A well-known voice of occult and esoteric ideas, Mitch Horowitz is also the publisher of varying editions of the occult masterpiece, The Kybalion, which he is publishing in a commemorative “centenary edition” at TarcherPerigee early next year. In addition to writing about The Kybalion in his books Occult America and One Simple Idea, Mitch is preparing an introduction to a forthcoming Italian translation. We recently caught up with him to ask what this esoteric classic means to him personally.
Q: When did you first read The Kybalion and what were your initial experiences?
A: Close to twenty years ago, when I was entering my thirties, I experienced a burst of interest in the esoteric, and the book reached my attention. At the time, I had mixed feelings about it, which have since given way to a much deeper appreciation. Back then, I saw The Kybalion chiefly as a novelty of early twentieth-century occultism, and considered it a work of New Thought dressed up in dramatized Hermetic language. Yet I also had an inkling, which has since expanded and grown, that the book authentically retained and applied certain Hermetic ideas. That instinct was reinforced around that time when a widely known religious scholar told me privately: “There are some good ideas in that little book.” I reread the book several times during the summer of 2017, and had a wholly new and deeper experience of it. I came to see its connections to Hermetic antiquity in a much fuller light.
Q: What do you think The Kybalion has to offer the modern esoteric seeker?
A: First of all, it should be read alongside a good translation of the Hermetica, the broader body of Hermetic literature, so that you can begin to make your own judgments about actual connections between the book’s mind-power principles and ancient Hermetic ideas, and determine where real retentions and resonances appear. One of the great values of The Kybalion for the modern seeker is that, like the traditional Hermetic literature itself, the book presents a view of man as a being who is at once boundless, yet tethered to and limited by the parameters of physical life, as we ordinarily know it. That is a clarifying and truthful perspective, and it affirms the experience of most serious seekers. I also think the book provides an excellent metaphysical theory behind mind causation, and offers techniques that are genuinely efficacious, particularly in the areas of “polarity” and “rhythm.” In addition to serving as an application of certain Hermetic and Transcendentalist ideas, The Kybalion is probably one of the canniest and most valuable New Thought-oriented works ever written.
Q: How did you get involved with the centenary edition of the Kybalion and what are your contributions to the work itself?
A: I designed that edition at TarcherPerigee to ensure that a quality hardcover volume remain available, since the famous little blue hardcover originally issued by the Yogi Publication Society in 1908 seems increasingly difficult to find. I worked with my colleagues on the design, which I wanted to evoke but not ape the feel of the original. We also bound it in vegan leather. I asked my friend Richard Smoley, a scholar of esotericism, to write a new introduction, which he did brilliantly, and then I basically got out of the way. Richard’s historical and mystical insights are excellent, and, as usual, he balances realism with idealistic possibility, and heralds the book’s value without getting lost in fantasies about its antiquity or adopting a black-and-white approach to his historical value. There has always been an element of drama and even artifice in the Hermetic literature, and The Kybalion is no exception. To make the book stand trial for its historical claims is to miss the point: The book is a stage on which a play of ideas is enacted. It must be evaluated on those terms, though historicism is, of course, important. I also highly recommend the historical and analytic introduction written by scholar Philip Deslippe for a “definitive edition” of The Kybalion, which I published in 2011. His grasp of the book’s background is unparalleled. In addition to writing about The Kybalion in my earlier books, I’ve recently written my own analysis of its value, from the perspective of my recent experiences, which will serve as the introduction to a forthcoming Italian edition, being translated by my friend Ferdinando Buscema, a brilliant artist of magic and a scholar of esotericism.
Q: In what ways do you apply the wisdom of The Kybalion to your own life and work?
A: Firstly, the book has deepened my appreciation of the distant, and sometimes tenuous, but nonetheless real relationship between Hermeticism and New Thought, or mind-power philosophy. New Thought’s pioneers in America, aside from the Transcendentalists, had very little direct contact with translations of Hermetic literature, and actually very little was available in English. The connections are by affinity and shared insight rather than as part of a veritable family tree of ideas. Today, I personally work with all of the book’s concepts, including polarity, rhythm, paradox, and mental gender, and I have my own ongoing experiments into possibilities and uses of mental causality.
