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Karma, the Rede, and the Left Hand Path

Author: Grey Glamer
Posted: February 22nd. 2009
Times Viewed: 3,280

In the Pagan and broader Magical communities, we frequently speak of the differences between the Left Hand Path and the Right Hand Path. Often, an occult writer portrays one of these two paths as the antithesis of the other. The tone of such contrasts is telling. Far from being cast as two complementary expressions of morality, the two are usually cast in antagonistic language, with the writer clearly favoring one side and demonizing the other.

For those upon the Right Hand Path, the Right Hand cultivates compassion and communal efforts, while the Left Hand is wracked by unchecked selfishness and wrath. Conversely, one who follows the Left Hand Path believes the Left Hand develops confidence and individual strength, while the Right Hand suffers from self-imposed guilt and doubt. Reading through the contemporary canon of occult literature, we discover distressingly little room for compromise, let alone common ground.

Much as we might want to believe otherwise, human society indulges in conflict and extraneous drama every day. Conflict makes for better myths, for better stories around the campfire or the water cooler, though mayhap cooperation proves better for building communities and lives over the long run. Conflict engages the mind upon the visceral, "fight or flight" level, commanding the individual's attention like nothing else can, and while I rebuke the so-called neoconservative movement for provoking needless violence, the notion that conflict can drive the community closer together carries some validity, if only across the short-term.

There are very good psychological reasons why people drawn to one morality fear and despise the other, though I believe such thoughtless animosity ultimately proves counterproductive, doing everyone involved more harm than good over the long haul.

Then there are the historical factors setting up one morality against another, especially the concept of ethical dualism introduced by the Zoroastrians in ancient Persia, adopted by the Manicheans around the formation of Christianity, and carried through the centuries into our own culture via the often unseen influence of Gnostic Christianity upon Western civilization.

In all three of these traditions, there are powers of good and powers of evil, sometimes equated with the realms of (good) spirit and (evil) matter. Implacable foes, the two sides war against one another with neither surcease nor quarter, until the arrival of an eschatological endtimes, during which the forces of good emerge victorious.

Though contemporary expressions of Paganism often take pains to distinguish their theologies from traditional Judeo-Christianity, much of what we call Paganism actually draws upon ceremonial magic, especially the practices of the Golden Dawn, which is itself heavily influenced by Jewish and Christian influences. When we consider these influences, together with the diffusion of Gnostic beliefs into our cultural fabric, we discover the semiotic web we call Paganism is not an island. Rather, Paganism is part and parcel of the broader network of beliefs, signs, and symbols, which make up our cultural paradigm.

There exists no one part of the web which is totally separate from any other, and concepts inevitably dance across the web, from one cluster of symbols into another, changing and evolving as they touch upon different strands of the web. Consequently, we should not be surprised to find elements of dualism -- and more precisely, a dualism in which the two aspects are hostile towards one another -- within our own faith traditions. When we reflect upon our own symbolic webs, the question we must ask is whether such confrontation is necessary and healthy.

I believe this hostile version of dualism, wherein the Right Hand and the Left Hand make eternal war against one another, only leads to senseless destruction for both sides. Both aspects are necessary for a balanced spirit, and indeed, when considered in their purest form we see that both paths lead towards the exact same objective. Before we can see how these two sides are connected, however, we must first consider their apparent differences.

Cast in the language of the Right Hand Path, the greatest difference is that adherents of the Right Hand follow the Threefold Law and the Wiccan Rede, whereas those who profess the Left Hand allegedly do not. Let's consider each principle in turn.

It's actually somewhat misleading to say the Right Hand Path follows the Threefold Law. Witches of the Right Hand Path no more follow the Rede than you and I "follow" the law of gravity. Gravity is there, whether we choose to move in harmony with its restrictions or not.

The confusion arises because the English language employs the word "law" in two different ways. There are laws which say what we should do, defining right actions from wrong. Choosing to disobey such moral or societal laws may have serious consequences which are established by society, but there is nothing inherent within the laws themselves which necessitates the consequences, nor is there anything about the laws which prevents their amendment or repeal.

These laws can range from the obvious ("Do not trespass.") to the seemingly silly ("Do not shower within one mile of the church.") This one made at least some sense when most bathing was outdoors!) Such laws can be controversial -- I'm sure advocates for skyclad ritual would challenge the need for proper (read any) attire near places of worship! And some societal laws are downright immoral when evaluated through the lens of our higher, personal morality, such as laws, which advocate slavery, or those which condemn same-sex unions.

These laws, which say what we should do, are essentially human creations bound by human interpretation and subject to human enforcement. The law of gravity, however, says what does happen – It's a non-negotiable observation about how our universe works! If I jump, unless I can somehow muster the strength to reach escape velocity, I'm coming back down towards the ground in short order. Upon closer reading, we discover the Threefold Law is much more like the natural law of gravity than human law forbidding trespassing.

As we sow, so shall we reap. What we do ultimately returns, period.

The question here is whether the Threefold Law really exists, or whether we simply fool ourselves into believing in karma in order to enforce social harmony through fear of the consequences. Parsed another way, we might ask whether the famous Ring of Gyges could even be possible.

The Ring of Gyges was a thought experiment proposed by Plato in The Republic, and essentially grants the wearer both invisibility and freedom from any of the normal consequences of certain actions. One who wears such a ring may commit theft, rape, and murder without fear of being caught. The question Plato asks is whether personal virtue rests upon fear of consequences, or upon something else entirely.

