referred to in this piece do appear to involve bottom-up activity from below and top-down activity from above. The beings involved in these creations can be angelic or demonic; and as most most phenomena in this world are neither wholly good or wholly evil, a mixture of beings might be at work in any given system.
However, we have shown that a simple identification of the beings with the structures is a questionable move. Furthermore, we’ve shown that it makes sense to be able to talk about these structures in a way that brackets them off from the beings involved while simultaneously pointing to them. While it’s debatable whether the resulting ontological category is a ‘level of reality’ all to itself, and while other entities within this category might be easier to identify with the beings above them, we have argued that ‘egregore’ is a reasonable name for the more negatively-tinged, ‘headless’ variety within this category—the giant collective structures which human beings can co-create. Thus while the concept of egregores may indeed sometimes be materialists coping, it need not always be. We perhaps have an opportunity here to use the term as an inroad to directing those who use it materialistically toward the bigger picture they’re missing. At the same time we will have gained an important conceptual category ourselves and added a level of precision to the discourse around higher beings.
Daniel’s social media:
Kenneth’s social media:
- Gibson, William. Count Zero, loc. 1357 & 1377. Ace, Kindle edition, August 2016.[↩]
- See Pagaeu, Jonathan. “Collective Intelligence: Angels in Scientific Terms | with John Vervaeke”. YouTube, November 2021. See also Pageau, Jonathan. Angels in Scientific Terms | pt.2 | with John Vervaeke”. YouTube, March 2022.[↩]
- Pageau, Jonathan in Kourtides, James. “Symbolism and the Problem of the Political: in Dialogue with @Jonathan Pageau”, at 43:27. YouTube, May 2022.[↩]
- Stavish, Mark. Egregores, loc. 2100. Inner Traditions/Bear & Company, Kindle edition, 2018.[↩]
- Anonymous Author. Meditations on the Tarot, at 137-140, 401-428. Penguin, 2005.[↩]
- Ibid., 401-428.[↩]
- While of course this belief is supported by parts of scripture, our understanding is that Pageau and the hosts of the Lord of Spirits project disagree that these two roles are separated into two distinct historical epochs—as biblical time does not follow such a linear path, demons still fulfil both roles.[↩]
- Damick, Andrew & De Young, Stephen. “The Lord of Spirits podcast: The Gods of the Nations”, at 2:08:00. The Ancient Faith Ministries website, February 2022.[↩]
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