Q: Did you realize the existence of any of the Hermetic principles via personal experience prior to reading about them?
A: I have believed for years—and I explore this in my books One Simple Idea and the forthcoming The Miracle Club—that the mind possesses certain causative properties. For me, this is less a doctrine than an article of experimentation. Why does causation seem to be present at some points, yet not at others? Can we apply principles of mental causation, or do they elude our perspective and attempts at codification? The Kybalion not only helped me recognize some of the principles of the mind, but it strengthened my conviction that anyone working with New Thought ideas should also attempt a theory of the workings behind them. In short, why do thoughts make things happen, or seem to? Is it fantasy—or is there traceable reasoning behind that claim? I attempt to work out a theory of mind causation in my book The Miracle Club, which comes out in fall 2018.
Q: What books would you suggest to supplement The Kybalion for first time readers?
A: As I alluded above, I think it is vital for any serious reader to couple his experience with a reading of the traditional Hermetic literature. That includes translations that are contemporaneous with the book’s 1908 publication, namely the work of Theosophical scholar GRS Mead in 1906. Mead’s translations, while admirable, are thickly worded and bound by late-Victorian literary conventions. They are a tiresome read, frankly, for contemporary seekers, but are historically important. There are other, more supple translations, such as one published in the U.S. in 2000 by Inner Traditions. I have had the benefit of reading a private translation, as well, which was extremely helpful to me. I would also read the Transcendentalist literature, particularly the essays of Emerson, which, partly by literary influence and more largely by parallel insights, echo several Hermetic principles. It is important to have a context for the book—and not to get overly caught up in which of its historical claims are real, which can become a distraction. Rather, the reader should cultivate his own understanding of which of the book’s insights represent authentic retention of Hermetic ideas, something I explore in my introduction to the Italian edition.
Q: Any advice on how to read the Kybalion?
A: Read it several times. Do not attempt to read it at night when you’re drifting off, or as a casual experience. It will not disclose its ideas to any but those who read it carefully. I resolved during my period of rediscovering the book, in the summer of 2017, to read it five times. As of this writing, I have completed a fourth reading. It really requires a careful going over. Some people have written to me to say that they have difficulty getting into the text, which I entirely understand, as that was once true for me. The reason the text can present a barrier is that it spends a good deal of time, over the stretch of several chapters, explicating the book’s first “Hermetic principle,” which is “Mentalism,” or mental creation—this concept is key to The Kybalion and requires great clarity. Hence, you must read about fifty percent of the way through the book before reaching further principles, and how to apply them. You can trust that the text was written this way for a reason, and it is well worth pushing through. Also, this opening half yields greater insights each time you reread it.
Q: Has anything surprised you about the book?
A: I was delighted to learn several years ago, and I owe this insight to Philip Deslippe, that the actor Sherman Hemsley, who became famous playing George Jefferson on the sit-com The Jeffersons, and who was once one of television’s biggest stars, was a deeply dedicated reader of The Kybalion. He spoke elliptically but very ingenuously about his interest in the book during an interview with TV Guide in 1982. At the height of his fame, Hemsley was considered a deeply private man, and even a bit of a recluse; a TV Guide reporter asked him why he didn’t hang around Hollywood parties and restaurants. “Nothing goes on there,” he replied, “The most exciting things happen in the mind.” I am always touched when a highly visible person maintains, and apparently applies, private esoteric interests in his life. Frankly, I think there was something about Hemsley’s understated but serious interest in the book that moved me to return to it. The Kybalion is also seen as an authentic sounding of ancient African wisdom by some black-nationalist and Afrocentric groups, something I write about in my book One Simple Idea. I was pleased to learn that some of these organizations are using an edition I published at Penguin a few years ago.
Q: What is your next project following the publication of the centenary edition of the Kybalion?
A: Well, I’m looking forward to the Italian edition, and I’ve also narrated an audiobook of The Kybalion, to which I plan to add my essay. I’m doing a variety of screen projects, and I’d like to shoot a one-hour seminar and short documentary on The Kybalion. I think the book’s influence, now nearly 110 years old, is just beginning.
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