In short, at least in Plato's estimation the virtuous soul continuous to behave both with honor and with benevolence, even when all the normal consequences of malicious actions are removed, because virtue arises from internal strength of character. Indeed, a true Ring of Gyges proves essentially impossible, because the karmic consequences of immoral actions are not external punishments, which can be eluded by means of invisibility, but rather the inescapable upset within the soul's natural order.

To Plato's argument I would add Benedict Spinoza's assertion from The Ethics that perfectly rational individuals work towards the betterment of those around themselves, because such action creates the kind of society where the individual can thrive. Should we wish to inhabit a world where we can expect compassion from others, then we must contribute towards realizing such a world through our own compassion for those around us. Everything that we do contributes towards the world in which we live. Because I would thrive within a peaceful and tolerant community, I practice “however imperfectly“ peace and tolerance within my own life.

I am well aware that many who practice the Left Hand Path formally reject the idea there are karmic repercussions to our actions, and I have no wish to impose my own interpretation of things upon anyone. With that said, during several conversations with those who profess to follow the Left Hand, I've been struck by how many tell me they refrain from the careless casting of curses against their enemies, because the victims of such curses can strike back when threatened, or because they don't want to taint their community with negative forces without extremely good reason.

I'm not sure whether these sentiments are indicative of the broader Left Hand Path; yet such rationales seem to rest upon some basic sense of karma. The main difference between the Left Hand and the Right Hand more aptly rests upon the interpretation of karmic justice. ‘

The Left Hand Path acknowledges there are consequences for one's actions. Simple observation makes any other conclusion difficult! What the Left Hand rejects is the idea of karma as cosmic scorekeeper. As Witches and Magicians, though, we really don't require some external and essentially anthropomorphic force to explain karmic return. We can just as easily rest upon Plato's internal consequences, or upon Spinoza's argument that our actions construct the world within which we live.

I don’t want to live in a world full of nasty people, so I refrain from being nasty. Mayhap I reach too far, and yet I doubt many who follow the Left Hand Path will disagree with the preceding statement.

Next we turn to the Wiccan Rede: “ If you harm none, do what you will. The first half clearly shares the emphasis of the Right Hand Path, and yet the following words: “ do what you will “ are more problematic for those upon the Right Hand. To touch upon one very common misunderstanding, the admonition to do what you will does not condone pointless hedonism. The "will" in this context refers to one's True Will, the expression of one's most genuine and whole being.

The Rede instructs the Witch to work unceasingly towards self-actualization, and here we observe the tenets of the Left Hand Path coming back into the picture. In one basic formulation of the moral contrast, the Right Hand Path says unto the cosmos, "Thy Will be done." The Left Hand Path commands, "My Will be done." Surprisingly, the wording of the Wiccan Rede more closely echoes the imperative of the Left Hand Path! The emphasis here is upon the individual's True Will, rather than upon the Will of the Gods.

What should we make of this connection? Is there some hidden connection between Wicca and the Left Hand Path? By way of disclaimer, I do not follow any traditional Wiccan path, Gardnerian or otherwise, and so my musings here are those of an outsider, and yet I don't think I'm overreaching when I note that traditional Wicca, as commonly practiced and understood, aligns itself pretty squarely with the Right Hand Path.

As an inspired piece of writing, however, I believe the moral of the Wiccan Rede transcends traditional Wicca itself, speaking to Witches and spiritual seekers of all kinds. By my reading, the Wiccan Rede also harmonizes and thereby transcends the apparent division between the Left Hand Path and the Right Hand Path, because within the Rede we learn both Paths lead towards the same goal!

Frequently occult scholars interpret the first half of the Wiccan Rede as restricting the second half. The admonition to harm none prevents us from acknowledging a True Will that would bring ruin upon the world. Such moral restraint stands in marked contrast to Nietzsche's proposal that we should realize our true natures, no matter how destructive or cruel.

As a working hypothesis, I propose that reading the traditional rule of "harm none" as restricting the empowerment of the will misses the true meaning of the Rede. Indeed, I believe the Wiccan Rede actually gives the same principle twice, only from two different perspectives. When we follow the Right Hand Path with charity and wisdom, when we refrain from bringing harm unto others, we come to understand how our benevolence empowers our soul and creates a positive world.

When we follow the Left Hand Path with Nietzschean abandon, when we do what we will, we learn… The same basic truth! Our actions shape both our character and the world within which we either live or perish. By focusing upon ourselves, by turning inward both with pride and with introspection, we discover not the penchant for cruelty, but rather our connection with the cosmos.

Spiral deosil and outward, or tuathal and inward, and we reach the same conclusion.

This essay isn't meant to advocate any one path. There are variations upon the Right Hand Path, which smother the individual's deep wellsprings of strength underneath the loathing of one's own desires. There are forms of the Left Hand Path that shatter the individual's connection with the cosmos through mindless hedonism. In both instances, though, the mistake that leads the Witch astray isn't the Path they follow. Rather, the Witch's mistake is the failure to introspect upon his/her own nature and upon his/her place in the cosmos.

I'm also well aware my hypothesis rests upon an essentially optimistic sense of human nature, and yet I would rather be an optimist and wrong than a pessimist and right. Followed with genuine self-reflection, both the Left Hand Path and the Right Hand Path lead towards universal compassion and enlightened self-interest, which are after all one and the same thing.

Blessings upon your Path, whatever Path you may follow!






Footnotes:
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1966.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. London: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Spinoza, Benedict. “The Ethics.” The Rationalists. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.



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